Wednesday, June 30, 2010


My birthday today, and I write from the garden where I came to weed and water thoroughly before literally heading for the hills for a couple of days. (We're taking the older nephews to a ranch in the Blue Ridge for some cabin-camping and horseback riding.) A dead robin in the flower bed was a sad start to the morning, but the weather is glorious and a goldfinch perching prettily on one of the tomato cages was somewhat of an antidote to that gloom.

The birds like the water, and now there's a pair of finches hopping and playing in the sprinkler spray. They glow in the sunlight, and I choose them as the heralds of my next year.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


Yesterday I noticed a couple of wasps flying around my Adirondack chair. The weather here has been HOT and the end of the school year hectic, so I haven't spent much time in that spot. These wasps seemed a little too familiar with one of my favorite seats: an investigation was definitely in order. Having no pesticide handy, I grabbed a bottle of kitchen cleaner and set the nozzle to stream, then I used the sliding screen door for protection, took aim, and drenched those vespidae in that ammonia-based concoction. (Yes, I felt a twinge of guilt.)

Off they flew, presumably to nurse their toxic exposure, and I tipped my chair back to reveal a small but promising start to a paper wasp's nest. There were six cells, and one of them already contained eggs. I scraped it off and then sprayed the underside with insect repellent. The wasps returned a little while later, and perhaps I anthropomorphize, but rather than being as mad as the hornets they were, they seemed confused and upset by the loss of their fledgling colony. I sighed, but humans and wasps cannot co-habitate, as charming as we both might be. Eventually they flew away and did not come back.

I considered how fortunate I was. An evening or two later, a drop in the humidity, a lull in the chaos, I could have unknowingly plopped myself right on top of a wasp's nest. Even discovering it a few days down the line would have made it much harder to take care of. Of course the best case scenario would have been no nest at all, but then I wouldn't have known how lucky I was.

Monday, June 28, 2010


What is it about money? We have out of town visitors, and so we got tickets for the Bureau of Engraving tour. As our assigned-time group of thirty or so walked through the facility where half of our nation's paper currency is printed, the avarice was palpable. In fact, I wish I had ten bucks for every time someone said Do they give free samples? because then? I'd be rich!

Sunday, June 27, 2010


I had such vivid dreams last night that I woke a little disoriented. They were the kind that make you wonder, sort of like Karen Blixen, if they could possibly be one-sided.

Here is one of my favorite passages from Out of Africa:

If I know a song of Africa-- I thought,-- of the Giraffe, and the African new moon lying on her back, of the ploughs in the fields, and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Would the air over the plain quiver with a colour that I had had on, or the children invent a game in which my name was, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel on the drive that was like me, or would the eagles of Ngong look out for me?

Saturday, June 26, 2010


Nearly seven months ago I wrote about how the trailer for Toy Story 3 brought me to tears. Today the preview delivered it on its promise to make me cry: I sat in the same seat in the same theater and wept through the whole dang movie-- boo hooed at how Andy is no longer an imaginative little boy, at the toys' moving response to mortal danger, at a final sacrifice for the good of those you love-- aye yi yi, the movie was devastating!

Was my weepy response genuine emotion? Could it have been stress or hormones? Take your pick, but in any regard, I vigorously scrubbed the tear stains from my cheeks as the lights came up. Maybe it was just the Gipsy Kings' rousing rendition of Yo Soy Tu Amigo Fiel.

Maybe not.

Friday, June 25, 2010


Summer vacation has come, as it does every year. Never one to relish transitions, my initial reaction is that of a teacher without a class: What meaning is there in that? I wonder.

Oh, I'll adjust. Soon, I'll be a gardener with a garden, a hiker on a trail, a reader with a book. Everything will find its equilibrium, and everything will shine.

Thursday, June 24, 2010


Yesterday I told my students that we would spend most of our last day in homeroom groups. "Will we have cake?" my homeroom wanted to know, but I told them that we had no June birthdays. They were disappointed until someone said, "Hey, isn't your birthday next week?" I nodded. "Will you bring a cake for yourself?" he asked hopefully. I frowned and said no, but they were welcome to bring anything they liked to celebrate. In the general lack of enthusiasm that followed, we dropped the subject and moved on to when they would get their yearbooks.

My birthday was the last thing on my mind this morning in the mayhem of a last day with a few key staff absences. Running around trying to get several things settled at once, my patience was wearing thin when the same student I wrote about in my last two posts came running in out of breath and drenched in sweat. Chronically tardy, here he was-- late for the last day of school. I sighed with a little exasperation as he burst through the door. "Did I make it?" he gasped.

"You're fine," I told him, realizing that another unexcused tardy more or less was inconsequential. "C'mon in."

"I missed my bus!" he huffed. I made a sympathetic face.  He held out a plastic bag. "I missed my bus because I ran to the grocery store to get this, and when I got back to the stop the bus was gone, so I had to run all the way to school with my skateboard. Here!" he offered me the bag. There was a smashed up apple pie inside. "It's for your birthday."

Wow. I did not see that one coming.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Turn About

Today was the last day of regular instruction and my classes returned to those logic puzzles that I wrote about yesterday. What a difference a couple of days can make. The same boy who could not get over Keith and his doll became very engaged with the puzzles when I mentioned that his older brother had been good at solving them. He worked diligently on a complex matrix only to be frustrated by finding an error when he got to the very end. He asked me for another copy as the bell rang for lunch. I told him that he didn't have to finish-- it was really just for fun-- but he was determined, so I offered to go through it with him and he accepted. We sat side by side solving a scenario about five hikers, trying to determine the color of their t-shirts, their shorts, and what snack they had in their pack. It only took a few minutes for him to figure it all out, and he didn't even mention the fact that Frank was wearing pink shorts.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Since most of the students have wrapped up their last writing pieces, we did a little logic puzzle in class the other day. This was a Perplexor, a matrix puzzle that starts with a brief scenario and then lists all of the possibilities in each category. To solve it, you use clues to both eliminate the incorrect and identify the correct answers.I thought it would be a fun way to spend a little time.

The puzzle that I chose started with the following story: Kathy, Keith, Ken, Kyle and Kirk all had a dumb habit of bringing toys to school so they had something to do while they were wasting time in class instead of paying attention. They brought cards, marbles, a toy car, a doll, and a yo-yo. They were all failing a different subject-- either math, reading, science, history, or English. Then you are supposed to use the clues to match the children with their toys and the subject that each was failing.

Working through the puzzle, it becomes apparent early on that Keith has a doll. I was shocked by the number of kids who took issue with that as we were solving it together in each of my classes. In the first group, one girl actually crossed doll off of all of the boys' lists simply on the strength of her belief that they shouldn't and wouldn't have one. In the next group, a student said that she didn't have a problem with Keith and his doll, because her grandfather was "like that" too. When pressed, she rephrased to tell the class that her grandfather was gay; even so, she could not accept that any heterosexual boy might have a doll.

When it came up in my third period class, one particular boy snickered loudly and giggled. "That's just wrong," he laughed.

"Why?" I asked him. "Why do you care if Keith wants to have a doll? What difference does it make to you?"

"I wasn't raised that way," he said. His eyes narrowed. "I can have my own opinion, right?"

"Right," I said, "but why are you judging someone based on what they like? Why can't he have a doll without having to worry about it?"

"He shouldn't worry about what I think," he answered.

"True," I conceded, "but would you treat him differently because of the doll?" I asked. "Would you make fun of him?"

"Maybe," he shrugged.

"That's bigotry," I told him. "You do have the right to be a bigot, but do you want to be one?"

He thought about it long and hard. "I still think it's wrong for a boy to play with a doll," he said. The bell rang, and he went off to his next class.

So much for a fun little puzzle the last week of school.

Monday, June 21, 2010


Last year at this time I wrote a bit of a screed about awards ceremonies, and I stand my ground on that issue (please read that Alfie Kohn quotation), but the counselor reminded me a couple of weeks ago that the last time she was in sixth grade (our counselors loop with the students), we did an alternate awards activity where the students nominated each other for some sort of positive school-oriented achievement or action.

When she said so, I remembered that I got the idea from those painful few classes after past awards ceremonies where some kids would come up and ask why they hadn't received some recognition. I think we always hope that they will just know, and learn from the experience of not being one of "the chosen". What do you think you should have gotten? I asked a student one time, and when he told me, I whipped out a blank certificate left over from the official event, filled it out for him, and shook his hand as I presented it. He seemed genuinely appreciative, and I knew in my teacher's heart that it was a meaningful gesture.

This morning, as I introduced the nomination process to the students I told them that they really knew each other better than we ever could hope to, and I saw many heads nod in agreement. They were asked to identify noteworthy traits in one or more other students and to explain why these kids deserved acknowledgment for those things. The completed forms were very sweet-- the kids saw each other as friendly, smart, hard-working, joyful, independent, funny, athletic, creative, supportive, dedicated, helpful, and kind, among other qualities.

Tomorrow, each student will receive one certificate that is a compendium of the strengths that their peers and teachers have recognized in them, and during the presentation we'll cite the words of their fellow students who distinguished them for these honors, although the nomination will remain anonymous. Also, although students could nominate anyone on the team, we do this activity in class-sized groups so it doesn't become tedious.

If it's anything like last time? It'll be a nice way to end the year.

Sunday, June 20, 2010


I used to wonder what it would feel like to be a person who didn't celebrate a main stream holiday-- for example Christmas in most western cultures. Did those people feel left out or even envious? Today I think I have my answer, but it's taken 23 years, give or take, to reach it. That's as long as I have been fatherless. There is no father in my household, either, and although I love my family fiercely, the third Sunday in June is like any other for me, and I must confess that I don't miss the fuss one bit.

Saturday, June 19, 2010


Tonight I attended the graduation ceremony of the top high school in the country. As proud as I was of our graduate, I was struck by the mediocrity of the event. There were several cleverly contrived speeches by students, educators, and dignitaries alike, but none of them hit home for me, much less hit a home run for me. My mind wandered and I wondered about the objective of such an occasion.

Still wondering.

Friday, June 18, 2010


Sisyphus got nothing on me today: 

The kids came in tired and grumpy this morning. "Whaaaat is the point of even having school?" one whined, his head lolling to the side. "We aren't going to learn anything. There are only four days left."

I rolled my eyes.

"You know you feel the same way," he said.

"Oh yeah?" I fired back. "Did you learn anything the last four days? What about the four days before that? How about the first four days of school? These four days are no different," I harrumphed.

His frown acknowledged that my point was well-taken. A few minutes later the bell rang, and my home room left. "Why are we even in schooooool?" a first period student moaned on the way in the door. "We aren't going to learn anything..."

And so it went.

Thursday, June 17, 2010


Today was our big end of the year trip. An all day excursion, we take our team of 90 sixth graders to the beach and then on a dolphin watching cruise. It's about a three hour bus ride away, and the kids are always very excited. This was my tenth time taking the trip, but today there was a first: one student brought his homework to finish on the way. Oblivious to the hub bub around him, he whipped out a pair of scissors and neatly cut out the little squares on his worksheet, then as we rolled through the coastal countryside he produced a glue stick so that he could complete the assignment.


Wednesday, June 16, 2010


I spent way too much paper time today. It was spring writing sample scoring day, and for some reason I was the only one in the English Department who got the memo that, hello, it's a group effort. I had an all-day sub, and everyone just else dropped in when they could find the time, meaning I read A LOT more essays than anyone else. The writing was quite competent but ultimately completely uninspiring, and my head still hurts.

My other primary paper pushing activity was picking up the printed literary magazines. I'm so thankful for the miraculous turn-around-- I only finished the layout a week ago, and although the publication is far from perfect, the product is pleasant, and I am pleased to check that puppy off my to-do list.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


Our garden hasn't been thriving as I wish it would, and I've figured out that it's because it needs water: it's been a dry spring, and the truth is that we haven't compensated nearly enough. Even so, ever since we've had the garden, I keep getting caught in the rain. Yesterday I was actually watering when my mother and I were drenched in a downpour. (It had been threatening for days without a true drop, so it was hard to believe it would ever actually rain.) The rule in the garden is that the last one out has to turn off the water, and by the time we got the tools loaded and made our dripping way over to the far side, the rain had almost stopped, but there was a full arc of a rainbow in the Eastern sky.

Bring on the rain.

Monday, June 14, 2010


Today was the day when my students added up the pages and counted all the books that they had read this year. It's always pretty impressive-- even the minimum hundred pages a week for thirty-six weeks translates to 20-25 books on the average. They do a little reflection on their accomplishment, and one girl wrote, This is ridiculous-- I read more this year than in third, fourth, and fifth grade combined! Those who hadn't read as consistently as they should have showed some remorse and vowed to do better next year. A couple of kids recognized that this was a break-through year for them: I didn't use to like it, but now I'm a reader, one wrote.

Here are the numbers:

Average pages per student: 8,488
(That's over half a million total pages.)
Average number of books completed per student: 40
Most avid reader: 41,104 pages and 136 books
Reader most in need of acceleration and encouragement: 723 pages and 8 books

I also asked them to pick their top three books of the year. Most popular? The Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. Other favorites were the Maximum Ride series and the first two books in The Hunger Games trilogy, and of course, many vampire books were mentioned as well.

Sunday, June 13, 2010


Our county collects all sorts of lawn clippings, fallen leaves, and Christmas trees and grinds them into a gigantic pile of mulch which we then distribute for free to residents who request it. Our community garden always has a ready supply of the stuff-- a huge mound of it lays not thirty feet south of our plot. Today as I forked load after load into my wheelbarrow, I thought of all the yards and homes that had contributed to this blanket which I placed so hopefully and protectively around the plants in my garden, and I felt a tug on that deeply-buried root that connects us all.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Still Working On It

Twice in the last two days I have attended performances put on by kids. The first was the talent show at our school and the second was my nephews' final school of rock performance, this one a tribute to the Doors. I struggled with being an appreciative audience member for both of these events; I really admire the kids for getting up there on the stage, and there were undeniable moments of entertainment and, yes, brilliance in both shows, but in the end they were flawed at best.

You might think that as a teacher I would have made peace with the predictable weaknesses of such presentations and even come to enjoy them in spite of their blemishes.

You would be wrong.

(My nephews were great, though.)

Friday, June 11, 2010

Last Words on the Slam

This week I gave my students the opportunity to post their competition slam poem and a reflection about the experience for their classmates to read and respond to. I asked them to think about their writing process, their performance, and what it was like to be in the audience. By far, the comments were positive, and here's one that expresses some of what I hoped the students would get out of it all:

Personally I'm not a huge fan of writing poetry at all, but I like slam poetry a little better then regular poetry. The reason I like writing slam poetry better is because I know that I will be performing it for people, so if it can mean more then one thing then my actions will explain it. Performing was kind of fun when it was in the classroom, because I knew that it was only a practice round and that everyone there would be fine with what I do because they were just as scared as I am. That gave me more confidence so I could go on. But when I was performing in the auditorium I did not have that confidence because I knew that not everyone was performing like I was, but still I got up there and did what I needed to do. When I was in the audience I loved watching other people get up there and read some of the most funny poems ever. 

Not everyone was quite so affirmative about the slam, though. Here is what the most discontented of my students had to say:

I didn't like writing all the poems.  It just wasn't fun and we wrote about nonsense.  It also sucked even more because it was boring to listen to all the poems for a couple hours. Not only was there only one good poem, the other ones just plain sucked.  I would have rather done school work.  Plus I wasn't near anyone cool to talk to in the audience.  I think that it was a waste of time.

I don't take what he says personally, but I do take it seriously. I hate to shrug off any student criticism, because I haven't given up on the notion that it's possible to engage all of my students most, if not all, of the time. Obviously, I didn't quite reach him, and I'll keep his perspective in mind next time as I plan.

Thursday, June 10, 2010


We had the Tolerance Club kids do the "Harvard Bias Test" today. For those who are unfamiliar, it's an online exercise that measures your sub-conscious preference between two disparate types of people, for example Americans of African descent and Americans of European descent, old people-young people, abled-disabled, etc. Before you even take the test, you must agree to the disclaimer that you may receive an interpretation you disagree with.

The test is careful to tell you who you have a preference for, leaving unspoken the fact that by default, you also have one against the other group. In addition, the literature points out that most people have a bias toward the familiar, which of course means that the aggregate results are consistent with general demographics.

The kids were game; we allowed them to choose their bias test, and of course some were surprised by what the results revealed (Wrong! I do NOT have a preference for light-skinned people, one girl told us emphatically), while others were not (a sixth grade boy across the room announced his own results matter-of-factly: I have a slight preference for abled people... I have a preference for European people).

Yes, as heartbreaking as it is, there are times when people take the test and find that they are biased against themselves.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

What Crosses Your Path

When I was a kid, spaying and neutering were only then becoming the responsible thing to do for your pet, and so our family presided over the birth of five litters of kittens and ten puppies before our cats and dogs went under the knife. Thankfully, my mom found homes for them all, but they were so cute and adorable, it was always hard for us kids to say good-bye.

Today I heard from a friend who adopted a cat that turned out to be pregnant, and so now my friend has four newborn kittens. Despite the fact that they're all jet black, I still think she's pretty lucky.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Run, Lead, Head, Control, Manage, Direct...

When I first started teaching there was a large rolling cabinet in my room. About 3 1/2 feet tall, 3 1/2 feet wide, and probably 3 feet deep, it had four giant drawers and a little pull out shelf on the top. I used it as the teacher before me had, as a massive teaching podium/desk, and made it the focal point of the classroom. I sat on a tall stool behind it and in front of the chalkboards and from that height and vantage point presided with great authority over the edification of my students.

A few years ago, I pushed it off into a corner in favor of an Adirondack chair over by a bookcase, and today it stands empty, ready to be rolled out of here forever. After the move out and back in, I realized that I don't need most of the stuff that was tossed into those big drawers, and I could really use the floor space for some pillows or another comfy chair for the kids to read and write in.

Oh, I still preside, probably more than I should, but I certainly don't need any furniture to help me.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Two Thumbs Up

I've decided to wrap up the year with book reviews. What better genre to integrate reading and writing? We have a couple more weeks, and this project will give my students the time and opportunity to use the writing tools they've acquired to reflect on the independent reading they've done this year.  Plus, the audience for these reviews will be next year's class. It turns out that these kids are pretty enthusiastic about creating a resource for the students who are coming up, and I find that very sweet. Their only question is why they didn't have the same benefit.

I'm flattered that they believe I've thought of everything already, but I told them that we've all got to have room to grow.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Patron Fairy of Teenagers

I was walking with my nearly fifteen-year-old nephew today and complaining about the weather. We have had several unseasonably hot and humid days, more like July than early June around here, and I don't like it. "I like this weather," he told me. "It's not too hot or too cold."

"But I don't like it," I repeated. "Not at all! Where's your empathy?" Before he could answer, I continued, "Maybe you're not old enough for empathy?"

"Yeah," he said. "That must be it. My adult empathy hasn't grown in yet, and I lost my baby empathy a while ago."

"Right," I agreed. "Did you put it under your pillow so that the Empathy Fairy would bring you something?"

"Yeah, I did," he answered with an evil smile, "but she didn't bring me anything, because she didn't care either."

"That's too bad," I said, "but I think you must have her mistaken with the Apathy Fairy."

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Beets, Continued

Beets always make me think of the novel Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins. It's been close to twenty-five years since I read it, but the connection that he made between the smell of beets and immortality has stayed with me. At the time, I don't think I'd ever actually eaten a fresh beet, but I imagined the smell somewhere close to the scent that rises from corn when you shuck it, that earthiness that seems to originate in the tassels. I don't think I was that far off.

I read Interview With the Vampire by Anne Rice around the same time that I read Jitterbug Perfume, and while I was living with and caring for my dad who was terminally ill. I don't think you could find two more different perspectives on mortality and immortality than in those novels: Rice's vampires must die and give up human pleasures to live forever, and Robbins' characters must embrace life and live to the fullest to live forever; Rice's characters are trapped in a deathless existence, but Robbins' must be ever-vigilant; if they stop loving life, they will die. The juxtaposition of those ideas and my own experiences gave the twenty-three-year-old me a lot to think about.

Beets, anyone?

Friday, June 4, 2010

Let the Bounty Begin

The greatest thing about community gardening so far has been the other gardeners who give away stuff. Tonight we got a bunch of baby beets, some carrots, and an onion from someone down the way. Is it pity or generosity? Hard to say, but either either way these gardeners have considerable pride in growing more than a subsistence crop. I can't fault them for that at all, and plus we really appreciate their sharing.

(We also brought home basil and rosemary from our own plot, AND we gave some to our neighbor.)

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Separation Anxiety

...not so much.

Maybe we feel ourselves being pulled apart by forces to which we are powerless, and so we start to withdraw, believing somehow that by hastening the inevitable separation we are exercising some control over it. Or maybe it's just been a long year, and the fatigue of working so intensely together is wearing on us, but whatever it is, my students are doing me the huge favor of driving me crazy.

I still love 'em, but because they are being so aggravating in the aggregate, it probably won't be too hard to wave good-bye to them in a couple of weeks, even knowing that I'll henceforth be their "old teacher", and they'll no longer be "mine". Oh, I'll be sad next fall when a whole group of strangers takes their places; I'll miss them then for sure, but for now, whether it's ma'a as-salaama, hasta luego, or see ya later alligator, the words will be on the sweet side of bitter.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

My Money's on the Slam

My favorite part of the day today was when we gathered the twelve finalists who would be performing their poetry for 200 sixth graders and other invited guests, not to mention the judges. Several of them had written new material on their own, and our resident slam poet had brought three young poets to perform with the students, but also to coach them. The energy in the room was exactly what I wish for every day I come to school: the kids sat in groups with their writing out; they showed each other; they asked for advice from the visiting poets; they even took the "stage" in the front of the room and rehearsed their pieces. They listened intently to all the feedback they got, scribbling notes in the margins, changing words, adding phrases and stage directions to themselves. In short, they were a hundred percent engaged in the writing process. It was mostly because they wanted to do their best for the assembly, but those are the kind of high stakes that I can get behind.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Mountains to Scale

Oh so many projects and activities collide at this time of the year...

ONE: I'm trying to put the finishing touches on our school's journal of literature and art of which I am the editor. It is past deadline.

TWO: My room might be half-unpacked; it is serviceable.

THREE: Our last state standards assessment this morning; who thought the day after Memorial Day was a good idea for that?

FOUR: The culminating Slam performance-- there are cold feet among the finalists. Will the the microphone be in place?

FIVE: Our in-house writing sample, this is designed to show me the growth in my students' writing; it is informal, but still...

SIX: Field trips: Water Testing! Band Trip to amusement park! Dolphin Watching!

SEVEN: Finalizing my own vacation plans, all that calendar matching, emails, phone calls, and schedules of five nuclear families are finally coalescing into what promises to be an AWESOME summer. (Fingers crossed)

EIGHT: My poor garden. It suffers from neglect. I must fit it into my daily routine. I am best on an every day basis.

That's a steep list... See you at the top!