Sunday, October 31, 2010

Kitchen Mishaps

Our kitchen is not very big at all, but it is well-equipped, to say the least. Earlier this summer a neighbor openly mocked me for the number of whisks we own, but I shrugged it off. There's nothing that makes cooking faster, easier, and more satisfying than having the right tool for the job. That is not to say that every gadget is a must-have item; that is not true at all. I don't own an apple peeler, a french fry cutter, or a tomato mill, because they don't really make the job faster for me. Besides my affection for whisks, I also love microplane graters, ceramic knives, and those citrus juicers that you open, put half the fruit in, and squeeze closed. Those tools are so amazing that I actually get a little thrill when I know I need to use them, perhaps because I still remember a time before they were part of my arsenal.

Probably the most underrated tool I own is the humble bench knife. That small rectangle of metal with a handle has gotten me out of some pretty big jams-- it both scrapes and scrapes clean. Take tonight for example. I was preheating a skillet on the stove when I decided it was too small for the job (I have a good selection of cookware, too), so I switched it for a larger pan. The original skillet slipped from the potholder and landed on the scatter rug where it melted the synthetic fibers into a dark ring before I could retrieve it. Never mind the rug-- the skillet had a layer of melted nylon on the bottom. Without a second thought, I ran it under hot water, pulled out my bench knife, and scraped the stuff completely away- crisis averted.

Oh yeah, and the whisks came in handy today, too. I totally forgot to add the leavening to the pumpkin bread I was baking and only realized it about 10 minutes after it was in the oven. What's the worst that can happen? I thought, and using the smallest of my whisk collection, I took the dense loaf out and stirred the baking powder in, careful not to disturb the sides which had already set. That thing rose like a rocket and turned out just fine, thanks to that tiny little whisk. I only wish my neighbor had been here to see it.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The L-Shaped Lake

I once told someone that I thought Gary Paulsen was the Hemingway of children's fiction, and I stand by that. His writing is at once spare and very rich. One of the most personally influential books I've ever read is his novel Hatchet. It was the first novel I ever taught; I've probably read it at least 20 times, most of those aloud, and I can honestly say that not only did I never tire of the tale, but I found something new each time.

In Paulsen's elegant prose, the book tells the story of 13-year-old Brian Robeson who, through a series of events, is stranded alone for the summer on the shores of a lake in northern Canada. Ultimately, Brian learns to survive by drawing on his prior knowledge and his ingenuity. His experience is not without its challenges and ordeals, but in the end he grows from a dependent, reactive child to an independent and resourceful young man.

Before I read Hatchet, I don't think I ever thought about what would happen were I to be in a situation where I needed to survive in the wild. As much as I enjoyed hiking and camping, it was all pretty much a pleasant green blur to me; nothing really stuck out, because nothing had to. Hatchet put the individual components of nature into context for me, and in the seventeen years since, my knowledge of the outdoors has increased exponentially, and I love every minute I spend there.

Could I could survive on my own with nothing but a hatchet? Who knows? Probably not, but I'd definitely last a lot longer having read that book.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Boiled Peanuts

This summer when we were in South Carolina, we saw lots of signs for boiled peanuts.We are curious Yankees to be sure, but what with all the other great food--the shrimp and grits, the grouper, the benne wafers, the corn on the cob, the peaches, and the tomato pie-- we never got around to sampling that regional snack. Too soon, the vacation was over and it was back to work.

Before I got my full time teaching position I spent several months as a substitute, and I can tell you from experience that it's not an easy job. I don't think that's news to anyone-- remember how in elementary school even the mildest mannered classmates turn into their worst Dr. Jekyll selves whenever the teacher was out? That hasn't changed.

As a teacher, I appreciate a reliable sub, someone who can manage the students reasonably well and who will follow the plans I have taken the time to prepare. That happens less frequently than you might think, but over the years there have been a few regulars in the school and on the team who have become almost like colleagues. Most of them are retirees who do it for both the experience of working with kids and the small supplement to their pensions.

Such is the case of Mr. F, a retired soldier and foreign service officer who has been working in our school for at least 15 years. A father and grandfather who has lived all over the world, he believes he is well-suited for our diverse population of adolescents, but his notions about education are old-fashioned, and his approach to discipline is out-dated. I think both are a little too paternalistic to be effective. The kids usually say he's too old and too strict.

Still, you can't be too choosy when it comes to substitute teachers, and in my mind, his familiarity with the school and with my class make him a good choice for the job. Others may disagree, but if there's anyone better and more reliable, we haven't found him or her, yet. Plus today? He brought me some boiled peanuts that he made himself. That's my kind of guy.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

NaNoWriMo? Just Say No

For the past few weeks, I've been receiving emails from the NaNoWriMo people reminding me that with November comes their annual novel writing challenge. My first reaction was to rule the notion of once again trying to write a novel in a month completely out. Last year I ended up with just shy of 17,000 words at the end of the month and slogged through to mid-December, stopping on the 17th with a cheery promise to be back soon. That didn't happen.

Even so, as the days of October wane, that challenge seems kind of tempting. In fact, I've dusted off my novel, and I plan to bring a bit of it to my writing group tonight. Re-reading it, I found that it's not too bad, and who knows? Maybe this is my year to finish it.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

On the Bright Side

The other morning I heard a poem called accidents on The Writers' Almanac that I wanted to share with my students. When I pulled up the text on the website however, I found that the poet, Marcia Popp, uses no capitalization, punctuation, or line breaks in her work. In my mind, that made it an even better choice for my class.

After their initial confusion with the poem, the students decided that they really liked its narrative and could relate to its message, and they also professed a new-found appreciation for punctuation, which, of course, is priceless in a sixth grade class. Since then, I've purchased Popp's collection comfort in small rooms and each and every poem in the book is an absolute gem.

Yesterday my students turned in their final drafts of three free verse poems they have been writing. One boy who is new to our class submitted the following:

today is a beautiful morning its breezing the football is going to be hard to throw because the wind is going to blow it away my brother throws it hits me in the face i get the football and i feel like i am flying my brother said where is your sweater i say oh snap i am in trouble it is stuck on a branch i climb to get it and we keep playing i throw the ball so high my brother is amazed beat that i say ok he throws the ball i have never seen anyone throw it like that only football players

When I spoke to him about it,  I found that his imitation of Popp's style was unintentional. Oh well, we have some work to do, but at least he's got a bit of a natural poet in him.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

More Little Things

A few years ago I fell flat on my face, and there was nothing metaphorical about it. I was playing roller hockey on a basketball court with my nephews and brother. The surface of the court was painted, and the skating was smooth and fast. We were having a lot of fun, but I was playing recklessly hard against my brother. He's less than two years younger than I, so we've been competing a long time. To be honest, I don't think I've ever completely recovered from when he outgrew me in strength and size. Wits are another matter though, and I like to think we're still pretty evenly matched there.

Too bad my wits deserted me that day: setting the worst example possible, I was wearing neither helmet nor any other kind of protective gear. Ironically, I was standing still when it happened-- my skates slid backwards so fast on that slick court that I didn't even put my hands out to break my fall, and I landed on my face from a full standing height. Miraculously, nothing was broken, not even a tooth. I had an ugly abrasion that lasted a couple of weeks and a fat lip, but that was all.

I was lucky, but this past week has brought news of family of friends and friends of family who did not survive the choices they made, both impulsive and otherwise. Right now, my students are doing an assignment which asks them to look at the people and events, the accidents and incidents that have made them who they are. Every year, I write along with them, but I confess that I usually adapt what I've done in the past and share that. Maybe it's time to take a fresh look.

Monday, October 25, 2010

It's the Little Things

I usually find myself stoic in the face of life's tragedies; I wish I could say the same about the nuisances that complicate every day life. Right now it's the short in the light fixture, the stripped gear on the mixer, the leak in the ceiling, the fruit fly infestation, the closet door off its track, and the broken handle on the microwave that seem almost impossible to manage. Of course, larger misfortunes can put all of these things into perspective, and they do, they really do, but they don't fix them. I still have to find somebody to do that.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


When I was in high school the whole darn place picked up and moved to St. Moritz for two weeks every January. It was one of the many perks of going to a Swiss boarding school. Ski lessons were included, but unfortunately for me, I arrived a day late the first year. When I went to pick up my equipment, the ski shop was out of boots my size, and so it was another day until I made it up to the slopes.

By that time there were no more beginners... everyone was at least two days ahead of me, and none of those efficient Swiss instructors in their mirrored shades and handsome red jackets seemed willing to catch me up. After careening unsupervised and uninstructed around the bunny slopes for a while, I resolved that skiing was not for me, and with fat tears rolling down my cold cheeks I removed those despicable skis and clunked over to the Signal Bahn where I caught the gondola back down to the hotel.

Despite the impression I had gotten on the mountain, I found out that skiing was not optional, and thus began my longest streak of scholastic disobedience to date. There was no way I was ever going to suffer the humiliation of that first day again, and so every morning when the rest of my classmates tromped cheerfully off for the slopes, I skulked away in the opposite direction and wandered the icy streets of St. Moritz for hours. It was lonely and cold, and even though I brought a book and a little money, there was only so much time I could spend in any cafe or restaurant before I felt my welcome was worn out, plus I lived in terror that a teacher would catch me and I would get in trouble for skipping.

The bright side of those days was literally the finest hot chocolate in the world and a delicious local soup with speck and barley called Engadiner Gestensuppe. Years later I found a recipe for it on the internet, and I continue to tweak it, trying to recreate what I remember so clearly, but so far each attempt falls a bit short. Even so, I often turn to this soup when I want something warm after a tough day, and it still hits the spot.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

By Committee

Our district has assembled a committee on grading practices. It seems to be operating like most such groups in our school system-- they asked for volunteers from each school, appointed some administrators, invited some other stakeholders, sent out a book over the summer, and then started meeting this fall. The other day the committee members from our school reported to our staff. They gave an overview of the discussion so far and told us that in the next couple of months they will be making a recommendation to the school board. One of them told us that there probably won't be a single teacher in the county who won't have to change his or her grading practices in some way as a result of the work this committee is doing.

Not surprisingly, we had some questions-- about the process, but also about the resources they were using to guide their decisions. For example, most of us are pretty familiar with the concept of formative and summative assessment. Many of us use pre-assessments as well. But what the heck constitutes performance assessment? In response to that inquiry, the three of them agreed-- they didn't really know. "We are by no means the experts on this," they declared.

It's kind of an important issue... if the people who are making the recommendations aren't the experts, then who are?

Friday, October 22, 2010

To the Wolves

Several years ago a friend of mine was reading My Antonia for a class and asked me if I knew the story. "Not really," I shrugged. "I've never read anything by Willa Cather."

"It's pretty intense," she told me. I looked at her skeptically, perhaps even rolled my eyes. "There are these wolves..." she said and then recounted how in order to save themselves, the brothers, Peter and Pavel, throw the bride and groom off the wedding sleigh they are driving. "What else could they do?" she finished. "They wanted to survive."

"Remind me never to go sledding in Russia with you," I joked, but I've never forgotten that conversation. Later on, when I'd read the novel for myself, I found that the determination to survive and the plight of the outsider are two of its essential themes, and I might say that those same ideas preoccupy my friend.

A strong mistrust of both the structure and infrastructure of our society have motivated her and her family to be as self-sufficient as they can. They don't live off the grid, but they probably could. They have a lot of time and resources invested in being prepared in the event of disaster. We kid them about it, but when we do, it's clear that if anything catastrophic were to happen, the rest of us would be on our own.

Sometimes I worry about my friend and her pervasive pessimism. Whether or not Peter and Pavel were justified in what they did, they lived the remainder of their lives as outcasts-- no one could blame them, but no one could forgive them either. They survived, but was it worth it?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Bargain

One of the best road trips I've ever taken was with my mom. She lives in Minneapolis and had business in Rapid City, South Dakota, so one late summer morning we set off, beginning our nine hour journey in the green green farm land of southern Minnesota, and continuing over the Red and Missouri Rivers, enjoying lovely vistas and delicious homemade pie. We made a stop in Mitchell, SD, to visit the Corn Palace, and I bought a paperback copy of O! Pioneers in the gift shop. We traveled across the great plains then, my mother driving and I reading aloud Willa Cather's story of hope and despair and struggle and loss, which was set in the very land, so harsh and so opportune, that we were crossing. A more intense and wonderful travel experience I have not had, and I will remember it always. Because the novel is in the public domain it was only a dollar--definitely one of the best purchases I have ever made.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Something New

If you missed the piece on Pecha-Kucha on All Things Considered tonight, consider taking a listen. Sort of the haiku of powerpoint presentations, this new form of communication is defined by 20 slides of 20 seconds each, no more and no less. That's right-- six minutes and 40 seconds is what you get to make your point.

It seems that beyond the pragmatic applications, this format is catching on as the salon of the 21st century. In cities all over the world people are gathering to socialize and enjoy a variety of these presentations, both in selected and open-mic formats. Such events are even being used as fund raisers, most recently to benefit earth quake victims in Haiti.

Oh the possibilities! The focused integration of images, sounds and text makes me really appreciate this concept... both as a teacher of communication and as the victim of countless dreary slide shows.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


I've had a couple of authors comment on this blog after I mentioned them and their books by name. In both cases I was completely thrilled that these posts I send out into the Universe with perhaps equal parts faith and vanity found not only a reader beyond my immediate family and friends, but also another writer with whose work I had connected.

I suspect that the fine hand of Google Alerts or a similar tool is behind their readership, but that does not lessen the experience for me. I have a couple of alerts of my own out there. One is for Nancie Atwell; I believe she's a bellwether for the state of language arts instruction, and I want to know what people are saying about her theories and practice. Over the last couple of years this alert has led me to some very interesting teacher-written blogs.

The other is for the Barbara Jordan school in Detroit. Early last summer I read that this school was being taken over by a committee of teachers and I've tried to follow their progress, because another of my beliefs is that for schools to be most effective, everyone in charge should teach at least one class (including central office).

After my last close encounter with an author I decided to double my Google Alerts. In addition to those two, my new settings include my own name, first and last, which I never expect to be mentioned, and the name of this blog, Walking the Dog, from which I expect to get several unrelated hits every day. I think it will be amusing, at least for a while, and especially if today is any indication-- I've already found a theme song: Walking the Dog by Fun.

Or not.

Monday, October 18, 2010

She Sighs With Relief

Today was one of those Mondays that I expected I would have to grit my teeth and tough it through. The lesson that I planned before leaving on Friday had just seemed a little off, and as I've noted before, the kids this year are just a little high maintenance. So how surprised was I when every class proceeded quite smoothly with nary a blank stare? It seems like the students are finally settling into a routine, and our daily practice and expectations are finally becoming a common language. Fingers crossed for tomorrow...

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Meet the McGees

Once, a long time ago, I opened the door to let my cat in for dinner and he deposited a live white mouse on the doormat before hurrying off to eat his Fancy Feast. We spent some time speculating about where our cat had been-- had he raided a science lab? stolen someone's pet? saved the little rodent from becoming snake food? --but neither the cat nor the mouse was talking.

The mouse was completely unharmed but clearly unfit for outdoor life, so we did what any other nutty animal lovers would do. We got a tank and some cedar shavings and kept him as our pet. We had another cat named Molly at the time, and she was fascinated by him, spent hours watching his tank (we called it MTV, mouse TV), and so we named him Fibber. Soon we began saying that all of our pets had the last name of McGee: they were Molly, Fibber, Oliver, Noah, and Silly McGee. When we rescued a betta fish from a floral arrangement at a party a few months later, we named him Bobby and he fit right in.

The McGees are all long gone now, gone the way of so many beloved pets, but they are not forgotten. Tonight I heard that the Philippines is bracing for Typhoon McGee; at least that's what it sounded like on the radio. McGee seemed like a strange name for a Pacific storm, so I looked it up and found that it was actually "Megi," which by some accounts means catfish. That works, but Typhoon could have been a great name for a canary or maybe even an iguana, too.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Free Range Yeast

A couple of weeks ago I heard a piece on the radio about a more traditional approach to cooking, one that focuses on technique rather than exact recipes. Ken Albala, history professor and co-author of The Lost Art of Real Cooking described for example, how easy it is to make bread without using store-bought yeast. It seems that flour and water stirred together and left alone will attract the wild yeast that reside everywhere. Who could resist the temptation to put such a premise to the test?

So last weekend I whisked together my starter. Albala also mentioned that the powdery substance on the outside of fresh grapes is none other than yeast (who knew?), so I tossed a few seedless reds into the mixture and pushed it to the back corner of the counter. As recommended, every morning I fed it some more flour and water to prevent the alcohol from overwhelming the growing yeast population. My brew bubbled and foamed, and this morning I kneaded in some more flour and water with a pinch of salt, still finding it hard to have faith that the dense dough would rise without that little yellow packet of Fleischmanns.

This evening I can report success! I wrangled that wild yeast into the prettiest little loaf of bread around. It had a crisp crust outside, a moist, chewy texture inside, and it was delicious.

And in just a couple of weeks my saurkraut will be ready, too.

Friday, October 15, 2010


There's a wonderful poem called Dog in Bed by Joyce Sidman in which she describes how her dog hogs the bed at night, forcing her to reposition herself to accommodate her pet. At the end she writes:  

This is how it is with love.
Once invited,
it steps in gently,
circles twice,
and takes up as much space
as you will give it.

This is how it is with teaching, too. Our contract day may be seven-and-a-half hours, but the job is impossible to do in that time span. Planning and grading alone will push your day to nine hours or more, never mind any clubs or study halls you sponsor. It's easy to see how each additional hour you spend will benefit your students, and isn't that why so many of us are here? But if you're not careful, it might start to seem like time you take for yourself is time you take from your students, and that's not good for anyone.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Back and Forth

It's funny how the unrelated conversations of the day can often be thematic. For example, at our team meeting today the discussion turned to security and background checks for field trip chaperons. "Things sure are different than when I started," I said. "Nobody did much checking on me... they don't even have my fingerprints on file."

We all agreed that times have changed since 1993 when I began teaching. Later in the day I ran into two seventh graders from my home room last year.

"Hey old TA teacher!" one greeted me.

"Hey old TA student," I replied in turn.

"Are you going to have my brother, too?" he asked. "He's coming next year."

"Maybe," I shrugged. "I hope so."

"He's exactly like me except he does his homework," he told me.

"He sounds perfect!" I said. "Now, I'm going to make sure I get him."

"What about my sister?" asked the other student. "She was born on Sunday."

"Last Sunday?" I asked.

He nodded.

"Congratulations!" I told him. "Why not? In eleven years, I'll take her, too."

"Eleven years?!?" the first student exclaimed. "Aren't you ever going to retire?"

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Thank Heaven for Little Boys

Here's the first draft of a free verse poem that one of my students turned in today:

I have Toy Story 3
the game for my Xbox
360. It has two modes
in it, story mode and
toy box mode.

In story mode it has
eight levels. Toy box
mode you can make
an old western town
of your own. You also
have to do missions from
the townspeople.

I heard the movie
was going to come out
on DVD on November 2.
I've seen the movie
with my dad in June and we liked it.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Rooting Around

Back in the late spring I had a big sweet potato on the counter that was beginning to sprout. On a whim, I chopped it into three pieces and buried it in a corner of the garden and pretty much ignored the vines as they spread their way across the plot all summer long. Today on my way home from school I harvested 15 pounds of sweet potatoes! How incredibly exhilarating it was to dig down into the soil with my bare hands and ease the giant roots from the ground-- one of them was two pounds by itself. It was more than a fair return for all the unwanted roots I dug up and tossed aside as I weeded all season.

Oh the potatoes I'll plant next year!

Monday, October 11, 2010

When I Was a Kid...

Our district offers an online course in Early Adolescent Development for middle school staff who are interested in an overview of the physical, cognitive, social emotional, and identity development milestones that are students are experiencing. This fall, I am facilitating the course for the second time. One of my favorite questions that participants answer as they work their way through the material is Are kids today really that different than they were when you were a kid?  because it requires people to grapple with how differences in environment affect children, as well as any greater impact that large-scale changes might have on society and culture as a whole.

Here's what a couple of people have written:

1. I really do feel that kids today are much more visually-oriented as many of them have grown up with TV and videos from a very early age. 
2. With so much technology and external stimuli readily available, there seems to be a much lower threshold for boredom. 
3. How many of us have seen a student using the computer, texting on a cell phone, and doing homework at the same time?  It makes me wonder how many college students are working diligently in a library carrels these days?  Or are they working with laptops sitting on their beds in their dorm rooms?
4.  Of course, with our modern fears, how many children are allowed to roam and explore freely through our neighborhoods?
5. How many kids today are comfortable with silence?


While it wasn't that long ago when I was the KID, I still have to answer "yes" to this question.  Just the other day I asked someone, how did we survive without cell phones?  Without the internet?  Without the immediate gratification of instant news, communication and feedback?  As I commented on my assignment guide, kids today are living in a multi-media, need-to-know-NOW, technology-rich environment.  I really feel that this type of "environment" has really played into how we teach and how we approach our teaching - in both positive and "not-so" positive ways.  In many ways, I wish I had the technology that kids today have - online databases with CURRENT research, Web 2.0 Media, cell phones, internet, Smart Boards.  But on the other side, I am very appreciate to how I grew up.  My sister and I invented games to play.  We built forts, played outside, rode our bikes, did arts & crafts... car rides included conversations with our parents & other family members, not playing video games & watching DVDs. 

What would you say?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Bonjour Paresse

It's the first three-day weekend of the school year and I've decided that every weekend should have three days. Of course in a few weeks, I'll tell you that every day should have 25 hours, too. (And for the record? Everyone should be off all summer, too.) Obviously, I should have been born French.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

And I Am Not Making This Up

I stopped by the grocery store on the way home last night. As I came around the end of an aisle I was surprised by a six foot pig in a black teddy with garters and bustier. I nodded, smiled politely, and walked past, the oddness of the incident only fully registering a few steps beyond. With wrinkled brow, I turned to look again, but the pig had vanished.

I didn't really think that I had imagined it, but despite the fact that the store was sort of crowded, there were no other shoppers around for a reality check. Plus, the more I thought about it, what had it been doing there? At first I had assumed that it was some sort of product promotion, but that get-up really didn't fit with anything that they were selling at the grocery store. Also the pig wasn't doing anything other than standing there when I went past; it wasn't selling anything, nor did it approach me in any way.

I shook my head, only questioning my sanity slightly, and continued my shopping.

It was in the dairy section that I next encountered the pig. This time it was walking briskly toward me. There was a guy a few paces ahead of it, but if he noticed anything unusual he sure didn't show it. They passed me and disappeared around the corner. You can bet I was on my guard after that, but as I finished shopping and paid for my groceries, I did not see any more giant pigs. It was with relief that I crossed the parking lot, but as I approached my car a silver mini-van screeched toward me at high speed. I jumped aside and gasped as it careened away.

Riding shotgun? The pig.

Driving? The guy from the dairy aisle.


Friday, October 8, 2010


Conferences are over and they went well: I had a hundred percent participation; the kids did a nice job leading them, and only one other student cried. It was the last meeting of the day and, ironically, he was the kid with the highest grades. He had straight A's, but in the category breakdown, he had an 85% in homework for one of his classes.

I made the mistake of asking him about it, and he burst into tears explaining that he had misunderstood the directions on an assignment and had only received partial credit for it. That coupled with the fact that one of his teachers had commented that he should participate more had him literally sobbing for a good few minutes. His mother rubbed his shoulder and spoke to him in Spanish, "Usted no tiene que ser perfecto."

The day before, in preparation for the meeting, he had set two goals for himself. The first was to participate more in class and the second was to follow directions carefully. He and his mom were supposed to set one more together in the conference. "What do you think it should be?" I asked. He wiped his eyes and looked at his mother.

"Don't be so hard on yourself," she said and that is what he wrote.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

All Conference Eve

Conference day isn't officially scheduled until tomorrow, but this afternoon I had a single student-led conference in order to accommodate a parent's conflict. Oooh, it was a good one! It had a little of everything-- obfuscation, disappointment, tears, scolding, recognition of personal strengths, pride in some tasks well-done, a promise and a plan for both improvement and continued success, and a hug at the end-- all in a little over 20 minutes.  Not bad for the first conference of the year. I wonder what tomorrow will be like.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Code Switching

I had the second session of my professional learning group on grammar today. Our assignment was to read the first three chapters of Catching Up on Conventions: Grammar Lessons for Middle School Writers by Chantal Francois and Elisa Zonana. This section of the book describes how they, two teachers committed to writing workshop, came to the conclusion that teaching grammar is important. Their main reason had to do with the fact that their classes were predominantly made up of ethnic minority students and they felt that it was necessary for them to master academic English, which is the language of power.

Our group talked a lot about this code switching. The reasons the authors described resonated with one of the other white teachers because she felt they applied to many of her students. For the teachers from our north county schools such an argument was irrelevant-- over 90 percent of their students speak the dominant language at home; they don't need to learn another vernacular. As for me, I thought it was hypocritical to make an argument like theirs without acknowledging that such an attitude perpetuates an unfair dynamic. To dismiss the necessity for some people to have to learn the language of the majority as simply a necessary evil does not address the underlying issues.

(Don't worry-- I'm not against teaching conventions-- I just think we should teach them to everybody, in the context of their writing, based on the individual needs of those particular students.)

The other teacher from my school, who is Black, affirmed the importance for people of color to learn to speak and write academic English but also pointed out the social complications that accompany such a choice. "It's sad to say," she told us, "but kids and even adults make fun of Black people who talk too White."

We also discussed proofreading marks, and one of the teachers confessed that she just never got the hang of using them: there were too many and she found the marks confusing. "It's just code switching," I teased, but when later the conversation turned to texting language, we discovered that of all the teachers there, I was the only one who doesn't use it, thanks to my trusty iPhone and perhaps my own resistance to code switching. In my experience, though, this is the exchange that is most difficult for students. Once they get hooked on shortening words and phrases and ignoring capitalization and punctuation, it is very difficult to get them to switch to standard conventions for school writing.

Maybe text talk is a minority dialect; it is a language that belongs to the young. The difference between that group and most ethnic minorities? One day young people will be in charge. r u rdy 4 dat?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Change is Good?

Well, I went ahead and did it. The Battle of the Sexes classes have been officially reorganized. The numbers in my two after-lunch classes are now 9 boys and 7 girls and 8 boys and 8 girls. Has the gender balance been a magic bullet? No. Some personalities still stand out, but in general? The students seemed less playful and less social and therefore more focused on the task at hand.

This particular success could be my imagination, but grouping, in the form of class scheduling, small group work, and even seating assignments is a time-honored tool of classroom management. Even so, I believe we should use our power carefully. These days, we try to spin it positively to the kids, especially when we split up friends, as in you don't work very well with that person, and We just want you to be successful, and Don't worry! You'll still see so-and-so at lunch.

We do that because kids, especially middle school kids, often have a hard time with what we adults see as a simple schedule change. As an example, when I told my classes of the above mentioned switches, there were gasps and groans of horror, and many kids openly begged me not to change their schedule. This after four weeks of school.

I believe that there are far more insidious reasons for us to take care about moving students for their own good as well as the good of the class, though. In my experience, a lot of the time the kids we want to separate are minority students. In a diverse school such as ours with almost equal representation of Asian, Black, Latino, and White students, it's most often those Black and Latino cliques that get busted up in the name of group dynamics, and that gives me pause.

Monday, October 4, 2010


Middle school presents an opportunity for kids to reinvent themselves-- we always tell them it's a clean start, a fresh slate, a chance to be the best they can. Some take advantage and some don't, and some are more successful than others. Six years ago, I taught a young man named Kenneth who introduced himself as Kenny. Kenny was as cute and charming as they come, but he didn't always complete his work, which was what I was telling his mom in our parent-teacher conference when she whipped out her cell phone. "Excuse me," she said to me as she deliberately dialed.

Bemused, I waited for her cue to continue. In a moment I heard the mwah mwah of a voice answering the phone. "Is Brandon there?" she asked. Confused, I wondered if I should pretend to be busy with something else. "Well get him out of bed," she told the other party. I shuffled a few papers and clicked my pen once or twice. Soon I heard another muffled "hello" and she picked up that progress report and started in on the person on the other end of the line about those missing assignments. It quickly became clear that Kenny was an alias for the student formerly known as Brandon, which was his middle name. Once she hung up, it was sort of challenging to continue the conference-- I wasn't sure how to refer to her child.

I saw Kenny's mom today in a professional development class I'm teaching. "Do you remember me?" she asked, and I smiled because when I had seen her name on the roster I couldn't wait to find out how Kenny was doing.

"I sure do," I told her. "How's that son of yours?"

"He's a senior! Can you believe it?" she said.

"Wow!" I answered. "What's he going by these days? Kenny or Brandon?"

"I still call him Brandon," she shrugged, "but everyone else? They call him Kenny, and he's doing great."

By that, I took it that he was getting all his assignments in, and silently I congratulated him on his successful reinvention.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Now Playing

I recorded the first episode of Tony Danza's reality show on A&E but I haven't had the chance to watch it yet. Called Teach:Tony Danza, the premise is that Danza teaches one section of high school English to 26 students at a school in Philadelphia. What teacher could resist watching at least one episode?

This morning at the farmer's market we ran into some parents of former students, along with a relative of theirs who also works at one of our district middle schools. "Have you seen Tony Danza's show?" she asked. When I told her that I have it recorded, she said "I won't ruin it for you, but the guy has one class of 26, with another teacher in the room with him, and they make him cry in the first episode!"

The non-teacher in our group said, "That's good, right? It shows how hard teaching is." Not having seen the show, I hope he's right that it shows teaching can be tough rather than Tony Danza can be lame, but my reservations are a little more serious than that. I've read a bit about Danza's press junket to support the show, and it sounds like he is highly supportive of teachers and the complexity of the job we do. That represents a departure from the majority of other public voices recently heard on teaching and schools.

NBC and other high-profile media organizations have been paying a lot of attention to public education lately, inviting philanthropists, politicians, chancellors, and bureaucrats to speak about what the "problems" are. Notably absent? The voices of teachers... but don't worry: an actor who by most measures is a bit down in his career and taught one class for one school year is evidently a more than legitimate spokesperson for our profession. Just ask Oprah.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

My Theory of Parking Dynamics

I believe that you should never wait for a parking space, especially if the garage or lot is really crowded. By doing so you stop the flow of traffic, making it difficult for people to both get into and, more importantly, out of spaces. If everyone simply drives until a parked car is ready to pull out, then everyone will get a space with roughly the same amount of waiting time. By following this practice, you may increase your own personal wait-time occasionally, but your wait will also decrease at other times, as will the general frustration level of all parkers, you included.

Doesn't that make sense? Who's with me?

(Remind me to post my theory of merging when a lane ends on the highway sometime.)

Friday, October 1, 2010

In the Kitchen

I spent 20 minutes or so when I got home tonight julienning some butternut squash to toast in the oven. I wanted to use it as a crispy garnish for risotto. I tossed it with olive oil, sage, salt and pepper, and put it in the oven with a timer to check and turn it in 10 minutes, knowing that I would have to attend to it closely so that it would cook evenly. Things happened... the phone rang, the neighbors stopped by, and I watched my squash, truly I did, but not carefully enough, because the last time I checked, some were perfect, some were still a bit limp, and a good bit were too done to

Maybe that's a good analogy for teaching: All the shreds of squash start out roughly the same-- they are in the same pan, in the same oven, but they don't bake evenly. Who knows why? You have to stay focused and keep checking and making adjustments so that all the individuals who make up the collective are well-prepared; otherwise it's all no good.