Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Yeah! What She Said-- Part II

In the the November 28, 2010 issue of Newsweek, Bill Gates posed some questions for Diane Ravitch, NYU Professor and education historian who, despite her initial support of No Child Left Behind has examined the evidence and reconsidered her position on high stakes testing and emerged as an opponent to the Obama administration's education reform policies, as well as many of those supported by Gates and his foundation. In today's Washington Post Answer Sheet, Valerie Strauss got Ravitch to answer Gates, point by point.

Both articles are must-reads for any of us interested in the current political debate surrounding public education, but I'll tip my hand as to which side of the fence I'm on and quote Ravitch in response to Gates's question, "Is she sticking up for decline?"

"Of course not! If we follow Bill Gates' demand to judge teachers by test scores, we will see stagnation, and he will blame it on teachers. We will see stagnation because a relentless focus on test scores in reading and math will inevitably narrow the curriculum only to what is tested. This is not good education. 
"Last week, he said in a speech that teachers should not be paid more for experience and graduate degrees. I wonder why a man of his vast wealth spends so much time trying to figure out how to cut teachers' pay. Does he truly believe that our nation's schools will get better if we have teachers with less education and less experience? Who does he listen to? He needs to get himself a smarter set of advisers. 

"Of course, we need to make teaching a profession that attracts and retains wonderful teachers, but the current anti-teacher rhetoric emanating from him and his confreres demonizes and demoralizes even the best teachers. I have gotten letters from many teachers who tell me that they have had it, they have never felt such disrespect; and I have also met young people who tell me that the current poisonous atmosphere has persuaded them not to become teachers. Why doesn't he make speeches thanking the people who work so hard day after day, educating our nation's children, often in difficult working conditions, most of whom earn less than he pays his secretaries at Microsoft?"

Monday, November 29, 2010

What She Said

I received a fund-raising letter over the weekend from Nancie Atwell in support of her demonstration school, The Center for Teaching and Learning. One particular paragraph stood out to me:

While today's neo-reformers tout accountability as the goal of education and seek to measure and judge teachers based on student scores on context-stripped standardized tests, CTL teachers hold ourselves accountable-- to students, their parents, and our own standards as professional educators. Our methods for assessing and reporting student growth across the disciplines are time-consuming, individualized, and specific. Grown-ups-- and students-- understand what a child has accomplished, along with the goals he or she needs to tackle next. All parents want teachers who know their sons and daughters as learners, not percentiles.


Sunday, November 28, 2010

Looks Can Be Deceiving

I spent an hour on the phone catching up with a friend from high school yesterday. We've known each other nearly 35 years, and even though we have never lived closer than 200 miles after we graduated, we've managed to get up to our share of hijinks together. She reminded me of one such time yesterday.

I was living at the beach after college and she came down to visit with an English guy she had met over the summer. Karen and Peter and I went out to hear a band play and at the end of the evening after plenty of fun we decided that it would be a good idea to go down to the beach. It was warm and the moon was out and after a while just sitting on the sand listening to the surf didn't seem good enough. We decided to go swimming, or rather skinny dipping, since we didn't have our suits with us.

We were at the residential end of the beach, but there was one hotel on that stretch, too, and once in the water we kind of bobbed in that direction, probably because there was a flood light. Once we entered the illuminated portion of ocean, though, we heard shouts and a whistle. Squinting toward shore, we saw a security guard waving furiously at us. My friend and I ducked back into the dark, but Peter strode confidently out of the water to see what the guard wanted.

He tried to tell us that it was illegal to swim after dark, which may have been true, I still don't know. Pete apologized in his very English accent, explaining, as he stood stark naked in front of the guy, that he was from out of town. "Yeah," the guard nodded, "I thought you looked different."

Saturday, November 27, 2010


Earlier it was board games with the grown ups and playing with the kids over at my brother's house, and now it's turkey leftovers, a fire in the fireplace, and plans to take in a movie a little later. This has become the tradition for Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend.

I'll take it.

Friday, November 26, 2010

It's Time to Play the Music

On the last day of my first year of teaching another newbie and I decided to show Jaws to our students. I remembered the kick I got out of it at the age of thirteen, and I wanted to send my students off on summer vacation with the same thrill. Yeah... 20 years of water under the fishing boat had taken its toll on that particular movie, and even Bruce the mechanical shark couldn't rescue the experience-- it was yawnsville for the kids and a disappointment for us.

Even so, that impulse to share what we enjoyed as children with the children in our lives runs strong. Today it was the Grinch. When it came up in conversation that neither my nephew or niece had seen or read that classic tale, a quick trip to the bookstore was in order, and soon we were all settled around the TV watching that slimy green villain slither around Christmas trees like nobody's business. Unlike Jaws, Dr. Seuss was a hit. But it was the second purchase I made, simply on impulse, that was more telling.

The first season of The Muppet Show shone in the display as if there was a ray of light on it, and I could not resist. For many people of my age and perhaps a dozen years younger, the muppets were a weekly ritual of entertainment. Stetler and Waldorf, Pigs in Space, the Swedish Chef, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker, they are all woven into the fabric of our memories. But do they hold up? That was the question of the afternoon.

The answer? Sort of. Times have changed to the extent that the show doesn't really merit 30 minutes of anyone's undivided attention, but I think we have all enjoyed the muppet marathon as background today. The kids like the muppets and the adults like the nostalgia... Rita Moreno, Florence Henderson, Jim Nabors, Paul Williams? They were all staple guests of those classic variety shows of our youth, and to see them as they were 33 years ago has been like a time machine. Of course, the muppets haven't aged a day, either.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Last Minute

"Excuse me! Where's the celery?" A young man just about the age of my students pummeled me with that question as I scanned the produce section this morning. I don't think I've ever been shopping on Thanksgiving day before, but lack of a crucial ingredient and the knowledge that this particular store was open sent me out around 10:30.

"I think it's over there," I told him, but I was too slow; he was already interrogating someone else. My encounter with this manic kid on his Thanksgiving mission made me curious about my fellow shoppers as I made a quick loop through the grocery, and I speculated about their traditions as I roamed the aisles in search of the things on my last minute list. Were they, like I, here for something forgotten, or were they, like that kid, just doing their holiday shopping now?

I reckoned it was about half and half with a small percentage of people buying nothing feast-related at all. At the check out I saw Mr. Excitable and his parents one more time. "This is going to be great!" he told them as they unloaded their cart full of fixins onto the belt.

I'm sure he was right.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Units of Measurement

We went out to lunch while we were at the beach a couple of weeks ago. The mid-November weather was spectacular, and we sat outside on a deck overlooking the wide Patuxent river. We ordered seafood, of course: crab cakes, chowder, oysters, and my brother got a dozen clams. When they arrived, he counted them up and there were 21 in the bowl. We speculated about the number-- too many for a baker's dozen, too few for two dozen. At last we decided that it was a Broomes Island dozen. "What a deal," my brother said, and we set about calculating the cost per clam. It turned out to be three for 87 cents or there abouts. "You know what that is, right?" my brother asked. "A Solomon Island dollar!"

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Pros and Cons

The Where in the World activity was pretty great today, but this year heralded the passing of a long-standing tradition at our school: the sixth grade feast. My recollection is that this pot-luck event had its beginning my first year of teaching, but I could be mistaken; there was a lot of stuff that was new to me going on that year. In any case, for at least seventeen years in a row, our team invited students and their families to contribute favorite dishes to a communal luncheon that we organized for the day before Thanksgiving Break.

In some ways it was a glorious occasion-- imagine folding tables swathed in child-decorated coverings and laden with the favorite foods of students from every continent and corner of our globe. Nice, right? But in other ways it was super stressful-- Will there be enough food? Will it be pathogen-free? What will we do with the left-overs? Despite those annual qualms, though, the event went off beautifully every year.

I can't put my finger on what it was last year that made me decide to propose the elimination of this annual tradition. The activity was perfectly successful-- we cooked and shared and ate and cleaned; the kids had a good time; the parents who were able to attend enjoyed themselves; the staff loved the leftovers-- but something told me that the outcome was not worth the trouble we went to. Maybe it was trying to figure out for the seventeenth time a fair, but compassionate, way to address the students who did not contribute. Maybe it was all the food that went into the trash at the end. Maybe it was the fifteen understandably excited 11 year olds that I spent most of the day with. Or maybe it was simply that completely drained feeling I went home with at the end of the day.

Whatever it was, a couple of months ago I asked my team if they were willing to plan something else in place of our lunch and they jumped at the chance. The fatigue, misgivings, whatever, were not mine alone.

To be honest, I think the students had just as good a time today as any have had in the past. A couple of teachers expressed their relief as well, but none quite so colorfully as one who is no longer on our team. "Thanks a lot!" she said to me when I ran into her in the hall. I must have looked bemused. "You cancel the luncheon after I leave?! I'm still scarred by that Ethiopian chicken!"

It took me a minute to recall what she meant. Over the years, we had a lot of undeniably exotic foods, most of them delicious. At this particular luncheon, a family from Ethiopia brought a spicy chicken dish with its traditional garnish-- an embryonic chicken cooked in the shell. It was with great pride that they cracked that egg and eased the curried fetal chick onto the platter. I thought it was cool, but I can't say I put any on my plate.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Where Are We?

Every year on our team we do an activity called Where in the World...? Students are asked to bring in a picture of themselves at some distant location. These photos are put into a slide show along with three clues for each locale, and then the kids on the team try to place their classmates and teachers on a map of the world. It's all good fun, and because we traditionally hold this event on the day before Thanksgiving Break, the prize is a ginormous chocolate turkey.

Here's where we are this year:

Costa Rica
New Jersey
St. Thomas
Washington, DC

Quite the well traveled bunch, aren't we?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

The local station that plays Christmas music 24 hours a day during the season has already begun their holiday programming. I discovered this today while waiting in traffic and fiddling with the scan feature on my radio. It was hard to be shocked: everyone knows that retailers and their accomplices do whatever it takes to stretch the limits of the Christmas shopping season as far as possible. Our neighbor, who is in management at Target, revealed to us that this year November 6 was the deadline for Christmas displays to be set up in all of their stores.

When the music came on, we were out running Thanksgiving errands and enjoying one of the most spectacular falls we have had around here in years. Almost every day for the past few weeks has been flawless blue skies, crisp air, and gorgeous leaves. It has been breathtaking. My mom is coming in tomorrow, and my sister and her family will be here the next day, and as over-played as they might be, those words hearts will be glowing when loved ones are near resonated with me, and I let the music play for a little bit before I hit scan again.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Restless on my Laurels

 It's that time of the year when each school is asked to name their teacher of the year. Such a designation is the first step along the path that ends at being the national teacher of the year for someone. In our district, I have the impression that every school has a different process, although since I have spent my entire career at one school, that's only hearsay.

At our school, the process is flawed at best.  We are all invited to nominate a colleague in a hundred words or less, and then we vote. There is absolutely no criteria provided other than three years of experience. Considering that most teachers are too busy planning and delivering their own instruction to really know what's happening in any other classroom, it's hard to view the voting as anything other than uninformed at best.

I admit though, that, despite my misgivings about the process, I was flattered by the honor when a few years ago I was named teacher of the year at my school. The next step was to submit my credentials for consideration as a candidate for our county-wide teacher of the year. At the time, I had thirteen years of classroom experience, as well as involvement in a host of other activities, including coaching, team leader, and curriculum development, and yet, as I looked over my application, I felt that it was lacking.

Whether or not my opinion was based on insecurity or fact, as a result of those perceived deficits I took two steps: First, I decided to become a candidate for National Board Certification, and secondly I applied for and was accepted to the local chapter of the National Writing Project's Summer Institute.

I was not named teacher of the year for the district, but ultimately the experiences of the Writing Project and the National Board process both reshaped my teaching and undoubtedly, I'm a much better educator because of them.

So there.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Developmentally Speaking

In sixth grade, it's usually pretty easy to separate the "get-it"s from the clueless. Some kids are really capable of higher order thinking, and they definitely stand out from those who aren't quite there, yet. The thing is that people's brain's develop a lot like we grow-- the tallest kid in the class this year may not tower over the crowd in seventh grade. We expect such diversity of development in kids when it's physical, but it's much harder to accept differences in cognitive and emotional growth, perhaps because they are so intangible. Even so, the kid who doesn't grasp a tough concept today in a few years may be able to completely out-think the one who does.

It's important to keep this in mind, because so often the early cognitive bloomers get labeled as smarter than their peers and thus are treated differently, as are the seemingly less intelligent students in the group. There are obvious benefits of being treated like you're smart-- in general, you are asked to attempt more complex tasks and are supported by the confidence of those around you that you are capable of them. More importantly, though, at this age, kids are beginning to form self-concepts, and how the adults in their lives see them is crucial to their opinions of themselves.

As an example, think about how hard it is for people in a family to shed the identities that they acquired as they were growing up-- the responsible, hard-working sibling can rarely do wrong, while the screw-up can rarely earn redemption. Such roles are usually self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating.

For most eleven-year-old kids anything can happen, and it's up to us to make sure that stays true.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Lesson Learned

Our four year old neighbor has developed a fondness for doodling in library books-- Gasp! According to her mom she is not remorseful in the least, either. I suggested having her confess to the librarians herself in hopes that they would give her a little scolding that might stick.

Based on personal experience, I thought for sure that would work. When I was five and my brother was three we found a strawberry patch and picked and ate up all the fruit. The only problem was that the "patch" was actually our neighbor's garden. When my mother discovered our larceny, she told us we had to go next door and knock on the door to apologize.

We lived in a Levitt community, and our cookie cutter houses were not that far apart, but on that day it seemed like a journey of a thousand miles from our pink colonial to their neat gray rancher. There was a little hill between our yards and I remember sitting on that dip in the soft green grass weeping and trying to summon the courage to go over there and make things right, but I just couldn't do it. The guilt and the fear were too overwhelming.

Finally my mom came out and took us by the hands and led us to our neighbor's front porch. There she knocked on the door and stepped back. When Mrs. Huddleston opened the door, I burst into tears again. "Tracey and Billy have something to tell you," my mother started sternly. We confessed through sobs and were summarily forgiven. In retrospect, I think she was a little horrified at the tearful drama unfolding on her stoop. You can bet that those strawberries were safe from us after that.

I can't say the same for the library books... Savannah blithely apologized and was warmly absolved by a friendly librarian. She got off easy.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Junk Mail

I received an unsolicited message to my school email account today. Educator Panel Forming! exclaimed the subject line. Inside it started like this: You play an important role in molding the minds of today's youth, now's your chance to mold the shape of education!

Molding? I don't really consider what I do every day to be molding young minds. I like to think of it more as developing, or maybe nurturing; molding sounds kind of brain-washy if you ask me, like we manipulate the students' minds into what we want them to be.

No wonder people are so afraid of teachers lately.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

I'll Write Home Every Day

I awoke this morning to the news on the radio that Apple was going to make an announcement like none other today. It was helpful of the anchorman to let us in on the unofficial reports that they had finally struck a deal for the Beatles' catalog, and I silently thanked him as I yawned and rolled over.

This evening I happened to be on the iTunes store site and predictably, The Beatles were everywhere. I expected to maintain my resolute apathy, but my eye was immediately drawn to their first American release. On iTunes, it was called With the Beatles, but I remember it clearly as Meet the Beatles. In 1964, when Beatlemania swept the US and the band came to the states for the first time, I was only two, but my cousins were 16 and 19, the perfect ages to be caught in that popular tide. It is family lore that they were part of the screaming mob that met the lads from Liverpool when they landed here in Washington. Not wanting to leave me out of the fun, they bought me an album, undoubtedly the first I ever owned.

Oh, and I owned it all right. It was part of the soundtrack of my childhood. One of the few albums we were allowed to put on the console stereo record player ourselves, my brother and sister and I rocked out to the earliest Beatles for years. Oh, and I own it again, too. I clicked that Buy button without even thinking about it, and when All I've Got to Do came on, I sighed.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Amazing Grace

I just can't get that shark tooth off my mind. When I hold it my hand, I'm practically overwhelmed by the fact that sometime between 5 and 23 million years ago this small thing was in some sand shark's mouth and then two days ago I found it on the beach. Is that not amazing?

When I was a child, I was fascinated by the story of the Titanic, which was then still lost on the floor of the ocean. The enormity of such a loss weighed heavily on my young mind, and it was nothing short of a miracle to me when the wreck was discovered in 1985. And just last week I read The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate Di Camillo, and I experienced a similar emotion, particularly when Edward falls to the bottom of the sea where he remains for almost two years before a storm resurrects him.

Discovery, redemption, salvation-- who could resist the power of those?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Temps Perdu

Arriving home after our weekend at the beach I sorted through my treasures. We had spent a great deal of time speculating about the things that we had found on the beach and carefully comparing them to the fossil guide that was at the house. There is something indescribably powerful about finding part of an animal that lived millions of years ago and physically holding it in your hand; it's almost as if somehow the spatial connection transcends time.

One of the things in my collection is a fossilized chard of what I'm sure is bone. There's a texture to the surface and broken edges that I recognize. This knowledge may come from cooking, but my thoughts are drawn back to a day when I was no more than nine. I was on a weekend camping trip with my girl scout troop in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. We were on a hike and we entered a clearing that was nearly perfectly circular. I have no idea why we stopped, but as the adults talked, we girls started to poke at the oddly curved sticks that littered the ground. When they turned their attention to us, the leaders were horrified to find us playing with pig bones. It turned out that we had stopped to rest on the site of some colonial slaughter house.

Last night, my brother and I sat side by side on a sofa at our rental house. Behind us the Chesapeake Bay darkened as the sun set. In the next room we could hear Treat and Josh trading witticisms and wry observations over the sound of a Harry Potter movie. My lap top was on my knees, and as we talked the screen saver started spinning out pictures from my photo library. Many were of the boys, snapped on past adventures much like the one we were on now. We marveled at how quickly the time has passed and how much they have grown.

I know from questioning them that the boys remember only a fraction of all we've done, but when we dropped Josh off tonight, I asked him if he had a good time. "Yup," he answered, and I believed him, and that was enough.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Relieved in Two Acts

 Act I

Just when I was nearly convinced that I would never ever find a shark's tooth on the beach today, I paused at a heap of small shells right above the water line and raked pessimistically through it with my fingers. Finding nothing I sighed. Then ready to rise and comb my way dejectedly down the shore I turned to my left and spotted a perfect tooth lying prettily on top of the midden. Pocketing the treasure, I was able to relax a little and enjoy the walk.

Act II

Just when I was sure that this would be the night that I had nothing to post about to my blog, I considered the heap of treasures I had collected earlier today. Fingering the fossilized shark's tooth, I still couldn't believe that I had found it. Then, ready to close my lap top and face the evening with an uncompleted task hanging over my head, I spotted a bit of a message and began to type.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Seeing in the Dark

We're staying at a funky beach house on the western shore of the Chesapeake this weekend. When we arrived this evening with Bill and Emily and Treat and Josh, we found a sort of nautical villa if you will: it has granite counter tops, stainless steel appliances, stone fireplaces, archways in the place of doors, crown molding, and geese, fisherman and sea gull decorations. It's nice, but it definitely suffers from a confusion of styles. We pulled up in the deepest of dusks, practically night, and the combination of stars in the crushed violet sky and the lights reflecting off the black water was wonderful. "What a cool view!" Josh could not help exclaiming, and it was hard to disagree even in the dark.

Imagine what the light of day might bring.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Sweet Inspiration

 The citrusy smell of a peeled clementine always makes me think of the winter holidays. It doesn't seem that long ago that the season for these tiny tangerines was limited to the months right before and after Christmas, but these days you can get the mini-mandarins almost year-round, now that they are grown in California, as well as imported from not only Spain, but also Morocco and Chile.

When my oldest nephew was five, he was at my house when he enjoyed the first clementine of the new season. After eight months of deprivation, the intense flavor of it rocked him to the core. He devoured three more and then asked for paper and pencil. "How do you spell cwementine?" he asked, and once I told him, he wrote this ode:

clementine oh clementine 
all the world of clementines
clementine oh clementine
all the sea of clementines
clementine oh clementine
all the universe of clementines

Twelve years had passed when he borrowed my iPhone one evening last December at the holiday table, and launching the same app that artist Jorge Columbo has used to create several covers for The New Yorker, he painted this:

All the world of clementines...

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

In the Name of Accountability

A big word in education these days is accountability. I heard outgoing chancellor of NYC schools Joel Klein use it at least 10 times in a five and a half minute interview tonight. To me, the problem with accountability-- like the statistics that are its handmaidens-- is that more often than not, it is in the eye of the beholder, even while pretending to be otherwise. Ironically, Klein spent the largest part of the interview re-interpreting this summer's negative test numbers in an effort to convince us that he has earned an A during his tenure. Maybe he's right; his boss likes the job he did, even if many parents and teachers do not. Is that accountability?

In my district, our superintendent, now in his sophomore year, has also placed accountability at the forefront, unfortunately without specifically defining it. Along with Excellence, Integrity, Diversity, and Collaboration, Accountability is one of our proposed "Core Values," as in we take responsibility for our progress and are transparent in evaluating student success and our use of the community’s resources. Okay. I can be accountable by that definition. I think.

Not surprisingly, this vague notion of accountability is filtering down and being bandied about in all sorts of settings. For example, today I was in a meeting where another teacher insisted that she wanted the units she was required to submit to come back with comments, even after acknowledging that she wouldn't necessarily find the comments valuable, all in the name of accountability. Where's the accountability? she asked, over and over. She wanted evidence that somebody was doing something even if it wasn't necessarily of value. Hmmm. Accountability for accountability's sake is not a very responsible use of our community's resources.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Of Two Minds

Just last Wednesday I posted about the relatively minor importance of most spelling and grammar errors when it comes to communication. My question was simple: If the message is clear, then why do conventions matter? I do enjoy tipping the sacred cows.

Today at school we were doing some standardized testing. During such times, each teacher receives a bin of materials that we we are required to sign for. It contains test booklets, answer documents, pencils, and forms. It also usually has a sign to tape to the door so that nobody interrupts the class in the middle of the test, but those were missing today. When the testing coordinator came around to check on the session, I asked her if she had one, especially since my group had already been bothered once for an errant lunch box. No problem, she assured me, and a little while later she slipped a green sheet under the door. Testing in Progress, it read, Due Not Disturb.  As an English teacher, I could not, in good conscience, hang that sign on my door, despite the clarity of meaning.

I know our language is evolving, and maybe, as I wrote last week, such an error will be irrelevant in a hundred years. On the flip side of this issue, I heard a piece on the radio on my way home tonight about a website dedicated to words that have been dropped from the dictionary because of their lack of usage. Savethewords.org gives people the chance to adopt one or more of these words and pledge to use them in speech and writing in an attempt to revive them so that they will not be lost forever.

I want to do that! Despite my volgivagrant inclinations, it would misqueme me greatly were our language to languish. That would be an erratum teterrimous. Consider this paragraph my attempt to resarciate. Forgive me, English.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Then Again...

This morning I had just settled at my desk and turned on the computer when there was a sound at the door to my classroom. "Will you come to my room for a minute?" one of the teachers on my team asked. There was a note of anxiety in her voice that made me uneasy as I headed next door. "Do you smell anything?" she asked as I stepped into the hall.

I sure did. It was the unmistakable stench of death. We exchanged knowing grimaces-- there was a dead mouse somewhere in there. We walked around the room sniffing, and it wasn't long before we realized that the odor was strongest by the entry. She dropped to her knees and peered under a large rolling cabinet. "Oh God," she whined and stood up, unable to move. For whatever reason, my usually level-headed, no-nonsense, very competent colleague was totally undone by that rotten rodent this Monday morning. No matter-- I was not.

I asked someone to call maintenance while I opened the windows and borrowed a fan. We added her homeroom kids to mine for the morning, and I lent her the Zen air freshener that I keep at my desk for those random stinky moments that occur all too often in middle school. By first period the room was back in commission, no big deal.

"Wow," said the director of counseling who just so happened to witnessed the event. "What a great team leader!"

If only that was all it took.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Climb Every Mountain

The first real mountains I ever spent time in were the Alps, and I'm afraid no other mountains can compare to them for me: not the Blue Ridge, as pleasant as they are, not the Black Hills, also lovely, and certainly not the Rockies. Every time I visit another range I am slightly disappointed; they are not high enough, or not green enough, or not blue enough, or not jagged enough, or not white enough-- they just aren't the Alps.

Today we saw The Hereafter and I don't have much to say about the movie other than they did a remarkable job depicting the terror of a Tsunami and there was a gorgeous scene in the Alps. I want to go back to the Alps. (AND I'd like every day to have 25 hours.)

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Following Directions

I've followed Top Chef since its inaugural season way back in ought six. As reality shows go, it's very entertaining, probably because it is within an area of interest for me. Not only do I enjoy cooking and eating, but I've also worked as a cook, so a hectic professional kitchen takes me back to those days. One thing that is remarkable about the show is that the contestants are never allowed to use recipes. Sometimes that aspect is lost in the competition, but it's key to the show's concept.

When you work as a cook for someone else, you're supposed to follow the recipes they give you. It's weird to cook stuff you don't even like, and it can be tedious, too, but if it's not good, it's not your fault, because it's not your job to be creative. That's the chef's responsibility.

I used to say one should always follow the recipe as written once before making changes, but I've been disappointed too many times for that to be my mantra any longer. These days, I myself rarely use recipes, except when baking. When I want to add new dishes to our favorites, I generally either make something up using whatever we have on hand, re-create something we liked eating out, or read a recipe for the basic concept and ingredients and then go off on my own.

That approach works out for me, perhaps a little too well. Lately I think I may have damaged my ability to follow a recipe. Twice in the last week, I have tried to cook from a recipe and each time I have left out a key ingredient. First it was the leavening in some pumpkin bread and tonight it was the lentils in a mushroom and lentil pot pie. Oops. Both times I lost my way in the recipe when I started to ad lib in the middle: a little rosemary here, a few raisins there, you know. I think the problem was commitment: maybe I should either go with the recipe or not. (Or maybe I'm just getting old.)

I'm happy to report that crisis was averted in both cases. The results were not only edible, but tasty, too. Even so, had I submitted them for the consideration of the judges on Top Chef, I just might have been told to pack my knives and go.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The First Step is Admitting You Have a Problem

Sometimes I think I'm a good team leader and sometimes I don't. The job is an example of one of those kind of important things they often ask teachers to do without really providing any training or support. In addition to my already demanding full time job, twelve years ago I volunteered to manage a team of adults for a stipend. Oh, at first I really wanted the leadership role in our school, but for the last few years I've kept it mostly because nobody else will take it from me.

It's hard work to coordinate a team of eight adults, and the learning curve on this for me has been a downward arc-- I've gone from thinking I was doing a great job to questioning my effectiveness. This year, the teachers on my team seem over-worked, over-whelmed, and under-appreciated, and I'm wondering what my role is in both the problem and the solution. I always tell the kids that it's a good thing when you start to know what you don't know, and lately, I'm right there with them.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Seeds of Change

 The convergence of the beginning of my winter CSA and putting our garden to bed for the winter (the final clean-up day is Saturday) has got me in a bit of a reflective mood. Tonight for dinner I cooked the very last of the veggies that will come from our plot this season, some eggplant of all things. Who knew that this most Mediterranean of vegetables would survive into November? Probably the pepper plants that were still producing until last week.

My CSA, too, had some peppers and eggplants along with the first of the winter greens. I had all my fingers and toes crossed that they would include a few peachy mama peppers in the delivery box, but I was disappointed. They are the same shape and size of habaneros, with all of the flavor but none of the heat. I am enthralled by them, mostly because they are so good, but also because there is nothing else like them, and  I have never found them anywhere else.

Last summer we got bags and bags of them, and as happy as I was, I know that some of my fellow shareholders complained, and so our farmer adjusted the crop. This year we received exactly two small peppers in early September, which is why I was hoping that they might find their way into the early boxes of our winter share. No such luck tonight.

I'm not the same passive consumer I once was, though. Now I am a woman with a garden, and so I set aside the immediate gratification of cooking with those two little peppers, and instead I dried them for seeds. If all goes well? Next year I won't be dependent on anyone for my peachy mamas, except of course the sun and the rain.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Grammar for the 22nd Century

Yes, I had my professional learning community meeting today. Before I went, I thought that this post might be serving up a little crow to its author, because I actually found the assigned reading to be relevant and of use to my teaching. When I got there, I found that I was in the minority again, though, because nobody else liked what the chapter had to offer. Sigh.

We did have a lively conversation on teaching homophones. Once again, I played the devil's advocate (it was hard not to when one of the other teachers cited page 666 in the language text book) and asked how we can make the differences in those words relevant to the students, especially when mistaking them so rarely impacts meaning. If someone uses the wrong there, their, or they're, it's not hard to figure out what they were trying to say, it just happens to be incorrect.

At one point, I proposed my own grammar: let's standardize spellings for words that sound alike (and get rid of apostrophes while we're at it-- at least for contractions). Can't we agree to make it "thair" in every case?

We have plenty of words in our language that are spelled the same but have different meanings, for example fluke, lead, and bank. Sure, thair confusing in thair own way, but such a change might mean that thair would be fewer mistakes. And think of all the instructional time that we could reclaim, tew.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Petty Tyrants

I voted this evening on my way home from school. All the races and initiatives on my ballot were pretty much foregone, but it's the principle, right? It was close to 6 PM by the time I got to the poll and the line was kind of long. As I waited I wondered about this voter turnout-- are a lot of people like me, or are we going to wake up to a shocker in the morning? In the end, I figured that since politics is our hometown industry, most folks were just supporting the company. We'll see.

Waiting in line rarely brings out the best in people, even those of us with pure hearts and an idealistic agenda. In such a situation smart phones make the time go faster for me, and I was e-mailing my sister when I heard the ring of someone else's iPhone back in the line. "NO PHONES!" declared one of the election officials. "Silence your phone immediately, sir!" The phone kept ringing, and I resisted the temptation to turn around and stare at the drama unfolding behind me. I did, however, put my phone in my pocket.

Another election official walked past me to provide back up. "Sir! If you can't silence your phone, then please turn it off," he demanded.

There was a smirk of sarcasm in the voice of the violator. "Sorry... I didn't know if I was allowed to touch my phone or not," he said.

"Sir, please--" the official warned, but he stopped there, and I assumed that the guy had put his phone away.

Ten minutes later, I made it to the front of the line and voted. Yay, democracy!

Monday, November 1, 2010

A for Anything

Today was the last day of the first quarter, and I had one of those classic student-teacher moments. This particular student has a 71 in my class, and she approached me to find out what she could do to bring it up to an A. I advised her to enjoy her day off tomorrow and come back on Wednesday ready to work hard and turn everything in; after all, there are three more quarters.

Oh, how we are wed to those letters, though. Everyone wants an A; everyone is thrilled to get one. But what do they really represent? When I look back at all the reading and writing my students and I have done together over the last eight weeks there is simply no way to capture their progress accurately in a single letter. And yet we still do. It's as if nothing matters but the numbers game at the end, and even at sixth grade, the kids know it, too.

When I was in graduate school one of my professors was a well-known Shakespeare scholar. I took both his course on the tragedies and histories and the one on the comedies. At mid-term he told the same joke both times:

An attractive young woman is failing one of her college classes. She comes to the professor during office hours and purposefully shuts the door. "I'll do anything to pass," she tells him provocatively.

"Anything?" he asks her with some doubt.

"Anything," she assures him with a wink.

"Then study, damn it!"

At the time? I thought the joke was sort of funny. Now? I totally get it.