Monday, October 31, 2011

Scaring Up Donations

I remember when I was a kid being a little bit jealous of those children who came around, even before dark, to collect for UNICEF-- it seemed like they got double trick-or-treating time, and where did they get those cool paper banks that jingled so solidly with all that change? I still can't answer that question, and even today I myself have never stood on any threshold chanting trickortreatforunicef!

The same cannot be said for my homeroom students. Each year our school sponsors the ToTfU campaign, and so they can be the lucky ones who go to door to door for this good cause, if they choose. Of course, given my own history with the program, I'm always a little surprised by the lack of enthusiasm, and the first time I heard one kid telling another that they could just keep the money, I was genuinely appalled.

I have a sweet bunch of kids this year, (don't get me wrong-- they're not so nice that they skipped the petty larceny angle altogether, but they had the decency to blush a little when I reprimanded them for considering such fraud) and they were all pretty excited about the whole UNICEF gig as I handed out the bright orange boxes. Even so, a few were a little unsure of how to approach their public.

"What do we say?" someone asked.

"What do you say?" I repeated incredulously. "Why, just those five magic words... trickortreatforunicef!"

"But what if people say no?" somebody else asked. "What if they just say, Not today, honey?"

"I guess you should tell them thanks anyway," I suggested.

"And Happy Halloween!" said someone else. "Don't forget that."

They seemed satisfied with that advice.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Seven Billion

Does anyone else think it's getting a little crowded here?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Evening Constitutional

The snow had stopped but there was still a little sleet spattering against the windows tonight when I set aside my book, banked the fire, and tied my boots on to take the dog out for a walk in the bluster. At six o'clock it was dark and the weather had almost everyone inside, and so we walked alone through the aroma of woodsmoke and apple muffins carried on the cold, our way lit by the reflection of jack o'lanterns and street lights in the shallow puddles on the sidewalks.

Friday, October 28, 2011

NaNoWriMo Cometh

Yesterday, we held the inaugural meeting of the new writing club at our school. My sister-in-law, the art teacher, sponsors an afterschool art club for kids who either can't take art or who wish they could have more, so I figured why not apply the same principle to writing? Kids frequently complain that they don't have a chance to do their own kind of writing in school, so we aim to give them the opportunity and the audience. Even so, when I explained the idea to a couple of my former students, they dismissed it as just another version of study hall or homework club.

Still, we persevered, and four kids actually showed up for the first meeting. Since National Novel Writing Month starts Tuesday, we hooked them up with the NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program, and boom, boom, boom, boom, four novels were born. The young authors were particularly taken with the "Dare Machine," a random generator of crazy curve balls you might try to work into your novel. Example: We dare you to add a waterfall, fireworks, a unicycle, a wrestling match, and a poetry slam to the next chapter.

Heck! You can create a couple of characters and write a novel based on the challenges alone.

By the end of the day today, we had a couple of more novelists signed on, simply by word of mouth. It looks like it's going to be a fun month.

Thursday, October 27, 2011


Today's common text was Litany by Billy Collins, a hilarious poem that lives up to its name in metaphors. After we read it, I asked the students to choose their favorite to share with the class. Then? They had to fit that particular metaphor into the next draft of one of their own free verse poems.

Sure, some of their attempts were the waft of the bat and the tiny cloud of dust from the catcher's mitt,

(and the rules of the game were that they could cut it from their next draft if it wasn't working for them),

but some were the towering fly that the outfielder lost in the sun,

and others were definitely the cork in the bat.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Boom, Boom, Boom

We're working on figurative language in my class these days, and the notion that something can mean two (or more!) things at once is right on that imaginary line that divides the abstract from the concrete thinkers. I know it's tough, and so I am patient, providing as many different ways for them to explore this concept as I can. Ultimately, the objective is that they will be able to identify, explain, an use these writing tools. Maybe even use them as effectively as, say, Katy Perry does in her song, Firework, which we read, listened to, and annotated today.

Perhaps it was their familiarity with the text, or their enthusiasm for listening to pop music in school, or both, but almost every student was able to see how a plastic bag drifting in the wind might feel empty and useless, not to mention how a house of cards could feel weak and vulnerable.

A+ for you, Miss Perry.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Just Another Day at the Office

"Do I have something on my head?" a student asked the other morning.

"Besides your hair?" I joked. "I don't see anything."

"Look," he insisted, turning around and pointing to the back of his closely shorn head. I saw what he meant. There was a swoosh of green marker a little below and to the left of his ear.

"How did that get there?" I wondered out loud.

He spat the name of another student like a curse and added that she had done it on their way out of their homeroom.

I promised to speak to her about the incident and asked if he wanted to go to the bathroom and wash it off.

"Can't you just get it off?" he pleaded. "I can't even see it!"

I'm sure my brow furrowed, but I looked around the room and then grabbed some hand sanitizer. With a little squirt and a quick rub, the offending mark disappeared. Just then, the bell rang, and the student went off to his seat to record his homework as I started the class.

Monday, October 24, 2011

I Beg Your Pardon?

This morning, as my homeroom students were organizing their binders to prepare for the day and the week ahead, I overheard one of them use what sounded like inappropriate language. "What did you say?" I asked him sternly from across the room where I was assisting someone else.

He repeated himself with no remorse what so ever. I was confused, and certain that I must have heard him wrong, so I stepped over there and asked him again. "What did you say?"

He said it again, and then I said it. "Did you say 'Oh shit'?" I asked.

"Yeah," he told me, still with no sign of distress.

Of course our conversation had drawn the attention of everyone in the room, and there were several stares and a few giggles. It took me a minute, but I finally considered that this student, a second language learner who has only been in the country a little over a year, might not understand what he was saying.

"Do you know what that means?" I asked him, watching closely for any indication that his response might be dishonest.

"No," he answered, finally with some alarm, and I believed him.

"Well," I told the class, "I guess this is a good example of why we should make sure we know what we're saying."

There were nods of agreement as they turned back to their binders.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Great Idea, Mar

The other day I was gathering the materials to make corn husk dolls with my students. The information that the husks were available in most area supermarkets was met with skepticism from several colleagues, until I explained that they were in the Latin food section, because you need them for tamales. "Are you going to make tamales, too?" my friend Mary asked.

"No," I answered in a tone of voice that clearly expressed the absurdity of the idea, but even as I was verbally dismissing the concept out of hand, the wheels of my cooking brain were turning. "Maybe," I amended my reply almost immediately, and before Mary could say a word, I said, "Yes! I am going to make tamales! Vegan tamales!"

So, even though I have never made tamales before, that is what we are having for dinner tonight, and it was a lot of fun to adapt the recipe, too.

Thanks, Mary!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

With the Benefit of Time

We saw the re-make of Footloose today. You might think a generation later, we would identify with the older generation.

Nope. That no dancing law is still totally bogus.

Friday, October 21, 2011

By the Seat of My Pants

Today our team was supposed to go on a field trip to a corn maze, but our plans were dashed at the eleventh hour when the farmers called and said the place was flooded. They had been up since 1 AM digging trenches to drain the labyrinth in time for 130 sixth graders to attempt to navigate, but at 8:45 Am, they knew it was, literally, a wash and called the school. The young teacher who had coordinated the trip appeared at my door white-faced. I excused myself from the group of kids industriously making corn husk dolls in my room and stepped into the hallway to receive the bad news. What could we do? It was back to a normal schedule for the disappointed students and some serious improvisation for their teachers.

I chose Jeopardy as my fall-back activity, and it went pretty well. Here are the categories and questions if you want to play along at home:

Parts of Speech
100 a person, place, or thing
200 an action
300 a word that describes a noun
400 a word that modifies a verb or and adjective
500 a word that tells the relationship between nouns-- like over, under, between, in, or on.

Series and Authors:
100 Harry Potter
200 Percy Jackson
300 Diary of a Wimpy Kid
400 The Hunger Games
500 Twilight

TJ Teams:
100 the other sixth grade team
200 the 7th grade team named for a sea mammal
300 this team is named for a flightless bird
400 the only team named for a reptile
500 this team shares a name with our national bird

Pixar Movies:
100 Woody and Buzz
200 Marlin and Dory
300 Dash and Violet
400 Sully and Mike
500 Remy and Linguine

Writers Toolbox:
100 details that tell how something looks, tastes, smells, sounds, and/or feels
200 a comparison between two unlike things using the words "like" or "as"
300 a comparison between two unlike things that does not use the words "like" or "as"
400 a figure of speech which gives human qualities to inanimate, or non-living things
500 Nouns that refer to specific objects, not abstract or general things

State Capitals:
100 Richmond
200 Annapolis
300 Austin
400 Sacramento
500 Juneau

It was lots of fun, and I was surprised when in each class, some students predicted the answer and wrote it down before I asked the question, based on their knowledge of the category, and, I can only assume, their knowledge of me. Often, they were correct.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Sic Semper Tyrranis

Sickening footage today of the death of a horrible man-- Libya is at last free of its ruthless dictator of 43 years. There is evil in the world, yes there is, but I have to say that I believe that humans compound violence when they address it in turn. I will never be in the same league with Gandhi or Dr. King, but I am on the same page.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


I met with a parent today about a head injury her son sustained playing soccer a couple of weekends ago. Athletes with concussions have been prevalent in the news lately, but this is the first case I've had personal experience with. Coincidentally, we also saw a brief informational video on the same topic today at our monthly staff meeting.

Concussions can impact behavior, critical thinking, and learning in a variety of ways. Depending on their severity, and there is no way to definitively tell just how severe they are, their symptoms can last for months or even years. Like so many other invisible conditions, it's hard to know how best to treat someone with such a diagnosis-- the danger is in believing they could do better if only they would.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Tattle Tale

Any teacher will tell you so: the adults in the building are usually more difficult than the students. Case in point? Each teacher on the team is supposed to sign up to supervise eleven after-school study halls. I have written before about our brilliantly fair method, and yet... the lynchpin to the entire scheme has proven to be unstable. One certain person who, it must be said, doesn't want to do her share, is holding up the list. It is halfway finished and she has had it for six weeks. Six weeks!

At first, I tried to reassure the restless members of our group that it didn't really matter; we were scheduled until November. "Why do we care?" I asked them.

"I'm registering for graduate classes," one answered.

"I need to set up doctor appointments," said another.

"I have to arrange child care," explained a third.

All of us have busy lives and full schedules, and there comes a point when

we. need. to. know.

I empathize with every one! This person in question has professional issues with the arrangement, personal issues with the timing, other school commitments, she is young, what have you, but I have emailed, spoken to her personally, sent emissaries, and emailed some more without result.

Yep. It's time to tell on her.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Not So Sunny Day

I haven't mentioned Tolerance Club in a while-- October is National Bullying Awareness Month, and so that fits in with our mission quite well. Today we showed the kids a Sesame Street clip where Big Bird gets an invitation to join the "Good Bird Club" and is all excited until the mean pigeon, blue jay and robin reject him, at first because his feet are too big.

We had a little technical difficulty streaming the video on our WiFi network, and so to fill the time while it loaded, I asked the kids to guess what might happen. "He's going to try and change his feet," one confidently predicted.

"And that won't be enough for those birds," another added. "They're going to make him keep on changing."

I was super-impressed by their accuracy. "Have you guys seen this before?" I asked.

"No!" they answered (and they totally would have said "duh," if they didn't just know it was rude). "That's what always happens with bullies."

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Window Seat

I practically grew up on a plane-- my dad worked for TWA and my parents took full advantage of the travel benefits. When we were kids, my brother, sister, and I used to fight for the window seat, but now I'm lucky that Heidi just lets me have it, partially because she likes me, and partially because she hates to fly, and the window freaks her out a little. On the rare occasions that I travel alone, I always select the window seat, too; I don't care about the delay in disembarking; I'm all about the view.

My favorite part of the flight is the takeoff-- I love how it feels as the plane gathers speed down the runway, the g-force pushing you back in your seat, then that gentle tip and a little rocking and all of a sudden you're airborne. After that, my nose is pretty much pressed against the window, as long as there's something to see. My brother and I recently had a disagreement about how easy it is or isn't to tell where you are on a cross-country flight. He flies a lot more than I do, but it's hard for me to let go of the illusion that I am a human atlas.

Today I flew home from Minnesota, where my mom lives. There were two legs to my journey; I changed planes in Chicago. From the air, the city of Chicago reminds me of the Emerald City: so often it rises majestically from the prairie mist with the sunlight gleaming off of Lake Michigan behind it. Then, as our plane climbed to its cruising altitude, I happened to be listening to a song with some orchestral arrangement and the strings swelled at the very same moment we broke through the clouds and into the clear blue sky. I gasped at the dizzying grandeur of the moment and wondered why on earth anyone would ever choose an aisle seat.

Saturday, October 15, 2011


A couple of summers ago we came out here to Minnesota to visit my mom and to take a trip "up north" to the source of the Mississippi River and the Boundary Waters. While we there, we visited a bear preserve in Ely, and I was captivated by the story of Lily, the wild bear that the center's researchers were tracking by radio collar. They had been able to place video cameras in her den, as well, and so they had a pretty thorough biography of this young black bear. They even had footage of her giving birth to two cubs, the subsequent death of one a couple of months later from illness, and the growth of her remaining cub, which they named Hope.

They actually have a fan page on Facebook, which I joined, but the supporters of Lily and Hope are so enthusiastic that I eventually turned notifications off for the group. Even so, I would check in every few months, and so I knew that the two had become separated when Hope was barely one, that they were reunited a while later, that in the spring Lily bore another cub, named Faith by researchers, and that the three were living together as a not uncommon bear family unit.

On the radio this morning I heard a piece about bear hunting. Today is the last day of the season up here and bear-bagging is down this year about 25% to 2,000. Hunters only killed one radio-collared bear, too, compared to eight last year. (It is not illegal, but highly discouraged to shoot collared bears in Minnesota.) But there was another research bear casualty. The yearling, Hope, slipped her radio collar and was killed by a hunter about a month ago.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Consider the Audience

I have been away from school this week, but technology has allowed me to be connected and even functional in my absence. In addition to being up-to-date on school correspondence, I have answered logistical questions from team mates, given my input on student concerns, and exchanged emails with a parent.

Something I could not do remotely was to help score the student writing samples. Today was the time we set aside for the whole staff to do that. Because my team was down a few members, I really felt supported when I read the email this morning saying that both the principal and the director of guidance were filling in to get the job done in my absence.

Later on, I thought about all the writing pieces the group was reading. In sixth grade the prompt for this assignment is Your principal wants to invite a celebrity speaker to your school. Think about the celebrity you would choose to speak; then write a letter to persuade your principal to invite this person. Be sure to include convincing reasons and details to support your choice.

Lots of kids always ask me when they see the assignment if the principal is really going to see their letters, and I always tell them that they are welcome to send them to her if they'd like. I giggled a little when I thought of her reading letter after letter addressed to her today, and I wondered if any of them had hit their mark.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Process Versus Product

Despite my indictment of daytime TV yesterday,(I'm sorry TV!) this morning I did see something that I had to try right away. A lovely young Asian woman with a charming British accent was demonstrating a couple of her dim sum recipes. It was not so much the ingredients as the technique that captured my attention-- she showed how to push the center of a won ton wrapper down into the circle you can make with your thumb and index finger to form a little well for the filling. Next you just gather the corners and press them together at the neck for a perfect little dumpling purse. 8-10 minutes in the steamer, and you will be dining on dim sum as good as any restaurant might serve.

There is something so exquisite about knowing the best way to do a job, that although my dumplings were delicious (if I do say so myself), and my mom really liked them, too, making them just might have been the most satisfying part.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Slick Packaging

I do not often have the occasion to watch daytime TV, but today was an exception. Wow! There is a lot of advice out there. Everybody wants to give you information on what is best for you, and it is all presented in very bright, attractive packages, so stimulating that the time just flies from segment to segment, commercial to commercial.

But look-- I don't have anything else to say about it.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Not So Fast

I'm out visiting my mom, and a couple of her friends, whom I've never met, offered to pick me up from the airport. "They'll have a sign with your name on it," my mother told me, and I pictured any number of arrivals that I have witnessed over the years, both in person and in movies and on TV.

Modern convenience and technology foiled our plan, though; it turned out that they would be waiting for me in the mobile phone lot, and so all I needed to do was give them a call once I'd collected my bag. As I left the secured passenger area and followed the signs toward the baggage claim, I was actually thinking nostalgically about how the pragmatic tradition of greeting an unknown passenger with a sign would soon become anachronism. Just then, I spotted one lone gentleman scanning the crowd as we spilled off the escalator. He was holding something in his hands and as I drew nearer I could see what it was: an iPad with a name and itinerary displayed.

Outside on the curb, I waited for my own ride, and it wasn't long before my mom's friends pulled up, cardboard sign and all.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Challenged and Engaged

One of the strategic goals of our school system is ensuring that all students are challenged and engaged. I like it. I believe that all humans deserve such conditions in whatever work they choose; nothing is drudgery when we value the task.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Fried Green Tomatoes

It's the end of the season for our garden, although the nightshades and okra did not receive the memo. We went to dig our sweet potatoes and do some cleaning up today, and in addition to the potatoes, we came home with several pounds of eggplant, a few ripe tomatoes, a quart of okra, and a whole bunch of green tomatoes. Who could fail to appreciate such unexpected bounty?

Saturday, October 8, 2011


I have never claimed to be perfect... well, at least not since I turned thirty. What I do claim is that I do my best in the majority (can I just say the vast majority? I'll feel better) of situations, but since I am an adult living in the world today, that can be challenging. Fortunately for me, I have back up.

Today I had breakfast with one of my favorite friends. She's going through a bit of a rough spell common to people of our age-- she's not very satisfied at her job, her father-in-law recently died, and they lost their dog not too long ago. In addition to all of that, one of her two sisters is suing the others for mismanaging their parents' finances. The three siblings are embroiled in a nasty court case at the same time they are trying to provide the best care for their 85-year-old mother.

Tonight I spoke to both my brother and sister. We lost our dad almost 25 years ago, but we are lucky that our mom has been a big part of our lives. Our family is spread from Washington, DC, Charlottesville, Minneapolis, and Atlanta. It's a long way (too long if you ask me), but we make it work because we work together and we wouldn't have it any other way.

By ourselves, we are definitely not perfect, but together? It's so much closer.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Lost and Found

I keep a classroom library of roughly a thousand volumes and every year it operates at a loss of books and money out of my own pocket. Over the years, I've tried various borrowing procedures, but the truth is, I want books in the hands of my students, especially the more reluctant readers, and I don't really have a lot of class time to devote to administering a tight lending system, and so I don't. I implore students not to take my books without signing them out, but somehow many, many go missing, and nobody knows where they could possibly be.

Or do they? Every now and then, a book will mysteriously turn up in my school mailbox, and I am always grateful. On the second day of school this year, a student returned a book that her brother, now a senior in high school, borrowed six years ago. I thanked her, profusely.

And so it goes. As a result, in addition to buying the latest popular books, I also try to resupply my collection on the cheap, and that's what I was doing today at our school's annual book swap, when several of the titles started to look kind of familiar. "Some of these are probably mine!" I said, only half joking, to my friend Ellen. Less than a minute later she laughed out loud and handed me a book. Sure enough-- on the inside front cover was my name.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Surprised By Loss

How sorry was I when I heard about Steve Jobs death last night? Completely, unexpectedly sad-- and all the media coverage today of his life and legacy, along with his relatively young age, and the fact that I am unashamedly a "mac person" (I bought my first Apple computer the minute I could almost afford it), just made me feel worse.

It was kind of nice to know of someone in the world we could count on for perfectionism in both design and function.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Which Child Left Behind?

We had dinner tonight with a teacher friend from another middle school, and the subject of high-stakes testing inevitably came up. Despite the affluence of our district, none of the five middle schools made AYP last year. When you drill down the data, particularly for the subgroups, you can come to some startling conclusions. For example, our friend's principal told their staff that if one more African American boy had passed the math test, they would have made it. Of course, there were other kids who failed, but the way the results are disaggregated and the data is delivered, their success becomes less important to the school, which is the exact opposite of the intention of the law.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

As Clear as Mud

In case you haven't heard enough about the new technology upgrades and other changes in our school system this year, indulge me a little more. The report cards that we send home have never been very informative beyond the obvious letter grade and limited teacher comments: O for Outstanding, S for Satisfactory, and N for Needs Improvement, in six areas-- Responsibility, Participation, Following Directions, Initiative and Effort, Work and Study Skills, and Homework.

This year, we have revised our grading scale to differentiate between a B and a B+, a C and a C+, and a D and a D+. There are neither minuses nor an A+, because one is negative and the other is unnecessary-- according to our top students, an A is an A is an A.

In addition, the old O, S, N scale has been replaced by the ostensibly more flexible Exceeds, Meets, Approaches Expectations or Needs Improvement. But those are not noted on the report card by letters. Rather there are symbols beside the letter grade and beneath the already somewhat inscrutable column headings of RS, PT, FD, IE, WS, and HW. So a student's report card may appear like so:

                               RS   PT   FD  IE  WS HW

English               A     #    X    #   X    #    #
Science              C+     ^    ^    #     #   #   N
Math                  B     #    #   #    #    ^   X
Reading             B+    #    #    #   #   #    #
Am History        C    ^    ^    ^   #   #    N
Band                 A    X   X   X   X   X   X
PE                     B    #   #   #    #    #    #

Today in order to prepare my sixth graders for their student-led conferences, I gave them printouts of their current grades, the first they've ever received in middle school. "What is this!???" one child exclaimed in extreme confusion, but in an instant his face calmed as he answered his own question. "Oh! It must be some kind of teacher-language."

Monday, October 3, 2011

By the Numbers

Glancing at the time a little while ago, I was reminded of the many cool new things in the world when I was a kid in the early 70's, and how two of them intersected for us, children of an airline family: the ultra-modern wide-body Boeing planes and the amazing digital clock. Back then, the clocks didn't even have any kind of crystal display, they were literally just tiny mechanical shingles that dropped every minute, ten minutes, and hour, but it sure was exciting when that display read 7:47.

Sunday, October 2, 2011


Early this morning when I took the dog out, the first things I noticed were the fresh cool breeze, the sunshine, and the bright blue sky, a perfect autumn day. As we walked a little, though, an invisible spray misted my face, and looking up, the tiniest of raindrops filled my view, although there was literally not a cloud in sight. Then when I turned the corner, a full arc rainbow spread across the sky in front of me, and after that, nothing could have spoiled my day.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Win Some, Lose Some

Once upon a time I used to be pretty handy around the house, but it's been so much easier over the last few years to hire a pro who will shop, repair/install/paint/whatever, and then clean up, that I've gotten out of the habit.

Even so, on our list of errands for the weekend we had a stop at Home Depot. It was mostly because the fluorescent light in our bathroom was out, and as a result we've spent the week with a lamp and incandescent bulb rigged up above the mirror so we can see to brush our teeth at night and make ourselves presentable in the morning. Since we were going there anyway, I added a new doorbell ringer to the list, because the plastic button on ours was broken away. It still worked, but it looked awfully dangerous, not to mention tacky, and there has definitely been a lot more knocking at our door lately.

Arriving at home I jumped into action, eager to use the new stuff and beginning with the simplest task. And now here's where you can ask how many [fill in the blank: teachers, bloggers, blonds, some other word of your choice] does it take to change a light bulb, because the answer would have to be more than one today. Try as I might, I could not get that fixture to work.

Only slightly discouraged (and resolved to call the handyman to come fix that) I turned to my next project. It was touch and go, or should I say "touch and ring" for a bit, mostly because I didn't choose the right tools and the battery on my drill is dead from lack of use, and also because I kept accidentally completing the circuit on the doorbell as I worked, sending the dog into all sorts of barking paroxysms. Eventually I was successful, and now not only is the button not broken, but it, unlike the bathroom upstairs, is illuminated.