Wednesday, November 30, 2011

No Favorites

I teach five sections of the same course every day. The grouping is heterogeneous, so I go with the same lesson five times a day. My main strategy for differentiating is the choice that students have in terms of reading material and product, and the flexible grouping I use within each class. Still, as the day unfolds, each section develops their own personality-- generally first period is quiet and a little sleepy, second period has the benefits of both being awake and me having taught the lesson once already, third period is settled at first, but then anxious to go to lunch, fifth period has just been to lunch and takes a while to settle down, and sixth period is the end of a long day for all of us.

Maybe it's just coincidence, but over the years, third period has often been my favorite and sixth period has been my most challenging, but of course the trick is to let every group believe they are the best.

Which they are... sometimes.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Are We Human or Are We Dancer?

Pay my respects to grace and virtue.
Send my condolences to good.
Give my regards to soul and romance;
they always did the best they could.
And so long to devotion--
you taught me everything I know.
Wave goodbye,
wish me well,
you've gotta let me go.

Are we human
or are we dancer?

~The Killers

Some days, I just want to be dancer.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Easy Button

Last week we had a conference with a student and his parents and discovered that this particular eleven-year-old does not have an easy time accepting responsibility for his missteps either at home or at school. We talked at length about how it is okay to make mistakes and that most people actually learn from their errors if they can admit them. He nodded along with us, and hope springs eternal.

Today, he did not follow the directions I gave at the beginning of class and was unprepared when I came around to check. "How did that happen?" I asked.

What he was prepared with was a litany of excuses. "I was late," he started. "I missed that part."

"No you didn't," said the helpful student next to him.

"Oh," he said, "Well, I was sharpening my pencil."

"No you weren't," said the other kid. "You don't even have a pencil."

"I was writing down my homework?"


At last I intervened. "We do the same thing every Monday," I started.

He looked directly at me; the eye contact was stunning. He sighed.

"My bad," he said.

"That's okay," I told him. "You'll do better next week."

Sunday, November 27, 2011

No Place Like Home for the Holidays

I'm FaceBook friends with a former student of mine who is now in college. In general I can't keep up with the number of links and photos she shares, but I did get a laugh from one of her status posts today and the subsequent comments from her other collegiate friends:

two hours before my flight back to school, my younger brother and I get into an argument over community building. we aren't talking currently. I don't know if we will be by 2:30pm. I guess there's always the next holiday break.
* * * * * *
My brother and I got into an argument about Penn State and the male complex. Then we argued about rape and how he thinks women more often than not put themselves in a position to be raped. We're also not talking; see my status "it amazes me how unintelligent people are"
* * * * * *
i got in a heated argument with my sister and mom when i tried to explain how miss piggy and amy adams in the new muppets movie were weak female characters because their stories revolved entirely around the leading male characters, they totally didn't get it
* * * * * *
I got into an argument with some friends online about whether using a negative cultural stereotype about a minority group for a joke on a billboard is acceptable; didn't make any headway either.
* * * * * *
I'm not allowed to talk politics in my family. To them "liberal arts" = talking about feelings instead of talking about things that matter in society.
* * * * * *
my brother and I got into an argument about the Occupy protests. he currently thinks I'm a communist hippie and won't do anything good with my life.
* * * * * *
My grandpa made a joking comment about transsexual housing as I sat there awkwardly. I still don't think that whole side of my family knows I'm liberal. :P
* * * * * *
my brother made the statement "i think child abuse is over talked about" while we were at a mexican restaurant. yelling ensued over mole.
* * * * * *
This weekend my grandpa started talking about what is really wrong with society. i got up from the table and went to play with the cat.

I hope those kids learn to agree to disagree, because I know from experience that such lively debates don't just go away, even in the most like-minded of families. My brother and I also kicked off the holiday with a friendly disagreement, and ours was actually about the value of a college education-- is it an over-priced credential or accurate indicator of employable worth?

If you know that I am an educator, you might be surprised about which side I took in our discussion, but for the record, after reading these comments, I may just have to change my position.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Just a Minute

Punctuality and I have a long and complex relationship. Kind of like Ticino, the Italian-speaking canton of Switzerland, temperamentally I'd like to shrug at fussy promptness, but it's impossible to ignore that pervasive social cuckoo clock of timeliness.

I don't have the type of job where flex time is an option-- the teacher pretty much has to be there when school starts-- but it's always a little embarrassing to slip into a meeting after they've started, and I try to avoid being late, even by a minute or two, because that means that all I needed was a minute or two somewhere else in my day, and somehow that seems even lamer. Thirty seconds less on the snooze button, a minute off in the shower, and a slightly quicker pace on the dog walk and I would have been right on time.

The same rule unfortunately applies to many other things-- five minutes earlier to the theater tonight and we would have enjoyed Descendants from somewhere other than the front row.

Friday, November 25, 2011


A picture is worth a thousand words. A thousand pennies is ten bucks. A thousand seconds is a little less than fifteen minutes, and a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Today marks a thousand days of Walking the Dog. When I mentioned the milestone to my sixteen year old nephew, he couldn't decide if that was a long time or not, but I'm pretty sure that it's time to stop counting and just keep writing already.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Around the Block

We all have indelible memories, moments from our life that are completely unforgettable although many times you would be hard pressed to say why. Among mine are eating McDonald's french fries in the dark back seat of our car when I was four, the fist-shaped holes in the walls of the dilapidated Victorian house my parents visited when they were in the market for a fixer-upper, and a walk I took with my Uncle Tom one evening after Thanksgiving dinner. There must have been fifteen or more of us at the table, but when he asked who wanted to take a walk, it was only he and I who headed out into the frosty November night.

The moon was full as I jogged down the sidewalk trying to keep pace with his impossibly long legs, and I could see my breath as I huffed along. We did not talk; I doubt that the two of us ever had a complete conversation as long as he lived, and at the age of only seven, I felt a little awkward running through Pine Springs in pursuit of this legendary man-- WW II pilot, Kennedy administration justice department lawyer, and husband to our beloved Aunt Sis, and even if the light from the windows had been less golden, or the sound of the voices upstairs in the living room less warm, I still would have been happy to get back to the house.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Model Shopper

I like to think I'm a pretty good shopper, so was it just my imagination today as I was bombing my way through the grocery on a last minute holiday run that as I stepped decisively up to a display to choose my item, some of my fellow shoppers selected the same thing for their own carts? At first, I wondered if I was being a little too pushy elbowing past their indecision, but then I overheard this conversation:

Boy: Do we need bacon Dad?
Man: Yeah.
Boy: What kind?
Man: Hmmm. We'll just get whatever that lady gets.

Always happy to help!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

'Tis the Season

The first report cards of the year went home last Thursday, and traditionally that means several parent-teacher-student conferences will be scheduled for the next couple of weeks-- not a very jolly time.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Let's Do Lunch

I have been working with a certain student every day at lunch for the past couple of weeks. We get some homework and organization done, but every day, he also feels the need to comment on whatever I happen to have to eat. The first day it was soup.

Him: What is that?
Me: Soup.
Him: Ew. It looks weird.
Me: And that puddle of tomato sauce soaking into your cardboard tray looks so delicious that I can't believe you have any of those dry bread sticks you're supposed to dip in there left. Do your math.

And so it has gone, until today.

Him: What do you have for lunch?
Me: Spaghetti.
Him: Lucky! That is so not fair!
Me: Do your math.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


There's only one place in the world that I have been going back to my whole life, and that is my Aunt Harriett's house. Today, as we drove the winding back roads that are the last legs of the forty-mile journey there from our home, I was taken by how much has changed and how much has not, both since I've been there and since I can remember.

As in most places of our ever-sprawling urban region, there has been a lot of development, and yet her area is still rural enough to maintain some farms with horses and even a few cows, along with recently mown cornfields, their golden stubble being gleaned by hundreds of crows. And there are still one-lane bridges on several of the narrow roads that lead to that ranch house on two acres just up from the lake.

It used to be that you would drive out of town and down the highway until you turned off and proceeded through the anonymous countryside until you got to her house, and so it was like its own place, separate from everywhere else. Because I know the way, I have never even thought to find that spot on a map. In fact, there's part of me that doesn't believe it would even be there if I looked.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Is That All It Takes? Part 2

80's Robot: May I suggest we save time and pick up the rest of the Muppets using a montage?

And, despite my prior reservations, I'm totally sold on the new Muppet Movie.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Is That All It Takes?

This morning I was circulating through the computer lab checking answering questions, resolving technical issues, and monitoring the general progress of my class. "Are you going to see Breaking Dawn?" I asked a student who has been carting around fat paperback copies of the Twilight series since September.

"Yeah! At 7:20 tonight!" she answered. "I can't wait!"

I smiled, and then she continued. "Are you going to see it?"

"Oh yeah," I told her, "this weekend for sure."

"You're cool," she said and turned back to her assignment.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Practice What You Preach

We had a short presentation on differentiation at our staff meeting yesterday where the main idea was that everyone learns differently and as responsible educators, we should make adjustments in presentation, product, or content, to enable all students to learn.

And yet... the presentation? Was a twenty minute lecture. The activity? Was a mandated group interaction with a single product required at the end.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Where's that Grain of Salt?

My students recently completed a first quarter review of both themselves and our English class. I confess that it's been a bit of a bumpy start-- my classes are larger, the kids seem to be struggling with the routine part of the course, and it's hard not to compare them with the kids from last year.

I work to identify my part in this less than satisfactory transition, and I know that I've become accustomed to smaller groups and the subsequent increase in personal attention that each student gets as a result. I also know that I'm measuring this group against the halcyon glow of kids I had a whole year with-- Realistically, when I think back to this time last year, there were lots of similar challenges then, too.

Still, as I read through the reviews, I was struck by one particular comment: You should watch the movie "School of Life" and do what that teacher does.

Yeah. That teacher dies at the end.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Dueling Aphorisms

As part of the lesson today, I mentioned the following Martin Luther King, Jr quotation:

 Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. 

One of my students raised his hand. "But you can fight fire with fire," he said. "So where does that leave you?"

Monday, November 14, 2011


I get my news from the liberal press, and I like it that way, although I do seek balance. Anyway, today I heard something that ought to give the Obama campaign pause. It was a piece on the ineffectiveness of the so-called "Super Committee" to find a compromise deficit reduction package to send to congress. With only nine days left, the hypothesis was that perhaps they would just go ahead and allow the automatic cuts, especially given that any reductions won't go into effect until January 2013, and, we'll have a new congress by then, and (here's where my eye brows popped up) possibly a new president, too.

True, it was Marketplace, which I do find a little too, hmm, what shall I call it? liberal pragmatic? pragmatic liberal? conservative? whatever, for my taste, but it's pretty mainstream NPR fare, and if they're putting that out there, then somebody better be worried.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sunday Sundry

feed the pets
read the paper
do a puzzle
make a list
talk to Mom
pack a pack
take a detour
finally try that sous vide turkey burger
(yeah, not really worth the wait)
take a hike
post some pictures
blanch those greens
make applesauce
roast cauliflower
open wine
cook dinner

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Crit

We saw J. Edgar this evening and I have to say that no matter how good the acting and directing may be, if I don't like the main character, it's hard for me to like the movie. Call me unsophisticated, but I am not the type of consumer of art who can be engaged by my own negative reaction either to people or circumstances.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Tiny Bubbles

Twenty years ago I made my New Years resolution to drink more champagne. It seemed like a great idea, especially given the amount of the stuff I was enjoying that night as I rang out the old and welcomed the new, and all the people with me thought so, too. After that, someone showed up at almost every gathering with a bottle of bubbly, and we spent the next year popping corks at every opportunity.

In the time since then, Champagne has receded to its place as a special occasion drink, but tonight we had a dinner party and a sparkling wine seemed like not only a good pairing for the menu, but also like a good way to kick off the coming season.


Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Sharpest Pencil in the Pouch

Kids and their and pencils always present a complicated relationship. They are either without them, leaving them behind, breaking them, over-sharpening them, lending them, and/or accusing others of stealing them. And what child isn't happy to have a set of cool, new pencils? In fact, one of my students was just that lucky today. He was logging some considerable time at the pencil sharpener when I asked him what was going on. "Oh! I'm sharpening my new pencils!" he said, brandishing a handful.

"How many do you need?" I asked. "Why not sharpen the rest of them later on, after the test?"

"Look," he said as he walked past. "This pencil smells like chocolate. He held it to his nose and inhaled. "Aaaaah," he sighed. "Delicious!" Then he offered it to me.

I took a delicate sniff. "I don't smell it," I said.

"That's because you're old!" he told me. The smell is the first thing to go.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


We are giving standardized achievement tests to the sixth graders this week, which may seem like an easy gig to outsiders, but I'm here to tell you it really isn't. I remember the first time I got to read those directions in that voice-- I could feel the authority coursing through my veins. Over the years, the headiness has worn off, and now I struggle not to yawn or read them too quickly.

Of course, as a testing coordinator pointed out to me long ago, proctor is a verb, and it involves more than sitting at your desk reading the paper. She was right; just today alone I caught three kids bubbling in the wrong area of their answer document-- fortunately it was early in the tests, because otherwise such a mishap is always a mess to remedy after the fact.

The tests we give these days are untimed, although the directions would have you believe otherwise; they always have some language about stopping and dropping your pencil. Usually though the problem is how the kids rush through the tests, and then are bored with the inevitable silent reading or drawing that must fill the time until they can go.

This year, I have a student who is very conscientious about exams of all sorts. At conferences, his mom mentioned to me that he is a slow and methodical test taker, and, having very few tests in my class, I dutifully passed the info along to his other teachers. It all came back to me this morning when every other child was finished with the first subtest, and he was still plugging away. I have to admire such dedication to a task, and I worked very hard to make sure that he did not feel pressured to rush simply because his peers were sighing and rolling their eyes.

He seemed to manage it beautifully, though, finishing in his own time just a few minutes before lunch. And yet, as I collected the test documents, he told me he was agonizing over one question, and then he slapped his forehead in the realization that he had chosen the wrong answer. "Can I change it?" he asked. The directions clearly state that students cannot go back in the test booklet, but they say nothing about erasing your work on the answer sheet, plus they have as much time as they need-- the only reason the test was over was because he said he was through, so I shrugged and removed my hand from his paper. Still, he felt guilty about it, and left it as it was.

Later in the day, at the end of the session, he waited until everyone else left. "I changed that answer,"
he told me. "I didn't look it up, or ask anyone else, but I knew it was wrong, so I changed it."

I believed him, and if he hadn't have told me, I wouldn't have known.

"Okay," I said, and put his sheet on top of the rest.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Oh Deer

We live in a nice little condo complex. Tucked into the woods and built into a grassy hillside in a very populated area, we chose the location 12 years ago partially for its illusion of privacy and partially for its illusion of nature. Directly across the parking lot from us there is a wooded area of no more than half an acre. It buffers our association's property from a county utility lot and an elementary school. The hill itself seems to be reclaimed-- every now and then tires and bottles poke up through the grass on the steep slope that leads up to the historic neighborhood above us.

Even so, we enjoy the wild raspberries that border the woods and seeing the occasional fox is always a thrill, not to mention the more common raccoons and possums. None of that prepared me for what I saw this morning when I took the dog out. Two young deer were standing on the hill near the edge of the trees. They seemed undecided about where to go, but seeing us at the foot of the hill, they headed up. Mentally, I pictured the parking lot and soccer field they would encounter at the top, as well as the busy streets I knew were up there, too, and I worried for them. In a moment, though, they were back, and with a nervous glance at me and Isabel, they re-entered the tiny patch of woods and disappeared.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Long Distance

Hershey, PA, is just far enough away to make it inconvenient to see as much of Josh as we would like to, and so having his company over the last weekend was really great. For me, the end of any such a visit with people I love is always a reminder of how much more time I wish we could spend together, and this was no exception.

We left Josh with his mom and little brother and sister in a shoe store yesterday. Our meeting place is a shopping center just north of Baltimore, about halfway between Hershey and here. Josh has a sports banquet this Thursday, and a new pair of dress shoes was in order. It seemed strange to see him slipping all the man-sized shoes on and off; it wasn't that long ago that he was wearing light up sneakers like the ones his four-year-old brother was running all over the store chasing his sister in. Their mom was a little distracted talking to us, helping Josh, keeping the other two in line, and we felt like we were just contributing to the chaos, so since it was getting dark and we still had an hour or more to go, we said our good-byes.

Later that evening, my FaceTime buzzed and I was surprised to see that it was Josh trying out the new iPod touch we gave him for his birthday. "Did you forget something?" I asked him when we connected.

"No. I just wanted to show you my new shoes," he answered, and for a few minutes, the distance didn't seem so far.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Unfortunate Tides

My brother and I went out for a little beach combing this morning before it was time to pack up and head home. We were searching for some of the fossilized shark teeth that the area is famous for. If you can find four, you can find a hundred! I had read on a local how-to website the day before, and so we were trying to train our eyes to pick out the real thing from the millions of shards of shells on the shore.

Down the beach, I saw a local lady chatting up my brother, and it wasn't long before her little dog ran off in my direction, with her in hot pursuit. She paused at the fallen tree I had recently scrambled over. "I'm just looking for poison ivy," she said. "It's all over around here. My daughter had to go on steroids this summer because of it!" Shark teeth are one thing, but I know my poison ivy, and I waited without alarm as she inspected the tree.

When her dog wouldn't come, she shrugged and climbed over it herself. "Is that your husband?" she asked, gesturing toward the bent figure of my brother sifting through a mound of fragments at the water line. No sooner had I corrected her than she continued, "He's picking up mostly shells down there. I told him the tides weren't very good this weekend." I nodded and started back to where he was.

"Hey!" she called from behind me a moment later. "You missed a tooth!" I turned back and she deposited a tiny, but perfect shark tooth in my palm. "Give it to your brother so he knows what to look for," she told me. "I've got buckets of 'em. Buckets!" And with that, she followed her dog down the beach.

Saturday, November 5, 2011


The waxing gibbous moon casting its long lane of light across the choppy bay tonight fits right in with one of our family's favorite pass times. Despite the overwhelming number of introverts among us, whenever we get together, we can't help but hold forth on any matter of topics. Just today, for example, we soapboxed and debated the death of a TV curmudgeon, the Greek Debt crisis, who is and isn't worthy on an art reality series, and whether or not a bizarro universe allows for free will, among other things.

Sure, We're quiet when we eat, and that bald eagle that flew right over the house, circled around, and came back so that we all could see, kind of shut us up, too, but not for long.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Beginner's Luck

We have our sixteen-year-old godson, Josh, this weekend, and Heidi has already taken him out on the road to do a little practice driving. I don't know why, but I felt a little bit nervous as they headed out to the store.

My own driving education was somewhat atypical. When I was a teenager, we lived in Saudi Arabia, a kingdom where women are not permitted to drive. The time we spent in the states in the summers was never enough for me to get a permit, much less actually log any road hours. I went to college not knowing how to drive, and it was one of my roommates sophomore year who took it upon himself to get me the manual, take me for my test, and teach me to drive.

I clearly remember one weekend when he and I and our other roommate, Brian, went camping in the Adirondacks. On the way back to school, Rob let me drive. By this time, I was getting more confident, even to the point of passing slower cars on two lane roads. With a string of five or six cars ahead of me, I intrepidly crossed the broken yellow line and hit the accelerator. We passed the first car, then the second and third. The fourth was a going a little faster than I expected, but there wasn't quite enough room for me to slip in behind him, so ignoring any looks of concern from my passengers, I bit my lower lip and floored it. Unfortunately, another car was coming directly toward us in the right lane. With no place to go left and a strong feeling that I should at least stay on the road, I slowed down a little, but held my course. The oncoming car's horn was screaming as it swerved to the shoulder to avoid a head-on collision, just as I was able to maneuver back into my own lane.

Rob was pale faced and silent as I drove on calmly, but Brian was laughing in the back seat. "I always wondered what would happen if someone did that!" he said.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Seeing is Believing

Our school system recently purchased a GoogleDocs license, quite honestly, it has a lot of pros and cons. To be fair, we purchased it as one of many options to give students and staff as we try to create, save, and share documents and other electronic products, so nobody is forced to use it. My students and I have been experimenting with it as we work on finishing drafts of their free-verse poems, and although I don't love it, I did have a fun experience with it today.

One guy has had a very difficult time transitioning from prose to poetry and understanding the difference, even. Not surprisingly, then, line breaks are very challenging for him, and today I noticed him sitting in front of a screen with a huge block of prose on it. He had done some wonderful writing about a night-time road trip in El Salvador. Reading his piece with him, I explained again about the concept of breaking the lines, but he really wasn't getting it, so I went over to my work station and pulled up the document, which he had already shared with me, and began to add the breaks. Like magic, he saw his prose start to transform into something resembling a poem.

"How did you do that?!" he asked.

"GoogleDocs," I explained.

"But how did you know where to put the breaks?" he continued.

"I'm so glad you asked," I told him, and it wasn't too long before he was working on his own.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

What a Waste

My English classes are in the computer lab today and tomorrow. The students are typing their final drafts of the free verse poems they have composed over the last several weeks. Any teacher will tell you, at length if you let us, how much easier the revision and editing process is when the students have computers. Just today I had to reassure quite a few kids that they didn't have to completely re-type their work to make the changes I was suggesting, and their transition from anxiety to relief was visible. As a consequence, this was one of the most productive days of the year so far. I wish we could use computers all the time.

Ours is one of the most affluent school systems in the state, and our school has three computer labs and two lap top carts for a total of a little over 100 units for 650 kids. Reserving screen time for our students can be competitive and frustrating to a teacher, because we all understand how technology can assist our students in achieving their educational objectives. It's tight, but with cooperation, kids get a fair amount of lab time.

Recently we were informed that our school system has decided that starting next year, all students K-8 will complete an online quarterly benchmark assessment in language arts, math, and science. In my mind, that is four class periods that students will not be learning, not to mention all the lab time that will be taken by adding even more testing to the year. I can't imagine what kind of data we will collect that could possibly justify this use of time and resources.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Sleight of Hand

Years ago, our school system took the progressive step of having teachers design their own professional development plans as the major component of our evaluation. The object was to encourage and empower teachers as researchers and collaborators who, in consultation with an administrator, used their observation, data, and reflection to improve their practice. In my opinion, the concept was never fully realized, mostly due to time constraints on teachers and administrators alike, but the PDP, like so many things in education, was something that the more you put into it, the more you got out of it.

Flash forward to these times of connecting teacher evaluation (and in many places, teacher pay) to "performance." Much has been written about the difficulty of finding an objective, much less fair, measure of teacher performance. Everyone agrees that student achievement should be the primary consideration, however the variables impacting a given student's achievement as well as the absence of an effective tool to measure it, can make any discussion of such rather contentious.

In addition to a rather cherished reputation for progressive best practices, our school system also has a less celebrated habit of going through the back door to implement key policies and procedures. Call me cynical, but I have sat through a lot of meetings of several committees where, by the end of the process, it seems as if the conclusion was foregone from the beginning and the group merely convened to put that stamp of collaboration on a top-down decision.

Re-enter the PDP. This year we are all being strongly encouraged, if not required, by our administrators to tie the results of our classroom-based research to "student achievement" in the form of high stakes, standardized test scores.

Yes. Our system is so progressive, they are forcing us to use the flawed measures available to evaluate ourselves.