Saturday, December 31, 2011

Ringing Out the...


I just had a close encounter with Rocky Ring-tail in the trash enclosure of our complex. He was fearless, clambering along the closed cans to get to the one that was too full to shut tightly. When I tossed a cardboard box his way, he simply dodged it and kept on coming. "Really?" I said, looking him right in the mask. "Really?" I repeated when he ignored me and tore into the top bag.

He wished me no harm; I could tell. We parted with no ill will between us-- he, gorging on garbage, and I, relieved I hadn't run into a rat.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Concussion Suits May Be Test for Football

I saw this headline on the NYTimes website this morning and wondered just what these suits might look like and how they could possibly protect players from those prevalent football injuries. I studied the accompanying photo for clues, but they looked like the same old uniforms to me. It wasn't until I read the thumbnail that I realized they were referring to law suits.


Thursday, December 29, 2011

Slow News Week

We listened to a lot of news radio on the road trip home from Buffalo today. (Attention! New record: 7 hours flat!). It was mostly NPR, but there were some extremely right wing call-ins scattered here and there. Even though they call it "news", there really wasn't a whole lot new, so I tried to amuse myself by processing the information in novel ways.

Along the way, I decided that Romney should choose Santorum as a running mate, (Okay, we were driving through Pennsylvania, but you have to admit it's a shrewd pairing), and also that people with British accents shouldn't question President Obama's citizenship, especially in first person plural as in, "He's not qualified to be our president... We should arrest him for treason." It just doesn't sound convincing.

As the trip wore on, though, I started noticing more and more misspoken idioms. For example, some people feel that the voters in Iowa often skewer the national primary results, and that the diplomats trying to repair the U.S.'s relationship with Pakistan have a tough road to hoe.

Agreed, especially if it's paid with good intentions.

I'm so glad to be home!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The "Duh" Was Implied

Since Tangled was released in 2010, there's been a lot of publicity about how Rapunzel rounds out the Disney princesses to an even ten. In fact you can watch a little countdown of them in order of popularity on YouTube, should you be so inclined. This particular clip also includes some interesting facts and history about the ten. For example, who knew that Sleeping Beauty nearly killed the franchise at three? In fact it was 30 years before Ariel, the Little Mermaid, revived the princess business and put it on the road to the phenomenal success it enjoys today. Jasmine was the first non-caucasian princess, Pocohantas the sole princess based on a real person, and so also the only one without a happy ending, and Tiana the lone princess to hold down a job. Of course Cinderella is the most popular.

This morning, my four-year-old niece and I watched the countdown together, and to be honest, I was enjoying the whole girl power groove of the thing. "That was pretty good," I said to her when it was over. "Do you think you would want to be the eleventh princess someday?"

She looked at me a little dismissively, as if I was missing something, and then shook her head. "I already am a princess," she said.

Oh right. Silly me.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Over the Weight Limit

It's already been a week that I've been off from school, and I must say that I've been more than able to let it all go this time-- there's nothing happening that can't wait until the first Tuesday of 2012. Oh, January 3 will be a rocking day-- I predict that we will hit the ground running and continue non-stop, until, March? Unless there is a blizzard, Spring Break will be the next break; until then we will rocket along with planning and grading, on to the end of the quarter, then science fair, early release, professional development, spring conferences, standardized tests, field trips, meetings, conferences, referrals, tolerance clubs, writing clubs, homework clubs, literary magazine, and on and on.

It seems counter-intuitive that the busier we are, the easier it seems to leave our professional baggage behind at school on breaks like this, but the truth is that some things are just too heavy to bring along.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Maybe Tomorrow?

I think it's important as a teacher of writing to engage as a writer every day myself... At least that's what I said tonight at dinner when someone I'd just met asked me how and why I started blogging.

Yeah... and some days I'm more engaged than others.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Confounded No More

I am a casual blogger, but like any writer, when I send my message out into the universe, it's with hope that someone will read what I have to say. Fortunately, in this day and age, along with this new electronic medium comes some nifty e-gadgets, too, that let a blogger track how many hits and where they are coming from to get an interesting overall picture of readership.

Most days, my readers are my mom, my brother, my sister, and my friend Mary (thanks guys!). I have a few other more sporadic, but still regular readers (thanks guys!), too, but 20 hits is a busy day for me. You can imagine then, what an early Christmas gift it was for me to see over a hundred visitors to my blog, yesterday. Curiously, although they were from all over the world, they seemed to be clustered by time zone.

I clicked around my stats page a little more and discovered that most of my readers had come in search of a single term, and it was all clear to me what was happening. Last year at this time I posted about Christmas Crackers and a particularly unfathomable joke we got, What do ghosts wear in the rain? The punchline was "Khagouls", which it turned out was a pun on the equally unfamiliar word "kagools", which is a sort of English anorak.(Thanks again, Mary!)

Yesterday, all over the world, from one Christmas Eve dinner to another and another, as crackers were snapped, and crowns were donned, along with the merriment, confusion spread from table to table. What does this joke mean? they asked. And their solution? Google of course! And what did they find? Walking the Dog!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Coats of Christmas Past

We've had a fairly mild winter so far, and it was even unseasonably temperate in Buffalo, NY, when we packed the car for our trip up here. You can't count on a warm snap like that to last in December, though, so I found my winter coat in the closet and tossed it on top of the suitcases and presents in the back of our station wagon.

Yesterday, when the temps were only in the low 20s at noon, I was glad I had. I slipped it on like an old friend as I bundled up to run a few errands. The blue of it was still as bright and cheery as ever, the black fleece inside just as warm and cozy. I reached into the pockets and found my mittens and lip balm just where I'd left them the last time I wore my coat, last winter. I also found a grocery list and movie ticket stubs dated January 30.

It was like a mini time capsule. When you're a child, coats need to be replaced every year, so fast do you grow and grow up, but as I looked at my grocery list and thought of the me who made it, it seemed amazing not how much has changed in nearly a year, but rather how little.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Comforts of Home

We are away from home for over a week this holiday season, and as fun and exciting as it is to spend time with those we love most, it's always a challenge for me to pack. If we are driving, it's a little easier, because more of the things I think I might need or want can fit, but I've found that no matter how much you bring, there's always something you wish you had.

When they were little, my older nephews used to spend a lot of time at our house. Even though they lived close by, there were many fun weekends and overnights. I like to think it was almost a second home to them, and I know they were very comfortable there. Even so, there were times when they missed little things, too. Oh, not their toothbrushes, which rarely made it, or even clean underwear, which was never a big priority, either. I clearly remember a time, though, when Treat was only about four and still pretty recently potty-trained. He was very good about making it to the bathroom, but once there, our toilet seat was just too big and too hard. "Ohhhh," he lamented, "I wish Mommy packed my cushy tushy."

I know just how he felt. "Ohhhh," I lamented this morning, "I wish I packed my other sneakers."

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Short Day's Journey into the Night

We were driving north through the rain yesterday, the shortest day of the year. By 4:30 we were gathered in a thick gloom, and 5:30 was like midnight as we drove along a secondary road on our route. The darkness, fog, and spray from every oncoming car made the trip feel treacherous, but the Christmas lights on almost every house and in every little town we passed shined through the misty blackness, casting a merry glow and guiding us on our way.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Holiday Rush

I admit it: sometimes I get caught up in the hectic pace of things. Just the other day, as I was race-walking from one end of the building to the other with less than ten minutes to pee, eat lunch, and get back to the computer lab, a friend and colleague saw me from way up the hall. She waved and gestured that she needed to talk to me. I kept on coming at full speed. She turned and disappeared in the direction of her office. I made the decision to keep on walking and touch base with her later (I really needed to pee), but as I passed, I saw her coming out of her office.

"Wait!" she called.

I slowed briefly and wave impatiently. "C'mon!" I said. "Let's walk and talk, walk and talk. I've got a lot to do in a little time."

She quickened her pace and met me at the doorway holding up a bright little gift bag. I came to a full stop, sheepish and speechless.

Another of our co-workers had witnessed the whole thing. She pointed her finger at me. "What do you have to say now?" she asked, eyebrows quite high.

"Thank you," I said, "and I'm really sorry. Really"

My friend looked at the other woman and laughed. "Oh! She talks to me like this all the time!" Then she turned to me. You're welcome! Now go to the bathroom!"

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Hall Patrol

The design of our school has two wide hallways that run the entire length of the building. Such a span of interrupted space can be very tempting to the energetic middle schooler, and many a student must be reminded to slow down and walk on those stretches.

I sympathize-- a long time ago when I was one of only two summer school teachers working in the building, on the days when I rode my bike to school, there were times when I just kept on riding once I was inside. It was exhilarating to pedal past the library, the soft illicit whir of my tires on the carpet the only sound in the empty building.

These days I'm often on the enforcement side of hall traffic, with decidedly mixed results. For example, just the other day a student ran past me at full speed. "Whoa!" I hollered as I raised my hands to flag him down. He skidded to a halt, spun around, and pointed his finger at himself questioningly. I nodded. He sprinted back to see what I wanted.

Then today, a student of mine stayed after class and into our lunch period to finish up on an assignment in the computer lab. With barely 10 minutes left in the period, I encouraged him to go eat. He packed his things and hurried out of the lab. He had a minute or so head start on me when I turned the corner on that long corridor. He's kind of a big guy, more than a little heavy set, and as I watched him up ahead of me I could tell he thought was running, but there was just no need to stop him, because he was well within the speed limit.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Pen Envy

We had our annual book fair at school last week, and as usual, the excitement among the students was very high. I remember myself from elementary days when the book mobile would come; I wanted every book and cool little trinket they had to offer. Kids today are no different, although it's always a little disappointing that so many seem to be much more interested in the junky stuff and posters than in the actual books.

Our PTA sponsors the book fair and although they profit from it, they are also very generous. Teachers are given 5.00 discount coupons to give to students we think may not be able to afford a book otherwise. I did say "book", because the kids are not supposed to use their discount on any of the tschotskes, but rather toward the price of an actual book with words and stuff. Even so, there are always students who can get around such rules (how, I'll be darned if I know), and I happen to have one such clever lad right now. He took the coupon I gave him and returned with a huge pen, a pen with several colors of ink that is so large that it seems very laborious to write with. It's gotta be the diameter of a broomstick and at least ten inches long.

It is also a pen that with very little stretch of the imagination is rather distinctly anatomical in shape, and let me tell you folks, the eleven-year-old boys love this pen.  Several purchased them, and they seem to like waving them and showing them to others. They also like clicking them to change the ink color, although rarely do they actually do much writing with them. No, they just seem to like having them; in fact those who are stuck with their regular little writing utensils are forever grabbing their friend's pen and pretending it's theirs.

Is it a coincidence that not a single girl bought one of these pens? I think not.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Who Buys That?

I heard this week that an Alabama law designed to fight corruption by limiting all public employees from accepting anything of "significant value" from the public has put the holiday tradition of giving your teacher a present on hold. In fact, teachers could conceivably be arrested for taking gifts from their students' families.

In Alabama, they say that this was an unintended consequence of the law and plans are already underway to change it so that apples and gift cards will once again be on the big desk in every classroom. In Germany, gifts to teacher are strictly verboten-- they are considered bribes and therefore unethical.

Coincidentally, just this week, several friends have consulted me about how much is appropriate to give to teacher at this time of year. A couple of questions were connected to the Alabama situation, but others were not, and everyone wanted to know how to express their sincere gratitude without going overboard. Is a hundred dollars too much? someone actually asked.

It's ironic that they should be asking me. I work in a school where, compared to some of the more affluent schools just a few miles away in the very same district, teachers are somewhat "under gifted." I have friends who do get hundreds of dollars in cash and gift cards, and one who even received Springsteen tickets once. I sometimes get a card and a candy cane, or a mug and some cookies, and although the occasional coffee card finds its way to my desk, most families don't give me anything.

I'm fine with how things are. I know my students and their families appreciate me and I don't feel at all deprived, but I have to be honest and say that such a disparity along clearly socio-economic lines makes me wonder if perhaps the Germans have the right idea.

Saturday, December 17, 2011


I saw one of my students when I was out shopping this afternoon. That doesn't happen quite as often as it could, considering I live and work in the same small county. Even so, over the years I've had some memorable encounters. There was the girl who screamed and ran away to hide in Target, the mother who did not recognize me and chased me down in the grocery store after she saw me talking with her son in the produce section, and the family who quite insistently invited me out for lunch right then and there (I declined, several times).

Today, though, it was hard to tall if my student actually saw me, although at one point he nearly collided with me. I pulled up short and he jetted on his way without a word. Such behavior is not out of character for him, and if I had approached his mother, it definitely would have been to express my concerns about him. As it turned out, I didn't speak to them, even though we were in parallel lanes checking out at the same time. I was watching him as I waited, and had he acknowledged me, I would have gone over. His attention was intensely directed at several things for very short spans of time, and I wondered if he was avoiding me.

When we were done at the register, they were, too, and since they were closer to the door, we walked out behind them. Well, we walked, and so did his mom, but he literally danced his way out the door and across the parking lot.

"Yeah," Heidi said, "I think his mom has probably heard what you were going to say before. Maybe more than once."

Friday, December 16, 2011

Made Fresh Daily

I had two homeroom birthdays this week and when I asked the second student what kind of cake he wanted, he hesitated and asked, "Are we allowed to have ice cream cake?"

At the time, it seemed like a fine idea. "Sure," I told him, and made a note to myself to buy a Carvel cake from the grocery store.

Once, when I was a little girl, my Brownie troop took a field trip to our local Carvel store. At the time, all the gleaming stainless steel equipment seemed so so modern. We oohed in amazement when they showed us how the ice cream mix came freeze-dried in gallon cartons and aahed in astonishment when they poured it in the hopper of the soft serve machine and just added water. How incredible that in a matter of moments, it turned into the creamy and delicious concoction we all loved.

It was then they shared what I am sure was a trade secret-- the crunch between the layers of their delicious ice cream cakes was simply a sprinkling of that very same dry mix (!) At the end of the tour, they gave each of us a flying saucer and sent us on our way.

Last night, I dashed through the grocery-- after school, after writing club, after the gym, and before coming home to cook dinner-- in search of a Carvel cake. I admit I was looking forward to it; even after forty years and a significantly expanded palate, there's something indefinably tasty about that freeze dried ice cream, and I hadn't had one for a long time. I opened the freezer to gauge what size would be best for the 15 kids in my homeroom and was shocked to see the price tag.  Just the wee eight incher was twenty bucks and the next size up was thirty. I considered the precedent I was setting and quickly decided that I was definitely not prepared to spend a possible $450.00 on birthdays should this trend catch on. It was a quandary though-- I'd already promised an ice cream cake.

Back in the 70's, after that visit to Carvels, my mom started making her own ice cream cakes. She'd seen the technique, and she used a spring form pan and a hand mixer to beat slightly softened ice cream to the proper consistency before spreading it in layers. As for the crunch? She used cookies and candy crushed up in the blender. Everyone raved about those cakes.

Putting the cardboard box back into its freezer case, I stepped across the aisle. There, an entire half-gallon of ice cream was on sale for $2.50. I knew just what to do.


My students were thrilled with the cake and quite impressed that I had made it myself. Win Win Win.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Case Closed

I have heard vague rumors about the evils of Chinese pine nuts-- something about a bitter after taste. It is enough on my radar screen that in the rare event that I purchase them (when it comes to cooking with nuts, we prefer almonds, pecans, and walnuts, in that order), I check to make sure their origin is not Chinese. An aside: I don't really think it's biased or reactionary to mistrust food from China;the export economy there has grown so quickly that it's unreasonable to expect that adequate health and safety checks are in place.

At any rate, my awareness of the problems with some pine nuts was not acute enough to prevent me from eating a salad full of them at the wedding we attended last Saturday. They tasted fine, and I cleaned my plate.

A couple days later, I had an odd experience. A big box of steaming hot fried chicken, some biscuits, and a plate of homemade lumpia was unceremoniously brought to my classroom around 3 PM with a post-it note. "From the D. family." As hard as I tried to get to the bottom of this unexpected delivery, I could not, and so I stored the food in the refrigerator until the next day.

It turned out that, since I've taught three of their sons over the last few years, they just decided to treat me to something special, and on a whim they sent me some chicken and egg rolls, which just happen to be two of my favorite things. Gratefully, I heated up a portion for my lunch, but I was still thinking about the atypicality of the gesture when I started to eat, and then, for some reason, it seemed like everything had a strange and metallic taste.

I finished my meal with a bit of an uneasy feeling, but after I survived the afternoon, I put aside any suspicions I may have had about the chicken, and promptly forgot the entire thing. At dinner, though, my food tasted off, and briefly I wondered: Is there something wrong with me? Was there something wrong with the chicken? My attention span is only so long, however, and it wasn't too long before all my concerns were lost in whatever was on TV.

When it happened again the next day, though, my focus was completely restored. To be honest,  you get to a certain age and it becomes challenging sometimes to tell if a particular sensation is just a normal ache or pain or rather a symptom of some fatal condition. The trick is to find a balance between ignoring it and googling it and freaking out.

I usually start with the Google route and work from there. This time, I started with the search terms bitter taste mouth, and at first I actually ignored all the hits that mentioned Chinese pine nuts. But they were so prominent that I couldn't skip them completely, and imagine my surprise when I read that this sensation actually starts a few days after eating the nuts and could last up to two weeks! It was only then that I remembered the salad from Saturday night.


But... at least my chicken wasn't poisoned, and, as far as I know, I'm not suffering any deadly disease.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Now It's Gone Too Far

The star of my last post walked in this morning with another one liner.

Me: Good morning!

Him: Pull my finger...

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Thanks, I'll Be Here All Week

I have an autistic student in my homeroom this year. He goes to the life skills program for the rest of the day, but the 30 minutes we spend together in the morning is one of his few "main stream" opportunities. In homeroom, the teacher's role is to support and advocate for the students in whatever area they need it, and so for this guy, we work on social skills.

"Thanks! I'll be here all week!" was a phrase that he repeated over and over again one day recently. The other students are often unsure of how to interact with him, and they look to me in situations like that.

"That's what a comedian says," I told him. "Do you know any jokes?"

"Why did the chicken cross the road?" he said.

"To get to the other side?"

"Yeah. What's the difference between roast beef and pea soup?" he continued.

I was stumped. "I give up," I answered.

"Anybody can roast beef, but no one can pee soup," he dead panned.

All the other kids' eyes were on me, and when I laughed, they laughed, too. "Hey, that was pretty good," one girl said to our comedian, but he himself did not crack a smile.

"That joke was funny," I told him, "but do you think you should tell it in school, to your teacher?"

"No!" he grinned.

"Why not?" I asked.

"Because it has 'pee'. Sorry! I won't say it again."

"Okay," I replied.

"Thanks! I'll be here all week!" he answered.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Let Them Eat Cake

It has long been my practice to bring a cake for my homeroom students on their birthdays. It often seems like such a celebration goes a long way toward building both community and a personal relationship with each student.

This year, a student who was having a hard time transitioning to middle school academically was moved into my group about a month ago. Since then, I've been working with him at lunch and after school, but he's been anything but receptive to the support I'm offering. This morning, that all changed. We had our first birthday since he joined our homeroom, and that boy was loving himself some chocolate cake. All of a sudden, though, his face fell. "Oh no!" he cried. "My birthday has already passed!"

"Don't worry," I told him, "we'll give you a halfy birthday."

He smiled with genuine relief, but then frowned again. "I guess I should come up for lunch and work on my math today," he said. "I don't even know when that is."

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Cultural Exchange

We went to a wedding yesterday and the groom was Iranian. In the ladies room during the reception, several of his relatives were chattering excitedly in Farsi, and the sound of their conversation made me smile. As it turns out, I have a bit of a history with the language of Iran.

A friend of mine was born in Tehran to a Persian dad and an American mom. Her family fled the country when the Shah fell, and then they settled here in the States. At seven, my friend hardly spoke a word of English, in fact the only phrases she knew she had learned from pulling the string on her Chatty Cathy doll: I want a drink of water. I'm not tired. I love you... and so on.

I had the opposite experience. At my Swiss boarding school in the late 70's there was a large group of wealthy Iranian students. Most of their families were also allied with the Shah, but we graduated before the revolution. They were a dynamic presence on campus, to say the least, and so we all learned a little Farsi: Up yours. Screw you. Your mother is... and so on.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Tea Time

It's a cold December day here and so to take the chill off the afternoon, I made us some tea. When I was about six, my best friend, Nicci, had a tea party for her birthday. We were served tiny cups of tea with plenty of milk and sugar with our cake, and with one sip of that warm, sweet, creamy goodness I was hooked.

The only problem was that my mom would only allow me to have tea when I was sick. Despite my persistent requests, anything with caffeine and three teaspoons of sugar was definitely in the special occasion category. And so it remained, until one evening when we had a babysitter, and it occurred to me to ask her for a cup of tea.

I remember that she was surprised that such a little kid would drink tea, and I was flattered by my presumed sophistication. We didn't even have a tea kettle (my parents were coffee drinkers) so she boiled the water in a sauce pan and poured it carefully over one of the Tetley tea bags that my mom kept for iced tea. At my direction, she heaped three spoons of sugar into the steaming mug, but I was unprepared for her next question. "Do you like milk or lemon?"

My mind raced. I had only had hot tea with milk, and that's how I liked it, but I loved lemon, and that sounded really good, too. "Both," I said.

She looked confused. "Really?" she asked.

"Oh yeah," I told her, "I have it like that all the time."

She shrugged and a minute later set the curdled brew in front of me with some skepticism. It looked awful and tasted worse, but I knew I had to drink it, and I did.

It was a long time before I drank hot tea again, and over the years I've tried lots of different teas in several different ways, but these days it's milk and sugar again.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Literature About Letters

Every teacher knows how it is to have a student who either misunderstands, misses the point of, or in some other way just does not connect with an assignment. I have a particular student right now who has only turned in a draft of his Letter About Literature because his mother has been in daily contact with me for the last week.

Regular readers of this blog may recall that I do the LAL unit with my sixth grade classes every year. (And I write about it, too. Click here for my thoughts in 2009 and here for those in 2010) Sponsored by the Library of Congress, it is a writing contest that has the lofty goal of inspiring kids to compose letters to authors explaining what personal difference their books have made. After re-reading my own observations from years past, I am reminded that it is a challenging task for sixth graders, but I won't be discouraged, either, because despite the challenge, I still think it is a valuable exercise which brings together all the important components of a language arts curriculum-- reading, writing, and higher order thinking.

Well, that's the idea anyway. Back to my recalcitrant student. Here's what he turned in:

Dear John,

Listen and listen closely. I never wanted to read your book but it looks cool and it also was a long book. So be happy that I’m reading it. Now I got to write about you and your book, so be happy cause I’m doing what I didn’t want to so PAY ATTENTION!!

I’m happy you listened closely and understood me. Are you happy I read your book? At the beginning I thought your book was like dew on the grass, now I like it. When I say dew I mean like the yucky stuff on the morning grass. 

Okaaaayyyy... Teacher Quiz!

Test yourself: what is the best response to this piece of writing?

A) I like your honesty.
B) Your voice really comes through.
C) Interesting use of figurative language.
D) See me
E) All of the above

Thursday, December 8, 2011

You Might be a Writer If...

The other day when I was rooting around in the attic to find the early December box (note to self: clean out attic while it's cool enough to be up there), I came across the old magnetic marble run. We used to keep the colorful chutes, lever cups, and funnel on our refrigerator for whenever the nephews were over. Designing and redesigning runs to send marble after marble on its merry way was always good for lots of fun, but once the boys got old enough to lose interest, the set was tossed in a Target bag and lost in that black hole of storage space above our heads.

Looking at the sack of green and purple plastic, it occurred to me that I knew plenty of kids who had not had the chance to outgrow such a fun toy, and glad that they might be appreciated once more, I brought them to school.

So it was that they were scattered across the white board when the writing club met in my room this afternoon. I had not been mistaken: every kid who's had the chance to use it has loved the marble run, and the writing club members were no exception. They all wanted to arrange and rearrange the pieces to see if they could guide the marble safely to its bin. Finally, we told them that they could play with it at the end, but one clever young writer took up the dry erase marker to show us how the game was relevant to our cause,

and for the rest of the meeting, they took turns to see how many books they could publish.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


As they worked on the latest drafts of their writing assignments, I put a list of resources for the students on the board. I inventoried the four exemplary pieces of writing they had, the how-to mini-lessons, and the section of the text which showed the proper format for friendly letters. The last item was me, their teacher, and I took a moment as I went over the list to remind them that I hoped they would view me in that way, as a resource, an expert in writing and literature, there to help them become better writers and readers. "When I have to spend my time telling you not to poke the kid next to you, you're wasting a valuable resource," I said. "You're treating me more like a babysitter than a teacher."

There were some nods, a couple of shrugs, and a few blank stares, but one student looked very confused. "But wait..." he started, "can't you do both?"

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Look Inside

Once again, the novelty of GoogleDocs amuses me. I got an email this evening that a student had shared an assignment that's been missing for a while, and so I clicked over to see what he had done. To my surprise, when I opened the document, he was still composing it, and I watched as the third paragraph appeared at an excruciating slow pace.

It revealed quite a bit about his writing process, though. He is a distracted kid-- it's hard for him to get started on an assignment and hard to sustain his attention. He also embraces any sidetrack he can while attempting to complete a task; sharpening a pencil, getting a tissue, throwing away a piece of paper, all become top priorities.

I know that's why he shared the document with me before he was done; it was a way to avoid actually doing any writing. As I monitored his composition, I also noticed that he was a stickler about spelling. If something was misspelled, he would sometimes go back to it within a word or two, which indicated that he had to be re-reading a lot, but most often, he would try to fix it right away.

I watched in fascination as he typed stratigys, and then stratageys, and then stratigeys, until finally, unable to stand it any longer, I placed my cursor on the word and fixed it myself. An instant message popped up a second later thanking me. I replied with encouragement, "You're doing great! Keep going!" but told him I was signing off and would check in later. It had taken him two minutes to type a single word, and I just couldn't watch anymore.

Later I imagined what it would be like for someone observing me as I write. I'm sure it would be maddening in its own way. Writing is hard, and the only thing that makes it easier is to stick with it. How do you teach that?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Planning Ahead

I have a particular student who keeps borrowing books from me and leaving them elsewhere in the school. He's lucky that other teachers and students return them to my room, but he's always surprised when I have them and a little hurt when I hesitate to place them in his care again. Today he wanted to borrow six books at once. To be honest, I sympathize with his ambition and his desire for dibs on certain titles: I always have a stack of books by my bedside, on my desk, or in the "good" bookcase, which I'm informally reserving for the near future. Whether I actually read them or not, for now, I want them near at hand. They are, however, my books.

Still, this student was undaunted by my unwillingness to simply hand over all the books he wanted. "Can I have that one when I finish this one?" and here, he looked around in confusion for the one he had left by the pencil sharpener.

"Yes," I said, handing him the lost volume.

"And can I have the other one when I'm done with that?" he inquired anxiously.

"Yes," I answered.

He looked longingly at the stack he had assembled. "What about next year? When I'm in seventh grade can I still borrow your books?"

"Yes," I told him.

"And what about you?" he asked. "Will you come to seventh grade, too?"

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Sometimes, Nothing Else Will Do

We did some holiday baking this weekend, and once again the notion of "veganizing" traditional favorites was a prime topic of consideration. My favorite cookie is the Russian Teacake, AKA the Mexican Wedding Cake. It is basically a shortbread with pecans stirred in, rolled into balls before baking, and covered with confectioners sugar after. Although it was easy to create a vegan version of this particular cookie, I did not love the result. The texture was lighter and crisper, which admittedly some might prefer, but I missed the buttery flavor, and the mouth feel was a little slickery to my palate.

I don't eat a lot of sweets, and we are fortunate enough that there's no need for eating anything that we don't like, especially something like a cookie which is not the most healthful of foods. If it's not good, and it's not good for you, then really? What's the point?

I plan to make another batch, with butter, tomorrow.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

That's Why

In the midst of every regular and holiday errand we hoped to do this weekend, today brought one other item on our lengthy to-do list: we were scheduled to put in our last work day for the community garden at 9 AM.

It wasn't until I dragged myself out of bed at 7:30 this morning with my mental tiller still turning up all the anxiety gardening dreams from the night before that I realized I'd been dreading the work day. I really like having the garden, and I'm totally on board with the community aspect of the proposition, but in reality, my interaction with many of the other gardeners in the place has been less than pleasant.

In addition to the over-bearing, passive-aggressive woman in the next plot, during the growing season every week or so brings a scolding email directed to all of us. Someone is leaving the water on, not cleaning the common tools properly, failing to secure the gate, trampling other gardens, or pinching produce. I suspected that today's work session, like the others I've attended, would be loosely organized with everyone expected to "pitch in" but with no clear objective about what should be accomplished before we could leave with a clear conscience.

And so it was that I headed off for the garden with a sigh and a bit of a knot in my stomach, but the day was so bright, the air so crisp, the sun just warm enough, that none of that mattered, and in the end, I was simply happy to work outside for an hour.

Friday, December 2, 2011

A Bad Case of the Elevens

A student who is usually quite pleasant and polite has seemed a little out of sorts this week. All the sighing, eye-rolling, and teeth sucking came to a boiling point today when in response to my gentle redirection she shrugged and walked away with an exasperated, "Whatever!"

I called her to the doorway to address the issue privately, and as I spoke, she literally craned her neck to turn her head as far from me as possible, refusing to respond to any of my questions. At last I was able to break through her silence, but only after I asked her what I had done to make her behave this way.

Nothing!" she said dismissively. "This is not about you!"

Once that figurative two by four made contact, I asked her what was bothering her. She turned away again. "Is it at school?" I asked.

She shook her head, but then changed her mind. "Kind of," she said.

"Do you want to talk to the counselor?" I suggested, but when she paused, I asked if she wanted to tell me what it was.

It turns out that she is having trouble with her former best friend. Their relationship is changing in middle school, and they have been arguing a lot. There was an incident on the bus recently that she found very upsetting, so much so, that she was having a hard time focusing on her class work.

I listened, and then I told her I was sorry she was going through all that, and I promised I would set up an appointment for her with the counselor. She smiled sadly and went back into the room to finish her assignment.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Here Under the Sun

You know how it is. You get to the age where you've been around a while and nothing seems new. That's right. You're jaded. It happens in areas of your life where you used to be so engaged; topics that once seemed endlessly fascinating are now mostly satisfying in a different, kind of familiar way. So familiar in fact, that there may even be a touch of contempt in your unquestionable competency. Even so, you once loved what you do with all your heart, and you still love it now, even if the passion has faded.

All of this true for me just the other night when I heard another foodie being interviewed on the radio about some "new" even "unheard of" cooking technique. I listened with mild interest as the reporter touted "an amazing time-saving trick" to peel garlic, all the while dismissing the piece in my head as just another layman's astonishment at the handiwork of a professional.

Bang the head of garlic to separate the cloves.
Yep. Got that.  

Take the cloves and place them in a stainless steel bowl.
Still thinking I have a pretty good idea where this is going.

Turn another bowl over the first and shake it like hell.
What?!? This is where I really start paying attention.

Open it up and all the cloves will be perfectly peeled.
Huh? You've gotta be kidding!

Of course I put it the test immediately, and I must confess that I was verrrrrry impressed. This method works like a charm. But hey, who really needs to peel garlic a head at a time?

No need to worry. I figured out how to modify it for a clove or two.