Thursday, May 31, 2012

And You Can Quote Me

One of the requirements of the personality profiles that my students are (still!) working on is that each piece must include several direct quotations: some from the subject, a couple from other kids, and at least one from an adult.

Here's my favorite so far:

"Woof, woof," yelled the German shepherd of Rose.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

How Do They Know?

I got my temporary AARP card in the mail today. Of course it's no good unless and until I pay my sixteen bucks and join the swelling ranks of Americans over 50.

And I still have one month.

Don't forget that.

One month.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Rain, Rain

Come today!
I was too busy to water the garden--
plus the weatherman promised
boomers and soakers
this evening.
Clear skies?
Go away!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Any Time Now

We were on our way home from the movies this afternoon when a brilliant thought entered my mind. We had been to The Avengers, something I was eager to see but had put off since it opened a few weeks ago, because it was such an iconic summer movie, and summer was just too far away for me to enjoy it. After the pink, pink, pink of yesterday, though, I felt like maybe I was ready to kick off the cinematic season.

The movie was good, but, as I suspected, would have been much more enjoyable without a lengthy to-do list--with hard deadlines-- in the back of my brain. Driving home we commiserated about the busy weeks ahead. The end of the school year has a lot of time-consuming details made much more challenging by the fact that most students are mentally checking out early.

"Oh!" it came to me in a vision. "I totally know what we should do! The end of the year should be like the end of a soccer match, where only the official knows the time... that way they could call it at any moment!"

C'mon, it's genius! Not only would many of our students totally get the concept, but THAT would really keep us on our toes.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Thinkin Pink

Pink sky,
pink wine,
pink cheeks--
Can summer be far away?

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Z is for Zone 7

We put in some productive time at the garden this afternoon, and with luck and proper stewardship July should bring tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, squash, and okra for sure. The watermelon and pumpkin are questionable, mainly because we've been unsuccessful growing them for the last two seasons, fingers crossed that third time's the charm. Our strawberry patch is going gangbusters except that we didn't put down the straw mulch so the fruit is rotting before it ripens, not a mistake we're likely to make again.

Life Lesson: There is no gardening without humility. Nature is constantly sending even its oldest scholars to the bottom of the class for some egregious blunder.  - Alfred Austin

Friday, May 25, 2012

Y is for You're Definitely in My Top 131

A few of my students have started playing a silly game where they bicker loudly about which of them is my favorite. I don't think for a minute that their spectacle has anything to do with me; I am just an effigy in a drama they've invented for their own amusement.

It does make me wonder, though, about favorites. I hope all my students feel that I like them equally, although realistically I'm sure that's not true. Some kids don't really care, and others are convinced that they could never be the favored one.

I never really liked the parable of the prodigal son. I always sympathized with the guy who stayed home and did his duty and then was hurt by his father's celebration of his wayward brother. Even so, as a teacher, in an attempt to build positive relationships, I often extend a greater proportion of my time and energy to those students who are not being successful.

Does that make them my favorites? They seem to think so. At least they are willing to argue about it.

Life Lesson: It is appropriate to celebrate and be glad... for he who was lost is found again.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

X is for X-ing Xs

Oh how tempting it can be to mark the days off on the calendar in a countdown to summer vacation. Who isn't looking forward to a break and time to rest and recharge? Still, when the kids start asking how many days we have left it makes me a little testy. For one thing-- is school really that awful? For another? If it is, then how hard could it be to do the calculation yourself!

For the record, we have 28 calendar days, and 19 school days remaining.

But as long as we're counting? Only 104 more days until school starts!

Life Lesson: Rather than count the days, make the days count.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

W is for Water Wings

As the year closes, my sixth grade students are grappling with theme. It is an abstract concept that requires higher order thinking to not only comprehend the elements of a given writing piece, but also to infer some greater meaning from them. Developmentally, it's a stretch for many 11 and 12 year olds.

As they work it through, I notice them clinging to cliches to keep from drowning in the depth of their own thinking. Kelly Clarkson's current hit Stronger provides quite a few life lines for the struggling-- in addition to the subtitle, whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger, there is also the me, myself, and I thing, as well as, it doesn't mean I'm lonely when I'm alone.

It's a start.

Life Lesson: Water wings get you in the pool, but they keep you on the surface.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

V is for Vertical

News today of two of my geographical preoccupations:

Going up

This time of year I click over every few days to a couple of climbing websites and follow the news as team after team tackles Everest during the narrow window of opportunity that nature offers. These days, technology allows you to follow the expeditions in real time-- several climbers tweeted their attempts at the summit, and there are all sorts of video clips and photos posted within hours of any push for the top.

The virtual proximity does not make the mountain any less deadly, however, and in some ways makes it even more cruel. In 1996 while trapped near the summit, mountaineer Rob Hall spoke to his pregnant fiancee by satellite phone and even chose names for their unborn child, before he froze to death where he huddled, too weak to make his descent. His body still lies a few feet from the path any climber takes from the South Col. For me, that story alone hollows the peal of those who clamor that the risk is worth it, because it's there!  

Going down

Even today, with 50-75% of the water flow diverted to power most of Western New York and much of Ontario, Niagara Falls is by far one of the most impressive natural spectacles I have ever seen. Since we have family in Buffalo, I have the opportunity to visit regularly, but I never get bored of going out to the falls.

Yesterday a guy actually survived going over them, the third person to do so in recent years. Despite his wish to end his life, circumstances aligned to allow him to survive what an average of 20 people a year do not.

Hopefully his experience will mirror that of Kirk Jones, who threw himself into the wild and irrepressible waters of the Niagara River in 2003. "I honestly thought that it wasn't worth going on," Jones told ABC News. "But I can tell you now after hitting the falls I feel that life is worth living," he said.

Life Lesson: Without life, the lesson is lost.

Monday, May 21, 2012

U is for Umbrella

It was a rainy spring day here today, and on such occasions, I delight in popping open my giant rainbow-striped umbrella. It enchants me because it's big and colorful and automatic: I never tire of simply pressing a button to instantly produce a huge canopy to protect me from the rain; it seems as close to a magic spell as I'll ever conjure.

When I was a child, umbrellas were way too much for me to manage; I needed a third or fourth hand to carry, open, and carry them, and getting wet seemed like a small price to pay to avoid such frustration. Even now, if there's no compelling reason to stay dry, I forgo any shield, no matter how nifty, and turn my face to the rain.

Life Lesson:  Some people walk in the rain, others just get wet. ~Roger Miller

Sunday, May 20, 2012

T is for Here's One Thing I Know

 All my life, you're a friend of mine

We spent the day beginning to adapt to the Bingo-shaped hole in our lives. Oh, it is certain to shrink over time, but right now there are so many little things that remind us of our loss-- the extra food in the fridge, the unused bowl on the dish drain, the vacancy at the end of the couch-- you get the idea. He's gone and we really miss him.

At the end, it was our responsibility to ensure that he did not suffer. Such a choice is hard but very clear.

Life Lesson: 

And you can count on me until the day you die

Saturday, May 19, 2012

S is for So Long

and thanks for everything, Bingo! We'll miss you.

Life Lesson: I don't know. It's hard to find a lesson in loss.

Friday, May 18, 2012

R is for Remorseless

My email pinged at around 10 last night alerting me to the fact that one of my students had shared a document. It turned out that it was the candy thief herself. Here is what she wrote:

I am so sorry that I stole candy from your tin thing. But well first let me tell you what happened. M. and E. dared me to. I know I shouldn’t have listened to them. Now I learned my lesson about stealing something that wasn’t mine. I also didn’t want to turn myself in because I thought that you were going to yell at me and make me sad. I am really emotional you know. Also I heard you were going to write me a reformer. I truly deserve it so I don’t blame you. I am nervous for tomorrow because you might put me out of the hallway in front of the class and tell you what happened. So that is why I am writing this letter. Also I was going to tell you that a few weeks back I saw M. and E. steal candy, too. I mean I was going to tell you but I was nervous to because you might think I had some, too. Once again I am truly sorry and I would do anything to make it up to you. Please type back no later than today.

I closed the document and went to bed.

Life Lesson: Sincere apologies do not include the word but.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Q is for Quite a Day

It couldn't have been more than 2 minutes that I stepped a few feet away from my room to answer a colleague's question. I didn't think twice about leaving my class; they were all busily working on an assignment, and there were only about ten minutes left in the period.

Still, when I returned, there was something off about the vibe in the room. I wish I could be more specific; were they too quiet? Too fidgety? A little too involved in the papers on their tables? I'm not sure, but I felt a bit wary and very alert when I sat down at my desk. A student popped out of her seat and moved quickly to the bookcase to my right; mumbling something about finding a book, she banged into the candy tin I keep there.

My suspicions mounted. "Did someone take candy from the can while I was out of the room?" I asked. The chorus of It wasn't me was as good as a yes, and I frowned.

I'm a big fan of the Dateline feature, My Kid Would Never Do That, and later when I thought about the whole thing, I realized how similar this situation was to some of the quandaries they set up for the kids on the show. In fact, we have used some of their segments on bullying, racism, and cheating with the Tolerance Club.

I could almost hear the promo: A student brazenly steals from the teacher, and the other kids in the room are thrust into an ethical dilemma. Do they snitch or go along? The stakes are raised when an adult discovers the misdeed and confronts the group. What will they do?

"Do you mean to tell me that I can't trust you to watch out for my stuff if I have to leave the room for a minute? Really?" I accused my class. "I'm disappointed."

I saw a few sheepish looks being exchanged. "She's right," one student whispered to the guy next to him. They made eye contact with me.

"I'll talk to you after class," the other one, who happens to be a member of the Tolerance Club, said quietly.

The bell rang, and, seeing those boys stay behind, some students made a quick exit, but some others joined them at my desk to tell me what happened and expose the culprit. Just like on TV, when they saw someone else standing up, they were encouraged to do the right thing, too.

Life Lesson: Bystander or upstander? The peer pressure is intense.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

P is for Patricia Says, "Hi!"

Or was it Ann?

Eight years ago, I taught one of a pair of identical twins. She was a nice enough girl; smart and conscientious, and a good writer, too, but there were days when she was really out of it. Since her grades were fine, I let it go. I chalked it up to early adolescence and dismissed her confusion.

When I was in sixth grade myself, my best friends were identical twins. Lois and Laura lived next door, and a week or two after they moved in, it seemed ridiculous that anyone considered them identical. They were soooo different in both appearance and personality that none of us neighborhood kids ever got them mixed up. The same could not be said for adults who didn't know them, and we laughed at their confusion.

Thirty years later, it was definitely a challenge for me to discriminate between Patricia and Ann. I rarely saw them together, and I just didn't get to spend enough time with either of them to get to know their distinguishing features. I was tempted to believe that they were more identical than Lois and Laura, but their friends assured me that they were easy to tell apart. To be honest? I guess I deserved it, but the kids kind of mocked my confusion.

Late in the year, it became apparent how much. "You know Ann and Patricia switch places all the time, right?" some well-meaning student asked me.

It took a moment for the significance to sink in, but I laughed when I realized all the times that ditzy Patricia must have been Ann.

Later I wondered why they bothered. It must have been so stressful to be in a situation where you could have been busted at any moment. Their classmates were totally in on the joke, and as helpful as they were, they might have given them away just as easily. I guess the thrill was worth the risk.

I have their little brother in my class right now. His sisters are home from college (They both go to the same university-- I wonder if they switch classes there... I'm guessing no.) and today he told me that Patricia says, "Hi!"

"Was it Patricia or Ann?" I asked. He frowned, and for just a beat I enjoyed his confusion.

Then I told him what pranksters his sisters were. He was delighted.

Life Lesson: Appearances can be deceiving.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

O is for Oeufs à la Diable

A longtime colleague is retiring at the end of the year, and tomorrow is our school celebration of her career. Since she is a sixth grade teacher, the sixth grade teams were asked to provide food, and so we decided on a picnic theme, which is both appropriate and wishful thinking for this time of the year.

Oh, we'll have red and white checked table cloths and li'l picnic baskets on every table, and there will be fried chicken and potato salad and deviled eggs and watermelon and sweet tea and lemonade. It promises to be a very nice event.

Today the other team leader and I were informally toting up the receipts-- it's not inexpensive to provide food for 75+. Even so, I laughed when I shared my own out of pocket. "Well, eggs were on sale for 97 cents a dozen, so I figure with everything? It'll be five bucks."

"Don't forget the labor," she was kind enough to remind me.

After peeling those eggs? Believe me; I won't. But they turned out great!

Life Lesson: It's the party, not the price point.

Monday, May 14, 2012

N is for Nope

Will we get a snack?
Can we chew gum?
Can we...
    play games
    take a nap
    go outside
when we're done?

These are the questions my students have about taking the high-stakes standardized tests that start tomorrow. Never mind that they never get a snack at that time; we don't allow gum anywhere in the school, but especially not in the computer labs; and planning fun activities at the end of anything encourages some kids to rush through and finish quickly.

But why shouldn't they dash to complete their test? In middle school, the consequences of these assessments are not borne by the students, but rather their schools and teachers. It is a disconnect that, despite their many questions, most sixth graders do not understand.

Life Lesson: Psst! Kid! I'll give you a granola bar if you pass this test.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

M is for the Many Things She Gave Me

One of my mother's many, many charms is that she knows a song for every occasion, and she is never afraid to sing it.

Here's one she taught us years ago:

M is for the Many things she gave me.
means only that she’s growing old.
is for the tears she shed to save me.
is for her heart of purest gold.
is for her eyes with love light shining.
means right, and right she’ll always be!
Put them all together, they spell MOTHER, 
a word that means the world to me.

Although personally, I feel that the second line needs some work, overall? I like it.

Life Lesson: I love you, Mom!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

L is for Let's Go Already!

I am typing this very quickly, because my dog is whining at my ankles. A few minutes ago we asked her if she wanted to go to a party. She cocked her head in that cutest-dog-ever way she has, and when we elaborated, Do you want to see Sonic? Riley? Treat? Bill? Emily? She began barking and dancing around.

Too bad Heidi still needed to change, and I needed a quick trip to the powder room. Isabel whined and barked outside the door, and she is waiting very impatiently by the front door now. Fortunately, I hear Heidi on the stairs, and we will be on our way in just a second.

Life Lesson: Dogs live in the now, and now means NOW!

Friday, May 11, 2012

K is for Keeping Secrets

I have a colleague who is reading Gone With the Wind for the first time. She brings her kindle to the lunch room every day just to grab a few paragraphs of that tasty southern-fried drama, but the irresistibility of the tale and the fact that she is loving it seems to surprise her.

Not me. My mom gave me a copy of GWTW when I was 12, which coincided with one of the theatrical re-releases of the film, and she promised to take me to see the movie when I finished the book. It was definitely one of the most rewarding literary and cinematic experiences I've known.

So, it's fun to talk about the story, but since she hasn't seen the movie, either (!), it's a challenge not to give anything too important away. We were having one of our veiled conversations when another teacher on the team entered. She listened for a minute and then exclaimed, "Oh! Are you talking about Gone With the Wind?"

We nodded.

She turned to me. "You mean that part when Scarlett kills that guy who comes to their house and Melanie comes down with the sword?"

I shrugged at my friend apologetically. "Yep."

Life Lesson: If you want to keep something a secret, it's best to not speak of it all.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

J is for Journalist

We have reached the personal profile portion of our English class. This is an assignment that I have experimented with off and on for the last six or seven years, but it truly came into its own last year, when after three solid months of blogging, my students were ready to turn that introspection out. (Plus, they had created quite a body of work for anyone who might profile them to use as a reference.)

The way it works for us is that each student is randomly assigned a classmate to profile. There are at least two interviews, and the first is a basic get-to-know-you opportunity for which the journalist prepares a list of questions designed to uncover a lot of information. After reviewing the notes and reading some of their subject's writing on our online community for background, journalists must narrow the focus to find an "angle" for the profile piece. Next is a second interview with a much more focused set of questions. Our young journalists must also interview friends, classmates, and teachers about their subjects.

The final product is a 500 word profile with a clear focus and theme. (Think "life lesson" because that's our frame of reference at this point.) It is a non-fiction research piece that exposes students to primary sources and demands analysis, synthesis, and artistry, but those are not its greatest strengths.

Life Lesson: The kids love it!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

I is for It's About Time

I was surprised at how emotional I became this afternoon when I read that President Obama had expressed his personal support for gay marriage. My throat tightened and there were tears in my eyes, and for a moment, it didn't matter that it was too long in coming and still a much too political calculation; the pulpit of the presidency made a purely symbolic gesture very real and very important.

Life Lesson: Do not underestimate the power of validation.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

H is for Hip Hip

Several months ago I was out with the dog on the big, grassy hill by our house. A neighbor and her dog joined us, and there was a lot of canine joy, enough in fact to literally sweep me off my feet. Oh, I jumped up in that desperate, I-meant-to-do-that way, and brushed off the apologies of my neighbor. I was fine, and nothing hurt, except my pride.

A few weeks later I noticed a definite hitch in my left-side giddyup, especially after sitting for a while or going up hills. Oh, I gamely limped along and, considering age and inactivity my primary nemeses,  increased my impact activities at the gym and focused more on lower body strengthening. After a while, it was still kind of owwie though, and so I made a doctor's appointment, which was canceled and then rescheduled for June.

At last I decided to call a doctor who specializes in acupuncture. Unlike everyone else I contacted yesterday, his office had a same day appointment at 4 PM. Considering it a good sign, off I went, and after a brief consultation and exam was diagnosed with bursitis of the hip.

It went like this: Dr. Tran listened to my story and then pressed a place on my upper leg.

"Ow!" I said.

"You have bursitis," he replied.

Looking it up later, it all made perfect sense-- the trauma, the delay of symptoms, the chronic pain-- it was a classic presentation of the condition. My primary care physician might have prescribed a shot of cortisone, (and she still could when I see her in June) but I opted for six twirling needles and a half-hour of quiet in the dark.

And I get to back on Thursday.

Life Lesson: Keep those alternatives open.

Monday, May 7, 2012

G is for Getting S#*! Done

Why in the world does it take so much time to attend to the details of our lives?

I took today off to catch up on some personal business-- bill paying, phone calls, errands, etc. A chunk of my to-do list involved making various appointments for me and my dog. Can't we say it's a little outrageous when I have to wait until June for a physical, July for a vet appointment, and August for an eye exam?

On the phone, I was on hold for an average of 6 minutes today (times four), except for the call that was busy seven times until I got through. The post office? 15 minutes in line. Goodwill? Ten minutes until an attendant was available to accept our donation. The grocery store was full of Monday shoppers who were trying to avoid the weekend rush.  And when all that was done, I still spent close to two hours answering emails and grading student work.

Some point proudly to our current economy which is producing more with fewer workers. They call it efficiency.

Life Lesson: I call it unsustainable.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

F is for Friends Who Do Stuff Together

Our principal is retiring at the end of the year, and so each team has been tasked to come up with some kind of "presentation" for her farewell assembly next month. One of the teachers on our team suggested having the students sing something, but a few others were sure that these particular kids would never be willing.

It seemed to me that this was one of the singingest bunches of sixth graders I have ever known. In addition to the Poem in Your Pocket Day song just last week, I remembered a bus ride not long ago where I was glad we didn't have far to go because of the enthusiastically loud singing.

So the next day I decided to ask them, starting with my homeroom. I explained the whole presentation thing to them, and ended with, "What would you guys think about singing something?"

NO NO NO! It seemed unanimous.

"But I thought you liked to sing," I said. "I hear enough of it around here."

"Oh yeah," one student laughed. "Remember yesterday? When we were thinking of Alphabiography titles? F is for..."

That's all it took. The whole group joined in on that Sponge Bob classic, even the ones that weren't there yesterday. "U is for you and me!" they thundered.

I had to wait until the song was through to be heard above the raucous racket. "See? You love singing! How about it?"

They said they would think about it.

Life Lesson: Sometimes N is not for anywhere and anytime at all.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

E is for End of the Road Trip

We have a tradition around here. When our travels take us farther than a couple of hours or so from home (as they did today when we drove up to New Jersey for a first communion), and the timing of the trip back gets us in past our usual dinner time (which is already on the continental end of the spectrum), the minute we walk in the door, I throw on a quick Putanesca Sauce and boil some water for pasta. Then, in the time it takes to unpack and unwind and pour a glass of wine, we have a home-cooked meal to clear the dusty taste of the road from our palates.

Life Lesson: Cue the ruby slippers.

Friday, May 4, 2012

D is for Draw Something

Back when we were doing the Slice of Life challenge in March, several students posted about how much fun they had with Draw Something, an app for their smart phones and tablets. They were convincing enough that I downloaded it, just to discover that it was a cooperative game, and I would need a partner to play.

I was so busy that I let it drop, but over spring break one of my fb friends started a game with me, and it didn't take long to get hooked on this pictionary-style diversion. In fact, I contacted my sister right away and got her playing, and my brother was next.

The object is to choose one of three options and draw it as quickly as possible, and then send it to your co-player. When it's your turn to guess, you get to see a real time recording of the drawing, and there are letters to choose from to help find the answer. As my students said-- it's really fun. Of course, there are rules about simply writing the answer down, but no one polices your game. Even so, I like to follow the rules.

Back at school, I mentioned to a couple of kids that I was playing, and immediately they wanted to challenge me. Hmmm. What to do? This was not really a school-related activity, but I couldn't see the harm in it.

Today, the New York City Department of Education released their social media guidelines for teachers. In so far as they apply to the largest, most high-profile school system in the country, I read them with interest. And, as extensive as they are? They don't mention Draw Something or any other games.

So... bring it, kids!

Life Lesson: Rules are rules... Right?

Thursday, May 3, 2012

C is for Cooking Calamari

I read quite a few alphabiography drafts today, and perhaps my number one suggestion to my young writers was to add details. One student wrote that, "if you see someone cooking it, it's nasty, but calamari is delicious to eat." We talked a little about the piece, and then I asked him if he minded if I used it as an example, and he agreed.

"Do you know what's yucky about cooking calamari from this passage?" I asked, and all the students acknowledged that they did not. As a former cook who has cleaned and cooked quite a bit of squid, I was only too happy to fill them in on the details of grasping those eight slippery legs and two trailing tentacles, tearing them from the slimy water balloon-shaped mantle, scooping out the snotty purple guts of the animal, and throwing them away along with the milky eyes that stare at you with blank accusation as you amputate them from their body.

"EW!" someone said. "That's disgusting!"

"Exactly," I answered.

Life Lesson: "I get it! I get it!" another student raised his hand. "The writer has to use enough details so that it's the reader who says, 'Nasty!' Right?"

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

B is for Blowing it Off

I'm a pretty conscientious worker, but this afternoon I could not face what, in my mind, would be one more meaningless meeting, so I didn't go. I stayed at my desk and answered questions for a couple students who stopped by, graded papers, met informally with a colleague about writing workshop, and then, when my contract day was over, went to the gym and the grocery store.

Once, in a conversation I had with non-educators about education practice and teacher time, I complained about what I perceive as the generally inefficient use of meeting time. In response, someone said that the school system had no responsibility to make meetings relevant. Technically, he pointed out, teachers are merely public employees who serve at the pleasure of the school board and commonwealth, and if we were paid to be in a certain place at a certain time, then that is where we should be.

Not today.

Life Lesson: (See below) Engagement is everything!

Corollary: Relevance is essential to engagement.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A is for Away We Go

The first of May brings the second annual "Alphabiography" Challenge for my students. They are assigned to write short (100-250 word) "chapters" of their lives and title them by letters. The requirement is to write twice a week, but the challenge is to write either 20 times this month or all 31 days.

Each piece closes with a life lesson. This part is a good way to encourage these young writers to consider their purpose or message. Theme is an abstract concept that many sixth grade kids are just beginning to grasp, and these short, autobiographical vignettes give them a manageable and concrete step up to that higher order thinking.

Such consistent writing will help build their fluency and confidence, but I'm hoping it will be fun, too.

Life Lesson: Engagement is everything!

(Follow the Alphabiographica link to the right to see some examples of my students' writing.)