Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Pack Your Bags

I read a wonderful article over the last few days about an idyllic place. It was even called, The Island Where People Forgot to Die.

The story it told bordered on mythical. A man, born on a Greek island, forced away from home by war, injured in battle, healed by strangers, and drawn to seek his fortune in the land of opportunity, is struck down by incurable disease in the prime of prosperity. Unwilling to burden his family with the expenses of his illness, he returns home to die quietly, but instead, completely untreated, he slowly regains his health until 30 years later, at the age of 90, he lives on, tending his vineyard and playing dominoes with his nonagenerian friends.

Who wouldn't want to know the secret of this island? Scientists have indeed studied it, but their findings have been illusive. Certainly diet plays a role-- most residents eat very locally, the Mediterranean diet by definition. Most are also active, but not on the treadmill or at the gym. Theirs is physical labor of a different sort-- in pursuit of a crop, or up the hill to worship, or down the road for a glass of wine-- all places worth going.

Time, as we mark it here in the most powerful nation on earth, is almost unknown to them. They rise when they wake, they conduct their business, they nap, and then they spend time with their friends and families until they tire.

Although there is no great wealth, there is no poverty either, and the people there reach the age of 90 at a rate 2 1/2 times that we do in America.

Shoot! They had me at no alarm clocks.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


It's back to school tomorrow, and although I've enjoyed our unplanned four-day weekend (just slightly more than I'll appreciate the three-day work week), it'll be a treat to see my students and hear their tales of surviving the monster storm.

Embracing the rest of the grind will be tricky, but I guess that's the nature of the day.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Whirlwind Vacation

Or, it's all fun and games until the power goes out.

Which it hasn't, despite howling winds and pelting rains. The trees outside look like a scene from a Gilligan's Island typhoon episode, and then they don't, which makes sense given the bandish nature of such storms as this one.

The worst is supposed to begin in about an hour and last through the night, and so we have spent the day taking advantage of our electricity-- cooking, showering, charging things up-- and thus I remain


Sunday, October 28, 2012

Out of the Woods and into the Rain

Since we figured that we probably wouldn't be spending much time outdoors in the next couple of days, we decided to take advantage of the literal calm before the storm and go for a little walk around a nearby lake this afternoon. It was overcast and breezy as we stepped onto the trail but not unpleasantly so, and the fall leaves still showed a lot of color.

We were on the home stretch of the loop when the wind picked up and a shower of leaves, golden and red, twirled down around us, and a bald eagle skimmed the tree tops, wheeling on the airstream. Just as the trail emerged from the woods the rain began, a fine mist, but so persistent that we were drenched within minutes.

I didn't care though. Perhaps it was knowing that this was the leading edge of something so huge, or maybe it was wondering what far-off place these tiny drops had come from, or it could have just been having the day off from school tomorrow, but whatever it was, there was something about the moment that made me want to embrace the storm.

Saturday, October 27, 2012


Every four years the clarion charges of election tomfoolery blare, common and wide. This time the arc of accusations rises from organized campaigns telling folks it's fine to go to the polls on November 7 to voter id laws and the challenges to them in court and then back down to people promising an acquaintance ten bucks if he'll vote their way.

Certainly this election has been polarizing, perhaps more so than most. "I don't think I can even go to work the next day if [my candidate] loses," a swing state voter confided to me today,  "because all those jackasses will think they were right."

The Electoral College is not looking very helpful here. There's a good chance somebody might win the popular vote but lose the election. A better recipe for guaranteed gridlock probably does not exist. I also saw a not-so-far-fetched scenario on the news the other night where the electoral college was tied. I did not know this, but in such a case, the House of Representatives would elect the president and the Senate, the VP.

Romney-Biden anyone?

Friday, October 26, 2012

Happy Returns

It's that day of year when Heidi and I mark an anniversary... fourteen years have come and gone since we joined forces to face the world together. To celebrate, we return to a favorite old movie, The Godfather, along with a simple meal of pasta and sauce, spinach and mushrooms on the side.

And despite Don Corleone's admonition to Sonny to Never tell anyone outside the family what you're thinking, I'll continue.

"What's the first line of the movie, again?" I asked a few minutes ago in anticipation of our big night. "Is it Vito, or is it that guy, what's his name? Buonanotte?"

"Who?" Heidi asked.

"Oh never mind, I'll Google it," I said.

I believe in America. America has made my fortune.

And the speaker? Amerigo Bonasera. (I never knew his first name before, but it really adds to the movie, right?)

I was actually kind of tickled at my error. In Italian, buona notte means good night, and buona sera means good evening. Only someone with some knowledge of the language could make such a mistake.

I learned a little Italian thirty-five years ago when I was in boarding school in Lugano, not in any class, but simply by the necessity of living there.

It pleases me when it comes back.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

This is Why We Do It

"This is the best club in the whole school!" one student exclaimed this afternoon before Writing Club had even officially began. Maybe it was the kettle corn or maybe it was the ten other kids who showed up after school to write, but whatever it was was infectious.

"Yeah it is!" her friend agreed.

A little while later, after we had introduced NaNoWriMo and pledged our support should they choose to accept the challenge, that same student was breathless. "I've always wanted to do something like this my whole life, and now I can!" she cried.

Now she can.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

It Wasn't about the Mushrooms

At 5:30 this afternoon I found myself fighting traffic to drive across town to a favorite grocery store. I've been putting off my shopping there because of time and travel, but today I needed coffee and so I shut down my computer at school a little earlier than otherwise and headed out.

It was a beautiful day here: unseasonably warm (1 degree from the record!) but clear and dry. The fall foliage is not quite peaking, but it is stunning even so. Many of my fellow citizens were out and about with me, and I found myself waiting. Waiting at lights, waiting for pedestrians, waiting for a parking space. I let it go but exhaled in relief when I finally cut the engine and reached around to gather my phone, my keys, and my wallet.

My wallet? Where's my wallet? Despite the fact that I am very conscientious about always carrying it with me, I knew it could be anywhere-- at home on the table or by the computer, in a jacket pocket, or even on the floor by my desk at school-- that's how scattered I am lately.

My pocket contained my list and my cash. A quick comparison was not promising, so I raided my emergency car fund and all together I ended up with 56 bucks. I grabbed my reusable bag (5 cents credit!) and headed into the store.

The automatic doors sighed behind me as I entered the produce department. It was only moments before I realized that A) I had dropped my list, but B) I had a good idea what I needed.

From there, shopping became like a little puzzle. I mentally calculated the cost of what I wanted and subtracted it from my holdings. Approaching the check out line, I knew it was going to be close, but I had no desire to play it safe.

It just so happened that the shortest wait was at the register of a cashier who has worked at the store almost as long as I have been shopping there. We always chat cordially whenever we meet, and this time was no exception, even though I was a bit distracted watching the screen carefully as she scanned each item.

With three items left to go, I could tell I was going to be over, so I grabbed a package of mushrooms and set them aside. The total was $55.60. The cashier's eyes widened a bit when I handed her a stack of ones and fives, but then she laughed. "I like this," she told me. "It's good for my drawer."

I laughed, too, and proud of my shopping chops, I told her that I had forgotten my wallet. "I think I did pretty good," I said as she deposited a quarter, a nickel, and a dime in my hand.

She smiled and handed me my bag. Spotting the mushrooms, she asked, "Is that why you put these back?"

I shrugged. "Yep."

"Here," she said, "take them. No problem. I'll take care of it."

And that act of kindness made my day.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Price of Policy

So far it's been a tough year at school: our meeting time (team, grade level, departmental, staff) has increased, as have the documentation requirements for all such meetings. There is a new class to teach, a new sixth grade configuration, a new principal, a new teacher evaluation process, a new test of standards for my curricular area, and a new state accountability process. Our enrollment has increased by over 20% and our classrooms are encumbered if we should want to work beyond our contract day.

The professionals in my building are frustrated, not because our formerly cushy jobs have suddenly entered the "real world," but rather because all of those things breed anxiety and take time, which is time away from planning and grading and from sponsoring after school activities-- there are only so many hours in the day.

My students this year are delightful-- smart, inquisitive, and conscientious, and I would love to devote more time and attention to them, but I can't. Because I have to jump through hoops to verify that I am meeting their minimum needs, I don't have the time to push them as far as they can go.

Monday, October 22, 2012

How Far Have We Come Again?

Today in Tolerance Club, we did an activity that we've had success with every year. Called In and Out, the concept is simple: everyone in the group forms a large circle, and then someone reads a series of statements. If you feel like it it describes you, then you step in, otherwise you stay out. (It's kind of like the Hokey Pokey with an agenda.)

The activity is designed to spotlight our uniqueness by highlighting our commonalities and differences, and the kids love it. As we hear statements like, I speak more than one language fluently, I consider myself a musician, I like to read for fun, I have a friend or relative with a disability, the perimeter undulates like a living cell under a microscope, and people laugh in delight, recognition, or even embarrassment at their admissions and the attendant associations.

It's always a bonding experience and it's always eye-opening, too. Today my personal wake-up call came when we heard, I have been told I couldn't do something because of my gender, and the only ones inside the circle were girls.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

A Wonderful Child

Despite all that sabbath day stuff, Sunday is the step-child of the weekend-- delightful to be sure, but always a little less so because you just can't miss that glimpse of Monday in Sunday's smiling face.

Even so, who could fail to love a day where there was sleeping in and hot coffee, reading and writing, working and shopping, harvesting and cooking?

Today I love Sunday sooooo much?

I wish I had a couple more days just like it.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Film Buff's Dilemma

"Question!" a colleague approached me the other day. "Have you seen The Master, yet?"

I told her it was on my list, because of the critical buzz, but I hadn't seen it.

"Darn," she literally stamped her foot. "I need someone to talk to about it, and I was hoping it might be you."

I laughed and shrugged. "I'll definitely let you know."

Did her comments influence me when choosing a movie for today? I'm sure they did, and this afternoon as I sat, baffled, I knew just why she wanted to talk. Critics suggest that seeing it more than once will definitely help clarify the film, but while Joaquin Phoenix's performance is breathtaking (Early prediction? Oscar.), it would be a tough movie for me to sit through twice.

Fortunately, I know just who to talk to.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Stepford Homeroom

Today was student-parent-conference day, and for me it was markedly different than those in the past.

At our school, we conduct student-led conferences where the homeroom teacher is a facilitator. Because those groups are not only heterogeneous but also random, that means that in some cases the conference is being overseen by a teacher who might not have the student in class.

Therefore, in order to support the students, we prepare them and ourselves in advance. Not only do we make classroom teacher assessments, student self-assessments, and current grades available to students and teachers in the days leading up to the conference, but we designate teacher meeting and planning time to review that data and to clarify any questions we might have.

That's what we were doing just a couple of days ago. The teachers on the team were flagging students of concern to be sure that their parents were aware. As the meeting progressed, I realized that not a single one of my homeroom kids had been mentioned. "There must have been a mistake,"  I joked with the guy who had a whole page of notes, "I think you got my students."

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Wisdom of Crowds

I heard a piece on the radio a few weeks ago about the philosophy behind Wikipedia and its public editing policies. It seems that the concept is based on a tenet of crowd psychology discovered over a hundred years ago. When asked to guess the weight of an ox at the county fair, whether or not any single person was correct in his or her estimate, the mean of all the entries was within a pound or two of the animal's actual weight.

In other words, even if individuals are off the mark, collaboration and/or combined effort will yield accurate results.

As interesting as it was, I totally forgot the notion until the other day. At the end of reading a series of memoir excerpts by Ralph Fletcher, I asked the students to create a time line of the key events. They could work individually or in small groups, at their preference. At the end of the assignment, there was quite a variety among the 12 products. We hung them up and did a little "gallery walk" where students  walked around silently and studied the work of their classmates.

Afterwards, when we talked about their observations, we started by listing the events that were on everybody's time line. It turned out that there were nine, and while any given kid or group could explain the extraneous entries on their chronology, the amazing thing was that those nine were definitely the main points of the story.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Why So Serious?

Let me start with a riddle.

Q: How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: That's NOT funny.

I used to think that joke was hilarious, but last night when I heard Mitt Romney say, "binders full of women," the patronizing attitude just made me mad.

Clearly I need to lighten up, especially because other folks have had a lot of fun with that image today.

My two favorites:

And this tweet

If you like it then you should have put three rings on it...

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Ya Think?

With the rise in the availability of e-readers and e-reader apps, our school is on a threshold. We want kids to read and have their books handy, and kids want to read on nooks and kindles. All well and good, but for our antiquated rules about electronics in school.

And so it was in good faith I brought up the question of revisiting or even recrafting our regulations about such things in our team leader meeting this morning. At first the concern was roundly dismissed by another teacher. "Just tell them to turn it off or take it away," she said. "You have to monitor it, just like anything else."

Set aside the implication that I don't know what to do when my students are off task, and you'll see that she actually reinforced my question. Do we tell them to turn it off, or do we take it away, or is there another option?

Perhaps a clear rule would be helpful here...

Monday, October 15, 2012

Dinner is Served

Thank goodness I don't have to do the dishes!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sense of Wonder

I spent the day catching up on some grading, and so at last I had the chance to carefully read the final drafts of the "sense poems" my students wrote and posted a week ago. As I mentioned in a previous post, the assignment was to choose a specific place and then conjure a descriptive detail for each of the senses and then put those descriptions into a prescribed format.

Overall, the kids did a nice job; most of the poems were sweet and observant, and almost every one had at least one inventive detail or conclusion that elevated the poem.

Even so, my favorite piece by far was this one about Egypt:

crowded stores with unique clothes that are new and fashionable
polluted air makes me hold my breath
shouting sellers make my eardrums go boom boom
strangers rush through me like I'm invisible
the hopeless water that comes from nowhere tastes like nowhere
oh my, what time is it?

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Well Hush My Mouth

"Why don't we have summer rolls this week?" Heidi asked me last Sunday at the grocery store.

I shrugged. "Well," I said, "we could, but it's fall. That doesn't seem very seasonal."

Heidi graciously let it go, probably because in our family, I'm kind of the boss when it comes to food.

You can imagine my surprise (and humility), then, when I checked in with the New York Times food section this morning only to see this headline: Spring Rolls from Fall Vegetables.

And the recipes looked pretty darn good, too.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Thank Gooodness

On Friday evening everything seems possible. Homemade vegan pizza? No problem. Another glass of wine? Why not? That stack of papers in my school bag that is begging to be graded? Plenty of time for that--


There are also books to be read, trails to be hiked, movies to be seen, groceries to be shopped for, and birthday dinners to be prepared and celebrated.

All easily within reach

on Friday evening.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Where Are They Now?

The English teachers in my school had subs today so that we could holistically score all of our students' writing samples. I spent most of the day reading eighth grade essays, which was fun, especially when I got to the ones that had been written by my former students. There weren't as many as I would have liked, and perhaps that was for the best, because call it bias, but I thought that overall they were better than the others I also read.

Not all who passed through my program shined, though. My favorite off-the-wall submission of the day was the work of one of my prior scholars. The prompt was to write about a special place-- describe it and explain why it is special to you. He wrote about the Virgin Islands. Reason number one that it was so special to him? Well, on his first visit, he caught a crazy virus and came down with a rash of blue spots all over. Reason number two was that his "great aunt (no relation)" has a condo overlooking the beach.

Can you wait for reason number three? Well... you'll have to, because that's where his story ended.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Poor Me! I Have Nothing to Say Because I'm too Busy

I once gave the following advice to a fellow blogger: Never write about having nothing to write about. It's boring and amateurish, even if done cleverly.

I stand by that, and there are a few other rules that I have developed over the last few years: General bitching is also dull, and No one wants to hear how busy you are.

Sometimes I think that I have unnecessarily hobbled myself, because when you try to write every day in addition to taking care of the rest of your jenk? Those three topics seem like an easy hundred words and out.

And yet I soldier on.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Written on the Body

"Has anyone else noticed that the kids have been doing an excessive amount of writing and drawing on themselves?" a colleague asked at our team meeting today. "Should we be concerned?"

The truth is, I had noticed, and I am mildly concerned. This dermography is not at the top of my list of worries about my students, but it's there, and I was glad to have the opportunity to grapple with it among other educators. The assistant principal was at our meeting, too. "Do we have a policy?" I asked. "If not, should we?"

I confess to an extreme bias here. I hate to have any markings on me, and likewise, I abhor tattoos. In my childhood they were limited to the biceps of a few ex-serviceman dads of my friends, but the explosion of ink in the last 15 years is unfathomable (and a little sickening) to me. BUT... I have learned to be very discreet about my opinion, because so many people have tattoos, both obvious and hidden.

There is no policy about writing on yourself, and at our meeting we briefly wondered if there should be. Is it just self-expression? Is it any worse than doodling on paper? Is the ink dangerous? One teacher offered that in middle school, she marked all over herself in gel pen, and it was her parents who put the kibosh on that.

I agree that it should be a parenting decision, but I wonder what some will think when their children come home all marked up. "When did you do that?" they might ask.

And if their children should reply, "Oh, in English class," I wouldn't fault those parents for questioning me.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Playing With My Food

Last night I made a roasted vegetable pot pie with a chick pea flour pancake on top, and today I shot a hundred almonds out of their skins and then pulverized them in some coconut milk. Once strained, they were amazingly milk-like, almost a dead ringer, really. Later I added some dates and cocoa powder and pureed them all up some more. With the addition of chia seeds? It was a surprisingly delicious pudding.

I've got veggies fermenting on the counter, vegan yogurt culture on order, and in a few minutes I'll be broiling braised white beans and chik'n marinated in olive oil and smoked paprika and sauced with tomatoes, peppers, and olives.

When I mention to people that Heidi is vegan, they almost always give me a sympathetic look and ask what I cook. It's natural to consider the limitations, but what about the opportunities?

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Corks and Pinecones

The weather here took a definite turn toward winter today, and I confess to a bit of a thrill as I lifted my fleece jacket from the hook by the door for the first time since April? Or maybe May. The blustery gray outside suggested an opportunity to build the first fire of the season, but it never quite delivered the requisite nip for such an event.

It did make me think back to years past, though. Early October is so variable here. My sister-in-law's birthday is the 2nd and so I considered some of the family dinners we have had for her. She usually prefers an autumn menu, and we have certainly had perfect cerulean blue sky days and cool evenings to compliment her requests, but there have also been years when I couldn't find a single leaf of color to adorn our table, and we've cranked the a/c to provide a little seasonal chill.

Who cares though? I like fall because it fits in perfectly with my homebody instincts. When the days turn short and cool, who isn't tempted to put on a big pot of soup and relax by the fire? Years ago, when our nephews were younger, fall was always a time we spent weekends together. We did fun pumpkin patch things, watched Scooby Doo, and roasted whatever we had on the fire.

And the fire? Well, to keep it burning bright we always made sure that we had plenty of kindling, like pine cones (that sap is amazing!) and wine corks. The boys were always more than happy to scavenge beneath the many Virginia Pines we have around here, stuffing bags with their flammable fruit. And I was equally happy to provide the corks. Believe me, it was never a hardship to open a bottle of wine.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Stepping Out

We're going to a wedding this evening. Anyone who knows me, knows I'm much more of a dress down than a dress up girl. Even so, I needed something appropriate to wear, so reluctantly I've spent some time over the last few weekends shopping.

At first it was discouraging-- nothing fit right, nothing looked right, and soon I began to dread the event at all. Luckily, a little online browsing yielded a promising result, and so tape measure in hand, I ordered a dress from Nordstrom.

When it arrived, I didn't even want to open it, but of course eventually I did, and I was verrrrry pleasantly surprised to find it a perfect fit, both for me and the occasion, even though it isn't anything like my usual style. In fact, this morning, Heidi was facetiming with her mom, and turned the camera to show her my dress. "Wow!" she said. "Did Tracey know it had all those sequins when she ordered it?"

Friday, October 5, 2012

How Great Thou Art

I love teaching sixth grade.

For most kids, it's the first time they are dipping their big toe into the big pool of life, and they love the independence. BUT... then there are those days when it seems much more fun to whisper with your friend about what happened at lunch than to talk about and actually do the assignment, and uh-oh, you are way to busy to catch up at home, and suddenly you are a few things behind and not sure what to do.

In the education we call that a teachable moment, but I think I've heard other people say, Give 'em enough rope and they'll hang themselves. Still, where I'm from we try not to hang the middle school children, even metaphorically.

Such an occasion is an opportunity. Can you solve this on your own? Should we involve your parents? How can we support you in being more successful? Most eleven-year-olds have never heard those questions, much less been asked them. They expect their teachers to be both instructors and enforcers, and that's convenient because if they don't get it? It's never their fault.

That's why we try to create an engaging, low stakes environment with clear accountability. Every student has more than one chance to succeed or fail, make an adjustment (with the support of their parents if necessary), and then try again. In such a classroom, consequence and punishment are not synonyms.

Tonight we received a forwarded email from our nephew's middle school English teacher. After describing the 2 assignments he had missing, it read, Today is the last day for my students to be able to make up zeroes, so he will have one hour in class to raise his grade. Please let me know if you have any questions. Have a great Friday!

Could that be more unrealistic? I mean face it-- their Friday is blown.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Where I'm From

My students are using George Ella Lyon's poem, Where I'm From as a mentor text this week. Lyons uses a montage of images to create a strong picture of her roots. The assignment allows the sixth graders to gather and select concrete details from their families' past and present and craft them into poems of their own.

As concrete as I try to make the task, it is extremely abstract at its core. "Where am I from?" students often ask in confusion. "My parents? The hospital? I don't get it!" We muddle through, though, and by the end, most get the idea.

This afternoon, we had a bit of excitement in the building. One of my student's mom went into labor in the girls room around the corner. Everything turned out okay-- the ambulance arrived before the baby was born-- but given the many conversations I had today, I laughed to think where that child might think she is from.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

May You Live in Interesting Times

Some of my students from last year came back to pay me a visit. "How are the sixth graders this year?" they wanted to know.

"Oh they're really nice," I answered.

"But not as nice as we were, right?"

"Oh, they're pretty nice," I said, and they looked disappointed. "But I can promise you this," I added. "I don't have one single class that is quite as exciting as yours was."

They took it as a compliment.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Bueller? Anyone?

Here's how it is:

 Me: I'm having trouble scheduling the field trip for the day we wanted.

Colleague: Yay! Does that mean we can go somewhere else?

Me: Sure. We can go anywhere you want if you're willing to make some calls and set it up.

Colleague: So, what was the problem with the first place?

Monday, October 1, 2012

Revolving Door

I have no illusions that TV networks are working very hard to get my viewership. I have been marginalized all my life. First I was a child, then when I was 18-35, I wasn't male, and now? I'm just an old fogey who likes to watch one show a night before retiring early.

Perhaps it's my advanced age, but sometimes it can be jarring to see an actor who was formerly a regular on one of your favorite shows cast as a new character on another. It happened last season on Law and Order: SVU-- when Christopher Meloni left (and joined the cast of True Blood, which I don't watch) Danny Pino from Cold Case and Kelli Giddish from Chase (both of which I did watch, until they were canceled) joined the show.

Then, just the other night on this season's premier who should appear but Paget Brewster, whose character Emily Prentiss just left Criminal Minds, and Adam Baldwin who was Casey on Chuck.

Ay yi yi! "This can't continue," I said to Heidi. "One of those two is the culprit. The other might stay."

And, may I say? I was correct.

But I still don't like it.