Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Welcome 2014!

How do you like my pajamas?

Monday, December 30, 2013


In case you were wondering...

Essential Switch
The generator saga continues. Evidently, the manufacturer is aware of the problem and has redesigned the part. Unfortunately, they are not shipping until Dec 31 at the earliest and then there may be a wait to have them installed. Sadly, this may delay Heidi's parents' trip to Florida.

Clean Finish
I got more soap for Christmas!

What Does the Fox Call a Sun Shower?
We made it home from Buffalo safely. On the way, I saw a sun snow shower! Wouldn't the fox have a field day with that?

Dire Consequences
I still don't want to go back to school on Thursday. (Now that my mom mentions it, I think I did dream I would break my arm.)

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Dire Consequences

This has been a great winter break, and I can honestly say I've enjoyed every day, but we have definitely reached the part where it all starts ending. Yesterday we said good-bye to first my brother's family (who we will fortunately see on New Year's Day), then my mom, and then my sister and her family. Tomorrow it will be good-bye to Heidi's folks and her nephew.

This year the school calendar has us going back to school for Thursday and Friday, January 1 and 2. I haven't talked to a single other person who knows of a similar schedule; it seems unanimous that opening for two days after the holidays is kind of dumb.

It is not unprecedented, however. When I was in seventh grade, we had the very same calendar. Never one to embrace transitions, I remember complaining bitterly about it to my mother, even though I actually liked school. I was convinced that nothing good could come of such foolery. "Something bad is going to happen," I predicted melodramatically. "Just you wait and see!"

Was it coincidence that I broke my arm that Friday in PE? 

I think not.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

And Dance by the Light of the Moon

The skyline of Buffalo glowed green, white, and red with holiday lights tonight as we made our way into the city. In all the years I have been visiting this town, I have had wings from several places, but somehow I have missed out on their original birthplace. The Anchor Bar is located in downtown Buffalo, a bit of a distance from Heidi's folks, and maybe that is why.

Last summer while he was here from Mississippi visiting his grandparents, our 13-year-old nephew, Kyle, texted me from the Anchor Bar. Next time ur here will u try suicide wings with me? 

Sure, I replied and promptly forgot.

Tonight he haled me from the back seat the minute the car pulled up outside the airport. "Ready for those wings?"

My answer was the same. "Sure," I told him.

The place had atmosphere in spades. Warm tangy air rushed to meet us as we pushed open the door, and vanity license plates from all over the world adorned the walls. Rather than one large dining room, there were several connected rooms leading away from the old barroom and each other like cozy chambers in a rabbit warren with colored holiday lights and neon bar signs combining to festively light each one. 

At 7 PM on Saturday night, there was a bit of a wait for a table, and I occupied my time deciphering some of the trickier license plates. BFLOGAL took me a minute, and then I wondered who would ever give that one up once they had it?

The wings? They were pretty darn hot, but Kyle and I held our own, with the help of blue cheese, celery, and beer for me, and bread and water for him. The fries weren't bad, either.

Friday, December 27, 2013

What Does the Fox Call a Sun Shower?

I want to know.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Surface Mining

As we took off from Buffalo International Airport yesterday, my nose was, as usual, pressed against the hard plastic of the tiny double-pane window. I love the bird's eye perspective that flying allows. Unfortunately, it was only a couple of minutes before we ascended into the clouds and then broke into the blue skies and sunshine above, which was welcome in its own way to be sure, but there was not much to see below us.

A little while later I checked again and there was a clear view of the ground. The first thing I noticed  was that there was very little snow. I was on the port side of the plane and so I knew I was looking east. I also had a pretty good idea about the straightest route from BFO to ATL, and so I guessed we were somewhere over Pennsylvania. The long north-south ridges rising like so many pleats in a giant green cloth sort of confirmed it for me, and I looked eagerly ahead for western Maryland and possibly even a peek at the Blue Ridge Mountains in my home state.

As we flew steadily south, there was still no snow, even on the highest of mountains, which wasn't really that surprising given the record-setting warm snap we had just been through. I scanned the landscape ahead for any sort of familiar landmarks, and some patches of white caught my eye in the distance. 

Snow? It didn't look like it, and there were no trees. I gasped when I realized what I was seeing. All around there were whole mountains with their tops completely cut off. I sat, stunned, for a moment, and then I knew where we were. We were flying over Appalachia, West Virginia to be exact.

I had heard about mountain top mining, the practice of extracting coal by blowing the land over the seams away, and it certainly seemed like a bad idea, but until that moment it was all an abstraction for me. 

Now I know: 



Why is that allowed?

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Holiday Musical Chairs

The flight from Buffalo to Atlanta this Christmas Day was packed, and the stream of passengers filing past our seats seemed endless. When we first boarded the man right in front of us was talking to his wife in Punjabi, but now as the last passenger slung several duffels into the overhead compartment above that seat, she was nowhere to be seen.

Before sitting down, the guy took a few things from some kids sitting a couple of rows back and stowed them with his stuff. "I'll be right up here guys," he said as he took the seat next to the Sikh gentleman in front of us.

The young man sitting next to the boys jumped up immediately. "Sir, I would be happy to change seats with you if you'd like."

The exchange was made in quick order, and the grateful dad leaned across the aisle and explained the kindness to his wife, who happened to be sitting next to the Sikh lady. She suggested one more switch, and the young man gladly got up and moved again so that everyone was sitting together.

That's the spirit.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Count on Buffalo


cue the snow:

Merry Christmas everyone!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Essential Switch

Perhaps I posted too soon yesterday. Not ten minutes after I hit Publish, the generator whined to a stop, abandoning us in the midwinter murk of 3 PM. I was the first to notice that the other half of the house was powered on, the "non-essentials," but the limited power we had been enjoying, boasting about even, had vanished.

Of course we adapted. Bright lights flooded the rooms that had been abandoned all day, and baking became a possibility, although we had to move lamps into the kitchen to cook. It didn't take long for us to miss the heat, though, and we were relieved when the electrician agreed to come out on a Sunday.

The problem was a tiny spring. Meant to flip the switch from generator to utility, there wasn't enough bounce in the coil to do so, and so while the generator shut down because there was power, those so-called essential circuits stayed stayed closed, waiting for their very own generator juice.

The electrician was able to reset the power so that the whole house was humming, and should there be another outage, the generator will kick on. Once the power's back, though, the essentials will be shut down again, all for the want of a wee bit of spring in the winter...

(which, is under warranty and should be repaired by Friday.)

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Some Say in Ice

I confess that I only listened with half an ear at Thanksgiving to Heidi's dad telling me all about the new generator they bought. I caught something about expensive rewiring and an upgrade to the main panel, and I thought it was interesting that it runs on the natural gas already piped into their home.

This morning the details became much more relevant to me. We knew something was wrong when the overhead lights in our room wouldn't work. The wall outlets were fine, though. Once upstairs, we saw a world encased in ice and heard a steady droning out in the yard.

It didn't take long to figure out that the circuits had been prioritized for the generator-- not everything was on, but the refrigerators, the heat, the hot water, the sump pump, and the internet (yes!) were all operational. It took a bit of trial and error and an extension cord or two, but soon I made coffee and sat at the table admiring the treacherous beauty glistening just outside the windows.

Six hours later, the ice is mostly melted, but the power is still out with not even an estimated time frame for restoration. The generator is humming away, though, we're all safe and warm, and it's nowhere near the end of the world.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Clean Finish

It is a lovely tradition to bring a host or hostess gift to a household when visiting. Likewise, it is exceptionally thoughtful to bring back a small token of appreciation to the folks who have fed your cat, watered your plants, picked up your mail, etc., while you were away.

Over the years we have both given and received many such niceties-- wine, cocktail napkins, candles, flowers, and so forth, but a few years ago, I realized that we had accumulated quite a stockpile of soap as a result of this practice. At that point, we must have had well over a dozen bars of very high quality, artisanal soaps of so many shapes and fragrances that we were running out of places to keep them. It was on that day that I vowed never to buy another bar of soap until we had used up every single one we already owned.

I have been fastidious in my determination to use that soap, but it hasn't been easy. In addition to sheer quantity, the fact is that far from being some fast-dissolving down-the-drain detergent, that kind of soap is made to last. Some bars have literally lingered for months in the shower, even with daily use. 

Today as we prepared for our trip to Buffalo, I asked Heidi to grab a new bar rather than pack the wet one that is currently in use, but much to our astonishment there was none to grab; we had finally exhausted our soap supply.

What will we ever do without it?

Friday, December 20, 2013

Holiday Swag

Our school system is considering imposing a limit on teacher gifts. The current proposal will set a cap at one hundred dollars per family, per teacher, per year.

I have to laugh at that. I have written before about the disparity in socioeconomic status in our tiny county, and I have also explained that our school lies on the boundary of million dollar homes and affordable housing, drawing from both types of neighborhoods. I have certainly received my fair share of gifts over the years, and I treasure the appreciation they have expressed, but nothing has ever come close to a hundred bucks. (It's fair to point out that the same can not be said for some teachers at other schools in our district.)

Just today, the assortment of wrapped packages and cards on my desk drew many envious comments from students, and I laughed and shrugged them off for what they were-- the wishes of children at Christmas. At the end of the day, when everything was unwrapped, logged for thank-you notes, and packed neatly into a bag to take home, I had received a candy cane, a loaf of pumpkin bread, hand lotion, shower gel, hot cocoa mix, scented soap, four chocolates, a jolly rancher, and a Starbucks card.

Actual value? Thirty dollars?

(You know what's coming next...)

Making meaningful connections with kids and families every day? Priceless.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Oh No he Didn't!

I ran out this afternoon to have my car serviced before our big road trip to Buffalo on Saturday morning. I took some papers to grade and hoped that it was enough of an off time so I could make it back to school for writing club at 2:30.

I was in luck. There were only a couple of cars ahead of me, and I took my place in the waiting room ready to get a little work done. The flat screen television on the wall was tuned to some channel showing a TV movie that, judging from Christine Lahti's hair and clothes (not to mention Alison Pill's age) looked to be about ten years old, and although I tried to ignore it and read the student letters I'd brought along, the melodrama unfolding drew my attention.

The woman across from me was watching it, too, in between emails and texts. Just when I was thinking I should find the movie to rent or stream,  a draft of cool air announced another customer. The man entering looked briefly around and then chose the seat next to her. He glanced at the TV as he sat down. "You seen this movie before?" he asked.

She shook her head no.

"Oh, it's a terrible story," he told her. "Her husband is a pilot who's living two lives. He has a whole other family in England, and the other wife is a terrorist who put a bomb in his suitcase, but you don't know that until the end."

AND... back to grading those papers.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

If I Had a Hammer

The word "tool," used pejoratively, has never been in my vocabulary. Sure, I've heard it, and of course I know what it means, but it was just never an epithet I felt I needed.

Something I read today, however, totally changed my mind. It was an article about, what else? the current state of teaching and education in the United States, and although it was a couple years old, it did a good job expressing some of the discontent that I, too, feel:

We spurn real teachers—those with the capacity to inspire children to think, those who help the young discover their gifts and potential—and replace them with instructors who teach to narrow, standardized tests. These instructors obey. They teach children to obey.

Yeah. They're tools.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Haul of Fame

I'm afraid that for me, the annual announcement of who will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is becoming just another reminder of how time itself rocks and rolls on. The rule is that no act is eligible until 25 years after their first hit, so being able to personally recall that first hit makes me feel more than a little classic myself.

Take this year for example. Kiss will be inducted, years after their first eligibility I might add, Nirvana, too, but the first year they can. Then there's Linda Ronstadt, Cat Stevens, Peter Gabriel, and Hall and Oates.

Back when I was in middle school, Carefree gum sponsored a contest. The school who could collect the most gum wrappers would win a visit and concert by the new band Hall and Oates. Never a big fan of gum myself, I was more than willing to chew some for the team, and I also encouraged everyone I knew to buy and save those pink wrappers. My campaign extended to a visit to my cousins' house where I enthusiastically explained all the logistics and benefits of winning this competition. "Who's going to come if you win?" my aunt asked, "Hauling what?"

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Calendar is not the Day

This morning we gave out interim progress reports to our homeroom students. "Okay," I directed them, "open your assignment book and write down that you need to get these signed for tomorrow."

"Wait!" one student said in shock. "WHY does this page look sooooo weird?"

I went over to take a look. This week, as well as next was compressed. "I guess they're thinking lots of schools are on vacation all ready," I said. I flipped the page. It was printed as a normal week. "But don't worry, they also think we should come back on the 30th."

"No thanks," said my student, and squeezed the reminder into the tiny space he had.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Reformed Early Risers

It wasn't too long ago that our pets made it tough to sleep in on the weekends. Any activity outside was their signal that it was time for us to rise and feed them.

On the weekends, that's my job. I never sleep much past 7:30, and so I get up and let Heidi snooze. The me getting up part hasn't changed, but our pets have found a different groove lately. They are quite content to find the warm spot I have so recently vacated, snuffle once or twice, and go right back to sleep.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

This Little Kitten

Last year about this time, I bought a pair of mittens that I fell in love with. The softest of faux sherpa on the inside, a nubby black exterior that made driving in them no problem at all, and they were soooo warm. I wore them all winter long and eagerly pulled them out last month when the first cold snap of this season hit.

But then... inexplicably they disappeared. I don't want to point any fingers (in mittens that's impossible anyway), but let's just say, it wasn't my fault. Oh, how we agonized over those lost mittens, well, okay, it was mostly me, because I can perseverate at times, but I really wanted them back. We looked everywhere, but without success, I'm afraid.

When the snow and ice hit earlier this week, I gave up on ever locating those stray mittens and went online to find another pair. It turned out that I couldn't order them, but I could have them delivered to our local Target. So that is what I did, and yesterday, on my home I made a detour to pick up my second pair of the best mittens in the world.

Even though it wasn't that cold, I gleefully slipped them on and enjoyed their perfect warmth and softness all the way home. As I likewise did this afternoon when we went out to run a few errands.

We had to go back to Target, where we got stuck in a kind of holiday undertow: every time I thought we were going to get out, we remembered something else and were sucked back into the deep part of the store. At last, when I could really see the shore and I felt confident we would make it to dry land before long, I reached into my vest pockets and felt my heart sink to my socks. I only had one mitten in there.

Oh, we retraced our steps, several times, and I left my name and number with customer service, but I think it's safe to say that tonight? I shall have no pie.

Friday, December 13, 2013

A Satisfied Customer

The Christmas gifts are coming fast and furious these days. My inbox is full of tracking numbers and packages are piled up on the dining room table almost quicker than we can open them. Just yesterday I eagerly sliced open a mailing envelope to find something I hadn't ordered. It was close, but it was... wrong.

I examined the packing slip and saw that this order had been placed by someone in Dallas. The number on the receipt indicated that she had ordered a few people after me, and the items were close enough to explain the mistake.

When I called the company they were super apologetic and promised to investigate immediately and get back to me ASAP. It was less than half an hour later when I received word that they were sending the correct shipment right away to both me and my Texas counterpart, and there was no need to return the others.

Such prompt and generous service seems rare these days, and so I want to acknowledge my appreciation. Thank you, Pure Home.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Everytime a Bell Rings

As I've mentioned before, the Tolerance Club at our school sponsors a movie each month. This December we're showing It's a Wonderful Life. It fits with our spotlighted IB learner profile trait, Caring, and it also reinforces our core concept that one person can make a huge positive impact on many lives.

On Monday, we had planned to show a clip to our student members and have them do the advertising for our show tomorrow, but that plan went awry with the inclement weather. (Not complaining!) So, it's been left up to us adult fogies to promote an old black and white movie and encourage a school full of tweens to show and hopefully grow.

It's usually my job to find the trailer that will play on the morning announcements, and so it was with more than a few sighs that I looked at what was available on the internet this afternoon. As a die-hard fan of the film, some of them were certainly sighs of appreciation and even anticipation to share this great movie with a new generation, but there were sighs of consternation as well. Most of the clips were much too anachronistic to draw our students in.

I was about to despair before I found this one:

(If you can't see the image click here. It's really worth it!)

The Wolf of Bedford Falls?

Oh. Yeah.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Private Word Parts

I handed out the weekly word parts to my class today. As is our routine, they received a chart with five Greek and/or Latin word parts, a definition, and an example word. Their job is to look up the exemplar, figure out how the word part definition works with it, and then find another example of their own.

The five word parts for this week were aqua, port, circum, geo, and narr. Soon after receiving it a student approached my desk, his face cloaked in concerned confidentiality.

"Can I use the word "circumcise" for my example?" he asked, sotto voce.

"I wouldn't," I answered him, honestly.

"I know what it means," he told me.

I nodded, but before I could reply, he continued.

"AND, I know how it fits the word part. Circum? Means "around," and cise means "cut"!"

"Very good," I said, and I meant it-- his response was a paragon of word study precepts-- "but imagine the conversations we'll have to have if you put that word on the board."

"I'm mature," he assured me. "I can handle it."

Not me! I inwardly cringed, and in the end we agreed that it could be his private example.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Off Season

Evidently, most people don't care to go to the doctor in a snow storm. That must be why both Heidi's and my doctors' offices called this morning to bump up our pre-existing appointments to today, if possible. School was cancelled, but to be honest, the roads were fine when I headed out for my 10 AM, and they continued to improve by the time we left to go to Heidi's noon time slot.

Ordinarily, such a visit requires either making sub plans or a mad dash out at the end of the school day only to tap your toes for a while in the waiting room, but today we were in and out in record time in both offices with no wait at the labs either.

Afterwards, we stopped by a similarly deserted Barnes and Noble and then went out to lunch.

Oh, we'll be back to school tomorrow, for sure, but this pre-holiday holiday has been a measurable blessing-- both of our blood pressures were way below their usual marks.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Like a Little Miracle

No school today, and maybe, just maybe, no school tomorrow, either? Wouldn't that be something?

P.S. Enjoy the snow!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Sixteen Shopping Days

I couldn't have ordered up a better day: snow falling, fire crackling, phone ringing, and internet blazing. Christmas here we come!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

A Kindness of Strangers

Pride of lions, school of fish, murder of crows-- what can we call a group of people?

We were rushing this evening to get our weekend errands done; snow and ice are predicted for tomorrow, and we had spent the day at a workshop at school. It was nearly dark when I slipped the car into a space on the far aisle of the parking lot at Target.

Our tree was at home falling in the stand, and I reckoned I could consolidate grocery and sundry into a single stop. The air was cold, but the good kind of December cold that kind of smells like smoke and wakes you up like a friendly little clap on the cheeks, and a pretty yellow crescent moon lounged in the eastern sky, and so our spirits were high, a spring in our steps even at the end of this long day.

A young woman pushing a cart with a little girl in the toddler seat approached us. She, too, seemed happy that her shopping was through and we exchanged smiles with her. A few paces later, she called to us. "You should have these," she said, thrusting a couple of slips of high gloss paper into my hand. We thanked her and continued on our way, and when we got inside we saw that they were coupons for 20% off everything we bought today.

At the end of our visit, it rang up to a 25 dollar savings, and we still had one coupon left. "Give me that," Heidi said, and went off to find someone to share it with.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Hunting and Gathering

A long time ago, when I was younger and had much less stuff, I used to like shopping a lot more than I do now. In those days, it was almost like a sport, and I could spend hours prowling the mall, and a visit to the big warehouse store near us to scope out the possibilities was at least a biweekly event. Nobody there ever asks you if you found everything you needed, because it's understood that that's your job.

But times have changed for me and I couldn't tell you the last time I was at the mall, much less Costco (which I still insist on calling Price Club). Well, I couldn't tell you before today, because through a series of events, I left school early this afternoon. I was in my car by 1 PM, and on my way home I did stop at Costco.

Maybe our school canned food drive was on my mind (for the first time ever, no students in my homeroom have contributed a single food item), or maybe I was thinking that we needed snacks for both Tolerance Club and Writing Club, or maybe it was some sort of phantom holiday habit, but whatever it was, I suddenly believed it would be a great idea to go there.

There had been some changes since my last visit. If possible, I think the carts are even larger, and there were some tall refrigerated units near the back that were kind of new. Otherwise, the place seemed the same, but that is not why I went there. Like in the old days, I went to see what new quarry awaited this consumer. What huge things could I track down and fill my huge cart with to wait in that huge line and pay a relatively huge amount of money for, given the bounty of bargains I usually bag?

And, in the hour I was there, I walked every aisle and looked at hundreds of items. I almost bought many of them, too, but in the end I left behind the fleece pajamas, the fold-flat hand truck, all the boxed sets of books my students would borrow and probably never return, the 30 pack of neon post-its, the new phones, the 60 white cleaning cloths, and the ten pound bag of grapefruit, and in addition to the 29 food items I purchased for the drive, and the 108 snacks I bought, I only got 2 big jars of Dijon mustard, a pound and a half of assorted Lindnor truffles, A big thing of toasted coconut cashews for Heidi's brother, two pounds of grape tomatoes, 600 generic benadryl, and 350 extra strength Tylenol.

Hopefully, that Tylenol will last a while.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

A Fine Distinction

The counselor and her intern made their annual presentation on bullying yesterday. This activity changes from year to year because the intern designs it as part of the graduate program she or he is in. As such, it can be hit or miss, but from my observation, this year was a good one; all the students seemed to be engaged in the powerpoint and the activities. Several kids even asked me today if we were going to continue that conversation, which was a very good sign in that 1) they remembered what we were doing yesterday and 2) they actually wanted to keep going with it.

I, too, felt like I learned something yesterday. Talking with kids in a meaningful way about bullying can be really hard, because by sixth grade, they know all the right answers and what we want them to say. "Tell an adult," rolls off their tongues faster than they can pack their books and run out the door at the bell. Even so, no one wants to be a snitch, and it is rare that kids report mistreatment, even of themselves.

That's why the distinction that yesterday's presentation made was so powerful.

Snitching? That's telling to get someone in trouble.

Reporting? That's telling to help someone out of trouble.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Small Pleasures

If I had my way we'd never move our furniture. Well, okay, we really don't move our furniture, except for that time we did-- around 10 years ago. Even then we just did it to accommodate the larger couch we got, the one with the foot rest on my side, which I do enjoy, but I am still nostalgic for the other arrangement.

Fortunately for me, when it comes time to put up a Christmas Tree the foot rest part of the couch must be carried upstairs and the room put back the way it used to be. For one month out of the year, it's as if we never moved our furniture at all, and... we get a Christmas Tree!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Members Only

In theory, "homework club" seems like a splendid idea. Teachers volunteer ten afternoons a year to supervise an after school study hall for any student on the team who wants to come. As a result, every Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday we can offer all the supplies and know-how it takes to assist any willing scholar in getting a good head start on homework.

They key word, however, is "willing." After a full day of schooling, it's tough for most kids to sit for another hour. Even the snack we provide can't get rid of the ants in their pants. Because many parents insist that their kids attend, half of these jittery kids are not there by choice anyhow.

As such, homework club can become an epic struggle. Take today, for example, when the three boys I was sitting with completed a combined total of 5 questions in the hour we had. You can be sure I used all the tricks and tools I had to get that much from them, but the time of day and the number of kids in the room was too distracting for them, and in the end we were all frustrated.

It wasn't without its lighter side, though. "Look!" one of the boys told me. "I finished all this!" He brandished a work sheet under my nose.

"When did you do that?" I asked him.

"Now!" he answered triumphantly. "And you said I wasn't working."

"Well," I said taking a closer look, "it seems like you kind of rushed through this."

"Nah uh," he said with a pout. "I read every one of those."

"Really? Then how come you answered True or False to all these questions? Your choices were A, B, and C!"

He gave me a big shrug and an embarrassed grin. "Oops."

Monday, December 2, 2013

Room of Requirement

There has been a fair amount of shenanigans in Tolerance Club in the last few weeks. Don't misunderstand me; it's not that I don't appreciate the kids who voluntarily show up for an hour after school each Monday, and it's not that I don't know that kids have a lot of pent-up energy after seven solid hours of schooling. Even so, the behavior of the group has become, well, intolerable.

It was with this in mind that we adult sponsors planned to spend the first half of our meeting today having the students re-establish group "norms."

(Actually, I would have preferred to call them "rules" or even "agreements," because the term "norm" brings with it a lot of freight, especially in respect to the imposition of questionable business models on education-- I'm talking to you PLCs. Take for example this definition: Norms keep a group functioning as a system instead of a collection of individuals. Um. Does anyone else recognize that as a line from a dystopian novel? No? Well it should be.)

But I digress. So, we had the students brainstorm a list of rules that they could agree to follow when they attended Tolerance Club. The first one was to treat each other with respect, and when pressed, they defined that as sharing supplies and listening when others spoke. The list went on, and seemed pretty comprehensive until someone wanted to add "Have fun" for number eleven.

A hand shot up. "But what if we can't have fun and follow these rules?"

"I don't know. Is having fun more important than being respectful?" I countered.

"Maybe," he shrugged mischievously.

"Erase having fun then," I said, and we did.

"Wait," another student interjected. "You don't want us to have fun?" she asked with more than a hint of indignation.

"Oh, we want you to have fun," I told her, "It's just not required."

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Surprise Me

It's been a kind of a movie-book weekend: in addition to a Harry Potter marathon on TV, I've seen both Catching Fire and The Book Thief, two movies I was looking forward to after having read the books.

But while Potter rarely disappoints, the other two were a bit of a let down. Describing them as predictable seems a little unfair, since I had read the books, but I think that's the key. If you know the plot, then the movie has to deliver something that adds to the book. It might be the performances, the sets, or the special effects (points to the Harry Potter series for all of those), but there has to be something, otherwise what's the point?

Saturday, November 30, 2013


Our Thanksgiving holiday is nearly over. A week ago we were gathering for the first meal of the holidays and a week from now, We'll be decorating our Christmas tree. When I was a child, time was like an endless sidewalk stretching between right now, half an hour, and way too long to imagine, but now it's more like wide stepping stones across a slow flowing river; we hop from one to the next to the next. To stop often means no more than to simply look back, amazed at how quickly we have progressed, how far we have come.

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Food Wheel

If Thanksgiving is orange and gold and brown, full of rich, traditional foods comforting and satisfying in their earthiness, then for our family, the next day is not Black Friday but rather Red Friday. For dinner on that day, we always have pasta with marinara and sausage, along with a salad with plenty of lemon and vinegar. It is a meal as acidic and tangy as Thanksgiving is warm and redolent, a complimentary feast of sorts-- especially when you put out those leftover desserts.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

More than One Way to Roast a Bird

This year for Thanksgiving, my brother did an excellent job roasting the turkey-- mahogany brown and crisp on the outside, inside it was moist and delicious, and as we sat around the table after enjoying our feast, our conversation turned to other birds and other cooking methods. A classic story in our family is about the time my mom called from work to ask me to start dinner.

A teenager, I was less than enthusiastic about the request. "What do I have to do?" I answered.

My mother told me there was a whole chicken and a package of drumsticks. "Just tie the legs together and put it all in the oven at 350," she said.

"Why do I have to tie the legs together?" I asked her.

"So they don't come apart when they're cooking," she said.

"What difference does that make?" I wondered. "How do I do it?"

"You've seen me do it all the time," she answered, slightly exasperated, perhaps a little annoyed. "Just get some string and do it."

We hung up, but I was still confused. I could not ever recall her tying chicken legs together, but dutifully, I did as I was told, and when my mother got home from work she found a whole chicken and a chain of six neatly bound drumsticks roasting in the oven.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

411: How Can I Help You?

Every classroom in our building has a system-issued, land-line phone somewhere in it. Technically, the students are not supposed to have their mobile phones with them, but realistically? The requests to use our classroom phones become fewer and fewer with passing time.

Even so, we teachers make use of them, particularly to call the parents of students when we are concerned. Fortunately, we have access to the parents' numbers, because believe it or not, most kids don't know them, and how could they? To them their parents are just another entry on their contact list. Personally, I think that is irresponsible, but I digress.

Often times, the students themselves are present during these teacher-initiated conversations, and it is rare that the parents don't ask to speak to their sons and daughters personally before ending the call.

That's what was happening the other day in one of my colleague's rooms. She handed a student the phone, and when he had heard what his mom had to say, he turned to his teacher in confusion, holding the handset in front of him.

"How do I turn this thing off?" he asked.

She took it from his hand and hung it up.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013


And if I seemed a little grumpy today, perhaps it was because I walked out the door without my coffee. Not only did I forget it, I forgot to make it! I had no idea I was even missing something until I reached for it on my desk only to discover... well, you know.

Fingers crossed that having the next five days off will restore a few brain cells. Isn't that how it works? I forget.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Time to Set another Alarm

For years the method has worked. Radio at 5:15, alarm at 5:30, I usually rise around 5:45. Last night, though, my fitful dreams, centered around school and the book I'm reading, made any kind of deep sleep elusive, and so at 5:45, when they were talking about the possible hazards of a nicotine patch for pregnant women, I must have dozed off instead of getting up.

In fact it wasn't until 6:25 when my very busy dream about taking the Tolerance Club students to meet Bill Cosby with a radio journalist-- the reporter wore strange, high-wasted plaid flannel pants and offered one of the seventh graders a beer while Phylicia Rashad looked uncomfortably on-- gave way to the notion that something was terribly wrong, and Holy Crap!

I bolted to the shower. But not before I heard the end of that interview with Bill Cosby.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Potayto Potahto

One of the running bits in the movie Enough Said is how Toni Colette's housekeeper always puts things away in strange places-- hairbrushes in the silverware drawer, baseballs in the bathroom, etc. Our housekeeper only comes once a week, and she is generally very efficient, although at times there are signs of her haste to do a good job in the time she has. For example, she recently left the furniture polish can on the mantle (where it stayed for several days until I noticed it at a time when I wasn't sitting on the couch with no desire to get up).

I'm sure that we often share the blame for any confusion; certainly there are times when we make her job harder by neglecting to put some things properly away. Our pets also complicate her duties sometimes; they are well-loved and they have many possessions of their own scattered all about the place.

All of this is simply to explain why I didn't even blink an eye this morning when I discovered a catnip ball in the potatoes.

You have to admit, it kind of goes.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Good Tidings

Time with family,
a delicious meal,
and even a few snow flurries--
tonight, let us merry folk be of good cheer
for the holiday season comes just once a year!

Friday, November 22, 2013

Keep on the Sunny Side

It was gloomy and gray as I made my way the short distance to school this morning; the only bright spot was the day of the week.

With resolute positivity I ignored all that and took comfort in the small joys of my commute-- a fun song on the radio, perfect timing at the lights. Just a few blocks from my destination my attention was captured by a beautiful red maple tree made even more brilliant by the very filter of those dismal clouds.

"Oh my goodness," I gasped, but not at the glorious foliage; there was a rainbow sweeping through the overcast sky. My route took me directly toward it, and I imagined sharing its enchantment with students as I walked into the building.

But fat raindrops began to fall as I pulled into the parking lot, and by the time I locked my car the only rainbow in sight was formed by the garish panels of my big umbrella.

Thursday, November 21, 2013


I heard on the radio the other day that Mallomars are 100 years old this year.  

Wow! Why is that a thing? I thought.

Fortunately I had only to listen a bit more to hear that these chocolate-dipped marshmallow and graham cracker confections are only available in the cooler months of the year, when their chocolate coating won't be compromised. As such? Mallomars have a seasonal scarcity dynamic working for them. In fact, many people actually stock up on the cookies and keep them in their deep-freezes to dole out as special treats in those lazy, mallowmar-less, days of summer.

Well! It wasn't long before I realized that I'd never had a Mallomar. Happily, when I went to the grocery to satisfy my curiosity, they were both in season and on sale. And though I am not a big sweet eater, I would have to say that these cookies were nicely executed-- dark chocolate, sweet marshmallow, and tender graham cracker all united to make two pretty good little bites.

So now? I get it, Mallomars-- Happy 100th!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Vegetable Burritos

Tonight for dinner I made a dish that we first had fourteen years ago at a little bistro in Provincetown. These vegetable burritos are labor intensive (they have four separately prepared filling ingredients and just as many toppings), but they are one of Heidi's favorites, and I have a soft spot in my heart for them as well.

Back then, our now 18-year-old Josh was not quite four, and Heidi and I met him and his mom on Cape Cod for a few days of summer fun. Having known me for less than a year, it seemed pretty clear that Josh was still a little suspicious of this lady who was now somehow connected to his beloved Aunt Heidi. He liked to ignore me whenever possible, or answer me in single syllables when absolutely necessary.

One day the four of us decided to drive to P-town and go whale watching. On the ride out to that curl of the cape, I was in the backseat with Josh. He had some paper and crayons and Heidi and his mom were talking in the front, so one thing led to another and pretty soon Josh and I were yucking it up and trading drawings back and forth.

The whale watch itself is lost to my memory, but I do recall that after the cruise, we walked from the wharf into town to find a place to eat. At one point, we waited at a busy corner for the traffic to clear. Without thinking, I held out my hand to the little person standing to my right, and for the first time ever, Josh took it, and we crossed the street together.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


"She's not going to show up you know," Heidi told me as we headed out the door to meet a friend we hadn't seen in a few years.

"What are you talking about?" I said. "Let's go or we'll be late."

Who knows what happens? Life is busy, signals get crossed, feelings get bruised, even the closest of friends can drift apart.

We met Jen and her partner at the dog park nine years ago, and despite the fact that they were considerably younger than we were, we bonded over being same-sex couples with adorable puppies. Over the next couple of years we spent a fair amount of time together, celebrating when they got their second dog and eventually trying to help pick up the pieces when they split (right before we were all supposed to go on vacation together).

There was a lot of drama, but we were able to navigate the bumpy road of staying friends with both.

For a while.
Until we weren't.
And then we were friends with Jen.
Until we weren't.

What can I say? Life is busy, signals get crossed, feelings get bruised, even the closest of friends can drift apart.

A couple of weeks ago Jen sent me a message that she was applying for a job in our county. Could I help? I told her that if she got an interview, I maybe could, but I couldn't help with the first part.

Fingers crossed, she wrote back. Then, We should get together. Reconnect for real. Deflate any elephants and talk about how or why we lost touch. I really miss you all and I think it would be nice.

And that brings us to tonight, when Heidi and I had a perfectly lovely dinner by ourselves.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Word of the Day

Ever since we started our forced word study, word parts have become of greater interest to me. (What can I say? I am a learner at heart.) And as such, the word-a-day calendar one of my students so thoughtfully gave me last year has become of even more fascination and relevance than it was before.

Take for example quinquagenarian. I'd say we folks in our fifties deserve such a fancy turn of phrase. Nice word parts, too!

Sunday, November 17, 2013


It was a little gloomy when we parked at the Tidal Basin this afternoon, but the light filtering through the clouds actually made what was left of the yellow and orange foliage on those famous cherry trees really pop. The water itself was emerald green, and there were several cormorants diving for minnows as we walked the circuit.

It wasn't crowded, but we encountered our share of memorable fellow walkers to be sure, most notably the two guys in their 30s sitting on a bench, smoking cigars, and playing a video game, and the older woman talking to her smart phone, Are you a puppy? RUUUUFFF! GRRRRRRRR!

No doubt we made our own impression as well, and wouldn't it be disappointing if we didn't?

Saturday, November 16, 2013

There's Something About Words

I just finished reading a 400+ page Gothic-style novel which is a far cry from my usual fare. I guess I was looking for something along the lines of The Night Circus or even Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore when I stumbled onto The Thirteenth Tale. I chose it using my Kindle app, so I'm quite sure I was not aware of its length.

Prudently, I downloaded the free sample first, and the the first-person narrative description of Margaret reading the letter that will change her life on the palely-lit stairs leading from her father's bookstore to her apartment definitely drew me in, but it was the letter itself from Vida Winter that made me buy the rest of the book.

As Margaret says, There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.

OK it wasn't quite like that, but over the last ten days I have diligently followed my at-least-one-chapter-or-two-a-day regime, which is admittedly ironic, given the clearly high esteem in which books are held by the main characters in this one, until this morning. At a little beyond the halfway point my attention was captured, and it was only a couple of hours until I had finished the story.

And story is the right word for it, because although I cannot say it transcended either of the frameworks of fairy tale or Gothic novel, there definitely came a point for me when I was so involved that it almost felt like the way I remember being enthralled by stories when I was a child. And that was magical.

And that is what I work to help my students experience, because as soon as I finished? I wanted to read another book.

Friday, November 15, 2013


At a bit of a loss for inspiration as to what make for our evening meal, right before I left school this afternoon I hail-maried it and googled "dinner tonight recipe," and the first thing I found was this:

shiitake-kale-kimchi stew

Thanks Serious Eats!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Overheard in Writing Club

Grace complains so much about how she hates CJ that I swear he is her Mr. Darcy!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013


Years ago I worked with a woman with whom, although I liked her personally, I considered myself almost diametrically opposed to professionally. She was 12 or 15 years my senior and rarely hesitant to speak her mind, especially when she disagreed with someone or something which was often. I thought her lack of diplomacy was kind of funny, and it actually made her much more manageable as a team member since not too many people took her seriously.

She retired five years ago in robust disgust at where education was headed. We wished her well, but welcomed the idea of a different teacher with a more positive perspective to take her place. Since then our country has elected a new president (who has appointed a new secretary of education), our state has elected a new governor, our district has hired a new superintendent, and our school has changed principals. With all of them has come an increasing over-reliance on unnecessary standardization, bankrupt assessments, and invalid teacher evaluation plans.

All of a sudden, taking a walk outside at lunch, leaving at contract time, and otherwise disengaging from all manner of oppressive policies seems like a really good idea.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Best Laid Plans

I left what I thought would be a fun assignment for my students when I was out of the building last Friday:

Use your word study words to create a word search in the grid below. Create at least 10 clues using the definitions of your words. Be sure to tell how many letters are in each answer. The first one is done for you.

I even planned to allow them to complete their own word searches as their weekly quiz grade, but when I returned, I was disappointed at how few students managed to finish the assignment in the time they had, so today, I faced the issue head on, sharing my chagrin and asking for feedback as to why so many kids had trouble with the task. I wanted to fix it.

"We didn't get it," someone shrugged.

"What part?" I asked. "Show me where you were confused in the directions."


"I didn't understand how to put the words in," offered another.

"But I gave you an example," I reminded him.


Throughout the entire discussion, a student who had completed her word search nicely was waving her hand. Finally I called on her.

"You did a great job," I said. "Was there a problem?"

"Yes," she said. "All the people who didn't finish were talking too loudly!"

Monday, November 11, 2013

I Chose Poorly

I cussed a little today when I chose the wrong lane on the exit ramp. Truthfully, I think of it as a game, a game I like to win. The right lane is always more crowded, but they can turn right at the light, if possible. Left lane is stuck until green, so it's all about the traffic and timing.

Today, I was first in the left lane, chortling at the heavy cross-traffic, watching the car I would have been if I had chosen the sucker's lane all jammed up in my rear view. Then, an unexpected break in the oncoming congestion-- right lane cars are making the right like water in a sluice way; nothing can stop them; the not-me car and many others all pour onto the road before the light turns green and I can join them, far back in the flow. They have gained SEVERAL seconds on me that I know from experience I will NEVER get back.

Shaking my head and chastened, I head for the gym where the treadmill awaits me, no choice but to move forward, so to speak, there.

Sunday, November 10, 2013


Sunday morning of our weekend at the bay has evolved into a traditional breakfast challenge. We want a dish that uses as many of our leftovers as possible, but is completely different than anything we have eaten in the last two days. It started a few years ago when we took leftover cheese sauce and onions and turned them into a souffle. This year, the ingredients on hand were cold roasted chicken, rice, eggs, baby spinach, grape tomatoes, and feta cheese. In retrospect, it seems silly that it took so long to realize what the food was telling us:



Saturday, November 9, 2013

Room with a View

AT 6:49 this morning I did not even have to lift my head from my pillow to behold a deep orange ring banding the horizon and the sun rising from the dark blue Chesapeake Bay. Within moments, the indigo dawn blanched to cerulean and all the red fire was drained from the sun, leaving that familiar yellow orb in a cold November morning sky, and I pulled the down comforter up around my chin and went back to sleep.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Flocking Together

In my opinion, the ideal vacation rental house has very few personal belongings in it. Beyond a well-stocked kitchen, there might be some books and a few other things to keep it from being as sterile as, say, a hotel room, but too many non-generic items makes it hard for a renter to feel at home. 

This weekend we have returned for the third time to a "magical bay-front home," which is a vacation rental managed by the owner. Although it would be difficult to live up to the eight page confirmation letter, it really is a lovely location, perched  atop Calvert Cliffs with a naturally commanding view of the Chesapeake Bay. In years past, we have spent our November Saturdays scouring the windy beach for fossils and sea glass, and we are looking forward to doing the same tomorrow.

The house itself is pretty nice, too, although it does have its quirks, especially in the decor department. Case in point? Over the years there has been a definite increase in the number of carved wooden birds. Two life-sized swans have been joined by several gulls and sandpipers, a couple of ducks and a few other miscellaneous avians. The fake birds are everywhere, and they easily outnumber the people, but the creepy blue-eyed sea captain lamp doesn't seem to mind at all.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Come to my Window

"I'm going lesbian with my NaNoWriMo!" So declared one of the eighth grade girls in our writing club today.

"No!" her friend advised. "Don't do that!"

"Why?" asked the first student.

"Because," answered her friend, "you should just go ahead with your planned plot, and then just slip the lesbian thing in. That way you can tell the story, but you won't alienate anybody."

Her friend seemed unconvinced.

Once I picked my jaw up off the floor, I marveled to myself at how much things have changed, not only in the 21 years I've been teaching, but more so even in the last 3 or 4. Not a single student thought that this conversation was anything but two writers talking about their craft.


Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Siege Mentality

We got this message from our principal today, buried among her notes and reminders:

We are running low on paper. 120 cartons were ordered for the first 4-5 months of this school year. The next paper order will not be placed until mid-January. Please use copy paper very thoughtfully.

Such a shortage would be the first of its kind in my 21 years of teaching, which is as it should be, considering that we work in one of the wealthiest counties in the country. And while I would never condone wasting paper, I did bristle at the implication that there might not be enough to go around if we continue our thoughtless, educational ways. Shame on me for creating materials for my students.

Can you guess the first reaction of several people I know? They went and got a few reams to lock up in anticipation of hard times.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Get Out the Vote

In these times, when I remind myself each morning to strive to be patient, positive, present, and productive, it can be discouraging to consider the exercise of my civic right and duty only as an imperative to vote against a candidate.

But that is definitely why I hotfooted it down to the polls this afternoon. Don't disappoint me, Virginia.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Making the Hard Decisions

As I mentioned previously, my kitchen window has stayed open since early summer to provide us with a 6 X 30 connection with the world outside. Oh, I suppose if I was serious about my little nature portal I would have taken the screen out, too, but my commitment stopped short of letting bugs in.

31 degree air pouring in this morning made it a little nippy as I packed lunches, but I soldiered through despite my slightly stiff fingers on the knowledge that when the sun came out? It would get up to 49.

Maybe I was in a bit of denial; truly I like the window open.

Our house cleaner has a bit of a different sensibility. Over the 8 years she's been cleaning our house on Mondays, we've gotten a few subtle and not so subtle hints about the way she thinks things should be. For example, after she's been here, we can tell that the coffee table should be much closer to the couch, the dog's toy box should be closed, the cleaning supplies belong upstairs, the bath mat should go on the towel rack, and the tooth brushes? To the right of the sink, please.

Oh. And the kitchen window should be closed in cold weather.


Sunday, November 3, 2013


Read the Paris Review.

I mean it.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Case in Point

Every teacher has been taught not to scold the whole group for the transgressions of some of its members. It's not fair and it's not effective. Ohhhh, but sometimes it's so hard not to do. Sometimes it seems like almost every single kid is conspiring to turn your lesson plan upside down, and then it seems like nothing would be so satisfying as to give them a sharp scolding culminating in the most epic guilt trip of their lives.

 I must confess that I know from experience that such venting can indeed be very gratifying in the few seconds it takes to deliver it, but ultimately, just as you have been warned, you lose credibility with your students, some because they were innocent of the charges you brought against the group, and some because they didn't buy into the requirements in the first place, and your outburst has not convinced them.

I was reminded of this fundamental principal of management today, as Heidi and I stood for 90 minutes at the final meeting of our community garden and were collectively reprimanded several times for things I knew we were not guilty of. I always turn off the water, lock the gate securely, keep my tools inside my garden, replace the common tools neatly in the shed (cleaned of course), show up for my scheduled work days, and mind the edges of my plot. By the end of the meeting, I was fuming, but Heidi seemed remarkably unaffected.

Later, when I was complaining about the experience to my mom and my brother, they were very sympathetic. "I hated that in school," my brother said. "I always knew I had done nothing wrong!"

My mom nodded.

"Not me," Heidi said. "Usually? I was the one they were talking to, and

Then she laughed wickedly and asked, "How did we get together, anyway?"

Friday, November 1, 2013

Endless Summer

Tomorrow is the closing day of the season at our community garden. That may be, but today? It was in the upper 70s and just Wednesday I picked a few more eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers from the hardy hearty plants in my plot.

No doubt there will be more to harvest tomorrow, which is certainly an added bonus to the longest weekend of the year.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The News from Isabel's House

Where everyone always wags their tails and no one ever has anything bad to say about the rest of the pack.

AND the beer is always cold.

AND there's always a vegan option on the menu.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Little Early

Overheard through my open kitchen window:

Grandma: And this house has two pumpkins! Isn't that nice?

Toddler: Do they have candy, too?

Grandma: Maybe we'll find out tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Educational Outings

What kid doesn't love the offer of a field trip? Whether or not said trip delivers on its promise, a day away from school is something to look forward to.

When I was a kid, a field trip meant a visit to the store to buy a couple of special items for my lunch. In addition to my usual sandwich and piece of fruit, on days when the school bus would whisk us away to a special destination, I could also pick out a Hostess cake or pie and a can of soda to take with me.

The soda was never my favorite, perhaps because my mom once read in a magazine or somewhere that freezing your canned beverage the night before and then wrapping it in foil would allow it to serve the double purpose of both drink and ice pak. A good theory, maybe, but I have distinct memories of steel cans bowed out on both ends and trying unsuccessfully to enjoy very messy sodas, both frozen and flat.

The dessert on the other hand was much more exciting. I usually chose a lunate cherry pie with shocking, almost blood-red filling so sweet it made my teeth hurt. I might have liked apple better, but their apple was not nearly as good as my mom's. (She didn't make cherry; if she had, those pink coconut cupcakes might have called my name.)

Tomorrow my team is going on a field trip to the corn maze, so today after finalizing the logistics of taking 107 kids to the country, I headed off to the grocery store where I bought a couple of special treats for my lunch tomorrow. Some things really needn't change.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Live From School...

I have written before about our new grade book where anything we put in there is instantly visible to parents. As with so much new technology (ahem, Obamacare) there was a predictable implementation curve. On conference day volunteers sat in a room just down the hall from mine ready to show parents how to access this new tool, and anecdotally, many of the folks I met with confessed and complained to having problems with accessing their children's grades.

I think that all that static might be on the decline now, though, for today when I posted the results of my students' weekly word study quiz it was only a matter of moments before my email pinged. I see L. bombed today's quiz... the message started.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Sabbath Day

When I was a child, Sundays were devoted to mass and football. For years, both were mysterious rituals to me, full of singing and sighing and chanting and cheering. I probably developed an understanding of the church before I grasped the rules of football, but there was a time in my life when I was an enthusiastic devotee of both.

That time is not this, and I have written here before about how much I enjoy taking advantage of the off times created by other people in this congested area and their Sunday traditions. Runing errands in the morning or at game time is a snap around here. Church is another post altogether.

The last 3 Sundays, though? Our houseguest has tuned in to her beloved hometown team, and I confess I have been drawn back into the fold. Just today I spent my afternoon in the rocking chair eating cheese and crackers, chips and dip, and rooting for one team to fail so that another might have an advantage, never mind their hateful name.

Could mass be far behind?

Saturday, October 26, 2013


This year our summer was so temperate that, no matter the weather outside, I was able to keep the small window over the sink in my kitchen open. Facing southeast, it is sheltered by the front porch roof, and so whatever fresh air it allowed was cooled by that shade. In July and August, I loved it most in the early morning when the cool dewy dampness greeted me as I filled the kettle for coffee, although the warm and fragrant evening air was always a nice balance to the necessary chill of our a/c.

That window has stayed open for months now, a trusty envoy to the world outside, and it wasn't until I stumbled down to a chilly 50 degrees this morning that I thought perhaps I should move that pile of green tomatoes possibly ripening on the sill and push it shut. Oh, I confess that I shivered a bit as tepid water steamed in the sink, but it took no more than a lungful of that fall air, pure and yes, cold, to convince me that this day would warm.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Key Concepts

Credibility: difficult to establish when you use a PowerPoint presentation full of typos and other mistakes with a roomful of teachers. 

Thursday, October 24, 2013


Oh, I don't take many online quizzes, but this one caught my interest:

What state should you live in?

Too bad Paris or Switzerland aren't states. I'm sure I would belong there.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Funeral for the General

Taps can choke you up anytime, but Taps played in a windswept cemetery as a single autumn leaf floats from the rusty trees above the bugler, the nation's capital stark white in the distance against an unbearably blue sky?

And don't even get me started on the bagpipes playing Danny Boy.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Take the Girl Outta Jersey

A colleague attended a wedding in Philly over the weekend, and she told us all about it at lumch today. The bride and groom rented out the whole Franklin Institute for the reception, and guests had the run of the place, including endless trips through the giant heart. One of the bride's uncles was a mummer, so there was some parading and strumming. At the end of the evening, any guests who stuck it out to the end got cheese steaks, hot pretzels, and of course dome wooded ice.

Idn't that bee-yoo-duh-falll!?

Monday, October 21, 2013

The New English

This year, because of circumstances beyond my control, my students will be introduced to and expected to learn 5 word parts per week. They get the words and definitions on Monday and have the week to study them and find examples in context. The next Monday there's a quiz and five more.

I have always been a committed process-oriented educator, which is a sloppy and time-consuming approach to learning. Today? Half the class period was dedicated to the quiz, which I was able to grade and record before the last student left my room.

The scores were generally bell-curvy and correlated with the existing achievement gaps that our district (not to mention our nation) struggles with.

This is what they mean by working smarter not harder, and lord knows I could use the time, but at what expense?

Sunday, October 20, 2013


In general we're a pretty quiet household. Sure, we listen to public radio in the morning and sometimes at night. I may also occasionally watch the kitchen TV when I'm cooking, and sometimes we play music, but other than that, it's rarely more than an hour a day of pre-recorded TV that shatters the hush of our two voices.

I know the same is not true for others, and when we have guests they are welcome to watch as much TV as they wish. Heidi and I take it in stride, but I can't say the same for our cat, Penelope.

Take yesterday, for example: our current house guest enjoys having the television on as background noise. "Watch whatever you want," she says when she pushes the on button in the morning. I take her at her word; in some ways it's kind of fun to have an excuse to flip through the channels. Yesterday morning, I settled on Animal Planet, because I knew Heidi would like it, too.

And she did, but not as much as Penelope. All day long, our little cat was glued to the screen. Whiskers forward, ears straight up, she sat alert watching the endless procession of dogs and cats and kittens and puppies.

It almost made me think we should leave it on for her.

Saturday, October 19, 2013


Years ago when we were in our early 20s, my brother and sister and I lived together at the beach. People were always coming to visit, and certainly part of our popularity was that we were a mere two blocks from the shore, but there were other reasons, too. I first met my sister-in-law when she came as an exhibitor in the boardwalk art show. I told her we were having tuna and green beans for supper and she was surprised by the grilled steaks and fresh beans; she was expecting a casserole.

Another time, one of my brother's friends showed up in the middle of the night after catching her boyfriend in bed with her best friend. For three days she talked it through with Bill and the rest of us, too. One night she told us she dreamed that when her friend came to ask forgiveness, she took a pair of scissors and grabbed her friend by the hair, roughly chopping her long locks to chin-length. "I'll forgive you when that grows back," she had said in the dream, but she never did.

Shattered by an ugly divorce, my cousin came to stay around the same time. We did what we could when she arrived on the bus with her clothes in a garbage bag, but it didn't seem like enough.

Then there was the time my best friend from high school picked up a couple of stray dogs on the side of the interstate on her way down. She had to circle back around and lure them into the car with slices of cheese she bought at the next exit. They had over 200 ticks on them, but she took them to the vet and a groomer, and in the end, found one of them a good home and kept the other as a beloved pet. 

Did I mention we were moving that weekend? We were, but it didn't matter. Back then, we took everything in stride. Being adults was new to us and nothing seemed more extraordinary than that.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Sunny Side

If you asked me what my favorite season is, I would answer without hesitation. I love fall.

As vacation-rich as teachers seem to be, our time off is rarely self-determined. Even so, every year I promise myself that I will find some time to enjoy the glories of autumn. It usually turns out that such a vow is just as realistic as elves and reindeer going to the islands for Christmas. 

This year health, family, and friends have forced me to take some days off from school, and rather than look at the circumstances as gigantic inconveniences,  I can't help but embrace them for giving me what I have wished for for years: blue skies, mountain air, fall foliage, a happy dog, fresh-picked apples, kettle corn, a fire in the fireplace, and time to enjoy it all.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

National Shake Out

Q: How do you get a roomful of sixth graders to assume and silently maintain the drop, cover, and hold on position for a 2 minute earthquake?

A: Bribe them with candy.

Seriously, what else is there?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013


Over the weekend my 18-year-old nephew was home from college for the first time and we were lucky to spend an evening with him. Our family always has spirited conversations and this occasion was no exception. We are usually pretty good at agreeing to disagree, but when Treat began to disparage nostalgia in general, it was hard to let his point go, especially considering his youth.

Let me be honest: I missed the 70s, my 7 to 17 years, the minute they ended, and recognizing songs and trends of the 60s when they became nostalgic was a major turning point in my psyche-- perhaps the moment I realized I was an adult (and that everything comes around again, which helps explain Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley).

I hated the 80s, and so those throwbacks did little for me. Now it's the 90s that are coming back. My first reaction was denial. Surely that decade couldn't have been long enough ago that we are revisiting it? And yet we are: the X-files, Full House, Friends, Counting Crows, Sonic Youth, Bush, Goosebumps and Babysitters Club are all waiting just offstage for their encores, not to mention stirrup pants and blazers with rolled up sleeves.

But you know what? I liked the 90s. I started teaching, bought my first house, and met the love of my life. My older nephews were born in that decade; I went to Maine and South Dakota and back to Europe. Sure, there was heartbreak and loss as well, but it was also when the 70s came back around.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Raising the Bar

My dad was a guy who loved to sit at a bar. Despite the fact that he was confirmed introvert, I have countless memories of going in to fetch him when we were finished at the museum, or with shopping, or the movie was over, or it was time to board the plane, and with a sweeping gesture he would drain his beer and announce to the guy on the next stool, "This is the one I was telling you about!"

"Pleased to meet ya," his new friend would say.

"Mom says it's time to go," I would tell my dad.

Who knows what stories he told? All I know is that, personally, I'm not a bar person. My cousin, on the other hand, is a bit more like her uncle. Since she's staying with us, in the past few days I've spent more time in bars than I have in the last... 30 years?

In general, though, I confess to have found them to be very genial places. In fact, tonight when we entered a local establishment to enjoy their happy hour specials, we were haled by one of the servers. "You came back!" she greeted us. "AND you're in my section again!"

Golly! How long might it be until we're the ones she was telling them about?

Monday, October 14, 2013

Numbers Game

In my "progressive" school system, we used to treat student success on high-stakes standardized tests as a necessary evil; but now those unreliable numbers are gaining major traction as a valid measure of student, teacher, and school success. Clearly some of it is pragmatism, but how can calculating the number of sub-group students (to the tenths place) who must pass so that the school can achieve our federally mandated annually measured objectives be construed as anything but cynical?

I can just hear the conversations in our PLC now. Dang! We missed it my three tenths of an Asian.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Hardcore Connoisseur

Out running errands today, my cousin and I stopped into a new restaurant to have a snack. Outfitted in lots of rustic wood and copper, the place advertises itself as serving mostly locally sourced food. Since it was Sunday, the football games were playing in the bar, and so we grabbed a seat in there. The guy next to us was munching on a small bucket of popcorn. "I love popcorn!" My cousin said.

"It's free!" he told us helpfully.

"Where do you get the popcorn?" my cousin asked the waitress when she came to take our order.

The young woman frowned. "I'm not sure where it comes from," she answered, "I believe it's local, but I'll ask in the kitchen to find out."

The guy next to us laughed. "You get it at the bar!"

Now that's local.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Stalking Chipmunks

Sometimes when I walk my dog it's all business-- we have places to go and deadlines to meet, either during or after our little constitutional. Other times, like this afternoon, we have plenty of time and it's really about the fresh air and exercise. On those occasions, I give Isabel the "ok" and see where she wants to go. As it turns out, it's often on to the grass, along the bushes on the edge, and in tightening concentric circles, until she lifts her head and cocks it as if to wonder how we ended up there and what happened to that chipmunk.

I'll leave the metaphor to you.

Friday, October 11, 2013

All Good

At 7 PM the seven and under item line in the prepared food section at Wegmans wound its way halfway back to the bakery. I stepped in the queue with a little dim sum snack to kill the time while I waited to pick up my cousin at her 50th highschool reunion happy hour. With only one cashier, we crept forward slowly. I idly listened to the conversation of the three people ahead of me, a mom with her teenaged son and adult daughter. They had all just gotten off work and they were tired and hungry. It was only then that I noticed they were pushing a full cart toward the super-express lane.

After a fleeting flirtatation with aggravation, I let it go; by this time we had all waited patiently in a long line, and since there were three of them, I reasoned they could rightfully split the cart into separate transactions whiich would ltake even longer. Soon enough I paid for my dumplings and water and headed upstairs to read in one of the easy chairs and watch the rain outside the window, but not before they  apologized to me and the cashier when they realized their mistake.

Thursday, October 10, 2013


My students were working on effective verb choice again today. after reading the poem Same Song by Pat Mora yesterday, I asked them to write a single sentence that relied on the verbs to tell a story. This is not an easy concept, but since it was only one sentence, I was able to engage almost every student in a dialog to critically analyze and revise the first draft.

The boy tip-toed quietly across the room trying not to be seen.

Me: How do you not tip-toe quietly? Isn't that the point?

Student: The boy tip-toed across the room, trying not to be seen.

Me: What room was it?

Student: The boy tip-toed across the kitchen, trying not to be seen.

Me: What did he want in the kitchen?

Student: The boy tip-toed across the kitchen trying not to be seen, took the chips, and ran back to his room.

Me: Didn't they see him when he ran back to his room?

Student: Arghhhh

Me: Try starting with the chips.

Student: The boy grabbed the chips...

Me: Go on...

Student: and tiptoed across the kitchen and back to his room.

Me: Nice!

A few other sentences from the day:

The clean dishes sparkled like diamonds in the dish drain.

"No!" I gasped as my mother collapsed to the ground.
The bright orange flames of the fire flickered in the darkness of night, emanating warmth and heat that comforts me.
The young boy trudged through the thick Alaskan snow and clenched his stomach as he fell to the ground in hunger.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Bass Ackwards

"I liked your math class waaaaaay better than I like my teacher this year," I overheard a former student tell my colleague this afternoon as they chatted in the hall outside my room.

He was unflattered, skeptical even. "Why? What's wrong?"

"She makes us watch all these YouTube videos with this boring old man for homework," the student complained.

"Backwards classroom!" The math teacher said. "That's kind of cool-- lesson at home, help with the practice at school. What don't you like about that?"

"We'll for one thing, if you don't do the homework, you're totally lost!" The student explained in exasperation.

I couldn't resist joining the conversation. "Then DO your homework!" I shouted from my desk.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Rare and Unexpected

We did a verb sort in my class today. Using their independent reading, the thesaurus, and small group discussions, students found the three strongest verbs they could and wrote them on post-it notes. Next, their "sticky stacks" were collected and randomly distributed to other kids in the room. Those students were directed to sort the verbs into the categories of "Snaps," "Crackles," "Pops," or "Sings."

We defined the headings beforehand as verbs that insist on your attention or break things (snap), verbs that have lots of energy (crackle), verbs that stand out from everything around them (pop), and verbs that just hit the right note (sing). The next step was for students to begin to curate their own verb collection for their writer's notebook. They chose the ten verbs that spoke to them most and recorded them. Each student also had a tiny green dot with which to vote for their favorite verb of the day.

Lastly, students wrote a sentence, not just using that favorite verb of theirs, but showcasing it, letting it shine in glorious context.

I liked this activity for many reasons. We reviewed a key part of speech and practiced dictionary skills. Kids discussed how published authors use verbs with their peers. They evaluated many verbs and chose the ones they liked, and then used them in a strong sentence.

But most of all, I liked that the number one verb of the day my students chose was wonder.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Zero Sum

"Give me my pencil!" demanded one of my students of the girl next to her.

"Her classmate looked appalled. "Give me my pencil," she demanded in return.

Both girls were talking about the same pencil, an inexpensive, bright green mechanical job.

I intervened. "Whose pencil is it?" I asked with authority.

"Mine!" they chorused.

Considering the impossibility of their stories both being true and the distraction their dispute was causing the class, I asked them to step outside for a moment to work it out. A minute later I joined them. "What have you decided?" I asked sternly.

"We've decided we are going to look back on this and laugh," one of them told me.

"Mm hmm," I said. "Well, whose pencil is it?"

"Mine!" they both insisted.

Maybe they should run for congress.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

When Life Gives You Beet Shreds...

Make red sauerkraut!

Let the lacto-bacchanalia begin.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

As Vegan as You Wanna Be

Years ago, my friend Leah joked about becoming a semi-vegan. "I think I could do it," she said, "as long as I could have bacon." It turns out, Leah was ahead of the curve. No less renowned foodie than Mark Bittman recently published VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6 PM to Lose Weight and Restore Your Health... for Good, chronicling his own flexible compromise with veganism.

Certainly, I eat more healthy since Heidi's gone vegan. If I had to guess, I'd say upwards of 75% of my diet is animal free and plant strong, but there's no question that I relish that other 25%.

Cooking for other people adds another challenge to finding that middle ground. For example, tonight was Emily's birthday dinner, and so as I planned the menu, I was of two minds. What would everyone enjoy? and What could Heidi eat? 

In the end, the meal I prepared was vegan, except for the parts that weren't. We had potato and pea quesadillas, black lentils with roasted butternut squash coins and green harissa, and for the carnivores among us, crispy slices of braised pork shoulder. Dessert was a duo of mini creme caramel (not vegan) and tiny dark chocolate pot de creme (vegan!), served with balsamic figs and raspberries.

Not a bad compromise, eh?

Friday, October 4, 2013

Come Together Right Now

On Facebook, NPR asks, "What's the best thing that happened to you this week?"

First of all, NPR, I would like to thank you for redirecting my thinking towards the positive and away from the meh.

And now, I am pleasantly surprised that I have a few things to choose from, but the BEST thing would have to be seeing my brother and sister-in-law, talking to my mom, and face-timing my sister and her family, all within 22 hours.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

A Little Bird

Since last week I have been live tweeting snippets of overheard dialog along with my own acerbic (yet incredibly accurate) observations of the meetings I have attended.

I like this outlet for my restless (and let's be honest, critical) mind.

#teachingideas #schooloftracey

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Fifth Annual RSVP

Wow! We've been doing this a while!

As in past years, I gave the students a writing prompt today to get a baseline of their writing skills. Their pieces will be scored holistically using a modified version of the state rubric. (Shout out to Roula! We're still using your materials.) We'll give them another prompt in early June to measure their progress for the year.

The topic was the same as it has been the last four years:

Your principal wants to invite a celebrity speaker to your school. Think about the celebrity you would choose to speak; then write a letter to persuade your principal to invite this person. Be sure to include convincing reasons and details to support your choice.

And with the largest margin of victory ever, despite the government shut-down:

President Obama (He earned a full 13% of the suggestions, which is also impressive given the wide open field.)

Mr. Obama was followed by his wife,

Michelle Obama (6%)

and then with a couple of vote a piece,

Gabby Douglas
Justin Bieber
Lebron James
Lionel Messi
Dexter King
Cristian Ronaldo
Rick Riordan

and the rest, quite an interesting bunch of folks themselves:

Hope Solo
Katy Perry
Taylor Swift
Lulu Delacar
Michael Jordan
Drew Brees
Robert Griffin III
Michele Leonhart
Stephen Zeitels
Phil Mickelson
Johnny Depp
Lana Del Rey
Alex Morgan
Bobby Hill
Abby Wambach
Nelson Mandela
Morgan Freeman
Suzanne Collins
Asap Rocky
Kobe Bryant
Hugh Jackman
Big Time Rush
Dwight Howard
Adam Sandler
Roblox Committee
Jackie Chan
Austin Mahone

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Always on Best Behavior

As I go about my business in this big city small town, I am used to being hailed by students and former students alike, pausing in my errands to greet them and their friends and families. I try to be unfailingly friendly.

Years ago I broke the habit of honking at anyone in anger; it was after an aggressive driver flipped me off and zoomed ahead of me to brake suddenly. Clearly dissatisfied with my driving, she had a chance to explain herself to me in detail 10 minutes later when I was introduced as her summer school supervisor.

Cussing in public has been a little harder to give up; I like to think I use profanity effectively with a deliberate wink to its shock value, but other people probably have a different opinion.

Tonight though, I left the grocery store scratching my head a bit. I was searching for tortillas when I heard a clarion voice call, "Ms. S!" I felt the corners of my mouth lift in their public smile as I looked up to greet the young person behind the voice.

"Hello..." I started before realizing I had no idea who I was talking to. She was a bubbly kid of middle school age, but I am quite sure we have never been introduced.

"Mom! This is Ms. S. She's a teacher at my school!" the girl continued with impeccable manners.

"Pleased to meet you," I said, shaking her hand.

"What do you teach?" she asked.

"Sixth grade English," I answered.

"But... not on the Stingrays?" she said.

"No! She's a Dolphin," her daughter said. "My friend Maddie has her."

I shrugged and nodded.

"Nice to meet you. Have a nice evening," the mom said, and I was off free to go. Having found my tortillas, I cast a bit of a guilty look over my shoulder and turned down the wine and beer aisle.