Thursday, January 31, 2013

Oh, Genie!

All week long my students have been pestering me about the Genie. When will we know whose wishes were granted they ask? I don't mind at all, in fact I'm really happy, because clearly they are engaged and invested in the assignment.

Five years ago when we first came up with this activity, the teacher that I collaborate with and I actually planned to read through each group and decide whose wish would be granted. We talked about assessment guidelines and criteria and thought long and hard about how to make it a fair and valuable lesson.

Finally on the day before we had promised the kids the Genie was going to reply, we hit upon the following solution:

The genie listened to each wish. When the last person was finished, he stood silently for a moment before he spoke.

"Very well," he said, folding his arms across his chest. "We must find happiness in our journey through life without always searching for it. True happiness is not having what you want, but rather wanting what you have. However, I sympathize with those who have lost what they value, and these wishes I will grant.

Tonight I'm wondering if the Genie would grant my wish, the desire to live a worry-free life. Did I ever have that? I'm going to have to say no.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Tales from the Science Fair

The Effect of Temperature on Growing Crystals

Me: So how did you measure the crystals? By weight? By length?
Student: I just took off the cover and looked at them.
Me, pointing at graph: So, what happened in this trial? It was a lot longer than the others.
Student: I have NO idea. Maybe I used less borax?
Me: So, what would you do differently if you ran this experiment again?
Student: I would kick my dad out of the apartment! He ruined everything!

The Speed of Rodents in a Maze

Heidi: So why did you pick hamsters and guinea pigs?
Student: Believe it or not, they are the most athletic of rodents!
Heidi: Do you have research that shows this?
Student: Mmmm. Yes?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Missing Something?

The all-school science fair is tomorrow, and so especially with the unexpected day off yesterday, you can imagine that our hallways were literally buzzing with sixth graders assembling their final presentation boards. Everywhere you looked, one of a hundred kids was typing, proofing, printing, reprinting, cutting, and gluing. Shreds of brightly colored paper littered the carpets of each classroom.

And so it was that of course I agreed when a small group of students asked if I would stay until the late bus to help them finish up. An inveterate procrastinator myself, I know what it's like to work right down to the deadline.

As they were cleaning up, I walked around to take a last look at their work. One student had been at it for hours. She had her title, all of her headings, and some cool illustrations. "Where's your graph and data table?" I asked.

"Oh, I don't have those," she said.

I was startled. "Well, where's your data? I'll help you make those," I offered.

She shrugged. "I don't have any."

"What!!??" My jaw literally dropped open. "But, your board says your project was The Effect of Music on Memory."

"That's right," she told me, "and I know from  personal experience that you only have to hear a song twice before you know most of the words."

"No, no, no," I cried. "You were supposed to do an experiment! We could have been working on that instead of this!" I swept my hand across the table in dismay.

"Why would we do that?" she asked. "The board is due tomorrow."

Monday, January 28, 2013


My psychic sumpin sumpin must be on the fritz. I was sure the freezing rain this morning would give us a delayed opening at best, so you could have bought me with a quarter when I found out that schools were closed. Don't get me wrong, it was a pleasant surprise, but still a surprise.

Likewise, I just knew the book, Wonder by RJ Palacio was going to win the Newbery, but it turned out going to a book I sort of despised, The One and Only Ivan. (What can I say? It's about a gorilla in a two bit zoo. Sad stuff.)

I predict that I won't make any predictions for a while. What are the odds on that one?

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Blast from the Past

We saw Argo today, and for once, I was glad I knew how a movie would all turn out. The film was still very suspenseful, but much less stressful. (Thank you, Genie!)

More than anything, though, I really liked seeing 1979 and 1980 again. The setting of the movie was like a visit from an old friend. Oh sure, the glasses were outrageous, and the hair styles were a bit regrettable, and the smoking? In the office! On the plane! Oh, I don't miss that at all, and of course the whole America Held Hostage thing was really no fun either.

But still, seeing all those things that were so very familiar then and are completely gone now, made me more than a little nostalgic for my own days of expat life, flying Swissair and riding in VW Vans, and of course, being 17 and knowing everything.

Alas, that was another century.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

My Next Career

Not sure what, but despite the frigid temps this week, I do have my eye on a fancy ice cream maker. No doubt I could put my vegan skills to good work with that!

Hmmm.... It might be best to buy it while I have this career to pay for it.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Oi! Ten Thousand Years Will Give You such a Crick in the Neck

Every year when my students are writing fiction, I give them an assignment to test how well they know the character they have created. In a scenario completely separate from their own story, they are asked to imagine that their character is with a group of people on a beach when...

Someone finds an old bottle with a cork in it. They all gather around to see what's inside, but the glass is cloudy. Someone else suggests pulling the cork, and as they try to pry it out, the bottle drops, hits a rock, and smashes. The next thing they know, blue smoke is pouring out of the shattered bottle. The group stands there in amazement as the vapor takes a form-- it's a genie!

The genie takes a deep breath and then speaks in a raspy voice. "What a relief to be out of there." He stretches and looks around, smiling at them. Then he shakes his head, confused. "But-- where is my bottle?" He spies the fragments being washed out with the tide. "Oh no-- everything I own was in there! That bottle's been in my family for centuries." His smile has been replaced by a frown.

He turns to the group and speaks again, his voice growing stronger with each word. "In return for freeing me, you may each make one wish. However, since you destroyed my home, only one of you will have your wish granted. Wish wisely."

They have to write how their character reacts to this situation. The task is further complicated by the fact that the "group" on the beach actually consists of other students' characters, all making competing wishes.

It's always interesting to read what my students have their characters wish for. In the majority of cases, the fictional folks are barely disguised extensions of the kids in my class, which is to be expected.

Many wish for unlimited wishes, but as I overheard one of my students telling another, "That is the most shallow wish EVER." Lots of others wish for material things; a few nice kids always wish for the genie to have his bottle back.

Year after year I preside over their fantasies, asking questions and clarifying the task as necessary, but I never engage in any wishful thinking of my own. Today was an exception, though. I'm not sure why, but in a brief moment of quiet I considered my own desires, and I knew exactly what I wanted.

I would just wish my worries away. Who needs another wish than that?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Mind Over Matter

In my house, we're not allowed to say that we're sick. We can describe our symptoms, sure, but to take that extra step and actually define ourselves existentially as unhealthy or ill? No way! We are sooooo much more than that one, temporary, condition.

That said, I have a really, really bad sore throat. I hope I'm not coming down with something.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

I Feel Your Pain

"I'd like to talk about sexual harassment for a few minutes," the counselor told my class today.

"Oh yeah!" one student blurted, "I did that last year."

There was a moment of silence before her peers jumped on her misstatement, and it was only seconds before she was in tears. It all happened so fast, that although the counselor and I addressed the issue as quickly as we could, she was inconsolable for a minute or two.

"Everyone says things they don't exactly mean," I told her and the class. "Why, just yesterday I was telling another teacher about an email everyone was talking about, but I was sure I didn't get. I said, I looked everywhere-- I checked my inbox, I checked my trash, and I checked my junk.

A few eyes widened. I nodded. "Yep," I confessed, "she reminded me never to check my junk at school."

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

What's Your Emergency?

The other night we pulled into our parking lot road weary and with several trips to unload. Lately it seems that the neighbors have increased their fleets of automobiles, and so even at our quiet end of the complex, parking is at a premium. As such, our space was across the lot from our home, giving us an extra thirty yards or so to tote our cargo.

When at first I cut the engine, I noticed a very still figure in the drivers seat of the car to my left. Not wanting to stare, but well aware of the oddness, I sneaked a peak each time I returned to the car for another load. It was our neighbor's vehicle, and the person inside, while well-bundled against the cold was clearly our neighbor, her head bowed to the steering wheel.

We made a bit of a ruckus as we unloaded; we called back and forth to each other, and the dog was with us, too, but she never moved or reacted in any way. Finally, I did what anyone else in my situation might do-- I made Heidi go knock on the window to see if everything was all right.

As Heidi approached the car, I lurked just inside our open door, ready to react to any emergency. She rapped several times. "Is everything all right?" I heard her ask.

Then there were muffled replies from within the car, and Heidi's voice, clear in the night, "Okay, we just wanted to make sure."

Later she repeated the conversation to me. "What? Did you think I was dead or something? I'm FINE! It was just too crazy in our house, so I came out here to meditate."

That must have been pretty crazy..

Monday, January 21, 2013

Old Dog, New Tricks

My fingers hurt a little from practicing my ukulele. Where's my treat?

Sunday, January 20, 2013

What a Difference a Week Makes

We are all ready to show off our cushy new theater to our guests from out of town today, but things did not go quite as expected. As before, I booked the tickets online and chose our seats in advance. We were running a little late, but entered the theater just as the previews started. "Isn't this awesome," I whispered before stopping dead in my tracks. There were people in our seats.

I am not a confrontational person, but this time I didn't really have a choice. I made my way to the center of the row and stood before the reclining couple. "I think you might have the wrong seat," I started, but the woman there would hear none of it.

"I'm sure they gave us these seats," she told me firmly.

"I have my tickets," I showed her the stubs in my palm. "Do you have yours?"

She squirmed defiantly. "I know these are our seats."

People were looking on in annoyance and the four other people in our group were standing in the aisle. I scanned the theater for empty seats but then realized that there was every chance that someone else had reserved them, and then we would be the interlopers; that could turn into vicious chain. We had to go to the manager.

Five minutes later several people were firmly moved and a few were actually removed. We settled into our seats to enjoy the show, but the reclining seats were cold comfort. Somehow, it just wasn't as fun as I'd pictured it.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

For You

I don't want to brag, but generally our dog is pretty well behaved. Set aside pretty much any cat in the world (she just wants to love them) and a squirrel or two here and there and my mom (she loves my mom) and she's damn near perfect.

You can imagine my surprise then, when tonight as Heidi's mom was browning the ground beef for tacos, Isabel almost knocked her over.

She never bothers me in the kitchen, I thought. Then it hit me.

When she was a wee puppy and before we put her on a raw diet, she had a lot of, shall we say, digestive issues. One remedy for such conditions was a mixture of hamburger, rice, and pumpkin, and so I cooked up batch after batch of the stuff to keep our puppy happy and well.

Even today, nine years later, our senior dog smells ground beef frying and her inner puppy is sure it's for her. Somehow? That doesn't annoy me at all.

Friday, January 18, 2013

By Any Means

So we've been working on this writing samples ALL WEEK, and today by the end of class was the drop-dead deadline. Still, there was one particular student who early on had been moved to the desk RIGHT next to me, but even with constant encouragement and redirection had yet to write a single word of his final draft. Twenty minutes into the class period, we were reaching crisis stage, and I was grasping for motivational tools.

"Your mom is going to be REALLY mad," I whispered.

He fidgeted. "I know," he said, but it wasn't that convincing.

"She won't believe you didn't finish," I said, shaking my head. He was loving the sympathy. "I think I better get a video of you so she can see what happened."

His eyes widened as I pulled out my phone and started recording. "No, no," he pleaded.

I have him a what-can-I-do? shrug and kept the phone pointed straight at him.

He picked up his pencil desperately and began to write, and can you believe it? He finished the essay by the bell.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Overcast with a Chance of Sun

"You didn't explain that very well," the student standing by my desk told me.

"I'm sorry," I apologized. "I'll try to do better next time."

"I thought we were supposed to bring our drafts for you to check," she continued.

I nodded sympathetically. "Normally, you would," I replied, "but because this is kind of a test, I'm not commenting on drafts-- you have to revise on your own. I would be happy to answer any specific question, though."

She frowned and then brightened a bit. "Actually, I do have a pacific question," she said.

"What kind of question?" I asked.

"Pacific," she repeated.

"Well," I said, "I'm afraid if you have a Pacific question, I can only give you an Atlantic answer."

She giggled. "Oh forget it! I'm going to go fix my draft."

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

What Blah

More tales of quadruple teaching a lesson:

Today, I used the white board to record a student-generated list of writing tools we've used this year. During the last class of the day, a student raised her hand and repeated one of the ideas, verbatim, from the class before. I caught on right away. She could read the ghostly shadow of the erased writing. "Good one!" I said. "What else do you see?"

She reeled off another one, and we laughed. "Anything else?" I asked.

"What..." she started and then frowned and squinted. "Blah." She couldn't read the rest.

"What blah?" I repeated. "Very good!" And I wrote it down on the list.

The students who were paying attention giggled. (I'd like to say that it was all of them, but I teach sixth grade. I knew I'd have to circle back and pick up the stragglers another way.) "What blah!" one of the focused kids exclaimed. "I must have been absent that day!"

We joked about it for a minute or two and then went on to complete the list. The assignment was for them to write the first draft of an essay and then use the list to revise. A while later a student approached my desk. "I'm finished my draft," she said quietly.

"Did you use the list on the board to revise?" I asked.

"Yes," she confirmed, "and I have everything except what blah. I must have been absent that day."

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Minty Fresh

I'm not sure how it came up at lunch today, but I found myself confessing that, when I was in kindergarten and first grade, I ate the paste. I think I must have assumed that everyone did that so I was a little surprised that I was the lone paste-eater. I felt it necessary to explain.

"Seriously? You never tried it?" I asked. "But, it was so delicious-- all sweet and minty. I wonder what kind of paste that was? I wonder what was in it?"

I thought back 45 years in time. "My teachers used to cut little squares of paper," I recalled, "and the paste came in these giant tubs, so they would take like a tongue depresser thing and scoop a glob onto each square and then student helpers would bring one to each of us," I continued. "We had to use our fingers to rub the paste in, so of course you could taste it, and it was good!"

For a second, I was my present adult teacher self standing in that long ago classroom. I considered the routine from a professional perspective as I tried to describe it to my colleagues. What did we do next? I tried to remember.

"Hmmm... Now that I think of it, I'm not sure how we were actually supposed to get the paste off our hands... did they send us to the bathroom? Did we have a sink in the room?" I shrugged. "Who knows? For me, that was never a problem!"

Monday, January 14, 2013

Stumbling Blocks

I gave an assignment to my classes today that I thought would be a quick review of something they learned in 5th grade, but a few minutes into it with the first group made me reconsider. They did not seem to grasp the directions and when they did, the task took them much longer than I planned for.

One of the benefits of teaching four sections of the same thing is the opportunity to tweak a lesson that needs it right away. The next class went a little better, but it was still not as smooth as I hoped. The third time I started with a little confession about how the day was not going the way I imagined it. "Maybe this is just a hard activity," I warned the class in a tone that was more challenge than admission of defeat. I made the directions very explicit and gave examples.

"That doesn't seem too hard," a student commented.

"I know, right?" I said. "Now show me how it's done!" I ended my pep talk with a little fist pump and then noticed a student raising his hand.

"I think I know what might take so long," he said. I looked at him expectantly. "You forgot to give us the worksheet."


Sunday, January 13, 2013

I Have Seen the Future

When I heard that the smallish movie theater I used to go to all the time had been renovated and switched over to reserve seating only, I made little note of the fact. Later someone mentioned that not only were the seats by reservation, they were luxury recliners, too. That piqued my interest, but it wasn't until this morning, when we met a friend there to see Zero Dark Thirty, that I fully realized the implications.

Oh. My. Gosh. Wide, roomy, adjustable auto-recline, and foot rests? The movies may never be the same.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

21st Century Pioneer Woman

With a dramatic bang and a tiny wisp of smoke, my electric range quit working last night. Fortunately, dinner was ready.

This is actually the third stove we've owned in the 14 years we've lived here. When the elements kept burning out on the original 1985 model, we replaced it with a cool black ceramic top number. It was awesome until that day when the oven shorted out, blowing the entire circuitry on it. The repairman assured me that although the part was on back order, it would be there in a couple of weeks.

Two weeks without a stove seemed crazy. The first thing we bought was an electric kettle to boil water for coffee. We already had a crock pot and a combination deep-fryer and general electric pot. Our microwave is also a convection oven, and so we did nicely. When they called to tell us that it might be another week or so, I got an induction burner.

By now it was early November, and Thanksgiving was on the way. During one of my pointed calls, someone finally broke the news to me that my range was going to be out of commission for the entire holiday season. I reeled for a moment and then went into catering on site mode, channeling the mindset I had given up a decade ago.

For Thanksgiving, I farmed out the turkey and made all my other sides with the versatile little appliances I had. (I don't think I've roasted a turkey since.) At Christmas I did all my baking in the convection. It took a little longer, but it was fine. We ate normal meals and had guests over. Stove? Pffffft.

Thinking back on that time now, five years later, I have to say that being stoveless really wasn't too much more than an inconvenience, in fact I kind of enjoyed the challenge of it all. At last, though, in March, I broke down and bought a newer, better range. A few months later, they delivered the errant part. That kind of made me mad, but I was enjoying the new stove too much to let it bother me for long.

Until last night. Oh, I've put a call in to my new, reliable repair guy, and I have high hopes that he will be able to make a quick and simple fix, but he's so old-fashioned that he doesn't work on weekends, which is okay with me.

We'll make do.

Friday, January 11, 2013

We're Gonna Need a Bigger Boat

The Tolerance Club sponsored our monthly movie today. Last time we showed The Miracle Worker and the library was pretty packed, so we asked for permission to branch out into the theater. The movie was The Hammer, rated PG-13, and so we required our middle schoolers to get a permission slip signed by a parent.

As usual, the TC kids made posters and we ran a trailer on the morning announcements promising a snack and a couple hours of community and service to any student interested in watching this true story of Matt Hamill, born deaf, who against all odds becomes a national NCAA wrestling champ.

This afternoon, the assistant principal and I waited in the lobby as the bell rang, ready to collect permission slip "tickets" and usher the students into the theatre. At first it was a trickle, a few kids came right after their last class, eager to see the movie. Soon, the lobby was full, and when we started letting them in, it was literally only a matter of minutes before we ran out of snacks. As I dashed back to our team room to scrounge up some spare treats, I passed a line of students that ran past the main office and well down the hallway.

Later, when the lights were back up and the late buses had pulled off into a rainy Friday afternoon, we counted up how many permission slips there were and then added in the last minute phone calls home that we had approved. Our house was over 200, meaning that close to 30% of our student body had come to the movie.


Thursday, January 10, 2013

Golden Statue Playbook

The announcement this morning of the Oscar nominees for the year added a little zest to our day. I was particularly pleased that the acting in Silver Linings Playbook was so recognized; it was easily my favorite film of the year I've seen so far.

I also felt quite vindicated that I pushed for all of us to see Beasts of the Southern Wild back in July. I'm quite sure I remember insisting that it would be nominated come Oscar time... the fried alligator on the floating brothel scene was magical.

A few summers ago we took all the boys to see A Winter's Bone.  (Same story: I had read a few things about it and guessed that it might be recognized by the academy, and it was, and so I am boasting about my remarkable prescience.) Back then, Jennifer Lawrence was nominated, as was the movie. Neither was victorious, but this time around? My money's on Katniss.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013


We still have our Christmas tree up. I was going to pack it all away last Sunday, the actual twelfth day of Christmas, but with all our holiday travels it still seemed a little too soon to say good-bye to the bright lights and ornaments. The tree itself still looks pretty fresh-- ten days in a cool house without the lights on must be quite preservative.

I always listen with interest to those who explain how glad they are to put everything away and get back to a more normal routine after all the hubbub of the hectic holidays. I understand their point, but that view is not mine. I'm more of a romantic along the lines of Charles Dickens, via his changed-hearted villain:

I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.

But don't worry, the tree is coming down.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Point

We've had a student who has been out since before Thanksgiving with a nasty infection. Thankfully, she returned today ready and willing to jump right in and try to pick up where she left off. Always a brash kind of a personality, she took me a bit by surprise when, after watching one of the class's favorite StoryCorps animations, she raised her hand. "What was the point of that?" she sniffed dismissively.

Fortunately, her classmates were able to explain the meaning of the SC motto:  

Every voice matters.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Listening Skills

Every year, I teach a unit on memoir, and this time I've incorporated some Storycorps materials into the short pieces my sixth graders analyze. For years I've listened to the edited versions of these recorded conversations every Friday morning on NPR. Many, many times I am moved to tears, but it wasn't until I drove past the mobile recording trailer every day for a month that I thought of using them in my classroom.

The Storycorps folks, in addition to archiving all of the interviews at the Library of Congress, have some great education materials on their website, as well as some animated versions of a several of their more popular interviews.

In my class we go from transcript to audio recording to animation. One of the students' favorite pieces is a son's remembrance of his father who worked up to sixteen hours a day as a school custodian to support their family of 13. The anecdote he relates, while very accessible to the students, also contains some old-fashioned versions of things they have contemporary inklings of, specifically store credit and bottle deposits.

We have had some interesting conversations about those issues, but none have been as lively as when, in order to help them relate to how hard that guy was working, I mentioned the possibility of a longer school day or year. The shock of such a suggestion must have damaged their ears because a couple of class periods later? Someone was circulating a petition to stop it.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

An Updated Classic

Yes, the chicken is poached in advance with shallots and fresh herbs, and yes, the biscuits are whole wheat. Yes, I'm serving fresh green beans, and yes, the mashed potatoes are vegan, and they have a little sweet potato as well. There is also a vegan version of the main, simmering on the stove, but YES!

We are having chicken with white gravy, mashed potatoes, and biscuits.

Happy Birthday, Dad!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

OLW 2013

Over at Two Writing Teachers Ruth and Stacey have been choosing One Little Word for the last several years. The idea is to find a single word that expresses something you will work toward in the coming year.

I think it's a neat concept, and this is the sixth year that I've asked my students to do this, too. The assignment is for them to choose a word and then write a paragraph explaining why they want more of this in their lives.

Here are the choices so far for this year:

focus (x5!)

Such a list kind of reconfirms your faith in the future, doesn't it?

Friday, January 4, 2013

I Have this Friend...

Last night there was a knock on our door at about 8 PM. It was our neighbor and her daughter, who also happens to be a student at our school. They had a question about auditions for the school musical, Annie, and while I couldn't answer it right away, I promised I would find out first thing in the morning and let the student know.

On my way in the building today, I saw a group of girls who I had heard talking about the play, so I stopped to get a little info from them.

"Good morning," I said cheerfully. "Can you guys tell me what you have to do to try out for Annie?"

They seemed a little surprised by the question and were quiet for a moment until one of them said,"You're not seriously thinking of trying out with your ukulele, are you?"

Thursday, January 3, 2013

OLW Preview

As in years past, I've asked my students to find a single word that expresses something they will work toward in this coming year. The lesson today introduced the concept and gave them the chance to consider their options; tomorrow they will post their "One Little Word" on our class's electronic discussion board.

As a way of illustrating this idea to the kids, I told them I got a ukulele for Christmas, and so I was considering the words music, play, and even ukulele to focus on this year. There were mixed reactions to this news, not all of them productive to the assignment. Some students begged me to bring it in tomorrow, others were not so warm.

"Ukulele!" someone said. "Really?"

"Sure," I answered. "Why not? Music adds joy to our lives."

She raised a skeptical eyebrow. I smiled.

"In fact, as soon as I can, I plan to start singing all of the directions for every assignment," I teased her.

She looked stricken. "Why? We've been good."

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Top Five Phrases of the Day

5. No new documentation necessary

4. Teacher-friendly work in progress

3. One little word

2. Committed to providing a common experience

and the number one phrase of the day...

Spontaneous tendon rupture!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013


I'm not one to make resolutions, but if I were, mine would be to worry less, particularly about things I can't or can't seem to control. Which is why I read with interest the article today in the Health section of the NY Times. Just in time for the new year an exhaustive study has been released that suggests that the link between weight gain and poor health has been overstated.

One less thing to fret about.