Thursday, February 28, 2013

I Should Know

Today in an attempt to prepare my students for the hundred-day "Centurion" writing challenge that starts tomorrow, I gave them some time and advice for developing possible topics. "Many's the evening when I've sat before my computer racking my brain for something to write about," I warned them. "That can take much longer than actually writing."

They nodded politely, but I don't think they really got it.

Give it four years.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Fizzle Mob

Yesterday in class I overheard a group of students whispering. "Yeah! We should totally do it!" Someone looked at me. "Do you think she would let us?"

A little while later, one of them approached me. "Can we have a flash mob at the end of class tomorrow? Right before lunch?"

I shrugged. "Sure," I said. Truthfully, I was curious.

He returned to the table. "She said, 'Yes'!" he reported. They seemed a little stunned.

This morning another student came to double check on my permission. "Can somebody put a song on their phone so we have music?"

"Okay," I said.



They are very good students, but I was still impressed at how focused they were during class. They did not want to lose the opportunity. Two minutes before the bell, they made eye contact, and I nodded. Tinny music started softly as the five of them stood up. Two immediately lost their nerve and sat back down. The other three did a diffident version of the Harlem Shake. At first nobody noticed, but then a few other kids stood up and did a little Gundum style arm motion. The bell rang not too long after that and everyone filed out cheerfully to lunch.

I was a little disappointed, but they seemed satisfied to have tried and, well, not succeeded.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Coming Soon...

Today I introduced my students to what's become an annual tradition-- the spring writing challenges. Over the last few years, the activity has evolved to two month-long assignments that kids can voluntarily step up to two month-long challenges that might even be combined to one huge writing challenge... Who among these sixth graders might write and post 100 words or more for 100 days in a row?

Who indeed?

The first challenge, which this year is the Alphabiography Challenge, begins this Friday, March 1. Everyone must post ten pieces of 100 words or more, but to win this one, you only need post all 26 letters on 26 different days.

April will be an off month, but May will bring the Slice of Life Story Challenge: write every day for a month. The big one, though, is for any student who starts this Friday and continues to June 8. They will be the Centurions!

I was very pleasantly surprised and heartened by the level of enthusiasm the kids showed today. If intentions were reality, the vast majority of them would be sporting championship t-shirts in June. The trick will be to keep everyone motivated for the next 100 days.

But that's what we call teaching.

Monday, February 25, 2013

A Bit of an Expert

Someone told me that in Canada, the ukulele is like the recorder here. Most school kids learn to play it as a starter instrument because it's easy to pick up quickly. I think our neighbors to the north may be on to something. If you handed me a recorder today, I could still whistle up a perky little rendition of Mary Had a Little Lamb, and even feel pretty good about it, but it's nothing compared to Let it Be on the ukulele.

When I was in college I played a lot of racquetball. One of the best things about the sport is that it doesn't take much time or talent to pick up the game and really feel like you're playing it. In fact, I was sure I was a bit of a prodigy, playing mostly with beginners as I did, until I played with a friend of mine who was on the varsity tennis team. He schooled me good-- blanking me more than once in the 15 point game. At one point, I got hit in the side with the ball, and I was sure, positive, I tell you, that that was exactly how it feels to be shot. (Fingers crossed I'll never know for sure.)

Even realizing how much of a novice I was didn't discourage me, though. I played all four years. You can imagine how much of a shock it was once I graduated to find out that when you don't live on a college campus, you actually have to pay to play, and racket club memberships are pretty pricey. I still think that's what ended my potentially epic career.

I mention all this because this weekend Josh was here visiting. He was immediately enamored of my ukulele (yet another reason to love that kid), and just as Annabelle strummed and sang every day we were there after Christmas, Josh, too, spent most of his time strumming lovely chord combinations that may or may not have been songs. In any case, it all sounded great, and I definitely see a ukulele in his future (and maybe A-belle's, too).

Fortunately? Ukes are much more affordable than gym memberships.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Breaking News

"I almost fell out of bed when I read in your blog that you were talking about the pope resigning at lunch," my mom told me today. We were catching up since she recently returned from a ten day trip to Morocco.

"Why? Because we were talking about the pope at school?" I asked.

"No! Because I hadn't heard he was resigning," she said.

"Oh! I broke that story for you?" I laughed heartily.

There was a certain journalist's delight in the knowledge. 

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Gang's All Here

It's our traditional Oscar weekend-- only made sweeter by the presence of Riley and Josh. I love the movies; going is one of my favorite things to do, but they can't compare to the company we'll keep tomorrow night.

Friday, February 22, 2013

In the Field

We took two field trips this week, and despite the fact that I planned the excursions and had taken the same trips n years past, I still came away with a lot of new knowledge and understanding. For example, just today I learned why some trees keep their dead leaves through the winter, that the box elder's branches can perform photosynthesis, how snakes poop, why the black marbled salamander breeds in early winter instead of spring, and that most birds dump a load before flight (they must feel much lighter!).

What a shame that field trips are so often the first casualties of the push for increased student achievement as measured by standardized tests.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Classics

In writing club today a student asked me to read the first couple of paragraphs of the story he is writing. He has an inviting writing voice, and whatever he starts, I usually want to read more. The problem is, he never finishes anything.

To be honest? I can totally relate; I'm not a big finisher either. And today, I made it even harder for him to continue. His character was in the car being driven away from his old home to his new with the radio playing. The three songs our young author mentioned in the segment were Losing my Religion, Midnight Train to Georgia, and Angie Baby.

"Interesting choice of music," I noted.

"I was listening to the oldies as I wrote," he said. My raised eyebrows encouraged him to edit. "I mean, the classics," he continued.

"Do you even know these songs?" I asked. "Angie Baby? Helen Reddy?"

"A-an-gie baby, you're a spe-eh-cial lady," he sang.

"Midnight Train?" I said.

"I love that one," he told me.

"Can you sing it with only the Pips' parts?" I asked him. It was his turn to raise an eyebrow. "Try it! It's really hard," I said. "You think you know the song until you sing it like that." Fortunately, Mary had it on her phone, and I was able to demonstrate the challenge.

On the other hand, he wrote not another word before the bell.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Winter Count

Living so close to our nation's capital provides many opportunities for great field trips, and so we took our students to the National Museum of the American Indian today. Part of the program included a docent-led tour, and our guide pulled out a touch-cart of buffalo artifacts. It was an interesting experience-- she passed around jerky, a horn bowl, a piece of shearling, a bone tool, a bladder water bottle, and a rawhide string bag.

But, the coolest artifact was at the end. It was an authentic 200-year winter calendar (or "winter count") drawn in a spiral on the leather side of a young buffalo hide. Her explanation as to what it was began with a question. "So, how do you learn history at your school?"

I can only imagine what she was hoping to hear, given the beautiful record before us.

"Worksheets," one student answered, and there were nods of agreement all around.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Night Watch

I was awakened around 2 AM last night by an eerie whistling coming from outside. At first it was a confusing part of my dream, some Pi-like tiger training maybe, but it went on too long and soon I was aware of the shadow of the window frame that the streetlight casts on the ceiling of the bedroom.

Isabel heard it too. She sat on the landing with her nose poked through the curtains burfing at the night. I got up and went to see if there was anything visible out the window. Kneeling down, I put my arm around my dog. "I hear it, too," I whispered and peered out into the darkness.

If she could have, she would have said, "You got this? Oh, good." As it was, she relaxed, slipped from my side and back into the bedroom, lay down on the floor, and was immediately snoring.

There was nothing to be seen and the noise stopped soon after, so I too returned to bed, but I lay awake for some time.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Exchange Rate

Sometimes, if I'm tempted by a high-calorie snack or treat, I'll calculate how long on the treadmill it would take to burn it off. With that perspective, it's usually easier to pass up.

Today we saw the Oscar-nominated documentary shorts, and like every year, these five 40-minute films served up a lot of food for thought, as well as close to three sedentary hours on my butt. Still I'm satisfied that they exercised my mind and heart if not my body and heart.

I liked them all, but the one I find my thoughts returning to is Redemption, the story of New York City canners-- a sub-culture of people who comb through trash and recycling to find cans and bottles to redeem. Some simply supplement their income by canning, but most of the people in the movie made their living this way, and hard lives they were.

Early in the film, Walter, a homeless Vietnam vet, drove the enterprise home for me when he started reeling off the cost of things in cans. A Starbucks drip coffee? 50 cans. A box of handmade chocolates? 500 cans.

Such a calibration was momentarily staggering to me, and I could not stop myself from converting my own recent expenditures. The water in the cup holder next to me: 75 cans, downtown parking: 200 cans, that salad at lunch: 160 cans. The sour smell of every redemption center I've ever visited filled my nose, and all of a sudden "just a nickel" seemed like so much more.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Daughter of Adam

Seeing Life of Pi today really rounded out our Oscar quest. After we go to the documentary shorts tomorrow, there will only be a handful of nominees we haven't seen... not that such an accomplish will make any difference in our annual pool.

As beautiful as it was, Ang Lee's film was a bit of a trial, though. We have been putting it off mainly because the animals are in a lot of peril, and so Heidi flat out refused to see it. (She's still a little bit mad that I made us go.)

I suppose you could include the character of Pi in that group of endangered creatures, I certainly did as I wept throughout the movie for his losses. But there is something undeniably different about the evil we inflict on each other and that we direct toward animals, although I don't know why that is. Just the other day, I finished the Newbury book for this year, The One and Only Ivan. I started it last summer, but could not continue-- the tale of the captive gorilla and his friends, two elephants and a stray dog, broke my heart on almost every page.

Why do we tell sad stories, anyway? When I told my students that I had to set aside Ivan because it was way too emotional for me to be reading at school, at least five kids asked to borrow it when I was through.

Their young hearts must be much more elastic than mine.

Saturday, February 16, 2013


After putting it off for awhile, we finally saw Quentin Tarantino's Oscar-nominated film Django Unchained today, and it was just as expected: violent, gory, loooong, and yet somehow entertaining. As always, Tarantino makes me re-think movie violence... how can I like a film with so much gore?

Well, Christophe Waltz certainly makes it easier. I can't think of an actor who is more able to humanize a killer. In any of the films of his I've seen, despite their egregious actions, his characters are much less despicable and even honorable, because they have a clear ethical code and they work within it.

Something to think about.

Friday, February 15, 2013

What's Your Type?

Who says introverts don't have social skills? I submit that perhaps? We just have a different set of them.

For example, I have one little trick that comes in handy all the time, and I bet I'm not alone. Because introverts are usually reticent in contributing to conversations, many times people assume we aren't even listening, and so I just pretend I'm not. This is handy for at least two reasons. First, it relieves the pressure to actually participate, and second, when people talk like you're not even there, you hear some interesting stuff.

I have adapted this skill to my classroom. Often when my students are working in groups and I am elsewhere in the room, even perhaps, otherwise "occupied" with the attendance or something, they assume I'm not listening...  and so, many's the time I've beheld the shocked face of a kid who has just heard me quote verbatim the inappropriate remark made when the teacher "wasn't paying attention".

My very busy brain might come in handy here, too. I am perfectly capable of tracking three conversations at a time. Another very useful skill in a middle school classroom.

Aside from assisting in classroom management, though, these abilities also provide a lot of entertainment. Just today, I overheard the following remark as my students were supposed to be making the final push on typing and editing their fiction pieces.

"What's the Space Bar?  I've never heard of that place! Do they have anything good there?"

Thursday, February 14, 2013


And for our second vegan Valentine? We return to pizza:

Spelt crust, tomato sauce, mushrooms, caramelized onions, roasted zucchini, olives, and fresh basil.


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ath Wednesday

One of our more precocious, but very impulsive, sixth graders, a self-professed atheist, reacted today to the few students wearing ashes on their foreheads by smearing blue marker on his. He called it atheist Wednesday, but I prefer my shortened version.

Fortunately, the marker was washable and the counselor was available.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

So Bad, it's Good

I was in a meeting this morning where everything went to hell. Tempers flared, shoulders shrugged, and cheeks pinkened, and I would be surprised if anybody was satisfied with any of the outcomes.

Even so? It seemed like a step in the right direction.

Let's see.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Know Thyself

The surprise announcement of the pope's resignation was a big topic at lunch today. One of the other teachers clearly stated that she was certainly not Catholic because she liked change. "I sit in the exact same seat in the exact same pew at the exact same mass every Sunday!" she declared.

"That's one of the best parts of the church," I agreed. "You always know what's coming." I raised my eyebrows. "The switch to the new liturgy last year must have been tough for you."

"It wasn't too bad," she answered. "It's really not that different..."

I looked at her skeptically.

"Okay," she confessed, "I did go to an orientation session before they changed. That really helped."

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Little Wonders

We were walking back to our car on the trail today when we saw a boy of about 4 and his mother coming toward us. We smiled and so did they, but as they passed us the boy paused and made eye contact with me. "Excuse me," he said in the most polite of tones. "Do you know if there are any eagles here?"

"There are," I answered, "but we haven't seen any today." Before the shine of anticipation on his face could fade, I continued quickly. "You know what we did see? Swans! There are hundreds of tundra swans right down there, and they even have a telescope to see them better."

His eyes widened, and he looked at his mom.

"Cool!" she said as she followed his lead down the trail. "Thank you."

"You never know," I called after them. "You might see an eagle, too."

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Battle Scars

Ouch! I have a little blistery callus on my left index finger. Must be all that ukulele playing.

Just sayin.

Friday, February 8, 2013

That Looks Good

We had our annual international movie day today at school. The film we showed was Not One Less by my favorite Chinese director, Zhang Yimou. It was a good movie, and the kids liked it, and after a day immersed in images of China? We're having Chinese food tonight.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Culture Shock

Believe it or not, there is such a thing as middle school wrestling. I say this, because despite my 20 years in a middle school, I am one of the incredulous. Oh, I go to the meets to support my students, past and present, who wrestle, but I'm never there more than thirty seconds before I feel my face physically contorting in shock and consternation. I literally must massage the alarm out of my expression.

Set aside the snug, uniform "singlet" that all wrestlers sport, and even the practice of waiting on hands and knees as your opponent takes his position above you, the rest of the competition still seems very inappropriate to the uninitiated, especially those of us who spend our days discouraging practically everything the wrestling coach wants the athletes to do.

Let's put it this way: Instead of "Get him!" I want to yell "Get off him!"

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Could Have Been

There was a segment on Marketplace this evening about the unreliability of memory. It seems that some researchers showed dozens of people photo-shopped images of news events past, and many of the test subjects conjured memories of them. Not only were they convinced that they remembered the fictional incidents, but some also recalled their emotional reactions at the time.

That doesn't surprise me in the least. As a bit of a memoirist myself, I know how slippery the past, even the very recent past, can be. My only defense, when challenged, is that I have presented the story as I recall it, and I claim to do no more or less than that.

Even so, someone else's faulty memory can be stunning. Once I posted a picture of me and my high school roommates. Taken in December of 1977, we are all wearing matching striped pajamas that one of the other girls in the photo gave us. It was a few days before Christmas break, and we had all immediately donned the jammies the minute we opened our packages.

What else would we do but take a picture? I recollect it so clearly: I propped my Minolta SR-T 101 on a chair and set up the auto-feature. There were 15 seconds on the timer, but on my way back to the group I tripped. As I rolled over, my friends grabbed my shoulders and pulled me up into the frame just as the shutter snapped. Of course we were all laughing.

Several folks from those days posted comments on the picture, including this one:  

Actually, wasn't this taken the year I was there? This was taken in Karen and Liz's room. In fact, I'm sure I took the picture.

That's just not how I remember it.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

My Pogo

We had a conference today where the parent called her daughter by a nickname the whole time. Not so unusual, really, most Sams were once Sammys and some Kennys have even been Brandons at home, but this girl happens to be Sweet Face to her family.

It was cute, if a little distracting. Truth be told, she does have a very sweet face. Later when I was telling a colleague about it, another teacher came into the room. "We were just talking about Sweet Face," I told her.

"Did someone call you that?" she joked.

"Oh... to be honest? I'm afraid everyone calls me that behind my back," I said. "In fact, it might just be my pogo.*"

*Making fun of your friends about something annoying that they do, all behind their backs. Coined by the show New Girl.

Monday, February 4, 2013


"Will you fix this book for me?" a student asked this morning.

"Sure," I agreed without looking up; as far as I'm concerned, book repair is part of the job. I have a ready supply of packing and duct tape for just such occasions. "Where is it?"

She handed me a ragged lilac-colored volume and its sundered cover. I literally gasped. It was the exact same edition of Little Women that I received for Christmas the year I was in sixth grade. The very one that I read and loved with all my heart, probably just about this time of year 39 years ago.

"Where did you get this?" I asked in wonder.

She shrugged. "It's my mom's."

I flipped to the page facing the first chapter. A pen an ink drawing of a man in a topcoat tipping his hat to a young woman on the street with the caption, May I go also, and take for you the bundles?" sent a jolt of recognition right through me.

I reattached the cover and then paged through a little more, looking at the chapter headings, Aunt March Settles the Question, Lazy Laurence, and so forth, but than I returned to that first illustration, out of place, at the beginning of the book. I remembered how it bothered me back when I first read it.

Jo March? Why in the world would she marry Professor Baer, especially after rejecting Laurie? Duh! That girl was clearly gay!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Temple

This winter it's been damn hard to find a decent clementine. My theory is that they (and we) are victims of their success. Fifteen years ago, when the charming wooden crates of these delightful fruits began to appear, it seemed impossible to get a bad one. From November to March, we feasted on perfectly tart, seedless little citrus gems. The Spanish beauties festooned our holiday tables and rounded out our brown bag lunches in their bright unassuming way.

Now? They come from Spain, they come from Morocco, they come from California, and they even come from South America in the summer time, but despite this bounty, their quality is spotty. Clever distributors have designed a bright orange mesh to sell them in, making it impossible to see the true color of the fruit, much less its size or the texture of the rind. Everybody loves clementines, but not many of us get what we hoped for once we open the package.

It's to the point where I ask anyone who has a decent looking specimen where it was obtained, and I confess to driving way out of my way just to find some good clementines.

Thankfully, there is another orange that is just as satisfying.  I remember my mother buying Temple oranges when I was a little girl. They were always cheaper than the smooth-skinned navals and Valencias, probably because they have A LOT of seeds, but to me they have always been superior-- easy to peel, always juicy, with a flawless balance of sweet and tart.

I don't feel that the Temple orange has received its proper due, but maybe that's a good thing. Their season is very short, so brief in fact that I forget about them from year to year until that day when I walk into the produce section and spy a stack.

Today, like that day every year, I clapped my hands and nearly skipped over to fill my plastic bag.


Saturday, February 2, 2013

By the Shorts

We had a fun day today with my brother, sister-in-law, and nephew. It was our annual Oscar-nominated shorts marathon where we see both the animated and live action shows back to back. Even though I was a bit disappointed in the field this year-- I wanted to fall in love with something, but they were all just okay-- it was great company and an excellent shared experience seeing 10 good movies that we wouldn't otherwise.

And even better? We're going to the documentaries in a couple of weeks.

Friday, February 1, 2013


One of the teachers on my team has made the decision to retire as of April 1. For someone to retire mid-year speaks to morale around here, but that's another blog post all together. Today she told the students of her departure.

She let them know class by class, but such big news spread quickly, at first through whispers. "Do you think she really meant it?" I overheard one kid ask another.

"Dude! No way!" his friend answered. "She's only joking. Look at the date-- it's April Fool's Day!"