Friday, May 31, 2013

Formative Experiences

With holidays, field trips, and professional development, I must say that it's been a mighty long week for what was technically a short week.

A quick glance out the window tonight and it is no secret that the solstice is only three weeks away. At 7:30, there are blue skies illuminated by a warm, slanting sun. We're having a heat wave, too, so this day seems much more like a day in July than the last day of May.

When I was a little girl, bedtime was at 7:30, no matter the season. We had no air conditioning, so on warm nights such as this, we shucked our pajamas in favor of white cotton briefs and, in my case, a sleeveless undershirt with scalloped straps and tiny bow at the bottom of the neck line.

Back then, it felt like such a terrible loss to go to bed when there seemed to be so much left of the day-- who knew what fun and adventure we might be missing? My mother turned the bed spread down, but I can still remember my regret as I slipped between the cool, smooth sheets and laid my head on the pillow.

On some level? I'm sure that's the only reason I'm awake right now.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Role Reversal

I spent the day in a teaching workshop today, and it's fair to say that my brain is mush. It wasn't that the information wasn't valuable, it was just a lot, and there's six more hours tomorrow.

I'm exhausted! How do those kids do it every day?

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Industrial Food

As part of our annual water-testing field trip, the students do a physical survey of a near-by creek located in a well-used park. One of the observations they are asked to make is to describe how the land surrounding the waterway is currently being used. Is it agricultural? Urban? Forest? Industrial?

"What's "industrial"?" one of the kids wanted to know.

"It's like a factory," the counselor told him, and then trying to be helpful, she added, "Are there any factories around here?"

He gave it some thought. "How about the Cheesecake Factory?" he suggested.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013


One of my students finished his assignment a little early the other day, and as he turned it in to me, he asked, "Can I solve your Rubik's cube?"

The popularity of the cubes I have on my desk has taken me back 30 years. Students are constantly asking to have a go at those brightly colored objects. They just want to hold them in their hands and twist and turn them randomly, hoping for a miracle. I can hardly criticize them-- wasn't it I who bought that Powerball ticket just the other day?

At any rate, I shrugged and tossed this guy one of the cubes. I've found them to be excellent incentives for encouraging kids to finish their work.

In retrospect, I should have been tipped off by this particular student's choice of verbs, for it was less than two minutes later that he handed me a cube with six perfect faces. Certainly I gasped, and I know I clapped in delight, because





Monday, May 27, 2013

Sea Change

I have never been a countdown person.

25 days to go!

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Then there's That

I've written before about the young woman I used to be mentor to when she was in sixth grade. I stay in touch with her mostly through social media, and it amuses me sometimes that at 22 her brain is still as quirky as it was half her life ago.

Today she posted a photo of a dead squirrel lying bloodied on the pavement. I cringed when I saw it, wondering what possessed her to share such a gruesome image. I noticed that another of her friends had the same reaction.

"Why????" the friend commented.

"Hit by a car," my former student replied.

Saturday, May 25, 2013


I'm not a hugger, but I hugged my cousin tight tonight before we put her on a train for Florida, and I wiped more than a few tears as we walked back to our car, too.

When my brother and sister and I were children we said our prayers together every night. After the Lord's Prayer, the Hail Mary, and Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, we would end by saying, God bless Mommy and Daddy, Tracey, Billy, and Courtney, Grandma and Granddaddy, Aunt Harriett and Uncle Jim, Jimmy and Bobby, Aunt Sis and Uncle Tom, Sandy and Mike, Elaine and Mike, Kelly and Tom, and all my aunts and uncles, cousins and friends. 

Many of the people on that list are gone, and we've been blessed by many more to add, but even today, saying those names has an elemental effect on me-- like repeating a nursery rhyme or a song that I have known all my life. It even soothes me when I wake in the middle of the night and can't go back to sleep, because those folks are my original family.

Godspeed, Elaine.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Post History

The history teacher on my team retired at the end of March. A mid-year departure is unusual and can be disruptive, but we and the kids have almost reestablished what seems like a regular routine without our Ms. C. Even so, her name came up in my class today.

"Oh, Ms. C.," I sighed dramatically to indicate how much I missed her still.

"Yeah," one smart aleck kid replied, "you can tell us how you really feel."

I put on a hurt face. "No," I said, "I do miss her. In fact, Ms. C. just texted me the other day--"

"Wait!" another student interrupted. "Ms. C. Knows how to text????"

Thursday, May 23, 2013


There comes a halcyon time in every school year when it seems that everyone, students and teachers alike, is at their best-- firing on all cylinders, on a streak, in the groove, click click clicking along, whatever, but that time is not this.

Close to June all sorts of fatigue set in. All those monthly Monday holidays and week-long breaks are things of the past, and high stakes testing is where it's at. Everyone's a short timer, and If you're a kid, it seems like once your "big" test is over, it's hard to believe that there could possibly be anything important left to do, and yet there we are for a month or more, day after day, with valuable lessons and assignments, all of which are expected to be completed. Really.

While presenting a particular challenge to teachers, such circumstances also seem to take a toll on the morale and judgment of some sixth graders. Why just today in our voluntary after-school study hall, the teacher in charge uncovered a conspiracy. Several students tried to distract her with requests for help so that another kid could steal an extra snack.

Their integrity for a bag of cheese crackers seemed like a good trade. 28 days to go.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Heard in Sixth Grade

First student: I always thought avalanche was a vegetable... something related to an avocado, maybe?

Second student: Avocado? Ewwwww!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Ooh! Ooh! I Know This One

Tonight in the grocery store I was approached by a woman of perhaps my age or a little bit older. We were in the international food section and she held a bottle of soy sauce in her hand. "Excuse me," she said with a slight accent, "do you know what kelp is?"

Those who know me know that I love questions I know the answer to. "It's seaweed!" I told her as if I were a contestant on a game show. 

She seemed to interpret my enthusiasm as expertise, and she handed me the bottle, pointing to the tiny print that listed the ingredients. "I'm vegetarian," she explained. "Is there any fish or pig skin in there?"

The pig skin threw me off a bit, but I was game to answer the second round questions. Unfortunately, when I looked down, I  found I couldn't read the bottle. No matter. "Can I borrow your glasses?" I asked, pointing to the reading specs on her nose.

We laughed, and then she handed them to me, because she wanted to know, and I took them, because I wanted to tell her.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Confused Face

Twice today I heard a student react to mildly negative news in the following way, "Awww, sad face."

The exchanges went like this:

Me: Andrew move your seat.
Andrew: Awww, sad face.

And later,

Me: we'll probably show that movie next year.
Student: I won't be here next year. Awww, sad face.

What is up with that?

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Dystopian Non-fiction

If you are familiar with adolescent literature at all, then you know that dystopian fiction is just as hot as vampires and all their other paranormal kin. The psychology behind both of these trends has been well-explored: most have a classic, if exaggerated, individual against society conflict that helps clarify what their adolescent readers are likely facing in their own development. There are some analysts, though, that consider these books as warnings.

Tonight on Sixty Minutes I saw a segment on a North Korean prison camp. I had heard of the book, Escape from Camp 14, before. Written by Washington Post reporter Blaine Hardin, it tells the tale of Shin In Geun, a man who was born in the eponymous prison camp and who, against all odds, escaped at the age of 23. Still, I had never stopped to consider what such a life would really be like. 

Growing up in that camp, Shin had no concept of any other world. Everything that any prisoner had came from the guards; there was never any opportunity for one person to give something to another. Love was unheard of, and to this day, Shin admits it is not an emotion he understands. He was conceived as the result of a reward his parents earned. By working hard, they were allowed to be "married" Ina union arranged by the camp administration. Their relationship did not include cohabitation or even raising their children together, however.

In the camp hunger was so pervasive that the prisoners routinely ate insects and rats. Public executions were common, and Shin considered them a welcome break in his routine. Children born in the camp had no idea that the earth was round, much less what else the world had to offer beyond the electrified fence.

And the tale goes on, as riveting and horrifying as any dystopian novel I have ever read. Except it's not fiction. So what do we do with that?

Saturday, May 18, 2013


"How do you like to eat your kimchi?" The woman at the farmer's market asked as she dished up my purchase.

"Lately, I've been making a kimchi fried rice with a fried egg on top," I told her.

"That's my favorite way to have it, too," she smiled and handed me my bag.


Friday, May 17, 2013

Good Times

It's profile unit time in my English class. (For a description of this fun assignment, I invite you to click here.) Because of the way the activity is structured, in a couple of classes one student has to interview me. After our first conversation, the student journalist must choose an angle to focus on. This year, one student has chosen to write about the fact that before I became a teacher, I was a chef.

Today, he slipped me a sheet of paper with a few additional question about my former life as a caterer. When were you a caterer? Did you run your own business? What was the best and the worst day you ever had as a caterer?

Later, alone at my desk, I picked up a pen to answer his inquiry. The third question took some thinking. I could recall plenty of nice parties I had worked, but when I was catering on my own, nothing too bad went down. I considered a few of the late nights I put in, and then one memory flooded back. 

Two frozen turkeys needed to thaw quickly, and I didn't have the sink space so I dropped them into the bath tub and ran some cold water. Downstairs, I continued my prep. A little while later, my mom and sister returned from the theater with a friend. As we stood and chatted, the patter of what sounded like rain drops sounded from the dining room. Within moments, water poured from the woodwork and a huge bladder formed on the ceiling. We watched helplessly as it swelled to the size of a cow's udder before bursting like a giant water balloon, drenching half the room.

Long story short? The turkeys had plugged the drain and the tub was overflowing. There was an inch of water on the bathroom floor by the time I shut the tap off, and the only place it had to go was downstairs.

 I'd say that was a pretty bad day.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Purse Strings of Tomorrow

As I mentioned the other day, my students have been composing essays on the topic, Your school has some extra money. They could spend it on sports equipment, computers, the cafeteria, or something else. What do you think the money should be used for?

Now that all their writing pieces are in, here's a round-up of what they thought we should get:

Cafeteria improvements 14
Computers 9
Sports Equipment 5

Those were suggested in the prompt, the other popular ideas were:

Enhanced security 7
Outdoor classroom 4
Video games 3
Pool 3
Anti-bullying device 3
Student shushers 3
Rooftop garden/cafe3
Smart boards 2
Robots 2
Student lounge 2
Magic Hogwarts-style school 2

But an interesting thing about this year, was that we had the most unrepeated ideas, ever.

Better playground with tree houses
Baseball team
Skateboard ramp
Beanbag chairs and clipboards to replace the desks
Better science lab
Fishing pond
Nutella vending machines
Library improvements
More trade books in classroom libraries
Dance lab
More individualized instruction
Theater renovation
Painting the outside of our building
Making our school a certified green building
Underground aquarium
Candy room
Softer toilet paper
More tissues in the classrooms

I think most of those ideas are pretty good. I guess this generation can take over in 30 years or so.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Tempus Fugit

A few days ago one of my students knocked over a bottle of water onto my desk calendar. We mopped it right up, but I knew the blotter would never be the same. The once perfectly flat rectangle of cheerful blue, yellow, and white was crinkling before our eyes, and keeping it would mean spending the next seven months compulsively sweeping my forearm across the page to flatten it back out. still, I couldn't be upset with the student; she had been leaning over earnestly to ask me a creative question about her writing, and how could I ever discourage that?

Strangely enough, this was actually the second time this year that such a calamity befell my day-by-day planner. Every other year, my desk calendar has lasted the entire 12 months it was meant to, but a couple of months ago another student spilled my coffee, again, in heedless pursuit of some truth about the lesson that day.  That time, as this, I ordered a replacement online, and the newest version was delivered today.

After I unceremoniously ripped through the first four months of 2013 and discarded them in the recycling, I set my new blotter on the desk and proceeded to copy my upcoming appointments and events from the old water- logged one. It didn't take me long to realize that this year, while not ending next week like they are in, say, Atlanta, is still rapidly drawing to a close. Oh, there is a lot, okay, too much, still to do, but this was the first time I could see the high noon summer-solstice sun shining from the end of the tunnel, and I was surprised to find that I wasn't gleeful in the least. All I could think about was how much I would miss these sloppy, passionate kids.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Writing Sample

My students completed their end-of-the-year writing sample today. The prompt was a familiar one for me: Your school has some extra money. They could spend it on sports equipment, computers, the cafeteria, or something else. What do you think the money should be used for?

My philosophy has always been that if I teach my students to be good writers, they will be able to write good essays, but over the years, I've read a lot of essays about sports equipment, computers, and cafeteria food. I've also read many about game rooms, student lounges, and pools. The majority of them have been well-written, if a little dry. I guess there's something about the format that students find uninspiring.

Even so, I have also read lots of terrific pieces too. Probably the best one ever was a very convincing argument in favor of zombie-proofing our building; it had me in stitches, no pun intended. I've also read essays on why we need more Kleenex, a proposal to repaint our building brick-by-brick, and even a tongue-in-cheek proposition to replace all the teachers with robots.

Today, however, there were two writing pieces that can be nothing else than heartbreaking signs of the times. One student wrote about how we should invest all our money in enhancing the security of our building. His opening line? "We've all heard about the tragedy at Newtown," and his closing was, "In a peaceful world we wouldn't need these things, but now we do."

The other student wrote a fanciful essay all about constructing a huge shelter under the gym where all of us could go in case of any natural disaster or human threats. We would have bunk beds, walkie talkies, classrooms, and food to last us at least two years.

Maybe a student game room wouldn't be such a bad idea.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Work in Progress

Sometimes the administration requires kids to attend Tolerance Club. It's not so much a punishment as an opportunity to raise their awareness... that's how we spin it, anyway.

Today one such boy attended our meeting. As our activity, we were showing the students the "Implicit Association Test." Housed at Harvard,  

"The Implicit Association Test (IAT) measures attitudes and beliefs that people may be unwilling or unable to report. The IAT may be especially interesting if it shows that you have an implicit attitude that you did not know about. For example, you may believe that women and men should be equally associated with science, but your automatic associations could show that you (like many others) associate men with science more than you associate women with science"

We like to say it reveals a bias for rather than a bias against, but it usually shows some sort of bias. Some of the tests available now are age, race, disability, sexuality, and weight. So the kid who was required to attend the meeting is clicking through and he gets to the end where his results are revealed. "I don't know what this means," he calls out, waving one of the adults over.

She looked at the screen. "Hmmm... that means that you have a bias toward people who are thin over people who are heavy."

"Well, duh!" he answered.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

What to Let Go

It's a cliche to say so, but family events are always a combination of joy and stress. My immediate family had a particularly wonderful weekend this one past; we were all together, and we enjoyed each others company every second we could wring from the two days we spent.

But there were other relatives who could not say the same. "I just have to cut her off," both women said separately about the other, her mother, her daughter. 

"There comes a time after so many years when you just can't take another disappointment," said one.

The other echoed her words but substituted "insult" for "disappointment."

And it has been many years, over 25. After all that time, or perhaps because of it, they are both so locked in their anger and pain that anyone near them can see that it would be a blessing if they actually could let them go. Unfortunately, it's equally clear that they haven't, for while they have cut each other out of their lives, refusing to interact despite being a few feet apart, the anger and pain remain.

As Buddha said, Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

So Far Yet So Close

I was surprised when I heard that one of the bride's closest cousins would not be at the wedding because she was doing a semester abroad in Spain. Her parents, sisters, and brother seemed a little disappointed to not have her there at the rehearsal dinner last night, even as they explained to all who asked what a great opportunity it was and what as fabulous time she was having. Today at the ceremony I was two rows back from the family. As her brother held up his smart phone throughout the proceedings, I assumed he was making a video recording. That is until he swung his arm forward to catch the action at the front of the chapel. As the couple exchanged their vows, I saw the face of a young woman watching intently from his screen. It was, of course, his sister joining the festivities via Skype. 

Friday, May 10, 2013

Suite Life

My whole family is in Charlottesville for a wedding  this weekend. At the last minute, we decided to upgrade our room to a suite so that my cousin could stay with us and my mom. What a great idea! We've all been hanging out in the living room, and then we bought a couple bottles of wine and some fancy snacks. There's even a two-burner stove, and believe me, friends, if we were just staying one extra day, I'd be throwing a dinner party!

Thursday, May 9, 2013


It's teacher appreciation week and this year my students have been very thoughtful. On Monday I got flowers and candy; yesterday one nice girl baked cookies, and today someone added to my flower arrangement, another presented me with a gift card, and then I got what will probably be a once-in-a-career gift. A cheese souffle.


Now that's appreciation.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Pizza Culpa

"Where's our pizza?" I growled over my stomach. "I'm starving!"

So hungry in fact was I that I picked up the phone without hesitation and dialed. (Those who know me will immediately recognize the significance of this gesture.) When a polite voice answered, I did my best to curb my crankiness. "I placed an online delivery order an hour and a half ago and I was just wondering where it was," I whined [slightly, very slightly].

She took my name. "We have that as an online pick-up order," she informed me sympathetically, and I realized with horror that the mistake was all mine. But before I could even let out the gigantic sigh that filled my lungs all the way down to my diaphragm she added, "Would you like us to remake it and deliver it as soon as possible?"

"That would be great," I whimpered [slightly, very slightly].

Please hurry up pizza.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013


With itchy eyes and scratchy throat, and amidst the prediction of billions of cicadas about to emerge and outnumber us humans 60 to 1, I swept another eight ounces of woven weeds and muck from the eaves of the porch this evening.

Ahhh, spring! What other joys might the season bring?

Monday, May 6, 2013

Darwin's Agent

There's a robin who has been trying to build a nest in the eaves of our porch for several weeks. We have a rule that once there are eggs in a nest, the bird family gets to stay until the babies fledge, but a bird's nest in that small space is a mess and a nuisance to everyone; I don't believe the birds really like having two humans, a dog, and a cat so near by. They just don't know it yet because the weather's been so yucky.

As such, we practice a form of avian contraception around here, knocking the sticks and grass down every day before anything gets established. Even so, this particular robin has shown considerable perseverance, returning day after day with blade after blade of dry grass. Until yesterday, I watched the mess she was making from the comfort of the living room, but early May is a good time to clean up the deck and start hardening off my seedlings, so I grabbed a pair of gloves, a broom, a roll of paper towels, and some 409 spray.

It was kind of gross out there; clumps of mud and strands of grass littered the area. The Adirondack chair in the corner looked as if had been shat upon by a billion birds, not just the one, and the cushion was a total loss-- first item into the garbage bag. Still I cleaned on, and it wasn't too long before the porch was a welcoming area of agriculture and relaxation.

This morning? That damn robin was back. I let the cat out there and chased her away personally several times, but I knew we would be knocking a nest down this evening.

When I got home tonight, though, I was unprepared however for the sheer amount of debris that was on that chair. It was covered in an entire range of miniature mountains of muck. Of one thing I was sure: no bird could possibly excrete so much in so little time. Had she have brought her whole freakin' flock for robin's revenge? Calling Alfred Hitchcock...

Turns out that when the soil is wet, as ours has been, female robins begin their nests. In addition to the obvious grass and twigs, beakful by beakful, they also carry approximately half a pound (half a pound!) of mud from the ground to the construction site. It takes your average robin hundreds of visits to build her nest, and we just happened to have one sloppy mud-bearer who dropped more on the chair than she placed in the eaves.

Of course all her hard work is gone now, swept away with the flick of a broom. I do feel a little bit guilty, but I comfort myself with the knowledge that, surely, natural selection is on my side.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

And there it Is

We have a nice strawberry bed in our garden. When I first put the plants in two years ago, all the literature I read suggested not picking the fruit until the second year in order to help strengthen the plants and their subsequent crops.

I thought that was the dumbest idea ever, and I would have picked every single berry from those vines last year except that they all rotted on the ground side before they completely ripened. Having been forced into following the directions, my next dilemma was how to keep my berries from doing that every year.

The answer? Why, it's in the name. Straw. You're supposed to mulch the plants with straw, or even better, pine straw, and then the STRAWberries can ripen on a soft little bed. I did that today, and I have high hopes for lots of berries in June.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Be Still My Vintage Heart

I heard yesterday that starting next week and continuing into the next season, Patty Duke and Meredith Baxter are going to play a long-committed lesbian couple on Glee.

Let me animate my reaction to this news about a couple of my childhood icons:

spit take
slide whistle
jaw drops to the floor
boing boing sound
eyes pop out
goofy grin

Friday, May 3, 2013

If Only

I think I've mentioned how the writing club kids like to give each other prompts when we meet. I'm sure part of the appeal is being allowed to write on the white board, and most of the time the assignments are so silly that it is kind of challenging to get anything on paper in the 5-10 minutes we allow. (But... I guess our students might say the same thing for many of the tasks we set for them.)

Really, though-- Write about pandas and turtle cup cakes? The Bermuda triangle, without pickles? Using the words, "before", "daffodil", "cocoa puffs", "converse" and "soccer"? You see what I mean, but let me tell you, those kids put out some crazy good writing on that kind of dare.

Yesterday, though, someone posted the following challenge: Write three paragraphs arguing against standardized tests, and it wasn't either one of us teachers.

Trying to remain neutral, I asked the assembled students what their objections to these tests were. "I'll scribe," I volunteered. "You talk."

"They're not fun!" someone started, rather predictably.

"It's boring," another student added.

We adults shrugged sympathetically. "What else?" I asked.

"Well," one kid started earnestly, "all that review cuts away from learning new things."

"And they create a lot of stress!" the girl to his right chimed in.

"Stress? Why? None of you guys are going to fail," I said, because it was true.

"All those signs everywhere about how many days until the test can really freak you out," she told me. "And what about the announcements?" she continued.

"SOL Boot Camp! SOL Boot Camp" they all started to chant.

"What is that even about?" she asked.

"One of our teachers told us that how we do can affect the economy," a boy said. "Test scores impact property values."

"One of your teachers told you that?" I repeated, a little incredulously.

"He was just being honest," the student answered, "but the tests aren't a fair way to evaluate you guys either. I mean you can't control how every single student is going to do on them, right?"

More shrugs from the teachers.

"Okay. Do we have enough?" asked the student who had posed the prompt. "Let's write a letter to the school board and get rid of these tests!"

Thursday, May 2, 2013

We Run

I had my poet friend in for his 5th annual visit with my classes today. The activity he led us through was a fitting end to the National Poetry month challenge we just finished on Tuesday. He had the kids up and moving around, finding and re-finding their "tribes," and then did a fun writing exercise based on Tim Seible's poem Renegade. The poem repeats the words we run, we run like... and is a very accessible model for writers to experiment with. The lesson was good enough to repeat with writing club this afternoon.

Here is a collaborative poem composed of some of the images we came up with through out the day:

we run
we run like the moon escaping the sun
like a bloody nose
like deserts to water
we run like a murderer escaping the police
like dust into the vacuum
we run like this poem goes on
like echoes in a cave
like a home-run ball over the wall
we run like yesterday is tomorrow
like the words you didn't mean to say
like rain on water
we run
we run like cleats on the turf
like cockroaches in the kitchen light
like a cat chasing a laser pointer
we run
we run like we are both chasing and escaping something
we run like the caboose after the train
we run like ghost crabs in the moonlight
we run
we run like we are late for the bus
run like it's the last day of school
we hear the bell and we run

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Been There

We're expecting some sort of cicada activity around here this spring. The details are a little murky, because our big, big, big seventeen year brood, Brood X, was here in 2004, and so they won't be back until 2021. This year's brood is Brood II, also a 17-year brood, but usually not as populous as X in these parts.

Personally, I am unconcerned about the potential plague. I know from experience that these bugs don't bother me, but the same cannot be said for my students. In 2004, they were three, and any locust recall they might have is blurry at best.

All they know is that some time in the next few weeks, those critters are crawling out, and just the chance of any significant number of two inch flying green bugs (with red eyes!!!) is freaking them out.