Monday, September 30, 2013

Mind-Numb Monday

I don't think my students even woke up until 5th period.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Sunday Night Blues


Saturday, September 28, 2013

From Autobiography to Zombie

A big part of the memoir unit we teach in sixth grade reading is helping students identify the theme of whatever story we are reading. Earlier this week, I asked for kids to throw out possible themes for the piece we had just finished, an excerpt from Jerry Spinelli's memoir, Knots in my YoYo String.

We read the part where Jerry considers himself a non-reader because he doesn't like that many books. He reads comics voraciously and sports statistics and he loves words and writers who use them playfully, but in his mind, reading and writing are nothing special-- they simply take their place with the "popsicles, pen knives and bicycle tires" of his life. One day he even writes an extra poem to go with a brochure project on Mexico, and his teacher accuses him of plagiarism, probably because she doesn't see any strength in that area either.

"So, what's the lesson?" I asked the class.

A kid who probably doesn't consider himself very literary raised his hand, and I called on him with pleasure.

"Your greatest strength might contain your greatest weakness?" he suggested.

"Hmmmm. That sounds familiar," I said. "Did you see World War Z recently?" 

He shrugged sheepishly. "Yeah. Last weekend."

"Think about it though," I advised him. "Turn it around a little. You thought of that for a reason."

He considered it a moment, and then I saw the light of an idea in his face. "Your weakness might contain your strength?"

"I think it might," I told him. "I think it might."

Friday, September 27, 2013

Color Blind

"Are Katie and Lizzy sisters?" a student asked me today. I understood why she might wonder that, because both girls happen to have albinism.

"No," I told her.

"Are they cousins?"

"Nope," I said.

"Well, they just look so much alike," she continued.

"Kind of," I shrugged. "They definitely have the same hair color."

"Are you sure they aren't related?" She couldn't let it go.

"Listen," I said, "what you're asking is like somebody wondering if you and [here I named another student] are related."

"Why?" she frowned. "Because we're Asian? We don't look anything alike."

"I know," I said, "and that's the point."

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Reading Boss

I administered yet another standardized test to my students today. Upon seeing our agenda, they literally groaned with disbelief. I shrugged in sympathy. There is nothing I can do about the 20 days (4 full weeks) of instruction and learning in my class that is replaced by mandated testing. Still, I hate for the kids to get discouraged so early in the year.

"Oh! This one's different," I said. "First you pick the type of passages you like so they give you questions you will find interesting."

They did not seem sold. "How many questions are there?" someone asked.

"It depends," I told them. "It's like..." I grasped for a simile. "It's like a video game. You keep answering until you get a certain number wrong, and then they end your test, tell you thanks for playing, and give you a score."

This they found intriguing. "Do they tell you when you get one wrong?"

"Only during the practice test," I said.

They began to strategize. "Do they get harder as you go?"

I nodded, and I could almost hear the gears turning.

"What if you never miss any?" someone asked. "Do you have to keep going forever?"

"No," I answered. "Eventually, you beat the test."

I guess they had never thought of it that way.

"When can we start!?"

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Dictionary Skills

What's an antonym for deficit as in Deficit Thinking?
  • abundance
  • adequacy
  • advantage
  • enough
  • perfection
  • plenty
  • satisfaction
  • success
  • sufficiency
  • excess
  • superfluousness
  • proficiency 
I attended a required work shop for English teachers today. As a result, I got to sleep in by an hour, spend time with some of my favorite teacher friends, laugh a little, eat a free lunch in the sunshine, and get out early enough to go to the gym, walk the dog, and cook dinner.

That was enough.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013


Kagan, CRISS,
and SRI,
IA, RICA, oh my my,
writing sample, yes or no?
catch a SMART goal by the toe.
Synergy is EGP
with less functionality,
and don't forget your UbD:

Monday, September 23, 2013

BS in Literature

I teach a one quarter reading course for the sixth graders on my team. They have four reading teachers over the course of the year, each of us focusing on reading in our content area-- reading in math, reading in science, reading in social studies, and my class, reading in language arts. Because the focus is on non-fiction text, the time the students spend with me is focused on memoir and other forms of creative non-fiction.

Since we only have nine weeks together, we read lots of short memoirs and excerpts, as well as other literature that thematically compliments those selections. For example, so far this year we have read pieces by Jack Gantos, Sandra Cisneros, Billy Collins, and John Scieszka. Another component of the course is having the students write about their own lives, and to tie it together, today the assignment was to read a piece that I wrote.

Oh! I expected it to be well-received, but with this sly group the flattery was so deep I needed a shovel.

"Can you sign mine?" one student started.

"Wait until you read it," I advised.

"Wow!" said someone else a little bit later. "That was the best thing we have read all year!"

I raised my eyebrows. "Realllllllllly?" I replied. "Better than... Jack Gantos?" He nodded vigorously and I continued.

"Sandra Cisneros?

... John Sciesszka?


He continued nodding and I waved at him a bit dismissively.

"Really!" he said. "I don't know what you're doing here. You should be on a book tour!"

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Economy of Energy

Shout out to Sonic dog who figured out there was really no reason to climb all the way out of the pool after fetching the tennis ball-- if you wait on the stairs, someone will toss it again so that you can do what you came for... swimming.

Others may briefly soar, but plugging away offers its own rewards.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

School v. Learning

Say what you will about NPR, but whether or not I always agree with them editorially, over the years I have learned a lot from public radio. Today alone is an excellent example. Within 20 minutes this morning, I understood the concept that art is something that puts off more energy than went into making it, and I was also introduced to the narrative structure of Leonard Bernstein's second symphony, Age of Anxiety. Whoa.

As a (okay, sometimes jaded) person of letters, I found these insights into those other arts, visual and music, very instructive, but it was only a few hours later that I was thoroughly schooled in the themes and writing of Ken Kesey in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, a novel I thought I was pretty familiar with.

Educators today are fond of saying that we want our students to become life-long learners, but like so many things in public policy, what we mean by that lofty phrase is not always clear. Earlier this week I wrote about the joy of vicariously experiencing my students' ah-ha moments.

Today I had a few of my own.

That's what we're talking about.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Or You'll Sink Like a Stone

My students waded in for their first dip into our electronic community today. In the years that I have been using this online mix of formal and informal writing opportunities with my sixth graders the response of any given group has been unpredictable.

When my colleague and I created and introduced "Write Here Write Now" to our students on a Friday seven years ago only to log in and find a staggering 1000+ posts the next day we were stunned, but we buckled in for the ride and it was one of the most rewarding years of my career in terms of student engagement and growth.

Of course times and technology have changed a lot since then, and being able to communicate remotely with friends is no longer novel for your average 11-year-old, as a student reminded me today when I mentioned that they could use WHWN to write to classmates anytime, anywhere.

"Why would we do that?" she wondered (quite politely). "Don't we have phones?"

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Six Degrees

The other day a young colleague stopped me at the copy machine. "Hey!" she said, and it was clear that she had something she really wanted to tell me.

"Hey!?" I answered expectantly.

She took a breath. "Let me go back. How are you?"

I laughed in appreciation of her manners. I am, after all, her elder. "Fine. And you?"

"I was at a comic convention this weekend," she started.

"Oh yeah, I read about that," I told her. "How was it?"

"Fun!" she continued. "I was a volunteer, and I met another girl who was volunteering, too. We started talking and I told her I teach in Arlington. She asked where, and when I named our school she said that she went here!"

I nodded, following along.

"And then she asked if you were still here," she reported breathlessly. "She didn't even have to think about your name! She knew you right away!"

I gave a little ta da look. "Who was it?" I asked.

When she mentioned the name, I remembered this former student immediately, too. She was one of the kids from my very first year of teaching who used to hang out in my room after school that year. Later, she and some of her friends were volunteer helpers in my summer school classrooms for several years. I had lost track of her, but it was great to reconnect, even once removed.

Today I sent her a message on Facebook:

Hey! KB told me she ran into you at the Comic Convention last weekend, so you know I'm still doing


twenty years later.

Fortunately, I still like it. Your class must have broken me in well.

I hope all is well with you! Stay in touch.

I hope she will.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

BSN Fantasies

Having just finished my 21st back-to-school night I arrived home with mixed emotions. Relief, certainly, that it was over, and happy, because it was kind of fun seeing former parents, some who have become old friends; I've been at my school long enough to have established a history.

Once again, though, I was mostly disappointed in my presentation. It's very hard to distill a year of English into a ten-minute presentation. I always feel like I have been long-winded and worse, boring. Every year I vow to find the perfect way to convey the essence of my class in a witty and enjoyable nine minutes, leaving just enough time for questions.

Or perhaps, applause?

Maybe next year.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

I Don't Know How She Swallowed a Cow

Part of the fun of teaching is seeing the light in someone's eyes when they understand something completely new. I will never grow tired of that moment. In sixth grade there are many such opportunities; one of the reasons I enjoy that age is because in most kids, it is really the transition year between childhood and the next step, and so they are primed for paradigm shift-- something during our time together will totally blow their minds. It might be as simple as opening a combination lock for the first time or having the privilege of walking down the hall not in a single-file line, but it's not an exaggeration to say that these tiny events open their eyes to a new world only before imagined-- you can take the double-takes to the bank.

I have twins in my homeroom this year who are in our school's life skills program. The 20 minutes we spend together each morning is an opportunity for them to interact with kids outside their program, even though they are behind their peers cognitively, socially, and emotionally. Tuesday is a reading day, and I have books of all levels in my classroom. This morning I gave one of the girls a copy of There Was an Old Woman who Swallowed a Fly.

It was before most of the other kids had arrived and she began to read it out loud. Her decoding skills were very good, and it was soon clear that she was comprehending what she read as well. What was also clear was that this was a totally new story to her and her sister. Their shock and amusement as the story progressed was charming. They had no idea how it would end. She swallowed a spider? She ate a cat?! Imagine that! 

Their enthusiasm and appreciation completely revived what I considered to be kind of a dumb story; I will never again hear about that silly old woman without a little giggle.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Time Marches On

I laughed about our culinary disagreement the other night, but to be honest, I totally got where Heidi was coming from. She was not yet ready to give up our bright summer cuisine, and so it should be no surprise that her menu was the one we went with that night.

Since then we have continued our hang-on to summer approach to eating with eggplant and tomato last night, zucchini tomato and pasta tonight, and gumbo on the menu for tomorrow. I'm doing my best to work in the transition to fall, though; this crisp weather practically demands it. We had a crunchy little roasted butternut squash julienne garnish on our salads the other night, and it's kale and apple salad tonight.

So be it.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Public Display

In general, Heidi and I are an amicable pair; in many ways our strengths compliment each other. I don't mean to imply that we always agree, far from it, but it was a rare occasion yesterday when we walked into our local grocery store bickering about what to have for dinner. As luck would have it, the first person we saw was a friend from work, Renee, waiting at the check out line. She was on the phone, but her eyes widened as we approached. Our moods changed completely when we shifted our focus from ourselves to our friend, and we greeted her with genuine cheer.

"What are y'all doing here?" she asked, and then pointing to the phone she added, "I'm talking to Nik." (Who is her adult daughter and also a friend.)

"We're just fighting about what to have for dinner," Heidi laughed, and I joined her because it was so ridiculous. She continued with excellent imitations of our cranky exchange, and we laughed even harder.

Renee looked relieved. "They're fighting about dinner," she said into her phone. "Tracey wants roasted butternut squash risotto, but Heidi wants grilled bread with heirloom tomatoes and a salad." She paused. "Nik wants to know what time she should be there."

Saturday, September 14, 2013

An Irving Berlin Kind of a Day

We decided to take advantage of the PERFECT weather this afternoon and head down to the national mall. At 5 PM there an almost carnival-like atmosphere prevailed beneath the cloudless sky. A street musician played Linus and Lucy on his keyboard while four little children danced on the grass. A young man carefully placed a wine bottle in his shoe and rapped it sharply on the ground next to his picnic blanket while the pretty girl he was with looked on. The cork remained firmly in place as we passed, and the rapping became pounding. I always wondered if that trick really worked. A little further on, another man passed us juggling three tennis balls as he went, and right after we rounded the west steps of the Capitol, we caught up with and passed two guys chattering in Italian and also practicing their operatic la-la-la-la-las as they strolled along the gravelly path. 

Nothin but blue skies.

Friday, September 13, 2013


Is "pie hole" an example of metonymy?

Open yours and discuss.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Coming to You Live

A neighbor stopped by the other night to chat. She was giving us the latest on her 5-year-old niece who recently started kindergarten in another state. It seems they have a behavior plan in her class that involves a 10 point system. Her niece is never quite clear on how many points she has or where they went by the end of the week. The family suspects a bit of truth-stretching here and there; it's hardly surprising-- who wants to report unflattering news, especially when you're five?

That's okay, though, our neighbor told us, because the point system is going to be online in a couple of weeks with live progress reports for every kindergartener.

Of course it is.

(Shakes head and turns off the computer.)

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Whole Story

I got a look at the first examples of my new students' writing today. After we read "The Follower" by Jack Gantos, I asked them to identify a possible theme of the story. Don't follow a bad leader; be yourself; monkey see monkey do; listen to good advice, were all accurately offered. The next step was for them to write the story of a time when they learned that lesson themselves.

Given the nature of the prompt, it's hardly surprising that many of their pieces included the sentence, We got in big trouble. Every single story left it there, though, and because I don't know these kids very well yet, I was curious about their definition of "big trouble."

Turns out, it doesn't take much more than a few harsh words or a tap on the wrist for these kids to call it hot water. Well, either that, or they were taking creative license. It doesn't matter though, because it was a great opportunity for me to remind them to elaborate.

"Tell me everything!" I encouraged one student. "What did the principal say? How did you feel? What happened then?"

He frowned and shrugged. "Details, details," he sighed.

I laughed. "Exactly."

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Late Summer

What to do when the high temperature for the whole year falls in September?

Fire up the grill!

Monday, September 9, 2013


This is our fourth year of doing Tolerance Club, and today's meeting was full of surprises. In other years, we have embraced the largely sixth grade participation as a good thing, hoping that we could count on their commitment as their middle school time progressed. That was never the case, though. For some reason, Tolerance Club just wasn't appealing to 7th and 8th graders, and all but our most faithful participants dropped out. This year, we made the conscious decision to be happy with whoever we got-- everyone can use a little tolerance, right? So, imagine our delight when the majority of the kids who showed up were in seventh grade, most of them our alumni from last year.

Could it be that this tolerance thing is finally catching on?

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Laying Odds

And so the weekend ends...

with a wet and happy tired dog,

and a homegrown butternut squash casserole.

If the week ahead is half as satisfying, we'll do just fine.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Standard Time

Getting used to a 48 hour weekend?

Gonna take some practice.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Rolling with It

A long time ago I heard a piece on the radio about how you can calculate the temperature by counting the rate of the crickets chirping. I was driving to the mountains on a beautiful fall Saturday in the September of my first year of teaching, and everything seemed so perfect already that this information was as intoxicating as spiked koolaid-- the blue skies, leaves turning in the golden light, and the slow but steady singing of crickets marking the entrance of Autumn was all almost too much.

Today, the first Friday of the school year, was an equally lovely day, and tonight I hear the peeping of crickets outside my open windows. I paused a few moments ago to count their chirps and applied the formula I heard so long ago.

48 degrees? That seems a little off.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Out of the Running

September 5:

What happened!!!??

Just wait till next year, Charlie Brown. You'll see! Next year at this same time, I'll find the pumpkin patch that is real sincere...

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Haters Gonna Hate

Having attended high school long ago and far away, I appreciate FaceBook for its easy access qualities. There are so many people that I might never have heard from again with whom I'm in touch. I have to be honest that for many of them, the reality of busy lives in distant geographic locations might not be a great loss for either of us, but I do value the connection I have with more than a few folks.

Even so, this morning when I got a message that the administrator had posted to a private group nominally set up for anyone who attended our school from 76-79, I was a little appalled. He was asking about someone who was requesting to join.

Does anyone know a MC. No recolection of guy nor does he have high school info about himself?? 

Not only do I remember MC, but I happen to know that he's made a concerted effort to connect with other alumni both on and offline. I rolled my eyes and closed the app, but by the time I checked again this evening, there were even more comments.

I don't recall either. So I didn't reply to friend request.


I believe I graduated with him in 1980... he was a rugby player?


he was a fat slob. he probably is still a fat slob. I owe him something that I hope to give to him someday.

Seriously?  I felt as if I had been transported back to high school again. The popular kids were running the group, posting their pictures, admitting their friends, and keeping the wannabes out. 

I only had one question.

How did I get in? 

I may never find out though, because right after that? I quit.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Linus Project

Here's a visual update on my bid for the sincerest pumpkin patch of the year:

August 8:

September 1:

He's gotta pick this one. He's got to. I don't see how a pumpkin patch can be more sincere than this one. You can look around and there's not a sign of hypocrisy. Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see.

Monday, September 2, 2013

That's a Wrap

"It's been a good summer," I said to Heidi this morning. "The weather's been great, the food's been excellent, and the company has been generous and fine."

She nodded.

"Let's do it again next year!"

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Soft Ball

I'm a big fan of Sixty Minutes; I generally find their choice of stories interesting and their coverage unobjectionable or better. It's always different, though, when a news organization covers a topic of which you yourself have personal experience, knowledge, and (dare I say?) insight, so of course I'm much more critical of their education segments than of any others, even though they probably interest me the most.

Tonight they re-ran a piece on Khan Academy, the on-line, non-profit educational website that was created by a guy who was just trying to tutor his cousin in algebra. When his YouTube videos took off, he quit his job as a hedge fund analyst to focus full time on this endeavor. Salman Khan's efforts were noticed by no less a power player than Bill Gates, and so a movement was born.

Flip teaching, backwards classroom, reverse instruction, flipping the classroom, and reverse teaching are all terms for the method of instruction where students access the content (or lecture portion of a class) at home and then come to the instructor for support or coaching as they practice (traditionally the homework part of a course).

As a teacher, I am not threatened by this approach in the least. On some level, it makes a lot of sense. I am skeptical, however, of the great gains proponents claim when they champion such programs. As it is right now? All their data is based on students who were motivated to access such online support; it's not rocket science to teach people who want to learn.

That speaks to the largely ignored challenge of American public education today-- it's not so much that our teachers or schools are unqualified (although admittedly, some are)-- no, our system is failing because for so many reasons there are a lot of kids who are not ready and willing to learn what we have to teach them.