Thursday, October 31, 2013

The News from Isabel's House

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

AND the beer is always cold.

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

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Little Early

Overheard through my open kitchen window:

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

Toddler: Do they have candy, too?

Grandma: Maybe we'll find out tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Educational Outings

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 28, 2013

Live From School...

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

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

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Sabbath Day

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

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

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

Could mass be far behind?

Saturday, October 26, 2013


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

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

Friday, October 25, 2013

Key Concepts

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

Thursday, October 24, 2013


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

What state should you live in?

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

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Funeral for the General

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

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

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Take the Girl Outta Jersey

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

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

Monday, October 21, 2013

The New English

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 20, 2013


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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 19, 2013


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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Sunny Side

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

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

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

Thursday, October 17, 2013

National Shake Out

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

A: Bribe them with candy.

Seriously, what else is there?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013


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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Raising the Bar

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 14, 2013

Numbers Game

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

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

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Hardcore Connoisseur

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

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

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

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

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

Now that's local.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Stalking Chipmunks

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

I'll leave the metaphor to you.

Friday, October 11, 2013

All Good

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

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

Thursday, October 10, 2013


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

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

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

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

Me: What room was it?

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

Me: What did he want in the kitchen?

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

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

Student: Arghhhh

Me: Try starting with the chips.

Student: The boy grabbed the chips...

Me: Go on...

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

Me: Nice!

A few other sentences from the day:

The clean dishes sparkled like diamonds in the dish drain.

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

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Bass Ackwards

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Rare and Unexpected

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 7, 2013

Zero Sum

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

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

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

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

"Mine!" they chorused.

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

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

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

"Mine!" they both insisted.

Maybe they should run for congress.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

When Life Gives You Beet Shreds...

Make red sauerkraut!

Let the lacto-bacchanalia begin.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

As Vegan as You Wanna Be

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

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

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

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

Not a bad compromise, eh?

Friday, October 4, 2013

Come Together Right Now

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

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

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

Thursday, October 3, 2013

A Little Bird

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

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

#teachingideas #schooloftracey

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Fifth Annual RSVP

Wow! We've been doing this a while!

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Obama was followed by his wife,

Michelle Obama (6%)

and then with a couple of vote a piece,

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Always on Best Behavior

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What do you teach?" she asked.

"Sixth grade English," I answered.

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

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

I shrugged and nodded.

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