Friday, January 31, 2014

Miscue Analysis

The math teacher showed me a placement test that our new student took today. One problem had an array of circles and squares. Find the ratio, the directions read, circles to squares.

No numbers had been written in response to the question, instead? He had circled two squares.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

This Happened

In an effort to be more cooperative, I agreed to teach a unit so that all three of the sixth grade teachers at my school could check another "common unit" box even though it included prescribed novels, which I am not in favor of. I strongly believe that students should have a lot of choice in reading; in fact I have a sign in my classroom that cites a statistic that 9 out of 10 kids read more when they choose their own books.

Today I did the "book pass" activity where the students take a structured look at their prospective choices and rank them. It did not go well. Although some kids seemed enthusiastic about the novels there were many negative comments, with "boring" and "babyish" topping the list.

In my last class of the day, the opposition was at its most vocal. There seemed to be a note of betrayal in the complaints, as if my students couldn't believe I was forcing them to read books they didn't want to. 

"Look at that sign!" one of them said. "If 9 out of 10 kids read more when they choose their own books, why are you making us do this?"

Why indeed.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014


"I like being the star of your blog!" Mary told me this morning.

"I'll have to do that more often," I replied with more than a little irony. 

I know what she means, though. I wrote this almost four years ago:

A friend and fellow-blogger mentioned me in her blog yesterday. It was really just a fleeting reference; I was but a minor character in her daily anecdote, but I admit to a bit of a thrill when I read it. I write about people all the time, but as far as I know, no one writes about me. Pity-- there's a part of me that wants to be a character in someone else's narrative, if only so I can read about it later. Perhaps I should just make an effort to commit more memorable acts when around my writer friends.

To which Mary replied:

You didn't know my whole blog is about's just disguised in layers of symbolism and metaphors and such. (If it's me you're talking about...)

Tuesday, January 28, 2014


I frowned and let out a long sigh.

We were looking at the results of the quarterly standardized predictor tests we are mandated to administer to our students this year. The passing score is 80% or better, and my students had not fared well.

"Are you feeling bad that your students did so badly?" Mary asked.

"No!" I said, considering the flaws in the test, the stupidity of measuring knowledge and ability by 24 multiple-choice questions.

"Well, kind of," I continued, thinking of how this was the standard we would all be judged by, whether I liked it or not. No wonder people teach the test-- actually, it's a miracle that anybody doesn't.

"And now you feel even worse, because you feel bad? Right?" Mary added.


Monday, January 27, 2014

And the Award Goes to...

Golden Globes, Grammys, Oscars... the award season is here.

I will leave my musings on extrinsic rewards for another day, other than to say that I am obviously conflicted and compromised on the topic. (Bless me, Alfie Kohn, for I have sinned.)

I really would like to shout out (woot! woot!) to today's award winner:

Congratulations to my favorite children's author, Kate DiCamillo, for her second Newbery Medal.

Sunday, January 26, 2014


Where does ambition come from? Consider the case of Jordan Belfort, the subject of the movie The Wolf of Wall Street, which we saw today. In his early twenties he pursued and achieved what some might say was obscene wealth, at least the way he spent his money. Or rather the money he got mostly from cheating other people.

Did Belfort have more ambition than others? More luck? Fewer scruples? In any case, he knew what he wanted and he got it. In many ways he's the opposite of Woody Grant, the elderly main character in the movie Nebraska who becomes convinced that he has won a million dollars from a magazine peddling company. "I didn't even know he wanted to be a millionaire," Woody's wife says. "He should have thought of that years ago and worked for it."

And then there's Lloyd Dobler, the teenaged hero of the classic movie, Say Anything. When asked at the dinner table about his plans for the future, Lloyd answers like this:

You mean like career? Uh, I don't know. I've, I've thought about this quite a bit sir, and I'd have to say considering what's waiting out there for me, I don't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don't want to do that.

He is, as he tells his guidance counselor, "looking for a dare to be great situation."

So, where does ambition come from? Maybe a better question is what does ambition look like, or even who gets to say what ambition is?

I ask these questions in consideration of the four boys I know, two of them 18 and two of them 21, who are nearing that threshold of self-direction and independence, and I wonder where their ambitions will take them.

I have my fingers crossed for a few dare to be great situations.

Saturday, January 25, 2014


August: Osage County?

Oh my.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Which Way the Wind Blows

It seems that more cold weather is on the way for us. Never mind that we are we living through days of record lows, more such days are forecast for next week. At least that's what the weather reports say.

In places to the north, they are coping with lasting sub-zero temps. Around here, where it's 20 to 30 degrees warmer than that, there are plenty of folks who have neither the clothing nor shelter to safely and comfortably weather this weather, so I know I'm lucky that, for me, this cold snap is nothing more than an interesting change.

It reminds a little bit of when I was in college in upstate New York. We must have had some really cold cold days then. I couldn't say for sure, because I literally never paid any attention to the weather report then. Why would I? There was no internet, no local paper, and I didn't own a TV. Plus I lived on campus, so I just got up, looked out the window, and went with it.

Back then, if it was snowy I wore my Swiss hiking boots, jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, and my blue down jacket, with gloves if I thought about it. It was never too bad. I do remember days so cold, though, that when I stepped out the door I felt the hair in my nose crisp up a little bit, and it was possible to walk across the glaze on top of the snow without ever breaking through to the fifteen inches of powder below.

What did I do? I took a deep breath, turned my face to the blue sky, shoved my hands in my pockets and went to class. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

One and a Half Day Week

I could live with that!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

What Winter is Made Of

bright sun
frigid air
blue skies
fluffy snow
dry wood
warm fire
no school

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Mark my Words

We spent part of our snow day watching Blue Jasmine. Regular readers know how diligently we pursue the Oscar nominees. Ultimately, for me, when the final credits rolled, the movie was unsatisfying, but I don't have a doubt that Cate Blanchett's performance will win the Academy Award, partially because I didn't like the end. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

He Writes the Songs

For Christmas, we bought Heidi's parents tickets to see Barry Manilow in concert. The show is this coming Friday, and as the purchaser of the seats, today I got a reminder e-mail. There was good ol' Barry with that permanent Cali tan and those blinding pearly whites grinning out at me from my smart phone. You're going to Manilow! read the subject line, and you know, just for a moment, I wished I was.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Tip of the Icicle

The genius of Disney movies has always been how they are created to appeal to people of all ages; rarely does the studio produce anything that is less tan entertaining to the whole family.

We took our 7 and 4 year old friends Savannah and Chase to see Frozen today. True to form, we all enjoyed the movie, and on our way home we continued to talk about it. Olaf was funny; the ice palace was awesome; the trolls were silly.

"There's just one thing I don't understand," said Savannah. "Why would anyone want to get hurt instead of someone else?"

"Wouldn't you want to save your brothers?" Heidi asked.

"Oh," Savannah considered the question. "Yes, I would." Pause. "So that's why she did it!"

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Corrective Vision

I'm an inveterate NPR listener, but on our way to the movies this afternoon I put on a popular music station for a change. It wasn't too long before the best hits of the 80s gave way to the commercials of today. "Listen to this ad!" Heidi said with irritation. " It makes me really mad every time I hear it." (She is more eclectic in her radio taste than I.)

A woman was telling how relieved she was to be able to take her sick child to the hospital without delay then a man explained how, as a firefighter, he needed to be able to barge into burning buildings without worrying about extraneous things. Next a woman said how pleased she was to spend a carefree week at the beach, and a man told us how he liked being ready to play sports, any sports, without restriction.

As I listened, I was mystified. What was this product they were all hawking? I really couldn't say.

Turns out, it was laser surgery to correct myopia that freed all this people to save lives and enjoy their own. "Do you know why I hate it?" Heidi demanded when it was over.

Because it's stupid and confusing didn't seem like the right answer. I shook my head.

"Because the women are only concerned with their children, but the men are saving lives and having fun. That infuriates me!"

That's a very good point! The content of that 30 second spot reveals an essential division in how the general public conceptualizes the difference in women and men.

And it's also a really dumb commercial.

Friday, January 17, 2014

It Could Be a Long Year

Last May I wrote about the continuing perils of my desk calendar. Just the other day the first blotter of 2014 went blotto. It happened when a student leaned way in to tell me how he really shouldn't have to do the class assignment when he was in the middle of a really good part of his book.

Perhaps if I was a bit more sympathetic, my 13-day-old desk calendar would still be usable. As it was? "What was that water even doing there?" he huffed before stomping away to do his classwork.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Keep Your Friends Close, but...

well, you know the rest.

I spent today in the first of three all-day sessions dedicated to an educational "protocol" that its purveyors claim will boost the achievement of English language learners. Sounds promising, right? And this program is one that is being embraced by our system, which is why they were more than willing to pay for subs and provide lunch three times for 25 teachers. To be honest, the day was not unpleasant; there were a few colleagues there I enjoy spending time with, and it's always nice to have a little time and distance from the class room to consider my practice.

But although I voluntarily chose to participate, it was with an equal mixture of skepticism and open-mindedness that I set out this morning. Frankly, I wanted to know what this was all about so I could more knowledgeably criticize it, particularly if it was the racket I suspected it to be.

Because this particular program is peddled by the largest education company in the world, the very same one who also sells not only the high-stakes tests that most students take, but also their text books and test prep and remediation materials. The one who today, according to their press release, joined President and Mrs. Obama, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and leaders from across higher education to share best practices and explore additional ways to support more low-income students in achieving college readiness and success. For them, educational crisis is just business.

Maybe the president, like me, is a fan of The Godfather, and that's why this company was at his summit. Or maybe this is just where we have to grab him by the ears, kiss him, and say, "You broke my heart, Fredo."

Wednesday, January 15, 2014


When my phone rang yesterday afternoon a colleague was on the other end of the line. "I knew you'd still be here," she started. "Can you tell me how to find the mini-grant application?"

Our school is fortunate enough to have a PTA which is willing to fund teachers' discretionary expenses if we fill out a simple application explaining how those expenditures will benefit our students.

I told her where it was the last time I checked, which was a few years ago. She thanked me, and after we hung up, I clicked through a few links to double check my advice. Sure enough, there it was, but it was a little outdated since our former principal's signature was still required before submission.

It was just last week when one of my students asked me about my annual writing challenge. It's a hundred words a day for a hundred days in a row, and she'd heard about it from her brother. "Are we going to get to do that?" she asked.

"You bet!" I said, and assured all the other students that they would know all about it before the March 1 start date.

Looking at that grant application reminded me that I have been meaning to get a little underwriting for the prizes for the last couple of years. As the challenge has gained in popularity, so have my out of pocket expenses.

Without a second thought, I downloaded the word document, changed the principal's name, and composed four paragraphs explaining the nuts and bolts and objective of my challenge. Just as I finished, the director of guidance came into my room to return something she'd borrowed. "Susan, do we still do PTA mini-grants?" I asked her, thinking about the outdated form.

"Yep," she assured me.

"Good!" I answered with relief, "because I just wrote one."

"Really?" she said, "There's a PTA meeting tonight. I can present it if you want."

I couldn't believe my luck as I handed the form over. "Thank you so much!"

This morning, Susan came to my room with a thumbs up. "It was unanimously approved!" she told me. "In fact, there was a parent of one of your former students there. She told everyone how her daughter hated writing in elementary school, but after sixth grade in your class? She writes all the time! You changed her life! You should have seen it-- we all got a little teary. It was like a Hallmark moment all over a mini-grant!"

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Hail to the Chief

We have been using a bunch of Kid President videos with Tolerance Club. 

If you're not familiar with soon to be eleven-year-old Robby Novak, then I heartily suggest you make his acquaintance, but be forewarned-- Kid President clips are like potato chips. It can be hard to stop.

We started with this one.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Where Everyone is Above Average

I gave a word study quiz today that my students did verrrrry well on. This particular assessment is quick to grade, and I was able to share results with each class.

"You should grade us on a curve!" one student merrily suggested. (He had earned a 100%) The rest of the kids in his class had no idea what he was talking about.

"Well," I explained, "it's a way of grading where you take the average of all the scores and make that a C."

Furrowed brows all around.

"How would that work with this quiz?" another student asked.

"The average is 92," I told him. "That would be a C." There were audible gasps as I continued. "96 is a B, 100 an A."

"But what about 91?" someone wondered.

"D," I replied, "and anything below 88 fails."

Stunned silence fell over the room.

"Or we could all have As and Bs," sang the first student, and that was settled.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

What's Up Duck Butt?

What indeed?

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Hold the Acorns

Yesterday my colleague's seven-year-old daughter danced into my room with her arms bent straight up from the elbows. I put worms in my bed, and I slept in my bed, I put a squirrel in my bed and mustard in my bed, then I ate it all... Is that bad? she sang.

I recognized it as a song that Kristen Wiig's freaky character Dooneese sings, and decided to play along. "Nice," I applauded. "What did the squirrel taste like?"

My guest was silent.

"Have you ever really eaten a squirrel?" I asked her. "Because I have!" (Click here for that story.)

She didn't answer, but her eyes got wide. "It tasted kind of like pot roast," I told her. 

She ran back to her mom's room, and they both returned a few minutes later. "Dakota wants me to tell you that she didn't really eat a squirrel," her mom said. "It was just a song from Saturday Night Live."

"Oh, too bad," I said to Dakota as she peaked out from behind her mom. "Well, let me know if you ever want to give it a try!"

Friday, January 10, 2014

OLW 2014

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

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

Here are the choices so far for this year, several were chosen by more than one person:


and one student chose her last name with this explanation:

This will let me be friendly and funny (traits of a typical member of my family). I will have thousands of kind friends and we will be strong together.

More than anything else, I was struck by the positivity and enthusiasm my students have for the year ahead. In the exact words of several? 2014 is going to be a great year!

It's kind of nice to work with so many optimists.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Magic Box

Before the holidays, a friend of mine who works on the Tolerance Club with me presented all of us sponsors with beautiful little round boxes fashioned from handmade paper and festooned with colorful peace signs. Inside there was a little bundle of paper slips, and inked on each was a meditation word.

When the usual rowdy writers (or non-writers as the case may be) showed up for writing club today, most of them crowded around one table, and with lap tops open proceded to talk over each other, loudly. A few minutes in, I called them individually to my desk and had them each draw a slip of paper from my pretty green box. The challenge was to use the word or concept in their writing.

It was funny when the first student pulled stillness from the box, because she happens to be the most manic of them all. Next the resident griper chose gratitude. Mr. Unfocused got mindfulness, and the girl who never seems to question that things will go her way chose hope. Their brows furrowed. The student who always wants more-- more snacks, more school supplies, more writing, you name it-- pulled out contentment. The newest member who seems to quietly suffer through the mayhem chose patience, and the guy who sits all by himself and has for a while ended up with forgiveness.

Did it make a difference? Not really, or rather, who knows? That's a lot of bullseyes for a little green box; perhaps there were a few other repercussions as well.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Afternoon Light

At this time of year, right around 4 PM, the sun streams directly into my classroom window. Facing west with the leaves gone from the birches outside, for 20 minutes or so, until the sun drops behind the low-rise apartment building across the way, I am washed in direct, and I mean direct, sunlight. It wouldn't be out of line to put on a pair of shades.

I'm usually alone in my room at the time, but colleagues who happen to enter often cover their eyes or turn their backs to the light. Some even ask if I would like for them to drop the blinds. I thank them and decline, because those blinds are drawn all the way up in response to a promise I made to my students four years ago. Then, we had just survived a very inconvenient renovation together; one that required packing up everything and moving to "swing space" and back, mostly in order to provide more and bigger windows to the building. When we returned to the room the view was indeed remarkable, and in addition to moving my desk away from the window, I agreed to always let in as much light as possible.

Maybe these brilliant moments are a kind of acknowledgement for trying to be responsive to my students. Who knows? It's impossible to look directly into the light, but I do close my eyes, raise my face, feel the warmth, and let it shine.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Glad You Could Make It

The near-record cold temperatures provoked a delayed opening for us this morning, but our pleasure at sleeping in was nearly dashed when we awoke at seven to the realization that our power was out. Having no contingency for showers, hot coffee, or even juice, we lay abed strategizing.

Fortunately a neighbor soon texted to confirm that she was not the only one without electricity, and she advised us to report our outage to the power company right away, which we did. It was impossible, or at least impractical to stay in bed forever, and once downstairs, we were alarmed at how cold it had already become. I put in for a substitute, planning to build a fire and hunker down with the cat and the dog until our power was restored. 

That happened at 8:30 AM with no fanfare whatsoever, and so I scrambled to cancel the sub and proceed with a speed version of my usual morning routine. Thirty minutes later, I was showered and dressed (warmly, of course), lunches were packed, the recycling was at the curb, AND the dog had pooped, but my sub job was still active, since no one was answering the phone at school. I figured I would just have to take care of that when I got to work.

My first stop on arrival was the main office where they were busy strategizing, too, trying to use the limited substitutes they had to cover all the open periods. The secretary looked up as I entered, and her face brightened considerably. "You're here!" she cried gratefully.

"Yep," I said, "and I like your enthusiasm! Can I get this greeting every day?"

Monday, January 6, 2014

Shiver in my Bones

Of course the big news here is the impending cold, predictions are for perhaps a degree or two above zero over night and into the morning, a twenty year low. Or, I should say, the big news for us adults is the weather-- we seem to know all about the polar vortex. Today one of my homeroom students appeared in shorts, as usual. "Are you going to wear those tomorrow?" I asked.

He shrugged. "Yep."

I have another student who told me recently she never uses her locker. "But, where do you keep your coat?" I asked her.

"I hate coats," she answered.

This morning she, too, was on my mind. "You will wear a coat tomorrow?" I asked her.

"Nope," she answered. "I hate coats."

To be fair, neither of them had any idea of the extreme cold predicted for us tomorrow... I can only assume that their parents do.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Late to the Party

A few of years ago my nephew was thoughtful enough to give us the first season of Breaking Bad for Christmas. A big fan, he was way ahead of the bandwagon that assembled over the next seasons.

Us? Not so with it, although we meant to watch, we were constantly sidetracked by other things. I took solace, though, last September when all the hoopla surrounding the series finale was at its apex. I did not feel completely left out, because I have the first season on DVD.

January is like molasses in, well,  January, for most TV watchers, and so it's a prime time to pick up and catch up with a new show. Last year it was Enlightenment and The Good Wife. This year it's definitely Breaking Bad. We watched the first three episodes last night, and while I realize that three is a lame entry in this age of binge watching, for us, three is a lot.

Wouldn't want to become addicted now, would we?

Saturday, January 4, 2014

First Things First

My writing group is meeting here on Thursday, and so I have spent a good part of my day composing...

the menu.

Now that that's all settled, I might just get around to writing something, too.

Friday, January 3, 2014

24 Carrot Gold

I have never been a big fan of carrots.

Raw? Naw.
Baby? Maybe.
Cooked? Ook!

That's why our new juicer has offered such a revelation. The basic, starter juice is a simple apple-carrot. Why not? I thought. It's for Heidi anyway. But! That deep, orange elixir flowing into the pitcher enchanted me from the moment I first saw it.

It was beautiful, and it converted that humble apple juice into a December sunrise. Carrot juice itself is not delicious alone, but added to anything, particularly my favorite grapefruit juice, it is transformative in both color and flavor.

Not to mention the vitamin A, beta-carotene, and many other nutrients in this valuable veggie.

I'm sold!
They're gold!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

One Throat to Choke

I heard this colorful expression on the radio tonight, and although it was very clear from the context what it meant, the way it was tossed off made me suspect that it is not the novel turn of phrase it seemed to me.

Sure enough, a quick internet search (Note: I will not reveal which engine I used, partially because I am irritated with my go toogle, but also to give you more than one throat to choke, just on principle and just in case.) turned up the following and many other explanations like it:

One throat to choke is an expression used in business to describe the advantage of purchasing goods or integrated services from a single vendor. That way, when something goes wrong, there is only “one throat to choke.”

The expression is sometimes compared to “putting all your eggs in one basket.” The advantage of putting all your eggs in one basket is that it makes it easier to carry the eggs. The disadvantage is that if the basket is dropped, there is the potential for all the eggs to break at the same time.

So... the downside of having only one throat to choke is... having to choke any throats at all?


Wednesday, January 1, 2014


Heidi's mom gave us a set of holiday crackers with a charades card instead of the traditional prize. We had them on the table for our New Year's Day dinner, and here is one that I got:

I draw a box in the air, because it is a television show.
I hold up two fingers, because it has two words.
I hold up one finger for the first word.
I hold my thumb and index finger about an inch apart, because it is a little word, 'the'.
I hold up two fingers for the second word.
I press two fingers to the inside of my left wrist, because it has two syllables.
I tap one finger on the inside of my left wrist for the first syllable.
I hold my forearms up and crossed at the wrist because it is 'X'.

(At this point, my brother guessed the correct answer, 'The X-files',)
but in case you need another clue:

I tap two fingers on the inside of my left wrist for the second syllable.
I pull my right ear, because it sounds like...
I crack a broad grin and point to it, for 'smiles'.

(Hint: The truth is out there! AND, the solution is in "ghost post." Highlight the end of each clue to see the answer.)