Friday, February 28, 2014

Wood Anniversary

I'd love to stay and celebrate my 5 full years of daily blogging, but I have 55 slices of life to read and comment on! Year six starts tomorrow-- see you then!

Thursday, February 27, 2014


Today was the day when I introduced the annual 100 Day Writing Challenge to my students. This activity originated 3 years ago when I introduced the March madness we in the know fondly call the SOLSC or Slice of Life Writing Challenge.

Back then, at the end of the month, my students didn't want to stop posting a short daily anecdote about their lives. Even more, they didn't want to lose the feedback and comments they received every day from their peers and me. That year we figured out that a hundred days from March 1 is June 8, and they adopted that as their goal. We dubbed the kids who finished "Centurions," and a new tradition was born in my class.

Over the last couple of years the challenge has evolved. It is broken down into three month-long mini-challenges with three different levels of participation: required, optional, and challenge. There are small prizes to celebrate each month's successes, and the number of Centurions has grown.

Today, as part of my intro, I shared with my students that I'm a daily writer, too, and I assured them that there's no shortage of topics if only you look at your day with writer eyes. "So you're saying that anything can be "blog-worthy"?" one of my students asked.

I smiled at his invented word. "Pretty much," I answered, "the trick is finding something you have a reaction to. Maybe you think it's interesting, funny, infuriating, confusing, whatever."

"What about this conversation?" he asked with eyebrows raised. "Is this blog-worthy?"

"Could be," I shrugged. "I'll let you know tomorrow."

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

As it Should Be

If a quadrilateral is a four-sided polygon, why isn't it called a quadrigon?" one of my students asked the other day.

I liked how he was thinking! The whole purpose of word study, in my mind at least, is for the students to understand how many a word's parts fit together to build meaning.

"It's because quad comes from Latin, and polygon comes from Greek. Poly means 'many' and gon means 'angle'."

"But I thought multi meant 'many'," he said.

"It does," I answered, "in Latin."

"But if poly means 'many', how come Polyphemos was a cyclops with only one eye?"

"Well," I said, "remember cycl means 'round or circle' and ops means 'see or vision', so the word cyclops sort of describes that single eye."

"What about Polyphemos then? What did his name mean?"

"Good question," I said, "Let's look it up."

It turns out that phemos means 'spoken or sung of'; it's where the English word famous comes from. So Polyphemos?

He was one verrrrry famous cyclops!

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Overheard in the Sixth Grade

"Dude! I have BO, too!"

Before you suggest deodorant, here's the reply:

"PS3 or X-Box?"

Now, here's the translation:

Student 1: My friend, I have the video game Call of Duty: Black Ops 2!

Student 2: Which game platform do you own, Sony's PlayStation 3 or Microsoft's X-Box?

But keep in mind, they're 12-year-old boys. I wouldn't rule out deodorant just yet.

Monday, February 24, 2014

After Hours

Our friend Amari stopped by my classroom today after school. She's in third grade and her grandmother works in the building. Heidi helps her with her homework a few afternoons a week, but today, it was my turn.

I don't remember sitting down after school to do homework as being such a hardship when I was eight. I think I liked it, probably because it was easy for me, and I also wanted to do the right thing. I was not prepared for any trouble over something as simple as homework.

Today, I know the same is not true for every kid-- hell, as a teacher, I know the same is not true for many kids at all.

Amari is included in that larger group, but I have to admire the strategies she has put in place for herself. Rather than mope around the table, she says things like, "Math! If I get this right I'll do a slam dunk! If not, I'll do two more problems before I get up."

It helps that I have a backboard and hoop in my room, but that's not always necessary. Word sort? How about if we do charades of the words before we write them in the proper column, or maybe we can play hangman on the whiteboard? She knows how to make homework tolerable, if not fun, for herself, and that is a golden skill.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

It's Chemistry

When a friend of ours, who is a science teacher, had a baby last year, we gave her a set of blocks. Rather than the usual alphabet, these had the elements from the periodic table. Not long ago, our friend sent us a picture of her little girl playing with our gift.

Such a genius! I wrote back. She already knows the formula for fluoro-uranium carbotassium!

Yep, her mom replied. She's ready for kindergarten!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Litter Bugs

The weather here was beautiful today-- sunny and warm-- so we wanted to get outdoors for a little walk. Unfortunately, that weather combined with that other also lovely in its own way weather we had last week-- cold and snowy-- guaranteed a lot of mud.

Still, we tied on our boots and headed for a little man-made lake not far from here. The trail all the way around is 3 and 3/4 miles, a few ups and downs, but mostly a nice walk. It was a bit muddy, but it was also not very crowded, and that was a big plus.

Finding places to enjoy nature in such a populous area as ours can be challenging. It's rare to walk anywhere and not see some sign of human disregard. One must learn to overlook the floating bottles and other trash in even the best-maintained of parks. I'm not sure why that is, and when I encounter such blight, I usually just feel pissed off at all those anonymous miscreants. But, other times I nurture the hope that its just margin of error, and that most of the trash we see is somehow accidentally left behind.

Take that ten bucks I found on the trail today-- I'm pretty sure that was not intentional.

Friday, February 21, 2014


In their own words, here is what StoryCorps is:

StoryCorps is an independent nonprofit whose mission is to provide people of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives.

Since 2003, StoryCorps has collected and archived more than 45,000 interviews with nearly 90,000 participants. Each conversation is recorded on a free CD to share, and is preserved at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. StoryCorps is one of the largest oral history projects of its kind, and millions listen to our weekly broadcasts on NPR’s Morning Edition and on our Listen pages.

Regular readers might recall that I'm a big fan of StoryCorps, (in fact, I have even used some of the recordings in my classroom as part of the memoir unit) and every week I look forward to sharing a couple minutes of someone else's life. When they gave the teaser at the top of the hour this morning I sat bolt upright in bed. This morning on StoryCorps we"ll hear the story of triplets, blind from birth...

Wow! There can't be too many of them! I thought, and indeed I was correct. It was a recording of some of our former students. Nick, Leo, and Esteban are in ninth grade now, but working to meet their needs when they were in middle school, especially sixth grade, turned our worlds upside down. Those guys left a huge mark on our school.

Listening to the two minute edit of their interview, I was struck mostly by how much was left out of the story. What they said was true, but I knew personally it was incomplete, so much so that it almost seemed inaccurate to me.

To be honest? I was a little annoyed, and for a moment, I even questioned the entire premise of StoryCorps. But then I realized that such inconsistencies actually embody the spirit of the project. Every voice matters, because we all hold a piece of the truth.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

It Was Early, OK?

As expected, because of the snow last week, our teacher planning day next month has been canceled. The other morning, when one of my colleagues broke the news to her homeroom students that they would have to come to school on the teacher work day, there were a few sighs and a little grumbling, but one student raised his hand, confused.

"Wait. What are we going to do all day if the teachers are working?"

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Carpe Diem

Have I written before about those halcyon days that come in the middle of each school year? If so, please indulge me.

There comes a time in every school year where the horizons become invisible. The beginning of the year was soooo long ago, and the end of the year is too far ahead to even imagine. That's when everyone in the class is working in the present, because there's nowhere else to be. The routine is familiar, the expectations are clear, and the level of trust is high-- everything works and anything is possible.

Teachers! Embrace these weeks! Though they are fleeting, their promise is true, and they are the gift of your commitment to the future.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Birds Flyin' High

You know what I mean.

After five days off, there was a lovely dusting of snow overnight that gave us a delayed opening this morning. At 9 AM, well-rested and well-fed, with the sun shining down on me from impossibly blue skies, as I brushed the light, fluffy snow from our cars, even I was ready to go back to work.

Did shortened classes with a quiz scheduled ease my transition? You bet. And when I left at 6 PM this evening after grading and entering all the assignments of the day, as well as pulling together, analyzing, and reflecting a load of data for a mid-year meeting with my administrator, I was still feeling good.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Wisdom to Know the Difference

Usually I don't mind living such a densely populated neighborhood. I like to think that we're keeping our carbon footprint small by living in a small, economical place. Our complex is well-designed, too, so there is often the illusion of not only privacy, but also autonomy. And although I know that it is really just an illusion, it still upsets me when the curtain is pulled back and I am forced to confront how powerless I sometimes am.

Last night was one of those occasions. At 1 AM a car alarm went off in the parking lot directly beneath our bedroom window, and it continued honking for over three hours. There was literally nothing practical we could do to make it stop.


Think about that.

We certainly did.

And then we thanked our lucky stars that it wasn't a school night, buried our heads beneath the pillows, and tried to sleep.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Documentary Zone

The theater is warm and the lights are dim when you walk in. The chairs are really no more than glorified folding chairs with a little extra padding and a single arm rest. The screen? By multiplex standards, it is quite small, but it is big enough. Even so, you choose seats in the first row so that nothing will obstruct your view, lean back, and relax. You are about to enter another dimension.

For the next three hours, you will be immersed in the lives of other people. There is a 69-year-old man who carves huge, wondrous caves from sandstone, an 82-year-old WWII vet who is serving life in prison for murder-- you will see him die, an impossibly optimistic 109-year-old survivor of the Holocaust, unarmed Yemeni protestors in Change Square who are gunned down by snipers, and an ex-Neo-Nazi and his friend, the gay former street hustler who he almost kicked to death 25 years ago.

These are this year's Oscar-nominated documentary shorts, a collection of movies both so personal and humanizing, that you will leave the theater a slightly different, maybe even better, person than you were before. That's the sign post up ahead.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

There Is That

"We should have three days of school a week and four days off!" one of my students suggested the other day, at least 24 hours before a snow storm came along and granted his wish.

Many of the kids in the class nodded in agreement. I didn't blame them; who wouldn't want more time off?

"You mean have three longer days in school?" I asked.

"No!" he shrugged. "Just three regular days."

There were more nods, but at least one of his classmates was not convinced. Frowning, he raised his hand. "What are you going to do about being dumb?" 

Friday, February 14, 2014

A Logic of Romance

I heard today that the average American spends 133 dollars on Valentines Day, a figure that gave me pause because my own expenditures were so far below that number. A moment later, though, Jacques Torres, of chocolate fame, described the last minute Valentine shoppers who patronize his store. If they spend over a hundred dollars, I know they're in trouble, he said. 

I prefer to consider the contrapositive.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Y and X

A friend posted the following question on her Facebook page:

Predictions for school tomorrow? Weigh in.

Two men and three women commented as follows:

1. Forecast for rain and then more snow... Means frozen slush and 0% chance. Happy 5 day weekend/loss of teacher workday.

2. All the secondary factors like sidewalks blocked by plowed snow, covered parking lots, messy hills on bus routes, etc. make school very unlikely if it drops below freezing this evening. Plus the schools save many thousands by not turning the heat back up until Tuesday. I don't know if a state of emergency counts against snow days.

3. No way.

4. Nope.

5. Not happening.

What happened to men of few words?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Go Big AND Go Home

More winter weather is predicted for us tonight. Although we have had no huge snow events, this winter has turned out a string of minor nuisances. As welcome as the days out of school have been, by February our thoughts inevitably turn to the price we may pay once warmer weather returns.

Here's how our district has it all figured out:

One more snow day = no make up days; we've got five built into the calendar.

Two more snow days and we lose the teacher work day scheduled for March 31.

After that it's all up in the air with some days made up and others not, but at 10 days total, the state will give us an emergency dispensation, and nothing need be done to be in compliance.

Yes, please.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Not Black and White

At our school the morning announcements are broadcast via close-circuit TV. I often say, only semi-ironically, that it's my favorite show, because I really like seeing students both past and present on TV. Plus, I'm kind of a slave to the small screen.

In fact, I even get a little thrill when I meet one of the student broadcasters for the first time. "Oh yes," I'll say, only somewhat bashfully, "I've seen you on the morning announcements. Great work!"

One of the gimmicks of the show is to wish everyone a some-kind-of day-of-the-week. In the early days, it was a "wacky Wednesday" or a "fun Friday," but of course the stakes have been raised over the years. Thus it was that they wished us all a "Shirley Temple Tuesday" this morning.

"Awwwww," I said to my homeroom, "that's sad. She died yesterday."

"What?!" one of the students replied in shock. "What happened?"

"Well," I answered, "she was 85, you know." I shrugged.

"85? Then how is Betty White even still alive?" he demanded.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Pronoun Antecedent

After seeing Her yesterday, I guess I shouldn't have been all that surprised when the self-serve kiosk at the post office today told me, "I'm sorry, but I can't print small labels right now. Will a larger version be okay?"

It was the pronoun 'I' that threw me off. Oh, I knew what it meant, but I still thought it was weird. 'I' who?

Now, maybe if the machine had actually spoken to me, perhaps in Scarlett Johansson's voice...

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Two Stars Up

A movie review in one sentence:

We saw Her today, and it was definitely the best movie I've seen in a while; not only was it an interesting exploration of intelligence, humanity, love, and even the Singularity, but I actually liked the protagonist-- Theodore Twombley was a sweet guy-- and it was really refreshing to see a non-dystopian depiction of the future, a future where they must have invented privacy glass for high rise all-windows apartments, and where the clothes look super-comfortable.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Young Mr. Lincoln

We spent a lazy day at home today. I built a fire around noon, and we took care of some home-bound chores like paying the bills, grading papers, writing educational reports. At one point I turned on the television, and flipping through the channels I stopped on a PBS documentary about President Lincoln.

When I tuned in he was just leaving Springfield for Washington, and a voice actor read an excerpt of his farewell speech:

To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. 

My first reaction was disdain for the vocal; it was too high pitched and twangy, no way Abraham Lincoln sounded like that! 

Then I considered his words. Old man? How old was he then, anyway? A little mental calculation made me catch my breath. Holy crap! 

Lincoln was the same age I am when he was elected.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Mash Up

I had my writing group last night, but even though it had been canceled and rescheduled several times, and I had a bunch of ideas, nothing really came together for me. Fortunately, since I write daily, I have a lot of material. At first, I thought I might pull together a few of my posts about crows. For the past few days at sunset, huge flocks of hundreds of birds have been filling the branches in the woods just outside our door, much as they have in past winters. When I searched this blog by the keyword crow, though, I found another common thread, and it was these posts I chose to weave together:

No more than twenty miles, as the crow flies, from the home of the most powerful man on the planet is a modest ranch house on two acres. The country road that leads there dips straight up and down like a roller coaster without curves, and the driveway is at the top of the second hill, right before the next plunge. It's a perilous left to turn onto the property; the few cars that travel it rumble quickly along the narrow track, nearly invisible until they crest the hill. This is where my aunt has lived for over fifty years.

In my mind, there is still a gravel driveway that runs past the house to parking in the back, and dogs that chase the cars coming and going, barking in the dust. There is also a blackberry patch out by the road behind the mailbox. In July, when the fruit was ripe, our mothers would send the five of us cousins out to pick the tart berries. Despite the summer heat, we had to wear jeans and long sleeves to protect us from the thorny brambles that made little ripping noises as they rasped across the denim and pulled at our shirts. The oldest of us pushed boldly in, reaching for the big berries contained in those cages of stickers that even the birds could not breach. We winced or gasped or even cussed when the tiny thorns at the base of the fruit impaled themselves in our fingertips, and by sheer force of will kept hold of our quarry despite the stinging, then carefully backed out of the patch, like freeing ourselves from the jaws of a trap, to drop the berries in a bucket.

When the container was full, five sweaty children trotted down the driveway and shucked our unseasonable clothes for a tick-check before changing into our summer shorts, and not long after that, the smell of blackberry cobbler would fill the unairconditioned kitchen.

Back when we were kids, every summer meant at least one visit to Aunt Harriett and our cousins, Jimmy and Bobby. They lived on a couple of acres in the country, but their close friends and neighbors, the Wilsons, had an in-ground pool that they were kind enough to share. After fun mornings, most of our afternoons were spent there, and many times it was just our moms and us-- having splash battles and tea parties, cannon balls and dive contests.

Besides the blackberries, I remember two things clearly about those days. The first is the sign that the Wilsons had prominently displayed: We don't swim in your toilet, please don't pee in our pool. I guess there was just something about the symmetry of the construction that made me feel guilty every time I peed in that pool, either that, or it was a little freaky imagining the Wilsons, Jack, Leona, John, and Karen, so tall and so tan, swimming in my toilet.

The second thing I'll never forget is how everyone conked out at night-- no matter our big plans to eat ice cream, play cards, hunt fireflies, watch TV, whatever, it was always hard to stay awake much past dark. We didn't fight it, though, because we always knew that tomorrow would be another fun day.

That’s the only place in the world that I have been going back to my whole life, and these days when we drive the winding back roads that are the last legs of the forty-mile journey there from our home, I am always taken by how much has changed and how much has not, both since the last time I've been there and since I can remember.

As in most places of our ever-sprawling urban region, there has been a lot of development, and yet her area is still rural enough to maintain some farms with horses and even a few cows, along with recently mown cornfields, their golden stubble being gleaned by hundreds of crows. And there are still one-lane bridges on several of the narrow roads that lead to that ranch house on two acres just up from the lake.

It used to be that you would drive out of town and down the highway until you turned off and proceeded through the anonymous countryside until you got to her house, and so it was like its own place, separate from everywhere else. Because I know the way, I have never even thought to find that spot on a map. In fact, there's part of me that doesn't believe it would even be there if I looked.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Higher Education

“What if I can’t make it to college?”

The counselor was doing annual academic planning with my sixth grade students when one of the boys flagged me over to whisper his question. I sat down next to him. I know school is a struggle for him.

“Well,” I told him, “college is like a key. It will open some doors for you. When you get older, we want you to have as many choices as possible so that you can do the things that will make you happy. That’s why we’re saying college is important.

“But, I mean, what if I just can’t? What will happen to people who don’t go?” he asked with more than a small note of discouragement in his voice.

“Don’t worry; there are other keys, too,” I assured him, “but you still have time to work hard and do what you can to get ready for college. AND your teachers will help you—that’s what we’re here for.”

Wednesday, February 5, 2014


Our state's Standards of Learning were first approved in 1995 and testing on them began in 1998. Originally conceived as a minimum standard, once the test results were used as a yard stick to measure the success of schools, success on the test became a focus of many districts. Things really got rolling in 2001 when the No Child Left Behind act was passed by Congress and federal funds became contingent on the passing rate of students. Race to the Top, the current administration's policy has not alleviated the focus on these high-stakes assessments; in fact in many ways it has strengthened it.

Here's a conversation I overheard today:

Is that on the SOLs?


Then why bother?

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Cause and Effect

Recently, many of my students missed a couple of questions on their quarterly standardized predictor test which were about "author's organizational pattern." Looking at the test, it seemed that they were more confused by the terminology rather than unable to tell if a passage was organized chronologically, so I gave them a guide to the patterns that our state thinks they ought to know (chronological, sequence, comparison/contrast, cause and effect, problem/solution, and generalization), and then pulled a few passages from a Common Core Standards sight that would allow them to practice.

Here's one:

One day Dino the Dinosaur decided to go for a walk to the watering hole. It was a sunny day and the sky was blue and clear. Dino was thinking about his girlfriend Dina when he saw a pack of wild lizards and animals running through the plains in a frenzy. Dino tried to ask the critters why they were running, but they just kept running. Dino scratched his dinosaur head and continued walking toward the watering hole. Soon after, Dino heard a loud thumping noise like the slow beat of a drum. The earth shook and fruit fell from the trees, but Dino was so deep in thought over his girl Dina that he didn’t even notice. The thumping grew louder and louder as Timmy the Tyrannosaurs Rex approached Dino. Dino kept thinking about his girl Dina until the moment Timmy ate him.

The choices were A) Chronological, B) Cause and Effect, C) Sequence, or D) Problem/solution

The majority of students chose B, and when I asked them why, they explained that the cause of Dino's death was that he was distracted.

They have a point.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Going Viral

Every Monday my students have a vocabulary quiz, so for the five minutes before, we do a "stand up, hand up, pair up" review. One of the key components of this activity is the greeting before the actual questioning. For example, "How was your weekend?" is a common start.

Such pleasantries take only seconds, but they are an incentive for kids to participate, and they build community and relax the learners before their assessment. They also make the review a seemingly lower stakes activity.

I, too, participate; it is delightful to connect with my students on a personal level while assessing their mastery of the material. You would be surprised at how few students have consciously figured out that if they pair up with me, I will ask them a question straight from the quiz and make sure they know the answer before they leave my company.

It doesn't matter though, because every week I observe those kids who do come my way asking their peers the same question that I have asked them... and making sure that they know the answer.

And so my work is done.

Sunday, February 2, 2014


A few weeks ago we heard an interview with Stefan Gates on The Splendid Table radio show about eating bugs. The idea of using insects as protein has gained some traction over the past few years, especially as a way to ease the world's hunger problems, but Gates arrived at the issue from a different direction; his interest lies in what the foods we eat reveal about us, both as individuals and as cultures. As for insects, he says this:

On one side, insects are perfectly edible. They're nutritious, and they've got a long and noble history in cooking. But reactions to them, especially in the West, especially among people I know -- and myself, to be honest -- are often violently negative. I wanted to find out what this means. Why are we disgusted?

Um, because they're bugs?

While this was my first reaction, upon further consideration I had to acknowledge that there are things I eat and enjoy that are distinctly bug-like, say, crabs, shrimp, and lobster. I also must reflect on my experience of inadvertently consuming giant water bugs with gusto. (True, they were pulverized.)

So last night when we all sat down to a really fun dinner of small plates at Chef Jose Andres' Mexican restaurant Oyamel, I found that I couldn't resist ordering the Chapulines, or grasshopper taco. Fortunately, Emily was with me, and we knew that if we didn't like it, there would be plenty of other delicious bites for us.

Honestly? The taco was good. It was served on a 3 inch house-made, soft corn tortilla with guacamole. The grasshoppers were tiny, and they had been deep fried and seasoned with chilis. Perhaps I was imagining it, but I swear the flavor reminded me of those giant water bugs-- tart and fruity, almost like apples.

And? I was not disgusted at all.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Good Class, Bad Class

"I'm taking a film appreciation class," Josh told us last night. "It's like my English for this semester."

"That's really cool," I said, and we talked for a little while about film theory and some of the many, many movies we have seen together.

"Well, that sounds really interesting," I said at the end.

"It is!" he answered. "But even if it wasn't, it would be way better than any real English class."