Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Let it Go

On Saturday we had our handyman come over to do some drywall repair after yet another leak upstairs. Once he was all set up, we went out to run a few errands. The day was fine, sunny and warm, and when we returned, he had the front door open. Music floated from within our house. It was a familiar song, but I giggled when I realized that I heard Marcos singing along.

"You like Frozen?" I asked him. 

He laughed sheepishly and shrugged. "My grandchildren! They love it!"

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

This is Not a Drill

When the fire alarm went off a couple minutes before the end of first period, I assumed it was a drill, but the cold and steady drizzle that greeted us as we evacuated the building made me suspect otherwise. 800 of us shivered in what turned into an icy downpour, waiting first for the firetrucks to arrive, and then for them to clear the building for re-entry. Half of second period was gone by the time we slogged back in, everyone drenched.

What followed was an exercise in necessity. Teachers supervised their soaking students as one by one team groups were called to report to the locker room to change into dry gym clothes. We were all back on track by the bell for third period. All of us except the kid who pulled the fire alarm. His day did not improve at all.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Rule of Three

My students wrote Praise Poems yesterday. This was the second year for the assignment, and like last time, I explained that Praise Poems come from Western Africa and celebrate an individual's identity. They are often call and response, with the audience chanting a chorus between lines.

The formula I gave my students was to write six lines and a chorus. The first line is your name, the second about your place of birth or ethnicity, the third about your family, the fourth and fifth compare you to natural elements or entities, and the last chooses a positive, defining quality about you and repeats it three times. The chorus is an expression of what they hope might be said of them by their community, and so it is written in third person.

There is something about the writing that kids do for this assignment that is just so moving to me, especially the last lines of their poems. So often the defining quality they choose is stunning-- surprising but perfect.

Here are some of their words:

I am the force of a tornado
but I am steady, steady, steady

I change like the seasons
I am energetic, energetic, energetic

As silent as a hurricane,
but I am loving, loving, loving

I have the speed of a snail,
but I am happy, happy, happy

I am the crashing of a storm,
but I am wise, wise, wise

Determined as the cheetah,
I am daunting, daunting, daunting

I have the strength of a rhino,
but I am kind, kind, kind

I keep peace as the dove does--
I am cooperative, cooperative, cooperative

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Totem Poll

My day was filled with animals that I don't regularly see. On a lark (haha) I decided to find the spirit meaning for each of the critters I encountered today. Here's my survey:

RABBIT: Reminds us to examine and utilize the tools we have within ourselves. Although our instincts are innate, they also need nurturing and development. Rabbit meanings deal primarily with abundance, comfort, and vulnerability. Traditionally, rabbits are associated with fertility, sentiment, desire, and procreation.

HORSE: You are being reminded that change is good for you. Only through constant re-evaluation of where you are in life can we continue to grow spiritually. It is not about getting there – but simply about the journey itself. Trust and have faith in your own personal goals, realize that when one door closes many more are open. You can always get there from here.

DEER: It is often a sign not to be too hard on yourself. Still the voice of the self critic and treat yourself with gentleness and understanding, be yourself and continue along your path. Seek out your inner treasures and use them generously to help those around you. Trust that kindness and graciousness will be well received.

DRAGONFLY: They are asking that you pay attention to your deeper desires and be mindful of the outcome we wish to have. There are lessons to be learned and you are reminded that “what you think” is directly proportionate to what you “see on the surface”. In other words your thoughts are responsible for your physical surroundings.

VULTURE: You are being asked to be patient with yourself and think things through. Take your time before making decisions and choose paths that support your higher consciousness and your heart. Use all of your resources combined with your past experience to approach the problem from a different angle. Know that you are always free to choose your own path but be flexible while moving forward. 

Hmmm. That's a lot to think about on a walk through the woods.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Writer's Cramp

A little while ago I was congratulating myself on having a pretty productive Saturday-- the heat pump was repaired, the dining room ceiling was patched and repainted, the grocery shopping was done, the cable box was replaced, and we even went out to lunch!

And I?

I paid for it all.

(I also read the New Yorker and deleted a lot of pictures from my phone, so, you know, I was busy.)

Friday, April 25, 2014

Absolutely A-maize-d

I was so taken by the description of frontier hominy in the book I'm reading, Abraham Lincoln in the Kitchen, that I promptly went online to order coarse ground corn meal. Arriving home from work this evening, I had no idea what the huge, seriously heavy, box on my front stoop could possibly be.

In a bank-error-in-your-favor moment I opened it to find that, rather than one 24 oz bag, I had twenty-four for the price of one. The company says I can keep 'em if I want 'em, so friends? In the event of a polenta emergency, call me.

In the mean time, I'll check back with news of the hominy. (I also recommend the book! It's fascinating.)

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Sibling Rivalry

"This poetry challenge is the hardest one," I told my class yesterday. "It's Shakespeare's birthday and ... get ready for it... you're writing sonnets!"

I went on to give a quick overview of the rhyme scheme and meter (iambic pentameter is like five heartbeats), and then I wished them luck. To their credit, many worked diligently to fit words to the form. I answered questions and offered encouragement as they wrote.

"Your brother wrote an awesome sonnet last year," I told one student.

"He did?" the boy replied. "I'm going to try to make mine really good, too, then."

Here's what he came up with-- (I'd say he succeeded!)

Sonnet 1
by Andrew

Spring is a beautiful time of the year,
So many blooming flowers on the ground,
The weather delights and brings lots of cheer,
The morning is quiet with just the sound,
Of the beautiful birds chirping away,
At a rising sun on the horizon,
As the trees stay still but the branches sway,
In the perfect light from the glowing sun.
The afternoon is longer and lighter,
And great for exercise late in the day,
Spring has become the champion fighter,
As Winter has lost, and stumbles away.
Why is the time of Spring so important?
The days are longer, the nights are shortened.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014


One of the many great things about Poem in Your Pocket Day is that every year I read and hear so many amazing poems that I've never heard of before. In fact, just today I actually found a poem by Robert Frost that I really can't believe I've never read. It's that wonderful:

Dust of Snow

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014


Another year brings another Poem in Your Pocket Day.

As you may have read here before, to encourage my students to participate in this annual event, I always break out my personal poetry library. Consisting of sixty or so volumes, many are edited and written for kids, but some are for more general audiences. Oh, I have culled my collection of any books that might have more mature material than not-- there is no Reuben Jackson, Richard Brautigan, or even Sylvia Plath, although I do own some of their work, but when I offer my poetry books to my students it is always with the caveat that they must turn the page on anything that they feel may be inappropriate, or bring it to me. Since the purpose of the assignment is to find a poem to share, I caution them to consider their audience and avoid choosing anything that might offend.

Most students enjoy browsing through such a variety, and in general the poems they choose seem just right for them. Of course some students take my caution as a challenge to find the most inappropriate poem they can, and others enjoy bringing something they think is racy to me and asking me to explain it to them. My stock reply? "If you don't know what it means, pick another poem!"

Today, though, an earnest student picked up my copy of There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.

"I've never actually read this before," he told me.

"Really?" I answered. "I'm surprised. It's a classic-- enjoy!"

A few minutes later he returned gravely to my desk. "Wow!" he said. "That went really dark really fast." He shook his head. There was no irony in his voice. "I mean, she swallows the horse, and she's dead "of course"??? And then a little cartoon gravestone?" His eyes were wide. "This book is totally not for me." He placed it back on the table and walked away.

Monday, April 21, 2014

It's What I Do

First day back from break and our weekly Tolerance Club meeting was on the calendar scheduled for 2:30. We sponsors had come up with a vague plan a few weeks ago ending with, let's meet before break to finalize the details. Well, that didn't happen, and since the club meets in my room, I often feel singly responsible for the hour.

Mondays are both easy and hard for me-- the routine of my class dictates reading log checking and word study quizzes (easy), but then there's the grading, recording, planning for the next day, and team meeting, which theoretically all happen between 1 and 2:30 (hard). Then there's Tolerance Club from 2:30-3:30.

Our tentative plan had been to show a clip from the documentary Girl Rising, which we had all seen in the theater last spring. The film tells the story of nine girls from developing nations all over the world and their struggle for agency in their mostly patriarchal societies. Each segment is written by an author from that region and narrated by a famous actress. It is a powerful movie with the thesis that educating girls will not only empower those individuals but also accelerate the economies of their families, communities, and nations.

So, we had the movie.

At 1 o'clock, I researched educational materials and found an outline for teachers and students. Using the questions on their worksheet, I designed a pre-view activity for small groups, found information on Nepal, and planned a one-on-one discussion for after the clip. I prepared all the materials and set up the movie, sign-in sheet, and snack. At 1:30 I went to my meeting.

The activity? It was a success. Everyone was engaged and seemed to really enjoy the discussion. One student, new to our club, told us how cool the experience had been. My fellow sponsors were also very complimentary. I appreciated their appreciation and thanked them, but finally I had to just shrug and remind them, "I do this for a living you know."

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Good to Go

I'm more resigned than sad that spring break is virtually over. I had a nice week, and although my to-do list is always impossibly long (still that optimistic!), I feel like I accomplished quite a bit.

I'm ready for the last leg of this school year. I'm also ready to put my garden in, ready to celebrate my nephew's college graduation, ready for his brother's return from his freshman year away, and ready for our god son's graduation from high school. Look at all that potential!

And when summer comes? I'll be ready for that, too.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Inspector Gadget

It's Bill's birthday dinner!

So of course I had to use...
the Vitamix,
the juicer,
the Cuisinart,
the ice cream maker,
and the pizza oven for my grill.

the pastry bag,
the mandolin,
and the kitchen twine,
were very handy.

Not to mention all the
overnight soaking
and marinating,
and the toasting
and braising
I did.

I hope he likes it!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Greenhouse Effect

Sixty-nine little vegetable plants in pots under plastic bins take up our whole dining room table. But they're my babies, started from seeds. Where else can they go? Soon the air will be warm enough to place them outside on the deck, and in a week or so, the soil will be warm enough to transplant them into the garden, but for now? It's breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the living room so that later, in July, August, and September our table will be laden with tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash of many varieties, and perhaps even...

a pumpkin.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Oh Didi

Moving to Saudi Arabia when I was 13, my brother 11, and my sister 9, could have been one hell of a culture shock, except that it wasn't. Who knows why we were able to roll with what, to us, were the oddities of not just one, but several strange new cultures.

The oil booming Saudi Arabia of the late 70s was a crossroads of opportunity. Our dad was a white collar airline professional, and there were a few other Americans like him, but many of our fellow US citizens were oil hands and rough necks from Texas and Oklahoma. In addition, there were business men from all over Europe, and then there were the men from Pakistan, Yemen, Korea, and the Philippines who did much of the unskilled labor-- building roads, waiting tables, cleaning houses, driving taxis.

We went to an International School and so naturally our classmates reflected the same diversity. To say that it was different from our neighborhood school in the suburbs of South Jersey would be a truism, but the difference didn't seem any worse to me than moving anywhere far away from my friends. So what if some of the people spoke with funny accents?

To be honest? We used to mimic the ones that sounded funniest to us-- everyone from the Pakistani guard at the gate to the little girl from Kansas City was fair game for us. So it shouldn't have come as any surprise to me when one day my brother and sister starting chanting "Ohhhhh Didi!"  at me in a sing-songy exaggeration of an Indian accent. Still, I didn't know what they meant, and after a while it became a little maddening. With tears in my eyes, I begged them to stop.

They did, but they also laughed when they explained that "Didi" was an Indian term of respect for an older sister or cousin that they had learned from a girl at school. It's a "compliment" that they still pay me every now and then to this day, mostly because of my memorable over-reaction. Still, I giggled a little when I read what one of my students posted for her slice of life challenge today:

In India we call our big cousins didi and bhaiya. Didi is for girl and bhaiya is for boy. We say this to give respect to elders.

That's right, I thought, and posted it directly to my sister's Fb time line. She liked it, but it was my cousin Elaine who closed the loop:

Hello this is didi she wrote.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

CGI Candy

When I was a kid, I used to imagine that there were many whole rooms of mysteries contained within the walls of our house. I always wished that I could find the way in to explore those magical places. Of course, as I grew older, I understood the spatial reality that made such a fantasy impossible.

Not so the producers of Captain America: Winter Soldier. We saw the inaugural movie of the Summer of '14 today, and it did not disappoint. In addition to an excellent part for Scarlet Johansson's Black Widow, there were all sorts of secrets from the past and present revealed. Plus, Chris Evans? Cobie Smulders? Anthony Mackie? And even Robert Redford? Pretty easy on the eyes.

I confess, though, that my favorite character was probably S.H.I.E.L.D. Headquarters, the Triskellion.

Most of the movie took place in Washington, D.C. and a lot of it was in that fictional building located, by the looks of it, between Rosslyn and Arlington Cemetery, maybe right on top of Roosevelt Island. At least 21 stories tall with its own private bridge into the district, I couldn't take my eyes off of that imaginary place, even before they revealed an hangar big enough to house three helicarriers and all their fighter planes under the Potomac.

Now that's a secret hiding place.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Still Half Full

Q: What do you call a rainy day during your vacation?

A: Vacation!

Also, a chance to pot all those seedlings I started and to run errands in a nearly deserted Target. Sure, the HVAC news was bad, and I do believe that is sleet I hear tapping against the window panes, but friends? The alarm is not set for tomorrow.

I'll take it.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Half Full

Believe it or not, we turned the a/c on this evening just to cool the place down. Even though it's only mid-April, it was in the 80s again today, a little muggy, and Sonic and Isabel were offering just that amount of doggy goodness smell that we thought a blast of cool, dry air might make the place a tad more pleasant.

That's what we hoped, anyway, but the gods of the HVAC must have seen it differently, and our heat pump did not comply with our command. Two hours later it was much warmer and much doggier inside than out.

The upside? It's going to be nearly freezing tomorrow night, with temperate temps for the rest of the week, AND we're off for spring break, so lining up a repair will be neither urgent nor inconvenient.

I'll take it.

Sunday, April 13, 2014


Um... isn't there usually a season between winter and summer? 


Saturday, April 12, 2014

My Own Private Cherry Blossoms

We met some out of town friends downtown today, and coincidentally, their visit coincided with the Cherry Blossom Festival.

In general, I am a person who avoids crowds; I think it was the 90 minute wait to get into the metro station after the July 4th fireworks (20 some years ago) that really sealed the deal, even more so than the packed subway trains we were waiting for. But today, our objective was to see our friends, and they happened to be in a verrrrry popular place.

I can honestly say that I've never seen it so crowded downtown-- there were five lanes of people streaming in both directions everywhere you went, so everywhere you went was packed. It was a beautiful day though, high 70s and blue skies. The cherry blossoms were nothing short of perfect, too-- trees full of pink blossoms with just a scattering of confetti blossoms swirling in the light breeze. And, as impossible as it seems, everyone seemed to be in a good mood.

Everyone also seemed to have a camera of some kind, all of us trying to document the beauty we were witnessing. We all had something else in common, too. None of us wanted any of those strangers in our pictures. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

Where is Everybody?

I glanced out my classroom window at around 4:15 this afternoon. The parking lot was deserted, save for my trusty station wagon parked in the back corner. Embracing the rare quiet in a building usually buzzing with the business of over eight hundred souls, I cleaned my desk and set out all I needed for our first early morning back at school, nine days from today. Then I packed my things, headed out into the incredible 80 degree afternoon, and turning my face to the sun, I welcomed spring break and emptied that parking lot.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Old School

We took a traditional approach to learning poetry vocabulary today when my students made personal flash cards. Sure, in a nod to the 21st century we used neon index cards, but the only cutting and pasting took place with scissors and glue. When everyone was done, I provided a handy sandwich bag for each to store the cards. This, many found confusing. "How do I close this?" was the question of the day, and I demonstrated how to tuck in the top and pull the folded part over many times to much amazement.

"I think we're seeing the future!" one student marveled.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Rare Bird

I got a new student the other day. She's been on our team all year, but only just transferred to my class at the beginning of the fourth quarter, so I know her, but not well. Today on our field trip, she beckoned me over to the bird feeder outside the window of the nature center. "Isn't that a female brown-headed cowbird?" she asked.

As a bit of an amateur birder myself, I happened to know that it was. "Her mate was here yesterday," I told her, "I bet he shows up soon."

He took his time, but while we waiting she correctly identified a white-breasted nuthatch, a tufted titmouse, a Carolina chickadee, a downy woodpecker, and a red breasted woodpecker. "My mom loves birds," she explained. Later, as the naturalist was giving his talk, she caught my eye and nodded to the window. It was the male cow bird at last.

When our group headed outside for the next part of the program we stood in the lacy shadows of towering leafless trees. High above us, birds darted from branch to branch and the air was full of chirps and whistles. One four note trill sounded above the rest, and her eyes got wide. "Isn't that a blue jay?" she asked. 

It sure was, and rare is the sixth grader who could tell you so.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Silly Me

I told my students this morning that over Spring Break we were going to put the poetry challenge on hold and go back to slice-of-life. They were a little disappointed, but before I could explain my reasoning that I wanted to be able to clarify some of the poetry forms and terms in class as we go, someone's hand shot up.

"I know why you're doing that!" he blurted out. "It's so you can keep in touch with us over break, and know what we're doing, right?" His classmates nodded in understanding.

It's so cute that they think that. It reminds me of when Josh was a little boy. We were getting ready to go on vacation and were talking about the pet sitter. "Maybe when you're older, you can stay at the house and take care of the cats and dog," I said to him. "We would pay you and everything. I bet you would be the best pet sitter ever!"

At first he thought it sounded like a great idea, easy money, but then his face fell and his brow furrowed. "But wait," he said, "won't I be on vacation with you?"

Monday, April 7, 2014

Spring Break Fever

Monday is done; Tuesday and Wednesday I'm on a field trip, Thursday and Friday are planned and ready to go.

The countdown is on!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Protective Clothing

Browsing through a catalog this morning, I came across a garment described as a "smock." The very word transported me back to elementary school where, every year for art, we were asked to bring in an old shirt of our dads' to use as a smock. I could remember pulling on the over-sized garment that somehow still smelled like my father, my classmates and I a tiny, clownish white-collar work force. The buttons were always a struggle, and the sleeves dangled far below my hands; the cuffs were uncontrollable, dragging through the tempera paint and on to the paper as if they had an artistic vision of their own. At the end of class, having done their diligent duty, the spattered shirts went back on the hook or into the cubby, neglected until next time. By the end of the year they must have been a work of art themselves, but I couldn't tell you what happened to them once that final school bell rang in June.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

This Is Just to Say

Today's poetry challenge is to write a parody of William Carlos William's beloved poem. Here are a couple of my favorites, (written on a Saturday, no less!):

This is just to say
by Andrew

I have destroyed
planet Earth
that was in
the Milky Way

and which you were probably
to live on
with the rest of your species

Forgive me
(but if you were more advanced)
your planet would not be
so burnt
and so dead.


This is Just to Say
by Carlos

I threw away
your ticket
that was on
your desk

and which you were
planning to use to go to Wrestle Mania
this Sunday in the
Mercedes Superdome in New Orleans

Forgive me
but if you put it in a safe place
this wouldn't happen

So now you gotta watch it in T.V.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Sounds Like Poetry

Today's poetry challenge is to write a poem in the style of Shel Silverstein, interspersing onomatopoeia between the words of a sentence. Here's the original:

The Fourth
by Shel Silverstein


The kids in my class really liked this one, and they wrote some terrific stuff. Here's my version:

are so
it's like

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Will Rhyme for Gum

Yesterday was the big prize day for any of my students who wrote 20+ days in March. I warned them in advance that the prizes were silly and the real reward would be to become a better writer. Even so, their eyes were wide when they saw the array of 30 prizes in the front of the room. Each prize was numbered and each winner got to draw a slip from a jar to see just what treasure he or she had earned.

Some were thrilled and some were disappointed. At the end of the day, a couple of the more coveted prizes were left unclaimed, and I assured everyone, those who had met the challenge last month and those who had not, that they were going back into the bag for April, a new month and a new challenge where everyone, and anyone, could be a winner, if only they would


Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Limerick Zone

Day 2 of the poetry challenge involves limericks. These little five liners can be tricky to compose since they have both a set rhyme scheme and meter. My students were pluggers, though, and it didn't hurt that their teacher has an ear for doggerel. Case in point:

Our meeting today was a sham.
Our department is in quite a jam.
They push us their best
to teach to the test,
but that's not the teacher I am.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Year by Year

My students started the second annual poetry challenge today. In support of our 100 Days of Writing and National Poetry Month, a different poetry assignment is revealed to students every morning. The first one is called Hello Haiku! and after a quick look at the form and some examples, (and a review of syllables), each student must write and share three haikus.

When I looked back at the sample haiku I had composed last year at this time, I realized that this persistent of winter of ours demanded a little revision.

Ask the wind that blows
the pink cherry blossoms when
they will fall to earth.

Ask the bare branches
that blow in the April wind
when they will blossom.