Saturday, May 31, 2014


You ain't seen nuthin' til you see your cat go and get your dog to come for dinner.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Day On

I stayed home from school today to work on the school magazine. While I believe in the value of publishing art and writing, and (full disclosure) I do receive a stipend for the project,  it is nevertheless a huge time burden at this very busy point in the school year, and I inevitably end up taking a day off to finish it.

So, knowing I would be spending a lot of time on the computer today, I decided to set a timer to remind myself to get up and move around. Every 22 minutes I did 10 flights of stairs, a hundred crunches, 30 jumping jacks, or... ate a snack. Although I had to endure the strange looks the cat and the dog gave me, and to be honest, sometimes I ignored the timer, in general I could tell I was a lot more productive than I would have been if I had worked straight through.


Thursday, May 29, 2014

Please Return to Sender

The hundred day writing challenge is down to its final fortnight, and this year we're wrapping it up with the Gratitude Challenge. All students are invited, but not required, to post some thank-yous to all sorts of people in their lives.

When I introduced the activity earlier this week, the inevitable question in each class was "What's the prize?" My answer was that I thought they would find that the challenge itself was rewarding, and I encouraged them all to give it a try. If you send gratitude out into the universe, you never know what you may get in return.

Some scoffed, to be sure, but a handful of kids are participating, and their writing has been lovely and sweet. Even the most minimalist of the bunch has turned some heartfelt phrases. Some letters, too, have been wrenching, reminding me even at this late date that there is so much we don't know about the children in our charge.

Here's an example:

Dear sister,

Thank you for always caring about my mom and I. I know you haven't seen mom ever since you were five, but look at you, twenty years old. Thank you for sending me the El Salvador soccer shirt. I know El Salvador is not good at soccer, but I root for them. I sorry you have to get surgery on your wrist. Make sure to take care for our brother, Omar.

I hope I see you soon,


Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Sounds Good

The end of the school year finds my students writing journalism-style profiles of their peers. In the past, this has been a very successful assignment, partially because most kids like talking to each other, especially about... themselves. Just last week one student told me that me he felt like laughing and crying at the same time because he loved this project so much. Okay, he might be an extreme case, but the kids do like this work.

Many human interest profiles begin with a lead anecdote, one or two paragraphs describing the subject in action, doing something essential to the angle of the piece. It's sound practice to give students examples as models of what they're trying to achieve, and so today I shared the lead anecdote that a student wrote last year in a profile of me:

Tracey walks straight into her kitchen after a day of work. She preheats the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit and then pops in the part of her meal that takes the longest: the potatoes. Then she turns to make the rest of her meal: kale salad fresh from a farmer’s market, roasted portobello mushrooms, tiny roasted grape tomatoes, and toasted almonds. Once the mushrooms are brushed with a sprinkle of olive oil, soy sauce, and pepper, she slides them past a blast of heat that welcomes her as she opens the oven, and onto the oven rack. She chops the tomatoes and adds them to the oven. When the mushrooms and tomatoes are done, she sets them to cool as the potatoes finish baking. Ms. S. then whips up some olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and mustard dressing and adds it to the kale salad. When the potatoes have reached their finest, she removes them from the oven and adds some quickly-melting butter, then combines all the oven-cooked delicacies together. She crumbles blue cheese on her salad and is finished with her typical dinner.

Pretty impressive for a sixth grader, eh? And I'll tell you what else; after hearing that passage read out loud four times today, you can bet what I made for dinner.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Of Course it Did

That cheesy special-effects, someone's-shaking-a sheet-of-metal thunder, flicking-the-lights-on-and-off lightning, and pouring-buckets-from-the-boom rain storm that we had a little earlier?

Oh, it's all my fault. Even though the skies were threatening, I just didn't believe "scattered" thunder showers meant us. So, me of little faith busted out of work at 4:30 so I could water the garden.


Monday, May 26, 2014

Vegan Picnic

In the spirit of the traditional Memorial Day cook-out, our menu is this:

Potato salad with a miso-mustard apple cider vinaigrette
Bean salad with mint and cumin
Burmese ginger slaw
Corn on the cob

And for the carnivore?

Throw a free-range pork chop on the grill.

It's going to be a good summer!

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Hot and Cold

This unofficial first weekend of summer brings so many opportunities and choices. For example, after working in the garden for a couple of hours this afternoon, I couldn't wait to jump in the pool. But then, after standing on the first step of the pool for a couple seconds?

I could wait.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Honor Roll

Washington, DC
Memorial Day 2014

For the second time in as many weekends I found myself seated on a folding chair under an impossibly blue sky as a wave of names washed over me. The names rose and fell on voices broken and strong, and a light cool breeze blew puffy white clouds both over and away from the warm sun as a line of people patiently waited for their turn on stage. Today, though, there were no diplomas; they were volunteers who stood silently by until it was time for them to climb the single step to the podium and read the names of 15 of the 6,717 service men and women who have been killed in action since 2001, and rather than celebrate their futures, we honored their sacrifice.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Miracle Grow

Oh how happy and proud I was today to share a dozen of my grown-from-seed tomato plants with a few colleagues who expressed interest. Our garden is nearly full, and so all the spares I had got to go to other good gardens.

My hopes are high!

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Role Model

"Is there writing club today?" Madeline came by to ask this morning.

"No. We had it last week," I told her. "It's only twice a month."

"But..." she was speechless for a rare moment. "Can we please have it again this week?"

Madeline is a great kid, and I can tell the end of middle school weighs heavily on her. I knew I'd be there after school. "Well, okay... if you can get at least five other kids, it's a go." I gave her the thumbs up.

"Yes!" she replied. "I know I can do that!" And off she went to round up her fellow writers.

With wide eyes, the sixth graders in my homeroom watched her disappear through the doorway and then looked at me; they were clearly a little surprised at the passion (for writing! of all things) that they had just witnessed.

But all the better for it, I think.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Big Fish

How fitting that when we called the restaurant to order a gift certificate for Heidi's dad that they told us he had just left. Happy Birthday, Gar! Enjoy the next few fish fries on us!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Bon Mot

I have a student this year who is super intelligent and very hard-working. She is in all the advanced classes we offer at sixth grade and has been on the honor roll every quarter. And yet, I know from working with her, that there are some gaps and glitches in how her brain works.

For example, she is a native English speaker but she often must grasp for even common words in both speaking and writing. The way she asks is very round-about, too. "What do they call that thing?" is how she usually starts, and then she laughs, sheepishly acknowledging her vagueness.

Today she asked that question twice as she composed a quick 150 word personal narrative. The first time she described a "glass box for snakes or turtles."

"An aquarium?" I tried, but she looked doubtful. "A tank?"

"Yes!" She went back to writing.

A little while later, she asked about an object that "You use it when you're, y'know, and it looks like this..." Here she paused and drew a quick sketch of a rectangular shape with what might have been a handle. "The floor..." She trailed off, but one of her classmates came to her rescue.

"A dust pan?"

"Yes!" she said.

At the end of the lesson she volunteered to read her piece, and it was a really, really good story about how she and her mom and sisters rescued a bird from their cat (using a dust pan) and then nursed it (in an aquarium), until one day it was able to fly away on its own.

I did have to laugh a little at how it started, though: We were cleaning the house, and my mom was brooming.

Monday, May 19, 2014


My mom's in town for my nephew's graduation and after visiting Monticello on Saturday, we decided to head down to Mount Vernon today.

How strange it was to be in a historic place on a beautiful Monday in May surrounded by school children on a field trip and yet responsible for none of them.

Not the girl shouting, "Look! Real sheep! I saw that one breathe!" Not the boy stuffing a whole cup of fountain soda in his pocket. Not the kids trying to huff the special effects fog in the movie, nor their class mates who caught the soap flake "snow" on their tongues, and definitely not the boy with the electronic transmitter on his ankle.

Is this what retirement will be like?

Sunday, May 18, 2014


As a rule? I don't really like graduations. I've personally walked twice, in high school and then in college, but I've skipped the last two. Maybe it's my own feelings about change and transition or even my own feelings about pomp and ceremony, but either way, I don't like 'em.

BUT, when my nephew or niece should call, nothing seems out of the question, and so when the first member of our next generation graduated (Phi Beta Kappa, with highest honors) from UVa, I was right there.

And, oh what a spectacle it was! Over 4,000 grads and perhaps 10,000 spectators gathered on an emerald lawn under a deep blue sky this morning. Sunny, 70 degrees, and no shortage of balloons, this ceremony was marked by the obvious affection that the elders in attendance-- president, professors, parents, and other supporters-- had for these graduates.

On such a day, it was impossible to find fault in anything, and so I didn't.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

You Don't Say

It's not that I don't learn new things every day--  as an educator, especially, I delight in those daily discoveries. Whether it's the unfolding of a news story or seeing a side of a student I never imagined,  I know that liife is full of new information and insights. 

It is rare, though, that my mind is blown by what I learn; usually it's more of an aha or even an oh right moment. That's why my jaw dropped in stunned silence today when I heard that ABBA's hit Dancin Queen was actually written for the current queen of Sweden on the occasion of her marriage to the king. What?!  

I know the band, and I know the song (who doesn't?),  but even after hearing it hundreds of times in the last 38 years,  I had no idea about its back story. 

That surprised me.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Bank Error in your Favor

I literally guffawed yesterday when a colleague showed me her reimbursement check for buying some paper. Each teacher at our school is allotted $43.07 in discretionary funds per school year. Her check was made out for $43,070.00! Of course she turned it in right away (not before pointing out that it would buy a very nice car), but when I asked her what she would have done with one more zero?

That she had to think about.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

To Tell the Truth

I forgive the three eighth grade girls who came to writing club today for doing more talking than writing. They are practically founding members of the group, and their middle school days are dwindling, probably inversely to the speed in which they converse is accelerating. I had an interview activity in mind, but they just kind of used it as a spring board to chatter.

Somehow the whole meeting devolved into a few rounds of truth or dare after one of them asked the group, What's your secret best strategy for playing any game? as her interview question. They've dropped the silent 'e' from dare, though, in one of those relentless ribbings you give your friends over little things like a typo in an onscreen chat, so we played truth or dar. 

Mary took truth-- What character from a book you've read would you most like to marry?-- but she never did decide. (How about Atticus Finch?)

I took dar-- Do an aggressive chicken dance at the first teachers to walk in the door-- and the darlin' darer was kind enough to call a couple of my colleagues in from the hall so I could do it. To tell the truth? I kind of enjoyed viciously snapping the beaks of my two hands at them. 

All too soon our meeting was over, when through the window we saw a bus carrying some of their friends roll up. When they asked if they could go out to meet it, we were all too happy to give them our permission.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

In and Out


It's in.

Home-canned tomatoes?

We're out.


We'll get a few more quarts this year.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014


We had an all school assembly first thing yesterday when the band, orchestra, and chorus performed their annual spring concert. Monday morning found the students bleary and subdued, which might just be the optimal middle school audience mode. 

There was only a low buzz as we waited for the program to begin, and from my vantage point, stage right in the second tier standing against the wall, I could see all 800 of us-- students past and present, colleagues new and old-- for the moment all in one place, and my heart swelled just a bit to be part of such a thing.

Monday, May 12, 2014


As part of a school-wide activity centered around the wonderful garden we have and the novel Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman, my homeroom planted their own little "crops" a few weeks ago. In tiny 1 x 1 starter cells, each student had the choice of corn, beans, pumpkins, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, or sunflowers. I explained in advance that some plants germinate sooner than others and that we would transplant to larger pots as needed. I also told them, quite clearly, that I was planting beans because they grow the fastest, but mine was the lone bean in the plot.

I knew this from back when I, too, was in middle school. Then, for some science project or another, my mother showed us how to grow beans in a mason jar by simply wadding up a damp paper towel and sprinkling beans liberally in the folds. In a couple of weeks? We had a plant to rival any sweet potato or avocado pit skewered with toothpicks and submerged in its own jar.

This year, in my classroom, the sunflowers poked their spring green sprouts up in just a couple of days, but they were soon followed by the pumpkins. "Be patient," I advised the other students, "your seeds will grow." The cucumbers and corn were next, but my bean was not far behind.

By the time the tomatoes made their appearance, the early sprouters needed larger pots. The pepper farmers were getting a little discouraged, so I brought in my warming mat to encourage their seeds to join the party. Fortunately they have, and so our springfest can begin in earnest.

The other students are just as fascinated by our plants as we are. They wander over to the window in spare moments to check on them. "What is that huge one?!?" someone demanded today.

"It's a bean," I told him.

"It's the best one!" he said. "Who planted it?"

"Me," I answered, and perhaps there was just a trace of self-satisfaction in my tone, because he raised his eye brows at me suspiciously.

"Don't the other ones get any fertilizer?" he asked.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

10 (Middle-aged) Woman-hours Later...

The garden is in for the season!

Saturday, May 10, 2014

We Should All Be So Unlucky

We were discussing food and cooking at lunch the other day, and I mentioned my recent trip to the high-end grocery in our area. "It was sooooooo frustrating," I whined. "They didn't have anything I wanted!"

My lunch buddies were surprised. "Like what?" they wondered.

I felt a little sheepish as I answered. "Well, okay, this is definitely a first world problem... but there was absolutely no arugula!"

My friends gasped in mock horror.

"AND, I think they are discontinuing my favorite kind of kimchi!" I continued. "Plus, they were out of the IPA I like," I laughed as I finished. "Fortunately I was able to score some awesome mango-habanero cheddar."

Friday, May 9, 2014

Friday Night Pizza is Back

I got me a great new pizza dough recipe-- quick to make, easy to handle, and delicious-- it seems to be just what I have been searching for for years.

Click here to see for yourself.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Pick a Poet

My guest poet friend made his annual visit to my classes today. After six years, one of the things I enjoy most about his visits is how unfettered he is by the pedestrian practicalities of running a classroom. For example, he is free to change the activities for each class, and he always does. "I get soooooo bored doing the same thing over and over," he points out every year. Tell me about it.

His tolerance for "creative" chaos is also much higher than mine, but that's okay, because watching from the sidelines and seeing how my students react in a less structured environment is usually either a revelation or a validation for me. 

I like the surprises best, though, and he can often turn a kid from silly or surly to successful by the end of the session. And some kids surprise me every year with their wit, their whimsy, their originality, and their invention. True story-- just yesterday, I struggled to think of a strength for a boy who knocked it out of the park today. 

I also get a chance to improvise and write along, not as the leader, or even the coach, but as a fellow player on his stage. Here's my favorite composition from the day:

Saying Good-Bye in Five Acts:

I. Her suitcase closed with a snap.

II. A bright light streaked across the sky.

III. Splash!

IV. Thanks for all the fish.

V. "As I was remarking the other day to Heywood..."

Wednesday, May 7, 2014


Much as they say the world can be found within a drop of water, so, perhaps, might education be represented by a blank sheet of paper.

Set aside that grand metaphor of potential and opportunity, for a moment, and consider the practical, day-to-day operations of a school: How much paper does it take to make the place go? How many texts, maps, assignments, scratch sheets, drafts, drawings, graphs, posters, permission slips, flyers, hall passes, rosters, memos, etc.-- might be reasonably created per student, per day?

At our school, the answer to those questions is too much. In one of the wealthiest counties in the wealthiest country in the world, we don't have enough paper.

Now, back to that grand metaphor...

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Fun and Games

I spent some facetime this evening catching up with my mom. As always, our conversation was wide-ranging and very entertaining. At the end, though, my mom mentioned that she had been organizing her recipe file when she came across a couple of handwritten pages with ingredients and no directions. She asked me if I could guess what they might be.

Could I!! Oh yes! It was like a fun little cooking puzzle game!

The first one was

2 pounds of tomatoes, peeled and diced
6 leaves of basil
1 clove of garlic
chicken broth
salt and pepper

The chicken broth and watermelon were tricky, but I feel pretty certain it must be a cold soup.

The second one was harder:

1 stick of butter
a small pkg of cream cheese
1 1/3 c flour
1/2 c cream
1/4 toasted almonds
1/2 c sugar

Hmm. No eggs? I think it's a cookie of some sort, maybe rolled, coated with the almonds, and sliced. I'm not sure, though.

Anyhow, this was really fun, and I wished there were more recipes to puzzle out. I think there just might be a real game here.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Enough with the Countdowns

Never mind that last post.

"Only five more Mondays!" is how one of my lunch companions greeted the group today.

Oh, and 17 weeks from tomorrow? School starts again.

Sunday, May 4, 2014


There is always a teacher in every school who knows exactly how many days there are until the end of the year. The countdown starts sometime around spring break, and this teacher is usually not shy about sharing the daily digit. There is public delight in crossing off each day.

I never really understood the rationale behind such thinking; truth be told, I'm sure I imagined myself somewhat superior to that person. Sometimes, to be a little contrary, I would quote the number of days until school would be back in session.

Hmmm. Yeah. I don't know that number right now.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Garden Gazette

It was a perfect day here-- 70 degrees with puffy clouds and a light breeze. We took advantage of the weather by spending a couple hours in the garden clearing away the weeds and leaves that have accumulated since November, and although it took several vigorous passes with the nail brush to get my hands clean afterwards, there is good news to report:

The peonies are budding, the raspberry has proliferated, the daisies are dandy, the mint and marjoram and thyme are fine, and the worms?

Are wiggling.

Friday, May 2, 2014


Today was prize day for the Poetry Challenge segment of the 100 Day Writing Challenge that I offer for my students. Truth be told, I struggle with the prizes, because I don't believe in relying on extrinsic motivation.

When I break it down, though, my rationale is that the challenge will become intrinsic, even if it isn't from the start: The students want prizes, and anyone who fulfills the parameters will get one. My gambit is that they will also discover writing fluency and writing skills they never knew they had. Also, if they consider themselves writers, they will be much more open to writing instruction. The challenge isn't meant to change what I teach, it is designed to change those who I teach.

That's the theory, anyway, and it's always nice to have a little independent confirmation that I might be on the right track, so it was with gratitude that I read this post (for the May challenge) today:

O is for One Hundred Day Challenge

On February 28, 2014, the sixth grade Dolphin team started the 100 day writing challenge. Ms. S. said it will help us learn and write better. If you write 20 or more times per month you get a prize at the end of each month during the challenge. When I started this challenge I thought it would be boring. The first month of the challenge was easy. It was just writing a part of your life and sharing it.  So when I wrote more than 20 days I thought, wait this is pretty easy after all-- writing is actually fun. Ms. S. is making me a good writer. 

When that month ended, I got my prize, but the challenge for April was hard! "Poetry!" But when Ms. S. explained each type of poem, it turned out to be an easy challenge. 

Thank you Ms. S. for making me a poet. You are a poet and you know it.

Lesson: The more you write the better you get!!!

Thursday, May 1, 2014

DIY: Dream it Yourself

Once when we were very young our dryer was not working. Money was tight, and my mom did not want to call a repairman. In those days, long before a quick google search would help you troubleshoot your appliances, she tried to figure out the problem on her own, but without success. That night, Mom went to bed with that broken dryer on her mind. The next morning, she awoke with the answer; she had dreamed that a fuse was blown. It cost her less than a dollar to discover that she was right.

Like my mother, I prefer to fix what I can myself, so Saturday I picked up a replacement cable box for the upstairs TV. What was supposed to be an easy plug and play installation somehow went wrong, and a blank screen was all I could conjure. Reluctantly, I called the help line and was directed to wait 40 minutes and see if it would start then.

Having MANY other things to do (and a few other TVs as well) I let it go until I could find the time to focus on resolving the issue, but last night I dreamed about the cable box. In the dream, I hadn't connected the cable to it, so it couldn't download the data it needed. I woke up with the hazy idea that I could fix it just like that.

In the shower, though, my mind cleared, and I knew that I had attached the cable. Mentally, I put the problem back on the to-do list. My thoughts kept wandering back to the issue all day, and so when I got home I went upstairs to look at it again. It turns out that I connected the wrong cable to the box, and in less than 10 minutes? It was up and running.