Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Things We Do

At about 10:05 this morning I found myself in my darkened classroom, blinds drawn, lights out, and 24 children huddled beneath six tables. It was a lockdown drill. I have never reconciled with myself just where I ought to be on such occasions. Under a table or beneath my desk seems ludicrous: I can't really supervise anyone if I'm on the floor, but I don't want the police officers conducting the drill to bust me for being too visible. 

Today I sat in a rolling chair in the corner. There was a thin slat of light below the blinds in one of the four windows that looks out into the hallway, and I could see when someone was coming. Three bullet-proof vests strode by my door to the end of the hallway next door. I heard a radio squawk as they tried each of the three doors before mine. When they tested my knob it jiggled securely, but I dreaded what would happen should one of them lean over and peer into the gap that I was looking out from. Would he make eye contact? Perhaps a pointing gesture to show me that, in the event of a real intruder who might mean us harm, I would be a target? 

But there was no opportunity to find out, with the rest of the school waiting, they moved along to other, possibly less secure locations. Five minutes later, the drill was over, and notably, 24 sixth graders who have struggled with silence for the last four weeks had not made a peep. I turned the lights back on, and another lesson, the one we had been working on before the drill, resumed.

Monday, September 29, 2014


When I was a little girl, my mom was known for her novelty cakes. She was a master at baking a couple of layers, cutting them into pieces and then fitting them back together into recognizable shapes like Snoopy or a mod looking kitty cat. A layer of frosting and a few piped details later, the results were always impressive.

Flash forward 45 years: Heidi and I always make cakes for our homeroom students on their birthdays. While I opt for the classic bundt (not only is it quick and easy, but somehow a giant donut-shape seems a tad bit more breakfasty), Heidi is forever making flowers and such. Generally, she uses a shaped baking pan, but a couple of years ago, one of her students was obsessed with the Riddler and begged her for a green question mark cake. "No problem," I told her, for I had learned to bake in my mother's kitchen, where it was a simple matter to carve up cakes and put 'em back together, jigsaw fashion, into a whole new thing. Against my better judgment, a tradition was born.

Tonight, it's a throwback classic:

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Fruity Confusion

Emily gave me a half dozen pawpaws last week. The largest edible fruit indigenous to the US, these particular pawpaws came from a friend of Emily's property. Her friend also sells them to several restaurants, where the chefs prize the fruit for their provenance as well as their seasonality-- pawpaws do not keep or travel well, so they are not commercially produced. "Most restaurants make ice cream with them," Emily told me.

We cut one open and scooped the custardy flesh from the thin peel with a spoon. "It tastes like nothing," Josh declared of the vaguely sweet mush on his spoon. Heidi agreed. I admired the large black shiny seeds. They were substantial, like a chunky organic bead. 

"Maybe they're not ripe yet," I suggested and put the rest of the pawpaws on the window sill, where they sat until this morning when I blended them up with some eggs and cream, half a roasted sweet potato (for body) and a sprinkle of cinnamon. At the last minute I added a dash of apple cider vinegar for tartness and cooked it into a smooth custard.

I knew my ice cream would need some contrasting texture, so I chopped up some chocolate covered nut crunch with cashews, almonds, and pecans and threw it all in the ice cream maker. 45 minutes later I had a silky, golden-hued frozen dessert with lovely chunks of candied nuts and chocolate. Ahhh, but how did it taste? you wonder. 

Many people who enjoy pawpaws disagree about their flavor. Is it bananalike? Mangoish? Melony? As quoted by Wikipedia, Ohio botanist William B. Werthner noted that The fruit ... has a tangy wild-wood flavor peculiarly its own. It is sweet, yet rather cloying to the taste and a wee bit puckery – only a boy can eat more than one at a time.

That's close, but not quite right. Tonight, when I served the ice cream for dessert, we discussed the flavor at length.

"It just tastes so weird," Heidi frowned. "It's hard to say what it taste like, because it doesn't taste exactly like anything else."

"It starts out caramelly and then takes a turn toward the not quite unpleasant and finishes with an unidentifiable fruitiness," Josh said, moving his finger in a roller coaster motion. "But I like it. Kind of. I'll probably eat more. Maybe a lot more. Maybe not."

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Boy Birthday

How best to celebrate Josh's 19th birthday?

Why rock-n-roll and ramen, of course. 

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Force of Gratitude

My students were all working industriously on posting profile pictures for our online course when one of them hit a snag. I was busy helping someone else, but fortunately his buddy came to his rescue and helped him problem-solve the issue, so that in short order his smiling face was was right there next to his words on the discussion board. He was delighted and gratefully turned to his friend.

"Thanks! You're a real light saber!" he said and continued on with the assignment.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Generation Why

Have you noticed these lists of "hacks" showing up everywhere? Defined by the Urban Dictionary as "a clever solution to a tricky problem," you can find hacks for your wallet, hacks for your hair, hacks for your workout or relationship or even for your dog. Really, there are hacks for everything right now, including the classroom, but that's another blog post.

Don't get me wrong; some of these ideas are really ingenious, if not genius. Enough so, anyhow, that I take the time to click through a litany or two when they catch my fancy. Just tonight, a former teacher of mine posted a link to "Parenting Hacks for Life Traps." She is a new grandparent, and so I think that explains it. Me? I guess I'm just naturally curious, and so I scrolled through a few mediocre ones, (using lotion bottles as faucet extenders or transforming the old crib into a school desk), a couple of pretty good ones (combining eye dropper and pacifier to administer medicine, upside down crazy straw to prevent sippy cup catastrophe), some really dumb ones (dust mop onesies so your infant will clean the floor as he or she scoots), and some that could go either way (flattened cardboard cartons to transform your stairs into a giant slide?). 

As with many such things on the internet, sometimes the captions are better than the post. That, too, was the case tonight on the getting your kids to do their chores by withholding the wifi password suggestion. The editor commented, I have to say, I'm glad we had dial-up when I was a kid. 

Oh. That explains a lot.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Career Options

I left school after another ten hour day today and headed out to run a few errands. My teeth were grinding a bit on the way out the door, because I couldn't get to a working copy machine to prepare the materials I needed for my lesson tomorrow, but I resolved to go in early to make them; it was my only option.

My first stop was the office supply store to buy some supplementary things for students who do not have them, and then it was on to the grocery store where, at the check out, I saw an unfamiliar magazine. Modern Farmer, issue 06, has a wary cow on the cover and a neon-orange question, So you want to be a farmer? 

Um... Maybe.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Analogy for the Season

"How is school so far? How are the kids?" Kind friends and family ask me this question often at this time of year.

Historically, I have never been much more than lukewarm in my response. "They're okay," I say with varying degrees of enthusiasm, some genuine, some not. 

The truth is that it's hard to say at this point, and it's really not fair to draw any conclusions. If I were to compare them to past years, it wouldn't be to how those other students were in September. No, I remember the other kids as they were in May and June, after we'd worked together for months to forge a community of learning. The time before I knew them and they knew me is just a vague memory.

And so I try to be patient with the new group, and I've decided that a good frame of reference might be the online course I use with my classes. In September, it's bare bones, just a few starter assignments and a couple of basic topics to post in. Every year though, it grows into something similar to the years before, but also unique to the individual creativity, interests and opinions of the kids whose writing shapes it. When I set it up each year, I focus on its potential rather than its emptiness.

And the same should apply to those squirrely strangers filling up the seats in my room and chattering constantly over my directions. They'll come along. (The only question is, When??)

Monday, September 22, 2014

A Cool Glass of Milk

Cool evening air floods through the open window this fourth Monday of September, and darkness without is illuminated by the warm glow of the television within. So many TV options beckon! Certainly viewing habits have changed in the last 45 years-- three networks have been replaced by hundreds; binge watching is a thing, and some cord cutters don't even watch broadcast television at all.

Even so,  premiere week still has a little juice, and so this evening finds us watching the first episode of Gotham, live, not even recorded. Jim Gordon is a rooky cop who catches a big case at the tail end of his shift. Seems the most powerful man in town, Thomas Wayne, and his wife have been killed in a random robbery. Their son, Bruce, witnessed the whole thing, as did a sneaky little pick pocket who runs along the roof tops and steals milk for stray cats. Back at the station? A lab tech, name of Ed Nigma, explains the riddles of the forensic findings of the case.

Gordon's partner doesn't want anything to with either the case or the rookie, but Gordon can see right through him. "You're a cynic, right?" he asks rhetorically before continuing, "a slovenly, lackadaisical cynic."

I think he may be right, but either way? Nice vocabulary, Jim!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Blue Sunday

About a month ago I saw one of those Internet men's aimed at teachers: the month of August is just one long Sunday night, it read. I laughed ruefully, because it was kind of true. No matter what your business, if you're on the clock Monday to Friday, Sunday nights can signal a grinding shift from personal back to professional. Tonight the annual doggie dip followed by a nice family dinner with Bill and Emily stretched out the weekend just a little more and chased those Sunday blues away.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Movie Marketing

At the movies this afternoon we saw an Imax trailer for Ridley Scott's next epic, Exodus, starring Christian Bale as Moses and due out a little later this fall. "That looks pretty good," I whispered to Josh. "Do you want to see it?"

"Yeah!" he answered. "It's like a live action Prince of Egypt!"

That it is, I thought and smiled, remembering the little boy who loved that movie and was all grown up and sitting two seats down from me. That it is

And then I thought some more. Josh is in the highly-sought demographic of males 18-24... Batman in Prince of Egypt


Friday, September 19, 2014

Longest Day of the Year...

... was yesterday, according to the Teachers Almanac. 

Thank goodness today was a Friday!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Fifth Time's a Charm

I had just shut the projector off after my final class presentation at Back-to-school night when a parent I had met last week knocked sheepishly on my open door. " I don't know what happened!" she confessed. She gestured to her husband who was blushing a bit. "We were totally lunchin' and we ended up cutting your class!"

I laughed and shrugged. "No worries," I said, "it's not required."

"Is there any work we can make up?" she asked.

"Sure," I said handing them the course description. "Let me hit the highlights." As I went over my talking points one more time with an audience of two, they were open and generous with their questions and feedback.

"That is so cool," the mom said at the end. "I'm so glad she's in this class!"

And I was so glad I stayed a little later than I planned.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

If You Say So

Today my students and I read the poem Knoxville, Tennessee by Nikki Giovanni. It's a good beginning of the year common text because it has so much sensory detail in it. It is also written in a child's voice, and the entire poem is a single sentence. I always like to challenge any student who is willing to try to read it all in one breath. Sixth graders love that kind of thing.

The poem begins with the line, I always like summer best, and the follow up assignment is for them to use the poem as a model and write a tribute to their own favorite season using sensory details they have pulled from their lives. As I circulated through my classes today I noticed that most students agreed with Giovanni and preferred summer, although winter was a close second.

In one class somebody asked me what my favorite season is and I answered that they are all pretty great, but I probably love fall the best. He looked at me shrewdly. "I bet I know why."

I called him on it. "Why?"

"Because that's when kids come back to school! Right?"

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Lavender and Old Lace

It's funny.  We spent three days in San Francisco this summer and I had a really good time.

On the last night we ate at a vegan Mexican place in the Mission. It was at the end of a long day where we rented a car, walked the Golden Gate Bridge, visited Muir Woods, Stinson Beach, and drove back to the city on the 101 along the coast. It was around 7 when we got back to town and we were hungry.

Parking was tough on Mission Street, and the neighborhood seemed to change block by block, but eventually we found a place not too too far from the restaurant. Of course there was a wait, and the light had faded from pink to dark purple before we ushered to one end of a communal table. By then, all I wanted was a cold beer, and I ordered an IPA from a brewery with lavender in its name.

Well... that's what I thought, but when I tasted the beer there was an herby floral note that at first I couldn't place. Eventually the obvious penetrated my fatigued brain and I realized I was drinking a lavender IPA. As I was tired and driving, I stopped at one pint, but the essence of it lingered in my  mind and on my palate.

Since I've been home, I have regularly infused my favorite west coast ale with fresh lavender, and every sip reminds me of those three days, and every time the memories of that whole trip get a little sweeter.

Monday, September 15, 2014



I've done it.

I finally grew a pumpkin in my garden. It has a nice shape and a beautiful color, and I was careful to pluck it from the vine before anything could harm it.

In fact, here's a picture:

AND... Here's another:

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Wild Thing

At the end of the trail is a shelter overlooking the golden grasses of the wetland and the river beyond. There is a telescope there as well and over the years, depending on the season, we have seen bald eagles, arctic swans, redwing blackbirds, herons, gulls, and egrets. Today there was a family with two young daughters taking in the view when we arrived. The girls, who looked to be about 3 and 6, chattered happily as they explored.

The oldest was using the telescope with her dad and the younger pointed out spiders and plants to her mom as she waited for her turn with the gadget. When at last she got to step up on the platform, her mother was mindful that we had been waiting a while. "We have to be quick in case these other people want to look, too," she told the little girl.

I saw an expression of disappointment cloud her face. "Oh, don't worry about us," I said. "You were here first-- take all the time you want."

Her mom smiled gratefully as she lifted her daughter up to the eyepiece. "What do you see?" she asked.

"A bear!" the little girl replied without hesitation. Then she looked right at me to check my reaction to her joke.

I did a broad double take and raised my eyebrows high. "A bear?! Well now I do want a look!" I said and stepped toward them.

"Oh," she shrugged, "it's gone."

Saturday, September 13, 2014


Experienced gardeners will tell you that every year is different; one year may be great for tomatoes, or peppers, or squash, and in the same garden the same crop may struggle the next. Certainly, in my four short seasons, I have found that to be true. For me, this was the summer of tomatoes and butternut squash. I cannot complain about either. The tomatoes we have been eating and canning and fortunately the squash? 

Well, there's butternut chocolate chip ice cream on the menu tonight, and the other 20 will keep until fall nips a little harder at our door.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Aging Workforce

"Happy Friday!" a colleague greeted me as we walked in together. "Are you as wiped as I am?"

I nodded and made a confession. "I know how many more Fridays there are until the end of the year."

"Oooooh," she answered with sympathy, "that's pretty bad."

"It's not like me at all, " I agreed. "But, on the bright side," I continued, "I'm sure I'll forget before October!"

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Ichi Ni San Hi Go

A young colleague and I sat with a parent in the library this afternoon waiting for a meeting to begin. The family was military and had recently moved back from Japan. We were there to be sure that the student was receiving the appropriate services after two years away from our district, but the meeting before ours was running late, and so we chatted with the mom about this and that. At one point, the subject of Japanese numbers came up, and my colleague quite capably counted to five. "I don't even know how I learned that," she told us humbly.

I did a quick calculation. "Maybe from watching Pokemon on TV?" I suggested.

She looked at me in exasperation. "That was a little after my time!" she said. But then her brow furrowed. "Well, maybe I did hear it when I was babysitting," she admitted.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Tighten Your Belts, Kids

Word yesterday that, here in the richest county in America, in addition to the continuing paper shortage in our school, the bus allocation for field trips has been cut in half and administration will no longer approve funds for extra buses. We have 17 buses for the whole year-- a generous calculation makes that about 1000 seats for a school of nearly 900. With the capital of the free world and all it has to offer right next door, we're funded for just one field trip per student per year.

These cuts seem drastic and fundamental. School without paper and buses? Could pencils and teachers' dirty looks be far behind?

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Postcard from a Soulless Suburb

I've thought of my hometown in many different ways over the last 25 years since we adopted each other. Confusing, hilly, chilly, expensive, desirable, elitist, eclectic, friendly, kooky, and crowded come to mind, but "soulless suburb"?


How long were you here, Senator?

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Other Side of the Story

I had a few errands to run this afternoon after school and so I found myself in the office supply store located in our school neighborhood. The parking lot was nearly full and as I walked in I recognized another shopper. Her sons are in 7th and 8th grade now and I taught them both. "I think the whole middle school is here!" she told me as we made our way to the entrance. 

I laughed at the hyperbole but she persisted. "No really. This is my second time here today and the store is full of school shoppers."

Sure enough, right as we entered I was greeted by one of my students. She waved her English binder and five dividers at me with glee. Truth to tell, there were several other familiar faces as well, including one of the employees who was a former student. 

I had only come for post-it notes and to exchange my Soda Stream carbonators, so it wasn't too long before I was in line. Behind me I could hear parents comparing notes about confusing school supply items, and I felt like a bit of an interloper. 

"I just don't under stand why you need both regular colored pencils and twistables," one mom said to her daughter.

I didn't understand either. "That's typical," another mom told her. "Last year we looked all over town for white erasers." She paused incredulously. "Pink ones evidently smear too much."

I just couldn't let that one go. "Those are really good erasers, though," I said.

They were not convinced.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Couldn't Drag Me Away

While I wouldn't say the weather was cool here today, it was much cooler, and so I took the opportunity to use vegetables from the garden to make a vegan chili for dinner. To the peppers, squash, potatoes, tomatoes, and sweet potatoes I grew I added onion, garlic, corn, beans, and barley. It was, for the most part, a New World dish made complete by a few Old World staples.

Years ago I went to an exhibition at the Smithsonian called Seeds of Change. It was marking, but not celebrating, the 500th anniversary of Columbus's exploration of the west, and as such it focused on the exchanges that inevitably occurred between Europe and the Americas. Even though at the time I was nearly 30 years old and pretty well-educated, the premise of the exhibition was completely new to me. I had never considered an Italy without tomatoes or an Ireland without potatoes. Of course, the atrocities committed to ensure a steady supply of sugar and tobacco were no less horrendous once put in historical context, but it did shed some light on the economic power of addiction.

Just as fascinating was the story of the horse. They became extinct in North America around the time that the wooly mammoth did, around 10,000 years ago. European, mostly Spanish, explorers brought horses with them. Escaped or abandoned animals thrived so well in the land that was once their home that soon there were vast herds of them roaming the American plains. But here's an interesting distinction: all of those horses were feral, not wild, because they were descended from domesticated animals.

There is no such thing as a wild horse.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Witty Will Have Fun

I spent a fair amount of time at the picnic yesterday chatting up some of the new sixth graders. At one point I found myself seated in the shade next to Alondra. "I can't believe you're not running around in the sun," I teased her as she fanned herself.

She raised an eyebrow. "Is that sarcasm?" she asked.

When I was in "teacher school" a couple of decades ago, they warned us never to use sarcasm. We were sitting in desks lined up in rows facing the front of the room when our Foundations of Education instructor, a retired principal with 40 years of experience, told us that sarcasm would at best confuse and at worst humiliate our students. My friend, sitting behind me, whispered "They couldn't possibly understand it, could they?"

Personally, I have found most humor, even gentle sarcasm, to be a helpful tool in creating an engaging class room or even redirecting a student. The rule of thumb might be that as long as they feel in on the joke, the joke's not on them, and we can all laugh together.

So yesterday I looked at Alondra and with an exaggerated shrug shook my head and said, "No! I would never use sarcasm. Would you?"

She waved her hand dismissively and answered, "No! Not me!" Then she looked at me with a grin and asked, "See what I did there?"

Friday, September 5, 2014

Cool It Kids

We had our annual sixth grade picnic today. Traditionally held on the first Friday of the year to celebrate the successful completion of week one of middle school, it's quite an event. In the past, the new sixth graders have had about 90 minutes of recreation time and a lunch of grilled hot dogs, chips, and watermelon, but this year construction on our building put a crimp in our plan. We decided to shorten the time to an hour and just serve the watermelon.

I felt a little sad, but it was fine; as several veteran teachers pointed out to me, the kids don't know what they're missing, and the weather was really, really hot today, so less time in the sun was probably for the best. As I circulated through the groups of students playing and talking, I couldn't help but remember other picnics in other years. The group we had six years ago are seniors in high school now, and the day of their picnic was just as hot as today.

Back then the turf soccer field we have now was a crushed gravel pitch that had to be watered regularly to keep it playable. There were timed sprinklers all around the perimeter, and right at the end of the picnic they all came on. The students let out a collective cheer and flooded on to the field. The teachers let out a collective gasp and tried to wave them all away, but it was no use. In the end it was so hot it didn't matter-- everyone cooled off AND dried off by the time we had to go back inside, and as a group they were exhilarated.

I walked back in with a trio of girls, still chattering about the dousing. "That was awesome! Did you guys plan this special for us?" they asked.

I laughed and said nothing, because in a way? I wished we had.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Security Level Strong

Life in our contemporary culture can be full of aggravation, and coping successfully is all about how you deal with it. You can always minimize your grievances by comparing them to even worse things, or distract yourself by focusing on more pleasant things, or slog through annoyances with the attitude that they are relatively fleeting. I guess I personally mix and match these strategies, depending on how irritated I am. As a rule, I try my best not to lash out at other people when I am frustrated, but lately I have found a satisfying outlet for my ire. I simply allow my password to speak for me. My current favorite?  thisisbullshit.

It works for me.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

In Loco Parentis-hood

Hey guys hope the kids are behaving and all is well, the text started.

Well, isn't that nice, I thought. Then, Hmm, maybe a little TOO nice.

Just wanted to check to see if I could have my friend from home visit and stay with us? I wanted to show him around, it continued.

Sure, I texted back. When?

Later tonight I think. He is driving over.

All righty then.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Surpassing Expectations

Today we did an activity that allowed the students to pair up a few times and share their ideas. As always, I instructed them to have a friendly conversation first. "Ask your partner how the first day of school has been," I suggested.

As usual, I participated, too, and so I got to talk to many kids and check in personally about how the day was going. Of course, they got to check in with me, too, and I gave them a straight answer. "I was a little nervous this morning," I started, "because, let's be honest, I don't know you guys." Here, most kids' eyes widened a bit. "But," I continued, looking around at all those industrious and engaged students, "it has been great! I think we're going to have a good year."

Nods, all around.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Seventy-Four Days Later

When one countdown ends, another one begins, but as the new school year starts, let's not count the days, let's make the days count.

Or something.