Friday, October 31, 2014

Trick or Treat

For many years our school did not allow students to come in costume on Halloween. Once you reach middle school, gone are the days of class parties and all-school parades; dressing up is no more than a distraction. If I thought about it 22 years ago, I may have found it a little sad, but traditions change as their participants grow older and that is not necessarily a bad thing.

These days, we have a new principal, and so our traditions have changed indeed. Notably, costumes are not only allowed, but they are encouraged (no full face masks or props in the shape of illicit items, please!) It's not so bad, really. Although Halloween is undeniably wilder than a normal day, it's kind of interesting to see how they dress. For although for most kids that age the attention of their peers is really the objective, their costume choices can be revealing. If you think about it, it's way better than a BuzzFeed quiz.

What Star Wars Character are you? Oh wait-- I know that black cape!

Would you be a happy clown or a scary clown? Duh!

You forget to wear your Halloween costume to school, so you

A) write the name of your favorite Frozen character on a piece of paper and tape it to your t-shirt
B) take a hat from your locker and borrow patterned gloves from your friend-- hey, it's better than nothing
C) shrug it off and say you're saving the good stuff for tonight

Then there was that cute boy in the red and white "Norway" sweat shirt. It had a few stains on it, and when I asked what he was, he sneezed several times before he could answer.

"Wait! Don't tell me!" I said as he sneezed again. "You are a...




"Serial sneezer!"

He laughed and headed for the tissue box.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Want Versus Need

I was in my room a-workin away today after school when first one, then another, and then another student came by to borrow a calculator, sign out a lap top, and record their word study words. Homework Club was being held across the hall, but I happened to have what these kids needed to get the job done, and I certainly didn't mind sharing.

A little while later a student in search of a quiet place to finish a test took a seat at one of my tables, and a seventh grader from my homeroom last year stopped by for a visit. In between all the action, I was able to get quite a bit of grading done.

At 3:30 the colleague who was supervising homework club brought the supplies back over and stowed them on the shelf where they belong. "It's so nice that the kids feel comfortable just coming over to your room," she said.

"Why wouldn't they?" I shrugged.

"Well, they don't all have you for a teacher," she answered. "They could be intimidated."

I nodded. I'd never really considered that.

"But when I told them not to bother you, they all said you wouldn't care."

They were right. When you're a public school teacher there are many annoying things competing for your time and attention, but when the kids need something to do their work?

It's never an inconvenience.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

As Opposed To

My students spent the first ten minutes of class today collaborating to make corrections on the weekly word part quiz. "No! Micro means small and macro means big," I heard as I circulated through the class.

I smiled with satisfaction. This was exactly the conversation I wanted to hear.

"So it should be micro orgasm not macro orgasm!"

I paused and pondered the message and considered my role in clarifying it.

"I mean organism," the student corrected himself.

Ah. That does make a difference.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Reasonable Doubt

I was out of school today for a couple of doctor appointments, and the sub I had sends email updates at the end of the day. I kind of like her initiative; on the plans I leave I always request a note detailing the day's events, and this way I get it right away.

I know from personal experience, both as a student AND a sub, that it's a hard job. I try to leave thorough plans with concrete, doable activities to make things go smoothly, but I know that doesn't always work. I try to find subs who work in our school regularly so they know the kids and the kids know them, but again, that is not always an option or even successful. I have lectured, scolded, and referred students upon my return, but as far as I can tell, that doesn't really improve things, either.

Kids and subs... it's a conundrum.

So some years ago I decided to let it go, or at least extend the benefit of the doubt to all parties. What happens with the sub stays with sub, or something like that. Never mind the hours I put in on my sub plans: let the sub take the credit when they love the lesson. And no matter how ridiculous the claim, "The sub said we didn't have to..." I'll shrug it off and let them know they have to now. Certainly, I express disappointment when informed of poor behavior, but in the grand scheme of things, it's 47 minutes.

Today, though, my sub informed me that my students shattered not one, but two Rubik's cubes that I keep in my classroom. "The pieces are in a tray on your desk," she wrote. "I'm so terribly sorry."

That doesn't sound accidental to me. I wonder what they'll tell me tomorrow.

Monday, October 27, 2014

20/20 Vision

October is Disability Awareness Month and so in response the Tolerance Club has planned a few consciousness-raising events. Last week we showed a video called I Have Tourettes but Tourettes Doesn't Have Me, a compelling portrayal of the lives of kids with this syndrome told in their own words.

This week we organized stations to help students experience what it might be visually impaired. The brailling machine was very popular and so were the goggles that simulate visual impairment, and our school system's mobility specialist was there, too, along with two students whose eyesight is weakened by albinism. Putting on a blindfold and using a white cane to navigate the familiar territory of our school's hallways was far and away the most engaging activity. 

Afterwards, the kids talked about the challenges they'd experienced, but it was all brought home by one of their classmate who reminded them that they could always take the blindfolds and goggles off. "Imagine what it's like for us," she said, "because we can't imagine what it's like to be you."

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Fringe Benefits

Big article in the NYTimes Magazine today asks the question, "What if Age is Nothing but a Mindset?" It seems like a sensible question, and the author puts forth quite a bit of evidence in support of the assertion that one's mental attitude can play a big role in aging.

In one study, researchers had their subjects, “make a psychological attempt to be the person they were 22 years ago,” and they provided them with props to help, including vintage clothing and furnishings, news reports, and movies. They even removed the mirrors to prevent distracting from the illusion, and at the end of the experiment, the participants tested higher on both the mental and physical assessments they had taken at the beginning.

I like these results! Consider that I have spent the last 20+ years teaching sixth grade and you will understand why. The world marches on, yes, but in room 275, almost everyone is always eleven or twelve, and there are no mirrors.

It's like a little fountain of youth, isn't it?

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Misplaced Faith

While out and about on this beautiful fall weekend I saw the following message on a license plate frame: God favors me.


No fair.

Friday, October 24, 2014

A or P

It was 7:10 this morning when my eyes snapped open. Something was wrong. Uh, yeah, it was... school started in half an hour and no one in our house was up. It was a first in my teaching career-- I have never overslept once in the last 21+ years, but I was determined to make it on time. Heidi and I sped through our morning routines, skipping some steps, obviously, and I was out the door, with iced coffee and lunch, by 7:30, thereby avoiding another first: actually being late for school.

Special thanks goes to Heidi who graciously took one for the team and called a colleague to cover her homeroom so that she might be a little later than I was. I know how lucky I am; when I told the story to one of my friends at work, she said, "I'd have torn my husband up if he done that to me!" Hmm. Sobering. Thanks again, Heidi!

All day I wondered how this could have happened. We had forgotten our phone alarms, but I knew I turned the clock-radio alarm back on last night. This evening at 5:20 the mystery was solved when NPR came a-blaring down the stairs, just 12 hours too late.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Sky Island

Josh was a little ways ahead of us and almost to the summit of Hawksbill Mountain when he stopped suddenly. "It smells like Maine up here," he called. He should know. We've been telling him to roll down his windows and smell the Maine since he was six. There's a place on the Turnpike just south of Portland where the balsams are so fragrant that it doesn't matter if you're going 70; you can always catch that quintessential scent.

I looked up to where Josh was standing and noticed a gnarly balsam just to his left. I pointed. "That explains it," I said, but that was really only half true. There just aren't too many of those trees here in Virginia. We climbed the rest of the way to the top and enjoyed the 360 degree view of Old Rag, the Appalachian Trail, and the fall color blanketing the hills and hollows below. On the way back down, I lingered more than a moment beneath that balsam before continuing on to the hardwoods below.

It turns out that we had hiked to a "sky island", a place where the altitude allows a totally different ecosystem. The boreal forest we passed through was actually a vestige of the ice age, a time when the climate there was much more similar to, say, Maine, today.  Too bad they didn't have any lobster on that island, too!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Scaredy Pooch

Perhaps it was the nail gun that the door repair guy used on Monday to refasten the trim. Maybe it was six cans of lemonade that exploded all over the dining room yesterday. Whatever the cause, our dog practically jumped out of her skin when I accidentally stepped on some bubble wrap this evening. She's had a rough week!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Nose Knows

Overheard in sixth grade:

Why do you smell like popcorn?

I don't! I smell like Doritoes.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Daily Dangers

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins went on record today about the 43 people removed from the Ebola watch list down there in Texas. Asking the public to treat them with dignity and respect after the ordeal they've been through, he spoke pointedly about the five children who will soon return to their schools after being quarantined.

“Middle schoolers are some of the most ferocious and scariest animals on the planet,” he said.

Really? That in comparison to Ebola?

I think I'm due some hazard pay.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Like the Corners of my Mind

On a walk to Roosevelt Island today, Heidi affectionately reminded Josh of all the funny foibles the two of them shared when he was just a wee tot. He forgot that the lyrics of  Poison Ivy, Late at night when you're sleepin, poison ivy comes a creepin, used to make him scream, but he remembered the Mimi Monster (Heidi's hand) and how it used to tickle him.

I have my own memories of little boys at Roosevelt Island; in fact I can't visit the place without thinking of my nephew Treat. When he was three I took him and his older brother down to Gravelly Point by the airport to watch the planes land, but the noise was so loud that it really freaked him out, and he burst into inconsolable tears. I scooped him up and, in attempt to salvage our outing, sped up the Parkway to Roosevelt Island for a little nature hike. 

All was going well until the first plane made its approach down the river and over our heads. Even though it was much higher up and not nearly as loud, Treat covered his ears and dropped to the ground screaming, only to be distracted by a half-eaten, sand-covered cherry cough drop which he promptly popped into his mouth.

When I told my sister about it she said, "At least he didn't lick the Metro window!" But that's another story.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Rise and Shine

When I was 9 I got a clock radio for Christmas. My mother was wisely nudging me in the direction of independence: she wanted me to start getting myself up for school. I'm sure that initiative was met with mixed results; I have never been a morning person, but I did love listening to that radio. I remember lying on my bed grooving to the tunes of 1972. And what a year it was to have a radio of one's own. Even now when I hear Heart of Gold, or Doctor My Eyes, or The Lion Sleeps Tonight, I feel a certain sense of ownership-- those were the songs I listened to on my radio.

Friday, October 17, 2014


This morning my reading class was examining a short memoir to identify its theme. The plot involved a half dozen chicks that a family purchased so that they would have fresh eggs, but when their chisckens matured, it turned out that they were all roosters. "What do you think the lesson of this story might be?" I asked.

"Get as much information as you can before you make a decision," someone offered.

"Don't count your eggs before they're laid?" another quipped.

I put their suggestions on the board and we tried to find a common idea. "How about never assume?" I said, and wrote it down. "Because you know what they say," I winked.

I knew they didn't know. I've taught this unit ten times, and not many sixth graders are familiar with the turn of phrase I was about  to introduce to them.

One student did raise his hand though. "Is it Never assume or you'll..." he paused. I thought he might have it. He continued, "maybe be wrong?"

I laughed. "You might," I said. "But there is a saying: Never assume or you'll make an," here I circled the first three letters of the word. "Out of you," I circled the fourth letter, and "me!" I circled the last two letters.

My students sat in stunned silence. Then minor chaos erupted as they got the old joke. "Oh man!" one boy hooted, "I love this class!"

Yep. That's all it takes to engage sixth graders. And you can bet they'll remember that lesson.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

You Know You're in Middle School When... hear the news that a couple of eighth grade boys ordered ghost peppers online and then brought them to school to fulfill the mutual dare to eat them. They were found writhing on the bathroom floor after puking up their breakfasts. Word has it that the nurse actually rubbed their bellies, therapeutically of course, while they waited for their parents to pick them up.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

On the Radio

Anyone who knows me well knows that I am an inveterate NPR listener. These days, if I'm not in the car, I usually catch the news online. Although I generally listen to our local broadcast, the internet makes it possible to hear programming from pretty much any station in the world.

So, some afternoons I tune into Maine Public Radio and pretend that when it's time to go home I'll be heading for a little cottage on the rocky coast. Wood smoke and salt will be in the air and seafood on the menu as October's early dark gathers.

Other times I listen to Minnesota Public Radio and imagine the autumn chill of the Boundary Waters, or perhaps the traffic lights on France or Normandale on the way to my mom's house where a cold beer and a warm dinner awaits.

And sometimes it's WABE in Atlanta that's on, so I can hear the local weather and news in my sister's part of the world and for just a moment pretend that she's 10 minutes away instead of 10 hours. 

Oh, the news these days so often seems full of trouble and woe, but the world's not quite so scary when you remember who else is out there.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

True Story

And then there was that turkey I saw today heading west on King Street. A hen with striking iron grey and ivory speckled plumage, she seemed resolute in her promenade up the sidewalk. I guess this would be a good time to think about leaving home if you were a turkey.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Quick Silver Lining

Mercury in retrograde it may well be, 'cause things continue to go awry here. After taking the day off to finally have the door repaired, the bell rang once and I answered to find a technician standing on the stoop to tell me that my repairman was delayed by car trouble, An hour later a second chime alerted me to another visitor; this time, the guy assigned to the job broke the bad news that because of the expected rain they were postponing until tomorrow.

The forecast is iffy, but I'll be here , fair or foul, also expecting the call from the appliance repairman with his bid on replacement parts for the ice maker and the dryer (that"s if he can find them). By then, my fragile hard drive may be backed up so that I can take my computer to the Genius Bar tomorrow evening. Maybe I can get that scheduler on the phone from the doctor's office who hasn't answered every time I've called for the last week. Oh, and there are assignments to grade, and online discussions to facilitate-- without the distraction of being at school, those chores will be way easier.

Plus, who knows what other fires I may be able to stamp out? Thanks, Mercury.

Sunday, October 12, 2014


The ice maker, the hot water heater, the dryer, and now the hard drive on our desktop computer, all have broken within the last two weeks. The handles on the lids to both the kettle grill and the slow cooker have also come undone, and it's almost to the point where I'm past overwhelmed and on to honestly curious about what could possibly be the next casualty.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

No Reminder Necessary

This time of year it seems like everywhere you drive there are signs notifying you that October is fire prevention month. I appreciate the reminder, but I don't really need it. Some of my most vivid memories of elementary school are focused on just that theme.

One day, when the air was crisp and the leaves brilliant against that amazing blue sky, you would arrive at school only to be greeted with the exciting information that there would be an assembly that day. At the designated time, each student would be directed to stand, lift your chair by the stiles, and line up. In that way we would file to the multi-purpose room and set our chairs down in neat rows, transforming the cafeteria to an auditorium. 

It was always a fireman in full regalia who would start the program for us. We learned to have a plan: feel the door before opening it, stay low, know where the exits were, and stop drop and roll if necessary. Then we saw a Disney movie made to emphasize those points. I can still remember the hush of the students when they turned the lights off, still see the autumn light filtering through the high slatted windows, still imagine the familiar figure of Walt Disney introducing the film, and still hear the authoritative voice of the narrator speaking to Donald Duck over the soft clickity-clacking of the 16 mm projector. 

It all seemed so important, so glorious and exhilarating. There we were, hundreds of souls in a congregation of our own creation, assembled with a common cause-- surviving a fire. 

Who could forget that?

Friday, October 10, 2014

Murphy's Conference

After eight years, I was feeling pretty confident that all my student-led conferences would go off without complication when I headed to school this morning. My homeroom kids were well-prepared; some had come in at lunch yesterday to finish up, but despite it being the first time for them to lead such a meeting, I knew that they were ready and able. I had carefully scheduled the times as well-- knowing that the allotted 20 minutes is often a little too short, I had limited the sign-up slots to 2 per hour. I had also put my interpreter requests in early; this year in addition to a couple of Spanish translations, I needed an Arabic and a Vietnamese interpreter as well, so I gave the office plenty of lead time. I was certain nothing could possibly go wrong.

I was right...

until about 10 AM. My Vietnamese family showed up, but there was no translator. When I checked with the main office, they told me none were available. Sometimes in a pinch, the student is willing to interpret for his parents, but this time, my student flapped his arms wildly and told me he really didn't know much of the language. Back at the office, they gave me the information for a telephone translation service we subscribe to, but when I tried to call from classroom phone, the long distance area code wouldn't go through. Fortunately, I had my mobile phone, and so we set it in the center of the table and spoke loudly and slowly, that is after I explained what we were doing to the person on the other end of the line. It went surprisingly well.

Later in the day, I had not one conference, but two, stretch to an hour and 20 minutes. The first parent spoke so fast and at such length that I never got a single one of my polite let's hurry this along strategies into the conversation. The second time we quadrupled our meeting was for a student who is really struggling, and I couldn't begrudge her or her mom a single second. 

And truthfully? The same must be said for every family I met with today. Their pride, questions, and concern all reminded me that every student is somebody's child, somebody's treasure. More often than not, they just want to make sure we are doing right by their kids. I get it.

It's a sloppy job, but some days I feel pretty good at it, and lucky to do it, too.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Building Community, Fostering Fellowship

Do: Add a cute little reference to that feline rascal well-known to all of the neighborhood on your new sidewalk sign reminding residents to check their speed. Bob the cat asks you to slow down.

Don't: Plan a staff picnic with yard games for the professional development day scheduled on a former holiday. It just kinda puts the hole in corn hole.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014


Every quarter I do a little map-making activity with my reading class. When asked if he had any advice for young writers, Newbury award author Jack Gantos suggested the following:

The first tip is to get a good journal or small notebook—not too big as you want to be able to slip it into your back pocket. Then get a decent pen. Then I want you to draw a map of your house, or a map of your neighborhood, or map of your school and I want you to draw where everything funny, serious, insane, unexpected, heroic, lousy, triumphant and tragic took place. And then I want you to think about your life as the best material in the world, and each one of your small drawings where something interesting happened will be the opening material for your story.

And so we do. I share a map of the neighborhood where I lived from the ages of 4-10, and every student creates a map of someplace special to them. Having looked at over 200 maps, I've concluded that it's human nature to place your place in the middle of the action, and so every time we look at my map I make the joke that my house just happened to be at the center of the neighborhood, and probably the universe, too.

So I wasn't surprised today as I circulated through the room while the students worked to see that most of them had started in the center of their paper and worked outward, not surprised at all. That is until one student noticed my gaze. "What?" she asked.

"Nothing," I shrugged. "I like your map-- it's great!"

"Thanks!" she answered, "But did you see? My house really is the center of the neighborhood! All the other houses are around it."

"I did see that!" I told her. "What a coincidence!"

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Travel Arrangements

We were talking about field trip transportation at leadership team today. Forgive me if I'm repeating my dismay, but it really is appalling that there are no more buses available unless we charge the students for the ride. "We should call Uber," the person next to me whispered when administration encouraged us to consider the subway.

"Or maybe Schoober," I answered her. We laughed quietly as the conversation turned to cost analysis. Three hours for a rented school bus would be cheaper than taking 50 kids on the metro, and more convenient, too. 

"That's only if you have a full bus," someone pointed out.

Riding with a full bus? Looking around, that seemed unlikely, if you know what I mean.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Wait. What?

Today, here in Virginia, the time came when I could have risen from my desk, gone down the hall to get Heidi, and taken off for the courthouse to get a marriage license.

It didn't happen, today, but it could have. And it will.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

No! Just No

Sunday night already?

Oh, weekend, I had so much more hope in you.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Torch Has Passed

My dad was a big baseball fan, and so when I was growing up there was usually a game on in the background from April to October. Back then, if I watched at all, I associated the guys on the field with my dad or my uncles; Brooks Robinson? Tom Seaver? Reggie Jackson? To me, they were grown ups playing a grown up game. 

Later, when I had graduated from college and was living with my father again, the background became foreground, and we all became fans of the New York Mets. Those guys seemed more like older brothers, or cousins, and we celebrated right along with Lenny Dykstra, Mookie Wilson, and Keith Hernandez in 1986 when they won the World Series.

It's been years since I've followed baseball that closely, even though my town has been a MLB town for the last eleven years. People here love their baseball, and with both the Orioles and the Nationals in the playoffs, now seems like a good time to tune in. So tonight as I cooked dinner, I watched the Nats hang on to a tenuous one run lead into the top of the ninth. Oh, we're on pins and needles here, but all I can think about is when did the players get so young? Any one of them could have been a student in my class not so very long ago-- Ryan Zimmerman? 1996. Stephen Strasberg? 2000. That cute Anthony Rendon? 2002.

Go get 'em kids!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Children, Behave

If I were to file one complaint about my students this year it would be that so many of them find that annoying prank of hiding a classmate's pencil, paper, eraser, book, etc. to be so very entertaining. Upwards of 5 times a day I am called to solve the case of the missing whatever, and the culprit is nearly always the student in the next seat.

It was the last class of the week today when I had had quite enough of such shenanigans and so plaintively addressed the group, "Can we all just agree that we're not going to waste each other's time anymore by hiding the things we need to get our work done?"

My request was met by silence and downcast eyes, and several pencils were quietly slid across the table in return to their owners. One student, however, was not in total agreement, and although he did turn over the pencil in his possession to the boy who brought it to class. "How much time do you think it takes?" he asked me. "30 seconds?"

I shrugged. "That's 30 seconds of your life you'll never get back," I answered in rebuttal. "And 30 seconds of mine, too, since I had to resolve the situation."

"Yeah," he said, "but my thirty seconds were FUN!"

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Critical Success

Today's lesson involved a "poetry sort." The kids in my classes were given a collection of action poems written by former students. The task was to read all of them, select a couple, and answer questions about them. The next step was to brainstorm lists of 20 of possible topics for their own action poems.

Here's the part I loved-- in every class, without exception, several students asked if they could keep the copies of the model poems because they liked them so much.

That's validation!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Friday Night Dinner

All week long I have been receiving ads and notifications on almost any web page I visit about a BIG event happening TODAY! Yes, friends, The Gilmore Girls is on Netflix. And, unlike all the men's underwear clickables I keep getting, I agree that this news actually is cool news, because I am one of the legion of folks who loooooved The Gilmore Girls, with its terrific writing-- so snappy, so smart,  and even though it's been over seven years since the finale, I miss them and all the other denizens of Starr's Hollow to this day.

This might be some binge watching I can get behind.