Sunday, November 30, 2014

Stuff It


Between Mom
And Tracey
And Bill (in opposition)
And Courtney (in absentia)

Now, therefore, it is hereby agreed as follows:


In this agreement the following terms shall have the following definitions:

"Tur" means turkey, a bird, poultry

"Duck"means duck, a water fowl, poultry

"en" means chicken, a bird, poultry


This agreement shall commence on the effective day and shall continue until completion, on or before December 25, 2014.


Each Party undertakes to each other Party to perform and fulfill on time the tasks assigned to it by the Steering Group and all other of its obligations under this Agreement.

THUS DONE AND PASSED in the County of Arlington on the 30th day November 2014 in the presence of the Witnesses.

Saturday, November 29, 2014


Five years ago I could hardly tear myself away from the book I was reading to enjoy our traditional Thanksgiving celebration. I took every opportunity I could to steal a few moments and return to the riveting tale of Katniss Everdeen and her battle to survive the Hunger Games. At the time, the series had not yet caught fire, and no one else I knew quite understood my minor obsession, and how hard it was knowing I had to wait until August to read the conclusion to the saga.

Since then, with the release of the movies such exquisite agony has practically become a November tradition. Last year we had to wait until now to see how the suspenseful conclusion of Catching Fire would be resolved, and now it won't be until November 20, 2015 that we will see how it all ends up.

It just seems so far away.

Friday, November 28, 2014

That Holiday Spirit

Steve and Eydie crooned merrily from the speakers as Kyle opened his Christmas gifts from us and his grandparents tonight. We were lucky enough to have him here for Thanksgiving, but we won't see him again until sometime in the new year, hence the early celebration.

He had sent out a three item wish list in October that screamed 14-year-old boy. Along with a couple of video games, there was a blue and black hooded coat with lots of zippers, brass buttons, and some kind of tails in the back. It was a replica from Assassin's Creed, another video game, and he was clearly pleased when he opened the package from Gary and Louise that contained it. 

We laughed the way adults do at things kids like that they find foolish, but none of our gentle ribbing could make him question his choice. "What is it even made of?" Heidi asked.

"Leather!" Kyle said with pride.

"That is not leather," Heidi told him. "It's more like pleather."

"No," Kyle insisted. "The description said it was made of some kind of leather; I think it was fox leather."

It seemed a shame that any animal should have lost its life for that garment, but it seemed highly unlikely that if any did, it was a fox. I was still trying to wrap my brain around it when Heidi replied. "Fox!? How did they spell it? F-a-u-x?"

"Yeah!" Said Kyle. "How'd you know?"

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thirty Hours a Day

I was talking to Treat about our family tradition of hanging out playing games and eating leftovers on the day after Thanksgiving. We agreed that it suited us much better than shopping. "My gosh," I said, looking at the time. "It's six o'clock right now. We could already be at the stores!"

"Black Friday," Treat shook his head,"it's the longest day of the year."

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

This Day

Fat wet snowflakes were falling as Annabelle, Richard and I stepped out of the house to give the dogs a potty break. Emily and Heidi were running errands; inside, Mom was cooking dinner; Courtney was baking pies; Bill and Jordan were tracking Riley and Treat's progress on their journey home. Soon we would all be together.

"Let's go for a little walk," I suggested.

"Really?" The kids asked.

"Sure, why not?" I shrugged. "There's a park right around the corner."

They both fairly danced through the snow and up the sidewalk, and the dogs and I trotted happily behind. At the corner, Annabelle turned to face me with pink cheeks. "This is the best day of my life!"

I put my free arm around her and gave her a little hug of agreement. As days go, it was definitely up there.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A Little Goes a Long Way

Some kind soul at our school used the day before Thanksgiving break to have students fill out little cards telling who they were thankful for. I was touched to receive four, but one in particular stood out. It came from a student who struggles in my class. He does not complete homework or classwork, and his writing and quiz grades are low. It's frustrating to work with him sometimes because it's hard to tell if he is unwilling or unable.

The hectic day was over when I checked my box one last time before heading off for vacation. One last little red card was waiting there.

"I'm thankful for Ms. S," that student had written, "because she's so calm and nice."

And just like that? All my aggravation was gone.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Vacation Creep

Two day work week before Thanksgiving?
What's the point?
I'm ready for my break now!

[This comment scheduled to be re-posted with minor revisions in 4 weeks.]

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Proof that God Loves Us

For weeks now I've been on the hunt for a rare commodity: Gingerbread Stout. A limited release with terrific reviews, this beer sells out within thirty minutes around here. Twice I've busted out of work to try and snag a bottle or two, and twice I've been the recipient of a less than sympathetic snort when I asked if perhaps there was any left. Oh, I'm not sure I'll even like it, but by golly, I want to try it!

In the meantime, I have spent some extra time in beer stores, and I've found a few other interesting offerings, some of them equally appropriate for the season-- yes, I'm talking to you, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme Saison!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Thanksgiving by the Letter

My sister group-texted us all this morning:

Annabelle is getting excited to see everyone!

And I replied: Me too!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Off the Clock

Courtesy of back-to-back field trip days and the upcoming short week, I was able to actually leave school at my contract time today. My plan was to run a few Thanksgiving errands, and as I pushed open the glass doors and stepped into the crisp 3 PM November sunshine there was a purposeful bounce in my step. "Have a good weekend!" I waved to the small group of students outside.

"Wait! What?" answered one. "Where are you going? Don't you have to work until, like, at least 5?"


Thursday, November 20, 2014

Get Out

Just yesterday I was talking to two colleagues about the prospects of administering yet one more universal test for yet one more data point. "Fortunately the pendulum seems to be swinging away from this insanity," I said.

"You know how education is," another teacher said. "This has been going on for, what, about ten years? It's going to be something new, soon."

"What do you think that will be?" asked the third of us.

There were shrugs all around, but at some point in the conversation we came up with what we thought was the exact opposite of the now in schools across our country. "Experiential education?" someone suggested. "Where the kids actually get to do things?"

We laughed, but it was definitely rueful. Back when this testing trend started, I never believed I'd be at a school or in a system where field trips were considered, at best, unnecessary, and at worst, detrimental, but that's definitely the climate I'm teaching in now. While every sixth grader is soon to have an iPad, our bus budget has been slashed so that if we want to take more than one trip a year, we will have to charge the students for transportation.

Today happened to be the day of our only field trip this year. We took the students to a local nature center where they participated in a program about energy. The visit involved walking through a community garden that had been winterized, and seeing the rescued raptors (a red-tailed hawk, great horned owl, and two barred owls). As we ate our lunch, chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, and titmice flocked to the feeders just outside the window, and two deer grazed at the edge of the woods below us.

All the students showed some interest in what they were seeing and hearing about, but one girl in particular sought me out and sat next to me at lunch. She is a very nice kid, but often distracted and silly in my class. Her grades are mediocre and below, mostly because she doesn't get her work done. When you talk to her about it, she agrees good-naturedly to try to do better, but academic success seems like a low priority.

Today she was animated and engaged. She loved the raptors, was fascinated by the deer and the other birds, and had something relevant to say about every exhibit. As she chattered excitedly at lunch about everything we'd seen so far, I hardly recognized her as the child who usually sits so passively in my room.

Her test scores are low compared to those of her peers, and it's a cliche to point out that they don't tell the whole story. But that part of the story that data leaves untold may be best discovered away from the traditional classroom, and we'll never know what it is if we don't get out there.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

In Reply to a Former Student

Dear Ethan,

Sorry it’s taken so long to get back to you-- your letter has been sitting by my laptop for several weeks, but I have been waiting for a time when I had the time to compose (and revise!) a thoughtful reply.

First, I’m really pleased to hear that you are writing in your spare time, and it’s even better news that you feel passionate about it. You were reluctant to write much last year, but when you did, it was always interesting and creative. I’m curious about what made you start writing more in your spare time. What kind of things are you writing? I hope you’ll elaborate more on that in future letters.

You asked me about my thoughts on improvement, and so I decided to apply the question to something we have in common-- school. Our roles here are different, but to me, teaching and learning can never be mutually exclusive. No matter what I may be doing in my classroom, if my students are not learning, can I call my actions "teaching"? Even if I'm trying really, really, really hard to teach, without that learning thing, I'm not quite hitting the target, am I?

There’s an old joke that kind of explains what I mean:

Two guys are walking their dogs down the street and one guy says to the other, “Hey, did I tell you I taught my dog to whistle?”

“That’s amazing!” says his friend. “Let’s hear him do it!”

“I said I taught him,” the first man replied. “I didn’t say he learned.”

So what is teaching then? Where's the metaphor that best describes it? A proverb that is often mentioned is Teaching is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire. I kind of like the image of igniting that passion for learning in the hope that it will continue burning after you’re gone. It seems to put all the responsibility on the teacher, though. What’s the student’s role?

After some serious thought, the adage that I currently favor to explain my philosophy of teaching is this one: When the student is ready, the master will appear.

Public school teachers, though, can’t choose our students, and we can’t change them, either, so what do we do if they are not ready? With apologies to Batman, how can we be both the master they need and the master they deserve?

One way is to recognize that a master takes many forms. It may be a book or a poem, another student, a project, or an after-school activity. Even if we are not personally the masters they are ready for, we can help our students to find the masters they need by giving them lots of opportunities to think.

So, what about you, Ethan? Where do you fit in? You asked me how I thought you could improve, and here’s what I think: Start by being aware of all those opportunities; don’t dismiss anything as boring or irrelevant before you’ve given it a chance.

My advice to you is to be ready for the master in as many situations as you can.
Take Care,

Ms. S.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

How 'bout That?

Each Monday my students take a skills quiz to assess the nuts and bolts of their writing, and to, well, practice test-taking in a formative, low stakes kind of a way. (But let's not get into that right now.)

This week they were asked to edit a short piece of writing for misused homonyms. The errors were underlined and students were supposed to substitute the write, er, right word. Most kids did fine, but there were some creative replies. For example, one part of the passage read, "Lets plant beans since they sprout quickly," and the little test-takers were tasked with replacing that lets with the correct contraction.

One student crossed out the lets all together and replaced it with How about we all grow beans...

Monday, November 17, 2014

Tails You Lose

"How was Philadelphia?" a co-worker asked me today while she was picking up her copies from the printer in my room, and before I could open my mouth to gush, she continued, "Because I HATE that city!"

My eyebrows were at attention, and I'm sure my surprise was evident.

"Oh, I know," she waved her hand, "there's gentrification, but I Market Street is sooo depressing! All those boarded up department stores? And, a homeless man actually whipped it out and peed on me... in. front. of. INDEPENDENCE HALL!"

I nodded and tried to say something. "We have friends who live over by Penn," she shrugged, "and, sure, it's nice..." she looked at me skeptically, "but not nice enough!"

"What about Reading Market?" I asked, thinking that no one could possibly complain about all that wonderful food.

"Oh my God, no!" she spat, "I hate the way it smells!" Then she laughed and walked toward the door with her printing. "I just don't like Philly," she finished.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Fall in Philadelphia

It was fun walking around Philadelphia today.  We went by several places I remember from my childhood-- the department stores we visited at Christmastime for their holiday windows, my dad's office building, and Independence Hall. As a city Philly is very agreeable: historic, compact, and flat, and it's narrow streets and old buildings gave it a welcoming warmth even in the November chill. 

Saturday, November 15, 2014

City of Brotherly Love

And in the perfect ending to my stroll down memory lane, I find myself in Philadelphia for the weekend. I haven't visited this city for almost 40 years, but when I was a kid, we lived just across the Delaware River. Philly was a top field trip destination for all my school years from first to eighth grade, when we moved away.

When we put this trip on the calendar last spring, Heidi wanted to go to the highly rated vegan restaurant, Vedge, and I had one desire, to walk through the giant heart at The Franklin Institute. Today we did both, and neither one of us was disappointed.

Tomorrow? Reading Market, Independence Hall, Blackbird Pizza, Cesar Millan, and maybe even Jack's Bar are on the itinerary.

It's good to be back!

Friday, November 14, 2014


As I mentioned earlier in the week, my students are writing letters to their future selves. One of the choices they have to make is how far in the future they want to write. Almost all are within 10 years, and most don't go beyond high school. That makes sense to me-- they can't really imagine themselves much older than that.

One student is a bit of an outlier in more areas than this, and he chose to write to himself 40 years from now. "I hope you have a mansion," he said, "and that you still like video games, and I really, really, really hope you're not married."

His honesty was as poignant as it was amusing, but as he revised I suggested that he add more details about the person he is now. "Forty years is a long time," I said, "you probably won't remember much at all." As I spoke, I looked at the date on the blackboard and thought back 40 years myself.

The air practically shimmered like a flashback sequence on an old TV show as I recollected the details of those long-ago days. I was in 7th grade then. I can still name several of my teachers and describe my bedroom. I know who my friends were, which pets we had, and what our gym uniforms looked like. This last detail is seared into my mind, because it was that year that I broke my arm in PE just a day after winter break. Our uniforms were one piece, zip-up garments that were sewn to look like striped shirts over solid shorts. When I fell and broke my arm, the nurse splinted it making it impossible to remove my uniform. I was forced to pull on plaid pants over it, and my mother took me to the emergency room in that embarrassing outfit.

I shared the story of my fractured ulna with the class, and they were a very appreciative audience. "Wow!" said one little girl. "How do you remember all that? I can't even remember what happened last week!"

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Winter Come Early

The temperature drops sharply, and at the grocery store we move from the apple and pear part of the year to the clementines and bananas. Thankfully the rack is full of firewood and the closet full of down.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Have a Feels-like-Monday Wednesday

"Have a feels-like-Tuesday Thursday!" said the kids on the daily announcements this morning. Of course they were confused, but it's hard to blame them after two consecutive weeks of school on Monday, off on Tuesday, only to return for three days before the weekend. I forgive them because I know exactly what they meant, AND... they'll be right tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


In our little complex of less than 400 souls, three couples have had babies in the last week. Oh my! I thought after the third, what was going on last February?

Also this week, my students have been writing letters to themselves in the future. It is the culminating activity in a unit where they have written a lot to explore who they are now, and part of the assignment is to use that material and remind their future selves of who they are now. In general, they are very engaged in this task, and as they work, I overhear them chattering excitedly about what it will be like to open and read these letters. More than one student has asked me if I did this assignment when I was a kid. "No," I shake my head, "but I really wish I had!" They nod very sympathetically.

It would be pretty cool to have such a letter, but as consolation, I do have this blog. Certainly, it is a record of who I was for at least a few moments of every day over the past 5+ years. I don't read back over it that often, but when I do, it's... satisfying.

And informative; for example I read tonight that back in February? We were snowed in for several days around here. Mm hmm.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Remember Them

If you've seen Remember the Titans, perhaps you can imagine what it would be like to watch the last half-hour of the movie with the real Petey Jones and Julius Campbell sitting right behind you. 

I take that back-- you probably can't. It was thirty minutes of pure goosebumps and then another hour of laughter and a few tears when those two members of the famous 1971 team came to speak to students at our school in an event sponsored by the Tolerance Club. They answered every question the kids asked with honesty, grace, and yes, wisdom, about their time on the team, the loss of their friends, and the progress that they have seen our country make in race relations in the last 43 years. 

On the last point, both men expressed their delight at the diversity of the 33 students gathered in the library. "We've come a long way, and we have a way to go," Mr. Campbell told them, "but I'm not worried," he continued, "you all will change the world."

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Not SAD at All

I heard earlier this week that there is a counterpart to seasonal affect disorder. Some people grow restless when the days lengthen and warm; they prefer the the slanting sun and long nights of winter. I recognized myself in this description and felt a little validated. I have always felt a little out of a place in our sun-worshipping culture.

I didn't realize how I have missed the crows until this evening their raucous cries filtered in through the windows. I stepped outside and looked up at the dark silhouettes shifting and darting through the darkening purple sky. Brisk air filled my lungs; it was not yet 5:00, but the sun had set. I was exhilarated.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

24 Little Hours

Yesterday was Heidi's birthday and I think she had a good one. She was showered with birthday love at home, and via mail, text, Facebook, and FaceTime.

One of her more goofy qualities is a total lack of time awareness. Oh, it can be a bit contentious when we're constantly running late, but it can be endearing, too. "How old am I?" she asked me in the morning.

"46," I told her.

She shook her head in surprise. "I could have sworn I was 45."

"You were," I assured her, "yesterday!"

Friday, November 7, 2014

Miller, Mann, and Edmunds

We saw Christopher Nolan's latest movie today, Interstellar. At 168 minutes, the concepts of gravity and time took on an authentic meaning, especially if you ask my butt. I really wanted to love it, too, but I came away with a jumble of feelings, among them being a bit dismissive of the paradox at the heart of the movie. Still, when I got home and clicked on a few reviews, I read that they filmed on location in the harsh landscape of Iceland. It was then that I realized that where they actually were never crossed my mind as I was watching; to me it was another planet. I guess I was pretty engaged, after all.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Like a Month Without an R

Sometimes I wonder if Josh even recognizes the people he lives with. Up until now, for his whole life, the only time he has ever spent with us has been during the summer and on weekends when we were off from school and focused on one of our favorite house guests. Where are those care-free people who fill their days with swimming, hiking, movie marathons, board games, road trips, and camp?

Those are always some fun times, and they must stand in stark contrast to these 7 AM to 6 PM days where dinner and a single hour of TV precede bedtime. Certainly, a bit of crankiness here and there is unavoidable. Fortunately, our good-natured boy seems to roll with it, especially since he is busy with other things, too.

And on those days when we all take a break, to go to the mountains, or to celebrate Heidi's birthday, we pick up the fun right where we left it.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

An Observation

I don't think they really got me.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Tuition Check

We were talking with a younger colleague last evening before leaving school. This particular teacher was also a student at our school, back in the day, and although I did not teach her, I was a teacher there. "What year were you in sixth grade?" I asked her to remind me, and when she did, a litany of names rushed out. She smiled at each, remembering her friends and classmates.

Today it came up in conversation that another colleague was born in 1984, so she was in sixth grade the third year I taught it. It was funny comparing her with those kids then, and wondering what sort of adults they had become.

And so it goes, more and more frequently lately. My dental hygienist? She was in sixth grade fourteen years ago. The checker at the grocery? Maybe five. All those kids I've taught are making their way in the world... they are becoming the world.

Thank goodness their teachers did a good job.

Monday, November 3, 2014

A Secret Life

Dinner was finishing all on its own, and I was relaxing by the early November fire when an insistent buzzing drew my attention away from the Urban Farmer magazine on my lap. (I know, I know, I read it for the articles.) I considered ignoring the sound; a single housefly would not last 24 hours before perishing, but the drone became more frantic as the creature flew back and forth from the kitchen to the lamp over my shoulder.

Something there was about this buzz that made me think it could be no ordinary pest, and when I turned to examine it as bumped against the light shade, I saw that I was right. It was a honeybee. Perhaps she had hitched a ride on the last of the zinnias I had cut from the garden earlier, or maybe she was hidden in the tangled twists of the rosemary log we brought home for the fireplace. Whatever the case, the cold dark night beyond the window panes held no attraction for this tiny soul; all she wanted was the light and warmth of the bulb behind me, even though it held no real satisfaction for her.

Into the kitchen I went to fetch a plastic cup. The rounded form of the lampshade proved to be quite a challenge as I tried to capture the errant bee: there was no flat surface to trap her against. Soon she began to tire of eluding me, and she slowed but never quit. "Come here Sweetie," I whispered. After a couple of near misses, at last she paused long enough that a quick flick on the other side of the shade dropped her into my cup.

It was the copy of Urban Farmer itself that I used as a lid to keep her safely inside until I could open the front door. It was cold, yes, and she hesitated a moment and then flew back toward the door before finally heading off into the night.

I knew she could find her way back to the warmth of her sisters.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Playing Favorites

Thank you, November, for giving me back the hour that March stole last spring. I always liked you better.

Saturday, November 1, 2014


It's been a day of non-fiction around here. I'm hooked on the podcast by the producers of This American Life called Serial, the story of the murder of a high school student in Baltimore in 1999. Interesting people and a twisty narrative compellingly reported make the series addictive audio.

This afternoon we went to see Citizen Four, the Edward Snowden story, and while the movie didn't add much new information to the well-reported story, it did provide an opportunity to ponder the far reach of data gathering that our government is doing in the name of security, and the difference, as Snowden puts it,  between a country of rulers and the ruled and one of the elected and the electorate.

And now tonight our attention turns to Ken Burn's latest, The Roosevelts. Born of privilege, the three principals in this series were all champions of every day, working class Americans. They recognized a common humanity in us all.

"We love a great many things—" Theodore Roosevelt said, "birds and trees and books, and all things beautiful, and horses and rifles and children and hard work and the joy of life. We have great fireplaces, and in them the logs roar and crackle during the long winter evenings. The big piazza is for the hot, still afternoons of summer."