Thursday, December 31, 2015

You Know You've Been away from Home a Little too Long When...

...Your cat gets laryngitis from yelling at you when you get back!

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Way Home

gas station
trashy audio book
snowless ski resort
trashy audio book
gray mountains
trashy audio book
peppermint chocolate pretzels
trashy audio book
paper mill
trashy audio book
gas station
potty break
trashy audio book
trashy audio book
traffic jam
trashy audio book
rush hour
trashy audio book

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Puppy Dog Tails

We woke this morning to sunshine and blue skies, and so we wanted to make the most of it before we had to leave for our 1:55 flight. Since Richard had promised that today was the day when he would learn to ride a bike, four adults, two kids and two bikes rolled down the driveway toward Piedmont Park.

Our expedition took a detour when we spotted one of the neighbors over on the high school lawn with his three year-old son and their two brand new puppies. Dory and Nemo were 10-week-old chocolate brindle mastiff-poodles as cute and wiggly as could be. In the time we stopped, they scampered, rolled, nipped, and chased each other in the impossibly adorable way that puppies do. We were all too happy to applaud any peeing outside and/or trotting in the direction of someone calling them. 

Time was ticking away and we continued on to the park. Heidi fell into step next to me. "I love puppies," she sighed, and I nodded. Knowing that soon we would see our own 12 1/2 year old puppy slightly salved the sting of our eminent departure.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Rainy Days and Mondays

It seemed like the Christmas holiday came and went so quickly this year, and the sky was gray and drizzly as Bill, Emily, and the boys packed the car to head home this morning. A little while later fat drops splattered against the driveway as Courtney backed out on the way to the airport for Mom's flight.

The clouds darkened and rain poured in torrents for most of the afternoon, but our much smaller group made the best of it, playing Settlers of Catan and charades. Feeling a little stir-crazy, Richard and Annabelle and I dodged the raindrops when the storm let up a bit to shoot baskets and play HORSE, dashing under cover of the garage or back into the house when the patter became too steady.

Eventually it was too dark to play outside at all, but it was time for dinner. My sister had seen on Twitter that it was opening night of chef Ford Fry's newest place, Beetlecat, and so we decided to see if we could get a table. Despite The renewed downpour, luck was with us and the six of us enjoyed small plates of seafood crude , raw oysters, Thai shrimp, octopus salad, hot dogs, grilled cheese, lobster rolls, and the best calamari we had ever eaten. Courtney even caught a glimpse of Ford, and for the second time in ten days we felt like we had had the privilege of eating fine food prepared just as the chef wanted it to be served.

More than satisfied we stepped out into the evening happy to see that the rain had stopped.

Sunday, December 27, 2015


'All I want for Christmas is toys and games," I told my family at Thanksgiving. I was only half joking, and my brother and his family were completely obliging. When all the ribbons were nearly rolled up and the gift wrap was in the recycling bag, I had a stack of new games under the tree.

Fortunately we are a family of game players (in fact I was not the only one who received some) and we have spent the last couple of days playing Exploding Kittens, 5 Second Rule, Foodie Fight, Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, and Smart Ass. 

We can always count on Treat to read the directions and teach us to play even the most complicated game, and my sister, the lawyer, is a good second opinion if any questions about the rules come up. Today, as we were setting up Ticket to Ride, she told us that "the most experienced traveler" goes first. 

I scanned around the table, trying to figure out just who that might be. "Mom's not playing," I said.

'Right," my sister answered. "That means it's you."

I was flattered, because I like to think of myself as a seasoned traveler indeed, but in fairness I looked at my brother. "What about Bill? He travels all the time for work."

My sister raised an eyebrow at me. "I think that's just a polite way of saying the oldest player," she said gently. "Dont't you?"

And I might have agreed, had I not been choking on my coffee at the thought of it, which had never occurred to me.  

"I choose to take it literally,' my brother said, and made the first play of the game. 

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Holiday Hijinks

What to do when it's 75 degrees on December 26? Nothing but play basketball, walk the Atlanta Belt Line, and replace our traditional roast beef with grilled rib eye steak. But don't worry-- there was still mashed potatoes and gravy, and plenty of cookies and Christmas crackers, too.

But this year we added a new twist to the tradition. Instead of reading the corny jokes from the crackers, we read the punch line instead, and everyone else guessed the riddle.

How zany is that?

Friday, December 25, 2015

Pair of Knaves

At 8 am on Christmas morning our flight out of Buffalo was so full that Heidi and I could not get seats together. The day before I had reserved two aisle seats, one in front of the other, and those were the ones we headed to as we boarded. I was a little anxious as I scanned the throng of strangers already seated to discover who would be my companions for the next hour or so, but my eyes lit up when I finally got to my row.

In a reaction I bet few other passengers might have, I turned to Heidi with a little fist pump. "Yes!" I celebrated, "I got some boys!" And I happily slid Into the aisle seat next to a kid who was probably in sixth grade and his slightly older teenaged brother. "Let's put this arm rest down guys," I started, and I knew we would be fine.

And we were. The flight passed relatively quietly as the boys first played games on their iPad and then actually got out some homework to do. When the kid next to me could not find the room for both his empty cup and his vocabulary book on his tray top table, he froze, glass hovering above workbook like a ufo. I silently held out my hand, took the cup, and placed it on my own tray. "Thanks," he said, picked up his pencil, and got to work.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Mystery Solved

A couple of years ago I realized that as extensive as my Christmas music library was, I did not have a single recording of Need a Little Christmas. This was on the heels of downloading Count Your Blessings to fill another gap in the collection. And this year it's There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays that is the new addition. How I've missed these standards is unfathomable unless you take into account one key piece of information: 

The Ray Conniff Singers never recorded them!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Lighten Up

Back when my older nephews were little, driving around town at this time of year always involved playing an amusing little game called I See Christmas Lights. There was a sufficient number of houses decked out that we could repeat the phrase enough times to be silly, but not so many as to make it ridiculous.

Here in Buffalo, though, it is a whole other world when it comes to holiday decorating: almost everyone has lights and lawn ornaments. That makes it kind of fun to take a simple drive or even a walk around the neighborhood. At first it's thrilling to see all the twinkle and glow, but it doesn't take long before I become more of a discerning critic.

First off, any use of inflatable figures is dismissed on the grounds of being garish and non-traditional. Laser lights are out for the same reason, although I did sneak onto someone's lawn to see how the speckles of light dancing across their home were being projected. I hesitated just a moment before thrusting my hand in front of the device-- aren't lasers supposed to be dangerous?

Next, inconsistency with reality is also a disqualifier. For example one house had a big Santa Snoopy right next to another smaller Snoopy on top of his festive dog house. No! There are not two Snoopys. Likewise more than one Santa in any given yard is a no-no. You can have as many reindeer as you like, but only one Rudolph, please. It's also acceptable to mix secular and religious icons; a crèche surrounded by giant candy canes? Why not?

I'm rather particular about light choices, too. All red? That's demonic, but all green is too leprechaunic. Those new multicolor LED lights offer intensity, but most have too much purple for my taste. Simply tossing a few strings of whatever at the bushes is never a good choice, nor is running out of lights half way around the garage door and just going with it.

When it comes to lights, I love the classic approach of following the roofline, and I prefer it when it's done with good old-fashioned strings of ceramic C9 bulbs. Whatever you use, though, please make sure your lines are crisp, bulbs at attention and all facing one way. Lights are not forgiving; in the dark of night a wavering line seems careless, and even those dangling icicle-style lights are on the border of pretty and pretty sloppy.

The classy restraint of simple wreathes and candles in the window seems like a good idea, but around here, it just can't compete. Those houses need a few light deer and white spiral trees to pull it all together. There are also quite a few lighted Santas en sleigh with reindeer, but to be honest, I want them on the roof! Never mind the prediction of 50 mph winds tomorrow-- why would Santa land on the yard?

I have to admit, though, that in the aggregate, all the lights in all the yards together really, really work for me. It's magical and I wouldn't change a single bulb.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

I'm Your Girl!

I reckon that, in support of our school district's one-to-one initiative, I've set up a hundred iPads or so over the last year, not to mention the devices I've helped to troubleshoot, nearly on a daily basis. So when Heidi's dad asked me to assist him with his new iPad mini, I only had one thing to say.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Food AND Friends

So often when you go to a hip new restaurant the staff kind of has the attitude that you are lucky to be there. Not so at Requin the other night. The pop-up is the brainchild of two Top Chef alums, Mike Isabella and Jen Carroll, and both chefs were working the kitchen when we got there. Not only was the food (Mediterrenean-inspired small plates and family-style entrees) outstanding, but the service was excellent. It seemed like everyone felt lucky that we were there, not just us. Our waiter even arranged for Mike and Jen to come out to meet us and pose for a picture. The place will have its permanent home down at the new waterfront development, and if they continue like that? They are sure to be a huge success.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Force Awakens

It was early this morning when we lined up for the first show of the new Star Wars movie. A friend had been kind enough to offer us her extra tickets, and so we blearily rolled out of bed on the first day of winter break and headed to the theater. Even the icy wind couldn't wake Heidi up entirely. "Is that guy in a costume?" she asked, pointing to a figure in a long, brown hooded robe.

I raised an eyebrow at her. "Either that, or he's a real Jedi," I said.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Have Fun!

Have fun with pants! has become the inside joke of my reading class this quarter. After every memoir they come up with a theme that fits that pattern:

Have fun with soup!
Have fun with bears! 
Have fun with sweaters! 
Have fun with brats! 
Have fun with death! 

Today I got one of the best teacher-gifts ever. One of the students in the class who is a witty writer and talented cartoonist gave me a comic book that he had created just for me. It's all about a giant squid who opens his Christmas present early. When he doesn't appreciate the pants inside, he lands on Santa's naughty list, but when Santa's pants are stolen he has the chance to redeem himself. Can he do it?

You'll have to read Have Fun with Christmas! if you want to find out!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

It Can Wait Until January

My philosophy of the week has been tested by meetings, emails, and colleagues, but with one day left before winter break, I think I'm on pretty solid ground.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Packages, Boxes, and Bags

So, we were talking again today about the difference between a fan letter and a letter that tells an author how his or her book made some kind of a difference to you, the reader. One of the examples that students evaluate is a blatant fan letter full of praise and not much else for Dr. Seuss:

I have always read your books and love them dearly. It’s unbelievable to me that in your lifetime you wrote so many books that are so good. They recently came out with the movie, “The Grinch,” after one of your books. Your books are so funny! I love how you make up words instead of using plain words.

"That's definitely a fan letter," one of my students told me.

"I agree," I answered, "but what could the letter-writer do to make it more of a thoughtful correspondence?"

"Maybe he could say something about the Grinch," the student suggested.

"That sounds good," I said. "You know the story, right?"

He nodded.

"Well, what do you think the lesson might be?" I asked.

"Protect your stuff!" he answered without hesitation, "because the Grinch might get it!"

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


While some students were finishing up their SRI test today others were working on an assignment to prepare for their next writing piece, a Letter about Literature. (It might be fun to click on the "Letters about Literature" label at the bottom of this post to review all I've written about that particular assignment.)

It was quiet, but there was a steady stream of students with questions coming up to my desk. At last it occurred to me to upload the text of the assignment and see what its reading level was. It came out to be a lexile of 980, which is nearly the median of sixth grade (925-1070). There were a number of students who were not yet reading on that level, however, and that pretty much explained all the questions.

For them this assignment, like many others in school, was doubly challenging: they struggled to read the content, and then they had to use their understanding to apply the information, evaluate the passages, and answer the questions. Teachers know that there will be a range of reading in any given class, though, and so we plan our lessons to accommodate everyone, as I did today. Students work independently, then in pairs, and then we check their answers with the larger group. That way everyone can access the content and concepts despite their reading level.

Even so, it surprised me today when a student approached me to ask about the task. "I don't understand what you mean 'give suggestions'," she pointed to her sheet.

"Oh, that just means that if you think it's a fan letter instead of a thoughtful correspondence, you should write some suggestions for changing it," I told her.

"But I don't know what 'suggestions' means," she said.


Monday, December 14, 2015


My students took their mid-year SRI today. It is a reading "inventory" created and administered by Scholastic, one of the top companies profiting from education accountability and big data. Hardly surprising, they also have a math assessment which is called the SMI.

All these acronyms can be confusing to the students as they try to navigate to the right online test to take, but my kids? Are super-cooperative and always helpful to each other.

"Isn't the SRI for math?" someone called out today.

"Nope," his charitable classmate corrected him, "that would be MRI. You don't need the MRI."


Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Weather Outside

It's been quite a few years now, but one Christmas we went down to Florida where Heidi's brother lives. The two of us arrived in town a little earlier than her folks, and so we headed down to Key West for a couple days.

And the weather we are having here in northern Virginia right now? It's a little warmer than the southern most point of the continental USA was that December. What can we do, then, other than shuck our winter woolen wear and fire up the grill?


Saturday, December 12, 2015

All through the House

What with the beautiful weather and the holidays looming, the theater was pretty much deserted this afternoon around four when we finally got around to see the last installment of The Hunger Games. I would be tempted to quote Clement Moore and tell you that not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse, except that wasn't quite true. On my way up to claim my seat, a little guy scampered right past me. I don't know if he liked the movie, but I'm sure he enjoyed the popcorn spill beneath the seats on the next tier down.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Won't You Help to Sing

There was a light rap on my classroom door yesterday afternoon. The librarian poked her head in. "Do you have a minute?" she asked. I nodded and she sat down.

"Tell me about J," she said.

She is also the producer of what I like to call "my favorite show", the morning announcements, and I knew there had been auditions earlier in the day.

"Well," I started, "he's impulsive, and that gets him in some trouble, for sure, but he wants to do well."

"He didn't do poorly at the tryouts," she told me, but the faint praise made me brace for bad news. "Did you read his application?" she asked.

I had not. She pushed the rumpled sheet of paper across the desk, and I recognized his crooked scrawl. Under Why do you want to work on the morning announcements? he had written, Because everyone thinks I'm dumb and bad and I want to show them I'm not.

"How can you say no to that?" she asked rhetorically.

"You can't," I agreed. "When does he start?"

Thursday, December 10, 2015


I have my writing group tonight. Mary had the great idea for each of us to write something for the Mine column in the Washington Post Magazine. The parameters are simple, Tell us what you treasure in 250 words or less, the task not so easy. Anyway, here's what I wrote:

I was the last one out of the demonstration garden today on our fieldtrip, and so it fell to me to latch the tool shed before following the students through the gate and over the tiny bridge. Before closing the door I stepped inside for a moment. It smelled like warm wood and soil with the slight tang of recently oiled metal. My eye ran over the hand tiller, hoes, and shovels, and I compared them to my own collection of gardening tools.

By necessity, my implements are few; as a community gardener I carry my gear with me. Of course I can use the common tools, but I have a few specialty items of my own. The most indispensable of them is the one we call the poaching spade. Compact, with a sharp, narrow, curved blade, it cuts effortlessly through even the hardest earth and is perfect for transplanting, which is a lot of what vegetable gardening requires.

The poaching spade came into my possession one Saturday as we helped my sister-in-law sort through and organize some of the contents of her parents’ house. It was the first spring since we had lost her mom, and it was also our first season in the garden. My sister-in-law’s parents were devoted gardeners, but the spade was barely used: the green paint of the blade was flawless, the oval Smith & Hawkin medallion on the shaft unworn.

“Take it,” my sister-in-law said, “it’s a good shovel.”

It sure is.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Caveat Emptor

Our school's annual book fair is going on this week. Each English teacher is asked to set aside one half class period to allow the students to shop. In addition to all the books, there is also a large assortment of junk, novelty pens and pencils, erasers in all manner of shapes, bookmarks, stickers, posters, bracelets, and key chains, and of course these are the items that attract the most attention.

Before we even set foot in the make-shift shop set up in the library, I have several reminders for the students:

1) Don't walk around and play with things unless you intend to buy them.
2) These are retail prices and some items may seem expensive; even so, try not to complain loudly.
3) Every book is not meant for every reader; please don't make a big deal about it if you find something that really isn't for you.

That's what I tell them, but today when one of the kids asked a harried volunteer about the price of a pen that has a little rubber poof ball on an elastic cord that pops off when you press a button, she said, "3.99" then paused and looked at him meaningfully. "Some might say that is a little too much money to spend on something like that," she continued.

Our eyes met. I smiled and shrugged. "But it POPS off!" I told her.

"Maybe that's why it's so POPular," she answered, and we both cracked up as the student dug around in his pocket and pulled out a five.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

That's the Holiday Spirit

"I don't know if I would wear that Santa hat on our field trip to Mount Vernon," I said to a student this morning.

"Why not?" he answered. "It's fun for the holidays!"

I shrugged. "Well, you definitely shouldn't be wearing it inside the building right now," I told him.

"But it keeps my head so warm and toasty," he said.

"Ahhh," I replied, "both festive AND practical? That Santa knows what he's doing when it comes to head wear!"

He laughed and took it off. For the moment.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Score One for the Introvert

Heidi received a kind invitation from the family of two of her students, who are brothers, for a holiday dessert party. Unfortunately, the gathering is going to take place while we are out of town. It was an evite, and Heidi has no experience with those; it is I who handle most of our virtual social life. "What do I do?" she wanted to know. "Just click 'No'?"

"Yes, but don't worry," I told her, "you will have a place to make comments after you do that."

"Should I just say Unfortunately I can't make it?" she asked.

"Well, no," I answered. " Say something like, Thank you so much for thinking of me! It sounds like a really fun party, but I'll be out of town then," I suggested.

"Thanks!" she said.

"No problem," I replied. "I'm really good at turning down invitations!"

Sunday, December 6, 2015

A Peril

Heidi and I are generally a very agreeable pair; there's not much we don't concur on. Dressing dogs in clothes is one of those few things: Heidi wants to do it, and I will not allow it. Over the years we have reached an informal compromise. For example Isabel has over a hundred collars, and she wears a different one every day. Isn't that a wardrobe for a dog? Lately, too, Heidi has been buying tiny hats and photographing all the dogs we know wearing them. That seems close to the line if you ask me, but no one has.

We passed all sorts of people and dogs on Roosevelt Island this morning as we walked its trails enjoying the balmy December day. One dog in particular caught both of our attention. "Look, that guy has a coat on," I noted as we approached from behind.

It was a smallish, short-haired little pooch. "He probably gets cold," Heidi replied.

"Whoa!" I said as we got closer. "It's also wearing some kind of dress!"

"Oh yeah!" Heidi nodded in appreciation as she spotted the frill peeking out from under the coat.

"My gosh!" I cried a second later. "It has pants on too! They're like bloomers or something!" I cringed. "It looks like a miniature version of the Big Bad Wolf dressed as Grandma!"

Heidi shrugged. "Layers," she said.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Haves and Have Nots

A member of the National Junior Honor Society knocked on our door during homeroom. "Do you have any cans for the food drive?" she asked.

We did not. "Are any of you guys going to bring something?" I asked after she left. "Because I know there's a lot going on and it's easy to forget. Remember, I'll match anything that you donate."

There were nods of agreement. "I'll bring something on Monday," one student assured me. "We have lots of cans at our house that we got from the food bank and never use." She shrugged. "I don't think my mom knows how to cook half that stuff."

Friday, December 4, 2015

Let's Not Get Crazy Now

We had an early dismissal for students today so that the staff could use the afternoon to participate in professional development. Such a thing happens about three times a year, and most of the time we have special school-wide activities planned, like the Day of Peace and the International Film Festival.

On those occasions, students spend the whole time with their homeroom groups. As worthwhile as those days can be, the abbreviated version of the daily schedule that we followed today also has its perks. The time flies by, and short classes mean focus is imperative (and possible) for all-- it's like anti-block scheduling.

"I love today!" one of my students said. "The time is going by fast, but we're getting a lot done!"

I nodded.

"I would even give up Saturdays off to have this schedule all the time," he continued.

And there our agreement ended.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Time Well Spent

I confess that there are times when I really want to skip my bi-weekly ukulele lesson. Usually I don't feel like I've practiced enough; other times I'm in the middle of something at school; sometimes it just seems inconvenient to go down there at 5 pm on a Thursday.

I always go, though, and I'm always glad I went. My teacher is nice; he doesn't judge me, he just meets me where I am at the moment, plays duets with me, and gives me really good pointers about fingering, rhythm, and timing.

Tonight, for example, we played a few Christmas songs (which sound muuuuuch better when he plays with me), and he helped me through some tough spots by having me count the notes as I strummed them slowly. Once, when I was stuck, I called out the notes in tune as I pointed to them. "Wow!" he turned to me without a trace of irony. "You can sing, too!"

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Broken News

It was drive time when the news of the shootings in California started trickling in this evening. I listened with that sinking oh-no feeling, but it didn't take too long to realize that the news media had very little information. Beyond reserved speculation, they could only repeat the terrible details that three gunman had senselessly attacked an auditorium full of people at a social service facility.

I couldn't listen very long. I lost my appetite for the agonizing pace of live breaking stories years ago. It probably started with the slow speed chase after OJ Simpson, but certainly the night that Princess Diana was killed, when they repeated the facts and that one ten second video clip of her entering the car over and over, rubbed a dull, heavy spot on my consciousness that watching the twin towers collapse over and over again on the days following September 11, 2001 only aggravated.

Even a simple snow storm triggers over-coverage. Flip on the TV and you will hear the same forecast, see the same weather map, and watch the same closures crawl across the bottom of the screen over and over and over. I want to be informed; I want to know what is happening, but a few hours perspective in our crazy 24-7 news cycle?

That will keep me sane.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Rec-ing Ball

There was a lot going on when I went down to the gym after school to walk our enormous indoor track. The weather was wet and raw here today, and so it seemed that lots of people had the same idea as I to escape the cold and rain and still get a little exercise. In addition to citizens of our fair county who belong to the rec center that shares our school facility, the girls on the move club was down there preparing for their big 5k this Saturday. The boys soccer team was practicing indoors as well, and there was a home girls basketball game so that team and the cheerleaders were all warming up as spectators trickled in from this or that afterschool activity.

Music was pumping, kids were laughing, and spirits were high, which made walking in giant circles kind of fun. When the starting lineups blasted through the loudspeaker I found a place in the bleachers, and I was sitting center court when the whistle tweeted the start of the first quarter.

It has been six seasons since I left my coaching position for the team, but my co-coach is still at it. He hasn't really switched up his game play much; I recognized the offense, the defense, and the in-bounds plays, but this team executed them exceptionally well. Not only that, he had three squads of mixed grade levels that he rotated in every couple of minutes, so everyone on the bench got playing time, and they all looked really sharp.

At the end, the team dominated its opponent even more than the 27-12 scoreboard reported, and I had a lot of fun cheering from the other side of the court. I even briefly considered rejoining the coaching staff.


Monday, November 30, 2015

Real World Application

I was just telling my mom and brother and sister how I group and regroup my students all the time. I have a few reasons for doing so:

1. I've observed that it's developmentally challenging  for 11- and 12-year-olds to consistently pick seats where they will be productive.

2. Although choice is a powerful positive, it's stressful for some people to have to choose their own seats.

3. Changing seats frequently makes change less anxiety-producing. It also alleviates complacency and/or boredom.

4. I group students hetero- or homogeneously based on the assignment or activity, and designate a captain based upon different criteria. Everybody earns the position of leader sometime.

Today was a new seat day, and it's always interesting to hear how the groups settle in to their latest arrangement. Sometimes the captains are sure and steady, sometimes strident or silent. This morning though, I was most impressed by the social skills of one new leader. As the students waited for their directions, he made a little small talk with the other kids at his table. "So," he started, "I have a question for you."

His group turned their attention to him. "What's your favorite IB MYP Global Context?" he asked.

And with that?

He had them.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Roadside Assistance

The call came at 10:46 am. "Hi, it's me," Treat said.

I knew he was flying back to college early this afternoon. "What's up?" I asked.

There was a pause. "Well, my dad asked me to drive him to the airport, and there wasn't very much gas, so I kind of panicked, and now I'm stuck."

"Where are you?" I asked and when he told me, I said, "We'll be there in 20 minutes!" without hesitation.

Heidi and I threw on some layers and dashed out the door. We practically skidded into the nearest gas station, bought a gas can, filled it with a couple gallons, and sped to the interstate. On the way, we rolled the windows down to vent the fumes. Treat was parked in a service lot which was pretty much deserted on Sunday morning.

"Ta da!" I greeted him, relishing my role as hero. We pulled out the gas can and set to rescuing. The first snag was the tank cover. We couldn't find the button on the dash or by the driver's seat to open it. At last we resorted to the manual which informed us a simple push on the cover would unlatch it.

Next, our fancy new gas can was the issue. The nozzle had some kind of spring-loaded locking mechanism to prevent it from spilling (or venting-- we should have known then) that was supposed to release when you placed the spout in the tank opening and pushed. Not for us! we dribbled gas down the car and into the puddle we were standing in several times before finally disassembling the nozzle and concluding that it was defective. It didn't help that the directions on the side of the can had been torn off.

"We're going to have to McGyver it!" I said. "Do we have an empty bottle?" Heidi produced one from beneath the passenger seat. I had meant to put my gardening tools in the attic a couple of weeks ago, but fortunately they were still in the back of my station wagon. I rummaged through them and grabbed the pruning saw to clip off the bottom of the bottle.

Unfortunately, the neck was not long enough to open the hinged flap on the tank. Not to worry! I grabbed my soil pH tester and jammed the spike down the bottle to open the hinge. Then we sloooooowly poured the gas directly from the can into our makeshift funnel.

Sure, we all smelled like gasoline, probably because our hands and shoes were covered in it, but Treat started up the car and drove home.

Mission accomplished!

Saturday, November 28, 2015

A Maze of Twisty Little Passages All Alike

There was a bunch of text and what looked like computer code on the screens of both Riley and Treat's laptops yesterday. "Is that some kind of game?" I asked. Riley nodded and I was transported back to the basement of the student union at my college.

The year was 1980, I was taking computer science, and you had to sign up for a terminal that was wired to the huge mainframe computer on the other side of the glass and cinder block wall. In addition to my homework, which was writing simple programs in BASIC and COBOL, I spent a lot of screen time playing a game we called "Cave".

This was years before Apple introduced the Macintosh I with its graphic user interface, and so the game involved reading a narrative which offered information with both explicit and implied choices and typing in simple commands to try to explore a network of caves filled with treasure and peril. One of the first ever computer games, it was novel and addictive. Back in 1980, we crowded three or four to a cubicle and collaborated on navigating the virtual adventure, shouting suggestions and repeating rumors we had heard from other people who played. Still, ours was a relatively obscure pastime, and  there was no internet to search for cheat codes, so we stumbled through as best we could with limited success.

As I was describing it to the boys, Riley found a version on the internet and began playing it. I wish I could say it all came back to me, but as the game progressed it seemed closer to a dream than a memory, and I grasped at any vaguely familiar detail. Soon, despite appreciating its pioneering nature, the boys grew weary of the primitive game and quit (after the dwarf killed them a couple of times), but it had recaptured me.

I found several websites that outlined the history of the game and some that provided annotated directions for the entire challenge. As I read through them, some foggy specifics did actually return. For example, the bird you find is afraid of the rod you have probably already picked up, so you must drop it to capture him, and then retrieve it. Likewise, you can set that birdie loose on the vicious snake that bars your way a bit on down the passage and the bird will win, but if you simply key in the command kill snake, you'll get the snarky reply With what? Your bare hands? To that you need only type, Yes, and you will receive this: Congratulations! You just killed a giant snake with your bare hands!

As I read on, I realized that I had no desire to actually type the commands myself; after 35 years I was content to watch over the virtual shoulder of this cyber adventurer and let him show me how it ended.


Friday, November 27, 2015

Good Cheer

In our family the night before Thanksgiving is a simple meal of soup and salad with the family, and the night after Thanksgiving has become a simple meal of pasta, salad, bread, and leftover desserts with an ever-widening guest list. This year we had 21 for second night, nine more than Thanksgiving itself. It was a warm mixture of friends and family with guests from 7 to 76. After dinner the groups at the table amicably formed and reformed, conversations flowing in and out and up and down as people cleaned up, moved over, made coffee, checked on the kids, fetched dessert, took the dogs out, and opened more wine. No one was in a hurry to leave, and even when they did, folks stood around for a good twenty minutes saying their good byes. It was the perfect spirit with which to begin the holidays.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Remember Me to One WHo Lives There

After authoring this blog for so many years, it sometimes (ok, rather often) slips my mind as to whether or not I've written about something before. Many's the time, therefore, that I've used the search feature to double check a topic or a title. This afternoon, for example, I had the notion to write something about the bounty of parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme I was able to harvest from my little garden and use to season the stuffing for dinner tonight. I was also thinking that I might tie in the idea of being especially thankful for actually growing a few other things for the meal, too, like the butternut squash, but I couldn't quite recall if I'd ever written about something like that. So, I searched up a few key words, and I found one entry. On November 23 of last year, I wrote about not being able to get ahold of gingerbread stout and trying instead a parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme saison instead. Good news, friends! I got the stout this year! One more thing to be thankful for, even if it wasn't my favorite.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Day of Rec

The day began with an intense game of Uno Stacko (a color-coded version of Jenga), and proceeded to pick-up sticks (We swear we won't cheat!), pentominoes, various Wii Fit challenges, and several rounds of Whatyamadrawit, all before breakfast.

Then we played the ukuleles for a while, practicing a duet of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. In between there were games on the iPads and games on our phones, and later in the day there was one lengthy hand of crazy Crazy Eights, and a few trivia challenges, more ukulele, and some guitar.

What can I say? Players gonna play!

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Special Guest

My mom came to school today to borrow my car to go out to lunch with some friends. I expected her around 10:30, and I told my third period class that she was coming. Oh my! What excitement. 

"Can we see her?" they wanted to know.

"Well, yes," I answered, "she needs to get the keys from me."

"So she's going to come here? To this room?" someone verified.

"Yes," I said, "yes."

When the office called announcing her eminent arrival, the class waited wide-eyed, and students near the back craned their necks and stood on their toes. When at last she entered the room they greeted her with silly waves and giddy grins. "That's your mother?" one little girl demanded. "She looks more like your sister!" 

I took that as a compliment to my mom and gave her a little hug as I handed her the keys. "Awwww," the class sighed, and with that she was gone.

"Hey! Ms. S!" a student called. "Does that mean you're grounded?"

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Your mom took your car keys!"

Monday, November 23, 2015

Say Hello to Friends You Know

My mom and I have the tradition of going grocery shopping one of the afternoons before Thanksgiving. She always makes soup for everyone the night before the big day, and since she travels from Minnesota, it takes one big grocery trip to get the supplies for her meal.

This year, Heidi joined us, and the excursion took on a whole new vibe as we ran into former students and/or their parents at seemingly every turn. When at last we had loaded eight bags of groceries into the back of the car, she hopped in smiling. "Well!" she said. "That was a productive trip!"

We thought so, too, but not in quite the same way.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

On Deck

After being a no-cruise person for 53 years, I find myself becoming a frequent cruiser. We enjoyed our Alaskan adventure in August considerably, and I have to confess that I really liked the cruise ship part, too. After 7 days aboard, I was a little sad to disembark and leave my little home away from home, with its compact cabin and endless ocean view.

Now it turns out that we're going to celebrate Heidi's parents' 50th anniversary with a Bahamas cruise in February. They left the research and planning to me, and I booked the trip today-- on the sister ship to ours. In fact, our staterooms are right around the corner from the one we had in August. The cafe is up one deck, the restaurant down a few, and we know right where to find the gym, the pool, and the promenade deck.

A day in Nassau and another in Grand Stirrup Cay? That's just gravy!

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Pinch Hitting

I woke up with an unexplained hankering for date-nut bread this morning. I have a fantastic recipe that veganizes easily with excellent results. I love its quirks, too: you pour boiling water over the dates, sugar, baking soda, salt, and butter (or in this case, coconut oil), then beat in the eggs (this morning it was pumpkin and chia seeds), before folding in the flour and walnuts, and dumping it into the pan to bake for about an hour. It's quick, fun, and delicious.

I don't really need the recipe card because I've made it so often, but I always take it down from its place on the side of the refrigerator because my cousin Sandy gave it to me, and it is written in her own hand. It's been almost 16 years since she passed away, but seeing her writing and making that bread still gives me a warm feeling of connection.

In fact, Sandy used to bring her date-nut bread every Thanksgiving, along with some cream cheese to spread on it, and we ate it for breakfast the whole holiday week.

I guess that explains the hankering.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Whoop Dee Doo

All new brakes and four new tires, too?


BUT, it rides almost like new, AND it was 1/20 the price.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Giant Steps

I read today that it was less than 65 years from the Wright brothers' first flight to landing a man on the moon. It's an amazing achievement, but a little less so, perhaps, when you spend your days with children who were not even alive before iPhones, Facebook, and Barack Obama was in the Senate.

The culminating assignment of the first big unit in sixth grade English at our school is for students to write a letter to themselves in the future. After spending some time exploring the question Who am I? we move on to its twin, Who do I want to be?

The assignment is a chance for them to look over all the writing they've done since September: an introduction of themselves to peers, poems about the sensory details of their favorite season, other poems about an action that reveals something essential about them, the "Where I'm From" assignment where they collect concrete family details, and then publishing a motto and explaining why it is a credo for them. All of these are meant to help them as they compose a letter reminding the future them who they are now, who they hope they are then, and how they can stay true to both.

The kids love it! They really get into choosing how many years the letter must wait, their questions about the future are endless, and sealing all of their work into an envelope with a big DO NOT OPEN 'TIL... is the final thrill.

I read through quite a few drafts today, and, in general, the open-hearted hopefulness of them buoys my vision of the future. They remind me that, truly, anything can happen. Take for example the one little girl who wrote I hope you're in an acapella singing group and I wonder who your girlfriend will be.

Wow. Forty-two years ago, the sixth grade me would have been more waaaay likely to walk on the moon than to write such a thing, and yet here we are.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

One Leg at a Time

The focus of my quarterly reading class is theme. Reading several mini-memoirs, the students work to uncover the answer to the question "How can we learn from the experiences of others?" To do that, they must first learn that the theme of a story is the universal truth about life that it reveals. It's a new concept to many sixth graders, but it's one they take to, although the idea of universal is a little tricky at first. Kids want to make the lesson case-specific.

So, to introduce the whole idea I start with what has got to be one of the strangest Dr. Seuss stories ever. What Was I Afraid Of? is buried in the back of the Sneetches collection, and I swear the 8-year-old me had nightmares about the creepy olive green pants and the weird nocturnal yellow bear-like protagonist wandering through the bizarre aqua night of the pages. It's one of his lesser-known works, though, and so most students approach it with fresh eyes and open mind.

I emphasize how odd it is, too, and that makes it engaging, as well. Anyway, for those who are unfamiliar, the title is a big hint as to the lesson of this story. It's basically that there's no need to fear unusual or different people.

Oh, we get to that eventually, but first I have students write their ideas on index cards and I share them anonymously with the class. As a group we talk about universality and text support, and in that way we find our way.

Those first attempts can be pretty amusing, though, and today we had a great one:

Have fun with pants!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Not on the Ballot

I always do a first quarter review with my students. It gives all of us a chance to look back and call the highs and lows of our class as we see 'em. One of the questions is always What do you want to learn second quarter? and although the answers vary, they are generally inside the box.

To write fiction is always a biggie, as is more independent reading time in class, and to a lesser extent more poetry, more cool words, and more grammar (!).

This year, though, there was sort of a write-in candidate near the end of the day. As the day went on, We want to learn to take care of our class hamster! started to appear on more and more review sheets.

"But we don't have a class hamster," I said.

"Exactly!" was the answer. "We should!"

Monday, November 16, 2015


I try to balance my class between novel and predictable. So, we have a weekly routine, but within that there are plenty of opportunities for new and different activities to tackle the curriculum. In keeping with that model, Monday is the day I check in with students on their independent reading, and we also have a word study quiz.

This year, there is a student who has been on my team's collective radar literally from the first week of school. Opinionated, vocal, distractible, and self-deprecating, he is also work-avoidant both in and out of class, not a successful combination. On this first Monday of the second quarter, he was unprepared: no book, no reading log, and he readily admitted that he hadn't studied for the quiz.

I can't say I was surprised, but a little while later, he pulled me aside. "I've had enough," he told me earnestly..

I looked at him with curiosity. Despite his academic struggle, he is generally very good-natured, light-hearted even.

"Today is the last time I'm coming without my stuff!" he continued. "I'm going to do my work, read my book, and study! You'll see," he assured me.

"Okay," I answered, "I'm going to hold you to that. But let me know how I can help you, ok?"

He nodded and returned to his seat quietly.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Sour Tomatoes

How fortunate we are that well into November our garden continues to provide. In the last couple of weeks we've gotten plenty of peppers to dry and mix into our proprietary house chili powder and enough tomatoes to ripen on the window sill and put up in a quart jar. 

Then there are these guys...

Coming Soon: Pickled Green Tomatoes!

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Not Just for Selfies

A tumble of ice cascaded from the freezer when I opened the door a little while ago. We were away from home all day, but as busy as we had been, the ice maker was obviously much busier. Clearing away the frozen crescents from the thin silver arm to manually lift it into the for God's sake stop making ice position, I saw that the little piece of wire had pulled loose from one side and so there were literally no brakes on the maker.

Just then another perfect batch dropped, partially burying my hand. Although urgent, it did not seem like a difficult repair: I could see the hole across from me where the wire was still in place, so surely there must be a corresponding opening on the facing part, even though it was out of my line of sight. I reached in and poked about with the loose part, trying to find that obscure cavity by touch alone with no success. I cleared some space in the freezer and stepped on a small ladder, but neither my neck nor the design was yielding. 

I need a mirror! I said to myself and then visualized such a tool and where I might find it in the house, but I could not think of where a hand mirror might be. What do we use to see ourselves? I wondered, and the solution became clear. I grabbed my phone, swiped on the camera, flipped the view around, and thrust it into the freezer where the teeny, tiny hole was revealed. In went the wire, and the ice maker was fixed!

Friday, November 13, 2015

Good Start

Heidi received a big fat envelope in the mail earlier this week. Inside her parents had packed all her report cards, first communion programs, and traffic tickets (yes, traffic tickets) from kindergarten through college. Since then, she has gleefully reviewed her developmental milestones, Especially interesting? Why her very first progress report, dated September 1973. At not yet 5, Heidi entered kindergarten and was deemed strong, coordinated ("able to run, hop, skip, and jump"), prepared ("well-rested and ready to learn"), and socially adept ("carries and uses tissues or hankie" and "able to tell stories in sequence and using complete sentences").

That's my girl!

Thursday, November 12, 2015


"Why do you think I ask you to be quiet when we're in a workshop?" I asked my class today in an effort to, well, get them to quit yappin' and start writin'.

Several hands shot up. "So we can wooooork!" they practically chorused.

"Yeah," someone added, "It's called 'workshop' not 'talkshop'!

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Still Wondering

The waiting room was pretty crowded when the young mother walked into the doctor's office with her two small sons this morning. The boys were restless, and the three attracted my attention as she checked in at the window. A quick look around the small lobby showed me that there were no seats together, and so when they turned around, I moved to the empty chair next to me so that they could sit while they waited to be called. She held the youngest in her lap, he looked to be perhaps 18 months, and patted the seat next to her for her older son. He was skeptical, but sat anyway. "I'm hungry," he said to his mom.

"You just ate breakfast," she told him.

He squirmed.

"Let's read a book," she suggested and handed him one from her bag.

"No!" he scowled, and so she took another and began reading it to the toddler on her lap.

I heard her older boy sigh and felt his eyes on me.

"No school today?" I asked him.

"Nope!" he answered.

"What grade are you? First?" I guessed.

He smiled. "Yes!"

"What's the name of your school?"

I wondered if he was from our district, but I didn't recognize the long name he mumbled. Still I nodded enthusiastically. "Nice!" I said.

"We're going to the zoo today," he told me.

"Fun!" I answered. "What's your favorite animal?"

He cut his eyes at his mother, who was listening to his conversation with the stranger next to him.

"That's not an appropriate joke for people you don't know," she said to him.

He laughed. I was confused.

"Oh, you're not really going to the zoo?" I guessed.

"No, we're going," she answered, "but he was kidding about it with me earlier, and I don't want him to repeat what he said."

"Oh," I replied, because there seemed nothing else to say, but I couldn't imagine what she could possibly be talking about.

Fortunately, the awkward silence was broken a moment later when they were called in to see the doctor.

I guess I'll never know.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015


All the sixth grade students at our school have been taking their quarterly district-required standardized reading test the last couple of days. Designed as a predictor for the state assessment they will take in the spring, the first quarter test consists of four texts and 23 questions.

The passages are a mix of fiction and nonfiction, and one of them was actually a recipe for crispy oven-fried chicken. Which one of these steps should come first? the students were asked and given four choices including beat the eggs and lay the chicken legs one inch apart on a baking sheet.

It's kind of a tough question for a non-cook, and let's be honest: how many 11-year-olds have the background knowledge to make that inference? Plus, did anyone stop to think that they were literally asking which comes first, the chicken or the eggs?

But the best story of the day came from my friend Mary. One of her students pulled out his iPad during the test. "What are you doing?" she asked him.

"I want to get a picture of this recipe!" he replied. "It looks so good!"

Monday, November 9, 2015

Some Battles Choose You

We rolled out the iPads for the sixth graders today and much of the conversation centered around what they were and were not allowed to download. Our district organizes acceptable programs into an "App Catalog" and students are only supposed to download from there; in fact they and their parents sign an agreement to that effect. The problem is that they must have access to the Apple App Store as well, so that Apple can push down or otherwise make updates available, so for a few hours every day a siren song lures them into forbidden waters.

Oh I heard an earful today on the subject. "You know the seventh graders all have games on their devices!" was a common complaint.

"They are taking a risk and breaking the rules," I answered. "If they get caught, there will be consequences."

"One of the other sixth grade teams told everybody they could download one app, just one, but any one they wanted!" was another widely reported rumor.

"I doubt it," I said. "We teachers are not even allowed to give you permission to get apps from the app store. Do you know why? Because they ARE NOT our iPads! And they aren't yours either! Who owns those?"

"The schools," they chorused miserably.

"That's right!" I answered brightly, "and whatever they want you to have is in the app catalog!"

At that, one student indignantly raised his hand like a prim little flag. "Well then why did they have us get Apple IDs if we're not allowed to use them for games?"

"Why don't you give me that iPad back," I suggested, "and then we can see what you need it for when you don't have it?"

He drooped to half mast. "That's okay," he mumbled.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Fish out of Water

We went out for Heidi's birthday dinner last night. "What should I get?" Heidi asked scanning the menu.

"Be adventurous!" I advised. "Try something new."

When the waiter delivered the plate of whole grilled porgy festooned with pickled celery and shallots, she sat back a minute in dismay, but then quickly regained her composure and grabbed first her knife and fork, but after a moment, her camera, too.

"Don't," I said.

"Why not?" she asked.

I shrugged. "It's a kind of uncool."

She listened to me, but later we were both sorry. I because I regretted being so uptight and controlling, and Heidi because at least five people asked to see a picture of it when she told them what she had!

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Cast Off the Shackles

We went to see the movie Suffragette this afternoon, and it was an empowering tale of the struggle of many working class British women to gain the right to vote.

Perhaps it was a little too empowering. About three-quarters of the way through the film, a woman's voice rang through the theater, clear above the soundtrack. "Whose phone is that?" she demanded. And a moment later she repeated her question, the righteous indignation in her tone unambiguous as she affirmed her right to an interruption-free movie, "Turn it off!"

The irony of her dictate was perhaps lost on her, but not the other patrons, one of whom hissed, "Jeez Lady! It's on vibrate!"

Friday, November 6, 2015

Haters Gonna Hate

It's the end of the quarter, and I find that my students are struggling with independently breaking down directions and then following them. So today I took an assignment that they were to complete by last Friday, copied the directions and included a few of the actual responses they turned in. Tha task was simple: work with a partner to evaluate the examples and then explain why did or did not fit the assignment directions. The next step was to go back over their own replies and revise and improve them. Of course there were some good exemplars, too, and when it came to the class with the student who had written them, I thought it was only fair to give him credit. "Oh stop," his friend said. "You're only feeding his arrogance! They really aren't that good."

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Lifelong Learning

From time to time I re-arrange the tables in my room into long courses where students can easily work facing a partner. To provide movement opportunity as well as a variety of perspectives, I usually break the activity into parts and have students share their ideas, and then move seats for the next section. It's an approach that works well with sixth graders, but when there is an uneven number of kids, I either have to work a trio into the rotation, have someone go solo for a round, or join in myself.

I like the last one best, but it requires me to manage my class AND participate in a meaningful conversation, so it doesn't always happen. It did today, though, and because I use the Socratic method of asking way more questions of my partner than I answer, I gained some insight into the poem we are reading. Let me be clear: I have taught this particular poem for over ten years, and with 4-5 sections per term, that means I've read and discussed it at least 40 times. Today? I saw something brand new, and that is why this job never gets old.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Knowing the Drill

We had a fire drill during homeroom this morning, and my class had a little trouble staying together. In their defense, there is a bit of a bottleneck at our designated exit. The students evacuating from our area must merge with students coming up a narrow stairway and pass through two doors into the main vestibule where they can finally exit the building. By the time we were outside, my class was scattered, and it took a minute for me to gather them all up.

When we returned to the room, I told them I knew it could be challenging, but if they all stuck close to the classmate in front of them, then no one would be separated from the group. "Sometimes you just have to wait patiently before you try to go out," I advised them.

One little girl raised her hand. "But what if it was a real fire?" she said. Wouldn't we want to push our way out and run from the building as soon as we could?"

Tuesday, November 3, 2015


Fifteen years ago we spent election night at my brother and sister-in-law's house. It was Heidi's birthday and we were celebrating. Riley was 8, and Treat was 5 and I brought along a little craft project I was going to do with my students the next day. After dinner, we all moved to the living room to watch the election returns and put together dream catcher kits for my class. Emily's parents, Vic and Judy, were there, too, and we all expected to sing happy birthday and go home secure in the knowledge of who our next president would be. Of course that didn't happen: it would be several weeks before the Supreme Court would rule in Bush v. Gore. I thought of that evening today when I caught site of the red, white, and blue dream catcher fashioned out of pipe cleaners, yarn, plastic beads and feathers with a now vintage I Voted sticker affixed in the center. It still hangs on the wall behind my desk. When I made it, I joked that it would be a good filter for political nightmares but frankly? I have never found it very effective.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Checks and Balances

"Will you give me candy if I get a perfect score on this reading log?" a student asked today.

I glanced at his log and shook my head. "You won't get a perfect score," I told him, "because you didn't capitalize the titles of the books you read."

My intention was for him to correct his error, but that didn't happen. "I'm going to get someone else to check it," he said.

"It will still be incorrect," I replied.

"He won't see it," he assured me.

"But, I know it's wrong," I reminded him. "Remember me? The one who records the grades?"

"So no candy?" he asked rhetorically.

I nodded. "And capitalize those titles, would ya?" 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

EST to the Rescue

I frowned when I saw that it was raining this morning when I got up; there would probably be no walking to the farmers market in such weather. The rest of our group rose a bit later, but the day was still wet and blustery. At last, a little before noon, the sun came out and blue skies prevailed-- our trip to the market was a go after all!

But it wouldn't have been if not for the turn of the clock last night, for the farmers market closes at 1, which was one hour later today.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

They Have Some Splainin to Do

While I was out on Friday, and my class was being supervised by a substitute, I received the following messages:


Student 2: What!!!!!!!!!!Yell

Student 3: i did not lick his screen i pretended to the i laughed and drooled and it got in my hair and fell on the ground. after that i cleaned it up.

Sigh. Won't that be a fun conversation on Monday.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Ms. Brightsides

As I mentioned yesterday, Heidi's parents are in town and the main activity on the agenda is shopping, both for Heidi's birthday and some early Christmas gift buying as well. Usually, I excuse myself from a day at the mall, but this time, I really couldn't say no and so here we are, entering hour 5. Best to look at the bright side, I think-- I got my 10,000 steps 2 hours ago!

Thursday, October 29, 2015

We'll See

I'm going to be out of school tomorrow because Heidi's folks are coming into town-- in fact they are stuck in our infamous rush hour traffic even now. It's usually kind of a chore to make sub plans, but today I told my students I would be out and instructed them to keep going on the stuff they are working on. They seemed to really embrace the idea, and when I told them that I was trusting them to be responsible, they practically cheered: "We can do it!"

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

You Know the Drill

As I've mentioned before, I have an activity where the students in my reading class have a set of question starters organized in Bloom's taxonomy, from lower to higher order thinking skill. Their task is to compose a five question quiz based on the memoir we are reading. Each question must be from a different category and they also have to provide an answer key. Then they give the quiz to another student (and take one that someone else has composed), grade the quiz that they created using the key, and have a conference with the other student about the results.

They think it's fun, and so they cheerfully revisit the text, ask higher order questions, and answer them-- twice! As they work on the assignment many students include creative twists, and some of the quizzes are both amusing and revealing, like the one today with this set of directions:

Just answer the question with something you think is correct.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Sonny Days

"Is that your son?" one of my students asked when a young PE teacher on our team stopped by my classroom to get the details about our field trip today.

"No!" I rolled my eyes at the suggestion, but then considered it a moment: he is a tall, blue-eyed skateboarder with a cute little man bun who works really hard in the best interest of his students.

"But, I'd take him if he needed a home," I added.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Food Fancy

How could I not try pickled potatoes? The recipe called for slicing and then frying them after brining, but I decided to chunk and roast them. Delicious! It's like a morsel of warm potato salad in every bite.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Celebrate Life

There was a street fair surrounding the funeral home when we arrived yesterday. All the side streets were closed for blocks, and on Main Street, police officers in neon-orange vests stopped traffic for any pedestrians who wanted to cross. The staff at the funeral home were keeping a watchful eye for people who were trying to find festival parking in their lot, but noting our black clothes and out of state plates, they didn't even look twice at us when we pulled in.

The viewing ended at twelve but the service was not scheduled until 1. The church was only a few blocks away, and so we decided to walk. Our path took us through the fair, and we stopped for coffee, browsed t-shirts at a sidewalk sale, and played with the kittens they had for adoption at the pet shop. It was a warm reminder that life, somehow, goes on no matter what.

"I think Tom did this," his sister told us before we left the wake. "The fair was rescheduled from a couple weeks ago from the hurricane that never came. Now we're going to lose half the crowd to the beer tent!"

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Bad GPS Good GPS

We were relying on the directions function of the map ap on our phones to get us where we needed to go 4 hours from home this morning. Oh, we knew the broad strokes; it was a route we have traveled often, but it was the last 20 miles that we were counting on help for, and sadly, our devices let us down-- taking us on and off the same highway three times, past our destination and back around again. In the grand scheme of things it didn't matter; we gave ourselves a wide window and made it there in plenty of time, but it was frustrating.

On the way home, our phones redeemed themselves: coming upon a 7-mile stop-and-go backup, we took a quick exit and the GPS function directed us around the congestion in less than 10 minutes, and it was exhilarating.

Technology taketh and technology giveth in return.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Is this Going to Be on the Test?

After the second annual Day of Peace and early release for students,  we had staff development this afternoon at school. The meeting was scheduled to start at 1 pm, and at 12:55 most of the tables in the library were full. My friend Mary and I chose the neck cramp table right in front of the screen. A minute later, a younger teacher joined us just as the meeting started.

"You all had homework to prepare for this session," the presenter said jovially. "There is an activity at your table for you to reflect on the video as a group."

"We did?" Mary whispered. "I didn't do it."

"I didn't either," I shrugged.

"You guys!" the other teacher said.

"Uh oh, she's going to switch tables," Mary said.

"Did you do it?" I asked our colleague.

"Yes, and I even took notes," she answered. We all laughed uproariously.

"OK," Mary told her, "fill us in."

"It was about the seven habits kids need for success," she started.

"Wait," I said. "Let us guess what they are."

Organization, Cooperation, we chanted. Critical thinking...

And while we didn't get the exact terminology, we were close, successfully completing the activity despite 2/3s of our group being unprepared.


Thursday, October 22, 2015

Infinite Jest

Cold and frosty morning
There’s not a lot to say
About the things caught in my mind

I’m not afraid of ghosts, but there is a Halloween display in a yard that I pass each morning on my way to school that bothers me. Human bones are scattered across the grass, while nearby a tiny dog skeleton stands, jaws open in an eternal yap. The dog is dumb-looking; little bony ears on its head are proof that it is a fake, but the other part is different. Perhaps because of the Yorick grin of the skull, for there is certainly no merriment there, the human skeleton gives my stomach a bit of a turn every day.

Damn my education, I can’t find the words to say
With all the things caught in my mind

I’ve never seen a ghost, but I’m pretty sure I’ve heard one or two. Back in 1985 my sister, my dad, and I moved into the second story apartment of an up-down triplex. My father had been given six months to live, and my sister and I were to be his caretakers.

We didn’t have much furniture at first; my dad was returning from several years in Saudi Arabia, and my sister and I were 19 and 23 with not a lot of worldly possessions. We bought a couch, a TV, and some beds to begin with, leaving the dining room between the kitchen and the living room empty and echoing. I can’t count the number of times I would be working in the kitchen and turn to see who was coming in only to find myself alone. Eventually, the sound of invisible footsteps crossing the dining room was such a persistent presence that we grew used to it. “Oh, that’s the ghost” we’d shrug when others heard it, too.

Later we found out that the tenants before us had been an elderly brother and his two sisters, and that he had passed away in the apartment, and so we assumed it was he who approached the kitchen. At Thanksgiving we got a table, and the footsteps stopped.

So don’t go away
Say what you say
Say that you’ll stay
Forever and a day

My father outlived his prognosis by over a year. Near the end of his life he ordered the As Seen on TV clap-on, clap-off, Clapper so that he wouldn’t have to get up from the couch to turn the lights on and off, but he was too weak to clap loudly enough to make it work. We left it plugged in, though, and in the days after his death, the lamp connected to it turned on and off all by itself on several occasions.

‘cause I need more time
Yes I need more time

It was just before 7 am on Tuesday when we heard the news that our friend Tom died. The last time we saw him was at our Buffalo marriage reception. He was the only guest we were allowed to invite ourselves, a fact he took such wicked delight in that he gladly flew from NYC for the weekend. “Are you kidding?” he told Heidi. “I wouldn’t miss this for the world, especially if it’s going to be as awfully awkward as you say! I’d crash it if I had to!”

Then, as ever, he seemed larger than life, and even though we knew he had a grave illness, it seemed impossible that he wouldn’t beat the odds. He was confident, and so were we. And while his death was not a total surprise, it was still a shock.

The day passed shrouded in the disconnect between what I wanted to be true and what was true, and I fell into an exhausted sleep early that night, resting dreamlessly until a loud noise woke me. It took me a few minutes to realize that the TV was on, LOUD, downstairs. Before it could wake Heidi, I stumbled down to turn it off. The empty living room glowed in the flickering blue light of the screen. There no reason for the television to have come on.

As I reached for the power button, I saw that a sitcom funeral was in progress. I stood watching as one of the characters paid tribute to a person lying in an open casket. The joke was that the two were strangers, and in an awfully awkward moment, the eulogy was refuted and the funeral crashers humiliated.

Tom would have thought it was funny.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Sure Lock

"I can't open my locker!" a student burst into my room at lunch and reported. "I keep putting in my combination and it won't open!"

"When was the last time you could get in?" I asked her.

"This morning!" she told me.

"That's strange," I frowned and grabbed my master list of lockers and combination and followed her to the hallway.

There we found a friend of hers on her knees fiddling with the padlock. "It won't open," she told me.

"You shouldn't tell anyone your combination," I said to the first student. She shrugged in a What could I do? kind of a way. I consulted my list and twirled the dial, pulling down confidently at the end, but the lock held tight. The hallway was getting busy with other students returning from lunch, but I knew it was nowhere near as chaotic as it got during those moments right before the bell rang in the morning.

"Who else was here this morning when you closed your locker?" I asked her.

"Kadin," she told me and pointed three steel doors down from hers.

"Aha!" I said. "Try your combination on his lock!" While she spun the tumblers on that one, I once again consulted my list and used his combination to open the padlock on her latch.

"Yay!" We cheered our mutual success and traded padlocks and spaces. She grabbed her books and both her locker and the case closed with a satisfying clang.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015


It was a beautiful day here, loaded with every splendor October has. Colorful leaves, crisp air, and blue skies abounded, but it all seemed a little empty because of the news we received this morning that our good friend Tom had died. To us, the world has lost a little of its twinkle, and to be honest? It sucks to think we'll never spend time with him again.

I just didn't realize how much I was looking forward to comparing our Alaska adventures, all the while mocking the ulu knife craze they have going on there. Nor did I know that I was expecting years and years more movies and dinners around his annual recruiting visits here. And I'm sure I didn't sufficiently appreciate his delighted interest in all our tales of family drama.

Tom was Heidi's childhood friend, but he was the type of person who made everything a little more fun, and now that that wicked fast-talking, quick-witted guy is gone, oh how I'll miss him.

Monday, October 19, 2015


A few years ago we had a little local political dust up. One of our elected officials crossed the majority of her party and not only came out against a big transportation project, but she supported a GOP candidate in the election as well. In an outcome that rocked our tiny county, the Republican won, the streetcar was canceled, and the Democratic leadership called for the rogue politician to resign, if not from office than at least from her party. Neither happened, but she has definitely been a woman without a caucus for the last couple of years, although recently there have been rumors that she wants to resets list the connections she cut back then.

Election season is upon us now, and we are being deluged by calls from this or that candidate's volunteers and reminders to vote. This evening I was cooking dinner when the phone rang one time too many. My greeting was terse as I lifted the receiver, but instead of the robocall I expected, a friendly voice asked for Heidi. "May I take a message?" I replied, and when the caller identified herself it was that board member herself, working the phone bank on a Monday night.

I assured her we both planned to vote for the Democrats she was calling in support of, and when we hung up I could practically hear the fences being mended.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Fall Back

Not only are the old books in my classroom library making a comeback, but today I dug out a stack of flannel shirts that are as old as or older than the earliest volumes on those shelves, and you know what?

They look pretty good!

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Full Circle

Back when I started teaching one of my first priorities was to build a classroom library. The research clearly said that kids who chose their own books read more, and I wanted those choices to be convenient for my students. I didn't have a lot of money, though, and so I had to be strategic in my acquisitions. It was a no-brainer to buy books that I knew my students liked, and in those days the most popular choices were books in Ann Martin's Baby Sitter Club series and R.L Stine's Goosebumps collection. Even though those volumes accounted for less than 20% of my little library, they were checked out almost all the time, with a waiting list.

Twenty-three years later and that caboodle has grown to fill several six-foot shelves, and along the way, Martin and Stine were eclipsed by Riordan, Rowling, Roth, and Patterson. AND, in addition to my own library, this year our district language arts department provided every teacher with over three hundred high-interest books for students to borrow. As I unpacked these latest additions to our classroom library, despite not knowing exactly where they will go I was gratified to find that I actually owned quite a few of the titles already, and that whoever had selected them had chosen a nice variety of books that the students like to read.

Even so, I know that many of them will spend most of their time in the bins they came with or on the shelf, because this year the books that every sixth grader is waiting to borrow are...

the new graphic version of The Baby Sitters Club and, because of the recent movie, R.L. Stine's Goosebumps.

Friday, October 16, 2015

To Protect and Serve

That last class of the day was miraculously quiet when one student glanced out the window. "A kid is getting arrested!" he reported. 

One glance outside and I knew he was right, administration and our school resource officer were indeed walking a handcuffed student toward a police cruiser parked out front.

As the rest of the students rose to stampede the window I used my most authoritative voice. "Stop!" I commanded and held my hand up. It helped that I was in position, standing between them and the view they so desperately longed to glimpse, but I thank my teaching angels as well.

To appease them, I narrated what only I could see, and that was that the school personnel were heading back into the building and the police cruiser was pulling away. Their eyes were super-wide.

"They can arrest us at school?" one student wanted to know.

I was tempted to make light of it, to joke about the consequences for not doing homework or talking out of turn, but then my eyes swept over the group. All but one of these children were of color, and I considered the current debate in our nation concerning police officers and their duty, authority, and responsibility. I could tell that there was considerable alarm at the possibility of being detained, and I wasn't sure what to say.

"Only if it's very serious," I finally told them. "I've been here a long time, and it hardly ever happens." 

They seemed to feel a little better then, and when the bell rang shortly afterward, they seemed pretty cheerful as they headed off to PE and electives, leaving me alone in my empty classroom. It wasn't until later that it occurred to me that not one of us felt any safer once the student had been taken away. For all we knew he could have been a serious threat to our community, certainly there have been a number of attacks on schools and students recently, but that's not where our thoughts went.

Clearly, we need to continue this conversation.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

99% Perspiration

This year my last class of the day is also the most rambunctious. A small group full of big personalities, I have already grouped and regrouped them several times in pursuit of optimal learning conditions. I have also incorporated lots of movement opportunities in the lessons, tried more and less collaboration and choice, offered praise and material positive reinforcement, but nothing works quite the way I envision it.

They are also a bright bunch, full of creative ideas and confident energy, and I like them for that. In fact, I may have been joking this afternoon when, to get their attention, I called out, "All geniuses look up here!" but it was I who laughed loudest when the majority of heads swiveled my way and the room was quiet for once.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Recent History

At my English department meeting today after wrestling with a particularly thorny task we spent a little time speculating about our school's upcoming IB re-authorization visit. "Has anyone ever done one before?" someone asked.

I guess I was waiting for someone else to answer when I heard my name called. I shook my head and looked around the assembled group. A couple of colleagues were missing, but could it really be that none of these people were at our school five years ago?

"I was here," I said. "What do you want to know?"

Tuesday, October 13, 2015


"They should have called the police on you!" one of my students cried after reading my mini-memoir today.

"Really?" I asked. "How do you think that would have gone?"

He laughed. "Not too well," he admitted.

"But I can just imagine it," I said.
Nine-one-one, What's your emergency? 
Our babysitter is messing up the house and threatening to tell our parents we made the mess! 
Were you following her directions? 
Um... nevermind...

Monday, October 12, 2015

Where We Started

Thirty-nine years ago, on the second day of boarding school, I found myself waiting to board a charter bus bound for a picturesque alpine valley. The girl next to me in line turned to me and gave me a wacky look between a grin and a grimace. "Do I have food in my braces?" she asked.

I'm sure I frowned, but I also examined the silver brackets and wires dotting her teeth and saw no trace of her breakfast. "No," I answered.

"Thanks!" she replied. "I'm Karen," she continued, and we have been the closest of friends ever since, despite the fact that, as she likes to say, we have never lived in the same city. (Except those three years in boarding school, of course. That's what I like to say.)

Which is why this morning as we sat at an outdoor cafe not far from my home enjoying glorious weather and a weekend visit after two years apart, I was not surprised in the least when she turned to me and asked, "Do I have toothpaste all over my face?"

"No," I told her, "and there's no food in your braces either."

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Questions, Questions

Oh those extroverts and their extrovert ways! My dearest friend from highschool is in town and it has been lots of fun spending time with her. She and Heidi are both extroverts, though, and I am... not.

Perhaps it was the power of the majority, but it sure seemed like we interacted with a lot of strangers as we wandered around the National Mall this afternoon. The two of them were just full of questions: Are you in line? Have you been waiting long? Is the visitor center open? Can we get a lemonade even though the register is closed?

Guys! Can't we just figure that stuff out on our own?

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Conservation Begins at Home

I have an inexpensive Crock Pot and no complaints. Easy to use and easy to clean, it is a contraption that does the job I want it to and then returns neatly to the cupboard above the stove. That is, I had no complaints until a couple months ago when the handle on the lid broke off. Heavy plastic and secured with a single screw, once its shaft cracked, there was no repairing it.

I looked online for a replacement, but all there were to be had were on eBay at a cost of ten bucks or more. Sadly? The cost of replacing the entire appliance is $19.99 (minus my 5% red card discount) at Target. If not for the image of the old Crock Pot in Wall-E's house several centuries in the future, I might buy myself a new one, but for now?

If I burn my fingers a little bit each time I need to stir the soup, well, I'll take that one for the planet.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Carry On

In the past couple of months I've flown a bit more than usual, and yep: I can confirm that planes are cramped and crowded. Generally, it's worth it to me to pay the checked bag fee so that I don't have to deal with fighting for overhead space, but I've been a witness to plenty a struggle. That's probably why my ears perked up when I saw on the news tonight that airlines and airplane manufacturers have heard and heeded the complaints and now many are expanding the overhead storage.

Fantastic! you say? Perhaps, but consider the physics. They aren't making taller planes or sacrificing seats. Oh no, the bins will be lowered by two inches. So, when you're hunched over trying to cram yourself into your personal corner of the sky, just remember what the Boeing publicist brightly reported as he was filmed sitting in an empty plane. Not only is there more overhead space, but "It also provides passengers much easier reach to the lights." 

Thursday, October 8, 2015


Yesterday afternoon I was in a workshop for ways to use our iPads to manage student reading. The presenter had recently been to an Apple training, and ours was sort of a diluted, trickle-down version of some of the nifty tricks she had learned, but to be honest, after a year in the classroom with 1:1 iPads, not much she had to show us was new to me.

So, while the other teachers were figuring out how to turn their Airdrop on, my friend and I were airdropping a silly selfie to one of our colleagues across the room. (It was enormously gratifying when she busted out laughing for no apparent reason in the middle of the demonstration.)

How did we learn to do that?

The same way we knew most of the stuff in the workshop: from the kids!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

All Aboard

We've barely started our study of word parts and already it seems that students are applying the concept, if not quite the content. When asked to nominate a peer to be recognized for his or her principles, one student wrote, I choose F. because he is good at sports and has a lot of manship.

Okay, maybe the principle of principled needs to be reviewed, but how about that 'manship'?!

If it were a word, it would be fantastic!

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Game Theory

In addition to Marco, we also have a Simon in the same class. Again, anywhere but middle school this wouldn't be an issue, but today, when Simon was a little distracted, I gently prompted him, "Simon?"

And when he didn't reply, I asked again, "Simon? Do you agree?"

Almost all of the class waited expectantly to hear Simon's answer until one jokester couldn't take any longer.

"Simon says, 'Yes!'," he cried.

And just like that, it was game time again.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Gate Keeper

I think they knew what they were doing when they decided to house one of the computer carts in my classroom. Soon after it was rolled in two years ago, I untangled the cords, numbered the slots, and printed corresponding labels for each of the 24 lap tops. That way, even though it's not my role to keep track of those machines, it makes it easier for all of us to do so.

My students are also directed to report any vandalism or problem immediately, so discovering the culprit where any indiscretion is concerned is a much simpler task. I also make sure they are sent off for repair as soon as necessary; there's nothing like a missing key to make a kid want to pull a couple more off.

Some may consider me over zealous, but so be it! And it was a matter of course then, that when a student came to borrow a laptop this afternoon after school that I asked him which one he was taking. His brow furrowed as he tucked the computer under his arm.

"This one," he answered.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Buon Appetito!

It has occurred to me, that as a writer?
I need to read more.
As a ukulele player?
I need to listen to more music.
And, as a cook?
I need to eat out more!

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Like Riding a Bike

Every quarter I start my new reading class by posing a question to the sixth graders: How is reading like riding a bicycle? I hand out index cards and tell them there are no wrong answers, then collect the cards and share their ideas anonymously with the class. Of course some of the responses are prosaic, Once you learn, you never forget! or They both are fun! Others are more poetic, They both take you places! and When you fall off your bike it hurts and when you come to the end of a really good book it hurts, too.

My point is that they are both complex actions comprised of discrete skills that, once mastered, are combined and implemented unconsciously. It becomes important to know the skills, though, when confronted by a challenge. On a bike it's nice to know how to shift the gears, or stand on the pedals, when going up a big hill. While reading, it's helpful to ask questions, make connections, or analyze a tough text.

As an introduction to this conversation I usually ask who knows how to ride a bike. Even now, thirteen quarters in, I am constantly surprised when kids don't raise their hands. When I think about it, though, I understand that kids spend less unsupervised time outside nowadays. There are also a lot of neighborhoods in our school district that may be a little too urban for young bikers. Still, I think it's a loss. Bike riding has been one of the joys of my life since the first time I was able to keep my balance after my mom let go of the seat when I was 8.

In our county we teach every third grader to swim as a matter of safety and life-long fitness. I heard a piece on the radio this morning about how Washington DC public schools won a grant to buy 1,000 bicycles and then added bike riding to the second grade PE curriculum. The theory is that biking is healthy and good for the environment. Sounds good to me!

Friday, October 2, 2015

High Expectations

Tonight we met an old friend of Heidi's for a celebration dinner. Just a few years older than I am, Trudi retired as of yesterday. After 30 years of teaching, at 55 she's moving back to upstate New York to be close to her family and care for her 85-year-old mom. It was a nice meal, and full of laughter as Heidi and Trudi recounted their many antics working together for 25 years as special education teachers and swimming instructors.

Their approach to the many exceptional kids they have taught over the years may be considered a bit old school these days. Rather than coddle recalcitrant kids, these two are always very direct and firm about their expectations. They believe that everyone can follow rules.

As an example, Trudi told us about a kindergarten student who tore a piece from the bulletin board every time he came into the gym. His teachers scolded him, but shrugged apologetically. Clearly he was unable to understand how inappropriate his action were.

After a few weeks, Trudi grabbed a stapler and took the little boy by the hand. Together they repaired the bulletin board, hand over hand, piece by piece, and when they were done?

He didn't tear it down again. 

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Unexcused Tardy

It takes time for new sixth graders to adjust to the novelty of their middle school schedule, which is why the month of September is practically a grace period for tardies and other miscellaneous mis-steps.

This morning, though, as the new month dawned and one of my homeroom students came in late for the third day in a row, it was time for a harder line. Still, I wanted to know if there were perhaps some circumstances beyond his control before I sent him off to the office.

The announcements were already on when he opened the door. I made eye contact. "Is there some reason you're late? I whispered.

"Yeah!" he replied, sotto voce.

"What?" I asked him.

"I was at home," he told me.