Saturday, January 31, 2015

Trouble-shooting Trouble

"I had the science fair last period," a student told me glumly at lunch yesterday. She was among a few kids either dropping off or packing up their books before heading down to the cafeteria.

"How did it go?" I asked.

"Only two judges came to me," she complained. "We were supposed to have three."

Before I could sympathize, another student who had been listening to our conversation spoke. "Maybe it was because your board wasn't as attractive as it could be," he said.

There was an audible gasp, and I'm sure my jaw dropped.

"That was really rude," one of the guys said to his buddy.

"What?" the other kid said.

"You just told her that her science fair project was ugly," another student said.

"I've never even seen her project," the student said, "I was just trying to figure out why the judges didn't come over!"

Friday, January 30, 2015

Mr. Snow Miser

I had already seen it happen once today, and so when what seemed like a serious snow squall gusted outside my classroom, I ignored the huge flakes blowing sideways and silenced the excited chatter of sixth graders anticipating an early release.

"I predict it will stop snowing and the sun will come out before this class ends," I told them.

They were skeptical as they returned to work, but sure enough, the storm tapered and then halted. Ten minutes later it was blue skies and sunshine. "Ta da!" I spread my arms wide.

"How did you do that?" they demanded. "How did you know?"

"Maybe she can control the weather!" one student suggested.

"Trust me," I said, "if I could? We would have a lot more four day weekends!"

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Practice Accountability

It's something I tell my students over and over:

Skills are improved with regular practice. I use that argument to justify their daily reading requirement, often with the analogy that you'll get stronger by lifting 20 pounds every day, but you'll probably get hurt if you lift 100 pounds on Sunday.

I believe it when I tell them, and I shake my head when they don't follow through, but that was definitely me frantically practicing my ukulele for an hour before my lesson this afternoon, and for the record, I hadn't touched it since Saturday.

Oh, I didn't get hurt, but I have to confess that my lesson fees might be better spent should I actually be more prepared. On the other hand, I probably wouldn't practice at all if it weren't for the lesson.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015


Every week I give a little skills quiz to see how my students are testing on topics for which they are mandated to demonstrate mastery.

This past week it was on conflict-- they had to list the four basic types (character v. self, character, society, or nature) and then identify what type of conflict was described in a brief scenario. To their credit, most students did quite well (for those data crunchers out there, the pass rate was 90% and the average was even higher), but there were some misperceptions that we'll need to go back and address.

For example, my favorite incorrect answer was in reply to this: You can't decide whether to have spaghetti or tacos for lunch.

One student called that man versus nature, and even as I marked it wrong I couldn't help thinking that man! Those must have been some tacos.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Flasher Cards

One of the coolest things about giving every sixth grader an iPad is seeing the ways they find to use it to learn. (Of course, they are finding ways to use it NOT to learn, but the reverse is definitely true as well.)

Watching 80 people use something as simple as a glorified flash card app is amazing; all of its functionality is on display: some love the matching feature and try over and over to beat their best time, others prefer to practice vocabulary by filling in the blank. Many have discovered the dictionary feature embedded within, and some have even realized that they only need speak the words to make their cards.

This latter feature can be a little glitchy, though, particularly when one tries to use it in a room full of chattering sixth graders. Thus it was that I came upon one of my more conscientious students repeating the word dictate over and over into the screen of her iPad.

"I hate this thing!" she complained.

"Try saying it really slowly," the student next to her said.

Our class was ending, and many students were filing by her to put their English binders away as she enunciated the word in two elongated syllables.

"Oh my God!" one of her classmates said, and I looked over to find them both wide-eyed and giggling, looking at her device with bright red faces. "Here," he continued, and then leaned over her shoulder and typed d-i-c-t-a-t-e."

Monday, January 26, 2015


A big focus of the quarterly reading class I teach is getting sixth graders to begin to identify theme as it relates to author's message. Most often, they want to boil it down to a moral or lesson, and that's a pretty good place to start. Today I read one of Dr. Seuss's lesser known tales to the class and then asked them to write down the message on an index card.

The story was "What Was I Afraid Of?" from the Sneetches collection, and for those who are unfamiliar, it is the truly bizarre account of a strange yellow (everybody is yellow in that book) nocturnal bear-like creature (the main character) who is (not surprisingly) terrified when he repeatedly runs into an empty pair of green pants that is able to walk, ride a bicycle, row a boat, and shiver in fear. In the end, he realizes that the pants are just as afraid of him as he is of them, and they befriend each other.

The moral of the story? According to the vast majority of my students it is Don't judge people by the way they look.

It could be, but here's the rub: I always ask them to test out their theories about theme by telling a story from their lives where they learned this lesson. Today? Not a single child of the 18 present could muster an anecdote of a time when they judged someone unfairly by their appearance. Neither have they ever been so unfairly judged, according to them.

Wow! Could it be that mankind has progressed that far?

Either that, or I have some work to do this quarter.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Degrees of Separation

We wake up to news on the radio every morning, and I often lay abed visualizing the conditions described in the traffic and weather reports before I rise. I was actually up and about the other morning though when I heard the news that there was a huge fire nearby. This time I didn't have to imagine a thing, I simply looked out the balcony door from our bedroom and saw hundreds of flashing lights surrounding a grayish-orange glow in the sky.

I'm ashamed to admit that my first thought was to whether all that activity would make it harder for me to get to school rather than for the people who were in danger of losing their property and so much more. Later, after I made it to work without any problem, I heard that a 73-year-old man had died at the hospital after being rescued from the burning house, and just today? I found out that he was the grandfather of some former students. We're going to reach out to them tomorrow from school.

I've written before about how I learned years ago that it's a mistake to be aggressive or rude on the road around here. You just never know who you might be flipping off. This lesson was (literally) driven home to me when I encountered a rather impatient driver on my way to summer school on the first day. The light had just changed when she laid on her horn, gave me the bird, and whizzed around me to shoot up the crowded drive. Traffic being what it was, she wasn't that far ahead of me when we both pulled into the middle school parking lot, but she made haste in getting inside the building before we met face to face. All her efforts were in vain though, because ten minutes later, in the staff meeting, I was introduced as her supervisor.

Now that was instant karma thrash, but I tend to believe that everything else is, too, we just don't recognize it as such.

Be good!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Trade Offs

There's this graphic I saw recently that I keep going back to-- it shows that half of the U.S. population lives in 146 counties, leaving the entire rest of the nation to the other half!

Living in one of the more populous regions as I do, I find myself fantasizing about life somewhere a little less crowded: Like somewhere you didn't have to show up 20 minutes early to a movie just to find a seat and still sit shoulder to shoulder with all the other patrons. Or maybe someplace where you could find a restaurant you liked where the wait for a table on a Saturday night was less than 45 minutes.

All that sounds great until I wonder if in those wide-open spaces the movie I want to see would even be playing and then consider just how far I'd have to drive to get to that restaurant.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Independent Reading

"So, what are you reading?" I asked and sat down next to one of the boys in my class as he worked today.

He shifted a little uncomfortably. "It's on my iPad," he told me.

"Okay," I said, "do you have it here?"

He punched in the security code, launched the iBook app, and handed his device to me.

"At Any Price," I read from the title page. "I've never heard of it. What's it about?"

"It's a grown up book," he said, "I just started it, but it's really good."

"Hmmm," I frowned and swiped the screen to reach the first pages. "Do your parents know you're reading this?"

"Oh yeah," he shrugged. "They know."

"So what's the conflict?" I asked him, since that was the assignment we were working on.

"Um," he hesitated as my eyes scanned the display.

Artemis, Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Iphigenia? What's up with all the Greeks? I wondered and then my eye fell on the final line of the prologue:

The right to my virginity will be ceded to the highest buyer.

I raised an eyebrow and looked sternly at the student.

"I might change it," he said.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Time Marches On

Just two weeks ago I was rushing through dark, unfamiliar streets searching for the home studio of my ukulele instructor desperately trying to avoid arriving late for my first lesson. It was with relief that I knocked on his door at 5 PM sharp.

The following Thursday I bolted out of school with plenty of time to spare, but the warren of one syllable street names seemed no more familiar to me. The light of day also confused me, and I wondered if perhaps I had the time wrong... would I be half an hour early? But 5 o'clock again found me on right on time.

Tonight? The last light of day was still draining purple in the western sky as I carried my tiny instrument to my car following the lesson. It may be only January, but spring inexorably approaches.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Power Walk

One of our neighbors was recently profiled in a national magazine as "the most important person you don't know." Around here? Those are teasing words. 

"Considering you were on network TV last night until after ten, you're up pretty early!" I commented when I ran into her this morning out walking her dog.

"Oh! The traffic was terrible yesterday for NO REASON!" she explained. "It took me 57 minutes to get work, and I can't be late this morning."

"That's right," I agreed, "because you're the most important person we don't know."

"But you do know me," she replied.

"True," I shrugged. "Actually, you're the most important person I do know."

She leaned over to pick up her dog's poop. "Lucky you."

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Practice What You Teach

The dawn of 2015 saw the advent (arrival, from the Latin ad meaning to and vent meaning come) of my third Word-a-Day calendar, as well. A couple of years ago a student gave me one as a holiday gift, and I've been hooked ever since. One thing that always delights me about it is how much the students like it, too: rarely a day goes by that one sixth grader or another does not comment on the word, and some even ask if they can have it to keep. It's such a conversation piece that more than one former student has stopped by to check the words for their coming birthdays.

I always set aside any page with a word that fits our word study parts, and most recently that word was transpontine. It is particularly timely, as we happen to be learning about the prefix trans this week. My friend Mary, who also teaches sixth grade English, noticed that page on my desk this morning when she stopped by.

"Transpontine," I said. "What do you think it means?"

"Across something," she answered.

"What does "pont" mean?" I asked. "Like Ponte Vecchio?"

Mary took Russian in high school, though, so my romance language clue was not very helpful. She is Catholic, though. "Pontiff is pope," she said.

I frowned. She was right. "Pont means bridge," I told her, my brain working away at the pope puzzle.

"The pope is a bridge..." Mary was thinking out loud.

"Between heaven and earth?" I finished.

"See how we did that?" she said.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Sing Along

"So, did you sit around all week playing ukulele while Heidi sang?" my uke instructor joked when we sat down for our second lesson.

I shook my head, but the image of it made me giggle. Tonight as I practiced what I learned, Heidi sat down next to me on the couch. "Hey, that sounds familiar," she said.

I pushed the sheet music closer to her. "I hear it now," she told me.

"Sing it!" I said.

And as I picked carefully, she verrrrry slowly sang, I keep a close watch on this heart of mine...

and continued until the very end, when Josh joined in, too, Because you're mine, I walk the line.

And then we all laughed. I can't wait to tell my teacher about it!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Woods are Trees and the Trees Are Wood

Another day another movie, and this one we saw to the end, which was a good thing-- that Stephen Sondheim is one witty lyricist.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

A Mysterious Emergency

With about 7 minutes left in Unbroken, I was reclining in a luxury movie seat, well aware of the irony, when suddenly the screen went dark and the house lights came up. A strobe light flashed halogen-bright and a mechanical voice quietly announced that An emergency has been detected in the building: please proceed to the nearest emergency exit and evacuate immediately.

All around me, people blinked, some straining to hear the message, others straining to comprehend it. Soon we filed in an orderly line to double doors down and to the left of the screen. I wasn't afraid, but I was alarmed as we entered the unheated concrete corridor beyond. We followed it to a wide stairway, also concrete, our footsteps echoing coldly, until we reached another set of metal doors and pushed through them into the night. 

Back at the entrance people were streaming through all sorts of anonymous doors that I never associated with the theater. There was no sign of emergency, but neither was there any sign of management or even other personnel, and hundreds of folks shivered in groups of three or four discussing their options. "I think it's just a drill," a child confidently assured the adults in his group, and of course he did. At school, it must seem like we are forever interrupting kids' routine activities and forcing them to file outside for no apparent reason.

At last we agreed that, since we knew the ending, and any sort of on the spot compensation would take some time, that it would be best to leave with our ticket stubs and worry about recompense later. So far, despite my efforts, I can't find out what happened-- it's more of a cliffhanger than the movie.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Rehearsing for the Show

It may not surprise you to learn that in order to prepare our students to take high stakes standardized tests, teachers in our district are directed to give high-ish stakes standardized practice tests. Oh, it's all in the name of data-analysis, and by now, kids in public school are pretty used to the routine. 

So, yesterday I couldn't resist adding a playful password that was required to download their second quarter check-up. Everyone had to wait until each student reached the screen where they were required to type in the secret word to continue. I found their anticipation kind of funny-- many were practically vibrating waiting for those last few screens to load, and when at last it was time to reveal the magic word that would let them start the, ahem, test, all eyes were riveted on me.

"I'm just going to put it on the board," I said and grabbed a piece of chalk. There I drew three stacked circles, a little hat on top, and some stick arms. "Do you want to build a..." I sang.

"SNOWMAN!" they warbled in chorus and eagerly set to work.

"Wait! WAIT!" cried one student. "It's NOT working!"

"Bro!" answered the guy next to him. "It's a compound word! NO space!"

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Go Ahead and JUMP!

After writing letters asking for advice at the end of last week, yesterday it was time for my students to offer advice. The letters were coded and handed out to kids in other sections so that they might remain anonymous. We read a few examples and broke the art of writing an advice letter down in to three parts:

First offer sympathy and support. Next show that you understand the situation by rephrasing it and then giving your ideas to solve and/or resolve it. Finally, express your hope that you have been helpful and invite them to write again should they need further support.

In general the letters are super cute-- the students took their task very seriously and most offered the best advice they could. My favorite was this letter written in response to a student who felt he wasn't a good enough jumper to play soccer well:

I am sorry this is happening to you. I play football and in that sport you have to jump, just like soccer.

If you want to jump well, then I suggest that every time you walk by a doorway try to jump and touch the top of it. Every time you leave a room touch the top of the doorway. When you walk, try to skip or hop to the place instead. Last advice I have for you is before any practice or game try jumping side to side, forward and backward. 

I hope my advice helps you. Jump well and stay fit!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Thin Green Line

Whoa! Even the Girl Scouts are offering Vegan options now!

Enjoy your thin mints, plant eaters.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Honeymoon Period

"Do you feel any different now that you're married?" a colleague asked me today.

"Not really," I laughed. "Do you?" She, too, had recently married her longtime partner, a man she had been with for over 15 years and had two children with.

"No, but kind of," she answered. "I feel a little more..." she trailed off, looking for the right adjective.

"Kindly?" I supplied.

"Exactly!" she said. "I feel much more affectionate and patient. You would think that now that we're married I'd take a lot more for granted, or something."

"I know what you mean," I told her, "I feel it, too."

A friend of ours who had just celebrated her 21st wedding anniversary listened in amusement. "Just wait," she shook her head, "just wait."

Monday, January 12, 2015

Oh, Tolerance Club!

Today our conversation centered on stereotypes and privilege, and inevitably perhaps, given recent events, it circled round to Muslims and terrorism. "Just because the attackers on 9-11 were Muslim, doesn't necessarily mean all Muslims will attack us," one of the adults said.

There was an audible snort. Just because some people come to Tolerance Club doesn't mean they're tolerant, I thought.

"What about ISIS?" demanded the snorter. "They're Muslim."

I decided to take an indirect approach to his question. "Before September 11, 2001, the worst terrorist attack in the US was carried out in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh, a white man who didn't like the government. Nobody thinks we should be suspicious of all white guys because of that."

"Of course not!" snorted the snorter, "That would be ridiculous. The whole government is practically white guys."

And so it goes.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

After a fun and productive weekend the conversation around here has turned to the weather: specifically whether or not it will be icy enough in the morning to give us a delayed opening for school. Oh, it's a squeaker... after days of below-freezing temperatures, today it nearly reached 40, but as the sun went down, so did the mercury. Precipitation is predicted to begin around 2 AM, when it will be cold, but how cold?

Who knows what tomorrow will bring? Personally, I can't get emotionally invested in this one, and I said as much to Heidi. "Yeah!" she replied, "I get that. But I have a practical concern; what clothes should I get ready?"

I understood her dilemma even though I did not share it. An old saw came to mind. "Expect the best and prepare for the worst?" I suggested.

She nodded. "But in this case," she wondered, "which is which?"

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Maybe I Will

And there came that moment while taking down our Christmas tree today, just before we passed the point of no return, where I actually considered putting all the ornaments right back on and just leaving it up.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Dear Abby

Back when I started teaching, I ambitiously founded a student newspaper for my 6th grade team. Published 4-5 times per year, it was a product of the hard work of about a dozen kids and me. At our first editorial staff meeting I asked what sort of features they might like to include, and by far and away the top of their list was an advice column. They decided to call it "Dear Kitty" partially because "Abby" was already taken, and partially because that's what Anne Frank called her diary.

Flash forward a couple of decades, and with a unit whose guiding question is How can we use writing to solve problems? an advice letter activity seemed like a natural. "Can anyone tell me who Dear Abby is?" I started the lesson, but there were blank looks all around. Surprised, I took a step back and explained the concept of writing anonymously to a newspaper for advice.

At a meeting yesterday, someone asked me if the students had been thrown off by our crazy weather-related schedule this week. "Not really," I replied. "When you're in sixth grade? Nothing is a surprise, basically because everything is new." They laughed because they knew it was true, especially for middle school kids.

It took me a while to realize it, but I'm pretty sure eleven and twelve are the most resilient ages of humans-- you're young enough to have very fluid expectations, but old enough to appreciate novelty. At that age, the phrase roll with it was invented for you.

And as a long time sixth grade teacher, it was invented for me, too, because adjusting and improvising are often what I have to do to reach my students, despite the amount of data I may have on them. And so today I found myself describing a cultural pillar of 20th century America to a class full of kids with iPads in their hands.

"Is it kind of like" one wanted to know.

"Not really," I said.

"That century was, like, 20 years ago!" added another.

"Fifteen," I corrected her.

"Whatever!" she replied. "We weren't even born, yet."

However... Once they saw an example and were asked to write, on paper, with a silly pseudonym, for some free advice, you would be amazed at what a cool idea it was, and they totally rolled with it.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Group Dynamics

I had my first ukulele lesson after school today (thank you, Heidi!), and since it was way! tooooooooo cold to leave my uke in the car today, I carried it in with my lunch and back pack. Once in my classroom, though, I couldn't just leave it in its case, and so during homeroom I brought it out.

My students must have missed the "ukuleles are cool now" memo, because the first question I got was,"Are you from Hawaii?" But a few bars of Over the Rainbow changed their tune, and soon they wanted to try it themselves.

As tempting as it may be, I've learned not to be the type of teacher who keeps all the fun stuff to myself, and I readily handed it over (if with a silent prayer that I would still be able to take my lesson on it this afternoon). I needn't have worried; everyone was very respectful, taking turns gently strumming the strings while imitating the chords they thought they saw me finger.

At last, the most dominant personality of the group took control. "I'm going to play No Type, and you're going to sing," she said. Then, noting my raised eyebrows, she added, "The clean version." While she strummed the open strings in rhythm, the rest of the kids circled around her and sang the lyrics in chorus. Behind my desk, I leaned back in my chair and watched their faces relax and shine as they performed for each other and themselves. It was a sweet and lovely moment.

The bell rang, and they handed me my ukulele and headed off to class.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015


Since I'm lucky enough to teach in the same school as my sister-in-law who shares the same last name with me, there is inevitable confusion when it comes to our phones, our rooms, and most often, our mail boxes. Over the years, I've learned to deal with it, as I'm sure Emily has, too, although there is always some moment of extreme confusion when someone calls and asks a question for which I have absolutely no frame of reference, and it can be a little annoying when I'm missing some handout that absolutely must go home today! 

Usually, though, when I receive something that I know is not intended for me, like, say, a class set of Art Magazine, I simply move it to the adjoining box, as I did earlier today. But I confess that I sighed with a little frustration later when I checked my box right before going home and found a card addressed to an unfamiliar student, Topher Z. So, with a frown and a shrug, I slipped it into Emily's box and breezed out of the office considering that unusual name. Topher? Where did that even come from? It must be short for something. Maybe...

And I turned on my heel to fetch the card for the student that I know as Christopher.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

I Think That Was an Insult

"The famously delicate streets of Washington DC got some snow" was how Brian Williams put it on the Nightly News.


After a kooky day of countless crappy commutes-- so many folks trying in good faith to make it to school despite treacherous roads littered with fender benders, some involving school buses, we find ourselves safely at home tonight, preparing to enjoy chicken with white gravy and biscuits.

AND, they've already called the two-hour delay for tomorrow.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Since I Missed Those Two Days Before Break...

Dear whoever thinks "reindeer poop" is a good holiday gift,

I don't agree.

Thanks for thinking of me, though!

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Old Times There

I got a banjo for Christmas! (Fear not gentle reader! I also got some music lessons.) Predictably, I have been messing around with it every day since. That toasted pecan finish, those twangy strings, that drum skin face are all irresistible. Just picking around by ear, though, what tune do you think I found?


Coincidence? Ya'll be the judge and jury, heah?

Saturday, January 3, 2015

What Old Friends Are For

I was facetiming with an old high school chum this evening. She lives in Colorado, and at first refused to accept the call, keeping her thumb over the camera so that it was nothing but an audio call. "I'm embarrassed for you to see that I'm still in my pajamas!" she told me, but when I reported that we were having a lazy day around here, too, she relented.

"Look it's snowing here!" she turned the phone to reveal a lovely landscape of new fallen snow and Rocky Mountains beyond. There was nothing but cold rain out the window here, and so we caught up with what had happened to each of us since last we spoke.

As we chatted, her dog came into the room, and she put him on the screen, so I, in turn, presented first our dog and then our cat. "Now who's that?" she asked when she saw the cat.

"Penelope," I replied.

"I thought you were going to name your next calico cat Matisse," she reminded me, and I laughed, because that was true about 20 years ago. "Remember?" she continued. "You couldn't wait until it did something naughty so you would be able to say, Cut it out, Matisse!"

Friday, January 2, 2015

Supply Side

I have a distinct memory of sitting in the back seat of our station wagon watching the little plates on the gas pump fall one after the other as my mom filled up the tank. It was 1974 and the Energy Crisis was in full swing. The price per gallon of gasoline in our New jersey town had recently topped fifty cents. At twelve years old, that seemed like an impossible amount to me; I remember shaking my head and thinking that a whole dollar would barely buy 2 gallons.

If that was one of my earliest economic recollections, six years later I got another lesson when I stayed with a friend and her family for a few days in Italy. In Europe, gas was three times as much as it was in the states, but I had flown there from our home in Saudi Arabia, and when her dad asked me about the price of gas in the Kingdom, I laughed when I told him it was about 28 cents a gallon. His outrage surprised me. "Everyone should be paying more for a commodity in such short supply," he fumed. "It should be a free market."

Today I feel lucky to be a person who rarely drives over 5 miles a day; I can go over two weeks without filling the tank. I'm also fortunate to be able to pay for gas whenever I want to take a longer trip, even when it's over four dollars a gallon like it was in 2008. And I understand that the price of a gas is a function of many things: economic, environmental, and political.

Even so, this morning when I filled my tank for less than 35 dollars? I did a little happy dance.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The More Days of Christmas

When I was a kid, New Years day was one of the most boring days of the year. The drone of football floated over the drowsy living room, and upstairs the only other thing on was the Mummers Parade, a confounding pageant of feathers and stringed instruments capering down Broad Street. It wasn't hard to see that Christmas break was definitely over.

These days I like it better. Heidi and I always go to the first movie of the morning, and then the day is filled with preparing our traditional meal for family and friends. That takes the sting out of the end of vacation. And then there are some years, like this year, when school doesn't start until next Monday.

Four more days off? Now that's the way to start a year!