Thursday, April 30, 2015

Where Were You?

It's National Poem-in-your-Pocket Day, and as every year, I asked my students to choose a poem and carry it for the day. We celebrate the occasion in class also, and all students who are willing and able may share their chosen poems (for a lollipop, of course!).

This year someone read Where I Was by Dan Brown.

"Do you know what that's about?" I asked.

"I think it's about a field trip," he answered.

"Yes, but it is also about when President Kennedy was shot."

"What?????" another boy shouted from across the room. "President Kennedy was shot????? Did he die????"

I frowned and looked at the second student, trying to tell if he was serious. The other kids around him shushed him, and explained that yes, the president had died of his wounds.

"Anyway," I continued, "that was such a huge event for the people who were alive then, that many years later they remembered clearly where they were when they heard the news, and that's what the title of the poem means."

Later I was telling my friend Mary about it. "Just think," she laughed, "that kid will always remember that he was in your class, in 2015, when he heard that Kennedy was shot."

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

For the Bird

Once I was complaining to someone about the general lack of respect that those planning meetings and professional development seemed to have for teachers' time. He shrugged. "They pay you to be there whether you like it or not." That was pretty demoralizing.

I thought of that when we were confronted with another tedious task in our department meeting this afternoon-- I'm not sure what objective those who designed the activity had in mind, but after a full of day of teaching, the consensus was definitely to just get it over with as quickly as possible.

We had to rate ourselves and our school, from bad to good, on a series of descriptors. It had to be a consensus or any outliers had to be detailed in a 2-3 paragraph explanation. I proposed using fingers to get a general sense of where each of us was, and the group agreed. "But watch which finger you use for one," I was warned by our chair. "I know you!"

Tuesday, April 28, 2015


"Can we draw stick people?" is perhaps the most common question sixth graders ask when an assignment calls for them to produce a visual.

"Sure," I answered this morning, "but there is a bear in the story. What is he going to look like?"

Not to worry, my student assured me, and he was right. In fact the whole class was charmed by the character we dubbed "Square Bear."

Monday, April 27, 2015

Internal Clock

We drive by our community garden plot every day on our way to school. I've developed a sharp enough eye that during the growing season I can usually tell if there is a need to stop sooner rather than later to harvest, cut, gather, water, or weed. In the winter, though, I sail by barely noticing even if the lid of the small potting bench has blown open; I've learned that the winds will shift and slam it shut again.

This year it's been a cold spring, and we had not been to the garden even once to check on the persistent covering of weeds when late last week, perhaps from reflex, my head turned and my eyes were filled with a wee purple haze blossoming from the far side of the plot. It wasn't until Sunday that we actually stopped to investigate. As discouraging as the unwanted blanket of vetch, false chrysanthemum, and clover was, the peonies were sprouting strong, the blackberries are spreading faithfully and well, and that lovely cloud of periwinkle? It was some fragrant phlox that I put in last year and promptly forgot.

It's time to get to it.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Ask an Expert

A farmers market recently opened within walking distance of our home, and so the past couple of Sunday mornings we've enjoyed the luxury of heading over there to see what treasures they are vending. True to the season, there was local asparagus and wild ramps today, and I happily bought a bunch of both.

"Have you ever cooked with ramps before?" the young cashier asked me as he weighed my purchase.

I admitted I had not. "What's your advice?" I asked, for I can certainly recognize a kid who is dying to share what he knows.

He shrugged. "Oh, Google is the way to go to find a recipe," he began modestly, "and many will tell you that the greens are good, but I've never tried them."

He paused.

I nodded.

"So if you ask me? I like them sauteed. Add them to eggs and they're very good, but with asparagus?" He lifted my bundle and placed it in the bag. "They're heaven!"

Yes they are.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Every Other Day of the Week is Fine

Personally? I hate acrostic poems. I agree with my friend Mary who just the other day called them, "the lowest form of poetry." To me they should be relegated to the same recycling bin as word searches.

And yet... kids love them! Perhaps it is because for years they have been given the so-called "interdisciplinary" assignment of writing an acrostic poem about some science or social studies concept. Or maybe they like them because they are easy, and often thoughtless. In any regard, equally out of respect for my students' affection and the difficulty of coming up with a month's worth of fresh daily poetry challenges, each year I include some sort of acrostic.

Today it was write about a day of the week, and as I expected, S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y is leading its brethren in this popularity contest. I specifically left the door open for students to write about days they did not care for, though, kind of as a measure of creativity. Fortunately, one student stepped through and posted the following:

Morning seems more tiring than usual.
Onerous is the word to describe getting out of bed.
Nothing seems to matter except sadness.
Death, the sole thing that is sadder.
An adder's bite would be less painful.
You sooooo wish it was Friday.

Friday, April 24, 2015

I am On It, On It, On It

My students wrote Praise Poems today. This was the third year for the assignment, and as always, I explained that Praise Poems come from Western Africa and celebrate an individual's identity. They are often call and response, with the audience chanting a chorus between lines.

The formula I give my students is to write six lines and a chorus. The first line is your name, the second about your place of birth or ethnicity, the third about your family, the fourth and fifth compare you to natural elements or entities, and the last chooses a positive, defining quality about you and repeats it three times. The chorus is an expression of what they hope might be said of them by their community, and so it is written in third person.

When teachers of other disciplines talk about teaching English they often express relief and envy– they are glad that they don't have to read all that student writing, but sorry that they don't get the insight into our students that you get from reading all that writing. I was reminded of that this evening when I read the following:

I am D
Life is so messed up
Police have more power than laws.
Life is so messed up
Dad's on the road my mom is at home.
Life is so messed up
I am the strength of an erupting volcano,
Life is so messed up
The speed of a trash bags in the air,
Life is so messed up
But I'm super super bored

To teach this boy every day, you would never have an inkling of any such turmoil and dismay; he seems soooo steady and studious. But since he went ahead and published his feelings, we have a place to start a conversation.

And we will.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Food of Love

"Can you really play anything on your ukulele?" a friend asked skeptically a few months ago.

I shrugged. "A few things... mostly chords so you can sing the melody." But she had a point; I really could not yet play any recognizable songs. I got my ukulele for Christmas two years ago, and I wanted it so that I could play Happy Birthday to my homeroom students when we had their cakes. Determined at first to teach myself, even that simple song seemed out of reach to begin with.

But this year Heidi arranged for lessons for me, and I have been plugging away and making some progress for sure. Still, that question of "really playing anything" has been a sort of a mental benchmark for me. In my last few lessons we have been focusing on Christmas songs, at my request. I figure if I start now? By December I may be ready. My teacher is so gracious that he even agreed it was a good idea for him to start sharpening his catalog-- "Every year the holidays sneak up on me, and I'm not quite ready for those gigs," he laughed as we labored away on a duet of Holly Jolly Christmas.

It was late last week when it occurred to me to revisit Happy Birthday. I think it was my brother's birthday party on Saturday that reminded me of my original goal, and so I searched up an easy version. To my surprise? I could play it! And while I was not ready for Bill's celebration, I have been diligently practicing for my public debut.

Today was Shakespeare's birthday, and along with mini-cupcakes and sonnets, we celebrated by singing, too. Yep-- I played my first gig for a combined audience of 75 sixth graders.

I think I rocked it. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Inspiring Poetry

Today the students shared some of the riddle poems they wrote yesterday so that their classmates might guess the answers.

There were some easy ones,

I look like a lion.
I speak like a human.
You can find me in Egypt.
Speaking in riddles
To those who wish to pass me by.
What am I?


some very clever ones,

First think of the sound from an animal with a lot of wool,
That would make a basket very full.
Then think of something you say that scares,
And when you hear it you always glare.
Last think of the start of never,
The middle of Denver,
And is nowhere in lover.

Then string them together and wonder this,
What mammal would you never miss


some lovely ones,

You can never touch me,
but you can see me.
I am in every classroom.
I am at the head of an arrow.
I am in the crust of pizza.
You could say very little without me.
I come in the afternoon of every day,
in the center of every place.
I am the beginning of all things.
I am on every planet.
I am in space.
What am I?

('A' rettel ehT)

and some confusing ones, too.

I wear glasses
I sound very sweet,
but I think of myself as evil, I dont know why.
You'll find me in one of your classes.
I have short hair,
I am very sweet,
i feel as human skin.

Who am i?

That last one had us stumped, and when we asked the poet for the answer, she gave me an exasperated look.

"It's you!"

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

What Can I Help You With?

We did riddle poems today in English. To start out with, I have a list of 13 classics that the students work together to solve. One of them is from The Hobbit.

Voiceless it cries,
wingless flutters,
toothless bites,
mouthless mutters.

"Ooh! Ooh! I know what it is!" one student whispered with confident excitement. "It's Siri!"

Monday, April 20, 2015

Chosen Few

In Tolerance Club today we had the students take the literacy test that the state of Louisiana administered to people who could not offer proof of a fifth grade education when they tried to register to vote as late as 1964. It consists of 30 questions and had to be completed in ten minutes with 100% accuracy in order to qualify.

When we were finished, we watched this video of Harvard students who also took the test. Their reactions were pretty close to our own.

Not a single one of us made the cut. Although I was pretty confident of my performance, it turned out that I misread the directions for number 12, and without time to go back and check my work my error stood. Oh well. Who needs democracy, anyway?

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Letter of the Law

Today's poetry challenge is to write a Cinquain about an animal. Pronounced sin-cane it is a small formal poem written to the following prescription:

The first line has two syllables.
The second line has four syllables.
The third line has six syllables.
The fourth line has eight syllables.
The last line has two syllables.

Though they are just five lines long, the best cinquains tell a small story. Instead of just having descriptive words, they also have something happening, a reaction, and a conclusion or ending. There were a lot of good ones, but one of the kids wrote

Crunchy, Chewy
Eating, Munching Crunching
The very best food in the world

To which one of his classmates helpfully commented

She asked for an animal...

And the author replied

Bacon was an animal once!

Saturday, April 18, 2015

I Believe in Persistence

We have a word study quiz every Monday in my English class. Students have the week before to make sure they have the words from our word wall to study. They know it's their responsibility, but I usually post a picture of the board on Friday afternoon on our online course. Unfortunately, yesterday was pretty hectic, and I left school not only without posting, but also without even taking a photo of the words.

One inventive student who forgot to get the words herself has used the weekend poetry challenge to problem-solve. Along with her poem yesterday she posted the following message:

MS. S! or other fellow classmates. once again i am lost [when i say lost i mean it since i don't have my ipad] i don't have the word study from the board. i only need that. the rest i have. if any of you have them, may you please reply with the word study from the board. if you do i would like that very much. :)

I immediately responded with my apologies and the promise that I would post it if someone had a picture. As of today there were still no takers when I logged in to look at the credo poems the students composed. Meant to be an expression of deeply-held beliefs, hers was a single line:

I believe that if i don't get the word study from the white board i'm going to fail this quiz!

Friday, April 17, 2015


At the end of a week spent grappling with some big questions, I came home this evening to relax and enjoy this beautiful spring weather by cooking out for dinner. At 6 PM, a brief downpour drenched Heidi and Isabel who were out for a walk, but in the kitchen I was undeterred as I prepared asparagus, onion, cauliflower, and chicken for the grill: I knew it would pass, and so it did.

A barbecue snob, I had a fresh bag of lump charcoal waiting for me when it was time to start the fire, but here's where things took a momentary turn. I never know which way to pull the strings on those sewn bags.

There are times when I get it just right– a single, gentle tug will unravel the entire closure. Other times I pull and prod, unknot and turn the bag this way and that, looking for the magic thread that will allow me to access the precious fuel within. Fetching scissors seems like an unnecessary detour, especially when I know that a single pull can do the trick.

At last, tonight, after a few minutes of frustration, I came in to get the scissors and then decided to take a modern approach. I googled it. And now I know. There are two sides to the bag, flat and knotted. Yank from the left side of the knots and you will be rewarded. No question about it.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Q and A

As a follow up to yesterday's activity, today we took the raw material of those questions and answers and shaped it into more composed drafts of call and response poems. Students had seven minutes to write 14 lines, and they came up with some pretty cool stuff.

Here's mine, crafted from a few of the many questions and answers I heard:

Why does fire burn, Granny?
Because the stars are bright, Child.
Why are fish so slippery?
Because the world is round.
Why do rabbits run, then?
Because the owl hoots, Child.
Why is the earth so strong, Granny?
Because children can't fly.
Why is the ocean salty, Granny?
Because we all cry, Child.
Why does the sky change colors?
Because hearts break, Child.
Why are days so long?
They aren't, Child.

Like I told my students... it's not bad for seven minutes of writing!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Free Verse

We were doing a couple of fun poetry activities in class today. One of them involved writing a series of random "Why" questions and then pairing them up with some other random "because" answers to create a kind of call and response, Q and A, poem. All was going well, when one group of collaborators started to giggle hysterically.

"You like this activity?" I asked, smiling.

"Yes!" they replied. "It's fun!"

"Listen to this!" one of them called. He cleared his throat theatrically. "Why do people smoke?" he asked with an exaggerated shrug.

The rest of the group laughed. "Because Ms. S. told them to!" they chorused.

The rest of the class was momentarily shocked. Finally the silence was broken by a student who was clearly concerned with my job security. "Don't take that poem home!" 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Concrete Thinker

The counselor was in my classes today to do a lesson on social media. Part of the activity was making students aware that people often read meaning into what others post, whether it is intended or not. That message was timely, given that our third quarter assessment indicated a strong weakness in making inferences for the sixth grade as a group.

As an example of this principle, she showed the students a tweet from Chris Brown:

"What can you infer from this?" she asked. "Read between the lines."

"I can't," one of the students cried. "There's only one line!"

Monday, April 13, 2015

Favorite Colors

Today's poetry challenge was to write a poem about a color. Blue was definitely the most popular, and there was only one about brown, not so shocking.

A little more surprising? There was none about pink, or any other color beyond the Crayola classic eight. There was only a single poem about purple, and I think mine was the only ode to green. There were a couple of poems about black, though, including this awesome one:

By Kimberly

Black is the dark of night,
and smells like burning wood.
It tastes like black licorice
(only liked by the lucky),
And it sounds like eerie music
or crunchy gravel.
Black feels like leather
or snake scales.
Black will be what ever temperature
you want it to be.
It is dark and scary like on Halloween.
It's also free and wild– 
in the dark you don't have people watching and judging.
Black can make you think of a Haunted House,
or a midnight walk on the beach.
Black is anything...
use it to your advantage

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Cherry Zen

When engulfed in a huge mass of humanity, at, say, a festival, maybe one celebrating the annual blossoming of certain cherry trees around a particular basin of tidal water, it can be helpful to remind yourself that each person is a human being just like yourself with dreams and hopes and desires.


For example, we all want that perfect photo of ourselves with the blossoms, without any of you other people in it!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

A Reaction

Heidi got just what she wanted when she posted those pictures of the dogs with a big pink floral costume around their necks. It was only seconds before her text tone sounded:

Treat: oh my god you dressed the dogs as flowers

Heidi: Yes I did– thanks for the immediate feedback. Also, I'd like to point out that Sonic seems way happier about it than Isabel.

Treat: Haha yeah he looks thrilled

Truth be told? Sonic did look pretty pleased about the whole thing.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Excused Absence

It wasn't hard at all to drag my butt out of bed at 5:30 this morning and into school for one last day this week, especially after a work day Monday and a little two-day vacay midweek.

"Where were you?" was definitely the question of the day, as student after student inquired about my unusual absence. I was pleased that the follow-up was usually, "Did you read my poem?!!" That's a lot of ownership for a four-day-old writing challenge.

"I was in Philadelphia," I answered, "and, yes, I did read your poem! It was awesome!"

And when a few asked why I had traveled to Philly, I told them. "I went to hear an author read his writing."

They totally got it; it was like I took a field trip, or something, and I didn't feel bad at all about missing a couple days of school.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Run and Eat

It's always nice to to be home again, but we didn"t leave the City of Brotherly Love empty-handed. No indeed. We rolled south this afternoon with a pound of coffee from Elixr, half a dozen Federal Donuts, a vegan pizza, and two cheese steaks from Geno's, all packed to travel. 

Just tryin to make the most of a quick trip!

Wednesday, April 8, 2015


On our trip up to Philly today we spent some time listening to Invisibilia, a new NPR series on psychology and quirky brain science. Each show has a theme and one of those we heard today was on categories and why they are so crucial to helping us know and understand the world. One of the segments featured a native of India who, after thirty years in the U.S. longed to retire to His native land, but logistically found such a move impossible, so he founded a retirement community in Florida that targets other Indian ex-pats by recreating India. Everyone they interviewed loved the place, and they all spoke of how good it felt to be in place where they fully fit in, especially as they grew older. Sort of like an Exotic Marigold Hotel in reverse, I guess.

Once we made it to town, our first stop was a place Heidi's been anxious to try since we heard of it back in the fall. Blackbird Pizzeria is an all-vegan establishment, but their pizza is pretty good. With the exception of the fake cheese, it's actually awesome-- the crust is light and crispy outside with a few blisters from the oven and nice and chewy inside. The sauce is delicious and the toppings were, too. I had a kale salad with croutons, grape tomatoes, olives, and roasted mushrooms that was also yummy. The place is in an old building in a funky, upcoming neighborhood, and the smell of the blazing oven perfumes the air. 80s music played as we ate, and I looked across the table at one happy Heidi. "This place is awesome!" she confirmed between bites. "Let's move here!"

"Maybe you could just start a retirement community for vegans who grew up in the 80s," I suggested.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Hello Haiku

We started our annual poetry segment of the 100 Day Writing Challenge today, and as always, I have been totally charmed by my students' writing. So far it's just been haiku, but there is something very fresh and honest in so many of these simple little poems that I am exceedingly optimistic about the rest of the month.

Let me give you a couple examples:

The wind blows all day
The clouds are so dark and gray
and then comes the rain.

Today is awesome,
tomorrow may be better,
yesterday is gone.

I wake up sleepy
Too cold to get out of bed
But I have to pee.


Monday, April 6, 2015

Early Spring Evening

73 degrees and the screen door is wide open this evening. The warm breeze and gentle twilight is harshly punctuated by the insistent squawking of a squirrel in the crabapple tree just outside. She has our attention, the dog, the cat, and I, so much so that we go out on the tiny deck for a better understanding of her distress. There below? A stripe-ed beauty of a tabby cat, sleek and brown and gray; patiently waiting at the foot of the tree, she looks up at we three with eyes as green as the new grass growing just off to her left. Neither shrieking squirrel nor silent cat seem inclined to end their stand-off, and after a moment, we grow bored of it and drift back inside.

Sunday, April 5, 2015


In addition to relaxing this spring break week, we also accomplished quite a bit: phone calls, car repairs, paperwork, and so forth, were all check-check-checked off the list, but to me the most exciting chore was potting my little pepper plants and starting the tomatoes. Forty-nine cells with eight varieties are all hopefully germinating as I type, so that in 90 days or so, July 4 or perhaps a little later, the harvest will begin and it will be BLTs all around!

Here's what I planted:

Abraham Lincoln
Cherokee Purple
German Johnson
Box Car Willie
Red Rose
Purple Bumblebee
Bull's Heart

It's hard to say if I picked them for their names or for their descriptions, which were equally appealing, but I'll post an update this summer.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

A Hipster Philosopher

I borrowed my nephew's ukulele this week. After ten lessons, I was feeling ready for an upgrade, and it was just sitting in his room while he was away at college. And indeed, it was a little better for me– as much as I love love love my pint-sized pineapple soprano, I found the larger frets on his a tich more forgiving to my still-clumsy fingers.

The strings were a teeny bit buzzy, though, and I knew from my own that they probably needed replacing. The easiest thing to do? Order a set from Amazon and wait to restring it when they arrive Monday. I did that, but since we were out and about today I decided to stop into the Guitar Center and pick some up.

The teenager who helped me was super-nice and then super-apologetic when we found they were out of stock on the strings we needed. "I can call another store for you," he offered.

"No thanks," I told him. "I have some coming Monday, but I kind of wanted them right away," I shrugged.

"Right away?" he repeated. "Good for you! That's like the American dream!"

"Yeah, but I didn't get them," I sighed. "I have to wait."

"Well, that's more like the American reality!" he replied.

Thanks, kid.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Official Portrait

I recognized him the minute we walked in the door of the UPS Store: it was the same guy who helped us with our big shipment in December. This time we were simply there to acquire passport photos for Heidi; the store was empty of other customers, and there were three employees on duty, so I had high hopes of an expedient experience.

As it turned out, although there were three  folks in uniform, it was actually just Dave and the two women he was training. So even something so simple as having a photo taken and printed became an elaborate ordeal, narrated in minute detail by Mr. Neurotic-attention-to-detail, so it was kind of a lengthy process involving finding the digital camera, moving a large rack of mailing tubes, asking Heidi to step forward, backward, forward, not smile, smile a little, look at the shot, reframe and retake and repeat, locate the cable, plug into the printer, choose the proper setting (no not that one) trim the prints and place them in an official blue cardboard cover, then ring the sale, no not that code, no the other one, swipe again, sign, wait for the receipt and...

We had parked in a 15 minutes or less spot in the lot, and by the end of the transaction I was standing by the door scanning for tow trucks or meter maids, but after a comprehensive discussion of just how blue Heidi's eyes are, they finally closed the little folder and handed it to her, and our business was finally complete.

On the upside, I do feel fully qualified to take and print and ring up a passport photo down there.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Joy in Enjoy

Ah... another day filled with donuts and lavender lattes and cat sitting, sleeping in, running errands in the middle of the day, watching The Sopranos, sitting in the sun, and practicing the ukulele.

Could vacation be any better than this?

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Spring Breakers

There was a little more traffic than I expected at 11 AM on a Wednesday, but that couldn't bother me... it was spring break, dammit, and we were on a road trip to the beach. Once we crossed the Bay Bridge, the sky was blue and the sun cast a warm, truly golden hue on bare trees and brown fields as we rolled east across the narrow peninsula separating the Chesapeake and the Atlantic. Chicken barns, random traffic circles, and brand new sub-divisions springing from former farm fields showed the way like so many bread crumbs until at last we arrived in Rehoboth Beach.

Parking spot number 7 was vacant, and I appreciated how impossible it would be to ever get that space in even just a month's time. A stiff, cold wind blew off the water from the north, but we bowed our heads and walked straight into it, knowing it would be worse to have to do so on the way back from our walk.

Isabel? She loves the beach, and she merrily trotted from breakers to dunes, sniffing and exploring. She found herself a nice, twelve inch Blueback herring lying in the sand just above the tide line. "No!" we cried and ran over to the floundering fish. A silvery rainbow of a specimen, its gills still waved weakly so I picked it up and tossed it back into the sea. I swear I saw its tail flip as it disappeared in the surf, but I stood watching, the afternoon sun at my back, the wide beach cast out to either side, and the blue, blue, ocean before me, in case the tide might maroon it again.