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.