Saturday, December 31, 2016

Home Sweet Home

It was 9:30 this morning when our phones chimed. Our neighbor was wondering if we were up: she was hoping to welcome us home, catch up on the last couple of weeks, and exchange Christmas gifts.

C'mon over! Heidi texted back, and a few minutes later the doorbell rang.

"Merry Christmas!" I greeted her. "And Happy New Year, too!"

"Same to you!" she answered, stepping inside. She paused for a moment, and I could tell she was taking in the lights on the tree, the smell of fresh coffee, the logs crackling in the fireplace, the Vince Guaraldi on the record player.

"Well! Isn't this cozy!" she smiled as she sat in the rocking chair.

I had to agree.

Friday, December 30, 2016

The Great White Way

We thought we had dodged the snow when we left Buffalo around noon in overcast skies. Sure, there were some lake effect showers predicted for the South Towns, but we were driving south and then away from the lake as we went.


Not so much.

Bursts of snow punctuated most of our trip, and we were not clear of the storm until we hit Maryland. Even then, picking up our hometown radio station, we heard that some squalls might be dusting the ground sometime this evening.

I'm not complaining, though. The snowflakes whirling into our windshield and blanketing the fields, filling the woods tree by frosted tree, and coating the mountains were breathtaking, and the roads were cold but not slippery. Our car was warm and the company was excellent. We may have lost half an hour or so in travel time, but I kind of think it was worth it.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Quip of the Trip

Heidi was excited to wear her fabulous new over-the-knee boots on the plane today, and truth be told, they do make a fashion statement. In fact she received several comments on them.

When we got TSA precheck on our boarding passes, she was even more pleased not to have to take them off for security. The two of us merrily plopped our bags and coats on the conveyor and joined the queue for the scanner. Red lights and beeping erupted as Heidi stepped through the high-tech gate, and an agent raised a hand to halt her.

"I'm sorry," the officer told Heidi, "but your boots are alarming!"

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Ideal Conditions

The family was taking a Christmas vacation walk to a nearby market yesterday when I found myself in step with 11-year-old Richard. He is just about the same age as many of my students, and without thinking I posed a question to initiate conversation. A warm December breeze swept over the skyline of Atlanta to our right. His parents had moved here when he was two, and I knew he considered this town his home.

"So where do you think you might live when you grow up?" I asked him. 

He shrugged.

"Here? New York?" I named the town where he was born. "Washington where we and Nanny live? California? Arizona? Minnesota?"

"Maybe here," he answered, "or Bermuda." 

I knew he had been there on a vacation a few years back and loved it.

"Some place warm, but not too hot," he continued.

"What about snow?" I asked.

"I like it," he agreed. 

I considered the parameters. "Maybe you would like living in Colorado," I suggested. " They have a little bit of everything that you want-- warm in the summer, snow in the mountains."

He nodded, and then his eyes lit up.  "Yeah! Maybe I'll find a little hole in the mountains and dig it out! Then I'll cut some trees for hardwood floors and build a fireplace. I think I'll live in a cave in the woods!"

I smiled and nodded and listened the rest of the way as he elaborated with evermore enthusiasm and detail on the concept of his cozy little cavern.

Even after 23 (and a half!) years of teaching sixth grade, I will never tire of that whimsical mashup of faith, fiction, and fact that most of us bring to the threshold of eleven and the rest of our lives. How revitalizing it is to spend time with people who believe that anything really is possible.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Holiday Hijinks

We crammed a single round of one last game in this morning before the first of our Christmas company went their separate way. Based on the phenomena of "Spoonerisms" Splickety Lit requires competitors to not only answer questions but also transpose the initial consonants in every response. So, for example, the author of Ate Grexpaectations would be none other than Darls Chickens.

In keeping with the spirit of the rules, the game pieces are tiny wooden pame geeses, and the player who goes first is determined by whose name makes the funniest spoonerism. In our group that was unquestionably Shictor, but only because Bichard wasn't playing.

Too soon, though, the fun was cut short, because Fepardson Shamily had to rit the hoad.

Monday, December 26, 2016

If the Fates Allow

It was already 5:20 this evening when the frozen beef bones clattered onto the sheet pan. A little oil, some salt and pepper and a few carrots later they were in the rapidly heating oven to brown for stock which was destined to be gravy for our Christmas feast. Across the kitchen asparagus snapped, arugula tossed into a bowl and the rib roast seasoned so that we might eat sometime before midnight.

A few hours later Christmas crackers were snapping as dinner was served and although it might have been a tad late, none of the crowned diners seemed to mind a bit.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Everlasting Light

It was dark when the alarm went off this morning, dark when we wheeled our suitcases down the driveway to the waiting cab, dark when the airport doors whooshed open in a rush of warm air, dark when we took our seats on the plane, and dark as rocketed down the runway and into the dark sky.

There was a confusing moment of light as the plane punched up and through the low cloud layer, its powerful beams illuminating the mist around us, but it was so dark when at last we flew out and above them into the moonless sky. In deference to the early hour, the cabin lights stayed off, and the flight attendants wielded their heavy cart expertly through the gloom, offering beverage service in hushed tones to their sleepy and slumbering passengers.

As the silent stars slid by I dropped into a dreamless sleep, and when I woke a little later, the sun rising off our starboard side cast halos of bright orange like portholes of light along the bulkhead of the plane.

Christmas day had dawned.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Give Us a Little Quiche

Heidi's brother makes the same Christmas request each year: six sweet potato pie kits from a local soul food place famous for it. His plan is to take the six gallons of frozen filling to Florida and enjoy it a little at a time. He's picky though, and no crust is necessary for him, so we always place the order hold the pie shells and then haul the 20 pounds of mashed sweet potatoes, butter, brown sugar, spices, and eggs, to Buffalo.

This year they got it wrong at the restaurant and so we ended up with the empty shells after all. No worries, though, this morning I made quiche for the first time in at least 10 years, and it was amazingly easy when you already have a quality crust!

Bon apetite!

Friday, December 23, 2016

Christmas Calculus

   1 driveway full of frozen slush
+ 1 snow pusher
+ 1 metal ice scraper
    3 Christmas cookies

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Silver Bells

City sidewalks

Snow banks lined the side of Elmwood Avenue in downtown Buffalo

busy sidewalks

this afternoon as we searched for a parking spot.

dressed in holiday style

Garland, funky trees, wreathes and reindeer festooned the hip little shop windows

in the air there's the feeling of Christmas.

and carols played on the radio.

Children laughing

We found a spot right across from the toy store

people passing

and headed into the throng

meeting smile after smile

of happy shoppers

and on every street corner you hear

and across the avenue

silver bells

past the tiny chimes ring-a-ling-ing

silver bells

to a gallery featuring the work of local artisans

It's Christmas time in the city.

Strings of street lights, even stoplights

Mid-winter dark cloaked the late afternoon as we headed home

Blinkin' bright red and green

through stop and go traffic

As the shoppers rush home with their treasures

with a trunk full of shopping bags.

Soon it will be Christmas Day.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Take a Road Trip and Call Me in the Morning

After so many busy, busy action-packed days you might think that the last thing I would want would be a 7 hour car ride...

BUT you would be wrong. Quality snacks, a good audio book, relatively congestion-free roads, and great company were practically a prescription for forced relaxation.

And now?

It's Christmas!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

All I Want

We were eating lunch today when the subject of something came up that reminded me of something else that reminded me of my ukulele. So I grabbed that baby from behind my desk and I whipped out the music to Silver Bells. Soon one of my colleagues (who sings in a choir!) joined in for a little lunchtime holiday sing-along. "You guys!" I gushed when we were through, "you just made one of my ukulele dreams come true! A sing-along!"

"Well Merry Christmas!" they said.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Boo Hoo mBug

It seems like



is on

Christmas vacation



Sunday, December 18, 2016

Twenty-Five Dozen

Christmas cookies--


Mic drop.

Saturday, December 17, 2016


Freezing rain and sleet were gently rapping at the windows when I rose this morning. I had too much planned to even regret that it was not a school day. And indeed before the sun was fully up and glistening off the ice on all the trees, I had baked three kinds of Christmas cookies and a dozen and a half muffins. By the time we were ready to head out into the world, the world was ready for us-- all the roads were clear and dry. The temperature rose steadily throughout the afternoon, and tomorrow it is predicted to be 60.

No matter-- here at home, the oven will be warming, the music playing, the lights twinkling, and the wrapping paper and ribbon unspooling gift by gift.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Progress Report

We handed out interim progress reports this morning.  In this age of live gradebooks these little paper records of student grades are really no more than an anachronism: not only have the grades on them likely changed since last week when we uploaded them, but most students and their parents know that and have checked to see what they are getting NOW.

Still, as I distributed them,  I counseled my homeroom students that this was a chance to see what they were doing well (and continue that), as well as identify areas they might like to improve, and also to take the opportunity to talk to their teachers about any questions they might have.

They might have been listening, but I have another student who definitely was focused on the event.

"I left your report card on your desk," he told me as he left English class this morning. "It's on a post-it note."

I raised my eyebrows. "Thanks," I said, and in the chaos of exchanging one set of 22 sixth graders for another and restarting my lesson, I promptly forgot,

In fact it wasn't until many hours later, when I was working my way through the day's sift of classwork, hall passes, lesson plans, extra copies of materials, memos, and flyers that I noticed the little canary square of paper stuck to a pile of books on the corner of my desk. Neatly divided into three categories, I had a grade and a comment in each of the areas of "Patience" "Fun" and "Teaching."

I don't like to brag, but my lowest grade was a B+ in Patience (no kidding) and the comment read, pretty good, but could be a little nicer. In Fun? I earned an A, and the comment was, good activities and socializes really well. And in Teaching I got an A++++ Awesome fantastic teacher-- the BEST!!! 

I've gotta get that Patience grade up!

Thursday, December 15, 2016

So Not Why

We gave our students a choice of movies to watch next week on the team-building day we have planned before winter break. Using a simple online tool, I created a survey with 8 options inviting the kids to pick as many as they liked in the hope that whatever film we showed would be pleasing to most. As it is, we have nearly a 60% approval rate of The Secret Life of Pets.

I also asked them to name a movie they might like to see in the future, and I was scratching my head at the number who listed Finding Dory in that category, even though it was a choice on the current list.

When I shared my confusion with another teacher on the team, she laughed and suggested, "Maybe they're saying they're not quite ready for it yet, but they will be soon. They just gotta grow into it."

Oh, we teachers do amuse ourselves.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016


My students are writing essays about characters in short stories that they are choosing from a curated collection I have provided. Because character is key to the assignment, many of the stories have first person narrators, and several times today students have referred to an unnamed speaker by the opposite gender that I imagined they were.

In some cases the students missed an important detail, but one of the conversations started with the student correcting me when I referred to the main character by the other gender than she had imagined.

"You mean he?" she said with a sniff. And when I frowned, trying to recall the details of the story, she told me, "It doesn't say either way, but I think it's a boy, and that's how I'm going to write it."

I nodded, impressed by her confidence. "I guess you could make that claim," I said, using the language of the essay unit.

"Claim?" she shook her head. "It would be debatable if I called the main character "they"! I'm pretty sure the speaker is a guy."

"Okay," I answered. "Keep working! I can't wait to see your evidence."

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

On Target

The office called in the middle of class yesterday and asked me to send a student. "Oh, I know what that's about," he told me as he got up to go.

"Is everything okay?" I asked him with concern.

"It will be if you mind your own beeswax!" he snapped. "Not everything is your business."

There were audible gasps from the other students as he left the room, but I let it go and they got back to the assignment they were working on. The bell rang before he returned, and I put his books behind my desk to clear the table for the next class. He came in about 10 minutes later looking for his things, but I asked him to wait in the hallway while I got it.

"You were pretty rude me to me before," I said, and my voice was not as neutral as I would have liked.

He shrugged. "Can I have my stuff?" he said. "I'm late for science."

"Really?" I asked. "That's all you have to say?"

"It is for now," he answered, so I handed him his binder and went back to my class.

Later on I found out that he was having trouble with another student and his mom was there to meet with him, the counselor, and the assistant principal. That type of information is shared with the team so that we can support kids with whatever they are struggling, and in this case it explained why he was so touchy. For me, the incident was closed, and I didn't even think about it when I saw him in class today.

Now, this particular student is very fond of the magnetic dart board I have in my classroom. He loves to tell anyone who is nearby how his father is Scottish and that the game must run in their blood. Truth be told, he is pretty good at it, and he often stops by at the end of the school day to see if I have a few minutes for him to shoot.

I was on the phone when he knocked today, and I had a meeting right after, so I waved him and the other student who wanted to play away with a shake of my head. He continued to stand there. "She said it's closed," the other kid hissed and jerked his head at the door. The first boy waited calmly until I hung up the phone.

"I'm not here to shoot darts," he started. "I wanted to apologize for the way I treated you yesterday. I was feeling anxious about the meeting, and I took it out on you."

I raised my eyebrows and smiled in appreciation. "I accept." 

Monday, December 12, 2016

A Mile in her Moccasins

The IB Learner Profile trait in December is always "Caring" and so we are given activities meant to instill empathy in the 11 and 12-year-olds in our homerooms. Today was the day designated for those discussions, and I confess to not doing the assigned lesson, mostly because it was not appropriate for my group.

My homeroom is comprised of 12 sixth graders who range in age from 12 in October to 11, turning 12 next September. They also represent the spectrum from life skills to Gifted, with 1/3 of them identified as qualifying for special education services. There are kids who grew up speaking Spanish, Urdu, and not speaking at all, and so this morning we watched a video about empathy, twice, and then another video about the difference between empathy and sympathy, also twice. Then we talked about caring and kindness.

I think it went pretty well, but often I am skeptical of such attempts to overtly instruct human beings on "character", especially out of context. Still, in the very next class, I gave the students a short passage from the novel Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu. 
The desks were in five perfect lines of six. If ever these lines strayed from perfect, if someone should move his by scooting back too vigorously, or trying to get just the right angle to pass a note, Mrs. Jacobs got very cranky.
The topic of the lesson was finding big ideas about characters in small details. "What does this passage tell us about Mrs. Jacobs?" I asked.

I expected the students to answer with some variation of the idea that she was strict, a perfectionist, or inflexible; then I would push them to dig deeper into her motivation or at least into how her actions might affect her students.

One girl raised her hand immediately. "Maybe she has a lot of chaos in her life, and this is something she can control, so it's really important to her," she suggested.

I caught my breath. "Now, that is empathy," I told her.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Heard on High

"Are you finished with your holiday decorating?" a friendly salesperson asked me yesterday as I browsed in her pricey gift shop.

I nodded politely. "Actually, I just finished today," I answered.

"You can't really be done without an ornament from us," she smiled.

"You do have some beautiful things," I told her and shrugged, for truly there was nothing there for me.

A few years ago I wrote about how as children whenever my brother, sister, and I received ornaments as gifts, mine was always the angel, and I always wished it was something else, something more fun, like the Santas my brother always received, or the stockings, teddy bears, and drums my sister got. Back then I ended my post like this:
When I think about it, I wonder, though. What's my problem? Seriously, who could possibly object to angels? 
These days when I hang the ornaments on my own Christmas tree, each one of them sparks in me appreciation of the things I love. Among them there is a skillet, a fountain pen, a school house, garlic, snowshoes, several dogs, a basketball, a Navajo polar bear kachina, and a suit case labeled with destinations all over the world. Are these not all angels in some form? Do they not represent a bit of the divinity that inhabits our everyday lives? 
I'm going to go with yes.
After my conversation with the saleswoman, I waited patiently as Heidi continued to shop, my attention on the Christmas display. A basket of glass ornaments sparkled from beneath the tree in the window. "Do you like those?" Heidi startled me from behind. She reached down and picked up a tear-shaped ornament and held it up. Thin lines of glitter spiraled across the frosted glass below and crystal wings and halo shined above.

"Yes," I told her. "I do."

"You know, we don't have any angels on our tree," she reminded me.

"I know," I said. "I think we need this one."

As we turned to the register, the saleswoman was looking on.

"You were absolutely right," I told her. "I wasn't finished, yet."

Saturday, December 10, 2016

It's Better to Light a Candle than Curse the Darkness

The day started and ended with lights.

After a week standing bare in the stand, the little Frazier fir in the living room finally became a Christmas Tree this morning as I laced five strings of lights in and out of its dense boughs, holiday music playing merrily in the background.

And tonight we found ourselves in the conservatory of the brand new MGM resort at National Harbor. It's becoming a holiday tradition for us and our friend Susan to try a hot new restaurant in the early weeks of December. Arriving a couple of hours before our reservation we explored the property thoroughly-- gawking at the casino and boutiques, restaurants, art work, and amazing holiday decorations.

The meal was disappointing, poor service and mediocre food served under unnecessarily harsh lights, but the evening was still fun. On the drive back across the river we passed lots of holiday lights glittering in the frosty night, and arriving home, we were greeted by the glow of our very own Christmas lights.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Make My Day!

Most mornings you can find me outside my classroom door greeting every student I can by name. As part of our cultural competence training early in the year we read an article that said in large secondary schools kids can for days without ever being personally recognized. As our school grows ever larger each year, that seems like more of a risk for us. A simple solution? Teachers greet each student by name as they enter the class.

I have a student in my homeroom this year who is in our school's life skills program. Such a placement is only made for students with very low cognitive ability, a severe physical disability that impacts learning, or both. This guy is kind of a tough nut to crack. Almost completely non-verbal, he demonstrates aptitude in many areas, but inconsistently. Except technology. The kid literally loves pushing buttons, and he knows what he is doing, so it has become his job to turn the smartboard on and off each morning for and following the broadcast announcements.

He is often the first to arrive, unaccompanied, although a personal assistant follows not far behind him. I always wish him a good morning, but he rarely shows any indication that he has heard me. Early in the year I learned to enlist the other kids; he is much more likely to respond to them. His speech is mostly parroting things he has recently heard, so I was really impressed a month or so ago when he greeted his assistant by name.

But not nearly as impressed as when I saw him coming down the hall this morning. "Good morning!" I called to each student as they approached.

"Good morning, Miss Sheh-har-son!" he answered.

I'll take it!

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Bundle Up, Buttercup

"What's the weather like?" a colleague asked this afternoon peering across my room to a pair of the rare windows in our school building.

"Gray and blustery," I answered, and we exchanged unimpressed looks.

"Did you hear that next week..." she started.

"we're going to get a polar vortex!" we finished together and laughed.

"Polar vortex?" she shrugged. "It's like the new thing. We're always getting them lately, and they sound so... dire."

I nodded in agreement.

"What did we used to say?" she asked.

"Cold snap?" I suggested.

"Cold snap!" she agreed. "Much less dire." She paused. "Have you seen the latest cabinet picks?"

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Risky Business

An integral part of the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme is its focus on 10 learner profile traits. IB students and their teachers are encouraged to foster inquiry, being knowledgeable, thinking, communication, being principled, open-mindedness, caring, healthy risk-taking, balance, and reflection in ourselves.

To reinforce these concepts, we explore one per month and then students are asked to nominate a member of the team who exemplifies that trait. It is the 21st century, and so we conduct these nominations by way of Google form survey and then we teachers get a spreadsheet with all the responses.

There is something about the process though, that gives some students a sense of anonymity, and so sometimes the data we get is either clearly self-serving or fit for a gripe box.

For example today we had a student nominate himself as a healthy risk-taker because he sticked up for what he believed in

And in response to the question How do the adults in the building demonstrate this behavior?

He wrote, I see how they use bad behavior

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The In Crowd

One of the challenges of teaching is actually co-teaching. Because students are identified by so many labels-- some of them academic, some of them federal, some of them self-chosen, but all of them significant in high-stakes testing data which impacts schools and districts, there are often several educators in a single classroom. Finding the time to coordinate with such a team is a challenge in itself, and so there are definitely times when the teacher of record is put in the awkward position of directing and redirecting a person who is technically a peer.

My friend Mary and I were laughing about just such a situation today. It was around 5 PM, and we had just finished planning the week ahead and were commiserating about how much we had left to do when the subject of one of our colleagues (who was long gone for the day) came up. This teacher is assigned to Mary's class for one period a day and sometimes becomes so involved in completing the assignments herself that she forgets to interact with the students she is there to support.

"It's because our lessons are so awesome," I joked. "If only the kids felt the same way!"

"I know," Mary answered. "I think she just wants to be one of us."

"And why wouldn't she?" I said. "We're living the dream!"

Monday, December 5, 2016

Dressed for Success

I chose my wardrobe pragmatically this morning: the weather forecast was damp and chilly, so I put on something warm and toasty.

"Wow!" said a student as he entered the room. "Don't you look like a writer!"

"What do you mean?" I asked him.

"I think it must be the black turtleneck," he answered. "It really makes you look famous!"

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Hats in Space

It's true: sometimes I can be a jerk, even with those I love most.

Today we were killing a little time at the Air and Space Museum gift shop before seeing the movie Arrival on their ginormous screen. 'Tis definitely the season, and a lot of our conversation around the merchandise was centered on whether or not it might make a good gift or stocking stuffer. As I descended the escalator to the lower level of the three-story establishment (impressive in itself for a museum gift shop!) Heidi called my attention to a rack at the top. "Did you see that?" We should get it for Treat!"

I shook my head. "What was it?"

"Hello Kitty in a space hat!" she told me.

I frowned, the escalator continuing its slow descent. "Hello Kitty, what?" I asked.

Full disclosure: Our 21-year-old nephew used to be quite enamored of Hello Kitty back when we counted his age in single digits.

I get the idea of jokey throw back gifts, but even though I was in the National Air and Space Museum, I could not for the life of me fathom what a "space hat" was, even when she repeated it. "What?" I asked again.

"You know, Hello Kitty in a glass bubble on her head? What's it called?" Heidi answered.

"A helmet?" I said.

"Yes!" she replied giving me a dirty look, because I was laughing. "Did you know what I was talking about?"

"No!" I told her, honestly, but then spotting another display of dolls I picked one up. "Oh, Hello, Kitty!" I cooed. "I love your space hat!"

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Members of the Clan

We were running an errand in Old Towne early this afternoon when we noticed quite a few folks in kilts and other festive tartan-wear. It didn't take long to figure out that we were swept up in the aftermath of the annual Scottish Christmas Walk, traditionally held on the first weekend of December. Not being in any hurry, we strolled over to join a group who were drumming and piping right outside a pub, where we fit right in since we were wearing plaid, too!

May ye aye keep hail an hertie till ye'r auld eneuch tae dee.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Not Black and White

The staff of our school is required to participate in cultural competence training this year, which involves monthly large and small group sessions with reading, discussion, and other activities designed to raise awareness of institutional racism and its impact on our students' achievement as well as the implications it has for our practice.

One of the questions we were asked to consider today was to recall an early memory of recognizing race or racial identity. Back in the 1960s, when I was very young, my grandparents employed a woman named Louise to clean their house once a week. I once heard someone refer to her as "the colored maid," but I was very confused about who they were talking about.

"You know, Louise," they kept on saying to me. "Grandma's cleaning lady?"

But I shook my head over and over, because in my mind, I imagined a person with bright rainbow-colored skin, and I was quite sure that I had never met someone like that.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Holiday Trio

I spent some time over Thanksgiving playing Christmas carols on my ukulele with the accompaniment (some might say extreme support) of both of my older nephews on guitar.

Personally? I thought we sounded awesome from the get-go, but those who were subjected to our "rehearsals" did not seem to concur. At the end of the break the three of us parted ways with a set list, sheet music, and a loose promise to practice for a holiday concert to be performed for the family sometime in late December.

I laughed as I told my ukulele teacher about it at my lesson this afternoon, and he laughed, too, but he was into it and very supportive-- we went through three of the four pieces and he complimented me on my improvement.

"I know, right?" I told him. "I don't want to let down the band!"

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

And the Good News Rolls On

What's that you say? The parking lot at our school will be closed for 2 years? But we can park a half mile away and take a shuttle?

Last morning shuttle: 7:15
Last evening shuttle: 4:45



Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Savage Claim

The lesson in my English classes today was by the book. Dubbed "essay boot camp," it involved practice using a box and bullets structure for a quick essay on the Three Little Pigs. For the purpose of expediency, the claim for this familiar tale was a given: the third little pig is an admirable character; the students were tasked with finding supporting reasons and details.

We started with the reasons: common ideas were that he was commendable because he was hardworking, smart, kind (in the version where his brothers survive), and/or brave. But the most popular answer was not one I had anticipated. According to the kids, the third pig deserved our praise because he was... savage.

What about the details? I asked them, but they were well-prepared.

That little piggy does not hesitate to kill the wolf, and the method he uses is nothing short of brutal: he boils him alive over an open fire. And then? He eats his nemesis for dinner.

Yeah, that's pretty savage.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Alpha Girls

"Who? Moved! My! Stuff?' cried a student breathlessly as she slid over to her table just as the after-lunch bell was ringing.

The other girls at the table shrugged, wide-eyed.

"Well!" she proclaimed, "My binder was there," she pointed to a seat to the left of the one that was open and currently occupied by her notebook.

"I moved it," I told her. "That's where I eat my lunch. There are no assigned seats in our class right anyway," I shrugged. "It's really first come, first choice."

She was silent, but continued to glower at the other student. When she thought I wasn't paying attention, she turned to her and hissed, "WHY would you EVER sit in that seat??"

To her credit, the girl was unfazed. "Your stuff was over there," she gestured. "I didn't want to incur your wrath!" she laughed, clearly having no intention to move.

"Humph!" the first student literally exclaimed as she flounced into the unwanted chair.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

My Small Hearth

It's been a warm fall and a busy week, but after running errands and catching up on a little school work it was finally time this evening for the first fire of the season. And that is where you will find me: relaxing with a book and a beer as dry wood hisses and cracks in the guttering flames. 

Saturday, November 26, 2016


Conventional wisdom macabrely has it that those of renown typically die in trios, and so as with any other paradigm we psychologically stretch reality to make the pattern fit.

Florence Henderson, Fidel Castro, and Ron Glass?



That's three! 

Friday, November 25, 2016

My Rocker

I am not a big shopper, and Black Friday definitely is not my thing, but when my nephew said he wanted to go to a nearby thrift shop this afternoon, I decided to tag along. And it was not just any teeny tiny second hand place-- oh no, this was a huge emporium of cast-offs all seeking a second or third chance at utility and all very economically priced.

Sure, it took patience and a keen eye to sort through all the junk, but the promise of untold treasure for a few measly bucks was motivation enough to prowl the aisles, sliding hangers clickity-clack one at a time down the rack to evaluate their contents, appraising old phones and glassware, drum kits, computer monitors, and even furniture.

And it was in that department that I made my find for the day. A 1960s era small wooden rocking chair in the neocolonial style that was popular then. It had been painted with a two-tone blue design and was kind of dirty, but it was solidand sturdy and for 10 bucks, all I could see was possibility.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Sweet Time

We are generally late diners; dinner at our house is never before 7:30 and most often closer to 8. So last year when Heidi's parents could only get a 4:30 dinner reservation on Christmas Eve the time seemed rather early, but what could we do?

As things turned out, it was twilight when we left the house in our holiday finery, and bright lights twinkled merrily in the gathering darkness. The spirit inside the busy restaurant was timeless; excellent food and company, heavy drapes and dim chandeliers made it easy to imagine that we were dining at a usual hour.

The more I thought about it, the more I was reminded of traveling across time zones, like eating breakfast at your midnight on a transatlantic flight in preparation of a 6 AM landing and a full day beginning while all your friends are sleeping soundly at home. All it takes is the twist of a watch stem or the willing suspension of checking the time, and time releases its hold on you.

That's why I wasn't upset at all when I heard that we were expected to dine at 4 this Christmas Eve (especially since we have to be at the airport at 6 the next morning, which could be like 8 or 9 if we were a couple of time zones to the east), and why I was willing to eat Thanksgiving dinner today any time it was ready and convenient for the rest of our group.

And after we finished our feast at about quarter to 6, and the leftovers were put away, we took a walk around the neighborhood before dessert. Through lighted windows it was plain that some folks were in our time zone or a little ahead, watching football and cleaning up, and others were an hour or two behind, just sitting down and offering the first toast of the holiday. And then we returned home, where our celebration, full of family, friends, and fellowship continued on in its own good time.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Gracious Winner

"Kyle's strategy appears to be the best," Victor reported when we asked them about their game-in-progress at dinner.

Treat agreed, "He hit upon it pretty early, and it's working well."

We all nodded as Kyle bowed his head modestly.

Later, when the boys had excused themselves from the table to continue their game, I said, "Wow! That was pretty high praise. I'm sure Kyle appreciates it, because he knows those guys do not give empty compliments."

And indeed, Kyle prevailed. "Aunt Trace!" he crowed. "It was only my second time playing and I won!" He turned to Victor and Treat, "But I owe it to you guys, too. You told me I was on the right track. Thank you!"

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Two Bits

Kyle and I walked up to a local shopping center this morning to run a couple of errands and get our hair cut. As the stylist worked she turned the chair so that I was facing the front of the salon, and so I occupied myself watching the steady stream of folks in and out of the building. "Is it always so busy on Tuesday morning?" I asked her with some amazement.

"Is it Tuesday?" she dead-panned.

Monday, November 21, 2016


The signs were clear: no dogs are allowed on either the Billy Goat Trail or the boardwalk leading down to the falls. But on a sunny, but very blustery Monday in November the hikers were few and the rangers were fewer. As such, we saw a couple of dogs enjoying the day with their owners in defiance of the regulations.

Years ago when our dog was a puppy we took her to Roosevelt Island to walk and swim. The 88 acre national park requires all dogs to be leashed, but we set her free to let her swim. The excitement was all too much for her, though, and when she exited the water she took off running down the trail. "I'm wet! I'm wet," she would have shouted if she could. We were laughing at her pure delight and whistling her back to us when a woman with her dog on the required leash happened by.

"That would be fun, if that were allowed," she sniffed to her dog and kept on walking. As a rule follower myself, I understood where she was coming from, but there was no way such joy could ever be wrong. 

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Against the Wind

We braved steady winds of 20-30 mph (with gusts of 50!) to bike-share around the tidal basin today. Well, Kyle and I pedaled while Heidi and a friend ran-- kudos to those two! We had the wind at our backs all the way from the FDR where we picked up our bikes until we made the turn toward the Jefferson.

There we had to laugh as, spinning our pedals as quickly as we could, we nearly stood still on the asphalt path. And once we stopped to say hello to Heidi who was chugging along from the other direction, it was impossible to even start riding again. So we turned in our bikes at the station conveniently located there, and spent a few minutes with one of the founding fathers.

As we stood in the rotunda, I remembered reading that the huge bronze image of Jefferson had intentionally been placed in the direct line of sight of the statue of Alexander Hamilton on the north side of the Treasury Building, so that he could keep an eye on his fiercest political rival.

I took a moment to line up my view with his, but although I could only make out the roof of treasury, I got a clear look at the White House. It was practically glowing in the midafternoon sun, and I confess that my heart swelled more than a little at the symbolism.

It's been a hard couple of weeks for me as I have wrestled with finding the appropriate way to respond to an impending Trump presidency. In all that I have heard and read and thought, my brother's advice has guided me most: don't protest the election or any abstract idea of the man, rather speak out against specific actions and policies that you feel are wrong and work for what you think is right.

Returning home I was greeted by some breaking news: Donald Trump confirms that wife Melania and son Barron will stay in New York after the presidential inauguration.

The president's family not living in the White House?

 I think that choice is wrong.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Night Vision

The weather gang was clear: the day would start out toasty for November, but in the afternoon a gusty cold front would drop the temperatures considerably. Even so, at 2 PM we decided to take our chances and head out to Mount Vernon, our house guest in tow.

Indeed, the golden autumn sun had given way to threatening skies when we bought our tickets, and we opted for the last tour of the mansion of the day so that we might beat the storm and still have a chance to explore the outside property. The wind steadily rose as we made our way around the farm raining brightly colored leaves down upon us.

Fortunately the rain held off, and we entered George Washington's home at about quarter to four, the heavy door to the new room blown closed behind us with a bang. I have been to Mount Vernon countless times and in every season, but I realized as we climbed the stairs into the dim second floor hallway that I have never been there in the dark.

And at 4 PM in November with a gathering storm overhead? It was very dark this afternoon. There is no lighting in the mansion except for a few 25-watt bulbs in fake candle-style wall fixtures, and for just a moment as I passed through one of the chilly upstairs guests rooms, the 21st century scales fell from eyes, and I got a real glimpse of the home that Washington held so dear.

Friday, November 18, 2016

An Animated Conversation

At the end of another nutty week in middle school, a few teachers were standing around swapping stories about student antics this afternoon.

"He was dead set against going, until I told him we were watching Wallace and Gromit in class today, and he literally spun on his toes and raced toward the classroom," somebody said. "It was like he was a cartoon!"

"Y'know, his expressions and gestures are kind of like claymation," I noted, "I wonder if there's a subconscious connection?"

"Somebody told me his dad looks like a character from The Flintstones," a younger colleague told us, "but the reference was totally lost on me. It was the alien guy or something?"

"Gazoo?" I said. "His dad looks like Gazoo?"

The young teacher laughed and shrugged. "I know Fred," she said, "but that's about it."

Our other friend couldn't really place the little green guy, either.

"Don't feel bad," I told them, flashing back to the countless hours of my childhood spent with Fred, Wilma, Barney, Betty, Dino, Pebbles, Bam Bam, and Mr. Slate, not to mention The Royal Order of the Water Buffalos, Stony Curtis, Ann Margrock, the boy scout jamboree, and the castle at San Cemente running in the background. "Unless you've put in the time, Gazoo is a pretty deep dive." 

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Did She Really Just say That?

It was about 5 o'clock yesterday when a colleague poked her head in my door to say good-night. "I'm feeling pretty pleased with myself," she told me. "Since my husband is home today, I was able to stay a little late and take care of some things."

I nodded. "It's kind of nice to be here when it's so quiet," I agreed. "You really can get a lot done."

She frowned. "But it's good to have a reason to go home, too," she said. 

I shrugged.

"Like you, before your dog died," she added. 

I was silent.

"But now? You just stay too late, and you probably don't even get that much done. Have a good evening!" she finished.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016


All my students took district-mandated benchmark test today. Kids today attack such standardized tests with gusto, but generally in the spirit of getting them over with. I set this particular assessment up to have a download password so that when everyone was at the screen from which they could proceed no further, they were forced to turn their attention to me.

It was then I was able to answer the questions they may not have known they had and to give them the pep talk they probably didn't think they needed.


Is this part of our grade?
If not, why are we taking it?
How many questions are there?
Do we have to finish today?
Did you make up this test?
What do we do when we're done?
Can I get water, go to the restroom, or otherwise take a break during the test?

Pep talk:

The password is, "Show what you know!"

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Undeniable Claim

In my experience, mentioning the word "essay" to students has never been a popular move. 


This new writing method we're piloting calls the genre "argument." 



It seems that students are very motivated to learn those skills.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Group Effort

I'm running a book group for girls who are struggling readers during our new intervention period. At the beginning of the session I brought some books that I thought they might enjoy, but they ended up choosing a novel that is very popular right now, but somewhat above their level. I agreed to their selection, because I figured that with high interest and my support, they would be able to read and enjoy the first book in a series that many of their peers were talking about.

When we started, I had not read the novel myself, and that was okay, too, because I wanted to be engaged as a new reader with them. Well, that was the theory, anyway. I'm not sure I would have continued much beyond the opening chapters if it weren't for my commitment to the group, and I know several of the girls felt the same way.

For them? The exposition, where the author introduced us to a world several hundred years in the future was too hard and confusing. The setting was both familiar and alien, and as weak readers, it was hard for them to distinguish between what was realistic but unfamiliar to them and what was pure science fiction.

To me? The book was a little too predictable, particularly because of the conceit of the series where most characters and much of the plot are based on fairy tales. But the conflict between our experiences has turned out to be the key to our constructive conversations as they point out what confuses them and I show them the blatant clues.

And? I'm almost through with the second book of the series. How bad can it be?

Sunday, November 13, 2016


Four of us middle-aged folk Ubered over to Union Market early this afternoon for a fun foodie event called "The Emporiyum." (Get it?) There were all sorts of fine locally-crafted eats and drinks to sample and buy, and Heidi, Bill, Emily, and I enjoyed ourselves quite a bit, even though we were somewhat older than the average patron. In fact, our culture-diversity made it much easier on us-- whenever I wanted to spot a member of my tribe, I needed only to scan the sea of hipster black and gray to find that one orange sweater, pink t-shirt or blue denim blouse. (We still looked cool, though!)

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Until Next Time

The golden light of this November morning seemed to sharpen the edges of everything as we headed west. We had an appointment with a breeder to meet some dogs and see some puppies on the chance that we might like one from a future litter.

The place was out in the Blue Ridge Mountains, about 2 1/2 hours away, and as pretty as the countryside was, I was a little nervous when we pulled up to the hundred-year old brick house and barn. There were several people gathered on the side lawn, among them three little kids and a puppy wagging and weaving their way in and out of the group. It was a classic scene: the young family was there to pick up their newest member, and their excitement warmed any chill from the autumn air.

Next was a retired couple there to meet their 5-week-old springer-doodle, even though he wouldn't be ready to go for another three weeks. Last was us. Since we had no puppy in reserve the owner just showed us around the yard and introduced us to a few dames and sires, giving us a general overview of expected litters in the near future. Finally, we went into the puppy kennel where she brought out a couple of already spoken for pups.

I felt a sharp pang as I cradled one of them close to my chest and looked into her sleepy brown almond-shaped eyes. With a teeny sigh she relaxed in my arms; her little pink petal of a tongue slipped daintily up to her nose as I rubbed her soft ears.  I did not want to let her go, but she wasn't mine to keep.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Comfort Food

We had some neighbors over for dinner tonight, and the little snap in the air along with the week's political disappointments made our menu seem just right: chicken potpie, salad, pumpkin mousse and sticky gingerbread with cranberries. Plenty of beer and wine, along with a few rounds of Quiplash made for a warm evening of laughter and friendship, and everyone was feeling a little bit better by the end of the night.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

It's Complicated

As Heidi and I were walking out of the building this afternoon one of her social skills students ran over. He skidded to a stop about four feet in front of us, alarm on his face.

"Ohhhhhh," he said to Heidi, "I didn't know you were with that woman!"

I pushed my sunglasses down my nose and looked at him curiously. While I don't teach him, he is on our team, and I know him quite well.

He was focused on Heidi, though. "Is she your daughter?" he asked her.

"No!" she answered. "This is Ms. S. You know, from the Dolphin Team?"

I removed my sunglasses completely.

Confused, he took a closer look. "Then why are you walking together?" he asked, and then suddenly his face brightened. "Wait! Are you two friends?"

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Blue State Blues

I confess that I did not sleep well at all last night, and when I finally rose this morning, I was dreading the day.

The pouring rain in the gray dawn of this morning seemed like an appropriate contrast to the brilliant sunshine and autumn-colored promise of yesterday. It was also appropriate that the lesson in my English today was on composing belief statements in support of our upcoming essay-writing unit. Not surprisingly, our diverse student body had plenty of belief statements to go around today, and they really wanted to talk about them.

"What did you think of the election?" they asked me.

"I was surprised by the results," I said neutrally.

"Were you sad?" They were definitely looking for an ally or an enemy.

"I know a lot of people were disappointed," I answered, silently counting myself among them, "but a lot of people were happy, too."

And then I shrugged, thinking of myself tossing and turning last night as my phone glowed with update after devastating update. Could it really have been fewer than 24 hours ago that I was hoping the other side would turn their attention to what unites us rather than what divides us in support of a Clinton administration? Could I do the same now?

"I'm open-minded," I told them, "and I hope for the best."

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Sweets for the Sweet

It was a teacher workday today, and with no students the building was very quiet. Late in the afternoon a colleague stopped by with her 4-year-old grandson. He has a bit of a reputation as a terror, and he definitely knows what he wants. "I want some candy!" he said.

"No," I told him.

His eyes widened and his jaw dropped. "That's not a nice way to ask," his grandmother said.

He grabbed a basketball and made for the mini-hoop I keep in my room. "I want to play basketball!"

"We don't have time for that," his grandmother replied. "Can you put the ball away and ask nicely for some candy?"

He moved closer to the basket, and I raised my eyebrows and made eye contact with him. "Nobody can have candy if they don't follow the directions," I said gravely.

"Can I please have some candy?" he tried.

"What did your grandma tell you to do?" I asked him.

He quickly put the ball away and stood nicely at attention.

"Would you like some candy because you did such a good job following directions?" I asked him.

He chose a little DumDum with a smile, and the two of them went on their way.

Later on, I saw him in the office, and he ran over to me. "I want to hold your hand!" he said and slipped his warm little hand right into mine.

"You hardly know me!" I teased him.

"But you have candy and basketballs," he said, "and you're nice!"

Monday, November 7, 2016

Two Thousand Zero Zero

I was dreamin when I wrote this

We got TSA Pre-Check on our boarding passes for the flight home this afternoon. But at 4:30, the Buffalo Airport was far from hopping, and I shrugged off our good fortune with very little appreciation. "It would take us like ten minutes to get through the line," I grumbled.

So sue me if I go 2 fast

It wasn't until we got through the cordons to discover not a single soul ahead of us that I understood our luck.

but life is just a party

The TSA agents were literally standing around, and with no shoes or jackets to remove we practically danced through to the other side of security in seconds. It wasn't long until my euphoria gave way to nostalgia, though. I could easily remember a time when these measures were not necessary.

and parties were not meant to last

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Polishing Up the Rust Belt

We drove by some ginormous houses this morning on our way to brunch at a new, hipster restaurant I read about online. Buffalo, like so many rust-belt towns, has endured some very hard times over the last 40 years: mills and factories have shed thousands of what were formerly solid, blue collar jobs that allowed workers to comfortably support their families, and a majority of young people have moved away from the contracting economy.

Over the last few years, though, small signs of a tiny turn around have become more and more evident. Some tech start-ups, state grants funding a huge solar panel plant, a rise in reputation of SUNY Buffalo and a new medical corridor have reinvigorated the area in many small, but meaningful ways. The waterfront has been restored with restaurants, museums, bike and paddle boat concessions, and an open-air concert stage. Old mills are being converted to cool loft condos, and the traditional ethnic and comfort food that the town is rightfully known for, fish fry, wings, pierogies, char-broiled hot dogs, beef on weck, kielbasa, sponge candy, and handmade donuts has been joined by some micro-breweries, healthy fast-casual joints, and some new restaurants like the one we visited today with menus that can compete with some of the places near us at home.

Oh, the food was a little disappointing, but the place was still fun. On the way home, I used a real-estate app to price properties in real time as we rolled past them. How about a 7-bedroom, 3 1/2 bath, 4100 square foot Victorian with finished studio within walking distance of the zoo, Olmstead's Delaware Park, and Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin-Martin House for 329,900.00?

Saturday, November 5, 2016

A Grain of Salt

We were on our first Wegmans run of the Buffalo weekend when an older gentleman in a motorized cart rolled up. "Excuse me ladies," he said, "I'm hoping you can help me."

"Of course," I replied, and prepared to reach an item from the upper shelf behind him, I was surprised when he continued.

"My daughter gave me a pot of chicken chowder," he made a circle with his hands. "Her neighbor was nice enough to make it for me, but it's so bland..."

I nodded sympathetically.

"She is a chef!" My mother-in-law pointed at me. "This is your lucky day!"

He nodded, unimpressed. "I added pepper to it," he said, "but it didn't help. And," he paused before delivering the kicker, "I'm on dialysis, so I can't have salt."

The mystery of the bland soup was suddenly much easier to understand.

"The soup part is like water, so I was thinking of adding bouillon or canned chicken broth," he said. "Would that fix it?"

"Those both have a lot of salt," I told him, considering a variety of solutions-- herbs, lemon juice, Parmesan cheese, and trying to figure out the best match for him. "Maybe you could strain out all the chicken and vegetables and cook the broth down until it's more concentrated and flavorful. Then add the other stuff back in."

He frowned. "Would I have to cook canned chicken broth?"

"No," I shrugged. "It's ready to heat and eat."

 "Thank you," he said politely, and then giving us a courtly nod, rolled away down the aisle toward the canned soup.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Best of Three

A pair of sisters, former students both, appeared in my classroom this afternoon. "Ms. S!" they cried. "How are you?"

It was good to see them, and I know my smile told them so.

"Guess what class I'm taking?" asked the older. "AP English!" she told me before I could guess.

"Nice!" I high-fived her. "You're going to crush it!"

"I have a 94!" she said proudly.

"I'm in intensified English," her younger sister boasted.

"All right!" I high-fived her, too.

"Do you miss us?" one of them asked.

"Yeah, of course," I answered, "but I do have your little sister to carry on the family tradition."

"Do you like her?" the younger girl asked.

"Oh my gosh! Yes!" I said. "I feel lucky to have had all three of you in my class!"

"Who's your favorite?" they wanted to know, but of course I didn't say.

Just earlier in the day, I had a funny exchange with their sister. Our reading classes change teachers every quarter, and so next week her group was moving on. "Oh, but you'll still have me for English," I told the class. "You're stuck with me for the rest of the year!"

"Good!" she said, "because I just want to put you in my backpack and take you to seventh grade with me! You are the best teacher ever!"

How could I pick a favorite from those three?

Thursday, November 3, 2016

I'll Be Glad When It's Over: Reason # 496

Maybe that unknown caller will stop ringing my watch every single weekday at 10:20 AM.

(If I weren't busy teaching, I could probably tell them I already voted!)

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Throwback Wednesday

We have had some network issues in our school system over the last couple of days which rendered the students' iPads practically useless. "What are we going to do today?" my first period class came in excitedly moaning. "We can't use our iPads!"

"Sit down, kids," I said, "I want to tell you a story..."

They settled expectantly in their seats.

"Long ago," I started, "people used to grind up trees and press the pulp flat into this thing called paper! Today we are going to use that."

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

There to Here and Here to There

"What are you doing here?" a student asked me a couple of weeks ago when  he saw me at a store.

"I'm shopping!" I told him.

"What are you doing here?" the same student asked when he saw me in another part of the school.

"I'm meeting with other English teachers!" I told him.

"What are you doing here?" the same kid asked me as I walked down to the bike share station.

"I'm going for a bike ride!" I told him.

"What?" the same guy did a double take when he saw me outside the school office a while later. "You're everywhere!"

"So are you!" I told him.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Don't Leave Home Without It

I've learned that taking a break and getting outside during the school day will usually improve my productivity, and so today, when I finally completed setting up my account for the free bike share membership they are giving school employees this year, my brain break involved hiking up to the nearest metro stop, picking up my key, grabbing a bike, and riding on back to school where I dropped it off at the rec center bike station.

Round trip? 45 minutes.

Clearer head? Priceless.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Wonder Woman

Since I don't have any children of my own, creating Halloween costumes has never been a necessary skill.

I think I stepped up quite nicely, though:

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Pokemon Go Away

I recently read that Pokemon Go is waning in popularity. Personally, I'm not surprised. I lost interest in the game within 48 hours. And yet, as we strolled through the packed FDR Memorial on this gorgeous October afternoon, we noticed that granite walls, tumbling falls, bronze statues, and inspirational words were all forsaken by a vast parade of people focused solely on their smart phones.

"Wow! There must be a lot of Pokemon here," I said to Heidi.

She turned those big blue eyes at me and arched her eyebrows meaningfully. "Ya think?"

Friday, October 28, 2016

Off and On the Clock

I had my annual physical today, and so I took sick leave. That meant that I was at school until 6 yesterday evening pulling everything together for my students and team today, as well as preparing for Monday. Even so, I brought home a heavy bag full of papers to grade and books to read in anticipation of the next unit of the new writing thing we're piloting.

Everything went fine at the doctor, and when I got home Heidi and I walked to a nearby community center to cast our in-person absentee ballots. (We will be in Buffalo the day before the election, and lord knows we've been stranded there before!) On the way back, we stopped at the garden where we were surprised by at least 10 pounds of tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers ready to pick.

Once home again, I checked my email and messages and ended up spending the next three hours working on school-related correspondence, which included several emails, 2 newsletters, and three surveys (you can imagine my candor). I got up to stretch at 5 PM, and wondered where that day "off" had gone.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Sorting iPad

It spilled over from home room.

"What Hogwarts house are you?" asked one of my students. "I'm always Hufflepuff no matter what!" she continued in frustration, 'I want to be Gryffindor."

I shrugged. "I'm probably Ravenclaw," I said. "Not to brag, but I am pretty smart," I winked.

"You should take the quiz right now!" she said, and so I did, quickly clicking through my choices of animals, leisure activity, Triwizard Tournament challenges, artwork, and so on.

"I'm..." I looked at her with raised eyebrows, "wait for it... wait for it... Gryffindor!" I announced in my best Sorting Hat voice.

She gasped, and we were still talking about it when the class changed. First period is reading, and most of the students were very interested in our conversation. The Harry Potter series is definitely regaining popularity with my students, both with the release of the Cursed Child and the fact that these sixth graders were too young to enjoy either the books or the movies the first time around. It really seems to be proof that the series is a classic.

"Can we try it, too?" several kids asked, and in a split second decision, I decided that it was an engaging activity somewhat related to reading. Even the students who were unfamiliar with the series wanted to take the quiz, and then they had lots of questions about the books for their friends who had read it.

Some kids tried taking the quiz more than once to rig their results, and their analysis of the questions and how they related to the houses of Hogwarts was pretty high order thinking. I quickly added a discussion question to our Google Classroom: What house were your sorted into? Do you think it was a good fit? Why?

Even as they compared their answers and results, one of the items on the quiz was of particular concern to one boy. If Death offered you a reward for outsmarting him, which would you choose? The options were the Resurrection Stone, the Elder Wand, and the Invisibility Cloak.

"I would always pick the stone," he told several people, "because what if something happened to my mom? I would never want to live in this world without my mom!"

"You should tell her all about the quiz when you get home," I suggested. "I think she might like to hear about it!"

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

And... Action!

With a lesson that revisited action verbs and how their use might make a writing piece more powerful, it became clear that there was a gap in some students' understanding of that part of speech. We had read a wonderfully gross example of personal narrative by Jack Gantos, and so I asked them to pull out a few vivid verbs that they noticed, but after teaching the lesson twice, I knew that my right-after-lunch group that was heavy on boys and energy might not appreciate it fully. And so I enhanced it on the fly.

"Find a great verb in context," I directed them, "and then have your writing partner read the passage and pause as you act out the verb. Remember: verbs are actions!"

There was a buzz in the room as sixth grade writers revisited the story to find the perfect verb. A few hands waved, and when I went to see what they needed, their questions were very similar: How do I act out "puke-smelling" or "private" or "special"?

"You don't," I told them each, "because they're not action verbs."

"Ooooooooohhhhh," they answered, a glimmer of understanding shining in their brains.

See what I did there?

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

We All Look Alike

After a day at the corn maze and farm, the kids were a little punchy those last twenty minutes they sat in our classrooms waiting for dismissal. Everyone had a lovely little pie pumpkin, and some students occupied themselves with decorating theirs with markers. Once he had a silly face on his, one student turned his pumpkin to another's. "I'm so stupid I'm going to vote for Donald Trump," he had the pumpkin say.

"Hey now!" said the sixth grade counselor who happened to be standing by, "Tell your pumpkin that nobody's stupid here."

"Who are you going to vote for?" the student questioned her.

"I can't tell you," she said.

"Clinton," he shrugged.

"Teachers really are not allowed to tell you who we support in the election," I told him.

"Clinton," he said to me.

"Why do you think so?" I asked.

"Because you even look like her!" he answered. "You two could be sisters!"

Monday, October 24, 2016

There's the Difference

The whole sixth grade is going on a field trip tomorrow. It involves 346 kids, 40 adults, and both me and Heidi. Because she has been mostly 8th grade in the past, the two of us don't usually take the same field trips. And, since I'm in charge of packing lunches, it was only natural that she asked me what we were having. 

"I usually bring a ham sandwich," I told my vegan wife. "It packs well and tastes good as I stand there supervising a hundred children or so."

She frowned. I shrugged.

"I was planning on sending you with a roasted cauliflower wrap, though," I disclosed a little later than I could I have.

"Yum!" she said.

"And, we're going to stop at the grocery store on the way home," I continued.

"What for?" she asked.

"It's a field trip," I answered, "we have to have special snacks!"

When I was a kid, my mom packed our lunches full of delicious homemade food, but we did not always appreciate it. Instead of blond brownies, oatmeal cookies, and milk, I was looking for Tasty Kakes and soda pop. The one exception to our nutritious lunch rule was on field trip days. Then, we were allowed to pick a store-bought treat and a can of soda to take along with us. (The soda went in the freezer the night before where it became both beverage and ice block to keep everything else fresh and cool.) I always chose a cherry pie and cream soda, but I have to confess that they were never as good as I thought they would be, and it was kind of a relief to go back to my regular lunch the following day.

Even so, I carry the idea to this day that field trip lunches should be special, and so I always bring a sandwich, some fruit, a bag of store-bought cookies, and a big bag of chips. The last two are to share, both with kids who don't have any treats and some of those who do, because it brings people closer to actually share a meal.

I explained my philosophy to Heidi as we shopped, and she picked up a couple of bags of Milanos and some Fritos to go with my Biscoffs and Cape Cod waffle chips. When we got home I started to put those items aside, but she grabbed the Fritos and opened them up. "Hey!" I scolded her. "You can't have those! They're for the field trip!"

"Who says?" she answered crunching on her snack. "We have a whole bag!"

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Probably Not

The Billy Goat Trail out in Great Falls, MD was kind of a rite of passage for our older nephews. Starting from the time they were toddlers, we frequently took them rock scrambling on the first part of the trail, gradually increasing the length of the hikes over the years until that magical day when they were ready to do the full circuit. But because dogs are not allowed on the trail, it's been thirteen years since Heidi and I have done the route ourselves, and so, continuing our practice of doing things we wouldn't do if we had a dog, we headed out there this morning.

Perhaps a beautiful Sunday in October was not the best time to revisit this particular old haunt; it is one of the most popular outdoor activities in the region, and the tow path was already packed at 11:30 when we turned our boots toward the trail head.

But, as we walked, conversations drifted through the air with the falling leaves.

I heard you're going Euro-skiing... 
The plane exploded at the neck... 
I sent my revisions in Friday...
He hasn't actually said he wouldn't accept the results...  
I think Shakespeare said it best...

And we heard so many languages along the way-- English and Spanish, of course, but lots of Italian, some German, Russian, Swedish, Chinese, Korean, Urdu, French, and I think Greek, too.

So we patiently scrambled along behind and beside and between our fellow hikers, enjoying the views that the slower pace gave us the chance to take in. People were mostly friendly, and we snapped a few group photos for folks as we waited to rock-hop across a congested section. 

The worst bottleneck of the day was at the famous 50 foot traverse. As we stood at the bottom waiting our turn to climb the granite wall from river to ridge, I looked up at the line ahead of us and back at the one behind us, and my patience began to thin.

"Oh my gosh!" I said to Heidi, "This must be what it's like to climb Everest!"

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Unexpected Behavior

Heidi teaches kids who are on the Autism spectrum, and so around here we talk a lot about social skills and social thinking. Two of the big buzz-phrases in that field these days are expected and unexpected behavior, which are used when talking to people who have difficulty reading social skills. The theory is that analyzing behavior and reactions to it in these terms allows those folks to intellectually process what others can do so intuitively.

Not surprisingly, Heidi also wanted to see the new movie The Accountant, in which Ben Affleck plays a guy on the spectrum, and we finally made it to the show this afternoon. It was a very entertaining movie! Mostly because of the plot twists, that to be honest?

I did not see coming.

Now that's unexpected behavior!

Friday, October 21, 2016

Calling Shotgun

A colleague I know slightly politely interrupted our CLT meeting this afternoon. "I have a question," she looked at me, "but it's personal, not professional. Do you mind if I take a minute?" she asked the other two teachers.

They nodded readily, and I could see they were intrigued, as I was also.

"How do you get to Buffalo?" she asked me, and I must have looked surprised, because she quickly continued, "Heidi says it's easy, but I should ask you."

My friend Mary laughed. "I'm sure Heidi does think it's easy! If you're her, you just get in the car and let Tracey drive you!"

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Back to Synecdoche

"Tell your partner how you got your name," the facilitator said. "Is there a story or significance behind it?"

I looked at my colleague. "Well," I told him, "my mom wanted to name me Marcy, but my dad grew up in upstate New York."

He frowned. I continued.

"Back then, the state psychiatric hospital was in a town called Marcy. So when he was a kid, "going to Marcy" was the equivalent of going crazy."

He nodded. I shrugged.

"And that's why my name is Tracey, not Marcy." What is that figure of speech called where the specific stands for the general? I thought. Marcy is totally an example of that.

"Where was your mom from?" he asked me.

"She grew up in Maryland, but she was born in..." I did a little double take to myself. "Schenectady!"

He looked confused. "She wasn't there long enough to know about Marcy," I told him, but my mind was elsewhere.

Schenectady, synecdoche?

I think I might be able to remember that!

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Pen and the Sword

I would never say that I am an expert on the English language, but after 54 years of hearing it, 53 years of speaking it, 48 years of reading it, 12 years of learning it, 6 years of studying it, and 24 years of teaching it, I might call myself an experienced practitioner.

Even so, my spell check just told me to correct that last word from practionor. It happens! In fact, although I am able to address almost all of the grammatical and vocabulary needs of my sixth graders, I am unfamiliar with at least a third of my word-of-the-day calendar entries, and sometimes, when researching resources to use in my class I find myself in a little bit of deep water.

Oh, I can tread away, dear reader, but one must recognize her deficits if one expects to improve. Take the term synecdoche, for example. The first time I came across it on a list of figurative language devices, I had no idea how to pronounce it (sin-eck'-doh-key), much less what it meant. Once I learned that it was the practice of representing something by one of its a parts, like Washington, for the U.S. government, John Hancock for a signature, or suits for guys in charge, I understood the term, but I'll be darned if I can remember it to use in conversation.

It's on the tip of my tongue, though.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

I Just Called to Say...

My phone rang unexpectedly at around 4:30 this afternoon. It was my 8-year-old niece on facetime, and I punched the accept button right away.

"Hey!" I said. "What's going on?"

"I called you..." she paused, "well, just because I wanted to!" she told me.

"That's awesome!" I said. "I'm still at school," I sighed, looking at the stack of papers I was going through to put in my gradebook. "How are you? How was school for you today?"

"I'm fine!" she answered. "It was good!"

"How's the puppy?" I asked.

"Good!" she smiled.

"What about the weather?"

"Really nice!" she nodded. "Oh well, if you're at work, I'll let you go!"

"Okay," I agreed. "Thank you so much for calling! I miss you!"

"I miss you too!" she said. "I'll talk to you soon!"

"Love you!" we both said as she hung up.

Monday, October 17, 2016

No Purchase Necessary

I confess that at times I dream of striking it rich in some implausible, the-odds-are-totally-against-me, kind of way. That's why I opened the email from PCH tonight. I'll just scroll-click scroll-click scroll-click right through, I told myself. And who knows? In a month or so? I may have 10,000 bucks a week coming in. Wouldn't that be fun for Christmas?

But that's where those marketing geniuses see me coming! On the very first page I had to stop and take a closer look at an item.

      Transform your toilet into a soft, gentle night light!

      Bowl Light™
      Fits most toilets!
      Adjustable Brightness/Adjustable Dimmer
      Say goodbye to glaring bathroom lights in the middle of the night!

      Motion-activated LED light automatically casts a soft glow
      The soft light doesn’t wake you up and turns off automatically after 45 seconds!
      Set to one of your 7 favorite colors — red, green, purple, aqua, yellow, white and blue
      Color-Cycle Mode automatically changes to next color for each use!

      Requires 3 "AAA" batteries, not included. Made of abs plastic, polyethylene,
      pvc, tpr rubber, silicone, wiring. Measures 2.05" L x 2.56" W x 4.13" H.
      Bowl light™ will only turn on when in a dark room. Please consult instructions prior to use.


No way! I thought.

And no way! it was as well for the Bacon Boss, the Handy Heater, and the Angry Mama Microwave Cleaner. In fact, the more I saw, the easier it got it to just scroll and click. 

And now? 

I am in it to win it!

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Flipping Out

Over the years a lot of crazes have swept the sixth grade. Back in 1973, when I was in sixth grade, everybody wanted Duncan yo-yo's and Wacky Package stickers. Twenty years later, when I first started teaching, it was baggy pants, slap bracelets, and gigapets. Ten years after that there were heelys, iPods, and silly bandz. Today? Flipping water bottles is the go-to.

Why not? We encourage kids to stay hydrated, and that means a water bottle in every hand. Drink half, and then accept the challenge to land that baby upright on...

the floor,
the desk,
your binder,
the floor, through your pants
and so forth

What's a teacher to do?

Just walk the dog, pull up your pants, roll on over to that group of kids, grab the water bottle, flip it into the trash can, and start your class.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Phantom Dog Pain

Our neighbor's away this weekend and we are caring for her dog. Lady is a little temperamental: for example, she chose not to stay at our house last night. Instead she stood by the door and beamed us a message through her one good eye, something like, Why would I sleep in this house? I can practically smell my bed from here. 

To be honest, that makes her even easier to look after, especially since she and our cat are not on speaking terms. I just walked through the courtyard to take her out this morning, and as I opened the front door, she hopped down from the couch and stretched. I clipped her collar and leash on and we headed up the stairs and across the parking lot to the wooded hill. I had made the same trip a thousand times with Isabel, but this was the first time I had made it with a dog since we lost her.

And that made me really sad.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Problem Solved

Give a kid an iPad, and he'll be able to catch his own dinner.

That's pretty much the theory behind our district's one to one initiative. For the last three years every 2nd and 6th grader has received an ipad, and every 9th grader has been issued a Macbook Air. As teachers? Our instructions have pretty much been, Use the devices to enhance instruction, but be sure to give the students some latitude to innovate.

I get that philosophy. I may be an immigrant to this brave new digital world, but I like to think I have assimilated quite well. And although it's tempting to focus on the inappropriate of the innovations (accessing non-school material during class, airdropping all manner of things to other people within Bluetooth range, and finding several ingenious ways around our school restrictions, to name a very few), let me tell you: those kids impress me with their creative uses of their devices all the time.

Why just today, a group of students was doing a skit for reading. "Do you have a speaker?" one of them asked me.

"You can hook up to that one," I told her, but one of the other girls in the group waved me off. "Never mind," she said, "we can use our iPads."

And what they did next was kind of amazing. Their sketch took place in the woods, so all three students pulled up audio of birds and then placed their devices in different places in the room. The skit was pretty good, but the surround sound was stunning.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Identity Crisis

Student after student raised a hand in my reading class this morning. They were working on a standard read-and-answer-the-questions assignment from a text book (Oh! I know what you're thinking! BUT we will do something cool with it tomorrow!), and the same question was stumping reader after reader. Why does the author use the pronoun I throughout the story? 

I was shocked to discover that none of them was familiar with the term pronoun, but I made a note to return to that concern later and quickly explained what a pronoun is so that they could answer the question.

One guy was even more confused by my explanation, though. Wait!" he interrupted me. "How is backslash a pronoun?"

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Makes the Dream Work

We are implementing a new writing program this year, and it has been haaaard work. The upside is that I agree with the philosophy, which makes a mandate considerably less onerous, but it is really hard to tailor one's teaching to somebody else's vision (especially after 23 years!). Still, I soldier on, and it is a blessing to be working in this endeavor with a colleague I like and respect. (Hi Mary!)

I thanked my lucky stars for her yesterday when I was suffering from a crisis of faith and feeling overwhelmed and unsuccessful. After giving me a little pep talk, we talked through our plan for today, and she created a crucial piece of the lesson.

AND... I was happy to return the favor this afternoon when following a great lesson, I was able to clearly see the road ahead and talk her through it.

Now that's a collaborative learning team.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Holiday Mash-up

A Jewish friend of mine has a birthday tomorrow.

In all her years, she told me recently, her birthday has never coincided with Yom Kippur. "They're both great," she said, "but I'm not really excited about it."

"Really?" I asked her. "What's not exciting about the words Happy Birth Day of Atonement?"

Monday, October 10, 2016

Ten Miles

There is no upside to losing your dog, but Heidi and I agreed that in the time before we get another puppy, we will try to do things we might have otherwise skipped because they didn't make sense to do with a dog. So it was in that spirit that late this morning we set off on a walk from our house to Old Town Alexandria, about 3 1/2 miles away.

It was a perfect fall day, and once there we had brunch and shopped our way down to the river and back. We told ourselves we would Uber home if we needed to, but in the end we just kept on going, and in 22,000 steps, all told, we were back home.

Sunday, October 9, 2016


"What are we going to have for dinner tonight?" Heidi asked a little earlier.

I paused to think about it a minute. "I don't know," I shook my head. "I already cooked everything yesterday!"

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Small Plates

The day dawned gray and rainy, but honestly? I didn't care! It was the first day of a long weekend and I had plans to do some serious cooking-- tonight was Emily's family birthday party. I chopped and diced and seared and braised and blended and baked and steamed and pureed and strained and whisked and sliced and stewed and finally, when the rain let up, charred my way merrily through the day before sitting down at the table with Heidi and Emily and Bill and Victor to a very nice meal, if I do say so myself.

Small Plates Menu:

Warm Olives
Moroccan Yogurt Dip with Cilantro
Ciabbata and Pita Chips
Beet Carpaccio with Dill and Walnuts
Charred Octopus with Potato Pepper Puree and Tapenade
Braised Lamb Shank with Mustard Marscapone Sauce
Seared Tuna Shawarma with Pickles, Turnips, and Tahini 
Rice and Lentil Pilaf with Currants
Stewed Green Beans
Roasted Cauliflower


Baklava Cheesecake
Pistachio Toffee Chocolates

Friday, October 7, 2016

Small Moment

The interpreter arrived a little early for my next conference, and since there was nobody else in my room, I invited him in to wait. He was a friendly guy; introducing himself as Julio, he walked around the perimeter of my classroom as if it were a gallery.

"Look for small moments?" he read from an anchor chart, and then gazing up he read from the banner above, "How can we become better writers?"

"I love writing," he told me, "and this is good advice. There is so much meaning in the small moments."

I nodded agreeably, "That's what I tell the students."

"Do you mind if I take a picture?" he asked.

"Not at all," I answered.

He moved to a poster with an Ethiopian proverb. "When spider webs unite," he read, "they can tie up a lion!" He snapped another photo and turned to me. "What a fantastic message for your students! Small things together create greatness."

"Thanks, Julio!" I replied.

Next he read the series of posters from the Academy of American Poets that hang over the bookshelves in my room. Each April the organization releases a new one in honor of National Poetry month. "Nature is a haunted house," he read as he clicked another picture, "but art is a house that wants to be haunted."

"Emily Dickinson," I said.

"Wonderful!" he said. "It goes perfectly with the small things and small moments idea. Think how many miracles we overlook every day! You are teaching your students to stop and notice them, to see all the miracles all around them!"

Am I? I wondered and looked at another quote I had scribbled nearby.

Hope is a thing with feathers.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Da Nada

I admit that I was a little cranky this afternoon as I waited well after my contract hours for my first conference of the year. The halls were deserted and the light from the sinking sun was slanting into the west-facing windows when my student and her mom tapped on the door.

The fact is, teachers often suffer from a lack of professional respect. If I can't find a convenient time within the office hours of my doctor, lawyer, accountant, or dog groomer that works with the hours of my job, then I must take time off. If it's important, then I do. But teachers are often not afforded the same professional courtesy. We are frequently guilted into over-committing our own time because it is what's best for the students. And sometimes it undeniably is, but other times it's just a matter of your convenience over mine.

So anyway, there I was tonight, guiding an extremely poised 12-year-old as she explained her grades, study skills self-evaluation, academic goals, and community service interests to her mom, switching back and forth between Spanish and English for our benefit. All I did was answer some questions, encourage the student to stay after school for some math help, and compliment her on her achievements so far.

When the student got to the end of her checklist, the part that says Thank your parents for coming, she turned to her mother and said, "Gracias Mami!" And then she turned to me and said, "Thank-you for staying after school."

"You're welcome," I answered, and I really meant it.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Getting it Done

The assistant principal and director of guidance were standing by the door after school this afternoon just as I was busting out of one meeting trying to get halfway across the county to another in 12 minutes.

"Good luck with your presentation!" one of them called, and I must have made some kind of sour face when I thanked her, because she continued, "You'll be great!" and gave me a thumbs up.

Truth be told, my mind was elsewhere. On a day in the middle of a week that includes preparing sixth graders for their first student-led conferences, finalizing interim grades, planning for a major schedule change and additional class prep, stuffing all the business of an interdisciplinary team into 2 45-minute periods, and oh yeah, teaching, assessing, and planning, I was already way past worrying about that particular commitment.

"I know!" I waved as I pushed through the double doors toward the parking lot.

"I like a person with confidence!" I heard behind me as I went.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016


One of the strategies we learned this summer to help young writers get to the heart of their personal narratives in terms of message, meaning, and why the story matters was to have them hashtag it. "Kids are familiar with that!" our instructor told us, and we agreed.

Well, this week I have had some #amusing conversations with my #sixthgraders. Understandably, not so many of them are even on social media, and so the concept is not quite as ingrained in them as perhaps originally presumed. #jumpingtoconclusions

The more concrete thinkers among them want to use the hashtag as a simple label, and that is completely understandable. #shouldaseenitcoming For example, a picture of a goldfish yielded #goldfish, #pet, #Nemo (with a sharp rebuke from the other students) and #thesnackthatsmileback.

"What about #dinner?" I asked.

"EW!" they answered.

"Don't you mean #ew!" I asked.

"Unless you're a cat!" someone suggested. And she was right, because hashtags certainly reveal your perspective.

Even so, most folks have kind of gotten away from the hashtag as a tool for thematic connection, and now it is really more of a witty addendum to a tweet or snapchat.

And yet the exercise of generating several quick labels for my own writing pieces really paid off. Like the kids, I started with the obvious, but with free association, I generally found the heart of my piece by the 3rd or 4th hashtag. To be honest, it was almost therapeutic.

For a sketch I'd written about an environmental club my sixth grade teachers started that was invitation only and which I had not been invited to join. I started with #stupidclub, moved on to #that'snot fair, and finally ended with #whynotme? And I realized that the reason it still bothered me after 43 years was because there is a part of me that assumes that I was rightfully rejected and still wonders why I wasn't good enough.

Hashtag that.