Monday, February 29, 2016

Exits and Entrances

Taking advantage of the beach cruiser bikes that were included in our rental house, Emily, Heidi, and I pedaled out the rutted clay road yesterday morning. Our destination was the northernmost spit of land on our little peninsula, but the way was not direct. We meandered around a little pond and through a horse farm before we even made it to the main road. At one point we rounded a little bend, flustering a half dozen vultures feeding on a deer carcass by the side of the road. A few held their ground as we rolled by, and I could neither unsee the long stretchy piece of gore one was pulling from the gut, nor unsmell the sharp stench, but those unpleasantries were joined by an abiding appreciation for the role of the scavenger, especially when half an hour later on our return trip we pedaled by four times as many vultures and the indisputable calculus that over half the deer was gone. 

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Acceptance Speech

We are away at the beach for our traditional Oscar party weekend, and to be honest, although we have spent the last 30 hours trying to put as positive as possible a spin on it, the house we have this time just doesn't measure up to past rentals. It's puzzling, because we are using the same company, but after being spoiled by smart renovations and stylish furnishings for the last two years, we were disappointed to find a chopped up three-level place with shabby furniture and a so-so equipped kitchen. Far from allowing it to spoil our weekend, the four of us have spent the day improvising and innovating our way around such obstacles as a dishwasher rack with falling off wheels (scouring the drawers for missing parts and rubber bands), no charcoal lighter (a brown paper bag and tin foil  fashioned into a chimney), and creating a sand sifter from an olive container. We have certainly congratulated ourselves plenty for our ingenuity, but in the spirit of the weekend...

I would like to thank my mother, who always taught us that no matter what the problem is, if you use your imagination and know-how, you can figure out a way over, under, or around any obstacles and fix what needs to be. (Waves golden statuette in the air and exits stage right as the orchestra swells.)

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Power of Suggestion

"Frozen waffle are my jam," said the very talented chef the other night on Top Chef.

Heidi and I looked at each other. "Uh oh," she said.

"What?" Kate, Josh's girlfriend asked.

"He's going to get eliminated for that," I predicted. "No matter how good his dish is," I shook my head sadly, "you can't use frozen waffles at this point."

The four of us giggled through the episode as it played out just as Heidi and I predicted. "I can't believe that," Josh laughed at the end.

I was making coffee when he and Kate got up this morning. "Do we have any waffles?" he asked me without a trace of irony.

"Why? I asked, "Are they your jam?"

Friday, February 26, 2016

Positive Thinking

I introduced the 7th annual 100 Day Writing Challenge to my students today. Over the years I've learned that some kids need a bit of a cushion to make their hundred days, and so this time, in addition to breaking the challenge up into three mini-challenges, we are starting a few days early with some warm-up posts and finishing a couple days after the actual 100 mark. I'm hoping that will boost the number of "Centurions" who successfully complete the challenge.

"What if we all finish?" one student asked today.

"That would be great!" I told him.

"But what about the t-shirts?" he continued.

"I guess you would all get one," I answered.

"But then you would go broke!"

"Maybe," I shrugged, "but it would be totally worth it!"

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Senior League

It wasn't long ago that the cry of "Kobe" as a shot went up meant that "swish" was the expectation as the basketball came down. I should know-- for a long time I have had a mini basketball hoop and a duct tape strip on the carpet about 10 feet away from it in my classroom, and I have heard that cry for years.

On most days the "Lollipop Line" is open in the three minutes between third period and the bell for lunch. Any student who feels like it can stop by, grab one of the ten or so mini-basketballs from the milk crate by the line, and take a shot to win the choice of a piece of candy from the large plastic barrel I keep behind my desk.

Oh, there are rules: hit the lights or the ceiling? Then you are out for the day. Otherwise, follow your shot, get your rebound, and hustle back in line for another chance. On any given day two or three kids out of the 15 or so who show up make the shot, but everyone has a good time, including me as I referee and cheer each student on. It is a simple way to build rapport and community in three minutes a day, as evidenced by the fact that I rarely have behavior issues with any of the regulars.

This year there is one student who always waits until the bell has rung and his classmates are gone. "Will you take a shot?" he asks me every day.

"Sure," I tell him, and I don't mind it when I miss, because it shows that I'm willing to take a chance.

Today was just such a day; the shot I took was way off.

"Kobe!" he cried when I missed.

I raised my eyebrows at him.

"You're just like Kobe Bryant!" he continued, in case I didn't get the reference. "He misses all the time, too! There is one difference though... He's old!"

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Try it, You'll Like It!

Last month when Josh was in the hospital, he and I passed away a few of the seemingly endless hours by making up a new card game. Based loosely on a combination of a couple sets of rules we found by googling "cards for two," it turned out to be a quick little game with a fun balance of luck and strategy.

For a few days, he and I were the only ones who had ever played it, but after a while we roped Heidi and Kate, Josh's girlfriend, into a few hands. To be honest, their response was a little lukewarm, but that didn't stop me from buying a deck of cards at the straw market on Great Stirrup Cay last Sunday.

The deck itself with its bright blue and yellow Bahamian flag and handy plastic case was well worth the five bucks I paid for it, and after a while I was even able to convince Heidi, her mom, and her brother's friend Dee to play cards with me. Three or four hands later? We all agreed! This was a good game!

"Oh, I can't wait to tell Josh!" I said. "Our game is an international success!"

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

What Educators Make

I knew it was something serious when I saw the email late Sunday night. There was going to be a staff meeting in the library before school the next morning. I waited until we reached Miami at around 7 am to send a text to find out what was going on. "Sad news," came the reply from my friend Mary. One of our staff members had died the night before.

I was sorry not to be at school to help the kids through it, and sorry, too, not to be there to share the loss with our school community; as it was, Heidi and I talked it through a lot yesterday, and that was helpful, but it would have been a comfort to be with everyone else.

I heard later that a steady stream of former students had passed through the building all afternoon, drawn back to share their sadness and their memories of a big personality. He was a complicated man, and not everyone liked him, but there was no denying all that he had contributed to our school in the 20 years he had been there.

"It's funny," a colleague said to me today, "most teachers retire, and so when they pass away they don't get such an outpouring."

"True," I said, "but really? This could be for any of us. It's not taking anything away from him if we realize that we should never doubt that we have made a difference."

Monday, February 22, 2016

Let's Jet

The rest of our group wanted to disembark the cruise ship before nine this morning. If past experience was any indication, it could have taken us a couple hours to make it through customs and catch a cab to the airport, anyway, and so being the team players we are? We agreed. Who knew that we would be standing at the curbside check-in at 10 am for a 2:15 pm flight?

After finding no available seats on two earlier planes, we checked our bags and set out to explore... Miami International Airport. There are three levels to the U-shaped terminal, and we saw them all. In fact there are actually art exhibits and even a garden tucked away in a few quieter corners. In addition, because it is a verrry international airport, there are many stores to browse before even passing through security.

When at last we joined that line, which moved at a ridiculously quick pace, all 60 gates of the D concourse and its many shops and restaurants lay before us, and believe me, we saw them all. 8000+ steps later, we strolled toward our gate, iced Americanos in hand, just as they called our boarding group. "This has been one hell of a boring day," I sighed to Heidi.

In my earlier years, we spent many a long day at the airport. Back then, my dad worked for TWA and travel for us was always stand by. Factor in overnight flights and long layovers, and you get a family who could sleep on airport chairs whenever necessary, and if we didn't make the flight, we were lucky if there was a news stand open to kill time.

"But it wasn't as bad as it could've been," I told her as we headed down the jetway.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

It's Better in the Bahamas

By 10:39 am this morning, we were all set up in our private cabana on Great Stirrup Cay. The Caribbean Sea gleamed turquoise and a light breeze made the 75 degree sunshine perfect. Ice cold water, fresh fruit, and chips with a trio of fresh salsas were spread out on the white linen table cloth. Stefan had already been by to take our drink orders, and Heidi's dad relaxed on a deck chair. I clicked a photo of our cruise ship floating placidly in the azure water just beyond the palm trees and white sand beach and showed it to him. 

"This looks like a nice place," I joked.

"Wow!" he answered, "it sure does! Where is it?"

Saturday, February 20, 2016

From Sea to Shining Sea

I made sure to be up before the sun this morning, and my efforts were rewarded with a pretty picture of  Paradise Island snaking through the Atlantic toward the rising sun. The day passed in exploration, but by 5 pm we were ready to slip the surly bonds mooring our ship, the Sky, to the concrete pier and venture forth to sea again. And so it was that I found myself on the starboard side of the promenade deck facing west and watching the sun sink right back into the very ocean it rose from this morning. Oh, there was no green flash, but my gratitude for spending such a day with those bookends of bright beauty was luminous enough. 

Friday, February 19, 2016

Answering the Call of the Sea

We find ourselves at sea for the second time in less than five months, and to be honest I'm pretty happy with the situation. Having purposely chosen the same cruise line and even the sister ship of our former liner, it's almost like returning to a place I really, really liked when I lived there for a week back in August. It could possibly be a little bit better if I had booked the identical stateroom, but we are right around the corner on the same deck and for a long weekend? That's okay.

This cruise does have a much different vibe, though. A relatively affordable, weekend trip from Miamai to the Bahamas is bound to attract a different clientele than a premium Alaskan excursion. That much was very clear when we made our way up to deck 11 Right after we boarded. It was packed with young people in bathing suits taking full advantage of the free booze. Since she was still tied up to the pier, our ship was as steady as a rock, but the puddles of mojitos and beer and the passengers stumbling through them implied otherwise, as did the chanting around the hot tub up at the open air bar: drink, drink, drink!

Still, there were several places to be found on board where we could enjoy the view as we steamed through Governor's Inlet leaving Miami Beach behind. Of course, there was the obligatory safety drill, too. I was looking forward to mustering again at Station R, but when we made our way down to the promenade deck, we found that our group had been relocated to the Stardust Theatre. Filing in and then waiting on the cushy upholstered seats was anti-climactic, and the fact that every announcement was made both in English and Spanish made the drill drag.

It did not improve things at all when a 20 something guy in his swim trunks interrupted the crew member demonstrating the safety procedures. "We just waaaaaant to parrrrrrrrty!" He bellowed. "I hope nobody minds," he continued, "but if the ship sinks, I'm not wearing my shirt. Suck it old dudes!" He stood up and pounded on his chest.

"Really?" Whispered a woman a few rows ahead. "Doesn't he know that he'll be in a lifeboat with us? Who wouldn't throw him overboard right away?"

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Walking the Walk

From time to time I put myself out there as a writer. Oh, don't get me wrong, most of what I do is hardly risky; for example posting every day is simply a way to make sure I have a clue about what my students are facing. And to be honest, in most cases, "putting myself out there as writer" isn't very high stakes either.

A while ago, I saw a challenge sponsored by the Kennedy Center to write a "tiny play" of 500 words or less to commemorate the centennial of JFK's birth that thematically speaks to some aspect of his legacy, and I passed it on to my writing group as a fun little prompt we might all try for our next meeting. Sure, I'd never written a play before, but how hard could it be? And only 500 words? Cinch!

Not so much... in retrospect? That's a tall order on a tiny plate! It took me weeks to even come up with a concept, and I mostly stuck with it because it was




But eventually I did prevail, composing around 450 words with 3 characters. (Who just happened to be middle school students... Coincidence? You decide!) Nobody else in the group wrote a tiny play, which is a clearly a failure of the exercise, not the people, but when they heard mine they told me I had to enter the contest. "Sure," I shrugged, because really? Why not? It's not like I expect to win.

And yet,

today, when I revised my little drama to meet tomorrow's deadline, I do admit that my heart raced a bit before I pressed the SUBMIT button. And when I received the confirmation email?

I could barely read past the salutation,

Dear Playwright,

They mean me, I grinned.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Question 6

This is not part of an educators' writing challenge that is making the rounds on the internet which is called "Five Questions." I finished that yesterday.


Oh! If only Question 6 existed! Then I would know what to write about tonight. Hmmm. But if there was a Question 6? Oh my! What would it be?

What are six things you know now that you wish you had known when you started?

What were six times you were [nearly?] brought to tears at school?

What are the six most important lessons you learned from your students?

What are the six most indispensable items in your classroom?

Who are six kids you wanted to throttle but ended up loving? (Pseudonyms, please!)

What are six ways to ensure a snow day when the forecast is iffy?

(Tracey nods off at the keyboard and trippy dream sequence ensues.)

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Question 5

This is the last part of an educators' writing challenge that is making the rounds on the internet. It's called "Five Questions", and the idea is to answer them and then tag some other teachers to try it, too. My good friend and writing group buddy, Ellen, shared her responses and tagged all of us at our recent meeting.

5. Which five people do you hope will take this challenge by answering these questions?

I re-tag Ellen, who I hope will publish the ideas she shared with us the other night, and Mary and Leah, because even though I said I was just going to accept the challenge to fill my blog, it turned out to be a valuable exercise, and I believe they would think so, too.

I also tag my sister-in-law, Emily, who is a wonderful art teacher and who has a fun blog called This place needs more art.

Finally, I'd love to see what my friend Ruth, who is a non-traditional teacher, has to say. She and I met in that masters program back in 1991, and she was instrumental in getting me my first (and only!) teaching job. Since then, she has homeschooled her boys, worked on staff at the Fairhaven School, and most recently earned her doctorate in education, writing her dissertation on play theory.

Go for it guys!

Monday, February 15, 2016

Question 4

This is part 4 of an educators' writing challenge that is making the rounds on the internet. It's called "Five Questions", and the idea is to answer them and then tag some other teachers to try it, too. My good friend and writing group buddy, Ellen, shared her responses and tagged all of us at our recent meeting. 

4. Give four reasons you remain in education despite today's rough culture.

I was 29 when I decided that I should trade my days, or rather nights, of cooking professionally for a career in teaching. To be honest, cooking was a sidetrack, because from the time I was a little girl when someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up the answer was always a teacher.

There was a required practicum in the second semester of the masters program I enrolled in to get my teaching credentials; each of us had to spend 40 hours in a school observing. I will never forget the way I felt when I pushed open the plate glass door and set foot on the polished terrazzo floor on my first day. The smell made me stop in my tracks; some magical combination of chalk dust, children, number 2 pencils, oak tag, tempera paints, and textbooks transported me back 20 years to my own elementary school, and I knew that I was in exactly the right place.

Since that day I have never questioned my decision to become a teacher or wished for another career. There have been trying times, yes, but there have been many more wonderful moments with students and colleagues alike that have reaffirmed my choice a thousand times over.

It helps that I am good at what I do. After so many years on the job, I have a knack for finding a good lesson or activity, and it's fun to plan instruction. It's also very rewarding when everything clicks, especially when I get to see kids who are understanding something for the very first time. Minds blown, their eyes widen, and they just can't help smiling, because it is



to learn.

And because it so cool to learn, I love the fact that not only my workplace but my life is actually dedicated to that very amazing thing. Sure, we bicker over the content and methods, but we all really want the same fundamental thing: kids who

and do
and will continue

to learn.

In that respect, I feel like I am both contributing and needed, and so I choose to continue.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Question 3

This is part 3 of an educators' writing challenge that is making the rounds on the internet. It's called "Five Questions", and the idea is to answer them and then tag some other teachers to try it, too. My good friend and writing group buddy, Ellen, shared her responses and tagged all of us at our recent meeting. I was happy to accept, mostly because I knew right away I could serialize my responses and that meant five days of ready-made topics for this blog!

3. What are three things you hope to accomplish before the end of the school year?

Of course I'd really love to resolve that CLT thing I wrote about in Question 1. Believe me, I am working on it. Just the other day I read a poem with my students by Portia Nelson called Autobiography in Five Short Chapters, which is all about accepting responsibility when things go wrong rather than blaming circumstances or other people. I know I need to ask myself what I can do or change to make this professional relationship functional and productive, and I intend to keep trying to avoid that hole until I can walk down another street. (Read the poem to get the metaphor!)

Secondly,  I have probably reached the last third of my career, and I want to find a way to keep the next 10-15 years as fresh and rewarding as the best years of the first 23. That could mean some big changes for this gal who has spent her entire career in one discipline at one grade level at one school mostly in one classroom. Will I figure it all out this year? Maybe not, but I hope to start.

Finally, we have an 8th grade student at our school who has been a challenge to work with for the last couple of years. I knew him well in sixth grade, but now he has the raging hormones and general angst of any 13 year old boy. He also has Downs syndrome. His meltdowns and temper tantrums are well-known throughout the building, but his father is very supportive and involved in his son's schooling.

Henry is in Heidi's homeroom this year, and she has worked hard to channel his restlessness and energy in a positive and appropriate direction. As an example, she arranged for him to work at the school store a couple of mornings a week with members of the National Junior Honor Society. At first he loved it, but after a few weeks he wanted to quit, so Heidi mentioned it to his dad.

"We are not a family of quitters," his father told him. "Are you needed in this job?'

His son said he was.

"Are you contributing?" the father continued.

His son answered yes again.

"Then you must continue," his father said.

This story resonated deeply with me when Heidi told me about it, and although I'm not in any danger of quitting, my third goal for this year is simply to continue.

(Which brings us to Question 4... more on that next time!)

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Question 2

To recap: This is part of an educators' writing challenge that is going around the internet. It's called "Five Questions", and the idea is to answer them and then tag some other teachers to try it, too. My good friend and writing group buddy, Ellen, shared her responses and tagged all of us at our recent meeting. As I wrote yesterday, I was thrilled because I recognize a serial when I see it!

2. Share two accomplishments that you are proud of this school year.

Just this morning one of our neighbors treated us to a passionate anti-Valentine's Day rant. "It's not even a real holiday!" she complained as the rocking chair she sat in seesawed vehemently. "It is just the product of commercialization!"

That may well be, but I can tell you this: kids love Valentine's Day. I remember back in elementary school spending all sorts of class time each year creating personal card sacks. Fashioned from a simple brown lunch bag, they were personalized and decorated and hung from each student's desk like a little mail box. Then on Valentine's Day there would be time set aside before the party (that our room mothers prepared for us) to drop cards in their respective bags. "You have to have one for everybody in the class," my own mother insisted when I was signing the colorful cardboard cards  had chosen and addressing their flimsy white envelopes that never stayed sealed. "It's not nice to leave someone out."

This year, yesterday was the last school day before Valentine's Day, and even though in middle school we neither decorate bags nor throw parties, the occasion is celebrated nevertheless. Sadly, not everyone gets a Valentine (perhaps because it isn't really a sanctioned school activity), but as a teacher, I usually do. This year was no exception. I got a homemade paper rose filled with Hershey Kisses, a couple of lollipops, two cards, and a comic book.

One of the cards was from a former student, and it had a very lengthy message in it thanking me for all I had done last year to make him a better writer. He specifically mentioned the hundred day writing challenge I sponsor each year and said that before my class he didn't like writing and it was hard for him, but now things have really improved. I knew he meant it, because I had also received a note from his mom at the new year telling me the same thing.

As much as I appreciated that validation of my planning and practice, my favorite gift was the comic book. It was another original work by the student who wrote Have Fun with Pants for me at Christmas. Just as before, his work, Bill in Love, was whimsical, well-written, and very funny, and I don't mean to take any credit for his creativity other than to point out that there's something about the vibe in my class that makes him feel comfortable to share his genius.

And those are the two things I'm most proud of this year:

I have given my students the opportunity and the motivation to consider themselves writers.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Question 1

There's a little educators' writing challenge going around the internet lately. It's called "Five Questions", and the idea is to answer them and then tag some other teachers to try it, too. My good friend and writing group buddy, Ellen, shared her responses and tagged all of us at our meeting  last night. I was thrilled, because I immediately decided to break it up into a series of five posts, which gave me five days of not having to think of a topic! Thanks, Ellen!

1. What has been your one biggest struggle during this school year?

In general, I've been having a pretty good year. I like my students, and the interdisciplinary grade-level team of teachers I am on works really well together to support our group of 100+ kids. Plus, we have fun together; there is always lots of laughing in our classrooms and in our meetings, too.

I am also at a point in my career where I know how to do what needs to be done: I have a variety of knowledge, skills, and strategies in both my instructional and management tool boxes to handle most situations effectively. Sure, it still takes some time to plan, prepare materials, and assess my lessons, but that's my job, and I like it.

And I've been around long enough to see for myself that trends in education really are like shooting stars burning brightly on a dark night, full of wishes and promises. I do my best not to be dismissive or resentful of programs and approaches that are encouraged or even imposed on us; rather I try to look at them as evidence that teaching is such a complex combination of art and science that the search for a magic bullet is irresistible. I also remind myself frequently that people feel so strongly about public school and education because they know how important it is.

Even so, some of the initiatives that have been added to our practice are burdensome to me. Work smarter not harder! A rising tide lifts all boats! They are all *our* students! Such slogans are often used to rationalize the practice of requiring teachers to collaborate with their grade-level, subject-area colleagues. Common units, common lessons, and common assessments are all the hallmarks of these CLTs (collaborative learning teams), and time has been re-allocated from interdisciplinary teams so that these groups can meet and work together. But cooperation and competition are two sides of the same coin; being required to function as a common unit and actually being a functional common unit are two very different things.

And that is my biggest struggle this year: my CLT is a drain of my time and energy. We spend 45 minutes twice a week checking the meeting box, but every meeting is full of defensive comments and complaints. The time we spend is neither productive nor beneficial to us or our students, and it's exceptionally stressful to be part of such an unsuccessful group, especially when we are bombarded by the expectation that our CLT should be a key component to improving our practice.

I guess I'm just not used to failing.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Authentic Voice

I was working on a piece for my writing group this afternoon during homework club. My characters were middle school girls talking about school. (Not much of a stretch, right?) "Hey you guys," I called to the kids in the room. "Where do you think teachers get their ideas for assignments?"

A table of students looked at me with shrugs. "The principal?" one guessed.

"No!" her friend corrected her. "I think from the public county government. They tell them what they have to do."

"Thanks!" I said as I turned to my keyboard and typed ...from the public county government...

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

A Glow and a Grow

"I agree with you that a C does not reflect your son's academic ability," I told a concerned parent this afternoon. "Part of the issue is that he does not always see the value of our directions, and so he does not follow them."

To be honest I was a little nervous about this conference, because the student had his lowest grade in my class. His father was a teacher, and word had it that Dad was more than a little frustrated with both son and school.

The dad nodded. He was listening carefully.

"And while that shows critical thinking skills," I continued, "he frequently misses out on important details, and as a consequence his grades suffer."

"I know what you're talking about," his dad said. "We see the same thing at home. What can we do to help him?"

Tuesday, February 9, 2016


Arms crossed, I grimaced this afternoon as I watched two eighth grade boys grab each other about the shoulders, back, and legs. Pushing and shoving, their goal was obviously to knock the other boy to the ground and keep him there. I said nothing, but every fiber of my teacher persona strained to scold them and put an immediate stop to such behavior.

But of course it was all fair in the wrestling match I was attending.

Monday, February 8, 2016


The start of a new quarter brings a new reading class for me. At our school, sixth grade reading is delivered in the content area one discipline at a time, and on my team that means I teach four rounds of memoir every year. For the most part, I really like it: enough time passes in between lessons that I don't feel as if I'm teaching the same thing over and over, but I also have the opportunity to revise and tweak within months rather than years. Plus, as I've written before, every class can be different because individual students react differently to the same material, and in language arts, that's not a problem.

Take today, for example. My students were creating reading strategies posters. They had to read the descriptions of visualize, analyze, evaluate, connect, self-monitor, recall, infer, or question and illustrate the concept without using words. Then they do a gallery walk to "read" the other posters.

Over the last fourteen quarters, I've seen a lot of ways to communicate these ideas, some more effective than others. This morning I took a look at the product two boys were collaborating on. It was a two panel illustration. "He's reading a book," I said pointing to the first side. My students nodded happily. "But I can't tell what he's doing over there," I gestured to the right side of the page.

"He's folding shirts!" one of the boys told me.

I furrowed my brow a moment and studied the poster, waiting for enlightenment. "Is the book about folding shirts?" I asked slowly.

"Yes!" they were excited to confirm my guess.

"Then it's 'Recall', right?" I checked.

"Yeah!" They nodded. "He has a beard in the second picture to show that time has passed!"

Sunday, February 7, 2016

What's Up Doc?

You know you have a grave set of documentary shorts when the most uplifting of the five is the one about Ebola.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Benefit of Experience

I've often said that the two careers I chose, cooking and teaching, don't always get the respect they deserve, because everyone eats and everyone went to school, so everyone thinks they can do either job. I'll also repeat the story a colleague once told me about her ex-husband who couldn't imagine why she was tired at the end of the school day. "All you do is sit at your desk and say, 'You may begin.' What's so hard about that?" he asked her.

I guess it's one thing when people outside the profession think the job is easy, but recently a couple of teachers in our school seem to discount the value of experience in the field. They are career switchers who have implied in conversation that their private sector time has prepared them just as completely to teach as someone else's time actually spent in the classroom.

Maybe, but here's at least one observation they might find valuable:

Middle school kids are like magpies; they often can't resist shiny objects. Ergo, don't use push pins on bulletin boards in the hallway; they will be stolen.

Friday, February 5, 2016


"What are the two main types of conflict?" I asked in every class today.

Oh, it should have been review, but when I posed the question I got a lot of blank stares. Still, there are many brave souls who are willing to make an educated guess, and I commend them.

"Serious and mild?" surmised one student.

"Verbal and physical?" hypothesised another.

"Bullies and friends?" conjectured someone else.

At last I saw the hand of a new-ish student, recently moved to our district from Hawaii. "Internal and external," he proclaimed confidently.

"Great!" I praised him. 'And do you happen to know the three types of external conflict?"

"Hitting, punching, and kicking?" he guessed.

No worries, friends, because by the end of the lesson the vast majority of students knew that conflict generally comes in four flavors: character vs self (which is internal), character vs character, character vs. society, and character vs environment or nature (all three of which are external).

However, at the end of the day, I was sequestered in a meeting in a classroom at the front of the building. When the final bell rang, I was distracted by the parade of students I saw through the window. There was a lot of energy as they joyously exited the building for the weekend, but as I watched I was appalled to see Mr. Hawaii run up to another student, smack her upside the head, and run off.

I wrote it up, but when I told my friend Mary the whole story starting with his knowledge and subsequent misinformation of conflict she shook her head at me.

"Foreshadowing!" she laughed. "Seriously? You didn't see that coming?"

Thursday, February 4, 2016

While it Lasts

One day over our snowcation last week, Heidi and I went to a mall that is a little farther than we usually venture outside of town. There was still a lot of snow on the ground, and we took advantage of the fact that we needed to make a return to walk around the mall and get some extra steps in. "Let's explore every corner of Tysons!" I said, because even though it was opened in 1968, it has been renovated and expanded several times in the last 47 years.

Back when I was a kid, Tysons Corner was considered the newest and coolest place to shop. My glamorous cousin, Sandy, was a buyer for Woodward and Lothrop, and she she was based out of their flagship store that anchored the mall. When we were in town visiting, one afternoon was always set aside to meet Sandy somewhere fun for lunch. She would glide in elegantly and then sit right down and dig in to pizza or burgers with us.

I'd forgotten those days until we turned down a little dogleg into a section of the mall I haven't been to in a loooooong time. As we swooped past Saks and made a U-turn to return to the main shopping area, I skidded to a stop and gasped. "That pizza place!" I pointed. "We met Sandy there for lunch!" I stood and stared for a moment, thinking back to a Tysons Corner that no longer exists. Where was the Farrell's Old-Fashioned Ice Cream Parlor? Woodys? Hechts? Woolworths? The Hot Shoppe?

"I can't believe that place is still open!" I said with a lingering look over my shoulder as we continued on our way.

Less than a week later, I read the following bulletin on my foodie news feed:

Luciano Italian Pizza Has Closed in Tysons Corner. After 42+ years serving our friends and family at this location we had reached the end of our leasing agreement. We cherish the many fond memories we have been a part of over the years.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

On Me

The first Wednesday of the month in our school district is reserved for countywide content area meetings, and so over the years I have attended roughly 175 middle school language arts gatherings. In an honest attempt to make the time valuable for the teachers who are required to attend, the department has tried many formats, but personally, I have forgotten most of the meetings.

I think that may be inevitable, but not necessarily negative, perhaps, in the way that although I don't really remember my own sixth grade year I continue to confidently teach legions of sixth graders. I'm pretty sure that whether they recall the specifics or not, our time together is well-spent because what I try to instill in them before they leave me is a desire to learn, the belief that they can, and a skill set they may use to do so.

Do our countywide meetings do the same for us? Not always, but today mine did. I attended a presentation by a Teacher Consultant from our local chapter of the National Writing Project. He led us through a session where we wrote poetry, outlined an opinion essay, and learned how to guide our students to collaborate to create standards-based rubrics that they can use to assess their own writing. It was awesome!

Ten years ago, I attended the Writing Project five-week summer institute, and it revitalized and refocused my teaching practice dramatically. My take away today? I need another such re-energizing experience.

Oh, and here's the zero draft of my poem, written in the style of Kwame Alexander in Crossover:

With my knees in the dirt
         WEEDING and SEEDing
                     mulching and feeding
Bees BUZZ and worms w        e
                                         i     l
                                          g g
Shoots !   green and grOW

SUN shines on long V      I      N     E      S
Fertilizing flowers to fruit

O! How my garden grows

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Please, Sir, I Want Some More

It is part of our daily routine in homeroom to stamp reading logs in order to ensure that students are filling them out daily even though they are due weekly. So, at the end of November I bought a blue ink pad to go with my snowflake stamp.  "We're going to use this every day until we have a snow day," I declared.

"What if we never have one?" somebody asked.

"Then I'll be stamping blue snowflakes in June!" I answered.

This morning on our first day back after the eleven day blizzard break,  I held up the box with all the stamps in it. "What'll it be?" I asked. "Those snowflakes were pretty effective! Want some more?"

Ten students looked at me silently. I couldn't tell if they were tired or snow-shocked. "I'll tell you what," I said. "Why don't you choose? When I come around you can pick a snowflake or a yellow jacket, our school mascot."

It was snowflakes all around, friends.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Target Audience

A colleague brought her fifth grade daughter to school for our teacher work day this morning. (That's right-- after six snow days in a row, we had our previously scheduled grade preparation day today. Don't be a hater.)

I have known this little girl all her life, but today we had a more wonderful time than usual, chatting at lunch about books, and the blizzard, and her classmates who would be coming to our school next year.

We had just finished a hilarious round of I'm going on a picnic when her mom finally stood up. "C'mon," she said. "I have work to do next door."

"But I want to stay here!" her daughter replied.

"Oh don't worry!" I laughed, "we can spend lots of time together next year!"


I guess I did miss those kids after all.

Thank goodness they'll be back tomorrow.