Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Nicest Kids in Town

We're going to see our middle school musical tonight. Ordinarily, the preview performance that we see at school is enough for me, but as I asked my brother when trying to convince him to come along despite his aversion to any musical, let alone a middle school production of Hairspray, Jr, How can you resist a show set in June 1962 with a main character named Tracey?

Yeah, he's going.

(But maybe it's because his wife did the sets, too, and we're going out to dinner after.)

Friday, April 29, 2016

Flashback Friday

I receive a weekly beer newsletter from a local specialty store, and when I read the bulletin yesterday about a cucumber ale aged in gin barrels, I thought of my friend Mary. This limited edition beverage was arriving today and was first come, first serve, so knowing I would be in a meeting with her this afternoon, I set a reminder on my watch.

And that's how I found myself ditching school to go buy beer on a Friday afternoon.

I forgot how much fun that can be! (Next time, I might even drink some, too.)

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Not E Boy

Oh the joys of teaching sixth grade in the spring!

My students were busy brainstorming their ideas for the Alphabiography challenge that starts on May 1 when the following conversation was heard throughout the room:

Student 1: I have everything but E. I need an idea for E.

Student 2: How about 'orgasm'? (Laughs lecherously)

Student 1: (Confused) What?

Student 2: Orgasm! Heh, heh, heh. Orgasm! Orgasm!

Student 1: That... doesn't... start... with E.

Me: May I speak to you in the hallway, [student 1]?

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

As Easy as 1-2-3

This time of year is very busy at school. There are all sorts of competing tests, activities, and assemblies that teachers have to plan around, and so it is that by necessity I have to introduce the writing challenge for May tomorrow, even though there are still three days left in the poetry challenge.

Ideally, the writing assignment for any given day allows students to practice and apply what they are learning in class, and so I was faced with a bit of a conundrum as I sat at my desk this afternoon finalizing the particulars of my lesson for tomorrow. What kind of poem would go with alphabiography planning?

And then? Inspiration struck! In one of those where did that idea even come from? moments it occurred to me that there was at least one poem I could recall that was in alphabetical order-- The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey is a macabre recitation of how 26 children meet their untimely ends. My students will love it!

And so I googled the poem, which is actually a book illustrated with Gorey's signature pen and ink drawings, to find the text. One description of the work called it an "abecedarian" (pronounced ay-bee-ce-day-ree-an), and it was there I paused. A what?

Exactly! And voila! The Abecedarian Poetry challenge is born!

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Wrap it in a Poem

My students recently took a practice test for our state's standardized exam which revealed that they needed a little refresher in identifying organizational patterns, which are also known as text structures. The most common of these? Chronological, compare and contrast, cause and effect, description, problem/solution, and sequence or process.

I like to plan such lessons from both a receptive and productive approach, so I explained to them why knowing about these patterns was important both as a reader and a writer, and I gave them a handy reference sheet with all the signal words they might need; for example cause and effect writing relies heavily on since, because, this led to, on account of, due to, for this reason, consequently, etc.

But, hey! It's poetry month, people! So to give them practice using transition words, I created a new challenge for the day... the Process Poem!

Process writing describes a series of steps or events. A coherent process description requires a clear purpose or unifying idea (thesis). There are two basic types of process writing: directions (how to do something) and information (how something works).Process writing uses a specific signal words such as:

after that,
at the same time,
by then,

Today's challenge: Write a fanciful "How to" poem of at least 6-10 lines. Use the transition words to help you, but be creative and add figurative language!

Here's an example:
How to Make the Perfect Sunday 
by Ms. S 

First take a scoop of a Friday fun,
then add a second scoop of Saturday swirl. 
Next smother it in warm sunshine, 
followed by sweet whipped dreams,
and after that rainbow sprinkles.
Lastly, don't forget the cheerful on top!
Finally-- enjoy!

"Hey!" one student raised her hand when I shared the example. "Sunday and sundae? I see what you did there!"

But, did she though? Did she really?

Monday, April 25, 2016


Many of my students this year are enjoying the Hundred Day Writing Challenge, but there is one guy who has definitely embraced it. He has posted every day without fail, and his writing is quirky, funny, and engaging.

When we did the first round of prizes for the month of March, he won a pair of aviator sunglasses and they have been the star of nearly every poem he has written this month starting with his haiku:

I got sun glasses
They are so swag-o-lishis
They give me such swag

and continuing on through simile:

My sunglasses are as swag as a Ferrari
hyperbole, my swag sunglasses keep the world spinning
credo poems, And I believe that no one has ever won as cool sunglasses as I have

and the tribute to his birthday month:

Smell of flowers in the air.
Wearing swag sunglasses.
That is what it is like in June.

his praise poem refrain:

swag is in his blood

of course his six ways of looking poem:

On my dresser
I saw my swag glasses
The glass reflected my books in the background
The glasses stared at my books

his ode to Earth:

but best of all, without you there would be no such thing as swag sunglasses!

his ode to Mars:

You fill us with wonder and questions,
is there life? Is there water? Are there swag sunglasses?

and finally in his Shakespearean sonnet:

My sunglasses are so extremely swag,
They are the coolest things on the planet.
Sorry, but you can't have them, so don't nag.
Their rim is the same colour as granite.
I do really love my swag sunglasses.
They really are so, so very awesome.
They make me look sweeter than mallasses.
They look as cool as an awesome possum.
They are very much the best things ever.
I really like to wear them all the time.
Also they are as light as a feather.
I won't sell them for a knickel or dime.
My sunglasses are so very epic
and they belong to me, not Joe or rick.

I look forward to reading his post every day, and he reminds me why I do this activity.

Thanks, Marshall!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Sunday No Funday

We went out to run a few errands today and ended up shopping in


That's too many.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Uh Odes!

I spent a bit of my morning reading over and commenting on the odes that my students wrote yesterday in celebration of Earth Day. In general, I would say the opportunity to go outside for inspiration and details paid off-- their odes were sweet and concrete.  When it came to conclusions, though, there were a few challenges. See if you can tell what I mean:

O'Earth thank you for all you have done to the animals--
have a great day!


Even though you are insignificant
in the cosmic scheme,
we will always love you


O' little blue marble,
what would I do without you!


you are glorious
and glamorous
and yet
we still destroy you.
Oh Earth.


oh earth I will never forget your gifts that you share with us
thank you and happy birthday.


As we run, walk, and jog,
you are the birthplace
and home to thousands of people.


thx for being a
wonderful planet

and my personal favorite:

I feel the air is pushing me back and forth
O earth what would the world be without you?

Friday, April 22, 2016

Happy Earth Day to You

Last weekend when the girls were here, they both told me separately how proud they were of their long-distance running parents. "What about you and your sister?" I asked the oldest. "Do you guys do anything like that?"

"Oh, no," she told me, "we're more inside people."

I thought of that conversation today when I told my students that in honor of Earth Day we would spend part of our class outside gathering details for the odes we would write to our home planet when we came back in. Do we have to? sighed at least one student in every class.

Then there was the litany of concerns:

I have allergies. 
I need sunscreen. 
I'm afraid of bugs. 
It's too cold. 
Isn't it going to rain? 

"Guys!" I snapped them back. "We're only going to be out there for 10 minutes, 15 tops!" And off we went to explore the back field of our school where we found:

maple seed helicopters (that you can also stick on your nose)
buttercups (which many were unaware could show if you like butter)
dandelion seeds to send flying
redbud blossoms to sample
cedar foliage to feel
clover to search for lucky four-leafs
breezes to refresh us
mulch to pinch our noses at
smooth crape myrtle trunks to admire (it looks like mango! someone noted.)
holly leaves to beware of
pink dogwood flowers to commend
anthills to architecturally acclaim
crabgrass to metaphorically contemplate
and lots of
and squirrels
and trees
and people

And when we came back inside each group was absolutely silent as they composed their odes to our home.

Thursday, April 21, 2016


How strange that on the day that the longest reigning monarch of England, Queen Elizabeth II, turned 90, the artist once and for all known as Prince passed away.

One who was forced to grow up so early has grown so old, and the other who seemed somehow forever young will never truly grow old.

What a world.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Cause for Celebration

The day before National Poem-in-your-Pocket-Day is a busy one in my classroom. Students browse through thousands of poems in over a hundred poetry collections to find the perfect opus to carry with them the next day. They are also welcome to revisit all the great writing they have posted to our online poetry challenge and select an original work.

For some reason, these sixth graders were more excited and engaged than any other group I've ever shared the activity with. Can we have more than one? Can we trade with our friends? Can I pick something another student has posted?

The answers were, Yes. Yes! and YES! 

"It's like any holiday," I joked with them, "you can celebrate it any way you like!"

Yay! they cheered.

When I told my friend and fellow English teacher Mary about it? She said, "Look at you, creating a community of writers!"

Yes! Yes! and Thank you, Mary!

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Kids These Days

Yesterday, I was recounting a bit of misconduct on the part of a particular student who happens to have Down's Syndrome, on our recent all-school field trip to a colleague who wasn't there.

"He just grabbed the map and speed-walked away into the crowd! So when I caught up with him, I grabbed his lunch box strap to make him stop, and then he tried to yank it away from me, telling me to let go or else! And the next thing I know we're standing in the middle of the convention center completely surrounded by thousands of kids from all over the area, and he's yelling that he doesn't want to fight me."

"Wow," she said only half-joking, "You're lucky nobody was filming you with their phones. That could have gone viral!"

Monday, April 18, 2016

Plane Food

While researching today's post, which was going to be about how addictive those Tasty food prep videos on BuzzFeed are, I stumbled upon a list of anti-glam food sites, and it was there that I was introduced to inflightfeed on Instagram.

Yes, it is all photos of airplane food! As current as the pictures are, there is a bit of nostalgia to the site for me as well, since here in the US, we don't have meals served to us on airplanes anymore. Speaking as a former air line cook, I recognize how that state of affairs may give us all one less thing to complain about, but it's still al ittle sad.

Don't worry, though, it seems that we just shipped all those tiny dishes overseas, because all the shots on inflightfeed are from Air India, Malaysia Air, Lufthansa, KLM, Azores Air, etc, en route to and from Mumbai, Delhi, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Oslo, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Lisbon, and other such destinations.

And, while it doesn't look like the food has improved much in the last 25 years?  I sure would like to travel on a few of those flights.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Spring Run

Despite the fact that most cherry blossoms have been long gone these last two weeks, the unpredictability of nature had the Cherry Blossom Festival on the calendar for this weekend. Many, many tourists had booked their trips in advance, and as it was impossible to get anywhere near the Tidal Basin either yesterday or today, we redirected our dog walking to Roosevelt Island on Saturday and then Hains Point today.

To be kind, East Potomac Park is a real fixer-upper with plenty of potential and lots of location, location, location. That said, this place, which actually houses the National Capital Region Headquarters of the Park Service, is a dismaying mess of flooded and rotting sidewalks, flotsam-and-jetsam-littered green space, and breathtaking views. Even so, it is still a popular destination for city families and fisherman, and us, today.

We started our walk around the peninsula on the northern side across from the golf course club house. Sunshine, a nice breeze, and an unbeatable view of the waterfront across the Potomac Channel made it almost possible to ignore the trash and gaping holes in the walk way. Several folks greeted us as we walked, and as we went on, we noticed many people looking over the railing into the choppy water below. Pausing to see what all the fuss was, we were amazed by a ribbon of large silver fish swimming along the side. Hundreds flashed by in both directions on what seemed to be a super highway for fish.

"What are they?" a woman ahead of us asked a fisherman nearby.

"Herring," he told her. "They run every spring like this. They live in the ocean but return to the Potomac to spawn."

We watched in awe for more than a moment as an endless stream of Alewife and Blue River Herring darted below us, and as we continued around the point, it was impossible not to stop and check to see if they were still there.

They were, every time.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Unaccompanied Adult

There was a time, that doesn't seem that long ago, when we had seen all the latest kid movies, but these days it's increasingly rare. On my Oscar ballot this year, animated feature ranked right down there with foreign language and documentary feature as the category with the fewest movies I'd actually seen.

So when we asked our god-daughters what they wanted to do this weekend, I was really happy when seeing Zootopia was at the top of their list. And honestly? The Disney flick did not disappoint. Nor did the previews-- I'm definitely seeing Finding Dory when it opens in June, even if I don't have a kid to take me!

Friday, April 15, 2016

Tough All Over

Our sixth grade god-daughter is in town from New Jersey for the weekend, and she and I have spent the last few hours commiserating about school. "I use to like school before they made us get up so early!" she said.

"Tell me about it!" I answered.

"When we ask to go to the bathroom our math teacher always sighs and says, Is now really the best time?" she told me at dinner. 

"I know, but look at it from her point of view," I said. "A kid goes to the bathroom and then comes back and says, What are we doing? I was in the bathroom."

She laughed. "Well whose fault is that?" she admitted, and so we went on. 

And to be honest? It's been helpful and refreshing to hear the student side of the kind of sixth grade drama that seems to be fairly universal.

Thursday, April 14, 2016


"So did you practice a lot of ukulele the last couple of weeks?" my instructor inquired this evening.

"Uh. No," I confessed. " I haven't even picked my ukulele up in at least a week."

"Busy, eh?" he shrugged. "What? Do you have a full time job or something?"

He laughed. I felt better.

"Why don't we do a little rockin' out?" he suggested. "This song has two chords and then it uses the blues scale."

I expected him to pull out some sheet music, but he didn't. Instead he demonstrated, bar by bar, and then had me try it. He was right-- it wasn't too hard.

"I'm going to play the chords," he said, "and you just go ahead and play the scales up and down, any way you want."

I did what he said: I listened to the music and just tried to keep up, jamming along. It sounded pretty good! And I was smiling a couple of minutes later when we stopped.

"That was a nice solo!" he told me, "Just like Clapton!"

I laughed as he pulled out the sheet music so that we could keep working on The Sunshine of Your Love. "This is so much fun, I don't think I'll practice next week either!"

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

More than Enough

In a week where consistent frustration at work has led me to question both human nature and our culture at large, a welcome commercial transaction today:

Shout out to, a web-based pet supply company from whom I ordered several items a couple weeks ago! Most of the stuff was great, but a couple things just did not work for us. When I went online to return the too-small collar and tiny food bowl I was irritated at first that there was no simple return form. And so it was in foul humor that I clicked the "Chat Now" button.

A few minutes later I had copied and pasted the items and order number into the dialog window and was busy grading papers when  customer service replied to me.

We will refund you the full amount right away, but there is no need to return the items to us. We hope you will find an animal shelter or other organization who will give your items to animals who need them. Is there anything else I can help you with today?

For goodness' sake, no! 

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

What He Could Do

Today I gave my students a poetry challenge based on Naomi Shihab Nye's poem, Famous. After reading, I asked them to come up with their own examples of fame and also to tell what they wish to be famous for.

On the surface? We were reviewing what a stanza was, but I hoped for a little bit more, and I was not disappointed. Here's a great example:

The run down hut
is famous to it's family.

I want to be famous in the way a parent is,
to his children.
Not because he did something
out of the ordinary,
but because
he pushed on,
through fights and work,
still keeping responsibility
for his children's happiness,
and because,
he never
gave up.


Monday, April 11, 2016


With exactly 20 days left in the April writing challenge and 20 days required to win a prize, I casually pulled out a big gun today. As my students checked their reading logs and reviewed for the word parts quiz I circulated through the room flicking my wrist to deploy and retrieve my blue Duncan butterfly. Here and there I let it sleep at the end of its string before calling it into the safety of my palm; a couple of times I flipped it around the world, and once or twice I even tried to walk the dog. For a brief moment I was back in sixth grade myself: it was 1973 and, just like all the other kids,  I had a classic yellow and red butterfly threaded around my finger.

"You have a yo-yo?" my students exclaimed.

"Oh yeah," I shrugged. "Don't you?"

"No!" they answered, followed by a chorus of Can I try it?

"You can if you win one in the writing challenge!" I said. "Let me remind you how it works..."

It's nice to know that I did actually learn something valuable in sixth grade! I wish the same for my students.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Not Quite

The poetry challenge for my sixth grade students today was to write a limerick, and I thought the directions were pretty clear:

A limerick is a silly poem with five lines. They are often funny or nonsensical. Limericks were made famous by Edward Lear, a famous author who wrote the Book of Nonsense in the 1800's. This was an entire book of silly limericks.

How to write a limerick:

The first, second and fifth lines all have 8 or 9 syllables.
The third and fourth lines have 5 or 6 syllables
The rhyme scheme is AABBA
Limericks often start with the line "There once was a..." or "There was a..."

First of all, bless their hearts, all 25 kids who took time out of their Sunday to try and compose a limerick, which is not an easy task at all. Some were really good, and some were just a little off. This one, though? Was my favorite:

There once were golden ducks
which loved to smuggle old bananas
but when they were caught
they quack and grunt
" but we are innocents!" With mistakes


You bet! And I can't wait for the conference to see where my directions went so wrong!

Saturday, April 9, 2016

If at First

"Hey Mom! I have a new favorite color! Guess what it is?" we overheard a little boy ask this afternoon.

"Chartreuse?" his mom suggested playfully.

"I don't even know what that is," he dismissed her answer. "But you have two more guesses!"

Friday, April 8, 2016

Picture It!

Today the first student earned her chance to fly the drone, and fly it she did, with minimal help from me. "This is all you!" I encouraged her, and then I sat down to play cards with three squirrely little boys as she deftly maneuvered the zippy red craft through the room on game day.

Of course her experience inspired others to submit proposals for a chance of their own to pilot a drone. I read them all, repeating the guideline that their tasks should be challenging but clearly beneficial to them.

So what to do with the student who made the following offer? I will illustrate a piece of your writing into a comic. It will take me two weeks. You pick the story. 

As tempting as it is (who wouldn't want to see their writing transformed as such?) that seems too much like exploitation, so sadly,

she's going to have to submit another proposal.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Enough is Enough

I brought the pair of girlfriend chinos up to the register at the Gap. "Oh these are great pants!" the cashier gushed. "Lots of people buy several pairs because they come in so many colors and they fit so well."

I nodded politely. "I can see that," I said.

"Are you sure you don't want any more girlfriends?" he asked.

"Oh no," I laughed and looked over my shoulder at Heidi. "I definitely have all I need!"

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Low Expectations

I had a district-wide meeting for all middle school English teachers today. This year the department has organized break-out sessions in lieu of collective congregations, and we can choose between four or five presentations to find the one that best suits our professional needs and/or desires.

In general, it's a pretty good model, especially since they usually get folks from our local chapter of The National Writing Project to present one of the options. That was the one I chose today, but it was still with some reluctance that I packed my things and left my classroom at 2:40, a good 2-3 hours earlier than usual, and headed off to another middle school.

The Writing Project presentations are always heavy on participation and writing-- they put you in the student seat even as they are providing the tools and techniques a teacher might use. The session I attended today was no exception; it was hands on and creative, and I had fun and got a couple of concrete lesson ideas.

As we filed out of the room I found myself next to another teacher I know only slightly.  It was a little awkward at first, until I looked her in the eye. "That was painless!" I said.

She laughed and nodded in agreement, and I waved as I pushed open one of the heavy double doors and walked out into the afternoon sunshine.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Upside

I read recently that one path to a more positive life is to find the blessing in every aggravation. Bummed by the laundry? Be thankful for the clothes. Work got you down? Appreciate the paycheck. Feeling old and sore? Consider the alternative.

I tried it out at home a few weeks ago, but the third time I mentioned the "upside" to something Heidi was venting about, she told me if I was going to keep on doing that? She was just going to stop talking.

Since then I've applied the principal privately, which gives me a chance to think before I speak.


Monday, April 4, 2016

Droning On

They saw me coming.

The retailers at that discount store knew what they were doing when they set up the "pre" checkout line as a kind of a chute stocked with all sorts of appealing little doodads. As shoppers file through in an orderly queue waiting for the next available register, there are hundreds more things to look at, pick up, and perhaps even buy.

That's how I got my drone. Never even in the market for such a gadget, I got one glimpse of the flashy black and red quadcopter just as I rounded the last bend or that materialistic gauntlet and grabbed the box as I went by. It was paid for and in my bag before I even gave it a second thought, a bargain at $19.99.

That was Wednesday, and I held off even buying batteries for it until the weekend, thinking maybe, just maybe, I would come to my senses and return it. I'm so glad I didn't though, because once I got the thing operational, it was extremely entertaining. Oh, I terrified the cat and dog and crashed it all over the house, running its tiny battery down several times before I could even begin to control it. It gave me hours of Sunday fun.

And while I did improve a bit, there was still so much room for growth that I slipped it into my lunch bag this morning, so that I might practice a little at school. As I unpacked my food for the day, I set the tiny flyer and its controller on my desk and when my homeroom arrived they spotted it immediately and asked to see it fly. Only too happy to oblige, I maneuvered my drone like a big clumsy mosquito all over the classroom.

"Can I try it?" they all were desperate to know.

And here's where that teacher's motivational instinct kicked in automatically. "Maybe" I answered, "What would you do to earn a turn?"

"What do you mean?" they asked.

"Submit a proposal," I suggested, pointing to a stack of 4x6 index cards on my desk. "Think of something that would be good for you to do. It should be kind of hard, too. AND, we have to know whether you did it or not by a specific time."

"I'm going to get better grades in math and science!" one student said right away.

"Better than what?" I asked him, "And by when?"

They gave me a collective frown.

"I'm going to do my reading log tonight," another promised.

"You would do that anyway," I told her. "Think of something a little more challenging.

And in this way, I made contracts with about half of the kids to read more, write more, organize more, and be on time more.

The drone is standing by.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Consumer Education

Target was crowded this Sunday afternoon and, shopping done, we found ourselves at the front of the store searching for the shortest line. We had way too much for express, but as we passed, our attention was drawn to one woman who stood a little apart from the actual queue. "Are you in line, or not?" she asked loudly.

Eyebrows up, my head snapped around to see who she was talking to.

A little girl of perhaps 10 stood timidly several feet from the belt. "Yes," she answered.

"Well act like it!" her mother encouraged her. "Move on up!"

The child complied, perhaps a little too enthusiastically.

"Whoa!" the woman advised from the sideline. "Not too close! Give the people some room."

The little girl took half a step back.

Her coach nodded from the sideline.

We pushed our cart past, secure in the knowledge that there will be competent shoppers for generations to come.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Maximum Sparklage

"Ya'll should bring your ukuleles over and I'll play piano," our neighbor suggested this morning. I was practicing my picks, rolls, and strums while we were hanging out drinking coffee.

I laughed. "Then we could start a band!" I replied. "But what would our name be?"

Our dogs, Lady and Isabel, were snoring contentedly at our feet. "How about Lady Bell?" I suggested, "or maybe just call it what it is: Three Chicks, Two Ukuleles, and a Piano."

Our conversation wandered on to other things, but later Heidi was telling me about a shopping trip she had taken with the same neighbor. who was shopping for outdoor lighting and couldn't decide between two fixtures, because, "She wanted maximum sparklage!" Heidi said.

I snapped my fingers. "Now that's a band name!" 

Friday, April 1, 2016

Define "Sense"

April 1 means we say goodbye to Slice of Life and hello to poetry in my sixth grade English class.

Oh, the hundred day writing challenge continues, and those who have the "write stuff" will also have 30 poems written by the end of the month. Such accomplishment takes some explaining however, and as I stood before my class this morning introducing the very first daily poem, haiku, a hand waved to me from the corner of the room.

"Wait! Do these poems have to make sense?" she asked.

"Well, yes," I answered. "Even though you are limited in syllables and lines, your reader should know what you are writing about."

"Why?" she frowned, "My slice of life never made any sense!"