Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Every Soul a Star

The sixth grade counselor poked her head into my door this afternoon. "Hey!" she said. "Can I ask you a favor?"

Our counselors loop with their students, which means that at any given grade level you only work with any given counselor every three years, or less, when there's turnover in the department. So, even though this is Erin's third year, she's new to our team.

"Of course!" I told her. "Name it!"

"I need to know how many gifted students you have in each class," she said. "The system is kind of glitchy, and it's waaaay easier if you just tell me."

My gradebook was already open and with two clicks I was able to see the information she requested.

"The gifted students have a star by their pictures," she told me, unnecessarily. I nodded, because any teacher who's used the platform before knows that.

"How many stars do you have?" she asked.

"They're all stars!" I answered, messing with her. "In their own ways!"

She laughed.

We're going to get along just great!

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Twain

This year one of my students is the son of one of the other English teachers in our school. Oh, I like her a lot, and I'm really looking forward to teaching him, but it's going to be a little bit of a trip.

For example, this morning in a department breakout session, we were wrangling with how to align the IB MYP with the TCRWP (yeah, they pay us for that!). A main objective for my first writing unit is for students to recognize that their experiences and voices are important, a valid, but hard-to-measure goal. Beyond that, we want to meet the students where they are in terms of skills and crafts and individualize instruction and assessment as much as possible.

Such targets are hard to quantify working with the language and the unit planners we are required to use, but bless her heart, our facilitator was determined to find a way.

"But what do you want the students to learn and know?" she repeated.

Finally I looked at my colleague and smiled in exasperation. "I want Edwin to know his story matters!" I told her.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Please, Tell Me More

Ironically, I never saw Gene Wilder's version of Willie Wonka, but the first R rated movie I ever saw was Blazing Saddles. To be honest it happened by accident: on a hot summer day when I was 12 somebody's mom dropped us off at the Fox Theater down at the Plaza, the outdoor shopping center in our area. In those days, nobody had air conditioning and the nearest mall was half an hour away, so the movies was the only alternative to the pool for cooling off.

I guess someone else picked the movie, and I just followed the crowd and settled into my scratchy red seat with my Goobers, lemonade, and popcorn. When the lights went down I had never heard of Mel Brooks, Cleavon Little, or Gene Wilder, but 93 minutes later I would never forget them.

It wasn't just that the humor and language was so obviously inappropriate for our group, although it really, really was, it was also hilarious. From that day forward, that crazy hair and those pale blue eyes would be instantly recognizable to me, and even in the dumbest movies with the broadest humor, he made me laugh.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Singing Along with the Me Decade

Earlier in the week Heidi discovered she had a stress fracture in one of her feet, and so she has been relegated to a "boot" for at least three weeks. Never one to allow such a thing to slow her down, she has been clunking all over the place including around the Tidal Basin yesterday and all the way to the farmers market and back today.

That last journey must have been a bit challenging, because when we got home she lay down on the floor. "If I have to, I can do anything!" she said through gritted teeth. "I am strong!"

I nodded and frowned. Where had I heard those words before? "Did you mean to quote Helen Reddy?" I asked her.

We laughed when she admitted it was unintentional, and then through the miracle of music streaming we listened to I Am Woman.  It had been about thirty years, and the tempo is slower than I remembered, but the words are pretty powerful for such a catchy tune. We did not stop there, however. After listening to Delta Dawn, Angie Baby, Leave Me Alone, and You and Me Against the World, we put it in I Am Woman radio mode and were treated to an algorithm-curated playlist of songs of the seventies, many of which I hadn't heard since then, but nearly all of which I could identify by artist and sing along with.

I'm talking to you, Mac Davis and Rita Coolidge.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

10-4 Good Buddy

Our staff spent several hours on Thursday and Friday in a workshop teaching us cooperative learning "structures" that we are expected to use with our students to keep them interested in our lessons. Some of the strategies were sound, but I have objections to this commercialization of education that pushes artificial bells and whistles to manipulate and trick students into learning rather than genuinely engaging them in meaningful content.


One of the most onerous aspects of the program is the page in the manual (just $36.66 on Amazon) devoted to cheers. Ranging from the literally cheesy (hold an imaginary cheese grater in one hand and an invisible block of cheese in the other; making a grating gesture call out grate, grate, grate!) to the ridiculously complex, I would never ask students to praise anyone in that way.

We were sitting out front a few days ago when a new neighbor stopped to introduce himself. His name was Marty and not only was he a high school English teacher, he also presented us with some cards from his website. "Check it out," he told us. "I'm pretty sure it will exceed your expectations."

Curious, I visited the site after dinner and found a number of videos of Marty in cafes and other open-mis venues riffing in sort of a hybrid slam-poet-performance-artist way on a number of topics. Since I didn't really know what to expect, it's hard to say if what I found exceeded my expectations, but it was kind of interesting in a contemporary expression sort of way. We English teachers seem to work hard at that.

We ran into Marty again this afternoon on our way out to run errands. "Did you have a chance to check out my stuff?" he asked right away, clearly no stranger to assessment.

"Yeah, I did, " I told him, no stranger to accountability myself. "I watched the clip of you riffing about eating. I think it was recorded in Fredericksburg? Good stuff!"

He beamed, pleased with the evidence that I had watched with attention. "I'm going to spend some time this weekend working on new material," he said.

I nodded and then asked him about a local open-mic night that is within walking distance. "I'm going to check that out soon," he smiled.

"Let us know when you do," I shrugged. "Maybe we'll come down and support you!"

Or, I could have pulled on an imaginary trucker horn and cried HONK HONK HONK, and then grabbed my invisible CB radio and squawked, "Great job, Marty!"

Friday, August 26, 2016

Case in Point

This afternoon my friend Mary and I gave a ride to a new teacher at our school who has just moved to the area from Wisconsin. "This place seems so big!" she told us as we made small talk on the way to our county-wide department meeting.

"I know it does," I laughed, "but it's really much more of a small town."

"Especially teaching middle school," Mary agreed. "You'll be surprised at how many people you know in a year or two."

"So no honking or flipping off people," I warned her. "You never know who it might be!"

A little while later, the facilitator of one of my breakout sessions directed us to form groups of three with people around us. "Make sure you pick people you don't know very well," she told us firmly.

I looked to my right and made eye contact with a high school teacher I know slightly. He happens to be married to a former colleague, and both of his daughters went to our school. The two of us formed a group with a nearby teacher from another high school.

We introduced ourselves, and through the course of the conversation we discovered that not only had I taught both of their daughters, the other guy had taught my nephew and was a current colleague of the first guy's wife.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

On to Y24D2

Observation from Year 24, Day 1:

Wow, that was a lot of sitting!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Coming Soon...

There are many pros and cons to the grade and data collection programs that most school districts use these days, but allow me to focus on one feature I really enjoy:

I LOVE seeing pictures of my students whenever I open my gradbook, and that goes double for these busy days when we teachers spend so many hours preparing for their arrival. Sure, we have access to a lot of important information, but I t's really nice to put a face to a name.

And kids?

I can't wait to meet you!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Ready to Go

Josh will be 21 next month and we couldn't think of a better way to mark the occasion than by getting him a passport. Since they take 4-6 weeks and we're all on summer break for now, today was the day that we filled out the paperwork, got the photo taken (twice), were turned away from one post office, found another that accepts walk-ins and drove half an hour to get there, took a number (67 when they were on 49 with 2 clerks), and sat our asses down in the assemblage of chairs to watch and wait.

Sure, it took hours and I missed a meeting, but then it was done, and we had a nice lunch, bought him some groceries, and took him home.

And it was all worth it!

Because international travel should always be an option.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Last Days of Summer

On a perfect sunny and 85 degree day, we took a bike ride this morning, went out to lunch and a movie, played a board game with Josh and Victor, and then enjoyed a family dinner. Were I to deliberately wring every last golden drop from summer vacation, I don't think I'd have had a better day.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

No Deal

Earlier in the week we found out that one of Isabel's buddies, Wellie, a 14-year-old golden also crossed the "rainbow bridge." How hard it has been adjusting to the loss of our dog! I just never considered what an integral part she was to our day-- so many things like taking out the trash, checking the mail, counting my steps, and locking the door at night are sad reminders that we do not have a dog.

Today we ran into Wellie's owner, Joanne, at the farmer's market. Exchanging hugs, we commiserated, wiping tears from our eyes. "We've been trying to think of things to do that were hard to manage with a dog," I confessed, "but yesterday I told Heidi that I couldn't think of a single time when I wished we didn't have a dog," I finished.

She nodded. "I know what you mean-- I've been looking at trips to panda reserves in China and visiting friends in London. They'll be fun," she said, "but I wouldn't trade them for my pet."

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Well Attended

After last week's altercation, in order to head off any complaints or reports to the fire marshall, tonight when I started the grill I also set out a couple of lawn chairs, and Heidi, Victor, and I relaxed out front with a couple of beers as the day faded and the charcoal caught.

And it was lovely.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Fiesta de la Escritura

One of my teacher buddies in this week's workshop workshop had to duck out of the end-of-session celebration to attend a similar event for her 6-year-old son's summer camp. Being the conscientious educator she is, though, she checked in with us to find out what went on:

Thursday, August 18, 2016


We spent most of the day today in our workshop talking about teaching kids how to write literary analysis essays. The work was fun, but on the fourth day of a pretty intense week, my brain was pretty tired of comparing and contrasting themes and characters, and it was kind of welcome break when I headed up to the pool to spend some time with a friend and her kids.

At one point, I found myself sitting on the stairs with 4-year-old Lincoln. He was examining Heidi's vast collection of pool toys as his older siblings splashed away in the deep end. I grabbed two plastic figures and held them up.

"Who is this?" I said, lifting my right hand.

"Iron Man," he answered.

"And who is this?" I asked pushing my left hand a little closer to him.

"Captain America!" he smiled.

I widened my eyes. "What if these guys had a fight?" I said. He widened his eyes, too. "Who would win?"

"I don't know..." he told me doubtfully.

"Well," I continued, "what are their strengths? What can this guy do that this guy can't?"

And just like that, he was writing a little comparative essay in the air.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016


So, I did a cursory job on my homework last night (read it took nowhere near 45 minutes), but it all turned out fine today. I knew enough to do the activity, and I knew the activity was for my own benefit, so I took what I could from the whole experience.

Later, at lunch, one of my best teacher buddies said, "I don't know about you, but I was feeling pretty negative about the homework last night.

I nodded.

"It really made me think about our students and their attitudes toward homework," she continued.

I agreed with her completely. "I like this class," I said. "I find it relevant and engaging, but after being in it all day, I didn't have any real desire to continue the work at home. Imagine how kids who don't like school must feel." And so started a conversation about rigor, stamina, and attention in class.

To be honest, homework is not the only area where I have struggled this week. As part of the class our instructor has led us through the process of really composing a personal narrative. You would think that with as much writing as I do this task would be a breeze, and I have carefully followed the instructions, but darn it!

My piece is just not working.

You know what, though? I'm kind of glad. Because there are a lot of kids who struggle with writing, and it's really good for me to be one of them for a change. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Unprepared for Class

"And tonight your homework is..." said the instructor of my course this afternoon.

I felt myself cringe. Last night's charge to just take a look at your writing piece and see if it's the one you really want to work on this week and if so add a little to it was bad enough, but this assignment would take a good 45 minutes to an hour.

Or will it?

Monday, August 15, 2016

What's Right and What's Easy

I'm spending the week at a writing workshop workshop put on by the Teacher's College folks. It's a nice refresher of the structure I strongly believe to be the most effective for teaching kids to write. Unfortunately, teachers today are bombarded with so many competing initiatives and requirements that a visitor to my classroom last year might have had a tough time recognizing any such thing.

Ten years ago, when I applied to the summer institute of my local writing project I wrote about the slippery slope that my career had skidded down when it came to the workshop approach. Those five weeks reaffirmed my commitment to student-centered instruction with choice, daily writing time, and a classroom set-up that supported the work, and my instruction changed radically (for the better) as a result. I was much happier teaching and my students were a lot happier, too.

But oh! that slope and ah! that slip. Now I find myself in the same situation with the anti-workshop structures even more firmly entrenched and only a week to break that hold.

Will it happen?

Stay tuned!

Sunday, August 14, 2016

A Whirr and a Blur

I was in a bit of a funk this afternoon. I sighed and sunk into the arm chair in the living room. The girls were gone; it was nearly 100 degrees outside; I had a week-long class starting at 8:30 in the morning, and the summer was nearly over, and I really missed my dog.

Just then a movement on the deck caught my eye. A hummingbird darted purposefully around the petunias in one of our hanging baskets. It's been a hot, dry summer, and we have several hanging and potted plants on our various porches and balconies. As such, watering them is a daily, sometimes twice a day, chore. And yet, this summer I have embraced this duty, patiently walking from the sink to the deck and back again 6 or 7 times until all the containers feel heavy and full. The plants are thriving.

I don't think I've ever seen a hummingbird around here, and yet there it was this afternoon, zooming and hovering in and out and all around, right outside the sliding glass doors. Some believe that the hummingbird is a symbol of renewal and joy, a reminder to live in the present and drink deeply of the nectar of the now.


Saturday, August 13, 2016

Benefits of a Heat Wave

"Soften the butter," the recipe read.

I took a stick from the refrigerator and put it out on the deck for five minutes.

Et voilĂ ! Parfait!

Friday, August 12, 2016

Girls and Boys, Continued

And today...

we shopped

for hours!

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Girls and Boys

We have the goddaughters visiting here this weekend, ages 16 and 12. Times have changed in the nearly ten years since "the boys" Riley, Treat, and Josh were that age and regular guests during the summer. For one thing, every kid has some kind of electronic device, and their attention is very divided. Being away from home does not mean being out of touch with friends or parents and that definitely changes the dynamic of the visit. Truthfully, it's much more challenging to engage them when we are competing with such technology. 

We do our best though.  One of our favorite activities has always been to go to the pool, and since you can't have a device with you in the water, there's not much else to do but play and talk. And that's how we spent the late afternoon-- playing, yes, but mostly talking, which is the reverse of those hot summer days we spent in that pool with the boys. It actually turns out the biggest difference between this set of house guests and their past counterparts has nothing to do with gadgets.

 "If I had to describe myself in three words they would be intelligent, quirky, and caring," said one of the girls out of the blue as we treaded water in the deep end.

"Mine would be funny, silly, and nice," replied her sister in a conversation none of the boys would have initiated ever.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Related by Marriage

Heidi is teaching swimming lessons for the children of a couple of colleagues this summer. After nearly thirty years at it, she's pretty good, if I do say so. Kids love her big blue eyes, goofy humor, and that big bag of pool toys, and it's not a surprise to anyone who knows her that she refuses to take no for an answer when it comes to blowing bubbles and otherwise getting their faces in the water.

Today I ran into a teacher and her three year old daughter at school. "Do you know who Miss Tracey is married to?" my friend asked her daughter.

The little girl shook her head no solemnly.

"Miss Heidi!" her mom told her, and just like that I got the cutest little smile, all because my wife is so awesome.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Girl on Fire

"You can't have that!" an alarmed neighbor shouted at me this evening as I opened my front door. "There are embers flying everywhere!"

She was right of course. Not that my grill is actually a hazard, but it is technically against the rules of our homeowners' association. She was seeing my charcoal chimney at the point when it was ready to be emptied.

I looked at her dully. "Okay," I shrugged.

"I almost called the fire department!" she scolded me.

I nodded. That would be exciting, I thought.

Her dog was practically tugging her arm off. "Will you put that out?" she asked as her dog literally pulled her away.

"Yes," I called after her.

"When I'm done cooking," I added more quietly.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Oh Say Can You See?


my family was generous enough to get me the electric uke for my birthday, and it's awesome! Unfortunately, though, the amp was back-ordered [until November!], and although I have been enjoying breaking in my cool new ukulele, it hasn't been quite what I was looking forward to.


a couple of days ago, I took matters into my own hands and ordered a perfectly respectable 10 watt Fender amp.


it was delivered today!

Friends, I cranked up the volume and hit the overdrive for a little distortion, and may I say? Jimi Hendrix has got nothin on my version of Jingle Bells!

Sunday, August 7, 2016

I Wanna Rock!

I like techie gadgets, and to be honest, having one of the first iPad this, iPhone that, or other Apple thingie gives me a certain level of "cool" with my sixth graders. It also gives us something to talk about.

Just this spring one of the kids got a pretty nice fitbit watch from his mom. "Why did you choose the Apple watch?" he asked me, and away we went on a ten minute conversation that ended with Apple pencils.

We all have iPads courtesy of our school district, but none of them are compatible with that nifty technology. "I'm verrrrry tempted," I told him, "to ask for an iPad pro for my birthday. I want to see what it's like to combine manual writing and electronic convenience."

He nodded.

I shrugged. "It's either that or an electric ukulele," I said.

His eyebrows shot up. "Oh man!" he threw up his hands. "You gotta go for the..."

"Ukulele!" we finished together.

"I know!" I said, "I know!"

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Just a Matter of Time

A year ago today I was in the 49th state of the Union, Alaska, and although on my first full day there, I considered somewhat of a beautiful novelty, I had no idea how that crazy state purchased for 2 cents an acre, covering over 1/6th of this country, but having only 2 percent of the population would get into my head and leave me a little Alaska-crazy myself.

I read recently that most people who visit Alaska visit at least twice, and I can't say that I know why, but I can say I understand it.

We'll be back, Alaska.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Keeping the Bar Low

My Apple watch has an activity tracker on it which I enjoy using. It's kind of nice at the end of the day to see the ring graphic circle around to the 12 o'clock position, indicating that I have completed (or nearly completed) my daily exercise goal. Today, though, I went on a 2 hour bike ride with Heidi and Emily, and when I got back?

That thing was spinning like a top!

Perhaps I should raise my expectations?


Thursday, August 4, 2016

For the Future

We packed away all of Isabel's things today-- her toys, collars, leashes, and hats (don't ask). AND it was super sad, but we decided not to give too much away on the chance that we get another dog sometime in the future, another dog who might like all of the nice stuff Isabel had.

I tried to think of it a little like packing up all the Christmas decorations at the end of the season. It's sad that the holiday is over, but as far away as it seems, you know it will come again, almost before you know it, and you will be really happy then.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Not for the Birds

I love birds, but...

This year has been sooooo dry that any ripe tomato in the garden for more than a day ends up with a beak-sized hole in it and all the liquid sipped right out of it. After more than a day like that, the tomato will rot on the vine, and so this morning after a few days away I had the disgusting and discouraging chore of picking and throwing away about 5 pounds of decomposing tomatoes.

On the plus side? There were another 10 pounds that were salvageable and ready for sauce and quite a few for slicing and ripening on the counter.

And birds?

Look out.

I'm back.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Pull Your Knees in Tight

Our road trip home from Atlanta took us up through Richmond and on to I-95, and we were scanning radio stations and playing Name that Tune as we drove through, envious of the radio wealth they had there: In addition to the Richmond stations, we heard broadcasts from North Carolina, Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Williamsburg, Petersburg.

There was a time thirty years ago when I was living in Virginia Beach and frequently made that drive up 95 to DC, and so when we came across a station that only played hits of the 80s, it was a little like we had hit an eerie time warp.

Here are some lyrics we heard this evening. Can you name the song?

You got it made with the guy in shades, oh no.

Conventionality belongs to yesterday.

Hey little sister who's your superman?

I think that you're wild
when you flash that fragile smile

Monday, August 1, 2016

Easy Does It

My niece and nephew are starting school on Wednesday. Eek! And today was the open house at their school where they could meet their teachers, see their classrooms, and find out who else is in their classes. Some of their friends are starting middle school, and we certainly recognize the jitters of both kids and parents alike.

It is a big step for sure. "He wouldn't even make eye contact with any of the teachers," one of my sister's friends sighed this afternoon.

"Don't worry," I assured her, "no one's going to hold that against him. We know how stressful this transition can be."

And with that simple comment, my brain slipped right back into sixth grade teacher mode, and I'm that much closer to being ready to get back to work.