Saturday, December 31, 2016

Home Sweet Home

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

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

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

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

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

I had to agree.

Friday, December 30, 2016

The Great White Way

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


Not so much.

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

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

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Quip of the Trip

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Ideal Conditions

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

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

He shrugged.

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

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

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

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

"What about snow?" I asked.

"I like it," he agreed. 

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Holiday Hijinks

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

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

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

Monday, December 26, 2016

If the Fates Allow

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

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

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Everlasting Light

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

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

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

Christmas day had dawned.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Give Us a Little Quiche

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

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

Bon apetite!

Friday, December 23, 2016

Christmas Calculus

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

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Silver Bells

City sidewalks

Snow banks lined the side of Elmwood Avenue in downtown Buffalo

busy sidewalks

this afternoon as we searched for a parking spot.

dressed in holiday style

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

in the air there's the feeling of Christmas.

and carols played on the radio.

Children laughing

We found a spot right across from the toy store

people passing

and headed into the throng

meeting smile after smile

of happy shoppers

and on every street corner you hear

and across the avenue

silver bells

past the tiny chimes ring-a-ling-ing

silver bells

to a gallery featuring the work of local artisans

It's Christmas time in the city.

Strings of street lights, even stoplights

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

Blinkin' bright red and green

through stop and go traffic

As the shoppers rush home with their treasures

with a trunk full of shopping bags.

Soon it will be Christmas Day.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Take a Road Trip and Call Me in the Morning

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

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

And now?

It's Christmas!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

All I Want

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

"Well Merry Christmas!" they said.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Boo Hoo mBug

It seems like



is on

Christmas vacation



Sunday, December 18, 2016

Twenty-Five Dozen

Christmas cookies--


Mic drop.

Saturday, December 17, 2016


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

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

Friday, December 16, 2016

Progress Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I've gotta get that Patience grade up!

Thursday, December 15, 2016

So Not Why

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

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

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

Oh, we teachers do amuse ourselves.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016


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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

On Target

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 12, 2016

A Mile in her Moccasins

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Heard on High

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 10, 2016

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

The day started and ended with lights.

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

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

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

Friday, December 9, 2016

Make My Day!

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

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

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

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

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

I'll take it!

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Bundle Up, Buttercup

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded in agreement.

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

"Cold snap?" I suggested.

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

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Risky Business

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

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

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

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

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

He wrote, I see how they use bad behavior

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The In Crowd

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 5, 2016

Dressed for Success

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

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

"What do you mean?" I asked him.

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

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Hats in Space

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

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

I shook my head. "What was it?"

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

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

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

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

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

"A helmet?" I said.

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

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

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Members of the Clan

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

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

Friday, December 2, 2016

Not Black and White

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Holiday Trio

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

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

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

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