Saturday, May 27, 2017

1 is for One More

Technically, I'm finished with the writing challenge, but for students who are trying to complete 100 days of writing, I have added the numbers 1-9 as well. I thought I would be relieved to finish, but like that April 1st eight years ago, I find myself at kind of at a loss. Turns out I like writing something for my students to read every day. Go figure!

So, 1 is also for 1st time at the garden. Today was the day we cleaned out all the spring and winter weeds and planted vegetables in our community garden plot. To be honest, even though I love having a garden, I was seriously considering making this the last year, because the season for putting the garden in falls at a very busy time for a teacher. Fortunately, my nephews Josh and Treat helped today, and we were done in under four hours. Now all that's left is to water and weed, and sit back and wait for the homegrown veggies to start rolling in.

Oh, and Lucy was there, too. She has never been to the garden, and so we brought a bone for her to chew. It kept her busy for a while until she literally tried to bury it!

Life Lesson: Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still. ~Thoreau

Friday, May 26, 2017

Z is for Zonked

Lucy got a little taste of beer at one of the graduation celebrations last weekend, and now she's right there whenever she hears a bottle or can open. In fact she knocked over a little glass a bit ago and lapped up as much as she could before we scooped her up. So far she seems fine-- no staggering, barking, or canine confessions, but we're watching her closely. Hopefully she will sleep soundly tonight.

She also had a chance to try coffee, but it must have been too bitter, because she made a funny face and ran away. Or maybe caffeine is the last thing a puppy needs!

Life Lesson: Sometimes you're old enough to know better, but too young to care.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Y is for Yawn

Lots of animals yawn, and we do it for many different reasons. Yawning in people can be a sign of boredom or sleepiness, and they say that yawning in dogs is a sign of stress or anxiety. Why do we yawn in these situations? No one is sure. It is possible that a yawn just gets your lungs working and your blood flowing, which helps to wake you up and/or calm you down.

Whatever the reason, Lucy has the cutest yawn I've ever seen. She opens her mouth so wide it looks like a crescent moon, sticks her tongue out in a curly cue, and makes a little squeal. If you've ever seen Snoopy from Peanuts yawn, then you can picture it.

Yawning, by the way, is also contagious. Just reading about it can make you yawn.

Life Lesson: Admit it... you are yawning.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

X is for X-men

"What is that really high-pitched sound that you can hear in this school sometimes?" a student asked me today.

"I don't know," I answered. "I can't hear it." I shrugged. "I guess I have old ears."

"No," he reassured me, "there are kids who can't hear it either. I guess I just have rrrreeeaaallly good hearing."

"That could be your superpower," I teased him.

"Exactly!" he said, seriously. "I would be called Dog Ears, because I can hear things most people don't, and my sense of smell is incredible!"

I laughed and nodded.

Lucy would approve.

Life Lesson: Heros are ordinary people who make themselves extraordinary.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

W is for Waiting for When

Walking up the path this morning I glanced down at Lucy. Even though she has nearly doubled in size in the month that we've had her, she is still so small and so cute. Her tiny tail curled happily upward as she sniffed in unmown grass nearly as tall as she is.

I appreciate how much better she is on the leash, though; it was literally a drag to pull her along just a few short weeks ago. Looking at her now, it's almost hard to remember how she was then. What will she be like in another month? Two months? Six months? A year? More independent and easier to care for? Definitely. Able to take long walks, swim, and fetch? No doubt.

But this little Lucy will be gone forever, and I'm going to miss her a little.
Life Lesson: Forever is composed of nows. ~Emily Dickinson

Monday, May 22, 2017

V is for Vacation

The last four days away have been awesome! It was wonderful to get the family together, take a road trip, and spend the days playing with the puppies, going to museums, hiking, shopping, and eating out. Even the rain this morning just made the rolling hills and fields of Western Massachusetts seem more green and beautiful, and driving south toward home it felt like I didn't have a care in the world-- nothing was too stressful; everything was manageable.

Hey! Summer Vacation! Wait up! I'll be there as soon as I can!

Life Lesson: Tension is who you think you should be; relaxation is who you are. ~Chinese Proverb

Sunday, May 21, 2017

U is for Undaunted

I was giving Lucy a good head and neck rub this morning when my fingers ran over a suspicious little bump. Parting her fluffy fur to get down to the skin was a challenge, but what I found there was a nasty surprise-- the puppy had a tick.

Fortunately my brother was right there and I made him take it off her. (Thanks Bill!) We spent the next 20 miutes combing over both puppies and turned up 6 ticks-- 4 on Lucy and 2 on Rosie, all from just playing in the yard and the edges of the woods outside our rental house.

The puppies themselves could not have cared less, and in a kind of mental good luck-bad luck exercise, I convinced myself that despite the presence of filthy disease-carrying parasites crawling all over my precious puppy, the fact that the ticks were small (but not tiny deer ticks) and had not yet firmly attached was positive.

Life Lesson: If you can't see the bright side, try polishing the dull side.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

T is for Two

On her first big trip away from home, Lucy has been lucky to travel with her cousin Rosie. Everywhere they have gone this weekend, those pups have been the center of attention. People literally point and stop us on the street to pet the puppies. And when we're not out in public, the two of them wrestle themselves senseless until they collapse into a furry heap of cuteness and fall asleep. In many situations, twice the number means mean twice the work, but with these two the formula is inverted and two puppies actually seem to be half the work.

Life Lesson: There is a fine line between the numerator and the denominator.

Friday, May 19, 2017

S is for Stop and Go

Still another remarkable thing about puppies is their tendency to barrel through life at full speed, only to hit the brakes and drop into a sound sleep without warning. What's lovable in young dogs, however, is maddening in traffic, as I was reminded this afternoon when Connecticut kept us hostage for hours on I-84.

Fortunately, Lucy slept through it.

Life Lesson: Begin at the beginning and the go on till you reach the end then stop. ~Lewis Carroll

Thursday, May 18, 2017

R is for Rosie

A week before we got Lucy, my brother got a puppy, too. Rosie is also a Golden Retriever mix, and that makes her Lucy's cousin in more ways than one. Let me tell you, if one puppy is cute, then two puppies are unbearably adorable-- almost too winsome and fetching to be real. Together they tumble and roll in a wrestle and blur of sunrise-colored fur, nipping and growling seriously, but never in earnest. In between bouts they flop, eyes narrowed and pink tongues hanging in satisfaction, until one or the other remembers the game and pounces again.

Life Lesson: Treasure your cousins; they were your first friends and will love you forever.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Q is for Quixotic

What was it that made Lucy attack the water pitcher this afternoon? Was it the fact that I was paying more attention to it and the plants I was watering than to her? Or did it seem like it was threatening me in some way?

Whatever the cause, it was so amusing to see her growling at the big plastic monster that I turned it on its side, and made it growl back. Soon the pursued was in pursuit, as that mean old pitcher tried to swallow first Lucy's head and then her favorite toys.

Oh she put up a good fight, rescuing Mr. Peepers and the Monkey Bear from within the terrible fiend, but when at last she got her teeth on the handle and tried to drag it away so that she could put an end to its evil shenanigans, she discovered it was just too big to take anywhere.

And as it sat there in the middle of the living room, she gave it a little growl each time she passed, just to remind it who was the hero.

Life Lesson: The scariest dragons and the fiercest giants usually turn out to be no more than windmills. ~Cervantes, Don Quixote

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

P is for Penelope's Puppy

Even before we got Lucy, we were preparing Penelope, our cat, for the addition to the household that was going to




Isabel was already here when Penelope joined the family, and although they were never the best of friends, over the 12 years they lived together they definitely developed a warm(ish) relationship based on mutual respect, if not mutual affection. (Isabel herself was always wild for other cats-- probably a result of not getting enough love from her kitty at home.)

So, we knew Penelope would need some time and support to accept a new puppy into her well-established life. And? She has. She won't eat with or near the puppy, and so we put her food on the stairs behind a baby gate. She also ninjas around the house, above and below the puppy's line of site to get whereever she needs to go.

And yet... she does have a certain fascination for that furry little ball of insanity, watching the puppy intently from all her safe places. And when we tell her that she has to "teach the baby" she looks at us quite gravely and winks.

Life Lesson: Never give up on something because it will take time-- the time will pass anyway.

Monday, May 15, 2017

O is for Oil Change

My nephew is graduating from college in Massachusetts on Saturday, and so this weekend is Lucy's first big roadtrip. In order to get ready, I took my car in for some routine maintenace after school today.

Let me be the first to say that I really don't know very much about cars and how they work. My strategy is to try and find a service provider that I trust and then listen thoughtfully to what they say before okaying the procedures and paying the bill. And yet... there's always a nagging insecurity that somebody is taking advantage of what I don't know.

I can't count the number of times my students have asked me why they need to learn this or that. My answer is always the same: we want you to learn how to learn and learn how to communicate what you know so that you can get what you want from this one short life.

And kids? Take it from me. There's a lot to know.

Life Lesson: I think it's pretty obvious.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

N is for Nutsy

A few years ago I read an article about an amazing border collie named Chaser who had a documented vocabulary of over 1000 words. Her owner was a psychology professor who assigned his graduate students the research project of teaching Chaser to recognize words. They ingeniously started with teaching her the names of her toys.

It was impressive, and even though we had named all of our dog's toys before that, the article cemented our commitment to making sure she knew which was which.

Of course a new puppy means new toys, and each one has to have a catchy name. That's how we've come to spend our play time calling for Mr. Peepers, Chewy Bone, Monkey Bear, Piggy, and Nutsy the Squirrel.

Does Lucy know the difference?

Maybe, but she definitely likes to hear them squeak.

Life Lesson: What we learn with pleasure we never forget.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

M is for Meditation

"Sleep is the best meditation." ~Dalai Lama

As I write, the puppy is crashed out on the floor, all hot body and heavy breath.

What does she have to be so tired about? I wonder. Her days are spent sleeping and eating and playing and pooping and peeing-- how tiring can it be? But her days are also spent growing. In the less than three weeks we've had her, she has increased her size by about fifty percent.

Sometimes I wonder what it feels like to grow, because of course I don't remember. When I was growing, I didn't know any different, and when I stopped, I'm not sure I noticed a difference. But how could you not feel your body expanding: limbs lengthening, skin stretching, and back broadening, like the Incredible Hulk in super slow motion?

It must be utterly exhausting!

Life Lesson: Sleep well-- you have a big day tomorrow!

Friday, May 12, 2017

L is for Goose

I come from a long line of nicknamers. My father, given name Robert, was known as Bob, Bobby, and Bummer when he was growing up. One uncle named Thomas was Tuck, and another named Walter was Pudge, and their sister Mary was our Aunt Sis. As for us? I was Legs; my brother was Willski, and my sister was Bomber. At the very least, there was a 'babe' added to your name, as in my grandmother who was Ada Babe and my sister's friend who was Tonya Babe.

Not surprisingly, we are all big nicknamers ourselves. My sister calls her children Booboo and Noodle; my brother's sons were Monster and Treaty Bird. (In fact he still calls them by those names sometimes even though they are in their 20s!)

It's hard to complain, though, since nicknames are a kind of proof that you are known. Not just known, I suppose, but known and loved. In our family, we are all so special that one name just isn't enough.

Of course that rule applies to Lucy, too. Even before she was home she was Lulu, Sweets, Lucy Goosey, and Poopy Doo.

But I have to say my favorite alternative to her given name is one that I hit on today. This morning when we were out and about, I looked over my shoulder and gave a short whistle. "C'mon Goose!" I called, and as she trotted toward me, I nodded at how well it fit.

Life Lesson: I love nicknames. It makes me feel loved. It makes me feel less alone in the world. ~Ellen Page

Thursday, May 11, 2017

K is for Kindergarten

I'm not the type of person who thinks of my pets as my children, and I really, really dislike the term "fur baby". It's not that I don't love my critters with all my heart; it's just that I know the difference between animals and people, and I respect the animals in my life for who they are. That said, you might be wondering how I found myself attending something called "Puppy Kindergarten" with Lucy.

I have to admit that there have been moments in each class so far when I have asked myself the same question, particularly when the instructor asks us how we would feel if we were in our puppy's place. Since I'm not a dog, I really can't say. In general, I favor an approach that is a little more focused on dog psychology.

But, like any good kindergarten the teachers know that their students need lots of time to play, and sitting back to watch a half dozen pups romp and wrestle is never a bad thing.

Life Lesson: Everything in life teaches a lesson, you just have to be willing to learn.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

J is for Joy

Too often I find myself pressed for time, way too busy and trying to squeeze too much stuff into too few hours. What's sometimes lost among the stacks of papers on my desk, the emails that need to be returned, and the ever-growing to-do list is whimsy and fun, deep breaths and an open heart. Spending my days with kids helps: their energy and optimism lifts mine, and there is something to laugh at every day at school.

Having a puppy is a powerful antidote as well; when Lucy pounces and scampers after Mr. Peepers, her favorite toy, joy is irresistible.

Life Lesson: We're so busy watching out for what's ahead of us, we don't take time to enjoy where we are. ~Calvin and Hobbes

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

I is for Ice Cubes

In the last days of her life, our dog Isabel did not have much of an appetite. Late at night I would wake to the restless smacking of her dry mouth. What could I do but go down to the kitchen and break up some ice cubes for her? She sighed gratefully each time I placed the small bowl of ice chips in front of her and quietly lapped them up before slipping off to sleep. I was happy I could comfort her like that.

These days Lucy spends the early mornings in the kitchen with me. She chews and plays happily while I eat my breakfast and pack lunch. Every now and then, when I fill my water bottle, an ice cube might fall to the floor. The puppy scampers over and grabs it like a treat. I can tell she loves it, and that makes me happy, too.

Life Lesson: If you have the power to make someone else happy, do it; the world needs more of that.

Monday, May 8, 2017

H is for Hero, Super

"What's the cutest thing your puppy does right now?" another teacher asked me recently.

The question alone brought a smile to my face. Unlike so many conversational inquiries, such as What's your specialty? when folks find out I'm a former chef, or What's the best place you've been? when it comes up that I have been lucky enough to live overseas and travel a bit, this one was easy.

"Our living room is one step down from the dining room," I began, "and when Lucy runs in, she jumps straight over the edge with both paws out like she's flying. It's adorable and hilarious all at once!"

Life Lesson: Who hasn't dreamed they could fly?

Sunday, May 7, 2017

G is for Great Falls

Exercise, Discipline, Affection

So goes the mantra of Cesar Millan, also known as the "Dog Whisperer".

I thought of Cesar this morning as we took Lucy for her first hike. We chose a favorite place, Great Falls National Park, for the occasion, knowing she would get plenty of exercise and assuming that walking on the leash would take discipline. Oh, but it was affection that won the day! As we made our way along the Matildaville Trail, through the secret meadow, and back along the River Trail every hiker we passed wanted to stop and pet and the puppy. And that was fine-- as long as she sat first!

Life Lesson: A tired puppy is a good puppy!

Saturday, May 6, 2017

F is for 'fer'

Even as we drove up I-95 to Pennsylvania on the way to meet our puppy, we were not sure of what her name would be.


Jelly Bean?






The list went on, but as rain pounded on the windshield, nothing seemed exactly right. "I think we'll know when we meet her," I finally said, and we traveled on in silence over the Susquehanna, through Port Deposit, and past the Conowingo Dam. The sky cleared and a bald eagle flew over us. Finally we pulled into the driveway of neat brick home. Goats were staked on a green hill in the back, and across the street freshly plowed fields rolled into the distance. Ahead of us 3 Amish boys chased four red puppies across the grass. One of them was ours.

Once we were back in the car, I looked at the tiny dog, and she looked right back at me. "I think her name is 'Lucy'," I said, and Lucy it was.

Lucy after another famous red-headed Lucy; Lucy because the name means light, and soon we found it was Lucy, because you can add 'fer' to it, and capture her naughty side perfectly.

Life Lesson: Would a rose by any other name really smell as sweet?

Friday, May 5, 2017

E is for Ears

When we picked the puppy up from the family who bred her we loved her caramel coat, but we wondered what shade she would be when she was grown. "Look at the ears," Amos Fisher said. "They say that will be her final color."

And I have looked at her ears every single day. It's not just their color, I also love the way they flop around her neck, and how she sighs when I rub them. And the way they feel--

Is it velvety? Soft as silk? Like ripe peaches, or the minutes before sunrise? Are they a perfect custard, down pillows, dandelion and milkweed seeds floating through the warm blue sky, fine sand at the bottom of the ocean in August? Or carrot purée? Maybe they are a bubble bath, a baby's breath, hot cocoa, warm gingerbread, or melted butter.

What simile or metaphor describes my puppy's ears best?

Life Lesson: There's nothing like the real thing.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

D is for Dog Days

I recently heard someone refer to an event last year as part of the "Obama Era." How far away that makes his presidency sound; how traumatic it has been to pass from that era to this fraught time.

I suppose, by extension, that last year also saw the end of the "Isabel Era" for us... writing that now makes her loss seem so final, and still so sad after all these months of doglessness.

And yet? Losing Isabel has ushered us into the "Age of Lucy," and who knows what wonders await us in the years ahead?

Life Lesson: When one door closes, another opens.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

C is for Crazy Time

There is an hour of every day, sometime between dinner and bedtime, usually right around dusk, when the youngest of creatures




Maybe it's to get rid of any extra energy that might tempt them to leave the safety of their dens, nests, or cradles in the dark and dangerous night, or perhaps it's just a spontaneous celebration of all that is good in life-- food, family, and fun. But whatever the cause, when you can see the whites of your young 'un's eyes, and she runs around like an invisible monster is chasing her-- ears flying, tongue hanging to the side, tail waving like a banner, then you know it must be...

Crazy Time!

Life Lesson: If you've never lost your mind, then you've never followed your heart.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

B is for But I'm Still Sleeping

When you get a new puppy, it must be with the understanding that all the time, worry, care, and yes, of course, LOVE, you put in will be an investment. Later on, when your dog is your healthy, well-adjusted, fun-loving best friend, you will forget all those poopy, pee-filled, sleepless nights. But for now, you have to yawn and bear it, dragging your sleepy self through days packed with all the regular stuff plus all the new puppy stuff. How do you do it? Well... you just look at the adorable little dog and sigh.

Life Lesson: Being cute is a survival skill!

Monday, May 1, 2017

A is for Adjusting Nicely

We took Lucy for her first big walk today. Barely 10 pounds and about 10 inches high, she probably walked at least a mile. Oh, we carried her part of the way, but she was definitely in for the pack walk-- following me or Heidi with a cheerful and brisk little puppy trot for most of the time. Of course there was plenty of sniffing and a few joyful encounters with some big dogs, all in good fun of course.

 AND when we turned for home?

She seemed to know the way.

Life Lesson: Home is where you find it.

The first of May brings the sixth annual "Alphabiography" Challenge for my students. They are assigned to write short (100-250 word) "chapters" of their lives and title them by letters. The requirement is to write twice a week, but the challenge is to write either 26 times this month or all 31 days.

Each piece closes with a life lesson. This part is a good way to encourage these young writers to consider their purpose or message. Theme is an abstract concept that many sixth grade kids are just beginning to grasp, and these short, autobiographical vignettes give them a manageable and concrete step up to that higher order thinking.

Such consistent writing will help build their fluency and confidence, but I'm hoping it will be fun, too.

This year, I plan to participate with a month of vignettes about, what else? My new puppy! (Thanks for the idea, Mary!) Oh? And if you notice a bit of a shift in tone and/or style, it's because I'm sharing the posts with my students, too. 

Sunday, April 30, 2017


Only a puppy could sleep through a couple of sheet pans hitting the tile floor not 2 feet from her head.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

T-minus Seven Weeks and Change

When you have a new puppy on a 90+ degree Saturday in late April...

Can summer really be far behind?

Friday, April 28, 2017

S'il Vous Plait

As part of yet another school initiative I was required to observe a colleague teaching today. The class happened to be French for sixth graders and I slipped into my seat next to my fellow English teachers just a little after the bell rang. As the teacher conversed with the students in exaggerated and simple a French, I was transported back to my own early language classes. The vocabulary came right back to me, and before too long I was counting les poisson, shaking my head to show that le requin ce n'est une poisson, and chortling at the corny jokes. when it was time to leave, we did our best to slip out quietly, but on my way to the door I made eye contact with the teacher. "Merci!" I thanked her cheerfully, and then waved at the students. "Au revoir!"

Thursday, April 27, 2017


Today is National Poem in Your Pocket Day, and as always I gave my students time in class to choose a poem yesterday and share that poem today. As usual, they were also required to write a reflection about the experience.

The assignment was straight-forward:
What poem did you choose to carry in your pocket today?
Today's Challenge: Tell us the title and the poet, quote your favorite 4-6 lines and explain why you chose it.
To give them a model, and in the spirit of community, I posted my reflection first:

I chose the poem "How it Begins" by Mary Oliver, and here's why. Last summer, the morning after my dog died, I was listening to "The Writer's Almanac" on the radio, as I do every morning. When it came time for the daily poem, here is what I heard:
Puppies, puppies, puppies 
A puppy is a puppy is a puppy.
She's probably in a basket with a bunch of other puppies.
Then she's a little older and she's nothing
but a bundle of longing.
She doesn't even understand it. 
Then someone picks her up and says
I want this one.
That day, I found those words to be a tremendous comfort after losing my dog, and now that I have a new puppy, they seem even more true.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Puppy Power

The sound from the window was alarming: a high pitched scream alternating between a panicky yelp and a pitiful whine. Even from inside the house, I knew it was our puppy.

"What happened?" I asked Heidi as she carried the tiny dog in the door. "She looks fine."

"Decker the Great Dane stepped on her accidentally!" she told me with wide eyes.  "I'm afraid I broke our new puppy!"

But of course, she hadn't. Mother Nature equips most babies with amazing survival safeguards. "Basically, they're like rubber," said our vet.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Like Coffee or Cheese

Things I may have forgotten in the last 13 and half years:

Puppies sleep 20 hours a day.
     The other four are very busy,
      and not always during the day.

Squatting and peeing are not always the same...
except when they are.

Let her cry is waaay easier said than done.

Oh, and puppies smell really stinky, but in a good way.

Monday, April 24, 2017

A Dog to Walk

At last!

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Night Before

The crates are built; the food and toys and tiny collars have been purchased, and tomorrow is the day.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

SIlver Lining

The weather was dreary this afternoon when I got home from the last class of my word study class, and it was tempting to sit around and get involved with the pulpy movies that were playing on TV. By 4 PM, though, after Mr. and Mrs. Smith but somewhere in the middle of Non-stop, when I wandered into the kitchen looking for another snack, I knew I needed to get out of the house.

But where to go? The steady drizzle discouraged any real outdoor activity, the scientists march suggested that it might be crowded downtown, and I didn't want to sit for hours in a movie theater. Only a plant could appreciate this weather, I thought glumly, and it was then that I knew where I must go-- off to the garden shop to fill the hanging baskets for the balcony and front porch!

And that is what we did. Tomorrow I will repot all the tender annuals and herbs and hang their baskets high, and after that? I, too, will appreciate the rain.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Not Unappreciative

We were out to dinner this evening when a server walked by with a tray of desserts. Tall and center among them was a giant root beer float. My mind immediately went back to my childhood, when on certain evenings my dad would get out the popcorn, Pepsi and vanilla ice cream and concoct up treats for all of us to Much and slurp as we watched TV.

Still, my nose involuntarily scrunched up when I spotted the passing float tonight, because, truth be told, while I was always eager to lick the butter from the bottom of the popcorn bowl, I had to choke the float down. There was too much sugar and foam, ruining both the soda and the ice cream. And yet, I was never able to turn one down. It was supposed to be such a special and delicious treat, and I just didn't want to spoil the fun.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

It's Going On

I asked one of my homeroom students to come over and talk to me at my desk this morning, because I wanted to ask a favor. In the time it took him to cross the room, I had answered 3 questions, collected a permission slip, and okayed the removal of the computer cart to another teacher's room.

"Yes?" he asked politely, but in the moment before I could answer, I saw another student in my periphery reaching in to take a piece of candy without permission. I spun my chair ninety degrees and grabbed the magic chicken from beneath his grasp. An animated conversation ensued, and when I turned back to the original kid his eyes were wide.

"Wow!" he said. "No wonder your desk is so messy!"

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Baby, Remember my Name

Every year my students read the poem Famous by Naomi Shihab Nye, a poem which redefines the whole concept of fame, ending with the lines

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.

I always ask the kids to say what they would like to be famous for, and their answers are always amazing. Here are a few from our conversation today:
I want to be famous as the sidekick, still helping, but not in the spotlight 
I want to be famous like the sun, not to be popular but to inspire people.
I want to be famous like a caterpillar, it grows into a butterfly when the time is right.
I want to be famous for helping others, not because I had to, but because I could.
I wish to be famous to the fans
standing and clapping in awe after what happened that night
I want to be famous like the wind to a boat, drifting them along, and filling their sail.
I want to be famous for carrying the ocean on my shoulders.
To do what I can do to be strong.
I want to be famous like the drumSteady, strong, and the living, breathing beat.
I want to be famous to the hidden, teaching them who is safe
I want to be famous like music Not for the publicity or terrible fame But for the joy it brings to others
I want to be famous for my art passionate and impossible to perfect

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

If the Pun Fits

Sometimes I amuse myself by giving my assignments or presentations funny titles or subtitles. Hey? What can I say? I'm an English teacher and I love word games. So, for example, the slide show on conflict was sub-captioned The Struggle is Real. Ha ha ha.

Many of my poetry challenges are similarly named: Up Close and Personification, Smile it's a Simile, Sounds like Poetry (for hyperbole), and so forth. They are not the cleverest monikers ever, but as I said, they amuse me.

My students, on the other hand, rarely get the humor. (Tweens! They are soooooo literal!) So today, when I called the activity where they were supposed to evaluate their writing and pick a piece to submit to our literary magazine Publish or Perish, some students were a little alarmed.

"Are you saying we will die if we don't do this assignment?" someone asked dramatically.

"Oh no, " I answered. "Believe me, if not doing your school work was fatal, most of you would be long dead already."

There was a pause, while my words sunk in.


Monday, April 17, 2017

Hostess With the Mostest

Regular readers know:

I am an introvert.

What to do, then when your house guest is an extrovert? An extrovert who has been home alone all day?

Nothing but smile when she moves that chair into the kitchen while you cook. Oh, and keep up your end of the conversation.

Sunday, April 16, 2017


My students have been poetry champs over Spring Break! On average, at least 25 kids a day have taken time from their vacations to read the daily challenge and write a poem. One of the activities was to write an acrostic poem about a day of the week. This one pretty sums up today:

School is near
Until then
No more school for now
Do your homework
After that play outside
You're good to go!

Thanks, Shion!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Careful What You Ask For

And now, the squirrels are gone. They must have moved to a new nest yesterday afternoon. (Probably because I didn't feed them...)

I'm kind of sad, you guys.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Spoke Too Soon

So... this morning when I looked out on the balcony I was greeted by four tiny eyes and a couple of almost bushy tales dashing frantically for cover. Turns out there is a little family of squirrels living out there, and if my internet research is any good? Those twins are about 6-7 weeks old, a little too young to be completely displaced. So, I'm going to give them a couple of weeks before I dismantle the nest behind the shed.


I will not feed them.

I will not feed them.

I will not feed them.

(Unless they look really, really hungry.)

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Eviction Notice

Storage is limited in our condo, and so over the years we have come up with some creative work-arounds. Probably the most inconvenient thing for us has been where to store our bikes. We need a place that is sheltered, accessible, and frankly, not in our house. A few years ago I found a pop-up canvas shed that nestles conveniently in a nook on the upstairs balcony which has worked pretty well for us. Last fall when I stored the bikes for the winter, I noticed a little tear in the fabric at about railing height. I should really fix that I said to myself before promptly forgetting all about it the moment I crossed the threshold and entered my warm house.

Well, the days are growing more temperate and this afternoon I went out to switch around a few items in that shed. Hmm, thought I, upon noticing a ragged hole in the bottom, could that be dry rot? I nudged the structure with my foot and nearly jumped through the screen door when it nudged back with a panicky skitter. Uh oh, I concluded, someone is in there. I took a moment to find the courage to unzip the proper opening, all the while expecting my tenant to burst out at me, but I underestimated the little critter, because there was a back door chewed in the rear which had been clearly used for evacuation.

The collection of dry leaves and sticks in the bottom led me to believe we were harboring a squirrel, a single squirrel, with no babies to complicate what had to be done. I left the shed open; it does not offer any shelter like that. A little while later I saw a squirrel frantically peeking from the railing into the original window-like tear, and my heart clutched a little. But it is spring here-- cold nights will be few, and now is as good a time as any to build a new nest.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Product Placement

On the third day of our visit to the Twin Cities we ate lunch in a huge new destination grocery store, part of a chain that has recently moved into the region. In addition to several counters and cases with prepared foods and pastries galore, the place also has custom butchery, seafood, bakery and an extensive produce section. There are also several "stores within the store" including clothing, housewares, and health foods. 

Before we set off exploring this multi-mart, we stopped in for lunch at the full service restaurant. It was half-priced sushi day, and we were not disappointed with the tuna and salmon tartare our five bucks purchased. The dining room itself was a warm and bright modern tavern with a big bar, some high counter-like tables and booths and several big screen TV broadcasting a variety of sporting events. 

There was one screen, however, that was dedicated to the Food Channel, which, at first glance seemed odd, until I remembered where we were and recognized the genius of it. See something you like? Everything you need to make it just happens to be right outside those brass and glass doors!

Pay up and start spending!

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Driving Miss Tracey

Let me start with this:


I didn't get my license until I was 20, but I have more than made up for lost time. Usually? If my group is driving, then I am at the wheel.

BUT, my car has been in the shop since last Friday, which, of course, could be a big inconvenience.

On Saturday we roadtripped with my brother and sister-in-law on an epic journey to a relatively untraveled region of our state. Emily was a perfectly wonderful chauffeur, piloting us through both heavy traffic and unfamiliar roads with hardly a shrug. And I really appreciated my rare view from the back seat, a perspective I rarely enjoy.

The next day Heidi and I drove our Jeep down to a local national park so that we could go hiking. That's the vehicle that Heidi usually drives, and so I took navigator, and we rolled our way along some less traveled roads with the windows down and the radio blasting. Again, it was pretty nice to sit back and enjoy the scenery, tweaking our route here and there to avoid excess traffic.

And now we are in Minnesota visiting my mom, who as our always gracious hostess is driving us everywhere we go. Just this afternoon we toured some of the neighborhoods of the twin cities on our way to Como Park, and once again I found myself in the shotgun seat looking at the architecture and spring foliage. It was great!

Oh, I will be happy to get the car back, but this cloud has definitely not been without a silver lining.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Way Out

Wait. What?

The Uncle Ben's rice commercial has a peppy version of Peter Frampton's Show Me the Way? And then the next spot featured Blondie's One Way or Another?

Hey netwaork TV! The 70s called and they want their music back!

Sunday, April 9, 2017


Years ago, while hiking in Shenandoah National Park, our party stopped to enjoy a waterfall and the pool it conveniently flowed into, almost like a water slide. My older nephew put his glasses on a rock to keep them safe, but somehow in all our splashing and sliding, his glasses were knocked off.

I remember that moment like it was in slow motion: first the glasses jumped up from the blow, and when they landed just a bit closer to the edge, they had lost their purchase and so plummeted into the pool. I plummeted after them, and wading as quickly as possible to where that tiny splash had appeared  I plunged my arm to the sandy bottom below and was miraculously rewarded by the unmistakable feel of plastic and glass and snatched them up even as the force of the falls was washing the away.

I thought of that afternoon this afternoon in Prince William Forest, another national park, when as I stood by the side of a tiny waterfall, no more than an out-sized rapid, really, my sunglasses inexplicably slipped from my grip and, just as before, in the slowest of slow motion, gathered their momentum on the gray stone and dropped into the stream.

Oh, there was no miracle in the woods today, but the sky was blue and the air was warm, and so I shrugged it off and called it even.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Spring Brakes

It seemed like such a good idea: Why not kick our vacation off with a 90 mile road trip down to Stratford Hall, home of the Lee family? Located on the Potomac River in rural Westmoreland County, that destination promised a little bit of everything~ history, scenery, and hiking trails to a beach known for its fossils. I texted Bill and Emily at around 10 AM, and they were in! By 11:30 we had eaten and showered and we were on the road.

Unfortunately, by the "road," I mean I-95, notorious for its traffic. The first Saturday of many people's spring vacation was no exception to the infamous congestion, and so it wasn't long before we found ourselves crawling along in the express lanes. Fortunately, we had some catching up to do, and Bill honored the family tradition of listening to Jesus Christ Superstar in its entirety during the Easter season, so although we sat, it was far from unpleasant.

When at last we got off the highway and headed south on secondary roads, Spring was everywhere. Redbuds were flowering, and farm fields were covered in rolling blankets of emerald and gold. Passing through tiny towns anchored by diners, tractor and feed stores, and the meeting halls of miscellaneous brotherhoods it seemed impossible that we were less than 50 miles from the city.

We made it to Stratford Hall in time to briefly check out the beach before joining the last mansion tour of the day. On the way home we took our time, stopping to do a little more beachcombing at Westmoreland State Park. Colonial Beach was not far away, and so we cruised the streets of that tiny river town as the sun gloriously set over the river.

Sure, it was a little late when we finally made it home, but what a way to spend a day in April, especially when you're on vacation!

Friday, April 7, 2017

Happy Feet

My spring break started early today when, due to the minor crack-up I had a couple of weeks ago, I had to take my car for the official claim inspection and repair. The appointment was at 9 and the distance was walkable, so by 9:45 I was back at home with not only a free day ahead of me, but an entire week of possibility rainbowing away to an endpoint so far in the distance that it was practically invisible.

What to do with such a wealth of time?


I went through all the junk from the back of my car and organized it into trash, donation, and yeah, I need that. I changed the ink cartridges in my printer, and along the way pulled out the newspaper basket under my desk to vacuum and wash the floor. I re-potted the seedlings I started a few weeks ago and planted some more seeds in anticipation of putting my garden in. I spent an hour in the attic finding things to add to my donation pile. I listened to the first hour of Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I cleaned all my 45s and several LPs with my new carbon fiber brush. I practiced my ukulele, paid the bills, and talked to a couple of cousins about some family drama. I read some of my students' writing online and offered encouragement, and then?

I put on some YouTube videos and...


Thursday, April 6, 2017

Been So Long

I confess, I'm an on-again-off-again Draw Something player, and I definitely do need a reminder every now and then. So it was hardly a surprise when I got the following message from my 9-year-old niece:

Oh, my! 
That is a long time!
I'm on it.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

A Rescue

Every quarter my students have the assignment to write a micro-personal narrative about a rescue they have experienced when we read the two chapters in Ralph Fletcher's memoir Marshfield Dreams about the family's chickens being attacked and rescued and endangered and rescued again.

Today was that day, and as usual, I was prepared with several examples or prompts for students who were having a hard time making a personal connection. This time, however, my assistance was not required as the class had all witnessed a small rescue a couple of days before.

Several kids wrote about the same thing, and although the effect is kind of like a game of telephone, it's also rather amusing. I'll let them take it from here, but please! Note the figurative language.

The best rescue that I have ever witnessed was when Ms.S rescued Ms. M. We just going through the normal class when someone noticed that Ms. M was lying on the ground. Then Ms. S quick as a flash ran outside to help. She was like a first responder as she directed people to go get help and call the ambulance. Meanwhile we were all in the classroom watching through the window one kid even used the binoculars to see what was going on. Because the doors to the school lock behind you she to send one student to get the nurse and one to holds the door. I think those kids were the lucky ones because they got to see what was going on while we waited to see what would happen. When the ambulance finally arrived it’s siren was wailing like a hurt child to take her to the hospital. After that we finished our class like it was just a normal day.
Take 2
Ms.S looked out the window and rushed out the door calling G. with her. Everyone else in the class blew up with excitement.
“Why did she leave the class like that?” some said.
Others said, “ Why did she take G?”
I just sat there bemused. What happened? Did she run out of the room to yell at someone on the hallway like Mr.G does sometimes? The students sat waiting. Bam! The door opened and Ms.S flew into the room.
She announced, ”Someone just hurt her head and is bleeding, the ambulance is going to arrive soon.”
She then started to talk about the story from her point of view and why she needed G.
“She had to hold the door for me and call the Nurse,” Ms.S exclaimed.
After that the ambulance arrived and some students rushed to the window to get a better view. There were an explosion of questions and Ms.S was in the middle of all of it. She was like the Queen of Knowledge as she was surrounded by her little followers.

(Some parts may not be the exact words people said)
Take 3
One day, I was sitting in English class, and all of a sudden, our teacher, Ms. S ran out of the classroom and brought G with her. She didn't tell us anything, she just ran out of the classroom. We were all confused, but then we saw Ms. S outside! We all ran and crowded around the window. Ms. S was outside helping a teacher who was sitting on the sidewalk. We didn't know what was happening, but then we saw Ms. S coming back inside, and we all ran back to our seats. Boom! There was a crash behind us. Someone's chair had fallen down because they were rushing to sit down. Then, Ms. S came back in and we all asked what happened.

“Ms. M fell and hit her head on the sidewalk. There is a lot of blood. It is like a river,” Ms. S said. We all gasped. Then, Ms. S ran back outside and brought another student out. We all rushed back to the window to see what was happening, and we saw the nurse and Ms. S helping Ms. M. A few minutes later, Ms. S started coming back inside, and again, we all rushed back to our seats.

“Ms. M fell and hit her head on the sidewalk. She is a little disoriented,” Ms. S started. “I saw her sitting there, and she wasn't getting up. No one was out there helping her, so I went out, and she told me what happened. Then, she asked for some tissues, and the nurse, so I had G get the nurse, and I brought the tissues out to Ms. M. Ms. W called an ambulance and it is on its way now. She has a head injury, so we want to get it checked out to make sure she is ok.” 
Then, we all tried to get back to work, but it was hard because we were all so distracted. But one thing is for sure, Ms. S is a superhero! With superhero powers!
Take 4
On the third of April 2017, Ms. S saw a teacher outside sitting on the ground like a tired hippopotamus. She flew out the door with G. and went outside to see what happened. G. was the door holder so she held the door when Ms.S came inside and got the tissues for the teacher who had fallen and her nose was split and she had a black eye. She took the another student to get the nurse. Then after the nurse came Ms. S went to a teacher that was on break and said to them “call nine, one, one you slow poke get a move on.” In an instant the ambulance's siren was a piercing yell like a baby. The teacher was eventually taken to the hospital. The class was still in Ms. S room. We were all secretly looking through the window, so that is why this whole class is witnesses to the heroics of Ms. S.

My colleague is fine, resting comfortably at home after a bad spill, with no lasting injury. AND, for the record? I did not call anyone a slow poke!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Ups and Downs

When it comes to the spring writing challenge I do with my students, I try to find prizes that are economical but enjoyable. (Even though, as I take pains to remind them frequently, writing is its own reward.) Of course candy is always popular, but sometimes I think a more tangible reward is, well, more rewarding.

When I was in sixth grade, yoyos were all the rage. Back then you had to have at least a Duncan classic, but it was better to carry a Duncan Butterfly. With its distinctive hourglass shape and dual coloring-- red on one side and yellow on the other, the Butterfly was the yoyo for serious yoyoers, and I had a Butterfly. As a result of those days, I can still yoyo quite well; I can even do around the world and walk the dog, with the alacrity, if not quite the same proficiency, as my 11-year-old self. I keep a yoyo in my desk drawer, and any time I bring it out, my current sixth graders are amazed, because yoyoing really isn't that easy.

Imagine my dismay, then, when the writer who won the yoyo for the March challenge was very disappointed in his prize. What else could I do, but borrow it from him and give a quick demonstration and lesson? Pretty soon his yoyo was rolling off his fingertips and spinning up and down with consistency if not fluidity.

My intervention paid off immediately.

"Can I win a yoyo, too?" asked several students.

"You might if you write all month," I told them.

Monday, April 3, 2017

A Tisket

It's that time of the year when our school asks homerooms to come up with a theme and put together a basket to be raffled off as a fundraiser for the PTA. It's also time for me to register my dismay.

Personally, I find the practice an example of consumerism at its most wasteful: families buy inexpensive things that other families buy chances on, all in the name of supporting the school. Sure, it's fun to bet, and even more fun to win, but most of the items will end up in the landfill or ocean in a few year's time. It's either that, or basketful of candy or other junk food that nobody really needs.

Surely there is a better way to entertain ourselves?

Sunday, April 2, 2017

8 Miles

This is how it happened:

The sky was cloudless, the air was crisp, and the sun was warm. There was a flat, sandy path strewn with spring ephemerals, white, yellow, and pale blue, along a flowing stream, with the promise of a boardwalk, an abandoned pyrite mine, and some waterfalls beyond.

And so we kept on walking.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Return of the Hot Seat

We have reached the part of my word study class that is more developmentally appropriate for the age of the students that I have taught for my entire career, and so it was with confidence and redemption in mind that I volunteered for the hot seat activity again this morning. The category was eponyms, and I was waving my hand the minute the instructor moved the stool in front of the screen. As before, the premise was simple: I sat with my back to the screen and my fellow participants read clues about things that were named after people or places.

Named after a president who loved to hunt was the first one.

"Teddy Bear?" I answered.

The class applauded. The instructor read quickly through the clues I hadn't needed.

Food from England was the second one.

I smiled and shrugged. "I need another clue."

Can be white or orange.

"Cheddar cheese?" I guessed.

"Wow!" said the instructor, "You're pretty good at this!"

I beamed, and made quick work of bikini (named after an atoll in the Pacific, site of nuclear testing) and marathon (named after a battlefield in Greece, a messenger ran all the way to Athens).

"You should go on Jeopardy!" suggested one of my classmates as I made my way back to my seat.

"I actually auditioned for the show once," I said, "but I never got a call back."

"Their loss," she winked.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Three Ring Lesson

On the last Friday in March, with an assembly scheduled and still one more week until spring break, I pulled out some serious bells and whistles for my lesson plan today.

Using the work they have done this week in their writing notebooks, my students competed in a figurative language tournament. We had an online bracket powered by Challonge that set the pairings, a "Wheel of Figurative Language" courtesy of Wheel Decide, and they were able to vote for their favorite simile, metaphor, hyperbole, etc., using Kahoot on their iPads, so that real-time results popped up on the big classroom screen.

If that sounds like a lot going on, it was!

Fortunately, I have been practicing with my wireless mouse.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Differentiation Is not always Different

March is nearly done,
and April brings us respite~
welcome poetry!

As my students jog into the homestretch of their first month of daily writing, I feel their fatigue. More and more of their posts are about having nothing to say. As much as I try to encourage them, explaining that writing through the block by finding the meaning of small moments everyday is part of the reward, I know they want a break.

That's why the writing challenge in April is always poetry. I try my best to find daily activities that not only address the standards, but also provide a balance between structured support and opportunity for creativity.

"I hate poetry!" some student will inevitably groan.

"Then this is the challenge for you!" I answer brightly.

"I love poetry!" someone else will add.

"Then this is the challenge for you, too!" I clap my hands. "How about a haiku?"

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Putting the Home in Homeroom

When, just a few seconds before the bell, my two chronically late (or absent) homeroom students rushed in, eager to be on time for the first time in weeks, I...


And my applause was infectious-- ten other kids celebrated right along with me, showering the boys with praise and commendations for doing what they themselves do every single day.

What else was there to do, then?

Well, of course, it was cookies for everyone! I happily raided my snack cache and bags of chocolate chippers flew through the room, all of us appreciating the sweetness of the moment, I with fingers crossed that my prodigal students will find their way to school on time again tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Balanced Act

Planned: a gray and muggy morning, an estimate on the damage from my unfortunate fender bender, car inspections and emissions tests, tax forms filled and submitted, prescriptions refilled.

Unplanned: the afternoon sun shining in a blue sky dotted with puffy clouds, a walk beneath the cherry blossoms lining the Tidal Basin, some double-time clapping and a standing ovation for six wee flamenco dancers on the festival stage, a bike share spin around Hains Point.

All in all? An excellent day!

Monday, March 27, 2017

Moment o'Mori

It's been a weird week.

I read/listened to Lincoln in the Bardo, the trippy new novel by George Saunders. Well acclaimed by, well, everyone, it tells the story of one night in the very real Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown where Abraham Lincoln's 11-year-old son Willie was temporarily interred following his death in 1862. Legend has it that Lincoln visited on several occasions and unlocked the crypt to hold his son again. Saunders' book takes up that tale from the perspective of the ghosts who haunt the place, confined by their own unresolved concerns to the Bardo, a Tibetan "intermediate state" of the dead. In some ways, the novel is kind of Spoon River Anthology meets Mad Magazine, But I found it ultimately to be a very moving meditation on life, and yes, of course, death.

(Oh? And did I mention? The audiobook has a cast of 120, with Saunders himself, David Sedaris, and Nick Offerman as the main ghosts, but also Susan Sarandon, Julianne Moore, Megan Mullally, Bradley Whitmore, Ben Stiller, and Don Cheadle to name a very few.)

Fresh off of that cheerful literary experience, we watched the movie Collateral Beauty where Will Smith portrays a dad not coping well at all with the loss of his young daughter. In that one, Helen Mirren, Kiera Knightly, and Jacob Latimore play Death, Love, and Time, respectively. With nice performances by Kate Winslet, Edward Norton, Michael Pena, and the amazing Naomi Harris that keep the schmaltz level low, this film exceeded my expectations and pushed me to mull [again?!] about life, and of course, death.

(The other movie we saw this weekend? Logan! Spoiler alert: The X-men are finished and Dr. X PLUS the 'immortal' Wolverine both die! Fans of the series-- you see the connection, right?)

And then today, in a lesson I have taught many times, where I give my students the chance to consider how, among the many Arlingtons there may be in the nation, our Arlington is special, one child raised his hand and said, "It's the only one where the dead outnumber the living!"

I had never thought of our most famous landmark in quite that respect, but I checked his calculation, and it's true: Arlington Cemetery has over 400,000 burials to our 207,000 citizens.

That is special, indeed.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Wish I Hadn't

I could have let it go.

When I got home from the grocery store this morning I found that one of the cans in the six pack I bought was leaking through the seal, and rather than toss that one and put the other five away, I put the whole carton in a bag with my receipt. And so, in a spare half-hour this afternoon, I headed back to the store for a replacement, where pulling into a parking space, I cut it a little wide and creamed the back-left bumper of the empty car next to me.

What was there to do but take pictures, leave a note, and report the incident to customer service at the store? Nothing, except file a claim for the damage to my own front bumper with as much information as I had about the other car. And that is what I did. Since I was clearly at fault, I will pay the deductible to have the repairs made.

And that, was one expensive can of beer.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

You Should Go

Just a couple of months ago I wrote about enjoying the view across the Potomac from the rear portico of Mount Vernon. Today I found myself on the other shore looking up at the mansion on the hill. 
Founded in 1957 to protect the view from Mount Vernon across the Potomac River, the Accokeek Foundation, an educational nonprofit, became one of the nation's first land trusts. Today, the Foundation stewards 200 hundred acres of Piscataway National Park in Accokeek, MD, where visitors can hike a network of trails winding through wetlands, visit a native tree arboretum, and observe an award-winning forest restoration project. The newly reconstructed boat dock offers stunning views of Mount Vernon and allows visitors to arrive by passenger boat and kayakers to access the Potomac via newly installed kayak launches. The Foundation also runs the National Colonial Farm, a living history museum that depicts a Maryland middle-class family farm on the eve of the American Revolution. Through our heritage breed livestock and seed saving programs, nearly extinct heirloom crops and animals are preserved for future generations. The Foundation's organic Ecosystem Farm emphasizes the future of agriculture as farmers learn the tools of a new trade and practice sustainable use of natural resources. "Shares" of the farm's organic produce are sold to area households. The park's beautiful grounds, trails, and programs are open to the public year 'round  
I've been to Piscataway NP before, and it's just as cool as it sounds. Not many people know about the place, though. In fact, we practically had to ourselves this afternoon, unless you count the chickens, pigs, cattle, rabbits, geese, squirrels, and turkey vultures.

And unlike Mount Vernon, which I do love, PNP is free!

Friday, March 24, 2017

Ode to my Coat

My breath was invisible in the chill morning air, but I still turned the collar up on my winter jacket as I headed out for the day. The forecast of a warm afternoon prompted me to leave my scarf and mittens behind, and I was not wrong to do so. Spring is definitely on the way.

As the season changes we thoughtlessly shed the coats that have kept us warm all winter for more temperate gear. They have done their job well, but on a certain day we put them away, and they hang in the closet unused and forgotten until the weather turns cold again.

Was today that day? The last day for my coat? If the soft air coming in through the back door keeps its promise, then the answer is probably, Yes. 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Then and Now

I've done a memory map assignment with my reading students every quarter for the last 5 years. As part of the activity, we look at Newbury-award-winner Jack Gantos's answer to the question, "What tips or advice can you share with young students who hope to start writing?"
The first tip is to get a good journal or small notebook—not too big as you want to be able to slip it into your back pocket. Then get a decent pen. Then I want you to draw a map of your house, or a map of your neighborhood, or map of your school and I want you to draw where everything funny, serious, insane, unexpected, heroic, lousy, triumphant and tragic took place. And then I want you to think about your life as the best material in the world, and each one of your small drawings where something interesting happened will be the opening material for your story. Your discipline should start with ten minutes per day—start small and meet your goal. Then extend your goal as you wish
~Library of Congress,"Meet the Authors"(
Then I show the class a map that was included in the Gantos book Heads or Tails, from which we've read excerpts so they recognize some of the images, and I also share a map of my own that I made of the neighborhood I lived in from ages 4-10. Each icon has a little story attached to it, and usually the students' curiosity about those anecdotes is an effective springboard into creating their own map.

This morning when most of the class had started sketching their own memories, one student waved me over. As I approached to answer her question, she flipped her iPad over to reveal a familiar house. Using just the two street names on my map, she had used Google Earth to conjure up my childhood home, still recognizable 45 years after my family had moved...


For a moment I was speechless. Then other kids came over to look. Where was your school? Where was the creek? they asked about features on my hand-drawn map. Is the peach tree gone? Was that where your mom built the igloo? Is your best friend's house still there?

I answered their questions and set them back to work. Can we use our iPads to search up our neighborhoods? someone asked, of course, because they were born into a world where memory and imagination collide with technology and convenience all the time.

"Start without it," I suggested, "and see where it goes."

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

A New Attitude

For my intervention group this rotation, I have 22 sixth graders who have been identified as having an aptitude for English, which is a 180 degree switch from the groups of reluctant readers I've worked with so far this year.

My plan? Some advanced word study based on Greek and Latin, along with an examination of Greek drama and mythology and a little playwriting.

I knew I was on the right track with these kids yesterday when I told them we were going to start the session with a spelling inventory. Their spirits were high as they sharpened their pencils and cheerfully numbered the papers in front of them.

"Is it hard?" asked one.

"Sort of," I answered.

"Bring it!" said another.

And then today?

All they wanted was to see how they did on the test and then to correct the words they misspelled.


Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Just a Drill

I was giving my first period class a heads up about our imminent tornado drill this morning along with the boilerplate reminder of the importance of being quiet during an emergency drill when a student raised his hand. "Have you ever been in a real emergency here?" he wanted to know.

I paused and considered. "In all the years I've been here," I answered, "there have been four." The students were rapt, and I know a teachable moment when I see one, so I told them the following stories.

The first time that a real emergency happened was before school even started. We arrived one morning to find a fleet of firetrucks, lights flashing, lining the bus lane and all of our colleagues standing outside. Our school has a rec center attached, and we quickly found out that there had been an electrical fire in one of the saunas.

"Wait! We have saunas?!" a student interrupted.

I laughed and shrugged. "I think they're still working, but who knows? Anyhow, the damage was enough that they closed school for the day. We spent the morning waving as the buses arrived and then immediately turned around, and then all the teachers went out to breakfast!"

"Lucky!" a kid said. "I hope that happens again!"

"Another time, we got here and the power was out. That morning they made the whole school stand outside for two hours," I remembered.

"Were the kids allowed to play, or did they just have to stand in line?" one student wondered.

"There wasn't a lot to do," I told them. "Everyone just ended up sitting on the sidewalk and wishing we could either go in or go home, already."

"What happened?"

"Eventually the power came back on and we had a modified schedule," I said, to my audience's disappointment.

"What about the other two?" someone asked.

"One of them was the earthquake we had a few years ago," I said.

"Oh yeah!" one girl remembered. "I was about 6 then!"

"Well, this was in August before school started, and I was in a teacher meeting in the library," I started. "When the whole building started shaking we all looked at each other and realized that we didn't know what to do. Earthquakes are so rare around here that we never practiced for them."

"Now we do!" noted a student.

"That's why!" I said, "We realized then we needed to be prepared. And that's why we practice for things that will probably never happen. So if they do, we all know what to do. And that's why it's really important to be quiet during a drill, because when the real thing happens, it doesn't always go exactly the way you planned."

"So what about the last emergency?" another student asked.

"Well, " I started, "That was September 11, 2001." I paused, remembering that day. Our school is about a mile from the Pentagon, and we went into lockdown that day after hearing the explosion and aftershocks of the attack. Despite the fear and uncertainty of the situation, our staff pulled together to keep the kids safe and calm until their parents arrived to get them.

This morning as I looked over the class, I realized that most of them did not understand what I was talking about. It happened years before they were born. "Anyway," I said, "that was a very unexpected situation, and it was important for everyone to listen and follow directions."

They nodded. Just then the announcement for the tornado drill blared from the loudspeaker. They stood and lined up in silence.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Spring Training

The first afternoon of spring was more lion than lamb here, and there was a raw breeze blowing through iron skies as I set off for a walk through the neighborhood a little while ago. The sight of a baseball being tossed back and forth across a field reminded me of the new season though, and I smiled as I made my way toward it. At first all I could see was the ball arcing from side to side through an opening in the buildings ahead, but when I entered the clearing my smile widened to see that it was a mom and her little girl practicing throwing and catching.

"Turn your glove over," the mom instructed, "and don't try to use your bare hand; you'll get hurt that way." She tossed the ball and her daughter just missed.

"My pants are falling down!" the little girl explained as she dropped her glove and began tugging on the waistband of her warm-ups.

"... but..." her mother's response was lost to me on the wind, but I saw the girl's face light up in surprise.

"What?!" she asked her mom, giggling.

And this time I was close enough to hear. "I guess if you don't want your pants to fall down, you're going to have to grow a butt!"

The two of them collapsed in laughter, and just like that, the chill vanished from the afternoon.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Food for Thought

From the corner table of that hip pizza place where we ate lunch today I had a pretty good view of most of the other patrons, but my attention was totally drawn to a couple just across the way. While they enjoyed their pizza and salad, their baby sat in one of the restaurant's high chairs contentedly watching a program on the smartphone that was propped up on the salt and pepper shakers in front of him.

Oh, it was clear to me that the video was especially designed for a child of about his age-- there were mamas and babies and elephants and bells and doors and drawers with bright balls that bounced in and out and hands that clapped and snapped. That child did not fuss at all during the meal. 

And then right before we left I made a pitstop at the restroom. On the way I passed another father with his slightly older son sitting at the counter that looks over the kitchen and pizza oven. His father talked quietly to him as that child stretched a small disc of dough that was destined to become his lunch. He didn't have any complaints either. 

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Stressed and Unstressed

So, we were talking about accented and unaccented syllables this morning in my word study class (I know! The things English teachers do for fun on Saturday, right?), when the instructor gave an example about how regional accents can influence speech inflection.

"I'm from Florida," she told us, "and I love tacos. Down there we pronounce the name of the fast food chain as Taco Bell, emphasis on the last syllable."

The class nodded, and I could see several students frowning and mouthing the words. I listened carefully as she continued.

"Up here," she said, "most people say Ta-co Bell, emphasis on the first syllable."

We didn't get it, or at least, we didn't hear it.

I tried pronouncing it that way quietly. "Taco Bell, Taco Bell, Taco Bell," I whispered to myself, and then I stopped.

"Oh! It rhymes with Pachelbel!" I said out loud. "Like the Canon!"

Friday, March 17, 2017

That Witch!

The boys in my latest intervention reading group are unanimous: Harry Potter is awesome!

Five weeks ago they had their doubts, but after a few read-alouds and read-alongs, they were begging to take the books home and read ahead. "I can't believe how good it is!" one guy told me. "I always thought it would be boring or bad, but it's not!" 

And so in celebration of finishing the first book in the series as well as the fact that Chamber of Secrets now has a waiting list at our school library, we agreed to watch the movie together. Even though many of them had seen some or all of it before, twelve twelve-year-old boys sat mesmerized (but not silent, oh... never silent) in front of the big screen today munching on cheese crackers and discussing every detail that had been changed for the film version. 

Oh, they loved the movie-- almost every part was someone's favorite part. "Those kids are just about your age," I told them, unnecessarily, because it was so obvious. Entering middle school isn't quite like starting at Hogwarts, but I could completely relate to the amount of shepherding the young wizards required in their new school, as well as the mixture of doubt and delight with which they approached their fresh independence.

And yet, this all-boy audience disappointed me just a little. They were very vocal about how much they disliked Hermione. 

"She's so bossy!"

"She thinks she knows everything!"

"She's so stuck-up!"

And while it's true that in addition to that overly-eager hand-raise, Hermione does her share of sighing and eye-rolling at Ron and Harry's mishaps, I just couldn't see it their way. 

"Hermione is smart and hard-working," I told them. "She's also a really good friend to Harry and Ron. I think she's awesome!"

"Well, yeah," one guy told me, "once she calms down."

Thursday, March 16, 2017


My mother will tell you that I am one of the worst procrastinators on the planet, and I can't really argue with her. Both of us have indelible memories of books and papers scattered across her dining table, a rented electric typewriter the centerpiece of all that chaos, as I pulled all-nighter after all-nighter trying to get my final grad school papers done and turned in on time.

I still remember her sigh a couple of years later when she stopped by my place one afternoon to find me still in my pajamas and surrounded by childrens' books at my own dining room table, desperately hammering out a unit plan that was due that evening for one my education classes. "I guess some things never change," she said as she shook her head.

What can I say? I need a deadline. Being a teacher has worked out beautifully for me, because in addition to the never-ending stream of work, there are hard deadlines built into every day. Lord help the teacher who is unprepared for those 25 kids to come streaming in the door. It only has to happen once before you learn the lesson that an hour of preparation is well worth 45 minutes without unnecessary chaos. (At least that's what I've heard!)

That's why I was surprised at myself this afternoon as I worked steadily on an assignment I have coming due for a class I'm taking for recertification points and credit through the local extension of our state university. Of course, my desk was cluttered with a sift of textbooks and student work samples as I pounded away at my laptop. BUT... the paper is almost done, and heavens!

It's not due until Saturday morning.

Hey, Mom! Maybe there's hope for me yet!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Struggle Is Real

After a couple of weeks of reviewing the elements of fiction and planning for their own stories, my students were finally ready to get a draft on paper this morning. "Look at all your notes and talk to your writing partner for a few minutes before you get started," I suggested.

The room was fizzing and burbling with last-minute plans and ideas, and I circulated from pair to pair checking in on their conversations. I zeroed in on a couple of boys talking intensely. One was frowning, and he made eye contact with me as I headed over.

"What if your character doesn't really have a conflict?" he asked. "What if everything is just fine?"

I tilted my head, considering all the lessons of the previous weeks and wondering how he could have missed the essential information that ALL STORIES HAVE A CONFLICT!

His partner beat me to the answer, though. "No problem, no story, Dude," he said. "Ya gotta have one."

The other boy nodded and shrugged. "Well okay, then, I'll just mess up his life a little bit."

Tuesday, March 14, 2017


The persistent rapping of sleet and frozen rain against my windows last night made it hard to sleep soundly, but in the darkness before dawn, a couple of inches of slush along with the promise of a bit more to come gave us the snow day we had been waiting for. Oh, it was too sloppy outside for any snowmen or sleds, but when at last the gray skies cleared, the clean up was pretty easy. Growing restless of Netflix by the fireside, at about 4:30 this afternoon I pulled on a pair of boots and headed out to get some fresh air. It was hard not to contrast the sights of this day to the last winter storm we had just over a year ago. Then the sharp cold air was filled with flumes of powder as my dog scampered through sparkling blanket of snow. Today I walked alone past frozen cherry blossoms and bent daffodils, glad to have the time off, but looking forward to warmer days.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Will It or Won't It?

There's a blizzard a-comin!

To Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston... But we live in Washington, DC, which, after a snow-less winter, is right on the snow-rain line of this miraculous March event.

And it is also where we live in fear of the disappointing epitaph of the oncoming weather:

The reports of our snowstorm have been gravely exaggerated.

Apologies to Mark Twain! (Excuse me while I turn my PJs inside out and flush an ice cube down the drain.)

Sunday, March 12, 2017

A Great Escape

Knowing how sharp-witted I consider myself, my older nephews considerately got me a gift certificate to a local "escape room" for Christmas. I'm almost as antisocial as I am wiley, however, plus I know a good team when I see one, and so I invited both of them and their parents to accompany us on our big adventure today.

For those who are unfamiliar, "An escape room is a physical adventure game in which players are locked in a room and have to use elements of the room to solve a series of puzzles and escape within a set time limit, or having completed a mission." (Thank you, Wikipedia!)

And so for 45 minutes this afternoon the six of us scoured an office designed to belong to Professor Moriarty of Sherlock Holmes fame, discovering and interpreting all sorts of perplexing items and baffling clues. In the end we escaped, but not without the assistance of our steward, Sarah, and an extra few minutes. "At first you guys were doing so well I thought you had our guide book," she told us, but then..." she trailed off, kind of like we had once we hit our first big block.

Even so, back on the street and off to a late lunch a little while later, all we could talk about was what we had learned and how much better we would be next time. Look out Escape Room! We're coming back!

P.S. One thing we could not escape was that most onerous day of the year when when one whole hour is ripped unceremoniously from our weekend. Boo! DST! 

Saturday, March 11, 2017


I spent a bit of my Saturday combing the racks and shelves at the local big box thrift store. (Is that an oxymoron?) It was kind of fun, but the experience of treasure-hunting through other people's castoffs is also a little conflicting.

I am economically fortunate enough that I thrift-shop for entertainment and also in the spirit of upcycling. The landfills depicted in the Pixar movie Wall-E are among the most haunting of images I've ever seen, and the sheer volume of usable items on the curbsides I pass on trash days turns my stomach. Where's that stuff going to go? Even the long lines and the mountainous jumble of donations at our local Goodwill makes me queasy. When did so many things become disposable?

It seems like there is no bright line between consumption and over-consumption. Heck! we even watch hoarders on TV as entertainment. The days when one man's trash was another man's treasure are quickly disappearing in the rearview.

Except at the thrift shop.

Some of the customers are searching for a genuine treasure at a rock-bottom price. Some are looking to add a bargain buy to their already full closets and drawers. Some are there because it is a greener form of acquisition. Some are there because it's fun and hip.

But many others are shopping there because it is all they can afford. 

Friday, March 10, 2017

Slurp it Up

Friday night dilemma:

Should I cook those pig's feet tonight or tomorrow?

Perhaps I should explain my recent ramen research project: I want to make a decent tonkotsu broth from scratch,




it would be awesome and delicious!

For me? Cooking is a little like [I imagine] mountain climbing. Most of the fun is in the challenge. But the reward is in the view,

or on the plate,

or in the bowl.

Thursday, March 9, 2017


We are still new to the whole Uber thing, but when a friend invited us downtown for dinner this evening, it seemed that with three of us and parking to consider, that form of transportation was *literally* the way to go. And so when we were ready to head out I fired up my app, and after a few frowns and swipes announced that Muhammed was on his way.

In nine minutes a pristine silver Rav4 pulled up, and Heidi and Susan hopped in the back leaving me to take shotgun. "Do you mind the music?" the driver asked once we were settled. We did not, and soon my fingers were drumming along to the exotic syncopation as we rolled through the neighborhood and toward the city.

It's always a little awkward, if you ask me, to ride right next to your chauffeur in total silence, but I'm not really the type to chat up a total stranger, either, so I stared out the window and tried to identify the language of the lyrics. Finally my curiosity got the best of me. "What country is this music from?" I asked.

"What country do you think it's from?" Muhammed replied.

I laughed at the unexpected turn in our young conversation. "Um..." I hesitated, considering the man and the music. "Afghanistan?"

"No," he said, "but it borders Afghanistan."

"Pakistan?" I guessed next, because I thought that might be where he was from, but the music didn't seem quite right. For one thing, several of the songs were duets with both male and female singers.

"Nope," he said.

"That borders, Afghanistan, right? I'm trying to picture the map," I told him.

He waited patiently.

"Can I get any help?" I said over my shoulder to Heidi and Susan.

"You asked," Susan shrugged. "Sorry."

"Iran?" I said.

"That borders Afghanistan," he agreed, "but no."

I scrunched my face up, embarrassed by my lack of knowledge of that region.

"It does start with an I, though," he gave me a hint.

I listened to the music, it seemed familiar in a complex fusion-y kind of way. "India!" I snapped my fingers.

Muhammed grinned widely. "You did know!" he said, "Very good!"

"Are you a geography teacher by day?" I asked him, "Because if not, you should consider it!"

Wednesday, March 8, 2017


When at first the prospect of a woman's strike on March 8, International Women's Day, was raised in our 9-teacher team meeting, the only man among us gasped in what we treated as mock alarm. We all laughed because we knew how impossible it would be for him to manage 105 kids all on his own. In the following weeks, I participated in several discussions with colleagues about the call for a day without women.

"But isn't teaching one of the few professions where men and women have equal pay?" asked a fellow teacher. "Even though it is predominately women?" she added.

"Maybe that is why teacher pay is lower compared to other professionals with the same education and licensing credentials," someone else suggested. "Administrators make more," and those jobs are mostly held by men.

"I just wouldn't want to see the kids suffer if there was a strike," another person said.

"But as teachers," I answered, "we are constantly being pressured by that message. Stop complaining and do x or y for the good of the students. Such statements presuppose that we don't care about the welfare of our kids. Maybe it would be good for them to consider the contributions of the women in their lives."

In the end, despite the fact that two nearby school systems closed in response to the call, ours did not, and rather than stay at home, I put on some red, went to school, and refused to spend a penny, as did the majority of my colleagues. Our students demonstrated a mix of levels of awareness, although we had a rare 100% attendance on our team. Some were clueless, some had heard of it, and some wore red in solidarity.

Then there was the kid who interrupted me as I was explaining the day's objective. "Hey!" she said indignantly, "I thought you weren't allowed to teach us today!"

Tuesday, March 7, 2017


Kids always seem to be excited about writing fiction, and my sixth grade students this year are no exception. They haven't bristled in the least at the mandatory plot chart, conflict type, and character development lessons that compose the prewriting stage of the unit.

In fact, their sheer enthusiasm for studying models, evaluating scenarios, and analyzing characters proves a lesson I have learned many times: 

Engagement is the phoenix feather at the core of the magic wand of education.

If only there were some spell...



or Abra Relisha!


that might conjure up that heightened state of interest every day.

Why, school would be a different place indeed!

Monday, March 6, 2017

Defying Expectations

As I've mentioned, my students are also participating in a Slice of Life writing challenge this month. Six days in, I set aside a little time in class today to give them a pep talk, and to encourage (okay, force) those who have not yet started their daily writing to jump on board immediately for at least the 10 days that are required.

"What if I write about how mean my English teacher is?" glowered one student dramatically.

"I would love it!" I told him. "I tell my writing friends all the time how much I love it when other people write about me. It's like I'm the star of tiny play."

Well, he didn't write about me, but a few other kids humored me. And why not? It made an easy topic. Here's one of my favorites:

Since Ms. S. loves it, I guess I will write about her. The first impression she made for me in the beginning of the year was that she had some spunk in her. The way she talked is liked she owned this place. Which she technically did because it is her room. She also seemed like that she been through so many things in her life that anyone could come to her for some wise memes or something like that. All in all I didn't expect her to be so talkative. I thought English teachers are supposed to be boring and quiet.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Bookbinder

In his later years, my grandfather made his living as a legal bookbinder. Based in Maryland, where my grandmother held a steady job at the Pentagon, he traveled up and down the east coast repairing the libraries of his clients. As a child, I had no conception of what he did; I was always just happy to see him on those nights when our house in New Jersey was a way station for him.

Even now, I don't really know what the job actually entailed. I picture him at a highly polished table in a room lined with dark wooden bookshelves, a stack of broken and tattered books before him. Did he use tape? A needle and thread? How about a bone folder? Were there ever volumes that were too worn too repair? How often did he return to a particular client?

I think of him every time a student brings a damaged trade book, notebook, or binder to my desk. Assessing the extent of the injury, I grab one of the many rolls of duct or packing tape I always seem to have on hand, and mend the volume as best I can.

Although the books are hardly as good as new, in general, the kids are amazed by my deft repairs, and they walk away satisfied customers, which pleases me, too.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Hot Seat

As much as I love a school, any school, really, the last place I wanted to be at 8:30 on a Saturday morning was in a classroom. Oh, my role was the reverse of the usual, I am taking a graduate course on word study, but you know teachers these days-- it's impossible to grab a seat in the corner and let the tide of information wash gently over you. It's always ice-breaker this, count off for that, gallery walk, jigsaw, report out, present!

Recognizing the inevitable, I took a seat in the front, well, corner, but there was no one to hide behind. The first activity of the day was a little review called "Hot Seat," and it was just the kind of on-the-spot torture it sounds like. Somebody sat with her back to the screen while other students called out clues to the jargon, er, vocabulary, that was projected behind her.

To be fair, the instructor asked for volunteers, but after the first round, there was a lot of paper shuffling and downcast eyes when the call to fill the hot seat was issued. "I'll just point at the sign-in sheet and call whoever's name I land on, then," said our instructor, index finger at the ready. She stabbed the paper and looked up brightly. "Tracey?"

I groaned, but crossed the short distance to the hot seat with confidence. I was confident that I wouldn't know the answers. And I did not. My fellow students were as helpful as they could be, but the first two sessions of the class were all about emergent and beginning readers and spellers. Contrary to the dire reports on the state of education in our nation, we don't see a whole lot of those in sixth grade. I paid attention, I swear, but as interesting as I find the class, I just can't keep it in my brain that COW stands for Concept of Word, and the mooing didn't help at all.