Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Fully Fledged

How was it that I found myself sitting in the library reading the paper at 10 AM this morning?

It was time to let the intern working with me take a solo.

How did it go?

Well, let's just say that, tomorrow?

I'm going to get a lot of work done!

Monday, January 30, 2017

Look Up, America

When we were children, my mother used to sing us a song on nights when the moon was out:

I see the moon;
the moon sees me;
the moon sees the one
that I want to see.

From where I stood this evening, not even 3 miles from the White House, I could hardly fail to notice the crescent moon and the evening star pinned against the dying day in the early night sky. It was impossible to mistake the image, and equally impossible to consider how, to so many people around the world, these are symbols of progress and light, respectively.

God bless the moon,
and God bless me,
and God bless the one 
that I want to see.

Sunday, January 29, 2017


Not another dog name (although it could be!), but rather a traditional dish to celebrate the lunar new year. This weekend billions of folks around the world ring in the year of the Fire Rooster, and dumplings are made and eaten to bring us wealth. Plus? They are delicious! At least mine were-- beef and ginger, and shrimp with black beans and water chestnuts.

恭喜发财 !!

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Wherefore Art Thou?

Sweet Potato
Jelly Bean

Lately the conversation frequently turns to the same topic whenever Heidi and I walk.

What should we name our next dog?

Friday, January 27, 2017

Like Minds

"What are we going to do next?" a student asked me today as he finished his literary essay.

"Oh, you guys are going to get to apply what you've learned about argument to a topic you really care about personally," I told him.

He frowned. "Like what?"

"Well," I said, "say you think the Affordable Healthcare Act should be repealed." I gave the first example that came into my mind.

His eyebrows shot straight up. "What??" he gasped. "Who thinks that??" He looked at me suspiciously. "Do you really think we should get rid of it?"

A little taken aback by his passionate reaction, I shook my head in an of-course-not no, but then recovered somewhat. "I'm really not supposed to discuss my personal political opinions," I laughed, because it was already too late, "so, no comment, but..."

His wide eyes met mine, and I continued to shake my head.

He nodded, both in conspiracy and relief.

"Maybe you should write about that one," I suggested.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Get On Your Feet

Movement opportunities are essential in middle school, and I use an activity where, after working on their own to answer questions or gather ideas, students circulate through the room as music plays. Then, in musical chairs fashion, when the tune stops they must put a hand up, find a partner, and share their thinking.

We used this method at the end of reading class this morning, and with my new bluetooth speaker and iPhone, I was able to switch the song with alacrity in between sharing sessions. I started with a little Miles Davis Quintet, which the kids are used to, since I frequently use jazz to get them on their feet. My next choice? An early 70s pop song by the Cufflinks, called Tracy.

"What's my name?" I called as they shimmied through the room.

"Tracey!" they chorused.

Next up? Redemption Song by Bob Marley. It was obviously unfamiliar to most. "Yeah! Country music!" cried one student.

And finally we heard My Prerogative, which provided both an energetic groove and a vocabulary teaching moment.

When the bell rang the students left chattering happily after sharing several essay ideas with four other kids, but it might have been my intern who was most impressed.

"Wow!" he said, "Nice. Choice. Of music!"

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Buy Stock in Apple

The intern working in my classroom designed a mini-lesson on counter-arguments for our essay unit today. To illustrate the concept he composed a short paragraph in praise of his mobile phone, and to engage the students he posed a quick question: How many of you guys have iPhones?

At least 4 out of 5 kids raised a hand in each class.

And while I was impressed by his ability to hit that particular target with his audience... 


We're talking 11 and 12-year-olds here!

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Not So Bad

"Don't worry, Dude, we're off on Friday! Teacher workday!" I overheard one student telling another this morning as his pal complained about being tired.

I could almost understand where the second guy was coming from. After winter break and two long weekends in a row, even on a Tuesday, the thought of a full, five day week seemed a bit onerous: the breaks are welcome, but the transition back to work can be a challenge.

Still, it's my job to correct misconceptions. "That's not until next Friday," I informed them.

They slumped in their seats, deflated, but a second later? They were chattering excitedly about the illustrated timeline they were collaborating on. 

Monday, January 23, 2017

Who's that Guy?

"Who's that?" the first student entering my room this morning asked sotto voce pointing at the guy sitting by my desk. "Are you going somewhere?"

I am hosting a teacher-in-training in my classroom for the next two weeks. Brandon is young and enthusiastic, and he came in today prepared with a colorful visual slide to introduce himself to the students.

After they examined the images and made inferences as to why he had included them in the presentation, he explained the significance of each-- the Miami Heat and Philadelphia Eagles logos represented his love of sports and especially those teams. The stack of books and headphones next to it stood for his double major, English and music, at George Mason University whose green and gold emblem was also present.

The front-and-center drawing of a tree with the word FAMILY scrolled within its leaves was easy for the kids to decode, but the picture of a the sun rising over a long pier jutting out into the ocean had them guessing a bit. "You like long walks on the beach?" one girl suggested without a trace of irony. Maybe, but he was trying to show that he was born and raised in Virginia Beach.

Finally, he told them he was going to be my intern for a couple of weeks and asked them if they knew what that was. Most kids had a vague understanding of the concept, but one boy was certain he knew. His hand shot straight up and he wiggled his fingers as he strained to catch Brandon's eye. "It's someone who wants someone else's job!" he burst out.

Brandon and I laughed and made eye contact. "Sort of," I shrugged.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Raindrops Keep Falling

It seemed like a good plan. We walked down to the nearest bike share, grabbed a couple of bikes, and pedaled over to a nearby shopping district. Sure, it was drizzling as we clicked our bikes into the station there, and yes, it was predicted to rain all day, but we walked through the damp afternoon undaunted. And I think I was genuinely surprised when we came out of the grocery store to discover that it was raining in earnest. Even so, we dashed down a few blocks and darted inside another shopping center, optimistic that we still might make our way home under our own power. Alas, it wasn’t to be; the nor’easter that had been forecast had arrived. Then it was a choice of bus or uber, until a friend happened to text wondering if we were interested in shopping. Turns out she was headed our way in a nice warm, dry car.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

In the Middle

On a day when many of my friends and family were making history I decided to forgo the crowds and take in some history. Our county has a tiny historical museum that I have driven past over a hundred times in the last almost 30 years, but despite an avid interest in the local past, I have never been there.

So, after taking a brisk walk and running a few errands in the quiet gray streets (most people really were at the march!) I headed up to the ridge that overlooks the Potomac and the capital beyond and pulled into the tiny parking lot of the former Hume School. Just as I prefer, I was the only visitor for most of the time I spent there, and I was able to take the time to examine all of the maps and artifacts in as much detail as I pleased.

Walking out again into the misty afternoon, my mind full of stories of those who had carved their lives here in the past, I paused to look east to where so many were gathered in hopes of shaping the future.

And there I was.

Friday, January 20, 2017


Washington DC is our hometown, and though we stayed away from the pageantry surrounding the peaceful transfer of power this noon, I couldn't help but watch the inauguration on TV. What struck me most as the camera panned across the crowd gathered on the National Mall, a place where we have spent countless hours mingling with the diverse crowd that usually populates "America's front yard," was just how white they were. 

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Take Two

Another day, another trip to Mt. Vernon. Originally scheduled to chaperone our other activity, a series of personnel min-crises landed me back on the southbound bus. As before, the kids were delightful, however one day before a presidential inauguration is probably not the ideal time to visit the home of our first, and only unanimously-elected, president. Throngs of tourists joined us on our tour of the plantation and mansion, and subsequently the narration was rushed and disjointed.

In between rooms, I tried to fill in some of the gaps for the students I was with, both to inform them and keep them occupied as we waited. For example, waiting on the east-facing portico I swept my arm toward the wide Potomac. "A land trust owns all that property on the other side," I told them, "so that what we see will always look as much as possible like what Washington saw when he looked over there."

The kids nodded with half-interest, but as it turns out, they were not my only audience.

"He must have had a hell of an arm to get that silver dollar over there!" the guy ahead of us said.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Political Compass

“It’s one thing to say: ‘I think the proposal on the following is a serious mistake. I think it’s gonna do the following damage.’ It’s another thing to say, ‘The guy’s a fucking idiot, and he is an egomaniac who’s a whatever.’ ”

~Joe Biden

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Zen of Field Trips

It was cold and drizzly when we left school this morning. 40 minutes late because transportation had "forgotten" us, we were on our way to Mt. Vernon. The plan for the day had already been altered to account for the weather: we would come back to school a little earlier than planned and eat lunch in our rooms, but now as we bumped along the GW Parkway, it looked like we might miss our tour of the mansion as well.

Of course the 50 kids chattering all around me had no idea that there might be a problem; half of them hadn't even worn a warm coat, and several had already eaten their entire lunch when we advised them to a have a snack while waiting for our errant bus. Conceding my powerlessness, I wiped away the condensation on the window and peered out at the iron of the Potomac. Rafts of geese, ducks, and other migratory birds floated serenely on its steely surface.

I ticked off the misty landmarks as we traveled south and noticed that the rain seemed a little less steady, and when at last the bus pulled around the circle to the familiar gate and the 55 of us piled out, it had stopped altogether. The staff at the estate kindly pushed our tour 15 minutes, and as we crunched up the damp trail toward the house, the sun actually came out a moment, and I saw blue skies for the first time in days.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Downs and UPS

The package needed a signature, which was a nuisance, because we are rarely home during the week. There was no place on any of the reminder slips to designate a neighbor or another safe place, and the phone number provided was wholly automated. When the FINAL ATTEMPT at delivery was made when we were out on Friday evening, we shrugged it off, knowing that at some point in the upcoming three day weekend we would find our way down to the customer service.

And that opportunity did indeed come this morning when we pulled into the out of the way industrial park a little off the route to our favorite grocery store. We produced the required documentation and waited in the drafty shipping office listening to a local soul station, weighing ourselves on the industrial scale, and jumping every time the automatic door eerily opened and closed all by itself at random intervals.

The clerks returned from time to time to question us about the size, value, and shipper of our expected package, openly acknowledging that they couldn't find it. After speaking to two supervisors and leaving our number, we agreed to go to the grocery store and stop again on the way home. But when we got there, they balefully informed us that we would have to file a claim.

A couple of hours later we sat in our living room griping about our bad luck. Heidi was making her way through yet another automated phone menu when a roar outside the window attracted my attention. A brown truck rumbled by. "Maybe they accidentally sent it out for delivery again and that's why they couldn't find it," I suggested. "That could be it right now!" I laughed.

Just then a recorded voice came over the phone. The latest status of that package is that it was delivered at 3:36 today, it said.

I looked at my watch.

It was 3:37.

I trotted over to the front door, and...

there it was!

Sunday, January 15, 2017

A Time for Every Season

Oscar weekend beach house?


First movie (Hidden Figures) and dinner (Peter Chang's) with the regular Oscar crew?


Here's to seven more weeks of fun.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Until Spoken To

It seems like a lot of conversations I have these days involve venting: so many people have so much to get off their chests. Like most listeners I think, my first inclination is to problem-solve complaint-by-complaint, but often it seems that such an approach results in a litany of counter complaints and reasons why my suggestions could never work. Such a conversation can quickly become frustrating for both parties, and maybe even fodder for another venting session down the road.

Recently, in fact, I was on the receiving end of a third-degree complaint: somebody complaining about somebody who complained and then refused to take their advice. I nodded sympathetically and mm hmmed at appropriate times, but was otherwise silent. "What do you think I should have done?" my friend finally asked.

I shrugged. "I've learned it's best not to give advice unless you're asked for it," I answered.

Her lit up, and she nodded vigorously. "That seems very wise!" she told me.

See what I mean?

Friday, January 13, 2017



Three days off-- we honor Dr. King on Monday.

Three days on-- two of them will be field trips!

Three days off-- inauguration gridlock has its benefits.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Warning: Hazard Ahead

Below freezing yesterday and 70 degrees in today: this is the type of dire fluctuation in temperature that my dad used to warn us was pneumonia weather. Of course today we might be likely to chalk it up to the far more menacing hazard of climate change.

And yet, as I walked coatless to my car in the balm of this January evening, the shouts of children chased after each other through twilit yards, and the prospect of peril seemed farther away than the misty moon rising so incandescently full.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Bissell While You Work

"They are not 'your' classrooms!" an administrator once reminded a roomful of us teachers harshly. "They belong to the school system and you use them at our discretion."

My stomach wrenched at her bluntness, and a tiny spark of the burning idealism that carries most of us into teaching was extinguished forever along with any illusion of ownership I may have had over my workspace. Oh, I shook it off-- that was years ago, and whether it's technically my room or not, practically speaking it is definitely where the magic happens.

Even so, the fact is that my classroom is used for night classes and on weekends by a church group who rents the facility. In theory, these groups respect the work space, but in practice that is not always true and it is routine for me on any given morning to reset the room for my own classes, moving tables and chairs to the places where my students expect them. In addition there are times when things are missing (tissues, markers, chalk, etc.) and times when things are left behind (empty cups and bottles, papers, books, umbrellas, and even a dirty diaper once).

So I was hardly surprised when I found an unusual object leaning against my wall on Monday morning. Anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant would have recognized it immediately-- it was an electrostatic carpet sweeper-- aka a "Bissell." Having swept under many a table in my time, I was impressed by how new this particular model was. In fact, it was not A Bissell at all, but rather a product of the Fuller brush company, a genuine Stanley Sweeper.

Any irritation at this abandoned item soon turned to interest. I gave it a tentative push and was pleased with the its action as it rolled smoothly across the rug picking up even the smallest specks and crumbs in its path. The potential of possessing such a device was immediately clear to me as I imagined all the stray hole punches and pencil shavings I could dispense with quite easily. This sweeper was a keeper!

And indeed it has proved to be so-- not just for me, but for my students and colleagues as well. Paper scraps? Food crumbs? Caked on dirt from recess? No problem! The rugs in our rooms have been pristine for the last three days. The satisfaction at cleaning up such messes so easily has led to arguments over whose turn it is to clean up. In fact, I just ordered one to keep at home, and a couple of other teachers have done so as well.

They may not be our rooms, but by God, those carpets are clean!

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Playing Catch Up

The students at our school are quite a diverse and international group, and as such many are very well-traveled. Why, just in the last week I have had students return from Peru and Ghana and another who informed us that he will be out next week due to a family commitment-- a Disney Cruise to the Bahamas.

I'm pretty old school about these excursions; I believe that there is much to be learned beyond the classroom, and frankly, in the grand scheme of things, sixth grade really isn't all that. Believe it or not, though, it's pretty impossible to keep up with the requirements of school when one is not present, and so I do what I can to minimize any loss of education and/or stress for students who miss a few days (or weeks) spending time with family.

Even so, it can be pretty traumatic to return to school after time away. Our traveler to Peru, a tough little guy, cried in every class on the day he came back. The guy who spent three weeks in Ghana had a different reaction. I walked over to his table as he frantically searched his notebook. "I can't seem to find the assignment you want," he told me.

"That would be because you weren't here when I gave it," I said.

He looked shocked.

"You're going to miss a few things if you're absent," I told him. "We can't wait for you!"

Monday, January 9, 2017

Friends Forever

I've been going to the same dentist practice for about 25 years, and although the office location, personnel, and technology have changed over the years, it never fails that I run into someone I know in the waiting room. Such was the case this afternoon when the cold wind swept me into the lobby after a 20 minute walk from school.

"Tracey!" I heard my name and looked to the receptionist who was not looking at me. "Is it you?"

A guy and his teenaged son were the only other patients in the waiting room, and I recognized them right away. I started my teaching career with Colin and his son was a student at our school until last year. Colin stood up and gave me a great big hug.

"You're all checked in!" the receptionist told me, and I plopped down next to my friend and loosened my scarf. It had been a long time since I'd seen him. Colin took the administrative track early on in our careers, and now he was a well-respected principal at an elementary school on the north side. I looked at him and shook my head. Despite the years with their inevitable hardships and tragedies, he still had the same gap-toothed grin of the silly trickster he was.

I flashed back to my phone ringing on a Saturday morning in the mid-90s. "Hello?" I answered.

"This is Governor George Allen calling for the teacher of the house. Is she home?"

I was confused and literally speechless until laughter broke the silence. "It's Colin!" he said. "I have a question about school."

Today we chatted amiably but aimlessly. It's hard to fill in years of gaps in five minutes in a waiting room, so we talked about school construction and his older son's college classes. All too soon they called my name. I stood and turned to Colin, but before I could say anything too mushy he spoke first.

"Give her a big shot in the gums!" he called to the hygienist.

I giggled and followed her to the back.

"Do you know that guy?" she asked with concern.

"Yep!" I told her.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Cold Hearted

From a distance they looked like black pepper scattered across the blue sky.

"Look at all those birds," I said to Heidi. "I wonder what they are. Crows?" I frowned.

The number was right, nearly a hundred, but as we grew closer the way they soared did not seem crow-like in the least.

"Oh my lord!" I cried, sighting the neat white stars of their wing tips. "They're vultures!"

And indeed, it was a fine kettle of Turkey Vultures with nothing dead in sight. Seems they were simply enjoying the frigid updraft.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Preparing for the Next Four Years

Despite the bitter cold and dusting of snow, the roads were not too bad this afternoon, even by our southern sensibility, and so we headed down to the National Mall, hoping that we might find it a little less populated than usual on a Saturday afternoon. And there were considerably fewer folks out and about, but it was still a bit of a challenge to find a parking space, mostly because of all the flat bed trucks delivering and setting up their cargo:

row upon row upon row of porta-johns.

Friday, January 6, 2017


At Thanksgiving there is turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes and gravy, of course, but we also have roasted butternut squash, a Brazilian-inspired spinach, yellow turnips, scalloped oysters, and roasted brussels sprouts.

At Christmas it's roast beef and mashed potatoes, but also popovers, asparagus, salad, and a vegan option for the non-carnivores.

On New Year's Day we eat ham, black-eyed peas, and greens, but we add pan-fried chicken, rice, and corn, and this year a little red-eye gravy to spice things up.

And finally, on the twelfth day of Christmas, the Epiphany, which is also my dad's birthday we eat his favorite meal in memory of him: chicken, white gravy, mashed potatoes, and biscuits.

These traditions are both festive and comforting. They connect the celebrations of today with those of yesterday, and draw us close. Tomorrow we will take the tree down and put away the sparkles and lights until next year, and in the coming weeks, as the days slowly lengthen, our meals will become lighter.

But tonight?

There will be gravy.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Hopes Up

"See you Monday!" one of my colleagues called cheerfully as he left this afternoon.

I shook my head confused. "What!?"

He rolled his eyes. "The snow?"

I'm not sure how I forgot about the forecast for a dusting, but this guy's from Pennsylvania! Maybe he had some inside info. "Oh!" I smiled. "Is that your prediction?"

"No," he shrugged. "I was just joking."


Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Saying Hello to a Good Buy

We were shopping over the weekend when Heidi picked up a bright red stool. "Could you use this in your classroom?" she asked.

My eyes lit up. It was candy apple red and strong, but lightweight. Flashy and portable, it was just the thing I had been looking for to move quickly from table to table, sit at eye-level with the kids, and start or join a conversation about their writing. AND the price was right! Ten bucks later I was whistling down the sidewalk of the strip mall and twirling my new little seat.

Well! My stool was an immediate sensation when I brought it into school today. Perhaps my own enthusiasm, as I darted through the room plopping it down with a smile next to this student or that, was part of its popularity, but in any case, my presence was very sought after today, and I had many fantastic discussions about the essays my students are preparing.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

In the Early Morning Rain

We were all a little groggy this morning when school reconvened after a nice winter's break. It was still dark outside at 8 am and rain splattered against the windows as I greeted my first reading class of the new year.

"Can we just read?" they asked sleepily.

"Sure," I agreed. "I'll come talk to each of you about the book you've chosen." And so I made my way quietly around the room.

"What are you reading?" I whispered to one girl.

"From Norvelt to Now Here," she whispered back.

"Is that a new one in the Norvelt series?" I asked, thinking of the Newbury-award winner by Jack Gantos, Dead End in Norvelt and its sequel From Norvelt to Nowhere. "I haven't heard of it," I frowned.

"I don't think so," she said, yawning. "It's in paperback." She lifted the book to show me.

I laughed as I read the title:


"I think you broke that last word up in the wrong place!"

She still didn't get it, and so I wrote both "nowhere" and "now here" on the board.

"Ohhhhh," she said and shrugged. "I think it sounds better the other way."

Monday, January 2, 2017

Double Feature

On the last day of winter break we made plans to see an early movie, and so 9:30 AM found us twirling our umbrellas through a cold and misty rain.

It was just as gray when we emerged from the theater, and on the hike home both of our watches chimed with a text message from a family we are friends with inviting us to go see another movie. The day promised little else, and looking at my watch I saw I could easily pay the bills online before we headed out for our second show.

Sure! we texted back.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Gone Too Soon

With a single bottle of champagne, one last festive meal, a few Christmas crackers, and one more family game night,

Holiday Season 2016?

That's a wrap!