Monday, March 27, 2017

Momento 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  
(https://www.nps.gov/pisc/planyourvisit/ncf.htm)
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"(https://www.loc.gov/bookfest/kids-teachers/authors/jack_gantos)
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...

Out?
On?
Away.

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.

My!
That
is 
different.

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

Fluke

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

Between

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

Thrift

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,

because,

um,

well,

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

Navigation

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

Solidarity

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

Spellbound

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...

Arrestio! 

Encaptivato!

or Abra Relisha!

perhaps, 

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.

Friday, March 3, 2017

The Darndest Things

As advertised, today was student-led conference day at our middle school. Here are the golden lines from each meeting:
I love old people-- I always cry when they die in movies. 
Dad! Did you see where I wrote, "My dad was silent"? Isn't that great character development? 
I can't believe how good my grade is!
I think I serve my community by doing the dishes every single night. 
I do pay attention, except when I get distracted. 
I have no goals. 
The most surprising thing? It's how EASY middle school is! I did not expect that. 
Wednesday is my chill day. 
I learned that sometimes your friends are not good workers. 
If you're afraid to be wrong, don't raise your hand to answer, raise your hand to ask.
Oh, never fear! All went well, and as of now?

We are on track to end the year strong and on target!

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The View from my Bubble

"I'm sorry I'm a little distracted this afternoon," I told my ukulele teacher. "Tomorrow is conference day at school."

"Oh," he nodded. "Is that rough?"

"Not really," I said, "but for an introvert, like me, it can a little stressful. I'm ready, though!"

"Do you ever have to just lay it on the line for the parents?" he asked me. "Y'know, give it to them straight that their kid is such a pain in the..." he trailed off.

I laughed. "That's not really productive," I told him.

He looked a little disappointed.

"Oh, it's tempting sometimes," I agreed, "but just telling a parent all the negative things their kid does doesn't usually solve any problems."

And even though his eyes began to glaze over a little bit, I continued. "It's best to frame the conversation in terms of helping the student succeed. We almost always talk to the parents and their child together, and we brainstorm ways we can all support the student in making better choices. We're like a team. A good conference should be the beginning of something good, not just the end of something bad," I finished fervently.

"I guess that makes sense," he yawned, "if you put it that way." He paused and shrugged. "How 'bout we try that last song again?"

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Sour and Sweet

I thought I was in big trouble a couple of weeks ago when the school secretary called me into her office. Teachers know who wields the authority in the building, and I was racking my mind trying to think of what I could have possibly overlooked or left undone. My wide eyes grew wider and my eyebrows shot up in alarm when she asked me to close the door behind me.

"Yes?" I said.

She lowered her voice and looked at me in conspiracy. "We're having a shower for Jessica," she named a colleague who was expecting and also right outside the door, "and I was wondering if you'd make your famous lemon squares."

I exhaled in relief. "Of course," I replied. I use my mom's recipe which calls for butter and plenty of lemon zest, and the results are always pretty tasty.

A few days later I saw the principal in the hallway at passing time. I smiled, and she waved me over.

"Yes?" I asked, with curiosity.

"I heard you were making lemon squares for the shower!"