Friday, December 21, 2012

Sandy Hook: Our Children

Collective anguish
All of us somehow bereaved
Sorrow comes in waves

 (The grown ups, too, are
Someone's children.) Oh parents--
 How we ache for you

My students have vowed
In memoriam: to be
Kinder and gentler

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Young Scholars: ¡Vivan los Cerebros!

Why sponsor another club and have even less time to do the things I already don't have time to do? In reply, all I can do is show you pictures of the Reasons I do what I do. And when you see them, you'll understand why our school will be participating in the third annual Young Scholars Academic Fair this coming spring:

March 17, 2012: second place winners at YSAF (but first cutest)

Last year was our first year, and we took first place! Well not quite, but second place was pretty close. You can perhaps see our translucent trophy held by our captain, K, on the rainiest Saturday of 2012.

We won every pre-final match--we beat every team, including the dreaded Marshall Middle School, the previous year's champs. Matches were tightly controlled, academic league style, which is probably not as cool as gangnam style, but waaay more inspiring:

Kicking academic booty

We were beyond excited for the championship match against Oak Valley Middle School--after all, we had A. whom we nicknamed WMD because really, his knowledge of everything in the world was atomic, plus we had beat them in an earlier match. We had team spirit--kids thought calling themselves The Skittles was awesome since the candy is bright (as are they) and sweet (as are they) and they could wear different colored t-shirts. Other teams wore dressy clothes and looked sharp, but our team was united by our theme, plus a mom sent packs of Skittles for us to eat as brain food. We were officially Team B, so while we awaited the final match, we threw up our team sign, the letter B in ASL:

Team B in da house

And then we got served. Oak Valley had a WMD of their own, and ours just couldn't seem to launch. We got obliterated. We were disappointed, and a few feisty ones were angry because our W-L record was the same as OVMS yet we took second, and it took all of my teacher powers to scrape their spirits off the floor and send them over with sincere faces and kind words to congratulate the team that bested them fair and square. And I think that helped them find their pride again.

This year we have three returning players and a flood of new talent. I don't think anyone is on A.'s level of weird retention of every fact about everything in the known universe, but the students had so much fun at our first practice this week and expressed such a desire to take first place that Oak Valley better watch out.

I suppose part of my sponsorship is my deep angst that sports overshadows academics in this land I love. Music programs get cut, but not football. So long, Art, but football is the sacred cow. I wish brains got the same accolades that catching a ball brings, but our country largely distrusts intellectuals and dismisses them as out of touch (one reason Obama gets bashed). Yet aside from my philosophy of education, just look at their faces: they are excited about being smart! And that's reason enough.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Feeling like a loser....

Why oh why do my kids bomb the Constitution test every year?

I give them a study guide. The study guide even tells them the exact essay question on the test.

My lessons teach what's on the study guide. Our notes explain the text.

The kids are involved in the Convention--they "become" a member of one of the original states and see how the compromises would affect their state.

The homework reinforces what was in the lesson that will appear on the test. They have a project wherein they actually draw the powers and checks of each branch.

I relate the past with their present with school-based analogies. For example, federalism divides power between the national govt and the states, just like school, because the front office has power like the national government and so do the classroom teachers, like states. Another example is when we have a three-legged race to show how our three branch government prevents any one branch from abusing power, the effectiveness of separation of powers. Or when we use rock paper scissors to show how each branch gets checked by the others.

I truly am not just a talking head.

Granted, the concepts are abstract and the terms are fancy: ratification, federalism, checks and balances, separation of powers. I check for understanding. In the moment, they get it.

I am turning to my colleagues for help, because I am apparently being blind to some glaring weakness or issue. I need their eyes to help me see what's going on. Or not going on.

I do expect them to look at their notes for one minute every night, and pretty much no one does. Is that me shifting the blame to them? Is it wrong for me to expect them to carry some of the intellectual weight around here? How much learning responsibility is theirs? If I don't blame them, I have to blame me. Doggone it, I work so hard it's demoralizing to accept responsibility for the results.

Fourteen kids in each of the three classes earned a grade below C level--even with a free point for the question #34: "Hey! How'd you like to earn a free point right now? A. No thanks, trying to cut back.  B. I am just randomly bubbling, hoping to work two minimum wage jobs someday. C. Why thanks Miss M--that's so awesome!"

Every year.


Friday, November 9, 2012

Haiku about Hollywood & History

File:Lincoln 2012 Teaser Poster.jpg

Lewis, Spielberg, and
John Williams--AHHH! "Lincoln"
has to be awesome!!!

(Releasing it now
seems strange...why not in April?
....January 1?

Or Veterans' Day?)
"The Alamo" was so lame,
my heart almost broke,

And so my fervent
prayer: Please, Lord, let this film,
"Lincoln," be worthy


Thursday, November 1, 2012

Sweet Encouragement

A teacher's life is pulled in many directions, and the truth is, teaching can consume one's entire existence if s/he isn't careful (to wit, read Rafe Esquith's Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire). 
More than twenty years after starting, I still struggle with balance and time. There is no time to visit friends AND stay fit AND grade it all conscientiously AND design mind-stretching lessons AND stay current in research AND read for pleasure AND get flu shots AND refinance. I have to pick and choose, and so friends, research, flu shots, the gym, and refinancing get short shrift. (Which is a Shakespearean phrase, which I know because reading for pleasure always makes my time cut.) 

This past Monday, I was staring up a steep hill--forgetting to get personal snacks for myself, and teaching four classes in a row and then immediately going to the auditorium to help supervise our Bible Club's dodgeball event (I am the guarder of the food while players play--they grab bites between games), and then immediately going to my classroom to have the class participate in the mock election, and then immediately returning to the auditorium to clean up. All these "immediatelys" meant that lunch wasn't going to happen until 2:30. It also meant that the beginning of my week was going to require more energy than last week put together. 

And then the blessings came. First period, O. opened a container and told me she was giving me cupcake shoes--"I made some to test for my salon project and thought you'd like a pair."  I was so overjoyed! Something to munch on to keep me from low blood sugar. And then period 4, K. brings me (for no reason) a bag of Dove dark chocolates. My God takes care of me! To top it off, at lunch my colleague brought me some cookies. 

As my blood sugar spiked, I reflected that one of the amazing things about what I do is that I get so much back. I don't mean sweet treats, although Monday was sweeter than most. The Lord always reminds me that He is cheering me on so I can love the kids for Him.

Today was hard for a number of reasons. It is my beloved principal's last day at our school and we began the day with our last staff meeting with her. Many were in tears as the bell rang for period one. I am heavy-hearted. So imagine the lift when a former (over 30!) wrote this on my Mug Book page:

"Please keep doing what you are doing. You will never understand how you have touched our lives. You made it 'cool' for students to strive to become teachers one day. You taught young girls grace and self respect. You taught young boys how to respect those princesses. I don't know if you realize how powerful that is? Thank you" 

I didn't cry at the staff meeting, but I bawled as I read this. God took care of my blood sugar on Monday, and my heartache today.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Day One, Harry Wong, and Pie

The first day of school isn't, really.

I mean, it's not a normal day of school. Colleagues who ordinarily wear polo shirts are wearing ties. Every student's binder is perfectly neat and orderly. Usually, not the least because teacher demigod Harry Wong says to, the hour is spent establishing the rules and norms of the classroom.

I try something different.

As I wrap up a truncated version of The Rules & Consequences information, I pass out slices of pumpkin pie to random students. The slices are not evenly cut--some are wide wedges; others, narrow slivers. Not everyone gets a piece. In fact, only about ten kids get any at all.

I ask them what they think is going on. The unusual event--random, unequal pie distribution on the first day of school--is enough to get the conversation going, something that can be reallllly hard at the beginning of the year.

"You gave us pie," says one genius.

 "No, I didn't. I gave SOME of you pie."

"You gave pie to the people who weren't talking."

"Nobody was talking when I gave out the pie."

"Some pieces were bigger." "We didn't all get any." "The pie is pumpkin." "I'm hungry."

"This year, we will be looking at three big ideas that drive everything that happens in US history: ideals, economy, and POWER. I gave you pie to symbolize power. In a society, power is not usually distributed equally, and sometimes not everyone gets any power at all. Is that fair?"

A strong chorus of Nos, mostly from boys who received no pie.

"Should I take away pie from kids who had it and divide it that way?" I query.

In fluent Middleschool-ese, a student points out "there wouldn't barely be nothing for no one, just a crumb." Another student, full of pie, points out that taking away his pie would make him mad, even if it was more fair that way. "So would you agree that making a society more fair could be a struggle? Maybe people don't want to share their pie--er, their power. That is what this year is about, folks--trying to build a country where more and more people get a piece of pie--preventing some people from hogging it--all sorts of power struggles."

"Couldn't you just buy more pie so we all could have some?"  It's too early for me to tell if he is wisecracking or serious. I choose to believe he is joking. "Uh oh, no pie for you, ever!" I laugh, and the class laughs with me.

Do you know it can be hard to find pumpkin pie in September? I needed a pie that was easy to slice and would maintain its shape and not schmoosh all over the tables or kids' new clothes.

We end by taking notes (some groan--work already? ha! I am establishing the norm of the class--academic and hardworking from day one, but hopefully unpredictable) on the nature of power, and the bell rings, but they wait to be dismissed by me, because, after all, I have more pie than they do: I am the Pie Master.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Mercury Rising

Boiling hot outside today. From my colleague's phone:

Boiling hot inside. Here's a snap of the thermometer in my classroom from another colleague's phone:
This wasn't just the hottest day on campus since ever. It was the day of a lockdown at the local high school.

As I drove to school, I saw at least three police cars parked along the canyon adjacent to the high school. Oh Lord, I prayed, please don't let any of our kids be involved in anything awful...

(...and they weren't. A couple of thieves tried to steal some copper wiring and fled to the canyon.)

When I pulled into my school, about seven yellow school buses had pulled over in front. Uh oh.

Kids could roast on the buses given the forecast, but the situation was so unpredictable. As the first teacher on campus I called the principal who came dashing in, grabbing the walkies and fielding emergency calls. We and another teacher boarded each bus, letting the students know they'd be our guests for a while, walking them to the auditorium.

We had to make sure the kids had food; many get their breakfast from their school. We had to take attendance for some 300 students and get release forms and deal with panicky parents. The kids had to be cooperative and patient in the emotional uncertainty, and here's the thing: they were amazing. One reed-thin Latino man-child slid onto the piano bench and began playing softly and slowly; one group of students sat cross-legged and experimented with makeup; another group played elementary playground hand slapping games. (!) I had to leave them to teach my regular students and by the time I left, an hour after their arrival, I knew they'd continue to be wonderful.

And then on to my actual students, full of fear and rumor. After good discussions about safety and why we do things the way we do, after answering their questions with what little I knew, we went on to the day's tasks. The heat came in like the hordes of Mordor, hot and merciless and overwhelming, and just like that, we had a different challenge: to carry on despite the physical burden of airless heat. The mercury jumped but the kids were champs. I even taught them our colonial region songs, and we gamely sang them.

Whatever may be wrong with public schools, it certainly is not the kids. I have always respected them, and today my respect deepened. I am proud of our staff--the way we circled the wagons, stepping up, solving problems, filling gaps, unasked and undirected--I am proud of the way our schools worked together in an emergency. And I am proud of the students who were bused in from far away, showing maturity and grace under pressure, and of the neighborhood kids who soldiered on, rising above heat exhaustion.

(If I hear anyone criticizing public school teachers this week as being lazy or incompetent or selfish...)

Monday, August 27, 2012

Houston, We Have Re-entry

My brain is set on "whirly." That is an entirely different setting than "coherent." So here are some of the thoughts whirling in my head today:

Kids arrive a week from tomorrow--PANIC: I'M NOT READY and THIS ROOM ISN'T READY.

I think I will ditch latitude and longitude this year and dive right into colonization.

Hey, no rat dookie.

NO, ant scout, you must not live. 

The custodians took my desk like I asked them to. YAY! There's room to polka! If I wanted to polka. I don't want to polka. Should I pronounce the "l" in "polka?"

Why doesn't the pricey rotating fan that I bought with my very own money rotate? It rotated in June.

PANIC: Should I switch my computer desk to the other side of the behemoth Promethean board?

Where should I put the iPad cart?

PANIC: I don't know how to use iPods in history lessons. I suck.

The custodians took my desk like I asked them to. PANIC--where can I shove stuff I don't know where to put?

I better start making copies of the syllabi before the machine breaks and the Christmas rush. PANIC: I have to make the syllabi, or find them--are they on the Mac? The PC? Aughhhhhh--

Syllabi is a funny word, and coincidentally my principal said "foci" this morning. What else sounds like that? Alibi. Lullaby. 

Lessons are more important than the room. I should work on the lessons immediately.

I can't work on the lessons--this room is unacceptably chaotic. 

How can other teachers just show up on Wednesday all calm and serene? Is it medication?

No one has been in here for July or August. So why is it so dang DIRTY? Brown dust is coated everywhere. 

Hey, class sizes of 32. Nice!

Hey, just when did "32 kids" become a good class size in my district? That is just so wrong.

No more separate GATE classes--all the kids are mixed together. Lord, help me stretch them all.

Where'd I put those Glade plug-ins? They don't make these any more. PANIC: How will I keep my 8th grade bungalow with no a/c from smelling like an 8th grade bungalow with no a/c?

OK, so in over twenty (gahhh--over twenty???) years of opening days, I have ALWAYS been ready on time. (Well I wasn't ready for the opening day when ten minutes into class E. threw up. Nothing can quite prepare you for that. Ready to stand and deliver, I mean.)

Odds are on my side.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


My school is on the edge of a canyon. One morning I found an FOC (friend of Charlotte) so big that I had to get my favorite custodian to escort it back to the canyon because it was both 
TBTLW* and TBTK**:

*Too Big to Let Wander
**Too Big to Kill

I am an FOC, too, thanks to Mr. E. B. White and my mom, but this fella kinda gave me the shivers. It wanted so badly to be a tarantula, but it was just a spider on steroids. I named it Barry Bonds. If it had been slightly bigger, it could have enrolled as a 6th grader.

Barry Bonds rides the magic shovel back home

Saturday, July 14, 2012

K. Saves the Day! or, Kids Are the Best

flames of the real past threaten
paper powder keg--

Lincoln? Douglas? Clay?
Who can stop the explosion?
"I've got this," said K.,

as he threw his real
coat upon the pretend flames--
and we laughed real laughs

I add flames to the powder line as we learn about each event--kind of a visual domino effect--but K. takes action, which is more than can be said about James Buchanan, our lame 15th president.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Huh? Whah?

Julian Treasurean advertiser whose expertise is sound, fears we are losing our listening skills and wants us to teach listening in schools. In his TED talk, he gives a few tips after he explains the dynamics of listening. He begins by noting that our ability to record (writing and sound waves) has drastically reduced the premium on listening.

Julian Treasure gives some sound advice

Inattention isn't just a problem in the classroom; for those of us who make a living through communication, it's the quintessential obstacle we must overcome. And today we have more competition for attention than ever before. Ever deliver a lesson to someone whose head was bobbing and fingers were drumming, and realize he is listening to a song in his head, and you'd have to repeat everything? Ever try to get someone's attention only to notice that she was wearing earplugs, forcing you to flap your hands about, and then feel as if you are an intrusion?

These past five years as a teacher, I've noticed a shift in the level of imagination that kids bring to the table. They are as exuberant as ever, as intelligent as ever, but when you turn the thinking over to them, many seem truly lost. Are we also losing the ability to listen to ourselves? Isn't that what thinking is?

I have a friend who said she couldn't fall asleep unless the radio was on. Her eight hours were infiltrated by all kinds of lyrics and commercials that seeped into her brain at some level.

I have a friend whose television is always on, loud enough to compete with our conversation, though no one is watching it.

My uncle leaves NPR on in the car, even though he has lively conversations with his passengers.

Mr. Treasure suggests three minutes of daily silence and notes incidentally that nearly every spiritual tradition has contemplation as a component of its practices. Three minutes off the grid with only our thoughts to occupy our minds--could you do it? Could our kids? Would that be "a waste of time" or part of a true education?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Graphology, Television, Plato, and Paul

When I was in third grade, we had a guest speaker who was a graphologist. I was FASCINATED by the idea that you could discern someone's personality traits from their handwriting.

The guest said since we were just learning cursive, it was too soon to really analyze our own writing. But I do remember a classmate asking that since our writing showed our personalities, could CHANGING our handwriting shift our personalities--because the guest said YES. I tripped out.  (Hold that thought.)

Now I have never researched graphology (although I admit to analyzing people's handwriting all the time based on what I learned that day--high cross on your t's mean you think highly of yourself. Open loops above your a's and o's? You can't keep a secret), but this morning I wondered if there was a similar link between SES and TV viewing. 

I found a study from 2001 which analyzed viewing habits of 26,420 people in five Latin American countries, and sure enough, what they watched was influenced by their wealth and education.

Here is what the researchers found:

" Insofar as their television viewing are concerned, we observed these preferences:
  • SES Level A: travel, business & finance, economy, recent Hollywood movies (on premium cable channels or pay-per-view), internationally produced drama series, politics  [TOP 10% of SES]
  • SES Level B: biographies, documentaries, general interest & education, local news, sports [NEXT 20%]
  • SES Level C: sports commentary, live music concerts, music videos, cooking, home decoration, entertainment, home shopping, internationally produced telenovelas [NEXT 30%]
  • SES Level D: domestically produced novelas, game shows/contests, comedies, horror, cartoons. [NEXT 40%; see chart below; all brackets Haiku Education's]"
Back to the held thought: can changing one's viewing habits influence one's SES? Hmmm.

Here is the education connection. Aristotle believed that the purpose of education is "to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought." Everything Else Thrown In puts it this way:  "Plato, the teacher of Aristotle, said that a properly trained youth was one “who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of men or ill-grown works of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man gentle of heart.”    As scary and Big Brother-y as this can sound, it's true that children tend to develop tastes heavily influenced by those around them and their culture, INCLUDING their teachers. 

AND SO... I want to expose my charges to the beautiful and the true. I want them to feed on integrity and good character. I want them to ask "why?" I want the novels in my class library to help them become noble and jolly. This TV study supports my notion that mainstream TV is an enemy of their financial future; perhaps so are certain types of books. This is not a censorship argument--if a kid is into bodice-rippers, that's her business--but I want to have a shot at helping to WIDEN and perhaps shift that taste to include, perhaps, some Charlotte Bronte or Jane Austen, or Ray Bradbury for that matter. 

I guess I am just echoing what Paul wrote in  Philippians 4:8:

"Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things."

Monday, June 18, 2012

They can't say I didn't try...

When kids finish my final, I have an optional, anonymous survey for them: I ask them to rate each technique on its effectiveness or inspirational quality, from 1  -  4, and leave a space for them to 'splain anything they want to:

1) passing around the grade sheet on Monday and then posting it
2) making you keep track of your grades in your agenda
3) if the teacher could somehow force you to use your agenda
4) assigning goal sheets asking you to set goals and write out your game plan
5) passing out tickets for random candy drawing--tickets for academic or citizenship excellence
6) rewarding good work with bonus points
7) knowing that late work is half credit
8) getting donuts when the whole class turns in hw three times
9) Stupid Teacher Plays where we act stuff out with the teacher narrating
10) our mnemonic songs
11) Stupid YOU plays where YOU invent the skits
12) having kids teach a section/topic
13) the Constitutional Powers project
14) getting a printout of your missing assignments
15) notifying parents when you are missing three assignments
16) the teacher writing a note in my agenda when I did something fabulous
17) knowing my class ranking
18) taking graphic notes (all those cartoons the teacher drew!)
19) keeping your notes in one separate, bound composition notebook
20) doing reports and projects
21) knowing that the homework will be directly helpful for doing well on the tests
22) review game: brain gambling [note: other teachers call it "Las Vegas"]
23) review game: jeopardy
24) review game: steal the bacon
25) knowing that if your grade is high enough, you can skip the final
26) earning a free hw pass for having six weeks of perfect hw turn ins
27) the study guides
28) when the teacher draws a star on the class chart with the highest class average that week
29) when what we study in history overlaps with what we are reading in English
30) getting tests signed by a parent
31) knowing your teacher believes you can do better than what you are doing

I end with this: "What else could your teacher do or try that would encourage kids to do their work, learn, or try harder?"

And then I read them. This year the big winners are #9, 1, 19, 31, and 10.  The relative losers (most were still helpful, but not comparatively) were #30, 11, 12, 3, and 4. I am sad about #4 and don't intend to stop it, but I need to figure out a way to revisit the plans and make them more immediate. The kids do write their goal percentage in their agendas so they see their goal every Monday, and #2 scored pretty high, but....sigh, there is just too much to do in 55 minutes--or there are just too many chilluns. 

It was interesting to see how many kids shot down being taught by their peers. I asked my seminerds about that, and they explained that you really learn your section, the one you are teaching or performing, but you get next to nothing from the other groups. 

Suggestions this year: 
• replace tests with more projects to "engrave the info in our minds"  (but some kids hated projects)
• use more puppets (apparently the one I have, Citizen Genet--a critic of the Proclamation of Neutrality--is a big hit and the kids asked about him all year.)
• get privacy boards to use during tests
• change seats more often
• more review games (not different ones, just do more games in general)
• during the Civil War game, give kids points for answering, not just points for their side
• use more graphic notes--they really help and they are motivating

and the "I wish" award goes to: 
• make the kids think in a positive mind frame

Thursday, June 14, 2012

a hundred candy wrappers and some "jerky"

File the following under:

As I dropped off my class keys at the custodians' office this afternoon (yippee!), A. exclaimed, "Tell her, J.!" So J. asked me, "Guess what I found under your Promethean board? About a hundred candy wrappers and a dead rat!"


"Was it old? Maybe it OD'd on sugar."

"Yeah, it had definitely been there a while--it was like jerky..."

(Major ew!)

"How come I didn't smell it?"

A. chimed in with a smile: "Maybe your kids outsmelled it." Which is entirely possible, but the whole situation is grosser than I care to consider. I am so glad that I wasn't the one to discover the thing.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Good Personal Hygiene AND Charm???

My room was smelling like a thirteen year old boy without deodorant, because somewhere in it was a thirteen year old boy without deodorant.

I made a general announcement: "Some people in this room are not wearing deodorant and are stinking up my room. I do not want to smell you. Please do something about this tomorrow."

J.H. instantly assured me: "It's not me, Miss M--I smell like poetry, rainbows, and freedom."

True story: the very fine Old Spice guy used to be a middle school math teacher.
I am pretty sure he knows the importance of the product he is selling.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Second-best Worst Lottery Ever

I was cleaning out my desk today during the kids' English benchmark test. I'm gonna get rid of it. I don't use it. I never sit at the desk. EVER. It just holds some useful items out of sight, such as:

• paper clips (that multiply when left unsupervised)
• dice (handy for random calls on kids, more dramatic than the Promethean board)
• erasers (students tend to leave them behind and so I have an impressive collection)
• permanent markers (gotta keep those suckers away from the clientele)
• loose change (how come that doesn't multiply when unsupervised?)
• files (but I am moving them to something smaller and better-looking than the blocky ugly 70's metal-and-simulated-wood-grain monstrosity)

But it also holds useless items out of sight, such as official pass slips. I never use them because I just grab a piece of scratch paper--quicker than filling in tiny boxes with my illegible scrawl. 

It also holds things that I don't think are trash but they sure aren't treasure. So today I placed all the items on the carpet and had the computer randomly select kids to choose items if they wanted. I called it The Best Worst Lottery Ever, but as soon as I announced it I changed it to The Second-best Worst Lottery Ever because of Shirley Jackson's horrifying story*, "The Lottery." Here is the list of what was in my desk that has no business being there:

• a 3D duck-shaped clip that is cute and ineffective
• a giant marble
• a small yellow clothespin with a pink pom-pom glued to it
• a Bush-Cheney pin (I had two--why???? I did decide to keep one and to keep the Obama '08 pin, too, even though the Obama pin doesn't have its pin backing anymore.)

• a McDonald's gift card I had found and never bothered to check the balance (could be empty, or it could be Ray Kroc's grandson's inheritance)
• four Sammy's Messy Sundae cards (valid still? who knows?)
• eight brightly colored metal dog tags
• a crossed rifles metal insignia that fell off one of our Civil War slouch hats.
• a plastic silver bracelet that jingles maddeningly
• a Pink Panther magnifying glass
• a hairpin with a rhinestone dragonfly on it

I realize that most sane people would've tossed these items long ago. But I remember asking my aunt for stuff she didn't want when I was a kid. And boy, she didn't want the coolest things! Anyway, it was great--I got rid of 100% of the items, the kids felt like they had won something, and it was fun trying to guess which kid would pick what, and which item would go last.

Have you guessed what went last??? Scroll down:

* Hope you didn't think The Hunger Games's lottery was completely original. Jackson's story froze my blood without one sadistic description of death.

Madness, I say--madness!

The school calendar:
Finals are on Thursday, but
school's out next Tuesday

Don't you think this is
expensive babysitting?
Or insanity?

Friday, June 1, 2012

Bad Manners and No Class

If your doctor makes you angry,
do you barge into her appointments with other patients to tell her so?

If you think your lawyer made a mistake,
do you choose his courtroom time to inquire about it?

Today's hero is my colleague. As he is doing his job, educating the ignorance out of his jillion 8th graders, into his classroom DURING CLASS TIME strides a parent who begins to berate him. My colleague keeps his calm. Instead of reaching for the phone to call for the VP to bounce her out, or the cops, or Chuck Norris, he asks for the parent's work address so he can return the favor. "Really, tell me, where do you work? Sharp Hospital? I will come by to conference with you when you are on the job because apparently that's ok with you."

I want to shower him with accolades and palm fronds and leis and ticker tape and whatever heroes are showered with. I want to carry him on my shoulders before cheering crowds of teachers who have been disrespected in similar ways simply because they are public servants. Why do some parents treat teachers differently than they do other professionals? Could it be because they don't value what we do? I can't stand it when a parent comes by before or after school without an appointment; invariably I am tutoring or counseling kids or setting up my classroom or on my way to or from a meeting or from the workroom. (Why? BECAUSE I AM AT WORK, WORKING. Imagine that.) They always seem a little surprised when I ask if they have an appointment. ???

Parents are ALWAYS welcome to visit my class as observers. I am ALWAYS glad to conference with them at appropriate times. I just wish some parents would use good manners, because they are teaching their children how to behave, and trust me, that is getting to be a scary proposition these days.

Hmm, some people need to work on #1.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Total Engagement = Muy Bueno

One of seven Robert E. Lees today
Today we re-enacted Pickett's Charge.  Instead of being 700° and frying me to a crisp in our seven consecutive outdoor battles, it was cool and overcast, perfect weather to watch the Confederates get mowed down by the Federals.

As challenging as this event is to plan (ten teachers were involved, plus three high school students and one substitute), as many details as there are to remember, it is worth it when the kids are totally engaged, lost in the moment, believing they are living in 1863.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A moment of "Glory"

Finished showing "Glory" today.

I asked period 4 for adjectives to describe the movie, having heard rumors that the morning class called it "depressing." Hands shot up--when I called on K, his voice cracked: "Inspiring," and instantly we all knew he was crying.

Whoa. This is not in the faculty handbook.

The class didn't know what to do with itself, but thankfully no one smirked or sniggered, and I moved away from him to draw eyes toward me and give him some privacy. The bell soon rang, and kids darted off to lunch, all but K. and another kid, J. I kneeled next to K., a student with significant personal struggles, and told him of the moment in the movie that gets me every time (the parade through Boston, if you must know), and he looked me in the eyes: "Honestly, Miss M., there were three parts in this movie that made me cry...."  J. came nearer and said, "Oh, for me the most touching part was...." and in a natural, friendly way, he normalized the situation, one guy to another, shrugging off the lunch lines that grew longer as he chose to support a fellow student. K. finally collected himself and left, and I had a chance to thank J. for helping K.

"Well, I've known K. since 5th grade; we used to sit next to each other.  I know he has struggles. I like him."

Well maybe so, but I LOVE J. for his kindness and humanity. "There is more to battle than rest, sir. There's character. There's strength of heart," says the film's Colonel Robert Shaw as he requests the honor of leading the attack on Fort Wagner on behalf of the 54th regiment.  Looks like J. has both.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Only One: Pepsi and Morgan Freeman

I show only one movie to my history class.

(Despite conventional wisdom that says history teachers show a movie a week.) (Or daily.) (I like parentheses.)

Sure, I show clips from others.  I show the ten minute "Small House of Uncle Thomas," a Thai-style adaptation in "The King and I" to show the impact of Stowe's tale--plus it is unbelievably beautiful and exposes tragically literal students to another culture's spare, lovely sets and dancing. I show a few clips from "Roots":  Kunta on the slave ship, Chicken George finding one of the slain participants of Nat Turner's failed slave rebellion. I show some short pieces for fun--like JibJab's Founding Fathers Rap and Lin-Manuel Miranda's piece on Alexander Hamilton for President Obama.

Full disclosure:  if I am unexpectedly ill or don't have the time or brain to make lesson plans (as happened once when I got the sad phone call that my Nana had passed away and I was on a plane that day to be with the family), I will have the guest teacher show a stand-by video--either the appropriate volume of "Roots", or "Nightjohn" (soooo goood).

But movies are too long; kids' attention spans are too short; California's history standards are too plentiful; the state history test, inexorable. History movies in particular tend to be too violent, and Hollywood seems to think Americans need to watch other people having sex in every movie.

So: the only movie I show is Edward Zwick's "Glory." It is rated R, but God bless Pepsi--Pepsi issued an edited-for-classroom-use version and distributed them free to schools across the United States. One landed in my hands, because God loves me.

And despite the fact that I have seen this movie an average of five times a year for almost twenty years, I do not tire of it. I still tear up when the soldiers march through Boston for their send off. I still am struck with the weight of the story, the quality of the acting, the cinematography, the moving score.

And despite short attention spans and less and less background knowledge every year (today, S. gasped, "They had newspapers back then!?"), despite the fact that I have to wrestle them into paying full attention for the first day, by the end of the film I believe the kids are better people, deeper people, and Lord help us, better educated people.

(Plus Morgan Freeman's in it, so you know it's chock-full of avuncular goodness.)

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

They Are the Jedi

Kids lined up by the door, ready to start the first of FOUR DAYS of testing.

I opened it up, blaring John Williams' dazzling theme on the class sound system: STAR WARS!  Whoo hoo!

And in they came, beaming, looking around at the Star Wars plastic party tablecloths I'd put up around the room. "Ok, young Jedi, are you ready to do battle?" I queried.

They were.

"All aboard the Millennium Falcon!" I sang as I passed out the pencils. Their eyes rolled because I am so dorky, but they were still smiling.

Testing...testing...1, 2, 3, 4 days of testing!

The state's high stake test
comes more than a month before
school actually ends

The test tests learning
of content that they haven't 
had a chance to learn

Monday, April 23, 2012

Louisa May Alcott, personal affirmations, and nausea

I was nine when I first read Little Women; I wept copiously when Beth died. Her goodness and gentleness inspired me to make a little sign for my desk at school to remind me to be as good as Beth, and as silly as it was, I was in earnest:
    "Be nice and
     be kind and
     don't forget to
     always mind!"

Fast forward to 2012. Kids decorate their school notebooks with stickers, photos, song lyrics, notes, all manner of personal touches slid under the plastic cover. But my stomach lurched when I read a little sticky note one girl had written to herself:
   "Dear Me,
       You are the sexiest one that walked the earth."
                   Love, Me"
Aside from the unmatched grammatical tense, just the idea that, at thirteen, sexiness was her highest aspiration made me feel queasy and sad. 

Such is the pressure on girls to please and attract the opposite sex. 

I think everyone who teaches elementary school and middle school should see Thirteen (2003), directed by Catharine Hardwicke, about the pressures of modern thirteen year olds. What's stunning about this film is it was mostly written by one of the teenage stars of the film. It is not easy to watch. But maybe raising teens isn't easy, either.  

Thursday, April 12, 2012

A Bad Morning, A Kiss and Two Poems

It doesn't happen often, really only about once a year, and who knows why. Perhaps it's a convergence of gravitation, weather, hormones, CST testing dread, a strange dream, and the usual sad Padre win-loss record, but comes an odd day when I simply do. not. want. to. go in that classroom and face anyone. That day was yesterday.

Before school, I shared my dread with my close colleagues. "I don't wanna be that whiny teacher," I whined. A. listened with love and her eyes didn't judge me. K. commiserated and made me laugh, even when I shared that part of my low is my persistent belief that education can transform EVERYONE into Lola's ideal of a Fine Human Being with Noble Character Who Loves Reading when the disappointing truth is that the Bell Curve of Life indicates that a large portion of the population will forever gravitate toward daytime reality TV and hangovers. And this crushes me.

Of course I got on with it. The Compromise of 1850 wasn't going to teach itself. As usual, teaching itself became its own reward as I turned away from me to them and the task at hand.

Then it was time for my seminar English class--and two boys, D. and I., had spent their own money to buy Hershey bars for everyone in class! Their final flourish was to hand me a gigantical Hershey's kiss. Of course my heart grew three sizes.

And then it was time for Haiku Friends!! That's right--we are studying poetry, and for fun, students were assigned a fellow student to write about. I collected their little poems, read them aloud, and the students guessed the subjects. It was delightful and yet another time of bonding with this really wonderful class, but as I read the last one, C. rushed up to me waving one last haiku:

"Hamilton's girlfriend
In third grade, Calhoun punched her
Educates many"

I'm a big Alexander Hamilton fan--I'd told them of the day when Doug hit me--C had written a poem about me! For laughs? So I wouldn't feel left out? Because he was enjoying our time together? All good.

And then after school, I found my colleague K. had put a poem in my mailbox:

All my pwoblems
who knows, maybe evwybody's pwoblems
is due to da fact, due to da awful twuth
I know. I know. All da dumb jokes:
No flies on you, ha ha,
and da ones about what do I do wit all
doze extwa legs in bed. Well, dat's funny yeah.
But you twy being
SPIDERMAN for a month or two. Go ahead.

You get doze cwazy calls fwom da
Gubbener askin you to twap some booglar who's
only twying to wip off color T.V. sets.
Now, what do I cawre about T.V. sets?
But I pull on da suit, da stinkin suit,
wit da sucker cups on da fingers,
and get my wopes and wittle bundle of
equipment and den I go flying like cwazy
acwoss da town fwom woof top to woof top.

Till der he is. Some poor dumb color T.V. slob
and I fall on him and we westle a widdle
until I get him all woped. So big deal.

You tink when you SPIDERMAN
der's sometin big going to happen to you.
Well, I tell you what. It don't happen dat way.
Nuttin happens. Gubbener calls, I go.
Bwing him to powice, Gubbener calls again,
like dat over and over.

I tink I twy sometin diffunt. I tink I twy
sometin excitin like wacing cawrs. Sometin to make
my heart beat at a difwent wate.
But den you just can't quit being sometin like
You SPIDERMAN for life. Fowever. I can't even
buin my suit. It won't buin. It's fwame wesistent.
So maybe dat's youwr pwoblem too, who knows.
Maybe dat's da whole pwoblem wif evwytin.
Nobody can buin der suits, dey all fwame wesistent.
Who knows?

.... I realized that K. understood, that James Hall understood: My suit won't come off and sometimes that's my pwoblem. I am SPIDERMAN FOR LIFE, and sometimes trying to save the world--or even just one thirteen year old--gets a little discouraging or even tiresome. But I am here to testify that the generous big hearts of boys and the power of compassion and poetry are transformative. The odd day is over, and I know that I am doing what I am supposed to be doing, and that changes everything.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Our culture says, "EAT THE MARSHMALLOW," but....

"It's the kids' job to push against the limits; it's our job to set the limits." --Dr. David Walsh

Click HERE to learn more about the famous 1972 Stanford experiment that showed the strong correlation between a child's ability to delay gratification and her future success in college, friendship, and popularity.

That's right, kiddos--if you can wait for good things, your life will likely be happier than those who are ruled by their impulses. Reason over nerve endings, I say.

The first project I ever made at Teacher School was a little sign that said, "Grandma's Rule: First eat your dinner--then you can have dessert." I had never heard of the Marshmallow Test, but I was right on: Grandma was teaching us an awesome life lesson.

"Wait on the LORD: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the LORD." --Ps 27:14

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Texting in 1774?

As I was teaching about Samuel Adams and the Committees of Correspondence, I compared the committees to realllly old school texting, noting that without copy machines or the internet or cell phones, the C. of C. was a relatively quick and clever way to keep the rebels "in the loop." After class, J. slips me a note:

(In case I haven't mentioned it in the past five seconds and it slipped your mind, teaching > pretty much anything.)

Friday, March 9, 2012

Who will be our next PEZident?

Flying my geek flag:
I bought presidential PEZ
(everyone's jealous)

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Sanitation Crew, Harper Lee, and My Daddy

My dad is nicer than your dad. For instance, every week on trash pick up day, my dad leaves bottled water atop the bins so the sanitation crew can have some refreshment. (He's also a ten gallon blood donor and buys Girl Scout cookies from whomever comes to the door, plus dogs and babies love him. There's more, but you get the idea.)

He also brings home used copies of To Kill a Mockingbird, my favorite book, so I can give them to special students just because.

Tonight I found a new copy of The Moon Is Down at a used bookstore, and I am gonna have a drawing for it, inspired by my daddy.

His kindness is a constant education for me; I hope to pass on his lessons and legacy.

Sunday, March 4, 2012


Bucket of essays,
You lose: it's 80°--
You'll just have to wait!!!