Sunday, March 31, 2013

Infographics assignment

So, for my last slice, I'm going to do a little experiment in collaboration.

I mentioned in an earlier slice that I was working with my librarian colleagues to create as infographics assignment. Well, I'm going to share that document and invite comments, suggestions, and critique.

  • I've uploaded it to Google Documents, and I've share it so anyone can comment or edit it. Let me know what you think by inserting comments, making suggestions, or asking questions. Don't get tripped up by the formatting; the conversion process destroyed it.
  • Since the upload from Word to Drive destroys the formatting, I've also uploaded a PDF version so people can see it as students will.
  • If I incorporate your suggestions, I'll certainly credit you on the handout and thank you profusely.
I don't know what will happen or if anyone will even look. My blog is an experiment...

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Getting to know old friends

As I do not have a computer and must use my phone for today's slice, it will be less linked than usual.

Tomorrow is the last day before the last march begins. In the school year, Spring Break is the last pause for breath, the final chance to push, cajole, kid, compliment, or sometimes castigate. The end of the year is in sight, and so the momentum slows. Our students lose focus, as do we at times, as spring promises summer and our energy flags. But between us and the summer lies our last chances to learn before testing season and finals leave us wondering how we got here so quickly.

Most years, I spend the last weekend frantically sorting ideas and prioritizing. In truth, I will do more of that tomorrow. But, today, we met some old friends for a day away from our respective lives. In a place none of us live, we met to go to a play none of us had ever heard of, have dinner, and catch up.

Eric and I have known Jim and Pam since before we married. Eric and Jim met when they both lived in the enlisted dorms at Langley Air Force Base on 1997. At the time, Jim and Pam, high school sweethearts, lived several states apart. Eric and I,  soon-to-be-reunited post-high school sweethearts, didn't actually get back together until 1998, and married in June that same year.

When Eric deployed in July 1998, it was Jim who took care of Eric's townhouse and his cat Abi because I still lived in New Jersey and hadn't begun looking for a job closer, yet. When I moved to Virginia in October, Abi moved in with me in Manassas (the closest I could find a decent job) while Jim and Pam coordinated their wedding and her move from Ohio to Newport News. That's right...I've lived with the cat for longer than I've lived with Eric.
Abi, wondering why I'm disturbing his nap.
Jim, a flight line guy, got permission for me to be in his truck on the line when he guided the plane Eric and his unit returned in. Thanks to Jim, not only did Eric and I not have to worry about maintaining two households for 5 months, I got to see Eric the very first moment he stepped on American soil since a month after our wedding. Even though I couldn't get out to greet him on the runway (I didn't have flight line clearance!) and Eric didn't even know I was that close, I won't ever forget what it felt like to see him safe with my own eyes.

In the last months Eric spent in the Air Force, he lived with Jim and Pam during the week, and came to our townhouse in Manassas on the weekends until he finally went on terminal leave in June 1999. Soon after, Jim and Pam were stationed in England, and we didn't see them until Jim came back to Newport News a few years ago and got out of the Air Force himself. It's tough to get together, but we keep in touch.

About a month or so ago, Eric and I got away for a weekend and went to see a production of Julius Caesar at the American Shakespeare Theater and stayed in a local bed and breakfast nearby. We loved the production, and  immediately thought Jim and Pam would enjoy this getaway. The day we got home we suggested to them that we meet here, a place that's about 2 hours from each of us. This weekend was the first weekend that worked, so I made room reservations, arranged for tickets to The Custom of the County, a play written by Shakespeare's successors in The Kingsmen, and dinner reservations.

We have had an absolutely wonderful time.  The play was hilariously ribald and engaging. The cast has us in stitches as they engaged the audience in the play itself and sang interesting renditions of popular songs during the intermission (Nine Inch Nails and banjo...I cannot do it justice in a blog). Jim remarked he had no idea "culture could be so funny." It made me wish high schools taught more Renaissance comedy rather than drama. My students would be delighted by the innuendo so much more than they are with the whinings of Romeo and the brooding of Hamlet.

Since we met here an hour or so before the 2:00 matinee, we have stopped taking and swapping stories long enough only for the production itself. The four of us enjoyed a tasting menu and wine pairings at dinner, and a bottle of port and chocolates in the hotel as  we laughed about our jobs, Eric and Jim told Air Force stories, and we carried on as if no time had passed.

Even though I know my "to do" list will clamor all the louder tomorrow, I cannot think of a better way to have spent my day. All of us agreed we needed this time out from our routine. Tomorrow morning, we will meet for breakfast before going our separate ways once more, and will probably soon plan the next weekend away. I can't wait.

Friday, March 29, 2013

GoodReads Goodbye?

Over the last couple of years, I've been logging the books I've read and want to read on GoodReads. I've challenged myself to read more in the last couple of years by making and tracking reading goals. When I finish a book, I note the date I read it and sort it into rough categories. Sometimes, I write reviews; sometimes I just give the books star ratings. I also follow what friends, acquaintances  and even like-minded strangers are reading and adding to their virtual read and to be read (TBR) piles. In all, I've added 229 books I've read and marked another 169 to read. I'm never without a list of potential books to pick up when I'm out and about because I have the GoodReads app on my phone, too.

Now, Amazon has announced they are buying GoodReads, and I have mixed feelings about this. I freely admit I do a fair amount of business with Amazon, and have for years. Even when I don't buy from them, I have been known to look at their product descriptions and browse the reviews of customers. 

But I like the independence of the GoodReads community; though there are booksellers, publishers, and authors aplenty, I didn't feel like most of the reviews might be pimping a particular book or bookseller. In fact, the little buy bar at the bottom, which I never use, does offer some seller options. Now that Amazon is a player, I'm fairly certain that choice will disappear, and I'm not the only person to think so. In fact, Forbes even ran a column on how the acquisition will hurt competition.

I also wonder if my independent reviews will become marketing fodder, even more so than they probably are now. I know there are sites that link to GoodReads already. It's not that I have a problem with someone using my openly published review to make decisions; it's that I'm not sure I like that Amazon may start using those reviews as they see fit. Will they be able to excerpt my reviews? Even though Amazon says it will let GoodReads operate independently as it does with IMDB, I'm skeptical.

Beyond that, I'm not sure I like the vertical integration implications, a concern shared by other GoodReads users and the Authors Guild. Amazon has already moved into the publishing business by making direct deals with authors and offering self-publishing services; has had spats with traditional publishers over eBook pricing and print on demand; and is currently being sued by some independent stores over its DRM practices. Now, it's not just dabbling in the consumer review business; it owns the two major customer review sites, Shelfari and Goodreads. What am I to make of that?

So, I'm starting to investigate potential replacements for GoodReads. LibraryThing is a possibility, and they are sweetening the deal by offering free memberships. But it, too, is partially owned by Amazon through Amazon's acquisition of ABEbooks, which owned 40% of LibraryThing.

The truth is, I like GoodReads. I like the community. I like the functionality. I like the system. But I'm just not sure where this marriage with Amazon leads. 


Thursday, March 28, 2013

Travel bug

In February or March, I start to realize that summer is right around the corner. This year, I haven't made any plans to go to seminars or schools, but I'm feeling the urge to make plans.

That's not to say I don't already have some plans. My family will be meeting in Idaho for a reunion. We'll be spending a week at a rented cabin near Yellowstone. It will be the first time all of my siblings, parents, nieces, and nephews have been in the same place since the last family wedding in 1999. We've met in smaller groups, but my school schedule, my sister-in-law's work schedule, and my other sister-in-law's family vacations have kept us from finding a common time. I still have to look into the Yellowstone days and book flights/cars out there. But that vacation feels like a done deal.

Today, three things contributed to the flair of the travel bug. 
  1. I received the notification of my additional duties pay. I work at athletic events, sponsor two school publications, and have done a little homebound tutoring this year. The athletics, tutoring, and part of the advising stipends in my little savings account make me feel a bit flush with cash.
  2. As I listened to NPR while doing dishes, I heard a story about Guatemala's first female attorney general. About 6 years ago (?!), I studied for a month at Celas Maya in Xela, which was a wonderful school (one other student's 2011 account is here; my abandoned travel blog is still up, too). Earlier this week, I'd already made a couple of Internet forays to look at what it might cost to go and brush up on my Spanish in Guatemala (it's still a heck of a deal for lessons and homestays!), and that thought still tickles my mind. I'd kind of like to spend a week at Lago Atitlan if I go back. I stayed in Panajachel for two weekends, and I know I could do more exploring of the little towns and sights along the lake. Plus, my Spanish has faded in the two years since I last studied it at Personalized Spanish in Costa Rica, another wonderful, though more expensive, school.
  3. Travelzoo sent me their top 20 deals email. Because I'm already feeling comfortable and wondering what to do, the Costa Rica packages made me wonder about revisiting that country, too. I'd like to go back to Monteverde and Manuel Antonio. I visited each place for a weekend, and there's more to see. There are several other locations I didn't get to visit, too, like La Fortuna and Guanacaste

I may not end up doing any of these in the end. I do like to dream, though, and Central America seems to call me back.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Why I stay...and what makes me think about leaving

Recently, one of my online tribe (I haven't been a good tribe member lately--I've been blogging instead of Tweeting) announced she's leaving the classroom, at least for now. Beth will find a role in education, I know. But her very difficult decision to leave sparked an idea for a graduate class project: a video from teachers to let people know why they stay.

This project has been on my mind all week long. I have a good idea of the piece I want to contribute; I had a tough time narrowing it down. There are so many reasons why I stay. Still, I didn't want it to be MY video, so I thought I'd write a bit down here. 
  • I've already written an entire post about being part of the community. That's primary reason I stay.
  • The students do make me laugh. They do unexpected, silly things. I get to watch them grow up, become more independent, and move on to new places. I love being part of their stories, and I would miss that.
  • I'm the safe place for some of my students. I've held them as they've cried; I've cheered for them when they've succeeded; and I've listened and offered my opinions when asked. I needed that safe space when I was a teen, and I pay it forward by being that trusted adult.
  • This year, before Spring Break, no fewer than 4 students came to me to ask for book recommendations. My decision to value independent reading is paying off for quite a few of my students. Some still aren't on the bandwagon, yet. But, sometimes, I run across tweets like this: "Mrs Kervina is the only teacher that gets me reading for fun" and I know I'm getting through sometimes.I work with some fantastic people who care about kids. Seriously, I'm pretty fortunate that I can name   several professional colleagues who will bounce ideas around and do care about learning and about the art of teaching.
  • I do firmly believe that reading and writing are so very fundamental to our ability to be part of society and to make rational, intelligent choices. I know reading fiction increases empathy and can help foster a sense of belonging. Writing is not only valued by employers (who want to see more emphasis on oral and written communications in colleges), it can help one better understand the self and the world. It's a process that can be used for thinking, reflecting, learning, expressing, arguing, advocating, or even entertaining. Our stories are who we are.
But there are also aspects of what I do that I don't like. These are the things that drive me to look at from time to time.
  • Grades. I'll say it: I don't like grading. I don't love mountains of paper. I don't love endless to-do lists. Almost all of these things are the result of grades. We're so grade and score-focused in education that there's a constant pressure to put some sort of mark on each piece of paper generated. It's hard to push back, even when I point out that not every note in every scale is assessed in music, not every dribble of a ball is assessed in basketball, and not every brush stroke or sketchbook drawing is assessed in art. 
  • The constant thinking about school. I don't love that I cannot turn off my job brain. Seriously, thinking about my job wakes me up at night. I love the challenge of creating a classroom where kids learn. But sometimes, I just want to go to sleep and sleep through the night, or spend a whole weekend without thinking in terms of lessons, assessments, and to-dos.
  • Discipline. I get it; it's the job of teens to push the boundaries. That doesn't mean I love being the one who has to set them or who has to enforce them. However, I'm the adult in the room. I accept that.
  • The endless rhetoric of blame. There are a few voices calling for moderation on the blame game. There are voices who point out that this focus on bad teachers will drive people out of education.In fact, teacher job satisfaction is at the lowest it has been in 25 years
  • The consistent implication or outright claims that teachers are lazy and greedy. I work harder at this job for 5 figures less than I made as a government contractor. Yes, I don't "work" from the last week in June to the last week in August, in that I don't go to school and teach; I also don't get paid for that time. Nor do I get paid for spring break, winter break, or federal holidays. I'm on a 193-day contract. The rest of the time, even though I'm often working late, on weekends, and over breaks, is uncompensated time. But, if you read any comment on any story, blog, or opinion column on the web, someone's going to say that teachers like me should be thankful for our easy, cushy, summers-off jobs and should stop being so greedy.
  • Decision fatigue. I'm on whenever there's a class of students. I take my responsibilities quite seriously, too. So, I have literally hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions I make each day. the first 6 months I taught, I also worked 10 hour days every other day. I can tell you from experience that working for 10 hours in an office doesn't hold a candle to working with kids. The 10-hour days were easier.
I do live with a sort of anxiety that the balance will tip enough that I'll leave the classroom. But, for now, the reasons I stay still outweigh those for leaving.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Activism, slactivism, and political speech

I'm not usually one to go for grand gestures of support. 
  • I never changed my Facebook icon to a cartoon character to raise awareness for abused children. I wasn't aware people didn't know about the issue, especially my web-savvy friends on social media.
  • I don't click "like" or start groups in Facebook in support of the current cause; I didn't Tweet about Kony2012. I'm fairly certain if I want to influence policy, my best bet is to write my elected representative or take to the street and protest.
  • I don't forward status messages and dare my friends to change theirs if they care about people and/or me. I see that type of bandwagon slactivism as something akin to bullying as it implies I'm somehow lacking if my priorities don't align perfectly with the crowd. Plus, given the way my Twitter feed rolls continuously and how arbitrary Facebook already is about showing me the statuses of the people I follow, I would not be so quick to judge the character of others based on whether they happen to see the picture of a child with cancer roll through their timeline. 

In general, I'm pretty skeptical about the efficacy of posting anything on social media in the hopes of significant social or political change. The chances of my changing my status or Tweeting of making a significant difference is minimal. I have two things in my possession that I know can make a difference: my money and my time. Neither of those have a darned thing to do with what I share on social media.

There have been two occasions I have participated in these sorts of online demonstrations of support.
  1. The Speak Loudly Campaign: The #speakloudy Twitter hashtag actually did draw national media attention to the 2010 banning of Speak, Twenty Boy Summer, and Slaugherhouse Five in Republic, MO. Many people in our country don't realize there are groups of folks who want to limit what people can view and read. We tend to think of ourselves as somehow beyond that; but we are not.

    Yet, even this year, the Chicago Public Schools ignited controversy over a directive to remove the graphic novel Persepolis from its library shelves. After significant negative press on the Internet and mainstream media fueled in part by a social media outcry and after student protests, CPS released a statement clarifying that the book was removed from the 7th grade curriculum. The statement also says something about "special training" for high school teachers who want to use it. That seems like an underhanded way to ban the book, even still.

    The only way to fight censorship is to speak out; I suspect the #speakloudly hashtag will be used for this issue again, and I will participate each time.

  2. The = sign on Facebook: I know that my icon won't make a bit of difference on the SCOTUS. But, I can't remain completely silent on this issue, either. I'm not asking others to join me; I'm just publicly declaring my support for same-sex marriage. Two people who are in a loving, committed relationship ought to be able to have that relationship recognized legally. As I posted on my Facebook status:

    "I know too many people who have been in committed, loving, long-term relationships who cannot enjoy the same legal protections and social benefits I do simply because the person I chose to commit my life to has different genitals. That's silly.

    I did not marry to have children. That ship has more than likely sailed in my life.

    I married to be with the person I love in a societally and legally recognized union for the rest of my natural life. I cannot imagine that such a union of two people can be harmful, regardless of the genitalia those two people have."
I'm not entirely certain what else I'll speak out about; but it won't be something I'm not passionate about or something I do just because others are doing it. There's an element of risk in public discourse, especially for someone in public education, if one forgets that the Internet is not private. So, I reserve my opinions in most cases when in the public sphere (except regarding education policy), and I don't discuss my personal political beliefs in the classroom at all.

In these two cases, I will speak out, as is my right as a citizen. I don't suspect my speech will change anyone's mind, but I appreciate the rights I have to express my opinion in this small, civil way.

And in a couple of days, my icon will be back to its original bee as I await the decision of the court. I have great faith in our courts and in our system. It's not perfect; but it gives us the opportunity to speak our minds and adapt our government and laws to a changing world. For that, I'm grateful today.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Slice of Life and Comments

One of the things I've enjoyed most about this challenge has been the conversations it has generated. I've talked more about writing with my friend Melissa, took on the challenge, but isn't linking on Two Writing Teachers. Overall, I have interacted with more people than I have in a long time. 

One of my goals, aside from writing each day, has been to make sure that no one drops in and doesn't get an answering comments. Some days, that hasn't happened. But Blogger's "Comments" page in the dashboard has really helped me make sure each comment gets a reply. It feels good to let people know I'm grateful to them for stopping by and sharing a little bit of my writing, and I hope my appreciation for their time comes through.

I've also participated in one of the commenting challenges this month. My 30 comments didn't come close to enough to win a prize. Still, I read more blogs than usual and got more ideas. Some of those ideas include making a list like this:

Posts I could try:
There were a number of other posts that made me smile or think. In fact, there are too many to list.

Thanks to Ruth and Stacey for running the challenge. And thanks to Cindy, Katherine, Lee Ann, and Michelle for reminding me it would happen this year.

I can't believe it's already the 24th day...

Saturday, March 23, 2013


Whenever I have a break from school, I find out how much exhaustion I have barely held in check. Often, I get sick. If I don't, I want to sleep for days.

Today, I'm not sick. But I have had a headache off and on, and I'm tired. I made the mistake of not taking the day off to rest. So, I'm grumpier and touchier than I should be. My friend and husband are being understanding, probably more than I deserve.

Note to self: try to remember that the chances of being a raging bitch are dramatically increased. Take a rest day.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Music, memory, online friendships, and love

Sometimes, I'm still surprised at the effect of music. It changes my mood, but sometimes it throws me back to another time in my life. It's almost as if I cannot tell if I'm the me now or the me I was at a much different time and place. 

Tonight, it was Alphaville's "Fallen Angel." Eric and I went to Wegmans for a last-minute shopping trip, and I put on the 80s station on Pandora. The beginning notes played as I tucked a piece of hair behind my ear, and I felt just like I was 16 again. My sense of disorientation was heightened by sitting next to someone I fell in love with when I was only 17. 

In that moment, I could also remember Eric just as if I had fallen in love with him all over. He would drive us around in his barely-holding together used Monza, before we went to college together. The relationship didn't last when he left school and I stayed. But we kept in touch. He likes to say he never forgot how amazing I was. I, on the other hand, was a much slower learner. If you'd told me in September of 1997 that I'd marry Eric less than a year later, I'd have laughed at you.

As we drove on, I also heard "Nemesis" by Shriekback, which made me realize that most of my musical tastes came from David Lartigue and Stephen Murrish, people I had become friends with, and in Stephen's case much more, because of our online friendships. Even when "online" meant dialing up to a computer, downloading and reading messages, then logging off so someone else could log in, many of the closest relationships I had were made with people I met and got to know while sitting in my own house. Now some 29-30 years later, I'm still meeting some of my closest friends without leaving the house (and I'm still in touch with both Dave and Stephen, too). The major difference between then and now is that my online friends were all local because I couldn't afford to call long distance.

One of my friends from St. Louis, Stan Schrober, once told me he still loved everyone he had ever loved. I remember being skeptical when he told me that 20 years ago. But, I get it now. 

When I hear music that throws me back to a different time in my life, I can remember what it felt like to be that person. Parts of me still are 14 and 16 and 17 and 22 and 26 and every other age I've ever been. So, parts of me still love the people who shared those times with me. And sometimes, the music lets me be there for a minute or two, one more time. 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

A workman-like slice

Today, I think I've used up all of my inspiration.

The staff will finish the satire issue. I had to tweak a couple of the pieces to lengthen them. Mostly, I just added some fake quotes or did some rearranging to help with the flow. I realized that there needs to be some tweaks to our policy statement, too. I'm going to run that past them tomorrow, as a last minute change. At least two stayed after today to finish layouts. I need to give the entire thing a going over and I'll probably give the principal a heads up, if he's in the building. He's a central character in our little farce, so he should probably know just this once.

Other than that, I had a lovely massage this evening as my "almost made it to spring break and proctored my last writing SOL of the year" treat. I came home and wanted nothing more than to finish reading The Mis-education of Cameron Post, which I did.

So, I'm out of inspiration, but I still wanted to write it down and meet my challenge goal. I've only missed 3 days so far, which isn't bad considering I started a day late.

Some slices, like this one, will be a bit more workman-like than others. But, that's true of some days, too. And I'm ok with that.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Is it hot enough for ya?

Kip sat across from me in the cheap vinyl booth and dug into his Chinese food. His breath quickened as he sucked air past the food in his mouth.

"Oh, yeah," he said. "I was afraid they wouldn't take me seriously. They don't sometimes. When they see a white kid and he asks for 'extra spicy,' they don't believe me. But I like it hot like this."

As he spoke, his forehead began to shine, a hint of the heat. Beads of sweat forming on his forehead turned the shine into mist, and he wiped his brow with a napkin from the pop-up dispenser. He continued eating, his cheeks reddened. He barely stopping chewing long enough to sip at his water. Soon, the flush from his cheeks spread across his face, and the space between his nose and lips began to shine.

"I like it hot enough I can feel a buzz," Kip said, smiling and dragging another cheap paper napkin in a circle from forehead to lip. I briefly wondered if he would need a shower after dinner.

"When I go to a place often enough, they start to believe me. Then they give me the same spices they're eating in the back."

# # #

I've never liked spicy food for the sake of heat, but I've met a number of people seem to see food as a potential challenge. I'm not sure if this is an adrenaline thing or a "master of my own destiny" thing. Either way, I don't really get it. I don't like my food to fight back, physically or figuratively.

Our boys lacrosse team has a ridiculous ritual where they go to the Buffalo Wing Factory and eat flatliners. Probably one of the funniest stories I've ever heard a teacher tell involved one young man who ate the most flatliners one year. He ate so many, he was a moaning shambling mess the next day. His dad told him he'd made his choice and sent him to school anyway. The way my former colleague reenacts his conversation with this poor, foolish young man never fails to leave me in stitches, even though I've heard the story many times.

One of my students this year came to school wearing a t-shirt declaring "I survived the flatliner challenge." To his credit, he wasn't a whimpering, moaning mess. But he did admit he wasn't feeling so well. I believe I just shook my head at his self-satisfied grin; I may have used the word "moron," but my memory isn't too clear on that. Whatever I said, his grin just got bigger.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Toys: a celebration of the Exeter Writers' Workshop

When I was a kid, I favored toys that let me imagine. I loved hot wheels and Weebles (who doesn't love a toy that doesn't fall down?) more than dolls. As I got older, I played with action figures from popular movies (though I didn't have all of the cool ones in this video!) more than the Weebles. But I still made up entire worlds in the yard or the house that went beyond the world of the figures.

Even without the toys, I spent hours imagining with my friends: we imitated our favorite shows and movies (even if we didn't exactly get what the songs were about!). Often we went off script and made sequels that were much better than the ones that played in the theaters.

These moments are so easy to forget because they  were just so much a part of the day to day. In fact, I hadn't thought of them in years until I went to the Philip Exeter Academy's Writers' Workshop. During that fabulous week-long program [1], one of the guest speakers led us through an extended freewriting activity. I literally had 8 or more type-written pages of freewriting, and one of the things that came up for me was the times I spent playing with Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars in the dirt. 

Most people probably have memories of playing in the dirt, but where I grew up in Louisiana, the dirt piles were epic. The neighborhood where I lived was built on a filled in swamp. Thus, every few years, part of maintaining the property involved buying and spreading a dump truck load of fill dirt in the yard. People chipped in and helped neighbors move the dirt, or volunteered their teen-aged kids to do it), and often lent wheelbarrows, rakes, and shovels. For the under 10 set, the dirt pile became a massive playground. Our Hot Wheels adventures now included perilous mountains, tunnels, and epic crashes, complete with cars tumbling down the dirt mountain. 

From the memory of these experiences, I wrote a little short story called "Drivers Wanted."  I'm not usually a short story writer, but Cahaley, one of the instructors, asked us to try to write a story from the point of view of an inanimate object. So, I wrote from the car's point of view. At some point, I want to go back to that story and polish it. I need more kicks in the butt to do this sort of creative work. 

[1] I absolutely, positively highly recommend that workshop. It's $1000 for a week, but that includes room, board, the workshop, and meals. It's a phenomenal deal and I will probably go back one summer in the future for a fresh kick in the creative pants. Seriously. Look into it. Do it.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Questions and leadership

This morning, I peeked in on George Couros' blog for the first time in a while, and I happily got lost for a time in his thinking and questioning. George is thoughtful, innovative, and interesting.  But, he isn't a classroom teacher; he's a principal, one of a growing number who are bring their practice into the light and reflecting on what it means to be a good school leader and lead learner.

I started following George on Twitter (@gcouros) quite early because even in tweets, he gives me pause.  He firmly believes, as I do, that we need to start teaching kids how to consciously and purposefully use technology, especially social media. He fostered a community of sharing and reflection at his last school by encouraging blogging by all of the staff and then getting kids involved, too (he's a division principal now, so he's bringing these ideas to many schools). But, George doesn't believe in technology for technology's sake, either. He advocates conversations between IT and instructional design to ensure that policies are purposeful and balanced, too. In short, he's the kind of principal I wish everyone had.

George's most recent post, "Questions and Ownership," resonated with me (and sent me down the rabbit hole to find more that I'd missed). When talking with an administrator frustrated by the slow pace of change, George asked her whether she had shared her vision with her staff and what questions she had asked of them. What a simple change! Ask a staff what they thought the effects of a proposed change would be and building consensus through the answers given. Then, follow up with a question on how leadership could help make that change successful. Imagine how much different a workplace would be if a leader didn't try to provide all of the answers, but instead let the staff take ownership and supported the implementation of new ideas.

I can see myself being the administrator George spoke in my classroom sometimes. Yes, I have the vision of where we need to go. The time factor and the expectations of parents, students, colleagues, and community sometimes drive me to get there in the fastest way possible. But really, what do the students remember if they don't own it? Imagine what would happen if students take ownership and my job becomes more about supporting the learning of new ideas. What would that look like if I did it on a more regular basis?

Questions are powerful, underutilized tools.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Recharging by not charging

Today hasn't been productive in ways I usually consider productive. I've yet to cross off anything from my to do list. I've yet to check my school email. I've left the house only for a late morning breakfast at a favorite local diner.

But, today has been productive in recharging my batteries. I slept in after going to bed late. I read parts of the paper and the rest of <i>Seraphina</a> a wonderful fantasy book I'd been steadily stealing time each night to read. I napped.

Outside my window, the sun has broken through the clouds, and I finally feel refreshed. After a week of trying to finish the paper, trying to teach, and proctoring standardized tests, I needed this down time. Even though the to do list hasn't gotten shorter, I feel more prepared to dive back in and get to work.

I may be a slow learner, but maybe I'm starting to actually figure out what Jim Burke and Bud Hunt were talking about in the two blog posts I have taped to my wall next to the computer. I hope so. 

Friday, March 15, 2013


Recently, a fellow teacher who is part of my online tribe wrote about her difficult decision to leave her current position. She wonders if she should stay in the classroom and asked us why we stayed. I've been pondering this idea for days, but today crystallized it for me.


I have become part of my school's community, and when I feel myself losing hope or losing faith, that community serendipitously comes to remind me what is important. This week, despite knowing my to do list has not gotten longer and that my newly adopted role as journalism adviser is still a tenuous one due to low enrollments, I had several reminders of how I have become part of the community in which I teach.

For the past 8 and a half years, I've taught at Centreville High School. My first two and a half years, I taught 9th graders. Then it was 11th and 9th. Then AP Lang and 11th, which has been the core of what I've taught since my 3rd year. Two years ago, I had a singleton 9; this year, at least 7 of those 29 kids are in my 11th or AP classes. This year, I also added journalism. In addition, I've been the literary magazine adviser for 7 (?) years, worked the score and clock at basketball games for 6 years, and been a spring sports game manager for a few games each season for the past three years. I try to go to at least one of the performing arts concerts or a play every year, and I try to make it to games I'm not working, too.

Tonight, I worked as game manager at the boys lacrosse game. I know so little about the sport of lacrosse that I couldn't even give a coherent description. But that's not the point of doing the game management; the point is to see my students outside of the classroom. I learned my first year that some students need to see me support them before they support me. I also learned that I need to know them and see them in their element to bridge their lives to my classroom and to connect with them as people. These connections keep me going when I want to give up; I need them as much as the kids do.

This mix of teaching assignments and after school activities has enabled me to teach and/or interact with multiple members of families in the community. In two families, I've taught three siblings. I have at least 6 other families I can think of just off of the top of my head that I've taught two children in various classes. In addition, I've interacted with younger siblings of kids I've either taught or advised in clubs, too. I love seeing how different each sibling is; as the youngest of 4, I know what it's like to be compared to the older ones, so I try not to pretend I know who the latest family member is or will be. They are always delightfully unique.

So the reminders that I've become part of this community?

  • Talking to Danny's parents at tonight's game and finding out how Tommy and Erin are doing was fantastic. I got to laugh with Erin's mom about how her daughter, who relied on Mom to get her up in the morning, is thriving at the Naval Academy. But watching Danny score a goal and knowing I can compliment him on that and a good pass will help me connect with him, too. He's a great kid and a hard worker. He and his classmates alternatively make me laugh and make me crazy, which almost guarantees they will be one of my favorites in the long run.
  • Chris, a wonderful young actor and soon-to-be college graduate, was one of my 9th graders during my first full time year of teaching. I had him again when he was in 11th grade. He credits me and my theater colleague Mike Hudson for helping him get through high school. When he had a rough time, he knew Mike and I cared about him and were there for him. Today, he visited to let me know how he's doing (he's waiting on the results from call backs for a children's theater troupe!) and to thank me for teaching him how to write well.
  • Minah, who was my co-editor-in-chief of the literary magazine for two years, came to visit earlier in the week to talk about what's going on with her. She and I laughed so much when she worked on the magazine, and we still do every time we get together.
  • Allison, who I taught only a couple of year ago, lit up when I went to the restaurant where she works for dinner. She's on spring break, too, and doing well in college. Though I didn't get to talk to her much because she was waiting on other customers, I couldn't help but notice how happy she seems.
  • Sarah stopped me in the hall to thank me for teaching her how to write last year. Honestly, what I did was more giving her confidence in her own abilities. But her thanks came at a low point in my day when I really needed it.
  • The peanut gallery of kids I taught or who are friends of those I taught last year, shivering in the stands at tonight's game, decided to chant my name as I walked by and applauded wildly when I curtseyed in acknowledgement. Those goofballs put a smile on my face more than once today.
Even more reminders:
  • Running into the Catalanos anywhere in the community results in hugs and reminders that they wish I had gotten AJ this year. Lauren, who I taught in 9th and AP, now works as a substitute teacher in the school when she's on break.
  • Parents remember me, even when I don't recognize them.
  • Most of my former and current students say hi to me when they see me at stores (I let them initiate the contact so it's not "awkward." ;)  Teenagers...)
  • My co-workers and sorority sisters laugh with me, commiserate with me, plan with me, and offer me chocolate when I need it. 
  • My former students who read my blog will point out typos for me (I'm looking at you, Griffin of the sharpie 5 o'clock shadow! ;) ).
So, Beth, the reason I stay is because the community and the kids want me to stay. I'm part of this community. And I know sometime, I will have to leave; I doubt my entire education career will be spent at a single school or in a single role. When the opportunity comes for me to advance, I won't miss the grading. I won't miss the standardized test. I won't miss the long days.

But the day I leave will be tough for me because of the community (communities, really) I will leave behind; the classroom community that alternatively drives me crazy and makes me laugh; the parents in the community who trust me with their children and thank me for working with them and loving them; the colleagues who I turn to in happy and frustrating moments. 

These people keep me here and keep me going despite the frustrations of the job. Without these connections, I would leave, as so many other are. I hope I never see the day when the balance tips the other direction.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Slice of satire

This is my first year teaching journalism. As with any first time course, I'm muddling my way through and learning right along with my students. It's an odd class because my journalism 1 students are there at the same time as my newspaper staff. They literally sit of opposite sides of the aisle in the lab. I only have 7 staff members and 14 J1 students. So, I spend a lot of time going back and forth between production issues and teaching the intro class.

Because my staff is so small, I've always intended to get my J1s more involved in writing. Finally, for the last issue, I had my J1s complete assignments that could go into the paper. I had them write articles about elective choices and essentially told the staff I was taking over 2 pages. But the editors would choose what went in, and I expected then to work with the author and edit the piece. For this issue, I had a host of feature articles they could use, and some were selected.

About two weeks ago, the editors asked if we would be doing an April Fools issue this year. If we were, they wanted the J1s to write many of the articles.

Well, I ran with it. This would be good practice in formatting a news article, and I could teach satire, too. Last week, I showed them some articles on The Onion (always a risky maneuver, but I just don't acknowledge that I see anything on the screen except what I'm focusing on), which had been doing a series riffing on mass shootings (FYI, no one is shot in this series). While they thought the "Gunman series" was hilarious, I mentioned it was probably a bit too risque for school. Still, they could see how it was playing on our fears and using puns. This week, I brought in a couple of tamer articles (here and here), showed them the pictures of Vice President Biden, and also discussed how an English-language Chinese newspaper had taken seriously The Onion's article "Kim Jong-Un Named The Onion's Sexiest Man Alive For 2012."

These two days set the stage for a brainstorming session where I helped them come up with ideas for satire. I steered them away from lampooning particular individuals, and we all ended up laughing at the ideas we had for explaining some of the recent trends at school. I won't spoil them, as the article have yet to be written, and some will certainly appear.

Yesterday, I asked them to go a step further and start the writing process. They were to:
  1. Write what you are satirizing and some ideas for how you want to go about it (techniques) 
  2. Write out Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How, just as you would with a real article.
  3. Write your lead.
Again, they seemed to be having fun, but I could tell they needed something more to work with. 

So this morning, I wrote a model for them. I wanted to make it as much a straight news story as I could, including quotes from "parents," "students," and staff ( I admit I stole names of my teacher friends, and I hope they are amused). I also didn't want them to figure it out right away. I think half of why The Onion is so funny is that the news format is so well done.

It took them a bit to get it, but they did. Now, I have a model to share, and I hope it inspires them to avoid the "over the top" articles in favor of a more subtle flavor of humor. Even if it doesn't, it was fun to write, and I thought I'd share that as today's slice (wow...long winded intro for this, wasn't it?).

School technology—we depend on it, but sometimes buy the wrong things. 
Who: Mr. Martin Grimm, Centreville High School principal
What: Announced a new 1 to 1 tablet initiative to PTSA.
When: Announcement at March 19 meeting. New initiative starts next year.
Why: To provide students with resources they need to learn.
How: Each student will be issued his or her own tablet and will use it in all classes.

Issue: Volume 6, Issue 6.5, April 2013
HEADLINE: Grimm Announces New 1-to-1 Tablet Program for 2013-2014

At the March 19 meeting of the Centreville High Parent Teacher Student Association, Principal Martin Grimm announced a new one-to-one tablet initiative pilot program. The program, which starts during the 2013-2014, will provide a brand new tablet to each CVHS student on the first day of school. 

Grimm told parents the initiative would provide basic tablets to each student, which they would receive during their 1st period classes on September 3. Because the program lost some of the money due to the anticipated $62 million FY 2014 budget shortfall, students would have to provide their own styluses and covers to protect the new tablets. However, Grimm estimated that these would cost each student “no more than $17” for a simple portfolio-style cover and a stylus.

“We are excited to be part of this new program. Giving students the tools they need to success, that’s what this is all about,” said Grimm. “These tools allow kids to take what they learn with them to each class, which should really help our kids be more organized and ready to learn.”

Fairfax County Public Schools chose CVHS as one of 3 district high schools and 5 middle schools to participate in the test. If all goes well, the program will be adopted across the county in the fall of 2014. Then, each student enrolled in middle or high school will receive his or her very own tablet.

“These new tablets are not a replacement for the current technology. They’re a supplement. We still need laptop and desktop computers to administer the SOL [Standards of Learning] tests. All of those are computer tests now,” Grimm said.

Parents who attended the meeting applauded the announcement, but others felt FCPS acted too late and wasn't taking advantage of the latest portable devices. 

“Tablets aren't new,” said Teresa Bunner, parent of sophomore Aaron Bunner. “ I've used one since I was a little kid. I have them all over the house and still use them to write lists and letters, and leave messages for Aaron. I’m disappointed it's taken so long to get them into the schools.”

Bunner also expressed disappointment that students would receive full-sized 8.5x11” tablets instead of newer, more portable devices.

“If the school system want real portability, they should try the 5x8” tablets. They might be a little more expensive, but they are so useful,” Bunner said.

Kathy Blackler, who has two children at CVHS and another son at Liberty Middle School, was enthusiastic about the tablet pilot program. 

“I’m glad FCPS is willing to try to help families with this new program,” Blackler said.  “The country’s ‘bring your own device’ program is expensive for families. Some teachers required separate binders and tablets for each class. Those supplies get expensive!”

Student representative Kevin Kim, who will graduate before next year’s program starts, wondered if the new tablets would be a distraction and would add to theft problems and honor code violations at the school.

“Stuff gets stolen here, especially in the gym,” Kim said. “If these tablets all look the same, how will teachers know who is doing the work?”

Another student who attended the meeting, freshman Cindy Minnich, said she wasn't sure one tablet would be enough for her to do all of the work for her classes.

“My teachers require a ton of class work and homework,” Minnich said. “I just don’t think these things can store that much information. And I can’t even use it in computer graphics. It isn't compatible with any of the Adobe software.”

Some staff, too, also seemed to question the new program. Front office secretaty Kim Grennek pointed to the growing pile of student belongings in the lost and found, and speculated that many of the new tablets would end up there next year.

“It will be tough to tell them apart,” Grennek said. “After a while, the main office will probably start to look like Office Depot.”

According to Grimm, CVHS will order 3000 new tablets in July. He expects to keep several hundred in reserve as replacements for lost or stolen tablets and for students new to Centreville.

“We’re really looking forward to bringing this affordable new device to our Wildcats,” Grimm said. “Even though most of our graduates go on to colleges and higher education already, we think using tablets in every class will make them even more competitive in college admission and the workplace.”

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Slice of Life: Some teaching ideas--argument and infographics

One of the experiments this year with my A.P. English Language and Composition class has been to include more choice reading. For two assignments, I gave them completely free reign: they could pick any book that interested them. They wrote reviews, made book trailers, and/or created print materials to market the book.

Another two assignments gave a choice from a list of fairly recent non-fiction works; one of our fine librarians and I compiled these lists. The first included a variety of memoirs and autobiographies. The most recent attempts to address some of the issues under debate in American society.

To keep it manageable, I narrowed down the choices to 8 (see below).  The list isn't perfect and the categorization might be a touch arbitrary, but I thought 8 books in 3 rough categories would be all I could manage to track. I attempted to have a wide enough variety to be appealing.

I also required that 3 students choose a book for it to be "approved," creating class reading groups, and that they lock in to their choices by this Thursday. The minimum requirement ensures no one struggles alone with a book and can discuss it with others. The book group ensures that students can collaborate on the creation of materials to share with the class. The change deadline ensured they took advantage of the list and resources I provided  (see Part I below), and that they didn't leave a classmate in the lurch by abandoning en masse at the last minute.

With these books, students will have to complete the following:
Part I: Investigate and choose.
Each book is between 232 and 300 pages, which I will expect them to read in a little over 2-2.5 weeks. I provided a list that included excerpts from the descriptions and one link per book to an interview with the author. Their only homework this week will be choosing/obtaining the book and starting to read. 
Part II: Read, discuss, and react
 I expect them to be about halfway through the book by next Thursday. So, I've built in some group discussion time in class and will require a blog post reflecting on their thinking so far (Hopefully, they can blog someplace where they can have a real audience; likely it will be in our class Blackboard environment). There will be another blog post at the finishing deadline after spring break (April 3) and two-three discussion sessions where they talk about their overall impressions and divvy up the part III work.
Part III: Create and synthesize.
Infographics will be the focus of this project; they have already seen some samples on last week when I discussed analyzing images. Though we browsed and looked at a couple of others in each class, the four I purposely showed them were: 1. Bullying; 2. Inside the Conclave; 3. Cheaters: Kindergarten to High School, College to Working World; and 4. Titanic by the Numbers.
In fact, when they saw these in class, some asked if they could try making ones of their own. I had already planned to have them read these book-length works, but the class comments led to this part III idea. It seemed to be especially fortutious a request as I'm drowning in paper, and the students will be weary of writing after completing three in-class essays in three weeks and taking the state-mandated standardized writing test before spring break. 
The librarians and I are working up the parameters this week so students will have them as they begin reading. My initial thoughts are the groups will divvy up and create chapter/section infographics that depict the author's claims and data for small sections of the group. Then they will come together, share their individual graphics, and collaborate on one that represents the work as a whole. I like the individual assignment and the group assignment combination because it keeps one person from creating while everyone else watches. There's still a risk of that on the group infographic, but I'm hoping that by sharing individual ones first, there's more collaboration on the final.
Part IV: Publish and present.
Once the group infographic is complete, the groups will publish their work. Again, I suspect this will be on a a Blackboard wiki, which isn't my ideal, but will allow them to share both individual and group infographics. Some of the groups are larger, at 6-8 students. So, I'll probably break them into groups of 3-4, which will allow for some comparisons between groups and between classes. I might allow for a physical gallery walk of the graphics by reserving a laptop cart or part of the library and letting kids wander through and look at their peers' work, too.
Part V: Comment and reflect.

My intention is to require individuals (or maybe the groups) to comment on the infographics created by the other groups. Thus, students will be exposed to each of the arguments through this data and will have to engage with it beyond passive consumption. Then, individuals will reflect in their blogs about the project and process.
Only one student hasn't chosen a book, yet. Between my two classes, all of the books have book groups, which surprised me.

Between all 5 parts, I expect the project to take until April 22. Most of the work will be upfront; the reading and individual infographics have April 3 and April 9 deadlines.

If this works well, I'll probably do it again next year, but earlier in the year. I can see this as a good springboard to argument writing and creation of research based-infographic projects, as I'm largely asking them to create products that depict arguments.

Here's to another experiment!

The books:
Poverty and social class
1.        The Rich and the Rest of Us by Cornell West and Tavis Smiley, published in 2012, 232 pages
2.        The Life You Can Save: How to Do Your Part to End World Poverty by Peter Singer, published in 2009, 240 pages
American culture
3.        Everything Bad is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter by Steven Johnson. published in 2006, 254 pages
4.        Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash by Edward Humes, published in 2012, 288 pages 
5.        Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy by Christopher Hayes, published in 2012, 304 pages
6.        Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier, published in 2013, 256 pages
Education and psychology
7.        The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined by Salman Khan, published in 2012, 272 pages
8.        How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough, published in 2012, 256 pages

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A slice of TV.

For years, we didn't have broadcast television. We weren't really watching anything regularly, so we just got rid of the cable. I missed the local news, though. So, I tried to use a digital broadcast antenna inside of the house. It didn't work well. I occasionally was able to get the local Fox channel to come in; however, none of the other major networks ever showed up. That's not to say I could get any channels. Al-Jazzera, the HK channel in Chinese, Univision, Telemundo, and the English language Russian TV each came in with unwavering clarity. I even managed to tune into PBS with some success. So, I pretty much stopped watching TV, except through Netflix or Hulu.

Then, this summer, Fios made us an offer we couldn't refuse. For about $10 less than we had been paying our other provider for Internet and phone service, Fios offered us phone, cable, Internet, and a DVR. Suddenly, I had TV again, and I could record shows (welcome to 2005!).  I was a bit afraid I would start losing chunks to time to the boob tube. I thought I might fill up the DVR with show upon show. I didn't really have much to worry about. 

Even though I have all these channels, I still haven't found much to follow. I do record one show I had watched online, The Walking Dead, and I'm glad I don't have to tell friends not to spoil it for me. Otherwise, I've only added one more: The Following. I'm not sure what it says about me that the two shows I go out of my way to watch are about surviving the zombie apocalypse and trying to outwit a serial killer. Still, it's kind of fun to follow a couple of popular shows that before I would have to wait months to see. Now all I have to do is watch the last season of Breaking Bad before the new season starts...perhaps my profession of watching little tv is a bit premature...

Monday, March 11, 2013

Bees and the coming of spring

Yesterday, Eric and I opened our three beehives for the first inspection since the fall.

The good news is all three hives are still working. All had pollen stores and seemed to be finding some early nectar. Also, we found eggs, larvae, and capped brood in all three, which bodes well for the much needed population boom warm weather brings. We even saw the queen in the white hive, the weakest. It was good to see a queen wandering over the frames in there as the population of that hive is so visibly lower than the others. Even though she's off to a late start, the fact she's there indicates we might have managed to pull all three hives through the winter.

As we inspected, all three hives took advantage of the warm weather, and worker bees brought in loads of pollen of a variety of colors to store away. Before we kept bees, I had no idea pollen came in so many colors! I saw the olive greens and yellows of varieties of maple in abundance. The pollen forecast and counts from confirm that these trees have been producing significant pollen lately. A bee laden with pollen is quite easy to spot; she looks like she's wearing pollen pants!
This isn't one of our bees, but the image shows what I mean by "pollen pants."

But in addition to the loads of maple pollen, I also saw a few bees in two separate hives bringing in a vivid, almost blood red pollen. I'm pretty sure this was henbit, an early spring weed which has been blooming around the house. As the bees find more fruitful nectar and pollen sources, they will leave the henbit behind. Since we've not had a hive survive the winter in the last two years, this is the first time I've ever seen the vivid color of this pollen. What a sight!

When we finished, we smelled like smoke and bees. I don't really know how to describe the scent of healthy bees; it's a cross between honey and propolis, but that's not even a good description. It smells clean and happy to me, which I know doesn't do it justice.

Now that the sun is up later, I'm looking forward to watching the hives working. There's something wonderful about the hum of the bees and their swoops and dives in and out of the hives that soothes me.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Language and Learning and Buddies

Yesterday, I attended the Northern Virginia Writing Project's Bernadette Mulholland Glaze Language and Learning Conference. This amazing local conference features keynotes by some of the best names in education. I've seen Jim Burke, Kelly Gallagher, Peter Elbow, Donalyn Miller, and this year's keynote speakers Kylene Beers and Bob Probst. But, what I truly love are the presentations by local Northern Virginia Writing Project (NVWP) teacher consultants (TCs). As this video about the 2012 Language and Learning Conference notes, the day gives a renewed energy and ideas teachers can use immediately. Learning from other teachers, both the keynotes and the TCs, is invaluable. They aren't some far off educational gurus; they are real teachers sharing what they do best in their real classes. I truly cannot believe more teachers don't attend the conference each year.

The session I attended by Winchester, VA teacher Mary Tedrow gave me tremendous food for thought. Mary, who is one of the co-Directors of the NVWP, is a tremendous teacher and thoughtful professional whose blog I have long followed and admired. I've attended her teaching sessions in past years and this year's session on finding a professional voice reminded me I have something to contribute about my work with teachers I have met via Twitter. In particular, I need to collaborate with +John Hardison to write up what we've done together as cross-community learning and to plan more interactions between my students in Virginia and his in Georgia. John already wrote a blog post about our first multi-state tweet up, which also included +Sarah Mulhern Gross  and +Michelle Lampinen 's students. Since then, John and I have worked on another tweet-up and have given some thought to more extensive work. I need to follow through on those thoughts and share our process with other teachers, too. We have something going here that I feel is good for our students, and it's something other teachers can do!

The second session by middle school teacher Natascha Brooks focused on revision strategies. It's a challenge to convince students the effort to revise is worthwhile. Plus, real revision takes time to model, teach, and perform. So, many of us (myself included!) give it short shrift in the classroom. Natascha shared some ideas for revision via Prezi and hands on demonstration that I think might help my kids do more work with their writing. I plan to use her strategies with my AP students after Spring Break as we look at their essays and with my regular 11 students as I start working on research and personal writing projects.

The keynotes? Well, Kylene Beers and Bob Probst deserve there own slice sometime when I have done more experimenting. I can say that Notice and Note, their new book, is outstanding. I cannot stress enough the value of the framework they provide to move our students beyond teacher-created-question driven reading of texts. Seeing them discuss their work and model the lessons...I could have been there all day and not noticed the time pass. The two of them together have a chemistry that speaks of a long collaboration and deep friendship. I found myself wanting to be a student in one of the classes where they taught these Notice and Note lessons. Their publisher, Heinemann, produced a series of 6 videos, the first of which discusses "The Importance of Close Reading," that are worth the time to watch.

Just as important for me as what I learned was reconnecting with my teacher friends outside of the virtual world. I finally met Michelle Haseltine in person. Jennifer Orr, who I met once before at a TC reunion, Michelle, and I frequently talk via Twitter, so our meeting felt like a reunion of old friends. My fellow 2010 Summer Institute alumni Jessica Bar, Lindsay Burgess, Lindsey Brauzer, Dahlia Constantine, Norma Coto, Kristen Henry, and Traci Michaud attended, too; as usual, I did not get to spend near the time with them or with Paul Rogers as I would like. Dahlia and I had coffee together after the conference, which reminded me how much I miss her and wish I could go through the summer institute again to reforge and reinforce the connections I made with these women and the 14 or so others that couldn't make it (I say or so because at least one of them has moved across the country and because my memory is craptaular).

Then today, there were bees... and that's another post entirely.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Twilight. No, Not the Sparkly Kind

Matt Groening's Life Is Hell ended last year. Today, one of his comics resonates.

This is the time of the year when I'm in the bottom two rows, teetering into the last row. I lose sleep. I think of new ways to try to hold on to the motivation and engagement in the class. I worry about the piles of papers that seem to grow. I browse the job sites. I wonder what it would be like to leave the classroom. Standardized tests loom over me. I've grown weary of walking into buildings before the sun rises, of cold weather, of wondering what will happen, of trying to reach someone determined to be unreachable.

These are the literal and figurative darkest days of the year. 

But, there are sunny moments that hint at the changes to come. This weekend has three events I'm particularly looking forward to:
  • The clocks move forward and the days of pre-dawn school arrival and departure are over for the school year.  Though I will miss the hour of sleep, the sun does much to improve my mood.
  • Also, I attend the Northern Virginia Writing Project's Language and Learning Conference during the first weekend in March each year. As with my November trips to NCTE, the L&L seems to come at the perfect time to keep me moving and excited about working with kids. 
  • Finally, it will be warm enough to open the beehives and check on their progress. We'll ensure they have enough emergency food to last until the nectar flow really gets going, also in a couple of weeks from now.
So, my pre-dawn slice today in anticipatory. Tonight, I've been awake most of the night and working on school-related assignments and worried about what there is left to accomplish. However, I know the darkness won't last, even though it seems like I'm still stuck in liminal space and time. In the next couple of weeks, I will see more sunshine, get more excited about my work, clear the hurdle of annual state writing testing, and have a week-long Spring Break before charging toward the next tests and the end of the year. 

I'm looking forward to the light. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Contrasts and Contradictions

This weekend, I will attend the Northern Virginia Writing Project's Language and Learning conference. The keynote speakers this year are Kylene Beers and Bob Probst, who will be discussing their new book Notice and Note. Well, in advance of the conference,  I tore through the book and found their method of helping kids read deliberately makes sense in the "why didn't think of this" sort of way that good teaching does. I immediately adopted their six literary signposts and have begun experimenting to see if they will help my students as much as I suspect. 

While that book and this week's conference more than deserves their own Slices, I won't get into it here. What's more important to me the way the signposts have begun resonating in unexpected ways. It probably shouldn't surprise me I've begun to notice these patterns not just in my reading but in life. One of the six signposts they use to help students see patterns in literature is "Contrasts and Contradictions, " and  Today, in particular, seemed to be rife with contrasts and contradictions. With apologies to Beers and Probst, I've appropriated their signpost as my title for Slice #7 so that I can talk about the most dramatic contrast of the day.

This morning, school opened two hours late. When this happens, I like to try to get to school close to the regular opening time; often this allows me to get some preparation done and to touch base with colleagues I don't have the chance to see normally for more than a hello in the halls [1]. This morning, two colleagues, one my next door neighbor and another from different department visited. In both cases, we talked about writing and rhetoric. One asked about the rhetoric and composition program that she'd heard about from my former colleague-turned-preferred-substitute-teacher, who was in for me when I went to the Monday meeting. The other proposed a new student and faculty writing salon style meeting [2]. The end result of both conversations was a sense of belonging and of thoughtfulness. 

Soon after the second conversation, and well before school began, I sent two multi-page, double-sided print jobs and one single-sided print job to the second floor copier in preparation for 1st period. As I live at the end of the hall and far from any department printer, I tend to send my copying directly to the copier instead of printing, walking to the department office, picking up the print job, walking to the copier, programming the copy settings, and waiting for the copies to finish. Most of the time when I send sets of 30-60 copies that are double-sided and stapled, I leave my room and get to the copier soon after the job finishes. I simply pick up the copes and go back down the hall. 

So far, this has not been an issue. Once or twice, when someone else has been there to program jobs, I've had to wait for my print job to come up, so I assumed that the copy function takes priority. Apparently, that's not always the case. 

Unbeknownst to me, two of the building's copiers were broken and there was . Thus, the copier where I sent the print job had a line. And my printing took priority over other jobs. My colleagues couldn't figure out how to interrupt my printing jobs and do their own copying, so they watched and fumed as my copies got made.

Wholly unaware of the copier situation and chaos my use of copier as printer had caused in the more than 40 minutes before classes started, I stopped through the workroom to pick up other single-copy printing and ran into one of my fellow English teachers. She asked if I had sent a job to the copier and told me several people were ticked off that the job went through and they had to wait.

Though my friend suggested I lay low, I went to the copy room to pick up the job; when I arrived, a teacher I have never met before immediately laid into me about the printing. She didn't introduce herself. She didn't ask if there had been a mistake. She instead decided to scold me and asked me if I thought it was appropriate to make other people who had been in line wait for my jobs to finish. I pointed out that I had no idea the technology made my print jobs the priority. However, she seemed intent on making me admit that I was some sort of inconsiderate, thoughtless wretch and didn't seem satisfied that I was not going to contritely apologize for making her wait. 

The more she tried to manipulate me (or so it seemed to me at the time), the less I was willing to compromise by offering any sort of apology. After all, I didn't even know this woman, and I was not about to be treated like a 14-year-old who had spoken out of turn in one of her classes. We exchanged a few words, though I remember little of what I said as I was focused on remaining calm yet uncompromising. Then, I walked over to the administrative assistant's desk and picked up my job. It was one of the two most unprofessional interactions I've ever experienced in a workplace. Within the span of half an hour, I went from feeling like part of a community to feeling like maybe this was no longer the place for me. 

Fortunately, that moment didn't end up ruining my day, and I have not decided to change jobs, as I briefly considered immediately after the confrontation. But the left over adrenaline and defensiveness made it tough to get started for a while as I tried to shift my focus away from the feeling of being attacked. Thank goodness for the breathing room afforded by the Pledge of Allegiance and the morning announcements.

I will try not to let this interchange color the way this other teacher and I interact from here forward; now that I'm not in the heat of the moment, I'm more inclined toward compassion and understanding. Having had situations where I felt as if every second counted, I was behind, and I felt under the gun, I certainly understand how she could feel panicked about getting her work done before the bell. The change in the daily schedule and the unexpected copier obstacle likely combined  to make the routine seem even rougher than normal. I admit I've not always behaved as well as I would like; my reactions have been out of proportion to the situation at times, too. And I didn't always realize it until after I had done or said something that upon more sober reflection seemed outsized. 

For me, this contrast between my morning conversations reinforces that we all have bad days, but they are not the whole of who we are any more than our best days. I hope that I'm not judged by either my very best or my very worst days; either would be reductive of who I am as a person and as a professional. This isn't an easy job we do, and part of acknowledging that complexity means forgiving ourselves and each other as we forward. 

[1] The room where I teach is at the end of one of the hallways. I can go literally days, and probably weeks if I'm not careful, without interacting with my peers beyond brief smiles, "how are ya"s, or waves. This isolation has been exacerbated by having a different lunch schedule than the others in my department, which was admittedly self-inflicted because I wanted to have time to move the computer lab where I teach journalism during the last period of the day. While I like the quiet at the end of the hall and the time to move without the hallway crush, I do miss the brief connections afforded by shared lunches.
[2] Again, this deserves its own Slice when this colleague and I have fleshed out the idea further. The proverbial cat should be out of the bag sometime during the month.