Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Go Cubs!

I discovered this evening that I am not a sports bar person.

The Chicago Cubs are in the playoffs that come before the World Series. They're playing the Mets, I'm pretty sure. It's very exciting because the Cubs haven't won the Series since 1908 and the second Back to the Future movie predicted that they would win in 2015. Pretty cool, especially if it happens in real life.

My husband has been watching the games. He grew up watching Chicago baseball, mostly the Cubs, with an uncle who took him and his brother to many games at Wrigley Field. The current playoff games are being shown on a cable station that we don't get, so he started going to the sports bar near us to watch.

I came home today after a long day of teaching, meetings, emails to parents, and the occasional crisis to find that I didn't thaw the ground turkey that I had planned to use for dinner. My husband said, "No problem, I'll just eat at the sports bar." I thought maybe I would just go eat there, too, and then leave. He warned me it could be loud, but he said he'd really like to eat dinner with me.

There were a lot of people in the sports bar. And there were zillions of televisions, all showing the Cubs game. It was pretty loud between the volume of the TVs and the conversation of the patrons. We got a booth and looked over the menus and waited for a waitress. And waited. And waited as one after another they took care of all the tables near us. It was loud enough to make conversation difficult, especially for a person with a naturally soft voice. On top of that, my husband really wanted to watch the game, not talk to me.

I do know how baseball works, but I'm truly not interested enough to follow what's happening on the screen. I was gazing around at all the TVs, the other people in the bar, and wishing I had brought a book. Now that's ridiculous. Who brings a book to a sports bar when a major game is on?

So I left.

I hope they win. I really do.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015


This week I felt like I was having a short interlude that finally felt like summer. There are many things I like about summer, but I hadn't gotten to experience all of the essential (to me) parts until this week. I like the sunshine and the heat. It is so cold and gloomy for much of the winter in Chicago that sunny, hot days are a treasure. Until recently our summer in Chicago has been rain, rain, rain.

I also like having nothing to do! I like traveling, too, and accomplishing things, but having some days where I can read for hours, or do anything else I please are an important part of refueling for the school year.

On the other hand, I like being able to check some things off my to-do list. All those things that I never seem to have time or energy for during the school year - at least some of them can get done in the summer.

Because I had a chance to play in the orchestra for an opera this month, and I had to put in a lot of time on both rehearsals and practicing the difficult part at home, I hadn't yet experienced that summer restfulness. I loved doing the opera, but it certainly kept me occupied. We leave in a few days for a vacation in California, so this feels like a few days bookended by busyness. I read three books! I reorganized my spice cabinet! I continued going through my books and culling. I walked, I did yoga.

Remember when you were a kid and summer seemed to stretch on forever? Endless days playing outside, riding bikes, going swimming... Nowadays I see the end of summer looming as early as June. It's good to have some of those forever days.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Heroic Dads and Mechanics

Yesterday my daughter Jamie left for a music festival on Madeline Island, which is in Lake Superior. We live in the Chicago area, so there are two ways to get to Madeline Island. One is to fly to Detroit, shuttle to the ferry and ferry across. The other is to drive all the way across Wisconsin, to the ferry, and ferry across. The ferry ride alone is an hour, and driving from our part of Illinois to the ferry is about eight hours. Everyone who has been there says this music festival is truly worth it.

So Jamie arranged to ride with three other attendees, all basically college-age kids. The driver came from Michigan, picked up Jamie and another girl in the Chicago area and the fourth musician from Madison Wisconsin. We were a bit unsettled when the young man from Michigan opened his hood for some reason before they drove away. A little more so when Jamie texted us that the car had 206,000 miles on it. So when she called us to say that the car had broken down in Phillips, Wisconsin, we were not entirely surprised.

But being stranded in a small town in Wisconsin is not a good thing when you are supposed to report to a music festival and you have to catch a ferry to get there. While the kids called the festival staff to see if they could send any help (no, they couldn't), my husband sprang into action at the computer. He called rental car companies to see if anyone would deliver a car to Phillips. He looked up motels in Phillips. And he searched for and called an auto repair shop. With that call, he hit the jackpot. As soon as he said, "My daughter and three other college students are driving to a music festival and their car broke down in Phillips...", the man on the other end said, "Where are they? Give me your daughter's phone number. We'll tow them in. If it's just a part we can probably fix before the shop closes in 45 minutes. Otherwise there's a motel right across the street."

And he did exactly that. He towed the car, found it was a fuse that the faulty A/C blew out, replaced the fuse and disconnected the A/C. (They're going north anyway, how hot can it be on an island in the middle of Lake Superior?) The kids got back on the road, caught the 8:00 ferry and today are presumably making music.

So if your car breaks down in Phillips, Wisconsin, look for Mike. He's our hero today, along with my husband!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Books, books, books

We are at the beginning stages of what has turned into a fairly major renovation. You know, you start by saying, "I'd like to repaint these three rooms," and then it morphs into ripping up the carpeting, replacing it with wood floors, picking new furniture, and now you need new drapes, too.

As part of this upcoming excitement, we need to get rid of stuff we don't need anymore. Old paperwork, extra computers, things we actually forgot that we had, and books.

I love books. Anyone who visits us knows right away that someone in our house loves books. We have two bookcases in our living room full of books, mostly mine, plus more books downstairs in the family room, and a few scattered piles of books begin read or soon to be read here and there. I have books that I have owned for decades, including some from my childhood, and books I bought this month. So cutting down on the number of books is a challenge.

It is perhaps ironic, but one of the biggest helps I have found in cutting back on "stuff" in general is a book! The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo is unlike any book I have read about decluttering, and I have read quite a few. Ms. Kondo is enormously popular in Japan, where she has a three-month-long waiting list for her services. The book has been on the best seller list here in the U.S. for weeks.

The big difference, I think, between her book and every other organization book, is that she has a much different approach to letting go of your belongings. You must touch everything individually, and if it gives you joy you keep it. If not, you thank it for its service and let it go. It sounds strange, but it works! No more, I'll keep the dress until I lose weight, or I haven't read or finished this book, I need to keep it. She relieves us of the guilt. It's okay to let the object go; it has served its purpose for me.

Though she says to take ALL your books and put them in a pile on the floor, she also says if you have too many books to do this, you can do it by category, which is what I decided to do. I started with cookbooks - I love to cook and I have an extensive collection. I culled and reorganized - I can actually find the book I want now! Today I tackled fiction.

It is hard parting with books. Some books I know I will never reread - okay, they can go. Some books I admit that I will never read - they should go find readers somewhere else. Some books I will reread, they will stay for sure. Then there's all the in-between books - I loved it, but I won't reread it; I really want to read, but will I actually get to it?; I worked hard to put together certain collections of authors, I think I should keep those.

My pile of fiction. The books in the bookcase are not fiction.


So I have ended up with a big box of fiction that needs to leave my house. What do you do with books? My son snatched up the Portable Dante and my daughter put dibs on all the James Joyce for her boyfriend. A few books are going to join my class library. (If it sounds like we are such a literary family, you should know that my biggest pile of books that are staying is mysteries!)

What about the rest? I could take them to a used book store, but I think I will instead donate most of them to Better World Books, an online used book store that donates to literacy projects around the world for every book they sell. They have drop boxes in many locations.

I have also had fun using Book Crossing, also an online organization. Book Crossing lets you register your books, put a sticker inside explaining that it is a Book Crossing book, then you leave a book in some public place for someone else to find. On the Book Crossing site, you leave the information about where you left the book. The finder is supposed to check in, saying that he/she found it. Best case, you can track your former book as it travels the world! In reality, I have not "caught" any books in the wild (as they say at Book Crossing) and only one of mine has been caught and journaled. I will probably pick a couple of books to "release to the wild," but an entire box is just too many.

One of my neighbors just started a Little Free Library, a small box containing donated books. You can take a book and leave a book. I left a book there over the weekend. My whole box would be too many for the little box.

Next step - putting the many books I'm keeping back on the shelf!

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

A Midsummer Night's Dream

I'm playing in an opera this month!

This was quite unexpected. I play (french) horn in several community groups, none of which really does anything in the summer, so this was a nice surprise - and it even pays a bit!

The opera is "A Midsummer Night's Dream" by the British composer Benjamin Britten. He was a 20th century composer, though not an extreme, atonal composer. His music for this opera is atmospheric and gauzy for the enchanted forest and the fairies, romantic for the smitten couples, and peasant-like for the "thespians."

It's written for a very small orchestra. That means that everybody hears you. I'm playing 2nd horn, of two horns, but there's no blending into the background. At last week's rehearsal both of us horn players were sight reading the parts, but now we have a week to practice, so the conductor will be expecting more this week. We haven't heard much of the singers yet as we are rehearsing just the orchestra parts right now.

One of the surprises at the first rehearsal was how young the orchestra members are. I think I am probably about 30 years older than everyone else! I decided it's not a big deal. I'm just here to play. However, it got me thinking about the groups I regularly play in. Every group has it's own personality, I would say. The band I play in is predominantly school band directors. They are very serious about playing well and they all know a lot about band music and conducting. They are a happy, upbeat group and many go out after rehearsal to socialize. The orchestra I belong to is a typical community group. We are mostly adults, with a few high school students. The playing ability ranges from pretty rusty to practically professional, so overall playing is uneven. It's a friendly group, but lacks the cohesiveness that the band full of band directors has. This new opera orchestra is made up of 20-somethings, mostly, who are aiming for a career as performers. I don't sense a group dynamic yet, maybe because it is a pick-up group, but they are all friendly.

I am very happy to have this opportunity. It's been years since I played an opera. It's a challenge that has gotten me practicing new things. I'm excited to hear it with the singers and to see how they plan to stage it. Fun times!

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Family, Memories, Legacies

Last week we traveled to Minnesota for my mom's 93rd birthday. Both of my children were able to come this year, along with my brother, his wife and three kids, and my sister and her husband. Every year it's a different combination of people who are able to make it to Minnesota, but it's always good to see whoever comes!

At some point, someone always brings up how lucky we are that we all get along so well. We all know families where someone isn't speaking to someone else, or where people feel belittled or neglected. We all like each other. We are indeed fortunate.

My mom is a healthy 93. She walks, she does the crossword every day, she takes care of her own finances. She's a cheerful person, but she has been doing some reflecting back on her life, and so lately she has been sort of apologizing for not being such a good mother when we were growing up. Of course, she has nothing to apologize for - she and my dad raised three children who are all well educated, doing interesting things, and who have raised their own children. However, she feels her unusual upbringing gave her no examples of how families work or how mothers were supposed to act.

My mother's father died when she was two, leaving her mother to figure out how to support the two of them. My mom lived for several years on her grandparents' farm in western Minnesota, until she was old enough to start school. Meanwhile her mother was learning to be a seamstress and working for a tailor in Minneapolis. She and her mother moved to "town" so she could attend the local school and her mother went to work. They moved quite often - my grandmother was very handy and usually improved their apartment, at which point the landlord decided to raise the rent. By this time the Depression had begun. Like so many others, they were very poor. I asked her once what kind of things they ate. She told me their relatives on the farm would send in vegetables and other things, and they often ate pickled pigs feet and other inexpensive foods. In spite of these obstacles, my grandmother managed to send my mother to college, setting an example for the rest of the family. My mom became a teacher and worked until she married my dad.

So that's the background that my mom thinks was a detriment to being a good mom.

When I remember growing up, I remember feeling safe and loved. My parents set the expectation that we would all go to college, without pressure to get all As as we went through elementary and high school. They set an example of thriftiness without deprivation. They gave us lots of freedom to try things and make choices. We knew that life involved hard work and you had to earn things. We had what I remember to be a lot of free time, especially in the summer. Sometimes we were bored, and we had to figure out what to do about it ourselves. It was a good childhood; I have no complaints.

Not bad for a mom who was winging it!

(Though really, aren't we all winging it as parents?)

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Looking for recommendations for biographies

I have been so impressed since I joined this writing community in March with the generosity of the members. I have gotten so many supportive, kind, and helpful comments on my posts. So today I'm asking for your help in recommending some books for my 4th grade class.

I'm searching for excellent biographies for upper elementary readers. I would like to use this type of book for use as both mentor texts and for research. One of the writing projects our 4th graders do each year is a research report on a subject related to the American Revolution. Many of the children choose to do a biography. Over the years I have read more biographies of people of that era, both children's and adult's, and I realize that many of the biographies for younger readers are not as engagingly written or, often, even completely accurate or complete.

When I read the post on Two Writing Teachers a couple of weeks ago about the presentation by Ralph Fletcher on teaching authentic nonfiction writing, I realized that this is the type of biography I have been looking for. The kind of nonfiction book that David McCullough writes, for example, but for young readers.

In our research project, we have the students read at least two sources for their topic. One is an
"easy" book, below grade level - a picture book if we can find one. I like the books by David Adler, the series with titles, "A Picture Book of...." This gives the young researcher a quick overview of the entire topic. The second book is generally a short chapter book, which provides more details, and also gives us a chance to teach the importance of more than one source. It's always interesting when students find discrepancies and need to decide how to handle that.

So I am looking for excellent biographies for young readers, about any person not just those from the American Revolution. I'm hoping some of you will be able to give me some suggestions! Thank you for your help!

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

In search of friends

My mother is a wonderful example of enduring and ongoing friendship. She is turning 93 this month and lives in an independent/assisted living community. She has no major health problems and is as sharp as ever. When she complains about things, always mildly, it's often about the food, but once she said sadly to me that her friends were all dying. It's true - they're all in their 90s. But my mom has the wonderful gift and desire to keep making new friends, even though she knows she may lose them.

I have been thinking a lot about friendship lately because one long-time friendship seems to have run its course. My husband and I have been friends with another couple for decades. We enjoy music together, we eat out, we talk about our kids... But somewhere along the way there has been a shift, so subtle that we didn't notice it for a while. Our friends appear to need to put us down continually. We tell them some wonderful news, and one or the other of them pops the happy balloon with a negative comment.

"My niece was offered three reporting jobs right out of college!" "[disparaging snort] Well, you know newspapers are dying."

Said to me: "Joe and Sue told us they went to your concert. They said it was awful."

It's a constant barrage. Neither of us can figure out why they have started treating us like this. I started thinking about our long friendship and I realized that it has devolved into a sort of friendship of convenience. If we're going to the same concert, we eat out together beforehand. We invited each other to life events. Other than that, we don't interact. And now, we don't want to.

So this has led us to thinking about forming some new friendships. It's not that easy once you are out of school, and especially if you are retired, like my husband. It's scary, too. What if the person you'd like to know better turns down your invitations?

My mother had some wonderful almost life-long friends. She met her best friend Lorraine in college. They got their first teaching jobs together, in the same high school. When they both married, they ended up in different parts of the country, but they always kept in touch. My parents asked Lorraine and Ray to be my brother's godparents. When my parents retired to Minnesota, they were all back in the same area and Lorraine and Ray chose the same assisted living community as my mother. Lorraine passed away and several years later Ray did also. Their passing was a huge loss for my mother. But she continues to reach out and make new friends.

I have long-time friends as well - a few from high school, more from college, scattered all over the country. I treasure those friends, but we also need the friends who we can go out to dinner with, see a movie, just sit and chat. And so, we are reaching out and hoping to find more people to add to our lives. Thanks Mom, for the great example.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Battle of Yorktown

It's the last week of school here and there's so much going on! I decided, since it is my last week with this class, that they could suggest topics for my blog post this week. They made a wide variety of suggestions, quite a few of which I had already blogged on. The winner come from Sophie, who suggested I write about the Battle of Yorktown.

As you may already know, the Battle of Yorktown ended the Revolutionary War. We teach the Revolutionary War in 4th grade at Quest, mostly through various simulations. So one of our last activities was the Battle of Yorktown.

To give you the lay of the land - Quest is a private school, so our physical presence is different than any public school I have seen, and different than most private schools, too. Our main building used to be a public library and is located at one end of a strip mall. About 2 years ago, the school had a major fundraising campaign and bought the shopping center and an undeveloped plot across the street. The shopping center has remained a shopping center, but the plot has become our West Campus, a beautiful green space with a soccer field, black top area, garden plots, small amphitheater, and areas planted with native plants. This is where we now hold the Battle of Yorktown.

As teachers we do this every year and so we notice the differences each year, while the kids only got one experience with it. So, they didn't notice the challenges we faced this year. First, rain was predicted. It looked pretty threatening. But after our prep talk about how the battle would run, how to fire a musket and load a cannon, and so on, we went down to the gym to pick up blue and red pinnies to distinguish the British from the Americans and French forces, and our cannon balls (soft dodge balls). We also bring along some chairs, which serve as our cannon. I am General Cornwallis, and my partner is General Washington.

We left the building and marched along the entire length of the shopping center, crossing the street, and regrouping at the West Campus. The British were ensconced in the fort (the picnic shelter) while the Americans were behind their redoubts (is this how you spell this word?), the far side of the amphitheater. Then I discovered that we had left the bag of cannonballs sitting by the gym. Rain still threatening, I hurried back across the parking lot.

Finally, we are ready to start. The Americans are digging trenches, we British are waiting nervously. This battle is a siege, so the Americans and French bombard us with cannon fire, while moving closer and closer to the fort. When they get close enough, they add musket fire (wadded paper balls). The British return fire, but in the end we are overwhelmed and surrender. We do the surrender ceremony; General Cornwallis is too embarrassed to surrender to Washington, so he sends his second in command. Hats are thrown in the air and we march back to school, missing the rain! Huzzah!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

8 days, 8 stressful days

I nearly forgot it was Tuesday, Slice of Life day! The reason - I'm obsessed with all the things I need to finish in these last eight days of the school year. Why is it always like this?

The end of the year usually catches me completely by surprise. "There's three days left?! But I didn't finish this, I didn't try that new idea, we never got to..." This year I posted a weekly countdown on the whiteboard. I started this because in 4th grade reading we do self-selected reading, but students are asked to aim for 25 books, writing a brief literary response on each. My class this year was pretty laid back about turning in things. I knew we would get to the end of the year and some of them would be trying to read 15 books in two weeks. Or less. So I posted how many weeks were left. It turned out to be very helpful for me, too. It reminded me to plan ahead so we could finish all our projects, and hopefully our last read-aloud book, too.

But now, in these last two weeks, I am endlessly grading or commenting on student work, mostly written work. There are 15 research reports, 15 sets of literary responses, 15 sets of pages for a social studies book project. Plus the end of the year tests we need to give. I need to turn in report card comments by June 1. We are doing digital portfolios for the first time and that needs to be done by June 21, though if you want feedback, earlier.

In addition, my daughter had three (!) master's papers due and she asked me to proofread and give advice on them all. I did that over the weekend, and I was happy to do it. It gave me a chance to see how much she has grown as a writer, researcher, and thinker, and I felt a lot of joy, seeing how far she has come. But then I didn't work on report card comments or my portfolio.

Yes, I will get it all done. I will have no life for the next little stretch of time, but then it will be summer! A literacy retreat, a family trip to Minnesota, and later a vacation in Los Angeles. Ahhh. I'll get there, I will.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A joyful moment

Last week the 4th grade went on their yearly outdoor ed trip. We always go to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore for two and a half days of learning about the environment, having fun, and growing in sometimes surprising ways. The Environmental Learning Center is wonderful - great staff, wonderful food, lovely, clean cabins, and a great program. We spend nearly the whole time there outdoors, learning about the different ecosystems (it's more than piles of sand!), how the land was used over time, and the environmental problems facing the area today.

Like many camps, meals are served family style in the dining hall. Kids take turns being "hoppers" (serving food) and weather reporters. The Learning Center staff makes weather reporting fun by letting the kids do a little skits, with costumes! It's usually pretty funny. At our last dinner in the lodge, the weather reporters gave their weather update on temperature, wind speed, barometric readings, cloud cover and type, and then the naturalist yelled, "Time to conga!" Music came on and everybody joined in the conga line, snaking around the tables! Kids and adults were dancing and laughing. It lasted only a couple of minutes, then everyone, still smiling and laughing, went back to their tables to finish cleaning up.

A great way to end dinnertime and a perfect moment of uncomplicated happiness.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

At the movies

I must have been thinking about how easy it is now to see movies. You don't need to go to the theater, you don't even have to buy or rent a DVD. You can access an awful lot of movies from your home. And my adult children do just that.

These thoughts led me to thinking about the way it was in the past. You know, when I walked 4 miles to school, uphill both ways, in the snow. No, not that past, the past I actually lived. In the real past, in my family, going to the movies was a special occasion. I can remember the first movie my mother took my sister and me to; it was The Shaggy Dog, which I think starred Fred MacMurray. That was followed by more Disney movies - Flubber, The Parent Trap, and Old Yeller. My little brother's first movie was The Music Man. He sat on the edge of his seat with huge round eyes the whole movie.

Then there was the Sunday night TV show, the Wonderful World of Disney, which often showed Disney movies, usually broken into parts shown over two or three weeks. Mostly, these were really good stories, fun to watch.

All these movies stayed with us, my brother, sister, and me. We talked about them, sometimes acted out parts. They weren't the best movies ever made, but they were certainly a lot of fun.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

A Slice of Musical Life

I am both a 4th grade teacher and a musician. I went to music school before returning to earn an elementary education degree. I still play (French horn) in three community groups and now and then for other occasions. This past Sunday was a special day in my musical life. The concert band that both my husband and I play in had its last concert of the year and our daughter, who also plays horn, and I were featured on a solo.

The road to this solo performance was winding and full of roadblocks.

Every fall, any band member who is interested can audition for a chance to play a solo with the band. Generally two or three players are chosen. The first couple of years it was all woodwind players and I thought the brass really needed to be represented. However, I didn't want to play a solo by myself. So, I asked one of the other horn players if he wanted to audition with me on a concerto for two horns. He said sure. He also felt that we needed to give the woodwind players some friendly competition. We planned to work on it over the summer. Well, it seemed we were never in town at the same time. Fall came and he said he just didn't have time to learn the part, which was quite challenging. End of story, I thought.

I was telling my daughter Jamie what happened and she said, "I could do it with you." Well, she's not a member of the band. She's a busy graduate student. She doesn't live with us. But she already knew one of the parts. So I said I would ask the conductor if we could audition even though she isn't in the band. Much to my surprise he said yes. She did fill in at one concert, so he said that was close enough.

The next challenge for me was that the part Jamie already knew was the part that I had planned to play. So I needed to learn the other part, which is very high, requiring strong muscles to repeatedly hit notes at the top of the horn range. Like training for a marathon, say, this required a lot of practice time to build up the endurance.

This "double concerto" for two horns was written by Antonio Rosetti, a contemporary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Rosetti was German, despite his name, which he changed, probably because Italian musicians were paid more than Germans in the 18th century. He was a court musician in one of the many small courts in what is now Germany. He had two outstanding horn players in his orchestra, for whom he wrote at least 17 concertos, plus 6 double concertos. His music is rarely played today.

We auditioned last September and were one of three soloists chosen. Our concert was the May performance.

Next roadblock: The Band music is rental only. The school district that sponsors our band ordered the music. Through some miscommunication somewhere, the wrong concerto arrived. It was only 4 weeks before the concert. The conductor told me he thought it was not possible to return the parts and get the correct music in time to prepare it for the concert. End of story, I thought.

But no, my husband was determined that we would play. He called the rental company and explained the problem so persuasively that the correct music arrived at our house two days later! We had two rehearsals with the band and then it was time for the concert.

People are surprised that I get nervous when performing, but it's true. This time, though, it was such a joy to play this charming little piece with Jamie, that my mind was only on the music and the pleasure of playing. A perfect performance? No, but I think we communicated the spirit of the piece.

Seize the moment! So many roadblocks along the way and this may very well be the only time that Jamie and I solo together in public. It's a great memory to have.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A maudlin poem

Actually, I don't think the poem is maudlin, I wanted to take the challenge to be a teacher who writes poetry, given in the throwback post from Two Writing Teachers. I followed the general plan for starting with a word of the day, finding synonyms and then synonyms of synonyms.


Tearfully charming,
Mawkish weeping,
Dreamy howling.
A comic mourner
In a funereal scene
from Charles Dickens.


Tall black hat,
Downcast eyes.

Dies Irae

The undertaker's mute
Pacing behind
Tenderly, professionally tearful.


Maybe the poem should speak for itself, but I'm going to talk about it anyway. I tried to pair unexpected synonyms - some of the synonyms and definitions were at odds with each. This led me to thoughts of the undertaker's mute, the hired mourner who walked behind the hearse in Victorian England. Oliver Twist was a mute for a short time in Dickens' novel, a pale, sad little boy dressed in mourning. One of the synonyms was lachrymose, which I discovered means weeping. That word took me to the Requiem mass. The Lachrymosa is part of the Dies Irae, so that became part of the poem, too.

Though I have written poetry in the past, I have fallen out of the habit. This was an enjoyable challenge that should lead to more poetry on my part.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015


I decided to write this post in the middle of the night. I was awake, wishing I was asleep.

I don't really know why I can't sleep through the night sometimes. Maybe there's some noise that wakes me, maybe it's something I ate, maybe it's the end of the school year anxiety, but it's been happening regularly lately.

The first doctor that I told about my sleep problems gave me a prescription for Sonata. Such a nice, musical name. He said, "You'll love this. You'll think nothing is happening for 20 minutes, then the next thing you know, you're waking up in the morning." It did work like that for awhile, though it always made me a little nervous. Then I took it and it didn't work. If you don't fall asleep after taking Sonata, you can have hallucinations! Not fun at all. That was it for Sonata.

Years later with a different doctor, I got a discussion on "sleep hygiene." If you can't sleep, don't stay in bed, get up and do something boring for awhile and then go back to bed. Dark room, don't read in bed, etc. Doesn't work for me. I also tried natural remedies - melatonin and calming herbs.  I'm still awake. And being awake, I start thinking of all the things I should or could be doing.

My teaching partner said I should put a notebook and pencil beside my bed. "If you're going to do lesson planning in the middle of the night, you might as well write it down so you don't forget it."

This is a pretty good representation of what it's like to be laying awake, not being able to sleep:

That is The Nightmare Song from the operetta Iolanthe by Gilbert and Sullivan, performed by Dave Ross. It's a patter song and the lyrics go by pretty quickly, so here are the words:

When you're lying awake, with a dismal headache,
And repose is taboo'd by anxiety,
I conceive you can use any language you choose
To indulge in without impropriety.

For your brain is on fire, the bedcothes conspire
Of usual slumber to plunder you.
First your counterpane goes and uncovers your toes,
And your sheet slips demurely from under you.
Then the blanketing tickles, your feel like mixed pickles,
So terribly sharp is the pricking.
And you're hot and you're cross and you tumble and toss,
Til there's nothing twixt you and the ticking.

Then the bedclothes all creep to the ground in a heap,
And you pick 'em all up in a tangle.
Next your pillow resigns and politely declines
To remain at it usual angle.

When you get some repose in the form of a doze
With hot eyeball and head ever aching,
Your slumbering teems with sucn horrible dreams
That you'd very much better be waking.

You awake with a shudder, despairing...

You're a regular wreck,
With a crick in your neck,
And no wonder you snore,
For your head's on the floor.
And you're needles and pins
Form your soles to your shins,
And your flesh a acreep
For your left leg's asleep.
And you've cramp in your toes
And a fly on your nose,
And some fluff on your lung,
And a feverish tongue,
And a thirst that's intense,
And a general sense

That you haven't bee sleeping in clover.
But the darkness has passed, and it's daylight at last!
The night has been long, ditto , ditto my song,
And thank good ness they're both of them over!

I love Gilbert and Sullivan!

What I have been working on lately is getting some exercise, mostly walking and a little yoga. I think this makes me more relaxed and tired, so hopefully I will fall asleep and stay asleep. It is also essential for me to avoid looking a screen too close to when I want to sleep, because the light in my face disrupts the melatonin that should move me into sleep mode. So no computers or Kindle before bed. I have to say that the experience of not sleeping makes me appreciate those nights when I sleep soundly until morning. What a great feeling!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015


This week I am feeling grateful. Last week one of my colleagues, who is also my friend, was taking his daughter on a college visit out of state. They were in a horrible car accident on Wednesday. The driver behind them didn't slow down in a construction zone and plowed into the back of their car, pushing them into the car in front of them. My friend was airlifted out to the hospital. His daughter was banged up, but had no serious injuries, though I'm sure it was pretty terrifying for her.

My friend is married to my teaching partner, who got the call at school from the hospital. She dropped everything and headed for the airport.

He was in the ICU with multiple injuries for a couple of days, and then was released from the hospital and flew home on Saturday, amazingly. He is now recovering at home, and will probably be there for a few weeks. He's been sending cheerful emails, including mentioning that he'd always wondered what it would be like to be airlifted, and now he knows!

My teaching partner sent a photo of the car, which had been towed away. It looked more like a ball of metal than a car.

It's a reminder when terrible things happen - a reminder of how important our friends are to us, and how much we care. It's also a reminder that life can change in an instant.

So I am very grateful that my friends are back with us.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Favorite Books or Best Books?

I thought I was the only person who disliked The Giving Tree, but it turns out there are others who had the same response to the book that I did!

Grammarly's post on April 1 titled "The 5 Best Children's Books of All Time." The list includes Charlotte's Web, The Giving Tree, Oh, The Places You'll Go, The Giver, and Where the Wild Things Are.  I disagreed with several of the books on the list. But, lists of favorites or bests are very subjective. Lists like this are a starting place for discussion.

I hated The Giving Tree the first time I read it and have not changed my opinion. I know dozens of people who love it and find it inspiring, but I see it as the boy talking everything, including, finally, the tree's life. The boy gives nothing. I have kept my opinion mostly to myself, until now. Several readers made similar comments, saying, for example, it "should be renamed The Taking Tree."

I love Dr. Seuss, but Oh, the Places You'll Go is not one of my favorites. I love Horton Hears a Who, The Sneetches, and especially Green Eggs and Ham. I haven't read The Giver and though I like Charlotte's Web and Where the Wild Things Are, they don't touch me the way other books have.

So what would I put on the 5 Best Children's Books of All Time list? The Wind in the Willows is perhaps my absolute favorite children's book. I didn't read it until I was an adult, but the story of the friendship and gentle adventures combined with the luminous language is the best, in my opinion. I also loved Kidnapped and The Jungle Book, for the adventurous stories. A Wrinkle in Time and the Narnia books are also up there on my list.

I was so fortunate to have an uncle who loved books and gave me a book every year for my birthday. Because of him I read some more offbeat novels that I wouldn't have found without him. He gave me The Return of the Twelves by Pauline Clarke, which led me to the Brontes and more wonderful novels. He also gave me The Outsiders when it first came out, and an oddball novel by Jules Verne that is printed sideways on the page. I owe him at least for some of my love of reading.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015


My class in in our fourth read-aloud book of the year. We alternate between historical fiction that complements our social studies curriculum and books that I love but think my students will probably never find on their own.

We switched from assigned group books with discussions and worksheets a few years ago to choice reading after my partner found The Book Whisperer. It was a good decision; the kids are more engaged with reading when they get to choose their books. But our reading unit had been heavy on historical fiction that we still wanted to use to reinforce social studies units. So we decided to turn some of those historical fiction novels into read-alouds.

We start the year learning about the Pilgrims and Plymouth. We do some activities about Jamestown in order to learn about that settlement, too, and to be able to compare the two early English colonies. So now we read Blood on the River by Elisa Carbone, which tells the story of the settling of Jamestown, narrated by Samuel Collier, a real boy who came over on the first ships. It's an excellent novel, especially for the upper elementary age group.

Our next social studies unit jumps to colonial America, followed quickly by the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. We read James Printer: A Novel of Rebellion by Paul Samuel Jacobs. This novel takes place in 1675, so it fills in the time period between the founding of Plymouth and the most established colonial time period later. The story revolves around the conflict between the English settlers in Massachusetts and the Indians, who are beginning to lose land to the English. It's a wonderful novel that explores fairness, loyalty and the choices people are sometimes forced to make. It is unfortunately out of print, but available secondhand.

In between those novels, I intersperse two delightful fantasy novels: The Return of the Twelves by Pauline Clarke and Minnie by Dutch author Annie M.G. Schmidt. In The Return of the Twelves, a 10 year old boy discovers an old set of wooden soldiers that may have belonged to the Brontes. I got this novel as a gift from my book-loving uncle when I was a kid and it led me to read Jane Eyre, and from there, other great novels. I bought Minnie for my own children, and we read it aloud together and loved it. Minnie is a young woman who until recently was a cat. The other characters are cats and people.

Usually my students really enjoy listening to these stories, though occasionally I have a student who has trouble listening and following the plot. I have tried to add more expression and use different voices to engage my listeners.

When my own children were actually children we read aloud nearly every night and it was always a favorite activity and a positive way to end the day. I'm happy I can continue to read aloud to my students.

I'm still looking for a really good historical novel set during the American Revolution. Any suggestions?

Monday, March 30, 2015

What I think I learned this month

I know there's still one more day of blogging, but I have been thinking about all this experience has brought to me and I wanted to reflect on that today. This was my first year with Slice of Life.

Though I have written for years and I take writing seriously, I had never written a piece every day for a month like this. Sometimes it was hard to fit it in or I had trouble thinking of something to write about. But the discipline of writing every day felt good. And mostly, it got easier.

I learned that every post is not going to be excellent. Some are going to be so-so or even less. But I realize that that's okay. You have to write a lot of lesser stuff in order to write the outstanding stuff, which I hope I do now and then. I have been telling my 4th graders that for years, and I have always believed it, but now I'm living it.

Sometimes the teeny idea that seems sort of boring turns into a wonderful post. In fact, sometimes it works better to start with an everyday, unexciting idea than to tackle a "big, important thought."

This community of writers is awesome! Every writer who commented on my posts wrote positive, thoughtful comments. I am totally spoiled now. I write two other blogs that people read, but almost no one ever leaves a comment. But besides the comments on my posts, reading other people's posts was an exciting journey every day. There are so many outstanding writers in this group! So many people shared parts of their lives, opening up their unique experiences to the rest of us.

There are so many generous teachers writing here! I came away with so many ideas that I want to try. Some I'll be trying in April, when we'll be writing poetry to celebrate National Poetry Month.

I feel empowered as a writer. I feel ready to tackle new challenges in writing. I have a friend who just wrote a book, because he wanted to. Maybe I will do that, too. And I feel even more excited about teaching writing to my students than I did before this month.

Thank you, Stacy, Anna, Beth, Betsy, Tara, and Dana for creating this challenge and this community. Thank you to all the writers who read my posts and commented. Thank you to everyone who shared great ideas.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Saturday, March 28, 2015


One thing I have been doing this spring break is catching up on some reading, particularly of newspapers. Mostly I whizz through, seeing if anything catches my eye enough to read. Mostly that is music news, science and health articles, and education related articles. The Sunday New York Times magazine almost always has interesting articles. This month they published a two-part story - Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard writing about his experiences traveling across America, called "My Saga."

Knausgaard is known, especially in Norway, for his six volume semi-autobiographical novel titled My Struggle. Each volume is very long. It's now being translated into English and at least parts of it are availably in the States. His writing is described as dense, focusing on minute details of life, lacking plot. Some people can't stand his writing because it meanders with no plot or end in sight. He seems to write a lot about how he feels about dealing with the ordinary annoyances of life. A reader who wrote in to the New York Times after the first installment of "My Saga" said, "It felt like reading someone else's grocery list that I couldn't put down." That is how I felt, too, as I was reading the first installment.

The idea of Knausgaard's trip was that he would fly to Newfoundland to view the site where Vikings landed, pre-Columbus, and lived for awhile. After seeing that site, he would travel down through the U.S., ending up in Minnesota, where he would check out a possibly inauthentic runestone said to have been left in Minnesota by some of those early Viking settlers. The first of "My Saga" is Knausgaard obsessing because he lost his drivers license the previous year and never replaced it, meaning he can't drive his rental car. Much of the first part is like this, things that bother him, or strike him, but a different view than most of us would have when visiting a foreign country. However, I couldn't stop reading it, just like the person who compared it to reading someone's grocery list.

Then I had to read part 2, of course. He travels with his assigned photographer, who he would rather not talk to, through Michigan, northern Wisconsin, and into Minnesota. He is not interested in talking with any Americans, though he does finally break down and have a few conversations in restaurants. He mentions to his photographer that he actually has relatives in the States - his grandfather's brother immigrated. At the photographer's urging, he tracks them down and finds one in Minnesota.

Though I have been entranced by the story and Knausgaard's writing, at this point I became immersed. Most of my family immigrated from Norway about the same time as his great-uncle. The cousin that Knausgaard meets is about his age, and is very successful in a number of areas. Knausgaard sees an American home for the first time, and his cousin tells him that he knocked down the old farmhouse, which was full of "Norwegian stuff. Runners and tablecloths, that kind of thing." He had packed them all away. I have the twins of that Norwegian stuff, given to me by my mother, as she was getting ready to downsize.

Besides the chords of familiar family history, the observations that Knausgaard started making at the end of this saga about how people become American resonated with me. He saw his cousin as different than himself, because his cousin was American, but at the same time he felt a sense of familiarity with this cousin he had never met. After all the little details and the side trips on this saga, he discovered meaning. Or maybe, I discovered the meaning of the saga.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Backyard barbeque

When I got up this morning once again the ground was covered with snow! This time it was just a thin coating, sure to disappear in a few hours. We had invited a friend over for dinner and I had decided to make chicken on the Weber grill. A little snow was no problem.

Off to the store to buy the ingredients. Back home, I mixed up the orange-chocolate chip cake and put it in the oven.

Then came the phone call from our guest. "I'm so sorry, I'm not going to be able to come for dinner tonight. I have an emergency here." He explained that one of the elderly cats in his care had either gotten injured or sick and had to be rushed to the vet. The cat is 17 years old, the vet doesn't know what is wrong with it. The plan is wait and see. Our friend is very distressed and needs to stay with the cat for now. We understand and sympathize.

However, I had bought all the food, so the barbecue was still on. My brain didn't seem to be totally cooperative, though. I grill all summer, but today I wasn't on it. The charcoal started just fine in spite of the chilly weather, but I forgot to put the top of the grill on when I started the chicken. It burned on one side. When I realized what I did, I turned it over and put the lid on. The fire died down to almost nothing. Meanwhile, I was making everything else - roasted vegetables, fruit salad, and broccoli. And just to complicate things more, since I don't eat meat, I was also making a crab cake.

In spite of my issues with the chicken, everything was not only edible, but tasty. The chicken did get done. The cake, still waiting to be eaten, is very pretty! And my dinners will be simpler for awhile.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

A Clowder of Cats

We have two cats, a 15-year-old gray and white named Smokey and a 5-year-old mackerel tabby named Fafner. He is a mackerel tabby because his marking make an M on his forehead. My son thinks he is also a an Egyptian Mau, a variety of tabby descended from the ancient temple cats. Nonetheless, we adopted both cats from a local shelter.

Our daughter also has two cats, a dapper black and white named Remy, who is almost 2, and a tortoiseshell kitten of about 10 months named Eleanor Rigby, Ellie for short. Remy, who has an easy-going, sociable personality, was lonely, and so Jamie adopted Ellie who lost an eye as a young kitten.

This week, which is spring break for me, my husband, and our daughter, Remy and Ellie came to visit us in the suburbs while Jamie went to visit her boyfriend in Houston. The dynamics have been interesting.

Remy spent most of the summer with us while Jamie was at various music festivals, so he was already comfortable in our house. In fact, he loves our house with its stairs, many rooms, windows, and other cats. (Jamie lives in an apartment.)

Smokey surprised us by adapting quickly to the new cats. He is fond of Remy, in a cat kind of way. He and Remy play well together, wrestling and chasing.

Fafner was named after the dragon in Rochard Wagner's opera "Siegfried." Unlike his namesake, our Fafner is a big coward. His favorite activities are eating and sleeping. He has bonded strongly with our son. A strong attachment to one person is one of the characteristics of Mau cats.

Ellie, tiny and young, is a diva, though a most affectionate one. She loves me and my husband, twining herself around our legs and sitting in our laps. She also loves Remy. The other cats are a different story. There was a lot of hissing the first few days, all by Ellie directed at Smokey and Fafner. There was some hitting, too. She has now calmed down and only remembers to hiss, softly, occasionally.

Having four cats is a lot of cats. Every time you turn around there's a cat. You have to watch where you step. Cat meal times are crazy - our two cats eat a different diet than Jamie's cats, but our cats think Remy and Ellie's food is much more delicious than theirs, so we have to try to separate them. But those bowls of Fancy Feast are just irresistible!

I had been calling them a herd, but that really doesn't fit cats. They don't act together like herds do. So then I tried pride, like lions, which still doesn't fit. A pride of lions is a more cohesive group than four cats is. So I Googled it. A group of cats is called a clowder. An odd word, I wondered where it came from. Here's what dictionary.com says:

variant of dial. clodder clotted mass, noun use of clodder toclot, coagulate, Middle English clothered, clothred (past participle), variantof clotered; compare obsolete clotter to huddle together; see clutter

I don't really see much huddling together or clotted masses with these four. Clutter and glaring are also terms for a group of cats. Glaring makes a lot of sense to me. There's plenty of glaring, growling and hissing when a group of cats assembles. I can also see clutter, as they do tend to clutter the place up.

In any case, our clowder has livened this week up. We miss the youngsters when they go home with Jamie.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Cookie Frenzy

One of my fun list items for spring break was to cook and bake. I really like cooking and trying new recipes, but often there's no time or energy for much cooking during the school week. Pasta with sauce from a jar is an almost weekly dinner, along with a stir fry (using up all the vegetables in the fridge) and maybe tostados with refried beans from a can.

This week I have tried two new dinner recipes so far. One was a hit and the other was interesting, not to be repeated.

Today was cookie baking day. I wanted to send my mother a box of homemade cookies. She's going to be 93 in June, living in Minnesota in independent/assisted living. Though she has a little kitchen, she doesn't use it much, and any homemade food is a welcome change from the dining room. I baked a batch of blondies, about 5 dozen chocolate chip cookies, and about 2 1/2 dozen chai spice snickerdoodles, a new recipe. The snickerdoodles are excellent, crisp and warmly spiced.

I won't be sending all the cookies to Minnesota, so we will also be enjoying a bounty of sweets.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Late Night Adventure, tame variety

One of the pleasures of being on spring break is having no schedule to stick to. There are only a few times this week that I need to be somewhere at a particular time. Last night was one of those times - I had an orchestra rehearsal from 7:30 to 10:00. My husband is not playing this concert (coming up in April), so he decided to go downtown (Chicago) to see a concert. He asked on Facebook if anyone wanted to go with him. Facebook can be so useful! And a young friend of ours said he wanted to go.

They went off to catch the train to Chicago and I drove in the opposite direction to my rehearsal. After two and a half hours of Beethoven I arrived home at 10:30. This is normally after my bedtime. But the two of them were sitting at the kitchen table, eating cookies and talking about music, so I joined them. We talked about the concert they saw (mixed reviews), Robert's new job which starts new week, his plans for the future, orchestras, conductors, concerts, and recordings old and new. We talked about people we know in common and what we're all doing this summer.

By then it was 1:00 am. We still hadn't run out of things to talk about, but it was definitely time to go to bed.

And since it is spring break, I slept in this morning!

Monday, March 23, 2015

Snow, granola, and Six Words

Shock. Dismay. White blanket covers all.

Much to my surprise, when I walked into the kitchen this morning the back yard was covered with at least an inch of snow and it was still falling heavily. What!? All the snow had melted and it seemed like warm weather was on the way.

So it seems like a day to do stuff at home, at least until it stops and the roads are plowed. I decided to make granola. I love my granola recipe, which I found a year or so ago on npr.org of all places. It's called Indulgent Granola, and it certainly is. It includes honey, butter, cinnamon and cardamon along with oats, nuts, and sugar. While you can use any nuts, the article suggested pistachios and they're now my favorite for this recipe. Unfortunately, it's hard to find shelled pistachios, so I sat at the kitchen table shelling 2 cups of pistachios. This gave me plenty of time to think about the snow.

I thought I might write a poem. I thought about how the first flakes back in November are so unassuming, pretty little sparkles floating in the dark. Then it gets to be a drag, all that shoveling, driving on slippery streets, slogging through dirty slush. The poem wasn't coming together, so I started making Six Word poems.

Pretty little sparkles, floating in darkness.

If you haven't heard of Six Words, you can check it out at sixwordmemoirs.com. There are a lot of creative people playing with the idea of summing up an experience, an idea, a personality, in just six words. I plan to use Six in Schools for Poetry Month.

Silent snow descends. Snowblowers roar back.

And a last thought:

Snow. So pretty. Your time's up.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

A Slice of Local Politics

My husband and I took a walk this afternoon around our neighborhood, even though it was snowing. And sticking. Grrr. Walking and exercise is on my list for spring break, so around the block we went.

Our local elections are coming up in about two weeks. Quite a few of the yards in our neighborhood had signs for candidates. "Vote for so and so for Village President," and so on. Most local elections are not contentious here in the suburbs. Often there's no opposition and really low voter turnout. However, this time there is an issue and it has created an opposition slate to the current village president and trustees.

Some months ago the village board was seriously considering a proposal from a developer to turn the town golf course into a mixed use area. It would have a mix of shopping, offices, and living, like condos or townhouses. Our town doesn't have a real downtown or a "Main Street." The trustees were selling this as our new downtown and a way to make more profitable use of the space.

The problem is the village already tried to create a "downtown," by building a shopping mall. It's a shopping mall, not a downtown or a center of anything. It's not even a very successful shopping center. Some are wary of repeating this experience. Another problem is that our taxes would increase to pay for the development. And, possibly most important, the golf course acts as a flood plain for our area. If it's developed, where is all that water going to go?

The trustees were trying to paint a rosy picture of all the benefits of this plan, but they were soon accused of not being transparent, not addressing the issues, and not listening to the opposition which by that time had organized. Petitions were circulated, a Facebook page was set up, and now we have a slate of candidates running on this issue. The developer withdrew the proposal, without publicly giving a reason, but the controversy continues.

So as we walked around, there were the signs. Sometimes opposing candidate signs next door or right across the street from each other. There are plenty of houses with no signs, too. It will be interesting to see if more people come out to vote in this election than normally for local offices. Lots of vocal people doesn't necessarily mean that most voters care.

Interestingly, I haven't heard of any golfers weighing in on the possible destruction of the golf course.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

1st day of Spring and Spring Break!

I made it to Spring Break! I left school shortly after dismissal in a rush. Such a rush that now I have to go back to retrieve a few things I should have taken with me. I was in a rush to catch a train to downtown Chicago to go to a Chicago Symphony concert at which Yo-Yo Ma was the soloist. It was certainly worth the rush and the extra trip back to school. This morning, Saturday, my husband and I got up to attend the bar mitzvah of one of his young cousins. So it wasn't really until this afternoon that I felt I had really made it to spring break.

I was tired. It has been a long couple of weeks with report cards, school auction (major fundraiser), service learning, debates, quizzes, tons of grading. So I didn't want to do anything! The newspapers have been piling up and so I grabbed a bunch, lay on the couch, and read. This gave me the feeling that I was purposeful - I was reading the papers, which is why we get them - and then I could recycle them and so declutter. And I read some interesting articles, including a good one on how not getting into the prestigious colleges of your choice not only won't damage your future success, but may end of being the best thing to happen to you. (If you'd like to read it, here's the link.)

I tried to take a nap, but I'm just not a good napper. So I decided to make a list of things to do during spring break. Even before making this list, I know I will not be able to accomplish everything on it. Let's just think of it as a menu that I can choose from.

1. Start walking and exercising again. Three days of outdoor ed is coming up in May and climbing up the dunes at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is a killer if you're not in shape. Besides, it's good for you and makes you feel good!
2. Catch up on stuff around the house, like cleaning.
3. Practice! Not that I don't practice every week, but not only is a week off the prefect time to get more practicing in, my daughter and I are playing a duet concerto together in May.
4. Get together with friends that we haven't seen in a awhile.
5. Taxes. Sigh.
6. Catch up on blogging. I have two other blogs besides this one. In one I write about music-related things, and the other is for reflecting on my project to include more problem-solving lessons, including some design thinking activities, in my teaching. Both these blogs have been sadly neglected.
7. Cook and bake! I love to try new recipes when I'm not in a rush.
8. Read. It began with a search for information on Revolutionary War hero Joseph Warren in order to help a student research his report. Now I'm interested, too, and have a good adult biography on Warren. I also have a biography on Deborah Sampson, who disguised herself as a man so she could join the Continental Army. I need to review that one for another student. After those, there's a stack waiting of mysteries, nonfiction, other biographies, and so on.
9. Study for my gifted education endorsement exam. Sigh. I hate dealing with bureaucracy and trying to figure out how to apply, sign up for the exam, and access the online state department of education has not been fun. From what I hear, the exam is no fun either.

And of course I'll be blogging here each day.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Learning through debate

It's the last day before spring break! This is foremost in everyone's mind today, students and teachers alike. However...

The 4th grade had been preparing since last Friday for our first American Revolution debate and today was the day to present it. The proposition was, "Parliament has the right to tax the colonies." The two classes were grouped into pro and con, and within each side divided into working on the opening statement or preparing for rebuttal. We invite three adults to be our judges, which not only removes us 4th grade teachers from the judging, but brings a different perspective in. This year our judges were our head of school, the director of teaching and learning, and a middle school language arts/social studies teacher.

I've been doing this debate with 4th graders for 11 years or so, and it's so interesting to see what happens at the actual debate, after the several hours of preparation. One year one of the teams got into an argument about who was going to read the opening statement and they ended up with a boy who came completely unprepared and couldn't finish reading it. Another year, one of the nonspeaking students got so agitated that he leaped up and started to correct one of the rebuttal arguments. Other years they have done so beautifully that we are just so proud of them. No matter what happens, our judges are so kind and find positive things to say. And, they come away from this really understanding the issue of taxation without representation.

Today we had awesome opening statements from both sides, but one of the rebuttal teams had not really grasped the concept of listening carefully to the opening statements, making a few notes, and then rebutting as many points as possible. They received compliments on the strength of the one argument they presented, but the win went to the other side.

In a few weeks they'll be using what they learned to debate whether or not the colonies should declare independence from Britain.  
Opening statement - yes, Parliament has the right to tax the colonies!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

My plant

This very nice plant was an end-of-the-year gift from a 4th grade class one year. I was looking at it and thinking about the names on the pot -- I think this was my first class when I moved from kindergarten to 4th grade. If I have calculated correctly, those kids are now about 20 years old. Wow!

It was my choice to move to 4th grade. I loved kindergartners, but I was ready for a change. I teach in a small independent school and that year the only position open was 4th grade, so I took it. I had a great partner teacher. She had developed a lot of the curriculum we used, including the entire social studies from the Pilgrims (a simulation that included "sailing" on a crowded "Mayflower" and an Colonial America/American Revolution unit that took 5 months). She was an incredible mentor for me that year.

However, it was a really difficult year! I had a whole new curriculum to learn. I had to learn what 4th graders were like and what to expect from them. I had to go on 3 days of outdoor education. And I had some of the most difficult kids of my career that year, plus several serious medical conditions.

I did the best I could with the difficult kids. I got a handle on the curriculum, and every year after I learned a little more. I found out that I loved outdoor ed! And at the end of the year, the parents and kids gave me this plant, which has thrived in my kitchen ever since. This sounds like a metaphor, but I can't decide what for.

Perhaps it's a metaphor for different kinds of growth. As the plant has grown, I have too, as a 4th grade teacher. I have learned an awful lot about American history up through the American Revolution. I have tried different ways to teach reading and writing. My class is blogging, for the second year in a row. I'm blogging!

As for that class, I know they have grown, too. Several have kept in touch with me, and I'm so impressed with them as people and learners. One important gift they gave me is perspective. The "bossy" child grows into a leader. The eager to please boy grows into a thoughtful commentator. And now I know that the challenging students I continue to have every year will grow into confident individuals.

And my plant continues to thrive, too.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Service Learning Immersion Day!

Today was Service Learning Immersion Day at my school. We have two of these days every year. There are no classes, we just do service projects all day. In the Lower School each grade is assigned a service area; 4th grade has children in need as our topic.

For our first immersion day, last fall, we went to Share Your Soles, a not for profit that collects gently used and new shoes, cleans them, and ships them all over the world to distribute to people, including children, who need them. We had a show drive before we went and took about 150 pairs of shoes with us to donate. At the Share Your Soles warehouse we all - adults and kids - helped to sort the shoes into categories. We also had an opportunity to learn about he organization and why shoes are so important. I had never thought about before we started going there, but wearing shoes not only prevents injuries, but also diseases. In some places, children cannot attend school if they don't have shoes. Black school shoes are a special category at Share Your Soles.

For our spring immersion day, though, we stayed at school and worked on two projects. We made 19 fleece blankets for Project Linus and cut out hundreds of construction paper shapes for Mother's Day projects for the Clearbrook Center, an organization that serves children and adults with developmental disabilities. It was a busy day - our floor was covered with bits of fleece and construction paper scraps. Our students worked quite cooperatively and the relaxed atmosphere gave them time to talk in ways they usually don't. I'm thinking of one group, busy cutting the fringe on a blanket, listening to one boy saying he was going to see his father, who he hadn't seen in 9 months, in the next few days. The other children in the group responded so sympathetically to him, while expressing that they could not imagine not seeing their fathers for such a long time. Maybe the act of actively helping others who we do not know extends to empathy for those we see every day.

We ended our day with writing some reflections and then taking a group photo with all the blankets and construction paper pieces that we made today. No classes, but so much learning!
In the midst of making blankets for Project Linus

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

7 minutes of relaxation

It's the week before spring break at my school and a lot of us are tired and stressed.

One of the things I've been doing with my students this year and last is mindfulness. I have been reading the book Search Inside Yourself, which I recommend. It has a number of mindfulness exercises, along with a lot of explanation. It has been helpful to my students, especially right before tests and quizzes.

This year I suggested that any faculty who were interested could read Search Inside Yourself and we could meet now and then to discuss and try the exercises. We have had a couple of pleasant, relaxing sessions. This week, my teaching partner suggested we meet to try a qi gong video that she found on YouTube. Four of us got together to go through the exercises. It's seven minutes long and is easy movements along with breathing. It was quite refreshing.

If you, too, are feeling stressed, here's the link to the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g-jSBBwr8Ko .

Monday, March 16, 2015

Book Club, fun even when the book is awful

A couple of years ago my neighbor asked me to join a book club that she was starting. I didn't think I was the book club type and I also told her I didn't really think I had time, but she was persistent. She told me she wanted to start this group because the book club that she belonged to didn't discuss the books. They just talked. She also told me she was inviting the smartest women she knew. Flattery will get you everywhere apparently. I joined.

I didn't know any of the other women in the group except for my friend, but now I look forward to seeing them once a month. They are a group of smart, interesting women, many teachers, but also an artist, a children's advocate, and a financial advisor. We spend most of the meeting time actually discussing the book, but we also laugh and share things about our lives. Since someone had the bright idea, about 6 months ago, to serve wine, we've had even more fun.

Being in this group has made me read books that I would never have read. We try to pick books that have gotten good reviews, but are not too new, since we all prefer to borrow from the library and of course the new books generally have wait lists. We read mostly fiction, but we have an occasional nonfiction selection. I realize now that there is a certain kind of book that works as a book club book. It has to have something in it that is discussable. For some reason this often means that the book is depressing.

We had a string of three months recently when I hated all the books. We start out our meetings by going around the circle and each person rates the book, 1 to 10, and offers some comments about it. In one case we had quite a split among the members, with some really loving it and others hating it. But the last two books, everyone disliked. And we had a lot of fun talking about how much and why we disliked them.

Left to my own reading devices, I read mysteries, history, especially about the American Revolution and 18th century Vienna, and books about music, especially Mozart. Being in the book club has truly broadened my reading, and introduced me to some books that have stayed with me.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Reflection on Slicing

Recently we were asked to comment on our experience so far with slicing, and I forgot to. So I will comment now.

It isn't easy to think of something to write every day. I think about it periodically during the day, asking myself, could I write something about [whatever I'm doing at the time]? I also started keeping a list on my phone of things I could write about.

Interestingly, it has been the tiny moments of life that have turned into the best pieces. When I start with a big idea it's often not as interesting, and I think that is because I'm not revealing as much of myself in the post when, for example, I decide to write about a new writing project with my class.

It's a scary thing to reveal parts of yourself in writing. A young musician of my acquaintance said that "being an artist means being willing to stand on stage in front of thousands of people and share the deepest and most beautiful part of yourself." Writing is the same -- you are putting your writing - your thoughts, ideas, the way you express yourself - out for any number of people to read. You the writer are thinking, is this any good, will people like it, will it move anyone, and how much of myself should I put into this? But it won't be the best it can be unless you do put yourself into it.

And leads me to what an amazing community the Slicers are! I have tried to read a lot of different blogs so far and I'm so impressed - by the quality of writing, by the ideas, and by the sharing in the posts. I have laughed been moved, and gotten great ideas from everyone's blogs. And the comments I have gotten on my blog are so lovely! Though this is a very big group, and it's all online, I really do feel like I'm part of a wonderful, supportive community of writers. I feel like I know many of you now.

Last, the discipline of writing something everyday has been enlightening. I always tell my students they will become better writers by writing, and I always knew it was true. These 15 days have grown my writing in ways I didn't expect. I can't wait to see what happens in the next 15 days!

Saturday, March 14, 2015

An island of calm

I am sitting at my kitchen table, sipping my coffee, still in pjs. It is a island of calm in a sea of activities, obligations, and the daily stuff of life. This is a slice of my life.

The weather has finally gotten nice in the Chicago area. As I look out my kitchen windows (which comprise most of the back wall) I can see that nearly all the snow and ice are gone! I have the window open, though it is a little chilly (48 degrees) because my cats got into a loud fight a few minutes ago and I used the open window to distract one of them.

[Digression: We have two cats, who tolerate each other but aren't friends. Ironically, we got the second cat to cheer up our original cat after his "brother" died at 10 years of age. They had been together since they were kittens and loved each other dearly. Our old cat, Smokey, is playful, affectionate, and lively, even at 15. The new cat, Fafner, is 5 years old an entirely different personality. He is skittish with people and mostly enjoys eating and sleeping. So when Smokey wants to play wrestle, like he did with his old buddy, Fafner thinks his life is in danger and he howls at the top of his lungs, punctuated by snarls and hissing.]

I'm still in pajamas, a most unusual occurrence for me at 10:30 on a Saturday, because we went downtown last night to see The Magic Flute, Mozart's charming opera. The DePaul School of Music is presenting it this weekend and our daughter is playing in the pit orchestra. It was a lovely evening, a casual dinner with Jamie and friend, followed by Mozart's glorious music. We got home really, for us anyway. So I am still basking in the glow of my daughter's accomplishments and the sounds of Mozart.

I am inhabiting this moment. Though I know I have a lot more going on this weekend and then it's back to school for one more busy week before spring break, I am just enjoying this quiet moment, the sunshine, and my coffee.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Debating 18th century taxes

In Social Studies our 4th grade is learning about the Revolutionary War. We start by having them learn about what life was like in the mid-1700s in the American colonies, they are assigned a trade, which they research, and then we set up a town simulation with its own economy. So when the Stamp Act is announced and everything is now more expensive because of the Stamp Act tax, there is consternation amongst the colonists. At this point we stop our town simulation for a few class periods and work on a debate on the proposition "Parliament has the right to tax the colonies."

We do sort of a formal debate. We divide the students into pro and con sides, and then into an opening statement team and a rebuttal team. We provide them with points on both sides of the argument and give them class time to get ready for the debate.

Working in their groups, the students really learn the arguments that surrounded this issue back in 1766 as they discuss which to use, how to add details, and how to present them verbally. But, they also have an opportunity to learn to work productively on a time-sensitive project, to be focused listeners, and to express their ideas. Our 4th graders love to talk, so it's often difficult for them to work out how to take turns. When we have the actual debate, which last for 5 to 10 minutes, they get prompt feedback from the judges, who are administrators or teachers. The judges give thoughtful comments about all aspects of the debate, from how clearly and persuasively the arguments were presented, to how the non-speaking 4th graders, whose job it is to be silently supportive, behaved.

So today was our first work session and it was a typical noisy time. There were lots of questions about what to focus on, what the persuasive points meant, and how to keep team members calm and on task. Progress was made!
Hard at work on rebuttal planning

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Research, writing, and Joseph Warren

We began our 4th grade research project a few days ago. Every student picks a topic that is related in some way to the American Revolution, which is what we're studying in Social Studies. Most kids choose a person to research, but some choose another topic, like a battle, or political cartoons.

We try to have each child read an easy book on their topic first. It gives them the big picture quickly, and it's a good place to begin taking notes without getting overwhelmed. Once everyone has a grasp of their topic, they write thesis statements. It makes a huge difference later on when they start organizing their notes if they understand what the importance of their person or topic is. After that book, we look for a chapter book, still not too difficult. Our school librarian convinced me several years ago that students get more out of nonfiction when they read material that is below their highest possible level. Once all the notes are taken, students organize them and then write a seven-paragraph report, with bibliography, which the librarian supervises.

Over the years I have collected juvenile books on many of the topics that my students choose. There are so many fascinating people from this time period, as well as other interesting topics. Of course, not every interesting person has had a juvenile biography written about them. Sometimes we find information about that person in other books, sometimes we have to go to the internet. It's a less than perfect solution, but oftentimes my students are passionate about these people.

So that is how today I found myself writing a biography of Joseph Warren. One of my 4th graders is a descendant of Dr. Joseph Warren and really wanted to research him. He is a kid who definitely needs the easier reading introductory book, so the sources on the Internet were not going to work for him. I'm still checking for chapters or section about Dr. Warren in other books (anybody know of any good sources?), but to begin, I searched the Internet and compiled a fairly reasonable biography.

Dr. Joseph Warren
You might be asking, "Who is Joseph Warren?" Or maybe you already Googled him. Dr. Warren was a physician in 18th century Boston who became a leader in the Massachusetts movement that began by protesting taxes and ended by starting a new country. It was Warren who uncovered the British plan to march to Concord, and he dispatched Paul Revere, as well as the lesser know William Dawes, on their midnight rides to alert the countryside. He became a major-general in the new American army and fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill, where he was killed. He was 32 when he died.

My biography was a quick job, though I would like to develop it into something better - better researched and more thoughtfully written. I aspire to write children's nonfiction like David Adler does. His series of picture books biographies are so well-written and engaging. We use many of them as our first easy book in this research project. As I was putting together my Joseph Warren biography, I struggled with appropriate language for the age of my reader, how to give background information that is important to understanding the what the person was doing and why, how much information to give, and how to make it interesting. I love history and I love finding out all the interesting and convoluted information that aren't included in the basic histories. But, that only confuses the typical 4th grade, so I remind myself constantly to focus on the straightforward by interesting facts. I now think even more highly of David Adler.

I ended up with a decent biography that I believe will get my 4th grade student off to a good start. Maybe this summer I can do some more research and revise and polish my little biography of this very interesting and mostly forgotten man.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

William Shatner and me

There's an icebreaker game called Two Truths and a Lie. In this game everyone comes up with three statements about themselves, two that are true and one that is a lie. The goal is to come up with statements that confuse others so they don't guess which is your lie. I always win this game. My three statements are:

  • I played with the Chicago Symphony.
  • I was voted most musical in my high school class.
  • I went on tour with William Shatner.

All my friends and many of my acquaintances know that I play horn, so nearly everyone assumes I was voted most musical in my high school class. But then they think I must have gotten confused and written two lies and one truth.

No, I was not voted most musical in high school. My friend Sue, who played the bass, was voted most musical girl. My friend Jeff, who is now a producer in the recording industry, was voted most musical boy.

And yes, I did play with the Chicago Symphony, just one week, but it was an amazing experience to play with a major symphony orchestra. My teacher was principal horn of the CSO and they were performing a very large work that called for many extra horn players. He was able to hire a number of his students, including me. We were the off-stage horns.

But this post is titled William Shatner and me. Yes! I went on tour with William Shatner! After college I freelanced in Chicago for awhile, and was hired to play in a pick-up orchestra that was going on tour over several weeks. The program would be symphonic music played while Shatner narrated a story with a background of space and a laser show. This was in the late 1970s, when the original series had been off the air for awhile and before any of the movies and spinoffs came out. As it turned out, we only went to Indianapolis and played one show. Something went awry with the financing of the whole shebang and I'm not sure we even got paid for that concert. Before that one concert, though Mr. Shatner was just hanging out backstage. I didn't talk with him because I couldn't think of anything to say, but my friend Gary did, telling him how much he enjoyed Star Trek. Shatner was very gracious and approachable.

In all, not a huge event in my life, but an interesting little sidelight that always makes people say, "You what?"

Tuesday, March 10, 2015


I like doing crosswords. More specifically, I like doing the New York Times crossword on Monday and Tuesday, and sometimes Wednesday. Monday is pretty easy; I can always complete it. Tuesday is a little more challenging, and by Wednesday there's an excellent chance that I won't be able to figure it all out.

Doing the New York Times crossword was a challenge of mine a couple years ago and I bought a book on conquering it. From this book I learned that each day has it's unique character - Monday is designed to be approachable and finish-able. Tuesday is a little harder, Wednesday even harder. Thursday is wild card day, so you may need to figure out that some boxes require double letters, for example. One Halloween you needed to draw little ghosts in some of the boxes in order to solve it. Friday is very hard and Saturday, too. I don't remember if there was anything else special about them. Sunday is a much bigger puzzle, about as difficult as Wednesday.

Using the book helped me learn how crosswords work, and the usual small words and their clues that repeat a lot. I really did get better, though I haven't conquered it yet.

Some people recommend doing crosswords as a way of staving off memory loss and even dementia. I don't think doing crosswords really helps with either of those. I think doing crosswords make you better at doing crosswords, which is all I'm looking for in these puzzles. Sometimes I learn some new vocabulary or a new fact, but mostly I just enjoy the challenge of filling in all those little square correctly so the whole thing fits together perfectly. Aahh.