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.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Seinfeld Post

Yes, it's a post about nothing.

It's been one of those days when there isn't a minute to spare and now it's 10:49 CDT and i need to write my slice for the day!

The time change always throws me off. I'm just surprised all day at what time it is. What did I do that kept me so busy? I taught, I finished report cards, went to a faculty meeting after school, rushed home, made a quick dinner (fried rice), and left to go to orchestra rehearsal 45 minutes away. It was a looong rehearsal. At 10 we were out of time, so another 45 minute drive back home. I'm tired.

I have things to write about, I promise! Check back tomorrow!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

How quickly the past becomes quaint

I teach 4th grade, and I find that I have to explain things from the past more and more. For example, long distance telephone calls. A lesson on probability in our math book asks about the chances of getting a busy signal while making a long distance phone call. Of course, they don't know what a busy signal is either. I tell about growing up away from my extended family -- they all lived in either Seattle or western Minnesota -- and that we only called them twice a year because it was so expensive. And when we did call, everybody got on the phone, one at a time, to say hello. My cousin Gail in Seattle, who was about 10 years older than me, always asked my sister and me, "What are you doing?" And we would inevitably answer, "Talking on the phone." We weren't being snotty; it was just that calling Seattle was what we were doing. Anything else was secondary.

Telegrams! I do a read-aloud that has telegrams as sort of an important part of the plot. The book is The Return of the Twelves, by Pauline Clarke, a British author. One of the characters is having surreptitious communication with a professor in America, by telegram. Since it takes place in a small town, everybody finds out about the telegrams. (I highly recommend the book. It's about a 9 year old boy in England who discovers a set a wooden soldiers that may have belonged to the Bronte children. He also discovers that they are alive!)

Records (LPs) are perhaps a little more familiar to some of my students. They describe them as odd flat, circular objects, as if they arrived from another planet. But the familiar expression, "he sounds like a broken record," falls on deaf ears. My daughter, who loves the TV show House, thought LP meant lumbar puncture when she heard her father and me talking.

I remember how quaint and faraway my mother's Depression-era childhood sounded from her stories of the iceman delivering ice, harvest time on the farm, playing kitten ball (whatever that is!) Now my stories sound the same way to my own children, and even more to to my students. They don't know a world without computers, smart phones, and video games. I'm actually sorry for them. Thank what they're missing -- the pleasure of playing in a puddle, riding your bike all over your neighborhood, being bored and having to read a book, or make up a game!

No doubt my 4th graders will someday be explaining their quaint smart phones to incredulous grandchildren. Maybe by then kids will be playing in the mud again.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Musings on the weather

We have an awful winter in the midwest. It has not gotten above 20 degrees for weeks, and has hovered around zero for days on end. A couple of days ago I thought, "It's not bad today, the temperature feels okay," as I got in my car to go to work. Then I heard on the radio that with the wind chill it was 9 below zero. I guess you get acclimated to endless cold. And we have snow - several feet of it. I know that other parts of the country have also had an unusually cold and snowy winter as well. I don't envy my friends on the east coast.

But today is not only sunny, but the temperature is in the 40s! It feels like spring. A tiny portion of the snow has melted. It is actually pleasant to be outside with just a sweatshirt on!

I got to thinking about ice ages, and what it would be like if we were entering another ice age. I also watched a time lapse look at snow and ice cover from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which to me resembled glaciers moving down into the United States, and then retreating. (The video is on Facebook and I was able to figure out how to find it on the NOAA site, so here's the link to FB: Science on a Sphere) It's an interesting visual of snow and ice cover over the last year and three months.

My train of thought took me to disaster movies, and thoughts about what a disaster movie about advancing glaciers would be like. "Quick honey! Grab the kids! The glacier will be here in 50 years!" Of course, in disaster movies, no one listens to the lone expert who sounds the alarm. Then disaster strikes - the fire in the ultra tall building, the sinking ocean liner, the storm of the century! And then it's too late. So in our Ice Age movie that might look like, "We should have listened! The glacier will hit us in 5 years! Pack your bags!" I guess that won't fly.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Hablas Espanol?

Last fall my school switched foreign language instruction from French to Spanish, so this is our first year of Spanish. Our head of school encouraged everyone in the school to try to learn some Spanish and use it in the classroom. I tried the program Duolingo over the summer, but found that most of what I learned wasn't helpful. Yo soy un penguino, for example. (I am a penguin.) But once school started, our afternoon custodian, Miguel, decided he was going to help me learn Spanish. He comes into my classroom around 4:30 to empty trash.

"Buenos tardes, maestra," he greets me.
"Buenos tardes, senor," I answer.
"Como esta?" he asks next.
"Muy buen. Como esta?"
"Muy buen."

After this, he sometimes talks about the cold weather ("frio") or how much work we both have ("mucho trabajo"). Then we say good-bye.

"Hasta manana. Hasta Lunes. Adios."

Miguel doesn't speak much English. We are limited in our conversations, but he easily communicates what a nice person he is, thoughtful, helpful, and funny.

Today he asked that I teach him English while he teaches me Spanish. A new adventure!

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Essays! Let's party!

After weeks of work, learning how to write a five-paragraph essay, my class celebrated their completed essays! For our celebration we invite parents and everyone read his/her essay, either to the whole group or in a smaller group. Then the kids man the essay museum where they explain the essay process and show the stages of their work. I didn't think this up - it's from Lucy Calkins.

Our celebration was great. The kids were proud and the parents were pleased. I talked briefly about how every child had grown as a writer, though each was at a different point in the writing process.

Every child chose his or her topic, though I gave some guidance on topics that I didn't think were going to work. Nevertheless, one boy wrote his essay on "we should not have school every day." In spite of my discussions with him about the big fact that we DON'T have school every day, he really wanted that thesis and he made it work. Many of the topics were quite serious and reflected injustices and problems that the young writers feel strongly about -- puppy mills, pollution, chemicals in foods, and even one on terrorism from a very mature 4th grader.

The museum part of the celebration is a lot of fun. It's unstructured after sitting and listening to essays, and the parents are always so willing to talk to all the kids and ask them questions. Though the parents see their children doing homework, coming to a celebration of writing helps them realize how much their children are learning and how far they have come. I'm always a bit worried about whether we'll pull it off -- two students were still finishing their essays an hour before parents arrived! -- but once the party starts, it's the kids' show and they step up to the task. I can just bask in the glow.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

After hours musician

Today, Wednesday, is the first day of the third trimester at my school. This means I have stacks of things to grade while also working on report cards, which are due on Monday. Tomorrow my class is having an essay celebration to which we have invited the parents. Some of my 4th graders are still revising their essays. I will be talking about writing being a work in progress when I kick off the celebration - organization, spelling, word choice - every child is at a particular place in his or her growth and so all their essays are not perfect.

So life is somewhat stressful this week. Too much to do! However, last night I was at a band rehearsal. Monday night I was at an orchestra rehearsal. Last Saturday I played a children's concert. In addition to being a 4th grade teacher, I play French horn, or horn as we horn players call it. I play regularly in three different groups - a concert band, a community orchestra, and a horn choir. Sometimes my fellow teachers ask how I can find the time for all this music making. My answer is, how can I not? I love teaching, but I also love music.

I was a musician before I was a teacher. I attended music school and was fortunate to study with some awesome musicians. I spent hours every day playing my instrument, listening to music, talking about music.

I no longer do all that, but it is unthinkable to me that music would not be a huge part of my life - playing and listening. It does take a big chunk of time, because I also have to practice on the days when I don't have a rehearsal. I tell everyone that I don't watch television because I play horn instead, and that is pretty much the case.

A question that I get a lot when people find out that I have music degrees is, do I use music in my classroom. Not much. I find it incredibly distracting.

And now, I should go practice.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Live Long and Prosper

Leonard Nimoy, the original Spock, died a few days ago. I watched Star Trek (the original series) the first time it was on television. I watched it in reruns. And when the first movie came out in 1979 it was like seeing old friends that you had missed for years and here they were again, Looking a little older, but still the same.

Back when Star Trek was on TV the first time, my brother and sister and I liked to play Star Trek, just the three of us. My sister and I shared a very spacious bedroom upstairs, which was ideal for all kinds of playing. So the room became the Enterprise. My brother was Mr. Spock (he was perfect, even as an elementary student). My sister was Captain Kirk, and I played all the other roles, but I liked Scotty the best.

The main reason this has stayed so firmly in my memory is that one day when we were playing , we recorded it. I had gotten a small reel-to-reel tape recorder as a gift. We turned it on, and that one day's episode was recorded. Our plot that day was the Enterprise was attacked by Klingons, or maybe Romulans. The ship took a hit and was listing. Scotty was alarmed, but Spock suggested the solution- having everyone on the ship move to the side that was higher. The captain made the order and the ship was saved! I love this solution, so logical and ridiculous at the same time.

Thank you, Mr. Spock. Live long and prosper.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Rubber Bands and Math

Today we mostly finished up our rubber band launching project in math. The entire 4th grade spends two days launching rubber bands at three different angles, collecting the data, finding statistical landmarks, graphing, and then drawing some conclusion.

Thirty nine-year-olds in the hall launching rubber bands -- pure chaos! They love it!

It's a wonderful project that requires the kids to use many of the skills they've learned so far in math. And then they have to decide how they car going to communicate the results of their data through some kind of graph. Sometimes they make choices that are not the best for showing that the important thing is that rubber bands launched at 30 degrees go the farthest, those at 90 degrees go the shortest, and sometimes even go backwards, and 60 degrees are in the middle. But even if they make a less than ideal choice, they learn from seeing all the graphs.

My story today, though, isn't about the graphs, but about the statistical landmarks. One group was puzzling over the mean for one of their sets of data because the mean they had calculated was bigger than the maximum. One of the boys in the group realized they had probably forgotten to divide after adding and he started explaining the process of finding the mean, using easy to understand numbers. He was still enthusiastically explaining as everyone cleaned up and continued explaining as the class walked to science. This is a boy who has been coasting through 4th grade, doing a little homework when he feels like it, but who has great potential in many areas. I was stunned by his enthusiasm and then thankful and delighted.

Highlight of my day!

Launching rubber band rockets

Sunday, March 1, 2015

A Proust moment

I'm a first time SOLSCer. I'm looking forward to the challenge of writing every day and to reading other posts!

It's Sunday and time for errands. It's a bright, sunny day in Chicagoland and warmer than it's been in weeks, though that means it's about 25 degrees. But it's sunny! And not unpleasant to be out, driving to the store, listening to Anderson and Roe play Mozart.

My first errand was to Michael's, the arts and crafts store. My 4th graders are finishing up their clay terrains, demonstrating that they know their landforms and bodies of water, and we have run out of green and brown clay. I walked through the door into the store and a physical pang of nostalgia hit me in the chest as I looked at the rows of craft supplies. The many times my daughter and I shopped for craft supplies here came rushing back.

My daughter Jamie has always loved arts and crafts. She even had an art birthday party one year. We had a crayon cake and the kids all made crafts. She was in heaven.

She created many of her projects all on her own, but we did rubber stamping together and I taught her how to make a baby quilt. It was a wonderful way to spend time together. And we shopped for supplies together, taking our time, looking, thinking about projects.

She's now 24 and living in nearby Chicago while she finishes a masters degree in music. She plans to move to Houston in the fall for further study. She's still crafty -- for Chanukah she surprised us with a set of coasters she had made. But all those trips to Michael's, those times making things together are done. I'm proud of her and I want her to leave home and follow her dreams, but I'm also sad because of the parts of our lives together that are ending. And so I stood for a moment in Michael's Arts & Crafts, feeling the tears welling up, but not spilling out.