Thursday, March 31, 2016

Reflections on a Month of Slicing

It's the last day of the March Challenge and I can't believe how quickly it has gone by. This is my second year. Last year I sometimes found it hard to write each day. I loved getting comments from people -- feedback is so valuable -- and I loved reading other people's blogs. At the end of the the month, I was energized and confident and ready to write more, but I was also happy I didn't have to write every day any more.

Finding the Two Writing Teachers community was one of the most valuable parts of my first year. I have continued reading their posts and have used some of the ideas in my teaching. This year I decided to join the Welcome Wagon in addition to blogging every day. I was a little nervous about the commitment, but it turned out to be one of the most fun parts of the challenge this year. The Welcome Wagon volunteers are assigned to several 1st year bloggers, to comment on their blog posts every day. I so enjoyed following the same people through the month - I felt like I actually knew them. I was awed by the talented writers, the touching and funny stories, and other people's daily lives. I hope to join the Welcome Wagon again next year!

I've been reading other bloggers last day reflections and pretty much everyone says the same thing -- I wrote some good posts but I also wrote some posts that were not so great. Me, too! I know that's an important part of being a writer. If you wait to write only good stuff, you'll never write anything. But what I learned this year is that I'm happiest with my writing when I challenge myself. I wrote a few poems this year. Poetry is more challenging for me. I was also inspired by another blogger, Diane at, to step up my storytelling. I tend to tell stories as a narrative, but her stories were so alive, with dialogue and descriptions, that I tried it myself. Again following her example, my best effort (in my own opinion) was a story from my childhood, Best Friends, Mud, and Grandma.

I hope to keep up with the Tuesday Slicing and I'll definitely be back next March!

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

When Halloween comes to life

The first time we took our young children to the Halloween celebration at the Chicago Botanic Gardens:

Follow the meandering stream of families from the parking lot to the food station for doughnuts and cider. Thus fortified, we started on the Friendly Walk.

There were two "walks," a friendly walk where you got to meet the Care Bears and Sesame Street characters and a scary walk. Obviously with a four-year-old, we chose the Friendly Walk.

After greeting a giant pink Care Bear, we somehow veered off the correct path. We walked up a few decorative stairs that led to a series of large water lily containers set into the terrace. Without warning the Creature from the Black Lagoon sprang out of the nearest water lily container and grabbed the nearest ankle, which was our four-year old, Jamie. She screamed and waved her hands wildly. The Creature disappeared beneath the water, as she continued wailing.

Before we could recover from the shock, Frankenstein appeared, lumbering down the path toward us, hands extended. Jamie began screaming again, truly terrified. In an act of kindness, Frankenstein stopped his lumbering, bent down to her and said, "I'm not really a monster. I'm wearing a costume. Don't be afraid." Jamie was only partly convinced, but she did begin to regain her composure.

The rest of our Halloween adventure went smoothly - a hayride, not-scary storytime, pumpkin decorating.

The second time we took our children to the Halloween celebration at the Chicago Botanic Gardens:

Jamie informed up that she was a big girl now and wanted to go on the Scary Walk. Since none of the rest of us were scared by the previous scary walk, we said okay.

This year it was raining and the entire Scary Walk was located in one courtyard that had overhangs so everyone could stay dry, more or less. Well, Jamie began to lose it almost immediately, with all those scary characters so close together, but the topper was the Screamer, the character dressed like Death in a black robe, carrying a scythe, and wearing the scary mask of the white, screaming face. She began screaming.

The Screamer, though, was not going to drop out of character. He came after Ben, our eight-year-old son, who took it in the Halloween spirit and even tried to threaten the Screamer back. Then he came toward Jamie, who ran from one to another of us, trying to hide behind us. "Mommy! Daddy! Ben! Help!!"

I admit it, I was laughing, even as I felt for her.

She really loved Halloween - I believe she still does, and she tried several times to go to "haunted houses" with her friends, who always had to rescue her mid-house. I think that nowadays she sticks to parties at Halloween.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

"Reader, I married him"

"Reader, I married him."

We love these characters

The plucky heroine
Jane, Jo, Elizabeth
Courageous, ingenious, loyal

The bereft orphan
Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, David Balfour
Innocent, ingenious, and finally, wealthy

The saintly girl who dies
Beth March, Helen Burns, Little Nell
Sacrificing for others, fading away
Consumption perhaps, or scarlet fever

The meandering plots
Twists, turns
Unexpected relations, sudden wealth

Happy ending
tinged with
for the
saintly, departed girl

Commentary: I wanted to write an appreciation of those classic novels by Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, Louisa May Alcott, and even Robert Louis Stevenson, but flavored with a bit of peppery amusement. I love these stories, I love that everyone seems to end of related to each other in Dickens, and that all the impoverished orphans find their families, who turn out to be wealthy! I don't think the poem is done yet. It needs to sit for a while.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Last Day of Spring Break and a Visit to the Art Institute

Today is the last day of my spring break. Tomorrow it's back to school. We had been talking about going into Chicago to see the Van Gogh show at the Art Institute, and with one day left, this was the day.

We took the train, catching the 10:32. It was a full train by our station, and there were quite a few more stops after we got on. Lots of moms with school-age children. It seems that this was the first day of spring break for many. Once downtown, we began walking across the Loop to Michigan Avenue, where the Art Institute is located. It was a breezy spring day, but cold enough to require a jacket.

The Van Gogh show is "Van Gogh's Bedrooms," and it is popular - the line to get into the museum was out the door and down the steps. We are members and got to bypass the long line. After checking our coats, we turned out attention to finding the gallery with the show. My son studied the map of the museum while discussing the likely spots with my husband. Then I saw the large sign pointing us to the Van Gogh Bedrooms. "Look!" I said, "It's that way!" Then I laughed and said, "Just like in Star Trek 4." Both of them got it instantly - Kirk and Spock are back in the time in the late 20th century looking for humpback whales. Spock is applying scientific thinking and deduction as to where whales might be found, when Kirk spies a poster advertising the Cetacean Institute, where two humpback whales are on view. My son even quoted more dialogue. A nerdy moment.

The show was crowded, but really interesting. There is only one bedroom, but Van Gogh painted it three times and each painting is slightly different. The show includes a timeline of his life, showing the 37 places Van Gogh lived in his 37 years, many paintings, not just the three bedroom paintings, and a video showing how high tech detective work has discovered what the original colors were probably like. I also liked the "Night Cafe" where a video surveyed the films, books, cartoons, and so on that have featured Van Gogh, both seriously and in fun. Altogether, an excellent art show.

By the time we left the museum, after lunch and a quick visit to the 16th century to look for Caravaggio, we walked back to the train station and traveled home. We are all tired and somewhat sore now from a lot walking and looking. It was a great way to end spring break.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Train rides and sports fans

We often take the train when we go to downtown Chicago. There's a lot of advantages -- no traffic, less expensive than parking in the Loop, more relaxing. It can also be a study of people. If there's a Blackhawks game, the train is full of fans in Blackhawks wear, often with beers in hand. Same thing if there's a Cubs game. The sports fans are generally really loud, but upbeat. Sometimes after a concert, we're on a very quiet car where everyone is looking at their opera or symphony programs.

Yesterday going into Chicago on the train, we stopped at one of the stations for an unusually long time. We could see the conductor just standing on the platform. Finally, two burly policemen boarded the train and went into the train car adjacent to ours. After a few minutes, they left, just the two of them. We never found out what the problem was.

A few years ago, however, we had a more entertaining delay when rising the train back out to the suburbs. I think we were going home after seeing a concert, but Once again, we stopped at one of the stations for a long time. This happened to be a day when there was both a Cubs game and a Sox game. Two fans, one of each team, had a difference of opinion that became loud and physical in one of the train cars, and the train stopped to call in the police. After several minutes, we all saw the two culprits being led away in handcuffs by the local police. One young man in a Cubs hat and the other in a Sox hat.

The Northwest line into Chicago - cross-section of humanity and a swirling vortex of emotions.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

The importance of pens

I have a favorite pen. It's a uni-ball vision elite. I like it because it's easy to write write with, the ink comes out smoothly and easily, and it doesn't send out blobs on ink. Also, the pens come in a wide variety of colors.

I use blue, red, green and purple in commenting on student papers. The color needs to stand out from whatever writing tool the student was using. I'm also big on color coding. About a week ago I was grading papers. My green, purple, and blue pens had all run dry. All I had left was black and red (coincidentally, our school colors!). I thought to myself, "I can't function." No, I'm not compulsive, I just need those other colors of pen.

When you become particular about your pens, or any office product, you need to shop at an office supply store. There used to be two conveniently located on my way to work - now there are none. I drive to lovely Crystal Lake, Illinois, almost every Saturday morning, so this morning I thought I'd keep my eye out for office supply stores on my way, and then stop at one on my way home. No office supply stores in 25 miles of driving on main routes. I passed every imaginable fast food chain, coffee shops, hardware stores, Targets, auto repair, restaurants and bars, a tattoo parlor, even a book store and two fabric stores. No office supply stores.

I know they're out there, somewhere. I will find them. I will stock up on pens.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Grilling in the Snow

Yesterday it snowed here in the Chicago area. I know other areas got more than we did, but still, it's the end of March. It's been quite spring-like.

I had decided that I was going to grill chicken on the Weber. Early in the day it was raining, but not too heavy. Then it stopped -yay! I went out and bought the chicken, some potato salad, green beans.

Then it started to snow. Not a lot, but a heavy, wet snow. No problem, I said, I've grilled in snowy weather before, in fact I grilled when we were in the 20 degree range.

I went out to start the grill, which is a charcoal grill, not gas, and realized this was going to be more challenging than grilling in 20 degree weather when the snow is already laying quietly on the ground. And since it had been raining, there was an inch or more of water standing on the patio. Instant wet feet! The charcoal had to stay in the kitchen until I was ready to pour it. Cleaning out the grill, everything - grill top, interior, got wet. The grill really needs some cleaning, but not today!

I persevered. We use a charcoal chimney to start our fires, so I got that ready, newspaper in the bottom, charcoal on top, and lit it. Snow is still coming down, making the charcoal on top wet. Will it light? It did. But then, just to add to the problems, when I went to dump the glowing coals into the grill, the handle of the chimney broke off. Grrr.

I was a tiny fire, but it was enough to cook the chicken. Dinner was delicious. But, no more grilling during a snowfall.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Big, Purple Dinosaur

When my kids were little, Barney the Dinosaur was all the rage. It featured a person in a purple dinosaur suit (voiced by a different person) and a group of elementary-aged children. It was a safe show, with messages of kindness and acceptance, a slow-moving show hosted by a giggling dinosaur. As far as I can tell, not having having little children in my life right now, Barney has faded away. Maybe he has retired and is lying on the beach in Florida. Who knows.

At the height of Barney's fame, the community center down the street from us hosted "Bagels with the Big, Purple Dinosaur" for families with young children. It was a low-key, fun way to spend time together on a weekend morning, and our kids enjoyed the show, so we signed up.

The organizers couldn't name Barney because they didn't have official permission to use the trademarked name - it was probably pretty expensive to hire the "real" Barney. The room was packed with families. After getting our bagels and cream cheese and finding four chairs at a table, a guy in a purple dinosaur suit came in and bounced around to recordings of the real Barney singing songs from the show. My husband Dean and I raised our eyebrows at each other, but the kids were eating it up.

At the end of the program, Barney waved good-bye and left the room. We got ready to leave, too, but Ben needed to go to the restroom, so Dean took him. In the hallway on the way to the bathroom, they caught sight of Barney -- taking his head off. Ben was 6 or 7 at the time and it didn't phase him. But, later from the backseat of the car...

"That wasn't the real Barney," Ben stated.

"Yes, it was," piped Jamie, who was 3 or 4 years old. She was a bigger fan of Barney by this time and also a believer in the magic of talking animals, even if they seemed to live only on TV.

"No, I know it wasn't," said Ben firmly. Parents in the front are hoping he keeps the head incident to himself.

"It was the real Barney. I know. He had a tail," Jamie said firmly, ending the discussion.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Marriage of Opposites, Thinking about Reading

I just finished reading The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman. You know how sometimes when you start a book you're not sure if you're going to like it or maybe even finish it, and by the end you are totally engaged and raving about it? This novel was like that for me.

So why continue reading a book if the beginning doesn't engage you? One reason for me is that I belong to two book clubs. Unless I have suggested the book, it's always a book that I never would have picked up on my own. I would have stayed happily in my own reading world of mysteries, history, historical fiction, and books about Mozart. It's good for me to expand. I especially never would have chosen The Marriage of Opposites because I read another Alice Hoffman novel, the Museum of Extraordinary Things, for one of my book clubs and though there were things about it that I liked, overall I found it creepy. 

My other book club chose The Marriage of Opposites. I'm glad I stuck with it. By the end I thought it was an outstanding book. It's about the impressionist painter Camille Pissarro and his family. Hoffman's descriptions of the island of St. Thomas in the 19th century and then later in the book, her descriptions of the way Camille saw things in colors that weren't obvious, made the story spring to life. Her characters too, were so real and mostly sympathetic. It reminded me of the parts of The Museum of Extraordinary Things that I liked - the description of northern Manhattan when it was still a wilderness in the early 20th century - amazing! Who knew? The aura of magicalness that permeated parts of the story were also part of The Marriage of Opposites.

What else am I reading? I have gone overboard at the moment. I have started a biography of James Warren, a leader of the American Revolution who was killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill. I want to know more about him in order to share with my students, but it's such a boring book. I also have started a biography of Benjamin Rush, a fascinating man also from the American Revolution who is virtually ignore today, along with James Warren. I'm reading a book for professional development, Change One Thing, and a book about practicing, The Perfect Wrong Note. I have a stack of novels for young people about the American Revolution, again for my students. And I have The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee. I'm very interested in reading this new novel about an opera singer in the 1880s. It's new so I only have it for 14 days from my public library and it's 550 pages!

Staying calm, too many books to read is not a problem.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Untitled poem

A roller coaster careening
through the chambers of
My heart

A landslide
into the pit of
My stomach

A swarm of bees
The crescendo of their anger in
My brain

A hush a quiet
At times
we all look bleakly
into the future

Infinite finite

Monday, March 21, 2016


A word of the day poem


Golden striped orb

Dressed in rings of bright asteroids

A diva among planets


The bringer of old age

Gloomy, taciturn



Pity the saturnine

Cursed by beautiful Saturn

Comment: Saturn is so beautiful, but saturnine means gloomy and despondent. It's an interesting contrast.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Best friends, mud, and grandma

My post today is inspired by Diana at dianeandlynne.wordpresscom and the wonderful stories she writes of her childhood.

It had been raining but now the morning was cool and overcast. My best friend Leslie and I were wearing raincoats and rubber boots, the kind you pull over your shoes. The boots were a good idea as it was muddy as we walked home from kindergarten that day. Houses were still going up in our neighborhood and mud appeared along with the construction.

Mud. It's like a magnet for kids. As Leslie and I walked by a building site next to my house, the mud puddles called to us, "Come splash in the water. It's okay, you have boots on."

We left the sidewalk. We splashed in the so-attractive muddy water, feeling the soft mud under our feet. Our feet slid, sinking a little into the mud. So fun, but we need to get home for lunch.

"Leslie, my foot's stuck!" I say.

"Give me your hand," she says, and pulls. And pulls. And pulls. My foot doesn't budge. I'm starting to feel a niggle of worry. Our bag of tricks for dealing with problems is tiny.

"I have to go home now," Leslie says.

"Okay," I answer. Leslie goes off down the street, home to her mother and little brothers and sisters and her lunch.

What to do? I start calling, "Help! Help!" I keep yanking, trying to got my foot loose. Panicking. What if no one hears me? I'm out of ideas. I keep yelling. My throat hurts, I feel the flood of tears ready to gush out, but I keep yelling as loud as I can.

Then I see my grandma walking towards me. Wiping her hands on her apron, she exclaims, "Land sakes, Becky, what happened? I thought I heard something, so I came out to see what it was."

Even before she pulls me out, I am so relieved. My grandma is quite round and not tall, but she is stronger than Leslie. She pulls, and with a sucking sound, my foot is free of the mud!

Grandma take me into our house. I'm feeling safe now, and it's lunch time.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Spring Break!

I have made it to spring break! I am letting everything about the school year so far fall away from me. I know I will have to go back and deal with those problems, but for now, I will revel in 10 days of not-school.

I love teaching and I love the school where I teach. I don't think I could do what I do anywhere else and I appreciate that. The school is an independent (private) school and we have created much of the curriculum ourselves. I am grateful that we are not driven by mandated testing and we can try many approaches to help our students learn and also learn to love learning. However, this year has been one of the most difficult ever for me and I am tired.

What will I do with my 10 days? I will cook and bake - the things that I don't have time to make when I'm immersed in teaching. I will try some new recipes. I look forward to cleaning the house and getting rid of some things we don't need any longer. I will go into Chicago to the Art Institute where the special exhibit is Van Gogh's bedroom paintings. I will go to the dentist - okay, not so much looking forward to that one. I will relax, sleep, do yoga, read more books.

Ten days, ten lovely days ahead!

Friday, March 18, 2016

Water again

This is the last day of school before spring break. I had been looking forward to a relaxing break, sleeping more, reading, doing some neglected cleaning and decluttering around the house. Then yesterday we discovered that what we had thought was dampness from the sump pump not working is instead a much larger problem. We have a lot of water in our lower level.

We have a pleasant family room down there, with carpeting. The carpeting is now a smelly disaster. We will have to remove it this weekend. We probably need new drain tile, which means jack-hammering up the perimeter of the lower level.

I feel exhausted just thinking about it. I'm sad that the bathroom we just redid a couple of years ago will probably need to be done again. The nice carpeting that I liked so much is wrecked.

My husband says, "We're healthy, we have our jobs, we can still go to Houston to see our daughter next month, and it's just money." True, though it's money and a big mess. Though we aren't the poor people who have real floods and end up losing all their possessions. The mess will end, life will go on. Looking for the light at the end of the tunnel.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Letter writing, thoughts about

Today I wrote an actual letter, on paper with a pen. I wrote to my mom in Minnesota, who is 93 years old. She is in good health and good spirits, but is hard of hearing. I talk to her on the phone pretty often, but I know she isn't hearing everything and she isn't saying that she can't hear. So, since I had something to send to her, I decided to write a letter.

I was sending her a paper copy of a blog post I wrote last June, which was about her. I hadn't intended to show it to her, but my commenters thought I should, and so did my brother and sister. (You can read that post here. ) I forgot about it until now. In my letter I gave her all the latest news about what we'd been doing, what her grandchildren were up to, and asked about things at the independent living residence. It ended up being two pages. I used careful handwriting - I have really quite terrible handwriting for a teacher. It was a pleasant experience, in large part because I was hoping to bring happiness to her.

When I was growing up, after the age of 6, we never lived near any of our relatives because of my dad's job. We lived in Wisconsin and then Connecticut. My dad's parents lived in Seattle and every week he would write a letter to them telling them all the news from that week. My grandmother also wrote a letter every week, giving us all the family news from Seattle. Long distance calls were expensive - we talked on the phone twice a year. Letters were the main way of communicating, of staying in touch.

Today, of course, we all email or text. Letter writing has become a rarity. Will all of these electronic messages become part of the historical record of our time for future historians to study? Think of the letters of John and Abigail Adams, or the Mozart family - dedicated letter writers who gave all the generations after them a priceless window into their time. What will our window look like?

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

In the dark

Today our power went out. I was at school and hoped it would be back on by the time I got home, but it wasn't. It's been extremely windy here today, so I'm guessing that the wind took out some power lines. It seemed so unfair because our sump pump went our a few days ago, and even though it's working again, our lower level is damp. Damp and dark now.

I made dinner in the ever encroaching gloom. I had to light the stove with matches. We ate by candlelight. I figured that I could still blog and comment on my fully-charged laptop, but oh no! the wireless was unavailable because the router uses electricity. Heavy sigh in the dark. And I couldn't read either! I have library books due tomorrow!

Several years ago our power was out for several days. It was summer, though, and it stayed light later. We cooked on the grill and kept buying ice to keep things cold. I don't remember missing the air conditioning, so it must have been early summer. Every night we made a fire in our fire pit and the four of us sat around it and talked. It was an unexpected gift, given to us by the lack of electricity. As soon as we had power again, we all went back to our normal activities. I still remember those few days fondly, without thinking about the lack of anything.

Tonight my husband and I were just discussing driving to a Starbucks in order to have internet and light, when the lights and everything else came back on! Thank you, Commonwealth Edison! I not only have power and internet enabling me to blog, but a timely topic!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

1770 Tax Debate

We have two big debates in our 4th grade social studies each year. The first is on taxation without representation and the second on whether the colonies should declare independence from Britain. It's a structured, simplified debate. The pro side gives a prepared opening statement, then the con side gives their opening statement. While the opening statements are being read, the rebuttal team is making notes. Then first the pro rebuttal gives their points, and finally the con rebuttal gives theirs

To prepare for the debates, we divide the students into four teams - pro and con and within pro and con into opening statement or rebuttal. We provide them with points to planning either the opening statements or the rebuttals. They have two class periods to prepare and then we hold the debate. We invite a couple of teachers or administrators in to "judge" the debate. They do pick a winning side, but more importantly they are a more unfamiliar audience for the 4th graders. They also give valuable feedback and advice.

So today was the day of the debate. Preparation last week had been a bit rocky, but everything came together today. The opening statements were delivered smoothly and clearly. The rebuttals were the best we have ever had. We tell the kids that this is the most difficult role. You not only have to understand the arguments on both sides and prepare possible points, but you have to be a close listener to the opposition's opening statement so that you don't rebut something that they didn't bring up. Our two rebuttal speakers were focused and poised. The students who had to sit quietly throughout, did exactly that. It was rewarding for everyone involved.

And now they're pumped for the second debate!

Monday, March 14, 2016

Water, water

This morning when I opened the laundry room door to let out the cat (who otherwise wakes us up in the middle of the night), I found the floor was partially covered with water. The cat was not happy. I suspected it was the sump pump, but I checked the laundry sink, too. No, it appeared to be the sump pump, the second time it's given out in the last two months.

I got old towels and threw them on top of the puddles. Every time we have sump pump trouble I think to myself, my next house will be on a hill. No water in the basement. Of course being on a hill has its own challenges, especially when it snows. Or when you have to cut the grass.

The house I grew up in in Connecticut was on a hill. A little hill, but our house was considerably higher than all the other houses on the street. The reason for the hill was a giant rock. Connecticut is full of rocks, everywhere you go you see fences made of rocks that people have dug up. Our driveway was on a slant and after you got to the top of the drive, you had to climb a long set of stairs to get to the front door.

There's a limited number of plants that you can grow on a rock. We had a thin layer of dirt, so we had a lawn, and some rock-loving plants. My father who had always had a vegetable and flower garden had to give that up when we moved to this house. It was a beautiful setting, though. We were surrounded on three sides by woods. Our back yard dropped off into the woods and was ringed by tall, old trees, hickories and elms.

The basement, or cellar as we call them in Connecticut, was only half a basement because the giant rock took up the other half. Anyone remember the old Dick van Dyke Show? The episode where Rob and Laura are house shopping in New Rochelle, New York (not that far from where we lived) and they find that there's a rock sticking up in one corner of the family room in the basement? Theirs was a ROCK, naked. Our half-a-cellar worth of rock was cemented over so that we had a crawl space for that part of the cellar. It still made a good story.

This afternoon the sump pump came back on as my husband was moving stuff to get to it. We're still damp and the future of the sump pump is a mystery.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Concert tonight!

Tonight the concert band that I play in is giving our third concert of the season. I love playing in this group. I wrote yesterday about how much and why I love my Saturday morning French horn ensemble. I love this band just as much, but differently.

My husband and I joined this band when it was just starting up, 3 or 4 years ago. The conductor is so good - he's knowledgeable, a great communicator, has years of successful experience, and an excellent sense of humor. Because he has such a good reputation, he attracts very good players. So this band is better than many community bands in our area. It's a pleasure to play with these musicians.

Our conductor often chooses challenging music for us. This is a powerful motivator to practice at home! For me, though I love to play, if I don't have some music that I need to learn, it's more difficult to create challenges for myself to practice. We gotten to play old favorites and also pieces that I didn't know before I played them with this band.

My fellow band members are a lot of fun! Our conductor jokes around (in addition to being completely serious about the music) and so do band members. Everyone seems to have a sense of when humor is appropriate and when we should just concentrate on the music. Band members get together after rehearsals and concerts to socialize and yes, have a beer.

I meant to write about the concert tonight, but this seems to have turned into an advertisement for joining a community band! So, I'm looking forward to the concert, hoping to pace myself so I don't get overtired before the end (yes, it's a little like sports), and looking forward to the happy glow after it's over.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Niceness reigns on Saturday mornings

Most Saturday mornings I drive about 25 miles to Crystal Lake, Illinois, where I play in a music group. This group, the Cor Corps, is made up only of French horns. The only requirement for membership is that you must play the French horn. We have members from high school through to retired folks. We have some very fine players and people who are returning to their instrument after many years of not playing. We play all kinds of music from classical to jazz to show tunes to rock. The best thing about being in this group is that it's a ton of fun.

I have played in groups where the players don't get along, or where a few people hog all the fun parts. I have even played in groups where backstabbing happened. In groups like that you might play wonderful music and it might even sound good, but it isn't fun to be with the people in the group. The Cor Corps is different. The better players encourage others. People who want to push themselves to try something new, something that's hard for them, are encouraged and given opportunities.

Another important aspect of this group is we have fun together. We joke, we kid others. There's a lot of laughing at rehearsals. Together we have created a positive, safe place with a purpose - to play music.

Sometimes I need to remind my students that before they say something they should ask themselves, "Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?" Being kind is always the best choice in the end, for kids and adults and for both sides of the kindness. It may seem obvious, but it doesn't always happen.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Friday! Pizza!

It feels like it's been a long week. Monday, institute day with Google training and report cards. The rest of the week, trying to fit so many things in before spring break, which starts in one week. We have to get those tests in before the kids take a week off and forget everything! And they're already antsy because they know the break is coming.

So now it's Friday evening and I'm making homemade pizza and brownies. I accidentally discovered that if you turn off the oven in the middle of baking your brownies, they are even more delicious than if the oven was on the whole time! Who knew! Fancy stove - I thought I was turning off the timer and instead I turned off the heat.

That won't be a successful strategy with the pizza though. I love making and eating homemade pizza. The dough is really not hard to make and so much better than pre-made crusts. I make vegetable pizza, being a vegetarian, and tonight I'm going to see if the new, high-end dairy-free mozzarella is any good. I have tried other dairy-free cheeses and have always been disappointed. I'm lactose intolerant, so pizza is always an issue. It's not done yet, so I guess I'll post an update in the comments about the cheese.

Wishing everyone a happy Friday!

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Big and Little Buddies, a bonding experience

We have a buddy system at my school - the 4th grade is paired with the 4-year-old pre-kindergarten class. Each 4th grader is buddied with a preK student. Sometimes we have two 4th graders with one buddy or vice versa, depending on the numbers in the grades. We do a variety of low-key activities with the little ones, like playing on the playground together, or reading books.

Back in December the two 4th grade classes had made little counting books for the buddies. My partner and I had both signed up with Stamps Teach, part of the American Philatelic Society. As a teacher, you sign up for free and they send you lots of stamps, plus other interesting stamp things, and you can get lesson plans from their site. We have tried a few of the activities suggested, including this counting book idea. The 4th graders used the stamps to illustrate the numbers from 1 to 10. It was an excellent activity for December when attentions tend to wander! The 4th graders loved the stamps and the idea of making books for the 4-year-olds.

The books were finished, but we got busy, and it wasn't until today that we were able to go visit our little buddies to deliver and read the books. Our young buddies also things to share - they had been doing a dragon unit. Each child had made a dragon puppet from a sock and a habitat for the dragon out of a shoe box. They were all very imaginative and cute. After the books were read and the dragons and their homes admired, we all went to the playground for a bit.

We all have a lot of fun throughout the year with our buddy partners, but for me the best part is seeing my 4th graders step up and work with the little ones. Students who may be struggling in academics, kids who are the "baby" of their family, kids who act immature in the 4th grade classroom - when they get a little buddy they become patient, caring, nurturing. I have watched a squirrelly 4th grade boy work diligently and with gentleness to keep the attention of a 4-year-old boy while reading to him. I watch the preKs lead the older kids around the preK room, the older kids asking questions and showering attention on the little ones. It's a beautiful sight.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016


Monday this week was a teacher in-service. I spent part of the day learning more about the Google things for teachers.

My school has a goal of becoming a Google school, with all, or at least most, of the teachers certified at Level 1 by Google. So, we have been learning about how we can use the various Google products in our teaching. It's a lot to take in, but it's exciting to see some ways to use this technology.

Since starting to learn about Google for Education earlier this year, I have tried out Google classroom by assigning an essay. I liked it because we were already using Google docs and by assigning the essay through Google classroom, I can see their work as it progresses, but I don't get a zillion emails telling about every update.

My latest project is using Google slides to create an ongoing resource that students can use. We do a research project every year wherein students pick a topic about the Revolutionary War and write a paper. Most kids pick a person to write about. We have a list of interesting people, but usually 4th graders don't know anything about most of them and end up picking at random. I'm putting the names of researchable people onto Google slides with enough information to help kids decide if they might be interested in researching. We'll see how it works in the next few days!

Tuesday, March 8, 2016


Last summer I went to the International Horn Symposium in LA. Yes, it was a whole week devoted to the French horn. If you are unsure which instrument this is, here is a picture:

While I was at the symposium, I went to concerts and lectures and saw films and much more. I also was shopping for a new horn case. The case that had come with my horn was falling apart. It was a backpack case and it was not comfortable to wear because of the straps which were held together with metal clips. So over four days, I visited the exhibits, looked at cases, and talked to the exhibitors. There is a lot of variety in horn cases, in size, how the horn fits into it, and how protective it is. And it is an investment. You can pay from around $500 up to several thousand dollars for a case.

One man stands out as being not only knowledgeable, but patient. I went back to talk to him probably seven or eight times over those four days. Each time he answered my questions, gave his opinions, which were always based on his extensive experience, and waited patiently. I decided, before I even decided which case to buy, that I would buy from him. When I finally made my choice, he happily wrote up the order, gave me free shipping (!), and congratulated me. The case came promptly and the longer I have it the more I like it. My cat also enjoys it when the horn isn't in it. 

I am grateful. So, this week I wrote a thank you to Scott Bacon, owner of Siegfried's Call in New York. If you're looking for horn products, check him out on the web. 

Monday, March 7, 2016

A Night at the Opera

I am not a regular opera goer. I am a musician. Before I became a 4th grade teacher, I got two degrees in music. My husband and I attend symphony concerts regularly. But the opera has been an occasional experience for us. But last Friday night we went to Lyric Opera of Chicago to see Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss. There was a great deal on tickets and we both love the music in Rosenkavalier, so we got tickets.

Der Rosenkavalier, or the Cavalier of the Rose, is both a romance and a comedy. The Marschallin and her much younger lover, Octavian, are very much in love, but the Marschallin knows that eventually he will leave her for a younger woman. She chooses him to present the silver rose to Sophie, the fiancee of her cousin (hence the title of the opera). When Octavian and Sophie meet, they fall instantly in love (of course - it's an opera). Baron von Ochs, who is supposed to marry Sophie, turns out to be quite a boorish oaf, mostly interested in her money. He's also quite the womanizer. The opera alternates between the comedic, featuring Baron von Ochs, and the romantic. Through a clever scheme, Ochs is exposed for what he is, and Octavian and Sophie can marry. The last scene includes a touching trio with the Marschallin, Octavian, and Sophie, as each expresses their feelings. Octovain is torn between the two women, feeling love for both and loyalty to the Marschellin. The Marschellin sings about the cruelty of time as she ages, and Sophie wonders who Octavian really loves. He chooses Sophie. The Marschellin goes gracefully off.

My husband and I had seen the opera before at Indiana University when our daughter was a student there. Indiana has an excellent opera department. We loved the music, but the opera felt jarring as it went back and forth between the melancholy love story and the blunt comedy of Ochs.

The experience at Lyric Opera was different. The pathos of the Marschellin facing the loss of Octavian and getting older always makes me teary. In Lyric's production though, while Ochs was still an unprincipled skirt chaser, he was softer somehow, and I actually felt a little sorry for him when the Marschallin told him to leave, meaning he didn't get Sophie and her money. I've also kept thinking about the opera since Friday night. This version of it has made a strong impression on me.

As I said, I'm not a regular opera goer, but now I understand why opera fans go to the same opera over and over. Different productions, different singers and directors, make a huge difference. I don't know why it took me so long to realize all this.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Shopping for fancy clothes

Today I went shopping for something to wear to my school's auction next Saturday. The auction is the biggest fundraiser of the year and it's a fancy evening with a sit-down dinner, silent auction and live auction. Teachers are expected to help at this event by doing various jobs. We also get the same lovely dinner that the guests get.

My life is mostly pretty casual. When I do go to an evening event in Chicago, it's winter and more important to stay warm and to not slip and fall than it is to wear evening dress. So after looking in my closet, I decided I needed to go to the mall to buy something that would raise my wardrobe into the fancy dinner category. Palazzo pants and a nice top, maybe sparkly.

The first stop was Macy's. I found the fancy evening wear section. It was mobbed by high school girls. What event could be coming up in March? Turn-about is in February and prom isn't until May.

In a few minutes of searching through the racks of clothes, I found palazzo pants. Looking some more, I found several sparkly tops. Off to the dressing rooms, where there were long lines and lots of giggling from the high school crowd. Finally in a room, I tried everything on, looking in the mirror, and decided on a pair of the palazzo pants and a two-piece top that included a black velvet tank and a black and gold sparkly jacket. Then off to stand in line to pay, behind someone with a fistful of coupons, having alooong discussion with the saleslady about which ones she could use. Finally finished, I went to find my husband and left the crowded mall.

Once home, I found that the saleslady hadn't removed the theft device from the pants. Grrrrr!!!! A trip back to the mall is in my future.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Search for Historical Novels

Last week at school I was bemoaning because I haven't been able to find the perfect historical novel about the American Revolution to read aloud to my 4th grade class. One of the middle school language arts teachers started suggesting books to me. "Johnny Tremain? My Brother Sam is Dead?" I wasn't sure if my class could sit through Johnny Tremain, as much as I enjoy it, and I couldn't remember what My Brother Sam is Dead is about. Then she whipped out her phone and pulled up a list of Newbery nominated historical novels about the American Revolution. Technology is amazing.

I later looked carefully through the list, checked the closest public library, and made a trip. I was able to take out five novels from the children's section to preview. The next time I saw my middle school colleague in the teachers' lunchroom, I excitedly exclaimed, "I went to the library and got a stack of books!" A couple other teachers laughed, and one remarked, "Isn't that what you do at the library?" Yeah, it is. It was a pretty nerdy remark I made.

My problem in finding the "perfect" novel to read to my class is that I'm looking for an engaging story that works as a read-aloud and is historically accurate. In the past we have had students read Mr. Revere and I, in which Paul Revere's horse, a stuck up filly who came to the colonies as a British army horse, tells Revere's story and in the process changes her mind about the colonial yokels. The horse uses an awful lot of really big words, and of course, with a horse narrating, it's not historically accurate. We've also had students read The Fighting Ground by Avi, the story of a young boy who runs off to join a ragtag Continental Army group. The whole novel takes place within one day. I don't find that it lends itself to reading aloud. It works better when you see it on the page.

There are other novels, of course. My partner reads Spy, a novel about Nathan Hale. I read it a few years ago and didn't like it, though I can't remember why now. I love Johnny Tremain, but wonder if it's too long. My middle school colleague encouraged me to consider it. Of the books from the library I have so far read Five 4ths of July, which is a really good book, but for teens, not 4th graders. It is the story of a teenager who ends up on a British prison ship. It is well-researched and also follows the coming of age under brutal circumstances of the main character.

I'm also going to read Chains, about a 13-year-old slave girl who becomes an American spy in New York City, and Sophie's War, by Avi, about another girl who becomes a spy. I'm sure there are lots more choices waiting to be discovered.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Sunday Supper

In the teachers' lunch room today we had a conversation about family dinners. One of us said that family dinners during the week were pretty impossible because of sports and her husband's work schedule, but Sunday dinnertime was sacred -- the whole family would always be there, without other guests.

I think today many of us have to make those choices, even if we'd rather have family dinners every day, with home-cooked meals. The conversation reminded me of the Sunday suppers my family had when I was growing up. We did eat dinner together nearly every night of the week, but Sunday evening was special because my mom put out sandwich makings, chips, and hot chocolate. We each made what we wanted and took our plates downstairs to the rec room to eat and watch TV.

Of course, watching television during dinner is much frowned on, but my parents made this into a special family event each week. We watched Lassie, Mr. Ed, the Wonderful World of Disney, and we talked about the shows. I remember those Sunday nights very fondly, especially now that my family is scattered among four states.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Viennese Connection - Trying New Things

We live in a suburban area where there's a lot of pressure on kids and parents regarding achievement in high school and what colleges kids get into. Somewhere along the way, before my kids entered high school, I realized that this was a culture that was fostering this type of thinking and the atmosphere that went with it, and that I didn't have to buy into it. It was quite liberating.

So we told our children that high school is a time for trying new things. There were other parents pushing AP classes and comparing GPAs and so on. We felt a bit like outliers. Our son took four years of art in high school and then went to art college. Our daughter went out for basketball and track, played in band and orchestra, and also took some AP classes, though not as many as she could have taken.

The band program at our high school has an exchange program with a high school, or gymnasium, in Vienna, Austria. Every three years the band goes to Austria and while they're in Vienna, the students stay with families from the gymnasium. Jamie went and had a wonderful, fun, enriching trip, including her stay with a lovely family who carefully accommodated her diet and took her on outings. Every fall, a group of high school students from Vienna visit our area for about 10 days, staying with band families.

The next time the Viennese were coming to Illinois, Jamie asked if we could host a student, and we agreed. It was not a successful exchange. The girl who stayed with us was primarily interested in shopping - the exchange rate was extremely favorable for Europeans at the time. She wasn't interested in spending any time with us.

So the next year when the band again asked for host families, I told my daughter no. She really wanted to try again and what she said to me was, "You said that high school is a time for trying new things. I really want to try this again." She was convincing, we agreed to another exchange student. We had a lovely visit with Sarah from Vienna, and she and Jamie stayed in touch for several years after the visit.

Try new things, sometimes more than once.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Princess Bride

I'm going to say right up front, I'm a cat person. I like dogs fine, but I love my cats. This story is about a cat. And a movie.

I had never watched the movie "The Princess Bride." My children bought a VHS tape of it years ago, but I never watched it. Occasionally it would come up in conversation with someone, and they would say, "You've never seen it?" Apparently it's a thing with some people.

Then a friend posted a photo of an adorable black kitten on Facebook along with the story of how he and his wife came to adopt it. She went out one Saturday morning to buy cat food for their two cats, and came home with this kitten. He (the kitten) had an unusually large head, so, my friend said, they named him Fezzik.

I thought the story was funny, and so I repeated it to my family. My son thought the name Fezzik was a wonderful and hilarious name. It didn't mean anything to me, so I asked if it came from somewhere. Yes, he said, Fezzik is the giant in "The Princess Bride." "Oh," I replied. "This kitten has a really large head." My son laughed even more. I resolved to watch this movie, which was attaining mythic status in my mind.

One Saturday afternoon, I sat down to watch the old VHS tape. There was Andre the Giant playing Fezzik. It was an entertaining movie, a kind of tongue-cheek swashbuckling fairy tale. And now I can say that I have seen "The Princess Bride."

Meanwhile Fezzik has grown to match his head.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Stories in report cards

I have been writing the narratives for reports cards. Assessment is not my favorite part of teaching, and to sum up a trimester of learning and growing... I have to write about 150 words about each of my students. When I sit down to write, I think about each child in turn. What to write? How to tell parents about their child's successes and challenges and also capture that special individuality of each child?

The little girl who loves to write and also to laugh with her friends. The boy who just wants to do well. His desire is almost a tangible part of him. The new boy who is trying so hard to fit in. The absent-minded one, lost in his own world. Each one is so alive and individual. Each one has his or her own stories.

I give a lot of thought to each child, and also look over their grades. Who is excelling in math, who finds the interesting insights in books, who helps everyone get along together?

This reflection and writing on my part often gives me new insight into my students, so I guess that's an additional benefit of writing report cards. I am so busy day to day, teaching, planning lessons, grading papers, that forcing me to stop and think about each one of my students turns out to be a positive activity. And it reminds me of what delightful children I have in my class.