A Week Down Memory Lane

Once the school year begins, and the “train” leaves the station, it seems like I don’t have any time, inclination, or energy for a big project around the house. For ten months I struggle with the enormous piles of essays, tests, and quizzes that befall a middle school language arts teacher.  About all I can manage around the house is cooking dinner each night and doing the laundry on Sunday evening while I do my lesson plans for the next week.

At the start of my eight-week summer break, I wander around in a daze unable to commit myself to much of anything, even the laundry, other than reading (for pleasure as opposed to reading for school), cooking, and baking, three things I find truly relaxing. Eventually, however, it dawns on me that the summer is slipping by and I buckle myself down to tackle a project.

bookshelvesBecause we are a houseful of avid readers, and by avid I mean obsessed, one of my first projects last summer was to make room for the overflow of books that is the result of (a) one college graduate moving back home with her boxes of books and (b) the whole family’s favorite weekend forays to the two excellent used bookstores in our neighborhood. We all regularly give and get books as gifts, and we actually use Amazon gift cards to purchase, surprise, books. Unpainted planks and concrete blocks from the local hardware store and voilà, an entire wall of bookshelves. I know it would have been nicer to purchase bookshelves, or hire a carpenter to build some, or at the very least, to sand and paint the planks, but once the shelves are filled with books, the beauty of the spines of the books and their jackets seems to take over and elevate the whole thing to an acceptable point.

My next major project was to go through my closet. This is a much more monumental task than finding shelf space for books. Books are my friends, and no matter how old they are, or how many times I have read them, I can always pull them out and read them again. However, some of my clothes stopped being my friends years ago. Some items were impulse buys, and once home, decided they were loners and did not wish to see the light of day.  Other items were once cherished BFF’s, building me up and making me shine, and now they taunt me instead, unwilling to zip or button or match with anything that does zip or button. This surliness has even spilled over onto my shoe racks. That beautiful pair of bone pumps, with the pretty kitten heels and the stylish brushed nickel buckle across the rather pointy toes, has turned into a mean and spiteful set of twins who tease me by taking nips out of my little toes every time I wear them. It was time for me to “unfriend” some of these hangers-on and free up valuable closet space for new friends.

This seemed like a one day job: take everything out of the closet, inspect it, try it on, and either hang it back up or fold it for the donation box. Ha! One day my foot. Speaking of feet, the shoes alone took a whole day.  So many painful decisions. I finally decided on the only reasonable method of deciding to keep or pitch: could I survive a day teaching in that pair of shoes? Strappy sandals, no way! Red clogs purchased in Holland (but ironically say “Made in Sweden” on the bottom), uh-I don’t think so. This made all further shoe decisions extremely easy.

Brooches and PinsDay two: jewelry. Seriously, you would think I was a member of the British royal family with all the pins and brooches I have collected over the years. Don’t get me wrong, I love my pins and brooches. I wear one almost every day. Some I have had for thirty plus years. Others I bought because they reminded me of a particular piece of literature and I wear them when I teach that book or short story. What? You don’t understand? Well, in a thrift store I once found a burnished gold brooch in the shape of a marlin, as though it were leaping from the water, back arched and scales glistening in the sun. I just had to have it, I mean, for goodness sake, I teach Hemingway’s Pulitzer Prize winning novella The Old Man and the Sea. So you can see how sorting and organizing my extensive collection of costume jewelry would be a day in itself.

silk scarfDay three: scarves. Okay, now you probably have an image of someone your grandmother’s age, or older, swathed in some smelly old Victorian printed piece of gauzy material, but I can validate how my love of scarves began. Years and years ago my mother’s great uncle died and when her family went through his belongings they offered my mother one of his ancient leather suitcases, embellished with his initials in gold leaf near the handle. When we got the suitcase home and opened it, we were surprised to find inside items left behind by his wife, not him, a small sandwich baggie filled with costume jewelry, some of it marked with well-known names such as Monet, Napier, and Sarah Coventry, and a collection of silk scarves. My mom gave it all to me and gave the suitcase to one of my cousins who had been named for this great uncle. And so my love of scarves began. A plain knit top becomes an outfit with the addition of a scarf and a brooch.  Perhaps not as fashionable as in the past, I still love to accessorize with these items, and my collection of both scarves and brooches has continued to grow.

closet renoDay four came and finally it was time to tackle the clothes. This was undoubtedly the hardest day as some items have such sentimental memories attached to them. There’s the knit top purchased at a Gap store on the day it first opened, and I had negotiated the legal documents between the landlord and the tenant for the build-out of the store. As a result of my work on the deal, I was given an employee discount card for one day and was able to shop in the store before it opened to the public. I loved that shirt. I wore it all the time. I have a charming picture of my family taken on a summer vacation to Williamsburg with me wearing that top.  It has seen its better days and frankly, doesn’t fit anymore, but for years, when I attempt to organize my closet, I just can’t bear to part with it. There are other items like that. A brown denim maxi-skirt appliqued with bits of corduroy and plaids in a swirly pattern down one side is another example. During the two years we lived overseas I didn’t purchase much clothing in the stores on the local economy as we were able to have shipped to us American goods via the APO system as well as being able to shop at the PX and commissary near Brussels. In addition, the European tight-fitting clothing didn’t quite agree with my all-American (for better and worse) body-type. But, one day, in a mall in Brussels, I found this brown denim skirt and by some miracle, the largest size fit me. I absolutely adore that skirt (still) and wore the daylights out of it until it turned on me and decided not to zip one morning as I was dressing for work. I can’t give that skirt away, even though it has betrayed me; I just can’t. So, on that day I made a decision to make a small stack of clothes like the Gap shirt and the brown denim Belgian skirt, and pack them into a box marked “Keepsake Clothing”. Now, they can’t taunt me from their never-touched coat hangers and I actually have room in my closet to see what does fit!

About halfway through the clothing process I stumbled upon a black zip-front cardigan that had been my mother’s. She wore it all the time as she was always cold as she grew frailer from the illnesses that plagued her for the last fourteen years of her life. In 2007 when going through her closets after her funeral, I found that cardigan and had a good cry while holding it close to me. That day I packed it in my suitcase and hung it in the back of my closet when I got home. Seven years later, I was overwrought with emotions once again as I took it from the closet. I had to sit on the edge of my bed and hold that cardigan, and yes, have a good cry. It was shabby from much wear, and one shoulder seam had become frayed. It wouldn’t fit anyone in my family and looked so dated I am sure it wouldn’t be worn by someone that it did fit. That cardigan is not my mom; it can’t bring me closer to her or do anything other than make me sad when I look at it. So I did something my mom would have advised: say a Hail Mary, wipe my eyes, and put it in the donation box. Just before I did that, though, I checked the pockets and there I found two clean tissues, a packet of Equal sweetener, and the balled-up wrapper of a Hershey’s Kiss, with its little paper tail sticking out. There you have my mom in a nutshell. Tissues always at the ready, and because one of her medications had brought on Type II diabetes, she used Equal in her coffee and tea. Type II diabetes, however, wasn’t strong enough to ward off a little bit of chocolate here and there.

Sadly, after four days I was still not finished with the reorganization efforts in my bedroom. I still have a large drawer crammed full of socks. Oh the stories those socks could tell if they had tongues instead of toes. But, I have run out of steam on this project, and it is almost “back to school” time for me. The remainder of my time off will be devoted to cleaning and decorating my classroom, organizing my teaching materials, going through my school library, throwing out student work not collected at the end of the year- -a lot like organizing my closet at home. Besides, in the dead of summer, who wants to sort through matched pairs of socks, mismatched pairs of socks, and sock widows and widowers? I think the stories from my sock drawer will have to wait until next summer.

A Love Letter to Laurie Colwin

Everyone has a list of people, either alive or deceased, that they would love to have dinner with. I’m sure there is a BuzzFeed list of the top candidates for those lists, chock-full of celebrities and famous people. For me, however, at the top of my list, is Laurie Colwin.

Born and raised in Manhattan, Colwin was a writer and foodie who left us with a small repertoire: three collections of short stories, five novels, and two collections of essays on food, family, and entertaining. She died in 1992 at the far too young age of 48, leaving behind a husband, Juris, and an eight-year old daughter, Rosa. It’s that part that eats at me, the eight-year old daughter. I’ve had two eight-year old daughters in my lifetime, and I can’t imagine what life would be like for them if I had not lived to see them become nine, or nineteen, or someday in the very near future, twenty-nine.

In the late 80’s, I moved from Louisiana to the Washington, DC, area, taking up residence in a high-rise apartment in Bethesda. Unsure of how I would afford both the sky-high rent and a parking spot in the basement garage, I sold my car before I moved, knowing that my new job was a fifteen minute walk from my future apartment. On the way home from work in the afternoon I would stop in the little shops and markets along the way as I was exploring and getting to know my new neighborhood. One of my favorites was a bookstore just a block from my apartment. They frequently had an outdoor table piled high with books for sale. That’s where I found Laurie Colwin.

laurie colwin books 2There was something about the cover of Home Cooking that made me pick it up. Much like Laurie Colwin who was one of a kind, the cover of Home Cooking (as well as its sequel) was taken from a monotype by artist Janet Yake. To create a monotype the artist first paints the image on a flat surface like glass or Plexiglas, and then while the paint is still wet, transfers the image to paper by hand by pressing or rubbing—producing a one of a kind print, not leaving much room for error.

That night, I read about half of Home Cooking in one sitting. I carried it to work with me the next day so I could read it while I ate my lunch at my desk. I was intrigued by her writing style, her homey attitude towards entertaining, and her very palpable love of her family. How I wished I could be invited to dine in her NYC apartment and sup on one of the dishes detailed in Home Cooking. I later discovered some of the essays found in her books originated as articles for Gourmet magazine. Again, at a used bookstore, I managed to hunt down several old issues with her work. Eventually I discovered the sequel, More Home Cooking, which was published after her death. Recently Laurie Colwin has been in the literary news, with the release of some of her work as e-books. I immediately purchased the e-book of Home Cooking, even though I have owned a print copy for over twenty years.

I know these two books very well; they are like old friends to me, friends I would gladly have over for a lovely cup of tea and a freshly baked scone. Each August, when I return to my classroom after a nice summer break, I begin literature class with my new 7th graders reading “Lemons and Limes” from More Home Cooking. It is the perfect example of descriptive writing, writing that truly appeals to the senses. As you read Colwin’s descriptions of the many things she does with lemons and the zest from their bright yellow peels, you can feel your mouth puckering, your tongue tingling. While the class discusses Colwin’s talented use of descriptive writing, we talk about their favorite foods and what their family dinners at home are like. It’s through these classroom discussions, under the guise of studying a piece of non-fiction literature, that they get to know me as a teacher and I get to know them as students. The fact that they also get to know Laurie Colwin is just a bonus.

I love trying to recreate the dishes from Colwin’s books. They aren’t so much recipes as they are narratives. Apparently, there are cooking clubs that meet periodically to cook and eat an entire meal from Colwin’s books. A cursory search on Google produces quite a list of articles and blog posts about Laurie Colwin’s writings. In her short life, she made quite an impact on many, some of whom weren’t even born when she died. And, she did that without a computer, a tablet, an iPhone, a show on the Food Network, or a blog.

It’s hard to imagine Laurie Colwin living and writing about food in today’s gourmand-crazy and technology-frenzied world. If you read even just one or two of her food essays you will see that she was a no-nonsense home cook, not a fancy haute cuisine multi-ethnic fusion type of chef. I read a 2014 article on the The New York Times website by Jeff Gordinier who interviewed Colwin’s daughter, now a grown-up foodie and writer herself:

“In some ways, Ms. Colwin prefigured a lot of what the food world is obsessed with now: organic eggs, broccoli rabe, beets and homemade bread, yogurt and jam. ‘She was so ahead of her time with the organic stuff,’ Ms. Jurjevics said. ‘That was so hard growing up, I’ve got to say. I was the kid with the weird lunch.’

On the other hand, the surge in food media might have befuddled her. ‘I wonder what she would have made of so many things,’ Ms. Jurjevics mused. ‘Would she have a computer? Would she email people? She was so particular about everything. Would she blog? I wonder, would she compulsively Google herself?’”

I’ve always imagined Colwin sitting at her kitchen table with a cup of steaming coffee and a yellow legal pad, writing away, while stopping periodically to stir something on the stove or to read a book to her daughter. So, it’s a little difficult to see her, she of the bread-baking, jam-making, beef-stewing variety, sitting hunched over a MacBook Pro, sipping a chai latte, tapping away at her latest novel or food essay. I have an easier time visualizing her blogging, casually spinning out one of her food stories, drawing us in, making us want to rush to our own kitchens and roast a chicken stuffed with a lemon.

Whenever I am writing about food, whether it is a restaurant meal or one I’ve prepared at home myself, I hear her voice in my head. I know, however, that what comes out of my printer is not even close to the quality of what she herself would have written.  She was a master story-teller; she brought you into her kitchen, or, as she recounts in Home Cooking, into her kitchen-less studio apartment during her early days on her own. Even without a kitchen she cooked and entertained regularly, cooking on a two-burner hotplate and draining pasta in her bathtub. I’ve been told by family and close friends that I am a good story-teller, so I keep trying to tell a food story the way she would have. I don’t know if I will ever accomplish that, but until then, I will keep re-reading her stories, and as I write, I will keep listening to her voice.

Bibliography

Colwin, Laurie. Home Cooking. New York: Knopf, 1988. Print.

Colwin, Laurie. More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen. New York: HarperCollins, 1993. Print.

Gordinier, Jeff. “Laurie Colwin: A Confidante in the Kitchen.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 01 Apr. 2014. Web. 09 July 2015.

“Printmaking Methods.” Fitch-Febvrel Gallery. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 July 2015.

Sing It, Alice Cooper!

Alice Cooper's "School's Out for Summer"In the inimitable words of Alice Cooper, “School’s out for summer!” The end of the school year is a glorious thing for students. The countdown begins somewhere mid-4th quarter. Teachers are ready, too, and many post the countdown on their white boards, both as encouragement for their students to hang in there and finish strong, as well as to join in the excitement. However, as any teacher will tell you, the end of the school year is not an easy coast to the finish line. It means making, proctoring, and grading final exams. It means preparing report cards. It means collecting textbooks and class novels. It means completing book orders, class lists for next year, maintenance request orders, and classroom inventories. It means cleaning out and organizing nine months of files and materials. It means packing up what was once a bright, vibrant, and engaging classroom and stripping it down to a dull and boring room with naked bulletin boards, upturned desks, and stacked chairs.

My classroom, end of school year

My classroom, end of school year

I love teaching. I just finished my eighth year of teaching (second career) and I can still unabashedly say I love teaching. Seriously, I don’t know how anyone could do this job if they didn’t love it. It is a lot of work, and I am pretty sure the entire world knows that the pay is not great. I work 7:30 to 7:30 most days, and I spend five to ten hours each weekend on school work. But, there is something about that exchange of ideas, the transfer of knowledge, the unpredictable nature of each day; that I completely love.

For me, teaching literature is like doing a one-man show each and every day in front of a full house, albeit, a captive audience. When that bell rings and my students file in, I close my door, and six times a day it’s show time! Whether it is starting new material, reviewing for a test or quiz, learning new vocabulary, unlocking the vagaries of the comma, doing group work, or rotating through stations for peer teaching, it is all exciting to me and each school day flies by.

7B Literature, "fishing" for vocab words about medieval times

7B Literature, “fishing” for vocab words about medieval times

So you can see that I never look forward to this process of undoing my classroom at the end of the year. Once the last bell rings and the kids are gone for the summer the school changes. It is quiet, too quiet. It is almost as though there has been a death in the family. Hallways are empty and barren. Teachers are on permanent dress-down, coming in to clean and sort in what my mother would have called “car-washing clothes”, which meant any outfit she wouldn’t be caught dead wearing in public. Without the spirit and energy of the students, a school building is just a building, nothing more.

It’s hard for me to get motivated for these tasks as I don’t feel any sense of urgency. Some teachers fly through this work in a day or less, anxious to get started on their summer vacation. The really diligent ones don’t stop to chat or linger in the hallways. They don’t go out for an extended lunch at a neighborhood eatery. They hole themselves up in their rooms and get the work done as quickly as possible. I am not one of those.

Students listening to medieval music as part of literature unit on middle ages, reading Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

Students listening to medieval music as part of literature unit on middle ages, reading Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

As classroom doors close one by one and final goodbyes are shouted by those who have officially signed out, I find myself getting less productive and more distracted. I decide to clean out a desk drawer and find things in it that need to be filed so I open my file cabinet, and once in there, I find things in the file drawer to sort and organize. An hour later, the desk drawer is still agape, with no progress being made there whatsoever, and not much progress has been made in the file drawer either. The busier I am, the more I get done. But, when I am not busy or under some sort of deadline, I can procrastinate with the best of them.

8th graders working with their kindergarten buddies on a writing assignment

8th graders working with their kindergarten buddies on a writing assignment

Packing everything away–posters, bulletin board strips, knickknacks, religious items from my classroom prayer center, my computers and other tech equipment–always reminds me of putting away leftovers after Thanksgiving dinner. All of that food came out of the refrigerator before it was cooked. Once cooked and half-eaten, it seems as though it just isn’t going to go back in there. Without emptying the closets and reorganizing everything, it seems impossible to stick all of the tech equipment and classroom decorations back in there. But, emptying two closets and starting over takes forever, and soon distraction creeps in and a project that should have taken a few hours expands to fill the whole day. Near the end of the second day, you can guess what happens…pushing and shoving things in wherever they will fit just to get it done and over with. “I’ll sort and organize it in the fall when we come back,” is the inevitable thought process here.

7th graders studying the foods of the middle ages, from the familiar (meat roasted on an open fire) to the unusual (boiled eel)

7th graders studying the foods of the middle ages, from the familiar (meat roasted on an open fire) to the unusual (boiled eel)

Don’t get me wrong: I can’t wait for the end of the school year. As much as anyone else, I look forward to a break from the endless grading required of the middle school language arts teacher. There’s also turning off the alarm clock, a particular favorite of mine. There’s the freedom of deciding at lunchtime what to eat, not having to eat whatever it is that you brought to school with you that day. There’s the luxury of reading for pleasure, not reading educational articles or new novels you are contemplating adding to your curriculum.

My classroom library, sorted by genre to entice the reluctant reader

My classroom library, sorted by genre to entice the reluctant reader

Being home for summer break means finally getting to clean and organize at home. You teachers know what I mean. There’s that spot where everything gets dumped week after week as you are just barely finishing your lesson plans and grading before falling into bed on Sunday night, and when you spot that area, you think, “Once school ends, I will take care of that.” There are also doctors’ appointments to catch up on and household repairs to schedule. Even if I don’t have big vacation plans for the summer, I still enjoy having lunch out with friends from the corporate world, friends from my past work life that I haven’t seen in a while. I also love spending the day in my kitchen trying out some new recipes. I frequent my local public library and spend hours browsing the stacks, indulging in “beach reads” as well as catching up on the classics. Last summer I taught myself to decoupage and successfully completed several projects. This summer I want to do some sewing and also try my hand at mosaics, an art form that has always fascinated me.

Of course, there will be time for writing, continuing my journey on becoming a writer. This essay on school being out fulfills this week’s requirement in my goal of writing and publishing an essay a week for one year. So far, so good. This is week 24 of the year 2015, and counting this one, I’ve published 26 essays. I am also going to redouble my efforts on a novel that I have been working on intermittently for several years, and I will continue my efforts to get something published.

My 8th grade girls having lunch in my classroom, earlier in the year

My 8th grade girls having lunch in my classroom, earlier in the year

So, tomorrow officially begins my summer break from school. Well, almost. I am taking an online class that I need for renewing my certification so I will be doing school work, but it is only from June 22 to July 2. The rest of July and part of August stretch before me like an endless stream of possibilities. Most importantly, it will be a time to recharge my batteries so I can return to school in the fall full of energy, new ideas, and excitement to begin my ninth year of teaching! School’s out for summer!

The Fatal Bite

I didn’t go looking for drama; it came to me. In early 1984, I was at a very low and dark point in my personal and professional life. I went to work, came home, went to bed, got up, and repeated that process for weeks-no, months-on end. My only foray out of my apartment was to Mass on Sunday. I was not sleeping well, not eating well, and generally, not doing well. And then one Saturday in April of that year a friend came to visit. I was horrified to have an unexpected guest drop in on me and see the way I was existing. In fact, my half-decorated Christmas tree was still up (barely standing) in my living room, a carpet of pine needles surrounding it.

My friend took stock of the situation and sent me upstairs to shower and get dressed. “We are going out,” she said firmly. There was no negotiation allowed. I dragged myself upstairs and did as I had been instructed. When I came back down, my living room was spotless, dead Christmas tree dragged to the dumpster, decorations stacked neatly on my dining room table. That was when she made the announcement: “I’m on my way to audition for a part in the musical South Pacific and you are coming with me. After the auditions we are going out to lunch.”

Uh, no. No thanks. No way. Not happening. But, as friends come, this one is a real spitfire. At this juncture, we had been friends for ten years, after meeting in 1974 as freshmen during sorority rush at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana.

My Phi Mu sisters and me at our National Convention in 1976, Charleston

Here’s my Phi Mu sisters (including my friend) and me (standing, first on left) at our sorority’s National Convention in 1976, Charleston, South Carolina.

She was involved in theatre back then, too. She was an actress, with a great voice, and lots of what I later learned was called stage presence. She had won the lead in the school’s musical as a freshman. Yes, she was good.

After a bit of hemming and hawing, I realized resistance was futile and I followed her to her car. She drove us to the campus of our alma mater and parked at the music building. We went in and she signed the clipboard for those auditioning. We then took our seats in the theatre. I have to admit that once there, it was fun sitting in the dark, cool theatre, watching the people go up on stage under the bright lights and sing a song for their audition. Sometimes, the director or the music director would speak to them or ask them to do something additional. A few were asked to dance a bit or read lines. I had never seen anything like it and I was intrigued.

Eventually my friend was called up. She did a great job (or so I thought, but what did I know, never having been in a play before). Then the most shocking thing happened. The woman with the clipboard called my name over the microphone. WHAT? I didn’t sign up for anything! I just sat there stunned. My name was called again. My friend literally raised me up by my elbow and said, “She’s here!” I blubbered something about just being there to watch but I soon found myself being “escorted” by my friend up the stairs to the stage, the music director shouting at me, “What piece are you singing?” My friend then said, “Oh, she didn’t prepare anything, she’s just going to sing ‘Happy Birthday’.”

I cowered next to the baby grand piano parked stage right, waiting for further instruction. The accompanist started playing and I just stood there, mute. The music director shouted, “Are you going to sing or what?” So, I sang “Happy Birthday”, badly and I am sure pretty off-key.

You can imagine my shock and surprise a few days later when I saw my name on the cast list, under the ensemble group, Frenchwomen’s Chorus. I was even more shocked to see my friend’s name in the same ensemble group. She was so good, how could we be given the same part? By this time, I had been “convinced” that this would be good for me: I would have a place to go in the evenings, meet new people, try something different, and have the opportunity to act and sing and dance. So, I was thrilled to see my name there, even though it was a very small part, singing just one song, “Bali Ha’i”, and later in another scene, singing its reprise. My friend was not so thrilled at being cast as ensemble but we vowed to hang in there together, me the novice, she the veteran.

Along with music and/or stage rehearsals every weeknight, there were costume fittings, shopping trips to purchase stage make-up and character shoes, props to find, sets to build and paint, and of course, the requisite nightcap at a local bar after rehearsals on Friday night. My friend was right. I made a lot of new friends and had fun while doing it. TheatreBug1-copyright200And, as they say, come opening night, when those bright lights hit me in the face and I basked in the applause during the curtain call, I had been bitten by the theatre bug.

For the next five years, I was a fixture with that theatre group. I joined the group officially, ran for office, headed up committees, volunteered for anything and everything under the sun, and auditioned for each and every play that came up, even when there wasn’t a part that was really right for me.

The place where my best high school memories took place, that's me in first row left, in white drum major costume

The home place of my best high school memories, marching band. That’s me in first row left, in white drum major costume.

Dracula

Cast of the Columbia Theatre Players’ 1986 production of Dracula. First row, far left in grey suit, me as Professor Van Helsing, a male role recast as female just for me!

I parlayed my four years of high school band and two years of childhood piano lessons into being able to read music well enough to get a part in the chorus of the summer musical each year. I gave it everything I had but in return I received much more. While I never got a major singing role, I did get the female lead in two straight plays and had the opportunity to direct two plays during my time with that group. My five years of performing in front of audiences taught me self-discipline and problem-solving as well as improving my self-confidence and public speaking skills. Serving as producer for several of the large joint productions also gave me great experience at organizing a major event involving significant sums of money. Being the editor of the group’s quarterly newsletter gave me a creative outlet for burgeoning writing skills, as well as experience in marketing and public relations for a non-profit group.

My cast for the second play I directed for CTP, Beth Henleys e Miss Firecracker Contest, 1987

My cast for the second play I directed for CTP, Beth Henley’s play The Miss Firecracker Contest, 1987. That is me seated on the right, second row.

In 1988, after over twenty productions with the group, I had to say goodbye to my friends at Columbia Theatre Players. My “day job” as a paralegal had also brought me success, and eventually, a cross-country move for a job with a Fortune 500 commercial real estate development company. Soon after, I married and had children, and my long evenings in a dark theatre came to an end, paving the way for watching our daughters in school plays and encouraging their creative talents.

After twenty years in the legal field, I decided to become a teacher. Hoping to find a teaching position where I could marry my love of theatre with my love of literature, I attended a Catholic schools job fair, with a large silver brooch of the Greek comedy and tragedy masks on my suit jacket. comedy and tragedy masksI stopped at all the booths of schools showing an opening for a language arts teacher. At one booth, a woman said to me, “Is that the symbol for theatre?” After I told her yes, she said, “Stay right here. I’ll be right back.” She returned shortly with her principal and they told me that the teacher who had directed their school plays had recently retired. “Would you be interested in doing that if you were offered a teaching position?”

Cast and crew of my latest production, Disneys High School Musical J

Cast and crew of my latest production, Disney’s High School Musical Junior, April 2015. That’s me in the teal jacket.

And, so, for the last eight years, that is how I have fed and nurtured the theatre bug that bit me so many years ago. It makes for a very long day, teaching all day and then holding auditions, running rehearsals, building sets, searching for costumes and props, coaxing shy students to project and sing out. After rehearsals are over, there are still lesson plans to make, essays to grade, tests and quizzes to create, parent emails to respond to. It leaves little time for leisure with family and friends, and energy for my own creative endeavors is short-changed. TheatreBug2-copyright200But, how can I give it up when I have been given so much in return? It seems that the bite of the theatre bug is indeed fatal.

Grace on the Field

As many of you know, I teach middle school language arts in a Catholic school located in an affluent suburb of Washington, DC. Yes, I spend all day with pre-teens and teens, awash in adolescent hormones, Axe body spray, egg-shaped lip gloss containers, and poor grammar brought on by texting and IM’ing.  Six periods a day, a surfeit of shuffling Sperry-wearing seventh and eighth graders file in and out of my classroom for forty minutes of literature, vocabulary, writing, grammar, and a fair dose of my unbridled enthusiasm for reading.

I love teaching language arts; that is, I love everything that happens “inside the bells”. I love the energy of the kids as they come in and settle in to their desks. I love telling them about my favorite books and my favorite authors. I love teaching vocabulary and unlocking the vagaries of the semi-colon. I love connecting the literature we read to major world events and historical eras. I particularly love the Victorian era, complete with its formality, rigid social class system, and of course, great pieces of literature like The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Importance of Being Earnest, both of which I teach to 8th grade.

After the final bell of the day rings, however, well, let’s just say that the next three or four hours are not exactly what keeps me in this grossly underpaid and overworked occupation. As much as I love teaching English and literature, the expectation is that the students demonstrate their new-found knowledge of literary devices, story triangles, figures of speech, and the like, in a never-ending stream of assessments such as compare/contrast essays, tests and quizzes, personal narratives and research papers. These things take forever to grade. My husband (not a teacher) keeps telling me to make my assessments more objective so they will be easier and faster to grade, but in order to prepare them for high school they must learn how to write a decent essay and that can’t be accomplished with multiple choice or true/false questions.

As dismal as this nightly ritual of endless grading may seem, there are other things “outside of the bells” that I dislike much more. Je déteste le recess duty! Recess duty (one day every other week…I know, quit complaining) consists of standing outside, swatting gnats or freezing, walking up and down an asphalt driveway overlooking the school’s artificial turf soccer field, while watching 140 middle school students for thirty excruciatingly painful minutes.

Our turf field in the dead of winter, a carpet of white velvet...no outdoor recess this day!

Our turf field in the dead of winter, a carpet of white velvet…no outdoor recess this day!

Winter months, especially the winter we just experienced here on the East Coast, brings respite in the form of “indoor recess”, with the field barren and empty, often blanketed in a carpet of white velvety snow. When the weather is good, however, out we go. Occasionally I will strike up a conversation with a group of sixth grade girls who are sitting on the school steps, but it is really their time away from teachers and school work, so eventually I move on. If there was a bench, I could tolerate it. If there was a bench and a book, I would be ecstatic. If there was a bench and a book and a cup of tea, well, I would be in heaven.

But, alas, no bench, so instead I walk the driveway and survey the soccer field littered with various balls, nets, and dozens of pairs of Sperry slip-ons, kicked off to make running and kicking easier. Some days I focus on one particular group and watch them play. A few years ago, a group of 8th grade boys regularly gathered to play touch football, and one bright and sunny spring day I watched them intently for about fifteen minutes. I knew those boys well, having taught them for two years. Half of them were in my home room, the other half just two doors down in the science room for home room. As with any class, some of them were good students with the academic skills to do well, some were decent students who worked incredibly hard, and some were students who struggled daily with reading comprehension, writing, grammar, and of course, with maintaining any sort of interest level in the literature they were assigned to read.

Of the latter group, on that bright and sunny spring day, I watched one particular 8th grade boy catch the football and run like the wind the entire length of the field. He ran with long easy strides, perfect posture, ball tucked securely in the crook of his left arm, head tilted back, in a style reminiscent of “the flying Scotsman” eric liddell quoteEric Liddell, born in China to missionary parents from Edinburgh, Scotland, who was brought to fame via the Oscar-winning movie Chariots of Fire. With his unorthodox running style, Liddell captured Olympic gold for the track team of Great Britain at the 1924 games in Paris. He did it in his own way, however, refusing to run in a heat for his “favored distance”, the 100 metre, which was to be held on a Sunday, being the Lord’s day of rest. So, instead, he ran the 400 metres, which had never been his best race. The qualifying heats for the 400 metres were held on Thursday and Friday, and while not the fastest he qualified. In the final event, with the crowd cheering him on, however, he threw back his head, lowered his arms, and finished the race in first place.

In his school uniform of navy Bermuda shorts and a navy sweatshirt, his white athletic crew socks sharply contrasted against the bright green artificial turf, my student was the very epitome of grace in action, relaxed and happy. No one could catch him, in fact, after half a length of the field, they all but quit trying. When he reached the end, he turned in a semi-pirouette, and started back, running in the same graceful style, back to his group of friends he had left coolly behind. He was all smiles, very different from his gloomy look in my classroom.

As I watched him, I realized I was envious of his obvious and natural athletic abilities. I never played a sport, other than a few miserable weeks one summer when my mother attempted to “make” me play softball. In high school I lifeguarded at the pool in my hometown, but that was more people-watching than sport. Sure, I jumped in to save the odd child, over-confident and under-skilled, slipping beneath the surface, head bobbing up and down, but I was a strong swimmer so it didn’t require much effort, and hardly a display of athleticism. Another summer, as an adult, I traded English lessons for tennis lessons with a wealthy Iranian exchange student whose family had fled when the Shah’s regime fell. The tennis was just a bit more successful than the softball, but neither was as enjoyable as watching Wimbledon or the French Open from the comfort of my living room.

No, my natural talents are for letters and words, not rackets and balls. I love reading and writing, and I find vocabulary truly fascinating. The graceful athlete down on the field would rather be anywhere other than a language arts classroom. I wonder where he will end up as an adult. He is in high school now and I wonder if he is finding success as a high school athlete. Will he go on to play college sports? Will he figure out a way to be successful in the language arts classroom as well, so as to keep his grades up to stay on the team?

Watching him run that day, I truly hope that he finds a way to work it all out. I hope he ends up with a career in sports, coaching or commentating. I hope he spends many, many hours running the length of a field, deftly weaving in and out of contact with the opposing team, his long, graceful strides the envy of all watching, especially his middle school English teacher.

The Top Ten Things Teaching Taught Me

In 2002 I left a stressful but lucrative job as a real estate paralegal to live abroad for two years as an expat trailing spouse. It was the first time in my adult life that I had nowhere to go each weekday. Other than maternity leave in 1990 and 1992, I had been employed full-time since the summer of my college graduation.

At first, I had lots of things to do: get my daughters settled into a new school in a foreign country, learn my way around town, figure out shopping in a foreign language, unpack and settle into a new house, etc. Eventually though, the “to do” list grew shorter and I grew restless. The answer of what to do with my days came via the school’s weekly newsletter: “Help wanted in the high school library”. The library has always been one of my favorite places on earth. Sign me up!

And so began my two years volunteering in the high school library at the international school my daughters attended. I also volunteered in my 5th grader’s classroom, teaching a series of classes on the cuisines of ancient civilizations. The teacher told me after the first class (lentils and sausages), “You should be a teacher!” Soon after, I began substitute teaching and finally, acting as a teacher’s aide in a middle school class where students designed projects to solve global problems.

When we returned to the states in 2004, I worked for three years as a youth minister, spending a lot of time with middle school and high school students. I continued substitute teaching and finally decided to make a permanent career change into education. Putting the cart before the horse, I got a full-time teaching position and then started a graduate school program to become certified to teach English in grades 7-12. It was hard work learning to be a teacher while actually teaching, and with the addition of evening graduate courses, I often wondered whether it was worth it. Eight years later, I can answer that with a resounding YES.

Now considered a veteran teacher, I am still surprised at the many things teaching taught me that I had never considered when I was just the parent of two school-aged children. While some of my top ten list may seem frightening to a new teacher, overall my message is that teaching is the hardest work I have ever done but also the most rewarding.

  1. While reading is FUNdamental, a lot of students do not think reading is FUN. Being an avid reader, this came as a shock to me. Both my daughters are big readers and while my husband prefers nonfiction to fiction, he loves getting lost in a new book or revisiting his favorite science fiction writers again and again. I had no idea so many children thought reading was boring or hard work only associated with school. Of course some in every class love to read but they are clearly the minority and generally prefer to keep that fact to themselves. In my attempt to turn some of my students into readers, I’ve reorganized my classroom library. Instead of placing the fiction books on the shelves in alphabetical order by author’s last name as in the public library, I’ve organized them by genres and shelved them in small baskets clearly labeled “Sports Fiction”, “Mysteries”, “Animal Stories”, “Science Fiction”, “Historical Fiction”, and so on. This has helped some. When students finish a test or classroom assignment, they know they can go to the shelves and find a book to read while waiting for the rest of the class to catch up. I purposely end seventh grade literature on a high note, by teaching the Agatha Christie masterpiece And Then There Were None. This mystery draws them in and hopefully sends them home for the summer wanting to read another of Christie’s jewels. In eighth grade we read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. As Dr. Watson retells the story of the curse on the Baskerville family, we learn about the Victorian era and how to distinguish red herrings from foreshadowing. I post my personal reading list on the wall outside my door, changing it each time I finish a book during the year so that they can see that I am reading for fun, too!
  2. Everything inside the bells takes half the time you estimated. As a new teacher entering the profession as a second career, lesson planning and mapping out a unit were a mystery to me. I would write out my lesson plan and on paper it seemed as though there would not be enough time to cover it all. But, the bell would ring and I would begin, and nearing the end of the material I had set out to cover I would glance at the clock, utterly shocked and horrified that the period was only half over. This led to scrambling for something to fill in the rest of the period. I got better at this as time went on, and—while by no means perfect—eventually I developed an innate sense of how long something was going to actually take in the classroom. I still have days where things don’t last as long as I had estimated, or days when the bell rings before I have completely finished my lesson, but those days are fewer and fewer.
  3. Everything outside the bells takes twice as much time as you estimated. The converse of #2 above is that lesson planning is time-consuming, and so is everything else that goes along with that lesson plan. There are copies to be made; things to laminate; bulletin boards to imagine, create, and put up; tests and quizzes to create; grade books to set up and maintain; communications to parents and administrators to write; papers to grade; grades to post; and the list goes on. I teach middle school language arts with the ultimate goal of getting my 7th and 8th graders ready for high school English essay, term papers, A/P exams, and more. I have to assign essays to my students in order to accomplish that goal, and grading them and giving effective feedback is time-consuming and never-ending.
  4. Beware the faculty room if you want to stay healthy. There is always food in the faculty room. Sometimes it is just a dish of hard candies, and sometimes it is a Costco birthday cake which serves 75 that has been dropped off by a parent after a family celebration. Muffins, donuts, cookies, chips, boxes of Christmas candies, trays of sandwich wraps, and more all find their way to the faculty room. It is a danger zone for anyone trying to lose weight or just to maintain a healthy diet.
  5. Beware the faculty room if you want to stay positive. This one is tricky to discuss. Comradery is important. We all need to vent, to talk about things to relieve the stress, or to get advice as to how to handle a difficult student. When faculty morale is down, however, the faculty room becomes a place that breeds negativity. After years of struggling with this, a veteran teacher, mentor, friend of mine said to me that it is perfectly okay to eat a sandwich at your desk in the peace and quiet of your own room instead of joining in the fracas. Some days I do just that and use the quiet time to catch up on emails or to just check my Facebook and Twitter accounts, something I would not normally do during the school day. This year, after a few years of transitions in administration and faculty, I decided my classroom theme would be the Pharrell Williams hit song “Happy”. I decorated my door with smiley faces bearing the names of my 8th grade home room students and played the song full blast every morning during home room period to get everyone back in the spirit of coming to school. I changed my ring tone on my cell to “Happy” and sometimes, when the faculty room gets to be a bit too much, I have been known to pull out my phone and play the song. Everyone gets the message—gossip, sniping, and snipping immediately turn into laughter. Other times, I just excuse myself, and in the words of American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson, just “walk away”.
  6. People outside of education do not understand your job. As a working parent, I envied the teachers at my daughters’ school, because when their 3:00 dismissal bell was ringing I still had two and a half hours at work. Ha, little did I know! Even with two planning periods a day, and I know I am pretty fortunate because many other schools have far fewer, there is not time do everything that good teaching demands. I also envied the fact that teachers had the summer off. I now know that summers are the time to take apart that unit that isn’t quite working and think through how to make it stronger and more effective. There are professional development courses to take, certifications to renew, new textbooks to review, new novels to read. Then of course, there are the small things that I didn’t understand, like bathroom breaks. I had never considered that I had to align my bathroom breaks to my teaching schedule. Need a hot cup of tea or a drink of water? In an office environment, no problem, but in a bustling middle school with students changing classes every 40 minutes, and both your planning periods in the afternoon, you just have to keep calm and carry on. There is also the delicate matter of respect. When parents are anxious or upset over their child’s grades, they sometimes forget that they are writing or speaking to a professional. This has been very difficult for me. I am quite certain that these same people would not speak to their doctor or to their lawyer that way, but for some reason they are comfortable speaking to their child’s teacher in a less than professional and respectful tone.
  7. Classroom management is as difficult as negotiating a peace treaty. When I started teaching I was told the old adage, “Be a witch until Halloween” as well as other things like “Don’t let them see your fear” and “Be consistent and treat everyone the same all the time.” This of course works, and you will have a quiet and calm classroom. What you might not have however is an engaging classroom with the free exchange of ideas. Yes, there has to be a set of classroom rules. Yes, you must be consistent. But, you also have to demonstrate that you are human, that you care, and that you want the best for them, from them, and out of them. This demands a balancing act. After two years of being tough, I decided to take a page from the old Sears and Roebuck catalog in a long ago campaign where they advertised “the softer side of Sears”. Occasionally I let them sit wherever they want, even next to their friend who will distract them. After weeks of being cooped up with inside recess due to frigid weather, I will tell them to grab their class novel and head outside for independent reading in the sun on the black top. These little things make a world of difference in the life of a middle school student, and can have a big impact on their attitude and attentiveness.
  8. Catholic school parents traditionally have large families. One of the most rewarding things I have discovered in teaching has been the upside to “teaching my way” through an entire family. I am now teaching the youngest children in families that had children I taught during my first and second years. I’ve been able to get to know the parents and develop a real rapport with them, establishing trust and respect on a two-way street. I have been able to see the common threads that tie these siblings together but also to see the differences that they each bring to the family name. “You had my sister” or “my brother really hated reading until he read Agatha Christie in 7th grade” are some of my favorite things to hear the first week of a school year.
  9. Teachers do not just teach, a/k/a be prepared for “other duties as assigned”. That is something you must realize early on. A K-8 elementary school is a huge machine, with moving parts everywhere, and to make it run smoothly sometimes requires all hands on deck. Parking lot duty in all sorts of weather, the dreaded recess duty, after school clubs, spirit week, arts festivals, science fairs, school plays, field trips, clean-up services as needed, these are all tasks that teachers do in the normal course of a school day. Being flexible is the number one key to success on this front. In fact, flexibility is the number one key to success in education in general.
  10. Teachers are smart. To teach something you must have mastered it yourself first. This also came as a surprise to me. My grammar and punctuation has improved immensely since I started teaching English. I instinctively knew how to punctuate sentences and which verb form to use in a particular sentence but after teaching for eight years, I also know the grammar rules to back it all up. In my attempt to connect the literature I teach to world events and foreign cultures, I have become more knowledgeable in world wars, international politics, world religions, and much more. Researching authors and their life stories while teaching their literature has made me a more well-rounded reader myself. My basic math skills, which admittedly were quite poor, have improved enough to be noticeable to my closest friends and husband, something I had not imagined would happen while teaching language arts. Grading papers and determining percentages, calculating field trip fees, and many other things have helped me improve in this area.

As I write this it is mid-April and as my eighth year of teaching draws to a close, I look forward to a “summer off”. I am feeling tired and worn-out. But, I am renewed in the knowledge that I have helped my eighth graders prepare for high school and have made real progress with my seventh graders in their writing and reading comprehension. I look forward to summer break and to the start of a new school year, where I have the opportunity to start anew, to return to school energized and ready to improve and strengthen my materials and lesson plans, to continue to develop my teaching skills to be the best that I can be. As I said earlier, teaching is the hardest job I have ever done but it is also the most rewarding. Shaping young minds may sound trite, but it accurately describes the important and noble job of helping children along their academic path. It is not for everyone but for those with the courage to meet the demands of this vocation, it is life-changing.

Poetry 101

artic avenue forsythiaIt’s early April and a damp, gloomy day out. Yet, in spite of the temperature being in the 40’s this morning, signs of spring are visible. When driving my daughter to the metro today I pointed out to her the forsythia in full bloom up and down both sides of the street. I told her how much my mother loved forsythia and how she always hoped it was in bloom when she and my dad visited me here in Maryland. My daughter and I talked about where we could plant some in our own yard. As happens most of the time, my thoughts turned to literature, and I asked her if she knew the poem “Forsythia” by Mary Ellen Solt. It’s a concrete poem, meaning the words of the poem are arranged in a deliberate way with some symbolic meaning or connection to the subject matter of the poem itself.

When I started teaching eight years ago, I spent a lot of time reviewing the poetry unit in the eighth grade literature textbook. I wasn’t very strong on poetry, and had always thought I didn’t care for it. But, after a few years of searching for the right combination of poems to teach to my 8th graders, I developed a new appreciation for poetry. The more I researched and read in preparation for teaching my poetry unit, the more I began to love studying poetry myself. Reading a poem and rereading a poem, looking for metaphors or allusions, digging for the deeper meaning, all of these things were like working on a challenging crossword puzzle or playing a word game with a well-matched foe.

Teaching poetry became something I enjoyed as much as teaching the fiction pieces in my curriculum. There are many positives to teaching poetry. Choosing a class novel for 40-50 eighth graders is tricky. Along with analyzing a potential novel for its use in covering the standards, one must also consider whether it will be appealing to the majority of the students. Is the protagonist male or female? Does it contain age-appropriate language and subject matter? Will it encourage intellectual curiosity or a broader world view? All of these things are much easier to take into account when selecting poems for a poetry unit.

For struggling readers, the thought of delving into a 300 page novel is daunting but for those with even the shortest of attention spans, a poem is manageable, and, if chosen carefully and presented in an engaging way, it can even be enjoyable. For example, the masterpiece “Oh Captain! My Captain!” by Walt Whitman, is a great poem to help students understand an extended metaphor. First, students read the poem silently to themselves. Then we read it aloud. Then I read the poem to them, using my dramatic voice and facial expressions. Finally, we begin to take the poem apart and break it down.

My student desks are arranged in a big square with everyone, myself included, facing the center of the square, so no one is left out, “in the back”, or excluded. As we discuss the poem, I am on the lookout for any early signs of recognition of the metaphor. If necessary I will ask some leading questions, such as, “What could the ship represent? Who is the captain? What was the prize sought?” When the light bulbs start going off and I see the signs of comprehension rippling around the room, I can sit back and let them take over the discussion. It is a great teaching moment, and I look forward to it each year.

bea swindell

Mrs. Bea Swindell

In phase two of the poetry unit the students select a poem to memorize and present to the class. While required in the academic standards, the announcement of this assignment brings wide-spread fear and terror throughout the room. Most overly self-aware adolescents will do anything to avoid public speaking and combining that with memorizing something for a grade is not something they look forward to. However, this is something of a rite of passage for all middle school and high school students. My husband can still recite the poem he memorized for school, and I can proudly share that in high school, as somewhat of a dare as well as to impress my beloved English teacher Mrs. Bea Swindell, I memorized the entire poem “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe, all eighteen stanzas of it. I can still recite from memory the first two or three stanzas but to be able to recite it in its entirety would require some work of this middle age brain.

New to poetry? Or, perhaps do you wish to reacquaint yourself with it? Along with Mary Ellen Solt’s “Forsythia”, here are the ten poets and their poems chosen for my 8th grade poetry unit, a collection that most of my students find enjoyable and approachable. Half of these appear in our textbook, others I selected. Most can be found on the internet or at your local public library. Read them a few times and then take them apart. Look for those extended metaphors! Broaden your world view, one poem at a time!

  1. Eleanor Farjeon. Farjeon’s poem “Morning Has Broken” was the basis for the well-known Christian hymn, but its popularity reached new peaks when Cat Stevens turned it into a hit single. Examples of her poetry: “Cat!” and “Morning Has Broken”.
  2. Walt Whitman. Whitman’s collection of poetry Leaves of Grass made him a literary superstar, so much so that when he died his funeral became a public spectacle. Examples of his poetry: “O Captain! My Captain!” and “A Noiseless Patient Spider”.
  3. Emily Dickinson. Largely unknown throughout her lifetime because of her reclusive nature, after her death nearly 1,800 poems she had written were discovered in her room by her sister. Examples of her poetry: “The Sky Is Low, The Clouds Are Mean” and “Because I Could Not Stop For Death–“.
  4. William Shakespeare. No study of poetry, or literature for that matter, would be complete without including the Bard of Avon. Writers of love letters as well as students of literature can find themselves lost in his sonnets, filled with wonder at his mastery of the English language. Examples of his poetry: “Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind” and “Sonnet 18 Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day?”.
  5. W. H. Auden. An Anglo-American poet, Auden’s famous poem “Funeral Blues” made it to the big screen in 1994 when it was featured prominently in the Hugh Grant/Andie MacDowell movie Four Weddings and a Funeral. Examples of his poetry: “Three Short Poems” and “Funeral Blues”.
  6. Cecil Spring Rice. Another example of a poem being set to music is “The Two Fatherlands” by British poet Cecil Spring Rice, who was the British Ambassador to the United States from 1912-1918. Written in 1908 while he was serving in the British diplomatic corps, the poem speaks of service and loyalty to the two “fathers”, God and country. British composer Gustav Holst adapted a section of the movement “Jupiter” from his symphony The Planets as a setting for the poem. The music and lyrics were later modified for use as a Christian hymn. Examples of his poetry: “Day” and “Urbs Dei” (“The City of God”) or “The Two Fatherlands”, better known as “I Vow to Thee My Country”.
  7. Robert Frost. American poet Robert Frost is well-known and widely studied. Frost was asked to recite a poem for the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy, the first poet to do so but a tradition continued with Presidents Clinton and Obama. In the car on the way to the swearing-in, Frost was very nervous about the weather conditions on the bitterly cold and windy January day in 1961. When called up to the podium, he found that the wind and glare from the sun and snow prevented him from reading a poem he had written especially for the occasion, so instead he recited from heart his 1941 poem “The Gift Outright”. Examples of his poetry: “The Road Not Taken” and “The Gift Outright”.
  8. e. e. cummings. American poet Edward Estlin Cummings, known for his irreverent use of lower case letters, intentional misspellings, and irregular word/line placement, was a prolific writer, amassing nearly 3,000 poems in his lifetime, along with several novels, plays, and essays. Examples of his poetry: “Your Little Voice Over The Wires Came Leaping” and “a pretty a day”.
  9. William Carlos Williams. Another American poet who excelled in multiple careers was William Carlos Williams, a pediatrician and general practitioner, who famously said he worked harder as a poet than as a doctor. A contemporary of Robert Frost and Ezra Pound, Williams’s final book of poetry, Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems, earned him the 1963 Pulitzer Prize. Examples of his poetry: “The Red Wheelbarrow” and “Willow Poem”.
  10. Edgar Allan Poe. Only 40 years old when he died in 1849, Edgar Allan Poe left behind a treasury of literature. His death and the circumstances surrounding it are so mysterious and compelling it is almost as though he is a character in one of his gruesome short stories. Examples of his poetry: “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee”.

In Other News This Week…

It’s been a busy week for the international news media. A series of Saudi-led strikes pounded rebel targets in Yemen. Germanwings Flight 9525 crashed in the French Alps, killing all 150 people aboard, and as of now, it appears to have been brought down at the hands of the co-pilot. American Amanda Knox’s second trial for the murder of her roommate in Italy is declared closed by Italy’s supreme court, March Madness continues with many surprises and upsets as college basketball teams battle it out for a place in the “Sweet Sixteen” and then on to the “Elite Eight”. And, today, March 27, 2015, the Duchess of Cambridge made her last public appearance before the impending birth of her second child.

In other news this wbean plant on haireek, however, three 7th grade boys grew a bean plant in a Styrofoam cup filled with … hair. Along with springtime temperatures and March Madness, this time of year also brings that rite of passage for every middle school student: the science fair.

The K-8 Catholic school where I teach is no different. This week was the culmination of a three-month process where students in grades 6-8 selected a topic, researched it, created the traditional three-panel corrugated board, and brought their projects in for the school assembly and judging. Each year, a lot of bean plants are grown demonstrating various scientific theories from which beans grow the fastest, which light source encourages growth, and what to best feed a bean plant. This year, the three 7th grade boys initially wanted to try growing bean plants in a hydroponic system but the topic had already been reserved by one of their classmates. So, they pressed on, deciding to grow bean plants in just about everything other than water, to see what medium worked best. They “planted” beans in soil, on hay, on pebbles, and yes, on hair.hair science fair board

When I first approached the table, I looked at their board for the topic. It said, “Grow with the Flow”. I looked down at the tray of cups on the table and pointed to the one in the bottom right hand corner, “What is that in that cup?”

All three in unison, “Hair”.

“What?”

“Yep, we grew a bean plant in a cup of hair,” one of the boys said beaming from ear to ear.

Being a teacher and being quite used to outlandish stories, I asked if they had planted the bean in soil, waited for it to sprout and then transferred it to the cup of hair. No, they assured me, they just put the bean in the cup of hair, watered it, and left it in the sun to grow.

My next question was simple, “Whose hair is it?” One of the boys said, “We got it from Spiro’s Barber Shop. And, you know what, Mrs. Ardillo, he didn’t even ask why we wanted a bag full of hair. He just reached down onto the floor, picked up a handful of hair, and dropped it into the bag we had brought with us. HE WASN’T EVEN WEARING GLOVES!” (Emphasis added to indicate the increased volume level of said 7th grade boy when shouting this last sentence to me.)

Naturally, I was ready with another question. “Why would you think he should be wearing gloves?”

“Because he picked up the hair off the floor!” one of them excitedly replied.

“Boys, does the barber wear gloves when he cuts your hair?”

“Uh, no, that would be silly.”

“Well, didn’t he just cut tha t hair off of someone’s head, without wearing gloves?”

“Uh, yeah, but it wasn’t on the floor!”

This is classic middle school logic. They will focus on something that a grown-up would never ever think of, and trying to move them off of it is like trying to take a bone away from a hungry dog.

We then discussed how much larger the bean plant growing on the hair was than the ones in the other cups. They surmised it was because the cup of hair, with all of its cracks and crevices, allowed for sunlight and water to more efficiently make its way to the bean plant and its root system.

One question kept bubbling around in my mind, so I asked it. “So, if the hair came from a person who was very sick with a very contagious disease, and you grew a bean plant on that hair until you could harvest beans to eat, would the beans make you sick?”

One boy immediately said, “Probably.” Another boy nodded in affirmation. But boy #3, the most gregarious of the group, shook his head and said, “Probably not, but it would be conditioner-flavored!”

And there, my friends, in a nutshell, is the working mind of a 7th grade boy!

Snow Day: Who Loves One More, Students or Their Teachers?

Happy Snow Day!Yesterday we returned to school after a two-week break for the Christmas holiday. The day went well, albeit somewhat slowly, as first days back after break tend to do so. But, with mid-term exams looming in the very near future, students worked hard to get back up to speed. And, then, today? Snow day! First a two-hour delay, followed by a subsequent announcement that schools were closed. That blissful feeling of a free day off (even if it comes on the heels of a two-week break) brought to mind something I had written during my second year of teaching, so I thought I would share that with you today!

Yippee! A Snow Day (from January, 2009)

I woke up with a smile on my face today.  Not exactly an earth shattering feat, right?  Wrong.  I NEVER wake up with a smile on my face.  I am not a morning person, and that is a gross understatement.  I hate to wake up.  I love to stay up late.  I start 6-hour projects at 9 pm and fully expect to be able to finish them before I go to bed and I have done so in the past.  Before I married and had children, I used to stay up all night all the time.  I always made it to work no matter what, and I always made it through the day.  You would think I would rush home from work and crash, but by then I had gotten my second wind and would piddle around until very late into the night AGAIN.

But, today, I woke up with a smile on my face!  Why you ask?  Well, my husband crept into our dark bedroom and stood over me as I lay snuggled up in my warm, cozy cocoon and whispered “Turn off your alarm, it’s a snow day!”  I smiled, without opening my eyes, and turned off my alarm.  YES!  FINALLY! A SNOW DAY!

What’s the big deal you ask?  To a student, a snow day is huge.  No school.  No stress.  Lay around in your pj’s all day and eat junk and watch TV.  Play on the computer, talk on the phone, play a video game, or maybe, just maybe, layer on a bunch of clothes and go sled down the hill at the top of your neighborhood.

Well, to a teacher, a snow day is ENORMOUS.  No school.  No stress.  Lay around in your pj’s all day and eat junk and watch TV.  Play on the computer, talk on the phone, or maybe, just maybe, grade a few papers.

Students are always amazed when teachers are as excited as they are when the weather man says “snow predicted for early tomorrow morning.”  They have actually said to me “You want it to snow, too?”  I guess they think we love getting up early and teaching all day and collecting homework and dispensing harsh statements like “spit out your gum”, “please stop talking”, or my personal favorite “Where is your textbook?  How can you be prepared for class without your textbook?”  And then, at the end of the school day, we escort them to the parking lot, clean up our classroom, pack up our stack of ungraded papers, rush out, pick up our own children, rush home, start dinner, check the mail and the voice mail, pet the cat, walk the dog, eat dinner, clean the kitchen, and drop exhausted into bed.

Oh, no, wait, that’s when we start our second work shift, the grading of the papers.  So, by now it is 8:00 pm, when we unload our bag, assemble our equipment (calculator, grade book, computer, red pen, post it notes, paper clips) and go to work AGAIN.  Four hours later, we pile it all back up into our bag, walk the dog, pet the cat, drag ourselves upstairs, turn off all the lights, check on our children, and drop exhausted into bed.  So is the life of the middle school language arts teacher, the one responsible for the shaping of disorganized and muddled young minds into good writers and good readers, ready for high school and the rigors of A/P English.

So, the next time you hear the weatherman say “snow predicted for early tomorrow morning”, say a little prayer for all the teachers you know, put your pj’s on inside out, and go to bed.  Hopefully, I will get to wake up with a smile on my face, hearing the ever so lovely words “Turn off your alarm, it’s a snow day!”