Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Materialist Bliss

Note: This is slightly old news, but the pictures are too cute to waste!

One of the things M and I noticed when we bought the house was what must have been an original microwave. After 25 years of use, the thing was not working so well anymore. Heating would still occur, but since there was no turn table all of the heat was concentrated into a single nickel-sized spot. This machine had the amazing ability to practically burn a whole in your pizza while leaving the rest completely frozen. Not very useful for much. Also, shortly after we moved in I attempted to make one of my favorite microwave treats: The Pappadam. However, not only did the pappadum remain flat and lifeless (not crispy and bubbly good) but the microwave actually managed to break the plate in two! It was sort of cool the way it split along a strange and wavy line, but at the same time it did not bode well for the health of our dishes. Thus we went microwave shopping. I could describe the shopping experience, but it is better just to hold an image of Home Depot in your mind (did you know that they don't work on commission like the people at Sears? We've only been told that about 700 times), and you pretty much have it. We came home with a Magic Chef (I've never heard of them either) over stove model. M, clever person that he is, decided to save the installation fee (more than the cost of the actual microwave) by installing it himself (see pics below of installation process). This is not what I would consider an easy job (I am not a very handy sort) but he managed to do it with a minimum of cursing, banging, trips back to the hardware store, or injuries. Low and behold, we have a working microwave! It heats evenly, it has a defrost setting, it doesn't make ominous clicking noises, and (drum roll please) it makes lovely crispy pappadums! Hooray for M and Magic Chef!

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Oh Sure NOW the Sun Comes Out

Tut, tut it looked like rain (to quote Pooh Bear) ALL weekend. In fact, it didn't just rain on Saturday and Sunday, it poured buckets. I had big plans for my garden, for hiking, for just looking out the window and seeing pretty sunshine. Of course now that we are back at work the sun is out there shining away. There is barely a cloud in the sky, and I think it may even be warming up a bit. Sometimes life is just not fair.

Friday, May 26, 2006

To-Do List

M's mom, DW, is coming from South Africa to visit us this summer. She will be staying with us for most of the month of July, and we want to make sure that she gets to see some of the best bits of Seattle and Washington in general. Obviously one month is not enough time to see and do everything, but we want to do as much as possible without causing tourism burn-out. So far, we have created a working list of possibilities. Any comments/suggestions would be most welcome:

Things We Might Do With D (in no particular order)

2. Salumi (but only if Grandma is making Gnocchi)
3. San Juan Islands
4. Pike Place Market
5. Mount Rainier
6. Mount St. Helens
7. Olympic Peninsula
8. Vashon Island
9. Lavender Festival
10. Bellevue Botanical Garden
11. Sassy Teahouse
12. Tiger Mountain Bus Trail (and/or Lake Tradition)
13. Kubota Garden
14. Canoeing in the Arboretum
15. Vivace
16. University District
18. Washington State Historical Museum
19. Discovery Park
20. A Good Sushi Place
21. Farmers' Market
22. Cafe Flora (M suggested this one, so I cannot be accused of choosing things for myself!)
23. Teatro Zinzanni
24. Oregon Coast
25. Portland
26. Mariners Game
27. La Connor
28. Leavenworth
29. Ikea
30. Green Lake
31. The Zoo
32. Trek Wildlife Park
33. The Aquarium

Thursday, May 25, 2006


As we come to the end of our Japan unit it is time to read about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Since our textbook gives all of 3/4 of a page to WWII, I supplement with the novella Hiroshima by Lawrence Yep. The view of modern Japan given by our textbook is not exactly flattering (well, to be fair, they did some pretty awful things between 1900 and 1945) so I like to try to give a little balance about the actual bombing. This little book is told from a combination of perspectives including two fictional young women on the ground, the pilot of the Enola Gay, and various others. It tries explaining what happened on the airplane, inside the bomb, inside the blast area, and in the surrounding city. The books are written for a young audience, so the style is very simple, but the simplicity only makes it more effective. The kids really do sit and listen (more silently than any other time during the year) and then the discussions that follow are always interesting (nuclear winter, the SALT treaty, Mutually Assured Destruction, The Cold War). Once again, I am amazed by their ability to concentrate when they really try. I think everyone should read this book at some point. Every year I wait to see if I will get flack from parents because the book is told entirely from the "dovish" perspective, but so far it has never caused any trouble.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Reduced History

Years ago, when I was enjoying my annual participation in The Oregon Country Fair (No, I have never done any type of drugs there) I happened across a stage show that would later become quite famous. While standing in line for the bathroom (no kidding) I caught a portion of a show put on by The Reduced Shakespeare Company. I was completely hooked by the shorter and shorter (and sillier and sillier) versions of Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet being put on by the company. By the time they finished, they were doing each play in under a minute, and the results were hilarious. Imagine my surprise when I found an ad for this very same show being done in a major concert hall. It seems I wasn't the only one who liked thought Polonius' ultra-quick death scene was funny.

Once the Shakespeare show became a comedy staple, the company decided to try its hand at other types of shows. "Shakespeare" was followed by "Great Books," "the Bible," and even a Reduced Shakespeare Christmas. Of course, not all of these can be as good as the original, but many of them were still very funny indeed. Therefore, with some trepidation but also hope, M and I went to see The Complete History of America (Abridged). We found it to be an incredibly vaudevillian-style of show with lots of quick summarizing, stand-up jokes, water on the audience, and men in drag playing really ugly women. Some of it was pretty funny (anagrams of famous political names--- Spiro Agnew = Grow A Penis--- I guess you had to be there) and some of it was just sort of funny (a sketch about short men joining Washington's army because of a misunderstanding about "minute" men) but over all it was worth the trip. Next time, I want to see All the Great Books because I bet Jane Eyre done in one minute or less is a very strange thing.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Two Totally Unrelated Food Things

First things first. Last week M and I went to Andre's Eurasian Bistro for a quick bite before a show. We thought that a little over an hour should be plenty of time to get a nice dinner as long as we skipped the appetizers and desserts. We were especially confident since there were not very many people in the restaurant. The waiter cam e quickly to take our order (without writing it down), brought us our drinks (yummy ginger lemonade I must admit) and then, nothing. Thirty minutes later we still had only drinks. The waiter apologized, but the food still didn't come. Eventually we saw plates and! He served us two completely wrong dishes. Neither of us got anything close to what we ordered. We objected to the completely wrong food, the waiter said "oh, sorry about that. I'll check with the kitchen." At this point we were just about out of time, so we called the waiter back and asked him to just bring the bill. Just a few minutes went by and the bill actually came. However (there had to be a catch) while the drinks were comped, the food was still on the bill! M went over to talk to the waiter and pretty soon we just got to leave.

Andre's Eurasian Bistro = bad, bad, bad

The second food thing is not nearly so annoying. I often read the food blog Vegan Lunchbox. While I am not a vegan, I do respect the amount of effort and attention this woman gives to making lunch for her son. Some might say that she has a little too much time on her hands (and they might be right) but the other day she really got a little overboard. She used Seventh Day Adventist cooking techniques to create The Magical Loaf Studio. The purpose of the studio is a way to invent new (tasty?) varieties of vegetarian meatloaf. I cannot say that I have actually made any of the magical loaves, but I will get right on it just after I finish grinding my own flour and making my own fruit leather.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Giggling Your Way to Freedom

One of the most enjoyable things for many teenagers is the opportunity to be sneaky. In my experience, they love to feel that they are "getting away" with something regardless of what that something may be. Since pulling the wool over authoritative eyes is just plain fun for so many of them, it is not surprising that the Underground Railroad simulation was such a huge success.

In the 8th grade, the State of Washington has determined that kids should study American history. The rough estimate time period for this history is about 1796-1865. One major unit during this course is about slavery and the economy of the Deep South. Of course there are many possible ways to teach this material, but our 8th grade team has opted to do something a little different (and, in my opinion, much better) than the standard textbook, notes, test format. First the kids read non-fiction accounts of slave life, and also textbook chapters about the politics and economics of slavery. Next, they do a research project to get an in depth look at different figures of the anti-slavery movement, and they write an essay identifying the contributions of this figure. Last, but not least, they get to take part in a simulation.

The simulation is basically a game in which the kids play the role of slaves who are trying to escape from bondage in the south (their classrooms) and make their way to freedom in the north (the upper sports field). They must trust the good will of conductors (other students) and station masters (teachers) along the way, and they know that bounty hunters (the principals and councilors) will be actively searching for them at all times. They must follow a map, visit the safehouses (indicated by a secret sign), and collect tokens to prove that they've made the whole journey. Above all, they must not get caught or else they have to return to their plantations and do hard labor (real work such as scrubbing desks or weeding flower beds).

I am a huge fan of simulations, so when the 8th grade team asked for volunteers to play station masters, I jumped at the chance to help. My classroom door proudly displayed the secret sign (a quilt square with a red center) and I explained the whole thing to the students in my classes. On the day of the event, we did not see anyone for quite a while, but about half way through 1st period a group of slaves and their conductor burst in looking for a place to hide. We quickly hid them away in the closets and under tables, and just as we did, the bounty hunter arrived. The bounty hunters (working hard to be serious and mean-looking) searched the room and grilled the kids. We kept saying that we didn't know anything, but the bounty hunter was in no mood to believe us. He caught one of the kids hiding in the closet because they had the unfortunate need to giggle uncontrollably. Nevertheless, the others managed to keep silent, and they were not discovered. It was really quite a sight. Kids were darting silently through the halls, ducking into classrooms, and even climbing out of windows (in classrooms where the teachers were dumb, in mean kind, enough to allow it). This is an experience like nothing else and they love it. The most surprising part (to me anyway) was the fact that they really didn't abuse the privilege. Not one kid landed in the office for being out of bounds, harassing others, or any other crime that they might have been tempted to commit.

All throughout the day, groups of slaves and station masters came through our classroom. My students did not get overly much done since they were always on pins and needles about when they next group might come. However, we had some incredible discussions about racism, the practice of dehumanizing others, the power of cultural influences, and the effects of fear on the human mind. Teenagers are famous for being apathetic, lazy, and even stupid, and frequently they do display these unfortunate traits. However, when you really catch their interest in something real and serious, it is amazing just how sharp they can be.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Haiku Baby

Every year around this time my classes study Japan. We go all the way from pre-history to the modern era, but the bulk of our study is focused on the Heian period through the Tokugawa Shogunate (roughly 700s to 1800s). We study the maps, learn the history, debate the politics, and even play a Risk-like game about the warring states period. The kids LOVE the game, and we manage to tie all the other pieces of instruction to it through rewards and punishments of rice. The kids are broken into castle groups, and their goal is to take over the all other castles and become shogun of all Japan. We have a huge map of the provinces on the wall with color-coded pushpins to represent armies. Rice is the primary currency, and the kids are constantly looking for ways to get more so they can expand their armies. This week, one opportunity to earn extra rice came with our study of haiku poetry. We have a section in our textbook explaining the form and giving some famous examples by Basho. We went through this section carefully, and then they had the chance to earn extra rice by writing and performing their own Haiku. They should be 5 7 5 and they should be at least sort of about nature. Here are a few examples (some are better than others:

Blood, blood, blood, blood, blood
The leaves of autumn look red
men fall the same way

Blue skies are the best
We can see the sea from here
We love the sand dunes

Horses thunder down
soldiers fall like raindrops
Horses wander free

Butterflies flutter
I see the sun shine on me
Breezes flutter too

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Talent Show

Last Friday was the annual school talent show. We had 23 acts all told, and it took more than two hours of sitting in the bleachers to get through them all. Don't get me wrong, it was a fun time for everyone, but the bleachers do get sort of hard after a while. Still, we had a good time, and the kids cheered and clapped for each other all the way through.

We started out with a tiny little sixth grade boy who did sound effects. We got the squeaky door, the jungle scene, the train engine, and a few others. He was pretty good for an amateur, and the audience was completely silent (a real mark of respect for a middle school crowd) for the performance.

Another great act was a group of three students who played a classical composition for three violins. Given that our school often ranks #1 in the state for middle school orchestra programs, it was surprising to no one that they were really good. It's really impressive the way they always look so serious and dedicated when they perform. I am reminded once again why music is good for the whole kid.

There were, of course, a few of the more "challenging" (to borrow the phrase from R) performances. There were several pairs of girls who chose to sing veeeeery high-pitched songs that were really not within a range they could comfortably manage. We did actually have to cover our ears on one song when the performer went for a high, high note. One girl did sing a show tune wearing a fabulous white wedding dress ('80s?) and you just had to give her credit for, I don't know, gumption? Then again, any kid who will get up in front of 1000 of their peers deserves some credit.

By far the crowd favorite was a boy who solved a rubik's cube. He first asked someone else to randomize it for him, and then he proceeded to solve it in 1 minute 12 seconds. The audience went absolutely bonkers. Rubik's cubes have fallen so far out of fashion that many kids aren't really familiar with them. This was a truly amazing feat as far as they were concerned. They cheered, they clapped, they yelled. I am fairly certain that the solver will not ever forget that experience.

It was definitely one of the better shows we've had here at school, but I think I may still have a flat place on my bottom.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Happy Mothers' Day!

Happy Mothers' Day to all the mothers out there. Someone once said that mothers are the people (or at least they should be the people) who cheer you on and tell you your wonderful even when the rest of the world is unimpressed.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Julia Sweeney

Note: I have tried for a week to write this post. I almost just gave up because the thing was just not coming together. However, I really, REALLY loved this show, and I really wanted mention it. Therefore, sorry for the quality (and the rambling) but at least it's here.

Have you ever had that experience where you have an idea in your head and it makes perfect sense, but when you try to explain it to another person it just comes out as nonsensical babble? Perhaps not (depending on your level of elocution) but it happens to me fairly often. Now, I know what you're thinking, a teacher should be clear at all times. In the classroom I do a pretty good job on that, but when it comes to more esoteric topics, I often have trouble laying things out clearly. That is why I was so excited by the things Julia Sweeney had to say in her show "Letting Go of God."

When we first saw the ad for a show by Julia Sweeney (of Saturday Night Live fame) and Ira Glass (of NPR fame) we thought it sounded like an interesting combination, so we bought tickets without really knowing what we might get. What we did get was a very intelligent and also hilarious look at Julia's struggle with religion and spirituality. I have seriously tried several times to write a summary of her show, but it just isn't happening. Her timing and delivery were such an integral part of things that it just doesn't seem to work in text form (or maybe I'm just a lame writer) Suffice it to say that she illustrated her true and honest attempt to have deep faith, but she could never quite get past her own doubt. Blind faith turned out to be really hard to maintain when she took a good, hard look at the things she was being asked to believe. When this show comes out on DVD (in June?) I would highly recommend it to anyone who has ever been troubled by these kinds of doubts.

In the end, this show took my opinions about religion, summed them up, cleanly refuted any opposition through careful research, and then added perfect comic timing, and bitingly funny commentary. It was a beautiful experience. Now if only she would do the same for my views on politics, relationships, the environment, food, child rearing, school funding, health and fitness, textbook selection, the economy...

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Promise

On Sunday a friend of ours organized a trip to see the new Chinese movie The Promise. Reviews for the movie were mixed, but since it looked so beautiful we were excited to see it for ourselves. I was definitely not disappointed. Costumes, sets, cinematography, actors- everything was lovely in the extreme. Add to that, it was a fairytale, and you have something I enjoyed very much. My particular favorites were the sea goddess (be sure to notice her floating crown) and the fighting scene around the bird screens (if you see the movie you'll know what I mean). Some people complained that the computer-generated graphics were not convincing, but I really was not bothered much about that. Some reviewers actually complained that the fighting and some other elements were not realistic enough which I thought was pretty laughable. You would think the frequent use of magic and the superhuman strength would tip people off to the fact that the story is supposed to be just a wee bit outside the normal boundaries of reality.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Book Committee Redux

Yesterday was a VERY good day. Be warned, I am about to shamelessly toot my own horn.

Some people may be familiar with my other book committee experience (Shot Down and Pissed Off) and may remember that it was not a happy one. To sum up, I was the lone hold-out against the favored social studies text book, and I lost out to the crowd. However, I was not about to let that scare me off of the rest of the committee work (that would be letting them win!). Therefore, I signed up for novel selection committee as well.

While the social studies textbook committee took almost an entire year and much piloting to make a choice, the novels were given barely two months of consideration. This turned out to be a very good thing for me because I came to the first meeting with a list of books I thought we could use. No one else was prepared for things to move so quickly, so my selections formed the core of our candidate list. We did all go away and read the books on the list, and then, yesterday, we got back together to come to a decision.

Now the only sticking points were a few people who wanted to include science fiction (Hello! We're supposed to connect to the history curriculum. You know, the stuff from 600 to 1600!) and the people who wanted to bring an existing book down from the gifted program. The first group were dealt with pretty easily since they wanted something that clearly didn't fit with our goals (that didn't stop them last time, but in this case things were more clear cut). The second group were a little tougher to quell. They wanted to take a book that we currently teach in the gifted program and assign it to all students. I said that we should not do this because the book was too hard for the average kid. However, I could not back up my claims based on reading level alone because this book scored a 7 on the standard level test (about 7th grade level) just like one of the books I suggested. Once again, I came prepared.

It turns out that the reading level given for most books assesses only the complexity of sentences and vocabulary. Thus, a book with a very complicated plot can get a low score just because it uses small words and simple sentences. Knowing this, and with the help of our librarian, a few of us from my school managed to find another scoring system (you can find it on under "concordance") that takes other factors into account. Using this scoring system we discovered that the book from the gifted class scored a 9.3 (about ninth grade level) while the book I suggested scored a (wait for it!) 6.8! What do you know! Objections cleared, we were ready to move on.

My main goal for this committee was to get at least three decent books on the required list. In the end, we managed to agree on FOUR. Remember, it is tough to find books that suit our particular corner of world history (the world from 600-1600 minus North America, but also Washington state history). While these are not the best books I've ever read, they are at least decent which is more than I can say for some books I've taught. I am quite pleased with the combination of literary quality, historical content, and readability. In the end we chose Ghost Canoe, Catherine, Called Birdy, Beduins' Gazelle (spelled that way for some reason), and The Kite Rider. Now all we have to do is figure out how we want to go about teaching them next year.

Monday, May 08, 2006


Some web designer (or several) out there deserves an award. One of my favorite mainstream (as opposed to boutique or specialty) tea companies is Tazo of Portland. Imagine my pleasure when I happened across the official Tazo website. Imagine my even greater pleasure when I discover that this is one cute website. Take some time, learn about the teas (my favorites are Citron, Awake, and Passion) and be absolutely sure to have your leaves read by THE GREAT ORACLE. Just make sure you have the sound on so you can appreciate his own special language.

Thursday, May 04, 2006


Yes. I admit it. I fight with blogger over formatting all the time. Sometimes I win, and sometimes I don't. What can I say. I appologize for all the bumps in the road.

The Wonders of Pittsburgh

As I mentioned in an earlier post, we recently went to visit my younger brother at his university in Pittsburgh. We really enjoyed the trip, and we were pleasantly surprised to discover that Pittsburgh is really a pretty interesting place. One of the best parts about it is that it used to be a hub for the steel industry. Now steel itself is not very interesting, but the huge amounts of money produced by the industry did lead to some very good things. In the past, when a town was filled to the gills with the super-rich, charity was a natural outcome. Pittsburgh is the lucky recipient of two universities, many parks and gardens, museums, music venues, libraries, and at least one fantastically detailed dinosaur statue.

After the dinosaur, one of the more striking examples of philanthropic fervor is on the University of Pittsburgh campus. The Cathedral of Learning was built in the early part of the 1900s to look like a cross between a medieval church and a castle. It features some very elaborate stone carving, beautiful stained glass windows, and many perfectly medieval details. One visitor summed it up by saying that Harry Potter could have been filmed inside. In keeping with the castle theme, the interior features two huge fireplaces, a massive common room with vaulted ceilings, and several giant wooden thrones. As far as we are concerned, my little brother is the king of Pitt (hey, we hardly know anyone else there) so we made him sit in the throne and look regal. I think it is especially funny that his shirt says "ego" (his shirt really says Oregon, but happenstance made it funnier) because he does get a little bit of a big head sometimes. Who would have thought that my round baby brother would turn out to be brilliant and handsome :) Anyway, if you ever get to Pittsburgh be sure to visit the Cathedral of Learning. It's both strange and cool enough to be well worth the trip.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Botanical Garden

Last Friday we went to the Botanical garden with some friends. Being a garden fanatic, I love to visit this place. One or two visits a year will not cut it either because the garden changes SO much over just a few weeks. During the spring and summer I try to fit in a visit at least once a month. On this trip we saw how the spring flowers are really starting to pass off and the summer buds are just beginning. In other words, goodbye tulips and daffodils, hello marigolds and roses. The pics below are just a very few of the lovely ones we got on this visit. We also have a great one of geeks beneath a tree. M is doing is best to look really regal and intelligent.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Locked Down

Friday was supposed to be the day when we got back to normal after the end of WOSL. We were going to take it easy, watch a movie, and have a cookie to celebrate. By 8:30 in the morning we were laying on the classroom floor in the dark. The doors were locked, the blinds pulled, and we were doing our best to keep silent. We'd been locked down by the principal and we had absolutely no idea why. The whole idea of locking down a school comes out of the very few and very famous incidents of school violence that have taken place in the last decade. Columbine, Springfield, and others have done much to change the view of school security. Now, whenever the smallest thing happens, schools get locked down "just to be on the safe side." Of course, laying there on the floor we had no clue as to what might be happening. Was there a danger IN the school, or just some concern in the community? The kids (and I) really wanted to know why, but it is hard to get news from that position. The hardest part was that the kids were not remotely afraid. If they had been afraid they might have huddled quietly, hoping to avoid detection, in the corner. As it was, they thought this was some sort of amusing game, and then as time went by, some sort of mean joke. They were NOT good at being quiet, and they did NOT want to stay on the floor. Then again, it was tough to blame them as the time dragged on.

For the first 45 minutes or so, we played telephone as quietly as possible, next we tried pass around conversations (on paper and pencil), then we played connect the dots in pairs, and finally we started "toss the question." In the middle of all this the kids would ask me repeatedly if I knew anything, how long I thought it might last, and what they could do to amuse themselves. In the beginning, one girl asked why we had to lay on the floor in the dark. This girl has participated in many drills over the course of the year, so she should know this already. However, I gathered together my patience and explained that this was the school's way of keeping us safe just in case something dangerous might be out there. They all seemed to accept this, and we went on trying to be quiet. A little while later, another kid crawled over to me to ask if we would still be going to lunch on time. Again, I gathered my patience and explained that unless the lock down were over, we wouldn't be going to lunch on time because standing up and walking down to the lunchroom would, you know, defeat the purpose of the lockdown. This news caused furious whispering and many complaints of imminent starvation. Eventually, however, I got them quieted down with promises of left-over cheezits at lunchtime. Some time during the third hour, another child raised his had and asked "Miss L when it gets to be 2:06 (the normal end of the day) they will let us go home won't they?" I counted to ten before answering.

Finally, almost three hours after we went into lockdown, we were allowed to sit up and watch a video instead of lying on the floor. Officially we hadn't been released, but the police were confident enough to allow some flexibility. I handed out cheezits and cookies when lunchtime rolled around. Then, almost four hours into the whole thing they finally declared the lockdown over, and we could return to what was left of our normal school day (including full lunch by the way). Why, might you ask, did we have to do all this? Because a man, a grown man, decided to wander up and down the road outside school waving what appeared to be a rifle. They never found the man, but his "rifle" was actually three soda bottles taped together and painted black. If they find him, I think his punishment should be to lie on the floor in the dark for four hours times 982 for all the people who were forced to be part of his "prank."