Friday, February 27, 2009

Raising Vegetarian Kids

Vegetarianism is a subject that seems to come up quite frequently on my favorite online magazine, Slate. The topic is treated very differently depending on the author, but I think most of the articles raise interesting questions. This article, about a meat-eating dad raising vegetarian daughters, is both thought-provoking and quite sweet. The dad discusses some of his initial concerns about the idea, and then describes how he's come to terms, or not, with each issue.

One of my favorite points from the article is that kids learn what is "normal" at a very early age. This means that whatever messages the parents send about food in the first few years of life tend to stick with the kid for a long time. This is why most of us have such nostalgic feelings about the meals we ate as small children. Even if there is a period of adolescent rebellion, many adults ultimately return to the nutritional patterns of their parents. Whether or not you are a vegetarian, it is an important reminder not to feed kids junk.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Desk Garden

Yesterday, before it began to snow, I was wandering around our yard admiring the progress of the spring bulbs. I love seeing the little white bells of the snow drops that are just finishing their three week run. Now the daffodils are pushing their green heads out of the ground, and the crocus and tulips are coming along as well. Some are bulbs that came with the house, others I planted in a fit of autumn gardening few years ago, but the greatest number come from my desk.

At the grocery store, I often pick up inexpensive pots of bulbs to brighten up my classroom. They live on my desk for a few weeks while they bloom, and then, when they are passed, I take them home and plant them. I know that early spring is completely the wrong season to be planting bulbs, but somehow it usually seems to work. We have several patches of desk tulips that keep coming back year after year. Two tiny varieties of desk iris live under the Japanese maple, and offer up beautiful dark purple blooms in early March. We also have at least one bunch of late desk crocus right outside our back door. This year, I think it will be a new patch of desk paper whites that joins the garden. I like to think of it as my own weird version of flower recycling.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

School Math

For the last few months, everyone here at school has been quietly freaking out. We are not normally an excitable group, but when under the threat of change we can become agitated. When under the threat of enormous change, even the most reserved among us begins to sweat. The cause of our concern? Change like nobody has seen in at least a generation.

We've known for some time that the opening of a new program would mean re-assignment for about one quarter of our workforce. However, we were all greatly relieved when we got the news that the new program would not be opening in 09/10 due to construction delays. "Yay!" we all said "one more year of normalcy!" Ha! Ha! such innocents we were then.

Starting in November, as the economy began to go so obviously south, we began to hear rumblings of bad times ahead. When the news came out that the governor expected a 3.6 billion budget shortfall in the next year, some people began to mutter about possible cuts. Special programs could be limited or eliminated, class sizes might go up, and we might not get another cost of living adjustment (COLA) for some time. It sounded unpleasant, but we thought we could weather that kind of storm.

Sometime in late January it came out that estimates on the budge deficit had changed. Instead of 3.6 we were looking at something more like 5-6 billion. This is when the real lay-off talk began. By one estimate, we could lose5-8% of our teaching force. This would mean job losses for a few and big changes for some those left behind as principals would have to scramble to cover the missing teachers. Times are hard, we told ourselves, but most of us will get through this largely unscathed.

Still with me? Good. You can guess what happened next. The new budget estimate is somewhere around 9-10 billion. The superintendent of the district came to tell us that lay-offs were a certainty and that we could expect to lose at least 10% of the teaching force. He also warned us that it could be much worse if things continue to decline. It turns out that there is no legal limit on the number of students in one regular education classroom in Washington. They can keep cramming kids into our rooms until they reach the fire code limit. Classrooms of 40 or 50 kids are a very real possibility.

Seniority, something we never had much interest in before all this, is suddenly very important. The system of lay-off and re-call does not allow for the removal of the poorest quality teachers, instead it is based entirely on years of experience. If you have enough seniority, you might survive the chop. However, it is a terrible thing to look at all your co-workers and hope that they will get laid off instead of you.

Those who stay behind are not safe from major upheaval either. Along with massively larger work loads and lower pay, teachers who stay behind will have to fill the gap for those who go. This means that many people will have to be transferred to fill essential roles. For example, all the newest teachers in our building happen to be in the same department and grade. We can't simply not have that class in that grade, so the principal will have to draw off one or two people from the other areas to fill the need. A person could even find themselves working in a building at the extreme opposite end of our district which would mean a commuting two towns over. Does any of that make any sense? I'm not so sure anymore.

I could go on for days. The uncertainty is hard on all of us. Teaching attracts the type of person who likes to be prepared for things. We attempt to analyze future needs and begin to meet them in good time. We are not last minute kinds of people. However, if you don't have a clue where you'll be or what you'll be expected to do, it is very difficult to get a jump on the work. I know teachers are not alone in all this. I imagine the Tums people are doing a roaring trade right about now.

Monday, February 23, 2009


M and I got to see the movie Milk a few days ago, and we were very impressed. The sensitive potrayal of a real person AS a real person (warts and all if you know what I mean) made it very effective. The story of Harvey Milk's life, his struggles for civil rights, and his senseless death are certainly the stuff of legend, but Gus Van Sant managed to shy away from the temptation to turn him into a saint. Both Sean Penn and Dustin Lance Black (screenwriter) absolutely deserved their Oscar wins. Black's acceptance speech, directly quoting the real Harvey Milk, was the best moment of Oscars in my opinion. Be sure to see this movie.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Poster Kurfuffle

It all started when I had to host one of our monthly meetings. I hate hosting meetings because I don't think I'm very good at it. Teachers, especially after a long day of work, are also the worst kind of audience. They chat amongst themselves, fail to pay attention, and wander off topic at the first opportunity. In short, it's a bit like teaching kids only you can't yell at them to behave.

Anyway, I was running this meeting, and we were discussing a major project we are developing for all students. This project has several components, and it involves many people working on separate pieces to create the whole. In the midst of serious discussion (yes they finally got on topic) about one of the most complex parts of the project, the principal suddenly interrupted to say "where's the poster!?" We all looked around in confusion trying to figure out what the heck he was talking about. "The poster!" he demands again. By this time, people are looking seriously confused.

"The poster about this project!" he finally clarifies. Vague memories are coming to me of his having caused posters to be made advertising the major features of the project. "Urm, sorry" I say "I don't think I have one of those yet." He's still looking wildly around the room as if a poster might magically appear. "You must have a poster! Everyone's supposed to have a poster! Who has one that we can use?!" Nobody responds at first. We're all looking at each other to see what will happen.

Someone tries to sort of ignore the whole poster thing and get us back to the topic at hand, but he's not having any of it. He demands that someone go down and find a poster "pull it off your wall if you have to" and bring it back to our meeting. No further discussion can happen until the all important poster arrives. A few people make vague noises about having posters in THEIR room because they're so important to the project. The poster finally arrives. It has been ripped from the wall for this purpose.

This poster is all of four lines long. It gives four steps for success on the project. The principle admires it, asks someone to read it out loud, and explains to everyone that these are the four steps that count. Without them, our students will fail. We all make more vague noises of approval before going back to our real topic. We've wasted at least twenty minutes.

The next day, in the staff bulletin, there is only one item:

If you do not have a Project Poster, be sure to pick one up in the staff room. It is essential that all students are able to read the four steps for success in each and every classroom.

You just can't make this stuff up.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Never a Dull Moment

I'm just back from a frosty morning fire drill. It went in the usual way with all three grade levels and all staff lined up on the sports field. When we are all together, it makes a crowd of more than 1000 people. We do these every month, so it is no problem knowing what you're supposed to do. What made this one unique is that we'd already had a practice drill for the month. This wasn't practice at all. The fire alarms were tripped by, I'm not making this up, a smoking diaper.

It seems that one of the science teachers was doing an experiment that involved warming clean wet diapers in the microwave. Needless to say, the diaper warming got a little out of hand and smoke appeared. Thus we all ended up shivering on the track while the firefighters made sure it was safe to re-enter the building. The guilty teacher is making cookies for us all tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Of Good Subs and Bad

Last week I had the dreaded lurgy which is never fun, so I stayed home from school for one whole day. This is only the second day of this school year that I've missed due to illness, so you know I really wasn't feeling good. You might think missing so little school has to do with some strict sense of honor, but really it's not quite as noble as all that.

The worst part about being sick, aside from the obvious, is having a substitute teacher in charge of your classroom. Now I know that some people can quite cheerfully hand over their little darlings without a backward glance, but I am not one of those people. Are you surprised? I thought not. It is certainly part of my nature to dislike giving up control, but there is more to it than that.

My classes, as I've mentioned many times before, are not normal classes. My afternoon kids are exceptional young people who pretty much always do the right thing. However, having a sub stresses them out because it creates uncertainty. They REALLY want to know where they stand at all times. My morning block, on the other hand, has less emotional maturity than my seven year old niece. They just plain misbehave whenever they get the chance.

This is not to say that it's impossible to have a good experience with a sub. There are many good subs out there who do an excellent job of managing tough classes. In my experience, there are three kinds of subs to be had:

---Permissive subs just let the kids run wild. This makes the kids happy, but the work rarely gets done, and the other teachers in the school may become very grumpy. Also, your kids are NOT happy to see you when you get back. I hate this sub and try to avoid her (why is it usually a her?) at all costs.

---Authoritarian subs have their place, but they can be very harsh. The worst one I ever had threatened the kids with bodily harm, and they believed her. This sub gets the work done, but the kids end up shell-shocked. At least they are happy to see you when you get back. I try to avoid this kind of sub too.

---Authoritative subs are wonderful. They tend to be very grave and unflappable. They do not let kids get away with bad behavior, but they do not resort to yelling or threats. The kids do not like them, but they are not scared of them either. The kids are glad to see you after a day with this sub, but they don't need to spend half an hour telling you a tale of woe. I love this kind of sub, and will cheerfully make them cookies if it will encourage them to come.

I suppose, when it boils down to it, this is not really a tally of the different kinds of subs, but of the different approaches to discipline. You could also divide most parents into the same three categories. Can you guess which kind of parents my AM kids have? PM? Any guesses? Sign me up to be an authoritative parent some day. But I digress.

The sub I happened to get last week was of the authoritarian variety. According to my adult aide, she totally failed to teach the lesson, yelled at the kids for no reason, called them names, and then left the classroom five whole minutes before the end of the period. It took much soothing and cajoling to get them to calm down and get back to work this morning. No way am I EVER having that sub again. Could you pass me that bottle of hand sanitizer and an orange please?

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Three Love Poems and No Songs of Despair

How Do I Love Thee?

by Elizabeth Barret Browning

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

It's all I have to bring today

by Emily Dickenson

It's all I have to bring today –
This, and my heart beside –
This, and my heart, and all the fields –
And all the meadows wide –
Be sure you count –
should I forget
Some one the sum could tell –
This, and my heart, and all the Bees
Which in the Clover dwell.

I Love You

by Sara Teasdale

When April bends above me
And finds me fast asleep,
Dust need not keep the secret
A live heart died to keep.
When April tells the thrushes,
The meadow-larks will know,
And pipe the three words lightly
To all the winds that blow.
Above his roof the swallows,
In notes like far-blown rain,
Will tell the little sparrow
Beside his window-pane.
O sparrow, little sparrow,
When I am fast asleep,
Then tell my love the secret
That I have died to keep.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy 200 Darwin

Happy birthday to Charles Darwin, arch nemesis of creationists everywhere! It is amazing to me that, 200 years later, his theories still create such incredible drama. I believe Mr. Darwin! I believe!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Not dead, just overwhelmed at work. More on that later.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Boron Moron

Reading the NY Times today, I ran across this story about a correction they made to a story that ran last week in the science columns. It seem that this correction caught the attention of the staff writers at the Conan O'Brien Show. Be sure to scroll down and watch the video clip.

Friday, February 06, 2009

500th Post

My goodness! I just noticed that the last post represented number 500 for this blog. That represents either a startling waste of time or something of an accomplishment. I like to blog because I think that writing is good for the human brain. It represents a very specific kind of mental work-out that can't help but keep us cognitively flexible.

Also, as an English teacher, I think it's a good thing to stay connected to the writing process. Otherwise, you run the risk of forgetting what it's like for the kids who are in the trenches slogging through the basics. I also model a lot of simple five paragraph essays specifically for the kids, but they are profoundly not blog-worthy. They say in education that the best writing is done for "real audiences and purposes" so thank you, readers, for providing as much for me.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Beethoven's 9th

I've been meaning to post this for a month now and just haven't had the chance. As part of our New Year celebration, we were lucky enough to hear Beethoven's 9th symphony. Musically educated friends tell me that some of the people playing instruments did only a fair to middling job of performing. However, the choral part more than made up for any other deficits. I've always enjoyed this piece on cd, but somehow the power of actually being there was something altogether new. The music really does swell up and wash over you just as music fans have always claimed. If you ever get the chance to here the 9th in person with a live chorus, be sure to take it. Also, big thanks to R who makes our little symphony club possible, and to M who is my musical sugar daddy. Hooray for men who like the symphony!

Wednesday, February 04, 2009


If you haven't yet seen the banned PETA superbowl ad, you are seriously missing out. Okay, to be fair, you're not actually missing out on that much. I feel certain that PETA made this ad with the express purpose of having it banned thereby guaranteeing increased traffic on their website. I guess that's not a terrible strategy. I have such mixed feelings about PETA though. In many ways, they have a message I really respect and support. However, some of their tactics give vegetarians/animal rights supporters a bad name. Oh yes, and if you're going to watch the video, be sure to check out Whoopi Goldberg's impression of it as well.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

There Are Kids And Then There Are Kids

Many critics of American (and probably every other kind as well) education seem to suffer from the illusion that all students are created equal, and that their success or failure depends only on what teachers pour into them. Experienced teachers (and parents?) know that kids come with very different sets of skills and abilities, and it is part of the educational challenge to play on the strengths and shore up the weaknesses. One of the single greatest problems for the average teacher is how to meet this variety of needs in a single class.

For example, a teacher friend of mine sent identical email to her three absent students. In this email she inquired after their health and reminded them of the work she would expect when they returned. She got these three replies (some details have been changed to protect the guilty, but the style and gist are original):

"Oh, okay thank you so much! I will get right to the homework. For the yellow history triangle, I remember you saying to fill that out as we go, even if we were in history or not, but it only goes through Dec. 16th. I was assuming we would receive another sheet or just finish that current one but I was not sure?"

"hi i will back on monday i do not have the spelling test or the vocab test. do i have to turn in the the writing prep 2 i did it but its not on computer grades?"

"it's already better so it' fine and i've just been hanging out but i might go up to the pass this weekend so ya thanks bye"

You begin to see the problem?

Monday, February 02, 2009

Octuplets: Twelve Babies Too Many

Yes, yes, I know that the California woman who just gave birth to octuplets only delivered eight babies (I do know that oct=eight). However, it turns out that this woman already had six children! Not only that, but she is a single mother who does not have any obvious means of support. Her oldest child is seven while her youngest is just two. Throw in the fact that at least one of her older children is autistic, AND that she lost her house just before becoming pregnant. It would be tough to dream up a worse situation for the introduction of a brand new baby. However, in this case it's not just one new baby, but eight.

Now the ethics, medical and otherwise, come into the situation. There are so many ugly questions here that it's difficult to know where to begin:

- Either insurance or public aid will have to pay for the healthcare costs of these children. Given the fact that each is likely to cost more than one million dollars for their delivery and NICU care alone, that is a huge amount of money. This woman made a choice to have these children and now private individuals are paying the enormous cost. Suddenly this does not seem like a purely personal issue any more.

-Next come the medical ethics. Was it reasonable for a doctor to implant so many embryos? Was it even reasonable for a doctor to be offering this type of service to a woman with so many children already? Should there be any kinds of checks on the mental health or stability of the family? What kind of life can a child expect as one of eight babies in a family of fourteen?

-Last there is the question of adding so many extra people to the planet. I have long believed that we will one day have to face the realities of unlimited population growth. Very few countries actually tackle this issue for fear that they will run afoul of religious conservatives who see every conception as a new soul sent from God. Other countries have tried to cope, but with brutal results. Eventually we will need to find a kinder gentler way to limit the growth of our population. Perhaps we might start with a limit on the number of children one can have and still seek infertility treatment?

In the end, I (and the millions of other horrified people) could certainly be wrong. Maybe this woman is a wonderful mother who will work hard to provide everything her children need. Maybe this home will be a warm and loving place where all the children feel safe, comfortable, and loved. I fervently hope this is the case. However, I also hope that child protective services will keep this woman on their short list just on the off chance that hers does not turn out to be the perfect environment for eight tiny babies.