Monday, March 30, 2009

Watts Rocks Grieg

Last Saturday, M and I had the pleasure of hearing Andre Watts play Grieg's piano concerto in A at Benaroya Hall. It was an enormously good time, and I am deeply appreciative of the performance. However, I really don't know if it was more the performer or the piece. Should this be an ode to Grieg, Watts, or both? I think I will have to assign myself some difficult homework, and listen to both Watts and Grieg without the other. Either way, our Saturday night concert thrilled us down to our toes. Then we fled at intermission before Bruckner had the chance to ruin the wonderful mood.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Prompt Writing

Every year, it falls to me (why is another story) to come up with two writing prompts for use by all our students. I try very hard to think of prompts that will not be too complex, will allow the kids to show what they know, and will not fall prey to any major bias. Needless to say, this can be quite a challenge.

Fortunately, as they years go by; I've gotten better at it. Some years are easy. I write a prompt, the group of teachers in my department approve the prompt, the writing genius down at admin vets the prompt, and we are all set. Other years are a little more exciting. This year was definitely on the more interesting side.

As with any other time, I started out by writing a few prompts to present to the department. I always draw on what I know WASL prompts are like, and I try to come up with something that won't be overly biased. For example, years ago there was a to-do over a prompt that contained the word "lawn." Many kids did badly because it turns out that poor kids who live in apartments don't know much about lawns. The perfect prompt is one that is equally accessible to all kids. Of course, perfection IS impossible, but still we have to try.

This year I came up with one prompt about travel, one about friends, and one about technology. I was fairly pleased with all three, and I was quite confident that each would pass the vetting process down at admin. I trotted innocently off to the department meeting. Then all hell broke loose.

Okay, in a group of English teachers "all hell" may be too strong a word. However, there was much too-ing and fro-ing over those three little prompts. At one point we'd almost approved one of my original prompts only to have the agreement smashed by one particularly strident voice. Factions formed, edits were proposed and discarded, and people became quite stern (that's the English teacher version of getting mad).

Finally, the principle (who doesn't always attend these meetings, but happened to be there that day) decided to take action. He proposed a whole new prompt of his own invention. I can't write it here for obvious reasons, but I can say that it was, um, interesting. I knew that is wasn't good, the other teachers all knew it wasn't good, and nobody was willing to challenge him. I felt like I'd already shot down as many bad ideas as I could for the day. With time running out, I promised to send the prompt for vetting.

Can you guess the result? Yeah, it failed the vetting process. I sent down my three original prompts as alternatives, and the genius approved ALL of them. After a protracted email vote (more than sixty emails), the third prompt, the one we'd almost approved at our meeting, made the cut without any editing. We were finally ready. Right before I sent the prompt off to press I get one more email from a brand new teacher "do you think we could re-work the prompt to make it easier for my lower performing students? I don't want them to bomb!" In times like these, counting to ten just isn't enough.

Guess what? The original prompt was a huge success. Even the kids liked it. Of course I have strenuously avoiding saying "I told you so" to any of my colleagues because that would be immature. That doesn’t mean I don't think "neener, neener" at them from time to time.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Two Totally Unrelated Links

Over the weekend I was introduced to something call the failblog. I know, I know everyone but me has probably been viewing it for years, but it was my first look. Some of the pictures made me laugh out loud, and I figure that has to be a good thing. Thus Failblog has become a regular part of my off-time browsing. Be warned that some content may not be appropriate for younger viewers/work settings. Those Virgin Mary soaps, for example, are certainly not suitable for sale in the church shop.

On a totally different note, here is a link to something that is not at all funny. In fact, most people will think it's really boring. However, if you want to know what types of learning are being required of kids in Washington State, you can find released items from the actual WASL in this teacher toolkit. For the strangely geeky among you, it may be interesting. Be sure to select the grade level otherwise you default to cute little third grade examples.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Making a Point With Charts and Graphs

In my classroom I try to teach students about the power of facts when trying to prove a point. After all, if you make some sort of pronouncement, you should be able to back it up with proof. If you don't have any information to back up your opinion, your audience will probably not take you very seriously. This is a lesson many of them struggle to learn, and I often get "persuasive" essays that could not convince a dog to roll in stinky things. Fortunately, Elder Niece is not like these ineffectual weaklings. She is a girl of intellectual muscle, (but I'm not biased!) and she knows that every good point must be proved.

Recently, while the nieces were visiting for the weekend, I noticed Elder Niece making a bar graph. She seemed quite serious about the task, so I did not want to disturb her. However, M heard her describe the purpose of the graph to her sister. It seems that Elder Niece is required by her father (The Strictest Parent Ever) to go to bed at a certain time on school nights. She views this bedtime as unreasonably harsh and would like to negotiate a new deal. She surveyed all the students in her class, and then translated the data to her graph. Bedtimes went on the X-axis, while numbers of kids appeared on the Y-axis. Her graph proves that her bedtime is earlier than the majority of kids in her class.

Now I have read many, many story problems in my career as a student and a teacher. They always seem to me to be terribly contrived situations involving numbers of pizzas and numbers of seats at picnic tables. However, I can honestly say that this was a real-life example of a story problem in action. Who knows if Elder Niece was successful in her bedtime campaign or not, but there can be no doubt that she makes a damn fine graph to prove her point.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Battlestar Galactica is Dead

Sad but true that our favorite TV show, Battlestar Galactica, breathed its last on Friday night. I realized that M and I have been enjoying this show and its predecessor for five of our nearly seven years together. It's really been a part of our little culture. We've discussed the plot and the ideas ad nausem, and we've had a lot of fun socializing around it too. I know, I know, we are huge and embarrassing geeks, and that's okay.

Adding to our pain was the undeniable fact that the ending was not good. I won't spoil it here since I know some readers are still fans who haven't finished. However, I feel that I can say that the whole series is still entirely worthwhile story-telling. It's just that the way they chose to wind up the threads of the plot left a lot to be desired. You only get satisfying answers to some things, and even those answers feel pretty pat. I really did not expect pat from BSG. It seemed like rather than go through the complicated effort of actually resolving certain themes and relationships; they took an easy way out. Unfortunately, that really shows.

Goodbye BSG. We truly loved you.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Top Pot in Bellevue

M is a man with many different talents, and one of them is spotting fun new places to try. On a recent weekend, we were in downtown Bellevue with The Nieces, and M had a brainwave. What about a visit to the new Top Pot doughnuts? Of course we all thought that sounded like a most superior suggestion, so off to Top Pot we went. What a nice way to spend some time on a Sunday morning! The pleasant cafe is exactly like the one in downtown Seattle, and it makes a great place to meet up with friends or family. The doughnuts are, of course, divine, and everyone was quite happy with their picks. My only complaint was the strangely herbal tasting chai, but you can't expect to win them all. We will certainly be back on another Sunday morning. Hopefully this will be a morning right before a day of hiking.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Stimulus Anger

Given the current economic situation, it stands to reason that people would be looking for someone to blame. Just look at the sheer rage directed at Bernie Madoff. Personally, I think blaming the Bush presidency is always good. Of course blame is never that simple. These days, the popular things seems to be blaming the large companies that whose ridiculously risky behavior seems to have caused so much of the trouble. Every time you turn around, there's another story about how the head of some company spent this much bail-out money on this stupid thing.

My question is, knowing how much scrutiny is on them right now, why do these businesses keep making the same stupid choices? Are they really that out of touch? Do they really think no one will notice if they pay for a new corporate jet/waste basket/bonus using government money? There are two sides to every story, so I'm hoping there is some good reason for these choices to which we are not privy. Otherwise, the level of stupidity and entitlement is shocking to say the least.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Eleven Children at the Zoo

My elder brother has been a manager, on and off, for many years now. I assume he's good at his job since he's smart and capable and always in demand by employers. However, I've never really had the chance to see him in the midst of his actual job (have you ever had the chance to watch your brother at work?). Recently had the opportunity to see his managerial skills in action. Only this time, it wasn't a bunch of engineers he was organizing, but a group of small children.

The occasion was Younger Niece's eighth birthday party. She picked Red Robin for her celebratory lunch, and then the whole crowd of us (nine little kids and two big ones) were off to the zoo. The car logistics alone were quite something, but we eventually arrived at the gates with tickets in hand. When you have a group of kids that size, and you don't really know all of them that well, the danger is that a kid could get left behind somewhere, and you wouldn't event notice. Thus some early cave teacher must have invented the first buddy system.

Standing in the mock African village (which looks disappointingly unlike M's childhood home), each kid chose a buddy, and then each pair of buddies chose a grown-up "keeper." This way, every grown-up only had to keep track of two kids. Luckily, Elder Niece and her buddy were willing to partner with M because it turned out that a strange man is too scary for most of the younger girls. I congratulated/kidded Elder Niece on being very brave, and she told me that Uncle M. is "NOT scary AT ALL!" And so we set off.

Each grown-up kept a general eye on his or her pair of kids, but it was my brother who was in the lead. He was also the one who gave general reminders such as "Please don't climb into the pig enclosure!" or "No running in front of strollers!" or perhaps "No petting that part of the bunny!" We stayed until it was almost closing time, and we saw some "really cool stuff." The highlights, as far as the kids were concerned, were a tiny snake eating an even tinier fish, the hippos moving ponderously around, and the lions calling out their sunset "song."

At last, my brother counted up the children one final time before piling them back into cars. He asked Younger Niece what she thought of the trip, and she said that "It would have been the best birthday ever except the one problem. You're the strictest dad EVER! But it was still fun." Nothing like the old mixed message from the budding tween. Grandma gave Younger Niece a lecture about gratitude, but I told me brother he should wear "Strictest Dad Ever" as a serious mark of pride. If that birthday event was the work of the strictest parent ever, then I hope to be one of those myself one day.

Monday, March 16, 2009

John Stewart on NPR

The world has turned upside-down if National Public Radio is featuring stories about John Stewart. Quite a shift for the former late night talk show host who also used to do guest spots on the hideous program Talk Soup. Granted, John Stewart has become quite a liberal hero in the last several years, but I still found it really strange to hear his name coming out of the mouths of Kai Ryssdal and his ilk.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Congrats C & C!

In the midst of a crazy work week, I was very pleased to take a little time out for some good stuff. Our friends, C and C, had asked a few of us to serve as witnesses at their courthouse wedding, and I was thrilled to accept. Thus we found ourselves in a tiny, sunlit courtroom where a very friendly judge had just finished hearing cases for the day. The entire wedding, including the judge, couple, and guests, consisted of seven people. The couple and the service were so sweet that I actually got a little teary-eyed before it was over. There is something about stripping a wedding back to the bare basics that is really quite touching. Here's hoping that C and C have a very happy life together.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Too Busy

A combination of forces is conspiring to use up every spare moment of my time this week (and last week and next week). I could explain all the exciting projects we're doing at work, such as trimester grades, but that would probably just come out sounding whiney. Suffice it to say, this is the usual work load for this time of year. By the time we go on Spring Break in a few weeks, most of the extra work will be over. We're 2/3 of the way done with the school year, and I can already start to taste the summer.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Rave #217: Snow

I know, I'm kind of a broken record when it comes to snow. Therefore, I should simply say "snow rave here" and you could play it over in your head. Sorry to be predictable. Nevertheless, I just can't seem to help myself.

We've been flirting with snow for several days now. On Saturday night it even went so far as give us a heavy dusting while we were having dinner with the family. All the school-going members of the group were quite excited, but not enough fell to make much of a difference. However, by this morning, enough had fallen to warrant a two-hour delay (for those of us up on the foothills anyway. So neener, neener nieces and grandma!).

Driving to school was not much of a problem because most of the roads were still only bare and wet. However, as the morning wore on, the snow got more and more enthusiastic. By about 1pm today, it was coming down thick and fast. The school district cancelled all after school activities, and sent the teachers home right after the bell (we usually stay for a bit after the kids). The drive home was a little slick, and I'm glad I cam home when I did because it hasn't let up yet.

None of the weather reports I saw predicted anything like this, so I don't know if I should believe them when they say "clear and cold" for tonight. If they are right about the cold part, anything that falls today will stick around for a while. Who knows, maybe we could end up having a snow day in March. Stranger things, like snow on the cherry blossoms, have happened.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Censorship Continues

Recently, I wrote a post about censorship. In it, I mentioned the story of my elementary school banning the book The Lorax due to its unflattering depiction of loggers. It is, to my mind, a pretty clear example of how close-minded my little community was 25 years ago. No worries though because that was quite a while ago, and we are all much more reasonable today right? Ha and ha again. It seems that another small Oregon town has just pulled the exact same trick under the exact same logic. Sad, sad, sad.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Car Music

My little car and I recently celebrated our second anniversary together. Unlike my last car, this one is not exciting, it does not elicit any passion, it is not thrilling around curves. However, this new car also does not leave me stranded, require a close relationship with a mechanic, or guzzle gas. On the whole, the quiet, reliable life is entirely worthwhile. The only complaint I had was about the music.

My current car came with a cassette deck. Yes, a cassette deck. I don't own any cassettes, and I haven't owned any in at least ten years. What was the car maker thinking when, in 2003, they built a car with a cassette deck? The only thing I can do with the deck is play old audio books from the library. While I enjoy Georgette Heyer novels just as much as the next girl, it just wasn't the same as listening to actual music. Clearly the cassette deck had to go.

I tried several times to get a CD player, but something always seemed to get in the way. Most frequently that something was my own cheap nature. Why should it cost $150 to install a $99 CD player? Why, if they offer same day installation could I never get an appointment on the same day? Why are the guys who work in car audio departments always so snippy? Why does Circuit City suck so much? Who knows, but the end result of all that was that I never did get a CD player installed. Ah well, there's always NPR.

For two years, I listened to the radio or an audio book. I'd pretty much just given up on the whole CD player plan. Sure, I could've done more to pursue it, but I just didn't. Then along came my clever and heroic husband. With perfect nonchalance, he bought a CD player online (I would have dithered forever about the type) and installed it in my car. No fuss, no muss, and no scuff marks on the dash. It works perfectly.

I once again get to have a soundtrack when I drive. I love that. On my drive home last night, I got to listen to Barenaked Ladies, Green Day, and Fallout Boy. This morning, as the sun was coming up, it was Madeline Peyroux and Yo-Yo Ma. What a nice way to pass the time. Of course, my knowledge of current affairs and Heyer books might suffer, but I think I can live with that.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Happy Birthday Dr. Seuss

If he were alive today, Dr. Seuss would be turning 105 years old. What he would have to say about such a momentous occasion, we can only guess. His fabulous array of books, over sixty in all, are a library unto themselves, and millions of people, young and old, owe their literacy to his excellent work. Oh the Places You'll Go, Red Fish, Blue Fish, Green Eggs and Ham, The Bitter Butter Battle, and Fox in Socks are some of my personal favorites.