Monday, April 30, 2012


I realize that it will not make me popular to say that I find all things Disney to be highly suspect.
It’s okay.
I’m not running for homecoming queen.
I received a grant to go to the American Library Association convention this summer.
I am well and truly happy and excited about this.
So one of the grant committee people said, “Maybe you’ll stay an extra day and go to Disneyland.”
I don’t think so.
I’ve been to Disneyland four times.
Once was when I was three.
I don’t like dolls.
“It’s a Small World”nearly sent me out of the boat.
I did not grow up watching Disney movies, because the only one that my Dad thought was acceptable was Pinocchio. This was back in the day  when if you wanted to see a movie you had to see it in a theater or when it came on television.
In a way it was okay that I did not have a lot of Disney exposure. I have no Bambi trauma, because I have never seen Bambi in its entirety.
I did watch The Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday nights. On occasion.
Now that I am a grown up--at least it says so on my Driver’s License--I have even bigger reservations about All Things Disney.
Disney Princesses!
Bah, I say. Bah.
No matter how spirited those Princesses get, they are still guilty of major league gender stereotyping.
It was the twenty-first century before there was an African-American princess.
My nieces love Disney Princesses. They get a lot of Disney Princess stuff.
I'm just Auntie or Tia Sissy, so I don't get a vote on this.
I buy them books that don't have Disney Princesses and movies like National Velvet.
Disneyland is very clean, which is nice. And there are steps in place to discourage gangwear and so on.
But what goes on underneath all that squeaky-cleanness?
What happens when the lights go out?
What lurks in moats?
Do the rigid smiles on all of those dolls turn to something else when the crowds disperse?
Do all of those Plush Costumes and Rubber Faces gambol and gibber in the moonlight?
THAT is the side of Disneyland I would buy a ticket for.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

You Need to Read This Article: "Your Brain on Fiction" by Annie Murphy Paul

So I already mentioned this article once during the A-Z Blog Challenge, but I think it is just so remarkable that I am devoting some serious real estate to it today.
Here is "Your Brain on Fiction" by Annie Murphy Paul. I am going to move the laundry from the washer to the dryer while you read it.
There. (beams at reader)
I'm a big fan of neuroscience. Brains are such a mystery.
I have a student who is an avid reader of non-fiction. This is a good thing. But when I told him I wanted him to read a Good Book (what I call the best of YA) he balked a little.
"I don't really like those stories," he said. "Can't I read..." and then he gave me a list of non-fiction titles, all of which were compelling.
I asked him if he was going to read those books anyway.
He said he would.
"Okay," I said. "Here is why I want you to read a novel."
And I printed out a copy of "Your Brain on Fiction" and gave it to him.
And the next day we had this terrific conversation about the article and brains and books and it was awesome.
He checked out The Maze Runner by James Dashner.
Annie Murphy Paul joins my pantheon of Admirable People.
Here's how she concludes her article:
"Reading great literature, it has long been averred, enlarges and improves us as human beings. Brain science shows this claim is truer than we imagined."

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Xanadu. The Ancient Mariner. Good Times.

I fell in love with Samuel Taylor Coleridge when I was in fourth grade and I read this book called The Boyhood of Grace Jones, by Jane Langton.
Grace was a total tomboy and she learned "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" by heart, and I fell in love with its rhythm and story, and then promptly devoured everything that Samuel T. ever did.
Yes. I memorized "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" in big chunks and I also memorized "Kubla Khan".
And I always wondered what would have happened if the guy who woke Samuel T. up from his, uh, vision realized that he totally screwed up an Important Moment in Literature.
Or maybe the fact that it's a fragment and the rest never happened is part of its mystique.
When I taught English I loved teaching these poems.
I draped myself in black cloth and hung a stuffed bird around my neck and we turned off the lights and I chanted out "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" in a way that I thought was dramatic and cool and effective.
My favorite line:
"'Shrive me, shrive me, holy man!'"
You are supposed to shriek this, not say it.
The kids were really, really good sports about this.
"'Shrive me, shrive me'" became a sort of rallying cry one year, and I laughed every single time I heard it.
Kid walks past my room and shrieks, "Shrive me!"
Kid yells across the quad, "Shrive me!"
Kids answer back, "Shrive me, holy man!"
Another line  randomly called out:
"'I shot the albatross.'"
"'No, I shot the albatross.'"
And then there would be a Who Shot the Albatross Smackdown. Who shot it and with what and why.
Good times.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

When Wombats Attack.

Teaching and learning basic software applications can be extremely dull.
When I learned how to do Excel spreadsheets, we had to use a database full of cute Disney and cartoon character names and facts.
 It was supposed to be fun.
I hated it.
 Snow White is not pulling down 8.25 an hour in payroll, people.
 I had to do a PowerPoint once on how to order a hamburger. This was an actual, real, for-true assignment from an accredited institution. I wanted to stab my eyes out with a spork. And I promised myself that I would never, ever inflict this sort of thing on my students.
If you teach Excel, you need to be able to do Jazz Hands. *does Jazz Hands*
 When I demo how to do a PowerPoint, I take the opportunity to teach the kids about The Dangers of Wombats.
 "You may go to Australia someday," I tell them. "You need to stay safe."
 Kids are dubious. "They look so cute," they say.
"That's what they want you to think. It's part of how Nature works with predators."
I  sound dark and grim.
 I demonstrate how to insert pictures by inserting a picture of a smiling woman who is holding a wombat.
"This was taken about five seconds before that cute little thing went for her jugular vein." <br>
Horror in the classroom.
 "It happens all the time." I change the text to fly in, red, warning, forbidding. "You want your text to be professional, yet illustrate your message."
I have their complete attention.
We animate and create transitions.I have them stand up and practice how to shoo a wombat away. "You have to make your hand like a claw, and do kind of a Cat-Daddy thing."
Seeing my students earnestly shooing imaginary wombats away is one of the best things in the world.
I love graphic editing.
I made many official wombat warning signs for parks and put them in the PowerPoint.
I show them the wonders of AutoShapes by making warning banners and inserting text like
"'Ware the Wombats! 'Ware!" because that is how you talk if you are in Australia.<br>
The last slide is, of course, a demo on inserting video.
I have a video of wombats gamboling--insofar as they can summon up the energy to gambol--across a field while people coo and appear completely calm about being in the presence of such fierce and dangerous creatures.
I can scarcely contain my glee at their reactions.
They laugh. Some are laughing and outraged.
"You taught us WRONG," some say.
"But it was FUN," I say.
Besides, all the PowerPoint stuff is correct.
And then I read Diary of a Wombat by Jackie French out loud, because it is a great book and tells them true things about wombats.
My students are awesome, and their PowerPoints will not put you into PowerPoint comas.
Mission accomplished.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Vexed to Nightmare. Writing Standard 9WS1.0.

Yeah, I quoted W.B. Yeats there, and I didn't put quotation marks around the phrase I quoted, and if I wrote an essay I'd lose points. But I could express ideas.
If I  could figure out on a standardized test that the title needed quotation marks, I'd be golden.
I have a one in four chance of getting that question right.
I could write an essay in which  I could quote the poem, and  if someone could read my essay  and I talked about what is now slouching towards Bethlehem (another quote) metaphorically and why it matters that there is a bird of prey and why the words "slouch" and "rough beast" are some of the most ominous, creep-inducing words in the English language,  I could show my words and my thinking
My words and my thinking do not matter.
I can only choose one of four answers to show my writing skills and ideas.
I went on a field trip to the California Department of Education website. No, I am not providing the link here, because part of the fun of taking a field trip is getting there.
At least that should be part of the fun.
Here is a quote for you:
"The following seven California English-Language Arts content standards are included in the Writing Strategies strand/cluster and are represented in this booklet by 25 test questions for grade 9. These questions represent only some ways in which these standards may be assessed on the Grade 9 California English-Language Arts Standards Test."
I know this is exhilarating. But wait, there's more.
Here is Standard 9WS1.0:
"WRITING STRATEGIES: Students write coherent and focused essays that convey a well-defined perspective and tightly reasoned argument. The writing demonstrates students' awareness of the audience and purpose. Students progress through the stages of the writing process as needed."
Wait. What?
You gotta answer twenty-five questions that SHOW you know how to write a coherent and focused essay?
There are questions about the writing process?
But you don't actually WRITE?
Well slap me twice and hand me to my mother.
All those English teachers out there, slaving over essay after essay, why don't you just make up a multiple choice test?
I spent years grading papers at night and on weekends.No wonder no one asks me to help make these tests!
Standardized tests.
Make it up to your kids by taking them to a bookstore and letting them choose a Good Book that they will never be tested on.
Make it happen.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Unsolicited Advice. It's Graduation Season!

I asked a couple of seniors today what kind of unsolicited advice they have been getting.
I know it's only April, but it's funny how people kind of shake of their winter hibernation minds and start pouring out General Pithy Maxims to people who will graduate soon. I wonder if a switch goes off in their heads, like "It is now time to impart wisdom" and then they load up at Quotes4U or whatever and set sail on the Good Ship Inspire, relishing every opportunity to accost a high school senior and unload a favorite gem.
My boys exchanged glances first, a sure sign that they had been recently cornered.
"I know everyone is trying to be nice," I said. "But I really want to know what you think."
"'Do what you love'" said Xerxes. (Names have been changed to preserve confidentiality.)
"Yeah,"said Agamemnon."And that makes sense, and, sure, I want to do something I love, but what if what I love is, like, yodeling?"
And then we had to stop because we were laughing and we had to look up Careers for Yodelers.
Xerxes: "People keep telling me to 'do computers.'"
Me: "What do you they mean by that?"
Agamemnon: "Yeah, this guy told me his nephew does computers and he makes a lot of money so I should do computers, too."
Me:"Okay, but what about computers are you supposed to do?"
They didn't know.
We sat in silence for a few seconds.
Xerxes:"Last week a lady told me I should be a city manager. Or an ambassador."
Me:"Just like, walked up and did this pronouncement?"
Agamemnon is laughing too hard to comment.
Xerxes:(punches Agamemnon)"Yeah."
Me:"Was that helpful?"
Agamemnon:"No. It was weird. I was there."
Xerxes:"My neighbor told me to sell shoes, because shoes are a hot commodity."
This made me go into PowerSnort Laugh mode.
And we talked about shoes, and what a hot commodity they are.
And they promised me that they would keep me apprised of the treasures yet to come their way.
They have seven more weeks before graduation.
That's a lot of treasure.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Tactless or Truthful? Classroom Interactions. Learning Curve.

The first time a kid commented on my appearance I was a little nonplussed.
I could not even imagine saying something to a teacher that was a personal observation.
Wait. I take that back.
When I was in kindergarten I followed a yard duty person because I had never seen a face like hers, like it had a map on it.
I didn't know that many old people.
I said, "How did your face get like that?"
All I remember feeling was wonder and a kind of awe.
Until she answered.
And then I was sad and ashamed, because I got yelled at and I had to stand in a corner and I was scared to death.
Things like that happen when you are five.
And then you are supposed to learn "tact."
And you are also supposed to be truthful.
This is a fine line to walk for just about anybody.
So here I am in a classroom with about forty kids who are labelled "at risk."
I learned early on that labels are not really helpful.
Anyway, one of my girls looks at me and says, "You didn't put any makeup on your right eye." Turns to a friend. "Damn, girl. That woman only did one eye."
My first response was dismay and chagrin, because I knew I had forgotten something, but no one in the carpool said a word. Not one adult said, "Hey, you only did one eye."
And now all the kids are looking at me and talking about my naked eye.
I tried to steer them back to poetry.
They would have none of it.
They wanted answers.
"How you leave the house and your face is not on?"
"Didn't your mama tell you?"
"You still live with your mama?"
"Shutup. Maybe she can't see."
A paper airplane flies by.
"I can see," I said.
I'm standing there in my Little House on the Prarie /Consummate Professional clothing that was required for student teachers, an utterly non-fetching sweater and skirt ensemble. I remember that I had on a pair of green pumps, and a green jade apple necklace, and nylons that had started to pool around my ankles.
I pulled a really tall stool into the center of the room and sat.
And waited.
It got kind of quiet. Still too loud for Management Purposes.
"Here's the deal," I said."You can ask me three questions. I may not answer if I don't think it's your business. And then we need to do this other stuff."
It's the first week of student teaching and I had a lot of learning to do.
I am keenly aware of my Naked Eye, and that mortification will get me nowhere.
"So how did you leave your house and your makeup wasn't done?"
"I don't know. I get busy in my head."
"It doesn't look that bad," said a kid. Hooray for the sympathy vote.
"Thanks," I said.
"Do you still live with your mama?"
Argument ensues. Doubt as to whether or not the whole class wants this to be a real question. I wait.
Consensus reached.
"No, I don't live with my mother."
Protests. This is not enough of an answer.
"Then you better ask a different kind of question."
"Do you really like this shit?" A kid waves the packet of poems.
Everyone is really quiet.Because even though they swear a lot, here was a swear word in a question to the adult.
When in doubt, go to Atticus Finch.
I gave the kid my Naked Eye. "Don't say 'shit' in class. And yeah, I like most poetry. I like it all except (and then I named a poem that I don't like)."
And I told them why I didn't like it.
And many of them listened and some of them didn't and a lot of them didn't care one way or the other and that's how I made it through one day.
And I stopped and looked in a mirror on my way to the carpool.
The eye with makeup looked all sad and stretched, like how my nylons felt.
My Naked Eye looked just fine.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Standardize this.

Anxiety is a big part of Testing Season.
As I've said before, I tell the kids all I want is for them to do the best they can with what they have, my all-purpose paraphrase about People of Character from To Kill a Mockingbird.
I am not allowed to look at the tests. We all have to watch a video on test security and sign a paper that says if we divulge any information about the tests to anyone or discuss the tests with our colleagues we forfeit our jobs, relationships,worldly goods, and are also subject to frontal lobotomies.
No, just kidding on that last one. I think.
I want kids to do their best because they are judged by their tests. So are the schools. I do not have any power over this. I follow all of my scripted directions, perform due diligence with test security, and am happy when it is all over.
I take a lot of showers during Testing Season. I just don't feel right about it all.
Anyway, I cheer myself up by doing Celebration of the Human Spirit stuff with the kids.
Like reading good books.
Mozart never had to take a standardized test.
I don't think Ray Bradbury had to take any standardized tests, but I am not sure. I have not asked him.
This year we are going to look at Chagall paintings during Testing Season.
I think it is hard to look at a Chagall painting and not feel a sense of happiness and renewal.
And I remind the kids that they are not labels.
They are human beings with intrinsic dignity.
You can't standardize the human spirit.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Revolution: An Update from the Trenches

So yesterday I did a presentation for a grant committee about the Best Fiction for Young Adults Revolution.
Note to self: check and see if BFYA is copyright or trademark, because I do not want to make the American Library Association mad.
Asking for money is easy when it's for the benefit of the Angel Potatoes.
This group of very nice people listened as I talked and talked and talked.
I talked about how kids respond when you know them well enough to recommend books for them and you've read the books and you can talk about them.
I told them that being able to be alone with words and worlds and imagination and quiet is becoming a life skill in the twenty-first century.
Brains on fiction!
Here, read this article.
It is gratifying to know that neuroscience validates Revolution. Thanks, Annie Murphy Paul. You are full of awesomesauce.
I talked about how absolutely over-the-moon my students get when an author writes them back and SEES them. Not all authors have time to do this, but it is really, really cool when it happens.
And for Visual Aids--because grant committee members have learning modalities too--I had two packages that I just received.
One was a box of donated books from a Remarkable Human who heard about the Revolution and sent books.
And a Remarkable Amazing Author Who Has My Undying Gratitude sent a packet of swag that is so wonderful that I sat down and cried.
I ran up and down the hall in the administration building with books and swag and interrupted EVERYONE because I shrieked, "Look! Look! Revolution stuff!"
It is good that my colleagues are patient and supportive people.
So then the committee asked some questions, because if you are going to give money to someone you are entitled to clarification.
One kind person asked why the library wasn't running this project.
This is a good question.
We have books in our media center, and the person in charge of the media center has like, five jobs to do.
And I see the kids every day and I've read something like three hundred good books (YA) in the last two years and I teach technology and I see that kids need stories and these are not mutually exclusive things and equally necessary.
So not only did this committee grant my request, they said that if another grant does not come through that they will help again.
And so this morning I ran up and down the hall of the administration building shrieking that I got the grant.
Everyone was happy and hid any irritation they might have felt at being interrupted again.
And THEN I showed the kids the contents of the packages and they were SO HAPPY.
We start storyboarding their book trailers soon and they are all lit up and excited.
It was a good day for the Revolution.
May there be many more.
Thanks, everyone.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Quiet Ones. Make Some Room for Them.

"The squeaky wheel gets oiled."
I really dislike this saying.
Partially because it's true, especially in education.
Kids who are lively and chatty, or kids who are disruptive, tend to get a lot of attention.
This isn't a bad thing. It's part of the job.
Thing is, you have to be able to see and hear all the kids.
I have fifty more kids in the same number of classes than I did two years ago.
This is a reality.
I greet all the kids at the door every day.
Apparently an Education Specialist wrote a book and a lot of education programs use this book, and this guy is really rich now, and one of the things he says is that you greet the kids at the door.
Dang. I should have written a book, but I think if you have to be told stuff like this maybe you need to not be a teacher.
Just saying.
I can greet the kids at the door, but getting to each kid each period to address each individual need is a physical impossibility.
I need super-special powers to stretch the time-space continuum.
Or maybe people will decide that kids count and do something about it.
In the meantime, I just want to give a shout-out to the quiet kids that can get invisible, because they are just as important as everyone else.
Sometimes people think that quiet kids are quiet because they don't have problems.
And it makes me frustrated, because if I could just have a little more time, or not as many students, I could make sure that the kids who have C's could get to B's and the kids who are quiet because something is wrong get an opportunity to voice the wrong to someone.
Sometimes kids are quiet and just fine, but I know that they appreciate being seen.
I need more room.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Please Don't Dim the Lights.

Here is a picture from my classroom.
We have some electrical issues, so even though it was really nice of the people who built the school to put in dimmer switches, something funny happens if you dim.
It breaks the lights.
If you dim the lights EVEN ONE TIME, one or more bulbs will start flickering.
Sometimes they make a menacing buzzing sound.
No one has been able to fix or explain this phenomenon.
So, rather than keep wasting the time of the maintenance crew and wasting the money of the taxpayers of California, I duct-taped the lights so you can't dim them.
At first I used the old-fashioned duct tape.
Then I got the pretty kind, the kind that I wear as bracelets, because things that are useful as well as decorative are things I value highly.
People like dimming lights. It gives them a sense of control.
But when the lights you are dimming are the lights inside of people, that is wrong.
No one should try to control someone else's lights.
A lot of times people dim lights inadvertently, or because they think it's for someone else's good.
Like the parent who thinks taking art classes is stupid, because get that requirement out of the way and do something that "counts."
And I see how this kid, who can create things that make the angels weep, is really, really sad at registration and adds an extra science class.
Extra science classes are cool if they keep the lights on.
They are not cool if they dim the lights.
Or the counselor or teacher who tells a kid that she's "not college material."
What? WHAT?
My blood pressure goes up whenever I think about this, because I am thinking of a specific kid I had a long time ago who was, and is, one of the most singularly gifted human beings I have ever met, and an Adult in Authority said this to her.
It is a credit to this student that this reckless stupidity did not break her.
Dimmers are for light fixtures,not people.
I can duct-tape light switches.
I can't control stupid stuff that adults say.
I can try to fix the lights.
Wish me luck.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Open Wounds. Honorable Warriors. Joe Lunievcz.

Some days I look around at the world and I wonder where the honorable people are. You know, the ones that when you were in school your teacher would point to as role model types.
I remember memorizing Trenchant Insight Quotes from heroes and heroines like Eleanor Roosevelt.
I have a hard time finding famous role models for kids.
You can't even count on the dead presidents anymore. A lot of presidents have a lot of details in their lives that are better kept in soft focus.
George Washington's wooden teeth scared me witless when I was little.
Gandhi, Harriet Tubman, people like that are good. But even Gandhi had some habits the kids think are seriously weird. I get it.
It's hard to have heroic people who can hold up to the scrutiny that The Google provides.
You have your fictional role models.
Atticus Finch!
And then I encountered a veritable host of wonderful writers who also happen to be wonderful people.
This brings me to Open Wounds by Joe Lunievicz.
People. If you are an avid fan of language and story and The Human Journey with all of its darkness and light you need to read this book.
And if you love New York, you will fall in love all over again.
If you don't know anything about New York, you have a major-league crush coming your way.
Life, fencing, New York, honor, growing up. A man named Lefty.
I would quote from the book, but one of my students has it checked out right now.
This is a good thing.
As for Joe Lunievicz, I defy you to read these FAQ's and not think,"Holy tomato. This is a hero."
I don't cry. This is a character flaw. But I well up when I read about Joe Lunievicz, mostly because I am grateful for people like him and his art and his work.
I haven't met Joe Lunievicz face to face.
I hope I get a chance to shake his hand and buy him a good dram of whisky someday.
Based on what I know about Joe, he would be completely embarrassed by this post.
Joe, I am not trying to embarrass you.
People with open wounds--and that is most of the population--need to know that true lights exist and that living with wounds honorably and well is possible.
And we all need as many true lights in our lives as possible.
Joe Lunievicz is a true light.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Nicholas Nickleby. Nine hours. What the Dickens?

I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company television version of Nicholas Nickleby when I was in high school, and it was only the second time that seeing something made me want to read something. The first time was when I saw I, Claudius on Masterpiece Theater and then fell in love with the book.
The RSC version of Nicholas Nickleby, which I own on VHS, was this nine-hour visual and emotional journey that was a complete joy.
Nine hours.
It's Dickens!
It is a big commitment to watch nine hours of a play, but people now watch entire seasons of shows in one day just because they can.
You will be really happy if you watch Nicholas Nickleby.
About thirty-nine actors play one hundred and fifty roles.
It is a feast for the eyes, ears, and mind.
I usually feel dismay when I hear that a book is being made into a movie, but anxiety becomes assuaged when a really long version or a series is made instead.
Like George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones.
Or Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring.
Or the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth.
Or Sense and Sensibility, with Emma Thompson and *sigh* Alan Rickman.
These are pretty much the only adaptations I embrace with any kind of enthusiasm.
I did not like the Ents in the LotR movies, and I did not like that the entire Shire part got deleted, but no one consulted me.
And George R.R. Martin, dude, I could do without some of the brothel scenes that have been, um, added, and some of the new plot twists are a little startling.
Again, no one thought to call me.
I know. It's HBO.
But I want the story. The story. The story.
This is why books will always be better.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Manet. Changing the Map. "Particular and Rare Elements."

One of the best things I ever did was choose to be born to parents who are artists.
My dad is also a teacher. He is very good at it.
One of the other best things I ever did was take classes with him in college.
Art History classes.
I am crazy about Art History.
I inherited none of the Visual Art talent that is so abundant in my family, but, boy howdy, a girl can't have everything.
So one of the paintings I remember most is this one:

It is called "Dejeuner sur l'Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) and it was painted by this guy, Edouard Manet.

People were very upset by this painting.
I remember my dad talking about it. He lectured with a glee and relish that was a joy to behold.
One of the things that pissed people off was, that if you were going to put naked people in a painting, they needed to be symbolic naked people, like goddesses and abstract nouns like Liberty and stuff.
And here's this naked lady LOOKING RIGHT AT YOU like, "What are you looking at?"
And the guys are wearing the FASHIONS OF THE DAY.
These were not gods and goddesses doing the god and goddess thing.
This was not Liberty Leading the People.
The other lady, she's just having herself I nice cooling-off in the water.
I liked that it looked like the women were doing what they wanted to do.
Be naked on the grass during a picnic? Get down with your bad self.
I love how painters work with brushes and light and how they arrange things.
Here is what Emile Zola said about this painting:
"It is, in short, this vast ensemble, full of atmosphere, this corner of nature rendered with a simplicity so just, all of this admirable page in which an artist has placed all the particular and rare elements which are in him."
I know I am reading a truly map-changing book when I see brushstrokes and light and color in what I am reading.
A lot of times the map changes while people are yelling about holding on to HOW THINGS SHOULD BE DONE.
If you are lucky enough to be around when the map changes and you are witness to what people do with their particular and rare elements it is a wonder and a glory. So have a picnic and celebrate.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Lame and Lurpy.

A long long long time ago a superintendent of a school district came to guest-speak for an Education Class I had to take.
Here is one of the things he said.
"If I don't think your penmanship on the chalk board is up to snuff, then I'm going to have you come to the district office and practice until it measures up. We have high standards."
He talked about penmanship for a long time.
And then another time I was in a big meeting to try to help a kid and the school's psychologist drew a picture of a brain on the conference room board and circled a spot.
He wrote the word "amygdala" above the brain, and then launched into a description of what the amygdala does and why it is important and how it evolved.
His penmanship was beautiful.
These are examples of lame and lurpy thinking and behavior.
Lame and lurpy.
May we protect our kids from all that is lame and lurpy.
And may we avoid the lame and lurpy ourselves when we can.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Kerfuffled. And Then A Mothership Intervention.

Today at 7:01 a.m. I realized that someone done gave my brains a stir.
I didn't feel it at all.
You don't always feel it when your brains are stirred.
So I walk to my classroom and I am all prepared for my Thursday classes and I say to a student, "Happy Friday Eve!" because that is what we say on Thursdays.
And the kid tells me it's Wednesday.
I laughed.
No, really, he said.
Really? I was gobsmacked.
He came over and showed me his iPod and, sure as God made little apples, it's Wednesday.
Oh, I said. Mothership must have not synced me yet.
He laughed.
So later I am working on another grant to fund the Revolution, which, for those of you visiting for the A-Z Challenge, is about getting Good Books (which is what I think Young Adult Literature needs to be called) to all students and doing cool stuff with them.
I am doing a cost-benefits analysis and I think I stared at it for a really long time.
I was full of Existential Angst.
How much can I ask for to make sure that I get listened to?
At what point do I get to an Oliver Twist-like "May I have some more, please?" situation?
How come it is so hard to get stuff for students?
Where does lottery money go?
Did St. Augustine really steal those pears?
And then a little later, during class, a student came up and asked me a question.
"Has A.S. King written any more books?"
My brains became unstirred INSTANTLY.
"Yes," I said.
"I think I'm back to being addicted to books," he said.
"Were you un-addicted?"
"I just...I don't know. I ran out of books. And then I read the Ants book."
I tried not to go all sparkly on him, because that is alarming and startles the kids, so I just sparkled inside.
I got Please Ignore Vera Dietz for him.
And then I got some insanely good news via email about the Revolution.
I think A.S. King and The Sender of Awesome Revolution News emails have connections with the Mothership because the rest of the day went swimmingly.
I got Synced.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Judicious Use of Technology.

Technology without humanity=annihilation.
My classroom is a computer lab, and I teach kids software applications. It's pretty much pedal to the metal technology all the time.
Which is why they need to read.
I have parents ask me what technology they will need at home, and I tell them that I don't expect them to buy anything, because that would not be fair and I don't want the kids to work on their technology at home. An Applied Art is hands-on.
I only believe in one kind of homework.
Kids need time without external stimulation especially after a day of being plugged in to music players and texting and school and sports and and and.
Focus in silence is becoming a Lost Skill.
So for half an hour several days a week I ask the kids to read and have that be the only thing going on.
This is a lot to ask.I have no idea if they are just reading or not. It's their home, their time, not mine.
Think about what is at stake, though.
Humans who can be quiet with their thoughts and stories and ideas and words and worlds and possibilities.
I worry about losing these humans.
A little balance can go a long way.
I need to believe this.

Industrial-Strength Industrialized Education.

It's almost Testing Season.
If you are a junior in high school, you have a plethora of tests to take.
ACT and SAT tests.
Advanced Placement Tests.
State Tests.
Oh, and there's also the California High School Exit Exam, which is written for seventh-and-eighth grade curriculum, but if you've failed it you need to take it again.
Kids also have benchmark exams that are district-wide.
I tell my ninth-graders to give the juniors cookies and speak softly and not to make swift, jerky movements around them at this time of year.
All of the kids hate this time of year.
Most of the teachers do, too.
Because if you haven't managed to get to Standard 406.b.1 because you actually slowed down to keep the kids with you, you are pretty much screwed, and so are the kids.
They get labeled "Below Basic," "Basic," "Proficient," or "Advanced" on the state tests.
Teachers get labeled, too, even if the kid has made enormous strides in the school year. It doesn't matter where the kid was at the beginning of the year, because they all need to be in the SAME PLACE AT THE SAME TIME by the time Testing Season rolls around.
I don't mind assessments. The ones I write show me what the kids get and what they don't get. We all benefit. I can adjust my teaching.
All of these tests make a lot of money for a lot of people.
And they get together and discuss tests and most of them have Studied Education but few of them are actually teachers. Real teachers who want what is best for kids.
And administering all of these tests looks good on paper.
Looking good on paper makes adults feel good.
I tell my students, Here is the Important Thing. I paraphrased this from To Kill a Mockingbird.
People of character do the best they can with what they have.
That's it. That is the Important Thing.
Do your best.
You are more than a piece of paper.
You are a human being with intrinsic dignity and you contain endless possibilities.
And maybe someday education will become something we do with kids, not to them.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Holy Tomato. Whoopsy-daisy. Adventures with Exclamations and Expletives in the Classroom.

Expressions of surprise and delight in a classroom are easy.
When unexpected things happen, though, you need to be prepared.
Once I was teaching a kindergarten class.
Kindergartners are cute and the call stuff as they see it.
At the time I had those acrylic nails.
I think I was possessed by a Secrets of Charm demon, because I have no idea why I thought this might be a good idea.
Back to kindergarten.
It was Story Time. If you value your life, you make sure that Story Time is conducted exactly the same way every day. Kindergartners are serious about their Story Time.
This is generally a good thing.
Teacher sits on the Story Time Stool. The kids sit on the carpet. Teacher reads.
I went to get the Story Time Stool and my (acrylic) nail slid under something.
Since I am not a patient person, I yanked.
A potent combination of physics and biology met in an Unholy Union and I ripped that nail from tip to nailbed.
A banner of choice words, some of them almost poetry and none of them appropriate for the classroom, blew by my mind's eye.
"Oh dear," I said. "Whoopsy-daisy."
I held my finger and went to get a tissue.
"Is teacher bleeding?" asked a tot.
"Holy tomato," I said. "Teacher is bleeding a little. It is okay."
I grabbed a handful of tissue and swathed my finger.
All of this engendered keen interest. Comments and advice poured out to me from the Story Time Carpet.
"Do you need a bandaid?"
"I have a bandaid. I hurt my knee."
"I have a bandaid, too."
"Mine is Spongebob." Attention diverts from me for a second. Spongebob bandaids were new then, and cool.
Nailbeds bleed impressively. I got a stack of paper towels and entombed my finger. It was a large and awkward digit-dressing.
I tried to discreetly wipe my eyes.
"Is teacher crying?" Horrified looks from the wee folk.
"Oh, no just watering a little,"I said. "My eyes do that when unexpected things happen."
Relieved looks from the Story Time Carpet.
I picked up a book--I have no memory of what the book was.
"Don't get blood on the book," said a boy.
"Aren't you going to sit on the Story Time Stool?" asked another.
They were worried.
"I'm going to sit on the carpet with you guys today," I said.
This break in protocol made them a little apprehensive.
"Sometimes doing unexpected things can be fun," I said.
I read the book with the precise diction and flow of expression that Story Time so richly deserved.
All was well.
And then it was time for recess.
We lined up and I set them free to run around and get milk and stuff.
I shut the door.
I kicked the Story Time Stool across the room.
I howled.
I rinsed my finger in cold water and went to the nurse.
"That looks like it hurts," she said.
I wanted to say something sarcastic and full of expletives. I bared my teeth and hoped it looked like a smile.
I didn't get a Spongebob bandaid, either.
And after school I went to the salon and had every one of those motherless (expletive deleted) Satan's (expletive deleted) tits removed.
Classroom Honor.
Maintained at (almost) any cost.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Gentling is Better Than Breaking. Dogs, Horses, Kids.

Horses, dogs, and teenagers are the creatures I spend most of my time with.
They have a lot in common.
There are three important questions you need to be able to answer when you are the one handling any creature or group of creatures.
1. Who is in charge?
2. What are we doing?
3. When do we eat?
These questions are entirely reasonable. If you can't answer them, things are going to get bad really fast.
Here are the answers:
1."I am in charge."
Please note that "being in charge" doesn't mean you get to yell, break stuff, bully,intimidate,or use force. It means that you know how to set reasonable guidelines for pleasant coexistence and help others to follow them.
2."We are doing (fill in the blank)." You need to know what you are doing in a very concrete way. You can't just say, "We'll see" or "Let's see how things develop" or "I don't know."
3. "We eat when it is time to eat. I promise that I will let you know. You will eat. There will always be enough food." And you had better make sure all of those statements are true.
Failure to answer any of these questions correctly will lead to getting bucked off a horse or have a dog pee on the rug forever or endless classroom battles.
I know these things from personal experience.
I'm a "learn by doing" sort of person.
This is not to discount spontaneity. I am all for being spontaneous. But you have to know your audience and your timing.
One of my dogs got broken.
He is a rescue.
He got thrown from a car when he was a puppy and was on Death Row when a wonderful organization rescued and repaired him.
Physically, anyway.
His name is Wilson, and he is, like all dogs, All About Love.
He gets nervous, though, and he will go after men in baseball hats and sunglasses and he throws up when I pack my suitcase.
I don't know if he will ever be whole, but I believe that love goes a long way. And he knows how I would answer those three questions.
I had a horse who was not broken. He was the horse of The War God's Horse Song, the horse of Alexander the Great, the horse of earth and fire and wind. His Wild was one of the best things about him, a spirit that was strong and true and merry.
Sometimes I was in such awe of him that I forgot to be in charge. My goodness, he was fast and sassy and letting him have his way, and sharing in the Wild, was some of the purest joy I ever expect to have.
Training is not the same as breaking.
And teenagers. It is easy to be vexed by kids.
If you are vexed, it is better to remember that, in any interaction, you are in charge. One person always has to be the adult, and it had better be you.
Be kind.
Remember what it was like to be young.
Let your eyes go soft and your shoulders down and speak with love.
And all creatures will thrive.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Fadge. Frim. An Oxford English Dictionary Field Trip.

Twelfth Night is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays.
Viola is a real badass.
One of the words she uses is "fadge."
This is a cool word.
It is so cool that my professor urged us to get it back into circulation.
My efforts have not yielded much fruit. Maybe this post will change this.
One of my treasured possessions is a 1971 edition of the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. It came with a magnifying glass and everything. And the smell is so "book." Beautiful paper, ink, binding=book smell that engenders bliss. All of the following quotes and definitions are from this tome of wondrousness.
So. Fadge."To fit, suit, be suitable."
Here is one example of how "fadge" was used in George Whetstone’s The Right Excellent Historye of Promos and Cassandra: "Sir, this match fadged frim."
"Frim" is a word I hadn't heard of until I read this example.
So I looked that up, too.
"Frim" is "Vigourous, flourishing, luxuriant in growth, full-fleshed."
So the guy thought that Promos and Cassandra's relationship was going to turn out real well.
A little more research and I found out that this was one of Shakespeare's, uh, "sources" for Measure for Measure.
I'm not going to tell you if the match fadged frim or not, because I don't believe in spoilers. But if anyone asks, I will reveal the ending of the timeless classic Gammer Gurton's Needle.
May we all fadge frim.

Exploding Peeps.

Peeps, in this context, refers strictly to those marshmallow candies that are widely available this time of year.
I don't think of Peeps as food. I do not mean to offend anyone, as there are many different palates to please in this world and I am a big proponent of choices.
I have another use for Peeps.
I explode them.
I started exploding Peeps before YouTube existed.
I thought I was the only one.
I discovered that, when I felt the oppressions endemic to the teaching profession threatened to overwhelm my generally sunny disposition, that going to the microwave and putting a Peep in the microwave and watching it for forty-five seconds or so as it shifted, bulged, and swelled into Jabba the Hut-like proportions helped me vent my spleen in a harmless way.
So I held a Peep Joust the day before Spring Break in the staff lounge. I made blueberry coffee cake and the husband of one of our amazing Assistant Principals made scones.
I brought the Peeps, too.
Because I was stressed (gradegradegrade!) I sat down and made some Augmented Peeps.
Princess Leia Peep, R2D2 Peep (not for the microwave),Storm Trooper Peep, Disco Peep, and Little Bo Peep.
And then when one of my colleagues got to school, he made a Peeping Tom.
My colleagues are very tolerant and supportive people.
And then Peep Carnage ensued.
And it was good.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Destination Charges.

I like this phrase.
Think about it.
"Destination charges."
One of the units I teach this time of year is about Buying a Car. I teach the Angel Potatoes what financing means, and the cost of a loan, and the kids make spreadsheets with expenses related to owning a car, like insurance and gas and interest and depreciation and five-year cost of ownership.I teach them to always make an appointment at the DMV. I lead them through a negotiation process, and they repeat after me: "Thank you for your time. I am sorry that you were not able to meet my price. I will seek out a better deal at (fill in the blank)."
And we go over "destination charges."
According to The Finance Owl: "Destination Charge – A fixed fee which reflects the average cost a dealer would pay for the shipping and delivering a new car."
This is not a very interesting definition. But.
Think about what it means when it applies to writing.
I am thinking about what it took to make me who I am and what it took to get me where I am in life and how that all relates to what and why I write.
I mostly write in this blog about books and teaching. I don't write about the how of my works in progress because I don't think my Why or my How could possibly be interesting to anyone else. Creativity and the Why and the How are not things I need to make concrete.
I like that there are mysteries in life.
And I would like to twist the phrase a little bit, because not everything in life is a charge or a cost. There are lots of gains, too.
See how this works: Destination Charges not as a noun+noun but as a noun+verb. Make it active.
Destination charges.
Yeah. I like this a whole lot better.

Cuckoo's Nest and Flaming Wicker Baskets.

One year I was teaching One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey.
Because it has a few f-bombs and Adult Situations in it I had to let parents opt their kids out of reading the book.
I thought this was dumb, because my stance is now and was then that if you are old enough to drive a car, or are within striking distance of driving a car, you are old enough to decide what you are able to read. Plus, if you are a young adult, chances are you have heard a few f-bombs and are aware of Adult Situations.
But I kept this opinion to myself because embarrassing a kid because of a parent's choice is worse than dumb.Plus, I am a big advocate of having choices and so there it was.
I wrote the parent a letter. I asked the parent if The Scarlet Letter would be acceptable.
It was.
A fornicating man of the cloth and the suffering of a single mother and a stalker of a husband was more acceptable than a book that shows us how to be human.
I'll never understand people.
So when the class read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest my Scarlet Letter kid had to leave.
All was well for a really long time.
One day after school I was in my classroom grading essays. I grade in green, the color of hope.
And this woman walks in and says, "Miss Pelfrey!"and I look up and this woman stalks towards me, jabs her finger in my face, and says, "You are going to hell!"
I don't like people up in my face.
If you are eighteen or younger, I have the patience of Job and I think before I speak. If you are between eighteen and twenty-five I cut you a lot of slack because brains take awhile to fully develop. If you appear older than twenty-five and charge into my space all het up and quivering with rage and I don't know who you are I just speak my piece.
So when Quivering Rage Woman told me I was going to hell, I said, "Would that be in a flaming wicker basket? Because I know my ancestors sent people to hell that way."
And Quivering Rage Woman nearly combusted.
It was impressive. You know those fish and you touch them or creep them out and they swell up? It was like that.
"I'm going to see your principal," she said.
"Do you know where the office is?" I always try to be helpful and calm in stressful situations.
So she hissed herself out of my room.
I stop grading papers because grading papers when you are mad is mean.
And I wondered what I had done to get sent to hell. And how this woman knew it. And why she needed to come tell me in person.
It was a mystery.
So I went to the office to tell the principal that Quivering Rage Woman was probably going to call him, and that I was going to hell.
Quivering Rage Woman had just left. I knew this when he said, "Kristen, can I see you for a minute?" and then shut his office door.
And he said, "'Flaming wicker baskets?'"
And then he laughed and laughed and remonstrated just a little for my lapse in Consummate Professionalism.
So Quivering Rage Woman, it turns out, was the mom who did not want her child exposed to Filth.
But her kid heard about some of our discussions about the book and relayed them to the mom.
The mom got upset.
I was still mystified. I did not know that discussing a novel made me a Purveyor of Filth.
Thing is? Some people are going to see evil where none exists, no matter what you do, and they are going to take it upon themselves to Pass Judgment.
Kind of like in The Scarlet Letter.

Monday, April 2, 2012

BZRK. A Book by Michael Grant.

BZRK is the title of a new book by Michael Grant. This link will take you to his bio, which pretty much sums up what you need to know about him and will probably make you laugh. If his name sounds familiar, you have probably read the Animorphs books that he wrote with his wife, author K.A. Applegate.
He wrote the Gone series as well, and the newest book in that series, Fear, which comes out on April 3.
My students, known as Angel Potatoes, and I are big fans of Michael Grant.
His book BZRK has been out for about a month.
The thing about this book is that you will read it with your mouth hanging open pretty much the whole time.
Nanotechnology takes on new, real, raw meaning.
One of my students bought a copy because my copy was checked out.
She came in with her hair on fire.
Here is our conversation.
Student: "My eyes! My eyes!"
Me: "I know! I think mascara will help protect them. And the Meat!"
We nod and shudder in a happy way.
And another student says, "Wait, what book is this?"
Student tries to describe BZRK. The other student gets on the waiting list for the book.
It doesn't take a whole lot to make my day.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Awesomesauce. Andrew Smith and A.S. King

Happy day to all of you.
I am happy to be an A-Z Challenge participant this year.
Today I am talking about Awesomesauce.
I picked up this term from a student.
When adults use the parlance of younger adults it is often cringe-inducing and unfortunate.
But I'm going to use "Awesomesauce" because it makes me laugh and because it is an apt word for today's discussion.
Andrew Smith and A.S. King are writers who have unequivocally earned the term "Awesomesauce" in my classroom.
Their names also start with the letter "A". I do not think this is a coincidence.
I don't believe in coincidences.
You need to read books by these authors. Trust me on this. It doesn't matter what genre or age group you like: Good Books are Good Books.
And these authors are in my pantheon of authors of Good Books.
And it isn't just because I am a better person, writer, and teacher because I have read these books.
It's because of how my students, known as Angel Potatoes (there's the letter "A" again) feel about books by Andrew Smith and A.S. King.
They leave the class with these books and come back more comfortable in their skins and in their world.
Do yourself a big ol' favor and read Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King. All of King's books are awesomesauce, but this book is her most recent and making the acquaintance of the ants (starts with an "A") will be one of the best things you ever do for yourself. A.S. King has Magical Writing Pants and likes corn.
And about Andrew Smith's books. Just do this: Don't read jacket copy or Goodreads or any of that. Just choose one and start reading. Try The Marbury Lens on for size and have your head explode in a million parallel universes. Try Stick and see how words on a page can break your heart and fill it with transcendent beauty.
I'm telling you: Awesomesauce.
Oh. And here is an important thing to know: A.S. King's Ask the Passengers and Andrew Smith's Passenger (sequel to The Marbury Lens) will both be out Fall 2012.