Tuesday, January 22, 2008


I just got home from work and discovered that someone has nicked our trash can. The lid is still in the recesses of the driveway, but the trash can...gone. I know that in the scheme of things that can (and still could) go wrong today, this is minor. But damn, I'm really irritated! You know, in that sputtering, indignant, not-quite-sure-what-to-say kind of way. Nevermind the fact that it was OUR trash can. Now we have to go spend the money to buy a new one, take the time to go buy a new one...it's the little things like this that add up, isn't it? We read about people who have just snapped--in either a violent way, or a loopy kind of way--and we think, "Good grief, what is WRONG with that person?" But we never know, maybe it was one stolen trash can too many. Or one useless meeting, or repetitive memo, or whining child...

I suppose it is a good reminder that I don't want to be some person's stolen trash can. (See how I'm trying to put a positive spin on this? My chiropractor said I can't control other things, only my reaction to them... Hopefully that train of thought will start working!!)

Just finished a fabulous book, One Man's Garden by Henry Mitchell. He's got this wry, dryly passionate tone as he writes about his garden and gives advice and I found myself laughing out loud often. If you're interested in that sort of thing, I highly recommend it.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Starlings, Darling

I have to admit that before I became a gardener, I didn't pay much attention to the natural world. I mean, I thought the beach was pretty and the mountains were awesome...but I was more interested in the displays at Burdines and Express. (Those were thinner, younger days...) Gradually my attention shifted to Williams-Sonoma and Barnes and Noble, but still not much outdoors. It's a shame, because Florida has such amazing flora and fauna, and I "squandered" the better part of 26 years paying little attention to it. Well, I'm making up for lost time now that I live in New England!

One of my more recent purchases was a bird book for Massachusetts so that I could recognize some of the many birds that visit our yard. Today I actually made a positive identification! European Starlings landed in a flock in our front yard and proceeded to chitter and peck for about fifteen minutes. They were fearless, not even flinching at the whining of our dog. Their beaks are seriously sharp looking, and I read that they change colors depending on the seasons. The book didn't say why, so I'll have to look it up. There must have been about 40 of them. Very cool. (Even if they are non-native and aggressive, they're still pretty neat.) It makes me want to make sure that I have a variety of plants (and feeders) so that I can attract even more. This gardening thing seems to touch of so many different topics: food, wildlife, environmental issues, health. I'm so glad I started!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Narratology: The Church of Scientology for Book Lovers?

Some seeds came in the mail today! Fennel, radicchio, arugula, chervil, huazontle (it's been described as "spinachy"), chives, and broccoli rabe. I'm a little excited, though it's tempered by the thought that we might get some more snow tonight...and it's still only January.

Last night I (think) I came to the end of an odyssey that started about a year ago, with a letter from the state. Though my actual qualifications would show otherwise, according to the all-mighty Oz, I am not "certifiable" to teach English in Massachusetts. Because my Master's degree is in English Language Arts and not English, I apparently am not suited to teach the class I have been successfully teaching for the last four and a half years. Whatever. It doesn't matter what I think; if the state says it's so, I'm powerless against it. I had to begin exploring routes to certification.

It seemed to me, for about six months, that the best route was twelve graduate credit hours in English at a college or university. I explored the local schools, and chose Simmons. It seems like an interesting place, and they had a program designed for people in my exact situation. I enrolled, and was to start classes on Jan. 28.

On Jan. 15 I received an email from the professor, via my advisor, that prior to the class I should contact her. Based on my curriculum vitae, she didn't think I was fit for the class. Hot on the heels of that email were the expectations for our first class: we were to have read 21 young adult novels (none published after 1991), three articles on literary criticism relating to y.a., the first two chapters of James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, two chapters from a textbook on literary criticism, the reward criteria from two y.a. awards, and the information on this year's award winners.

When I spoke to her on the phone (she wished to speak to me about my disadvantage based on my Master's degree in education vs. English) she told me that each week we would spend three hours in class, 10-12 hours on work outside of class, read four books a week, and write two papers a week.

Now, I've been out of college a long time; I'll admit that. But I must say that as someone who in the past has pushed and in the present is capable of pushing herself very hard, those criteria sounded absolutely ludicrous to me. I, and many of the other students enrolled in this class, work a full time job. As a friend put it, "What is she trying to prove? That she has the power over you to make you do all of this?" To top it all off, listening to the goals of the class it occurred to me that NOTHING in it was going to be valuable to me as a teacher of 8th grade English. Our focus would be narratology and the ideology and criticism of y.a. novels based in that theory.

Um. What? And how is this going to help me get books into the hands of non-readers, and improve reluctant readers and writers? So, in essence, the state is saying that regardless of whether or not what they want for my certification will actually make me a better English teacher, I have to do it. Who let these momos make these decisions...?

Strangely, it never occurred to me in all of this circus that a road to certification was available to me that was meaningful, challenging, and relevant. It's highly ironic, too, since it's a road I have traveled before and continue to value as one of the best things I have ever done as a teacher. I'm going to become a National Board Candidate again, only this time instead of History, I'll be attempting certification in English. I feel good about this decision. It's going to be hard, it will make me cry, it will make me cranky...and I might not pass. But I'll learn, and as a result my kids will learn. It's a win-win.

I should start stockpiling chocolate now.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Thinking positively

I am frustrated with my students today, so I've decided to write about all of the good things about them that I can think of:

-Brendan, who keeps challenging me with new books every Wednesday, and seems genuinely happy that I take his recommendations;
-Alex (both of them, male and female) who participates in class, always has a sunny and/or humorous disposition (or a quiet, kind one--male) and is an all around nice kid ;
-Amy, who on even days that she gives me a headache impresses me with her intelligence and excitement over being moved into above-level;
-Liam, who just makes me laugh;
-Conor, who is just a nice kid;
-Chris, John, and Dan, who are nice, intelligent, and treat other people as if they're actually human (and laugh at my jokes most of the time);
-Ludjy, who is just a nice kid, and turns out to be able to do great, humorous impressions;
-Huguette, who is sassy but gets away with it because she is also thoughtful and passionate;
-Vincent, who seems to be turning it around;
-Tiffany, who is sassy and gets away with it because under it all she is kind and she cares;
-T.J., who everyone expects to under-perform but has already read two long books this year and almost always has his homework;
-my whole fifth period, for having a personality;
-Kings, for not letting her disability get her down and for being such a voracious reader;
-Jacky, for taking on immense responsibility at home, and still being on the ball at school;
-Carolyn, for being a nice person;
-Derek, for being goofy and immature and really smart and willing to learn;
-Jay, for being a nice kid;
-C.J., for being a nice kid who works hard to overcome the things that get in his way.

Okay, that's a good list. It makes me feel better about going into work tomorrow.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Rapidly losing confidence in my "superiors"

Today, one of my administrators said the words," Right now, our only goal is to get the scores up on our English and Math state test scores."

After my head stopped spinning and the nausea subsided, I pondered the futility of saying anything. I decided that in our scheduled twenty minute meeting, it was pretty futile and let it go. Afterward, I sent each of the administrators a link to the Beating the Odds study done by the McREL foundation. Their finding that "beating the odds" schools saw the state test as the floor and not the ceiling keeps swimming through my head.

I used to think that Orlando was testing happy. Then I moved to teach in M*&$%n, and I found out what test happy really meant. It is doubly dangerous in the hands of people who are managers, but not educators (between them, our four administrators have a combined total of less than twenty years in the classroom). The decisions that teachers and students are subjected to on a daily basis are at best arbitrary, and at worst harmful for the goal of creating life-long learners and thinkers. What it boils down to is that our district has been "tagged" a certain number of years in a row, and if we don't show improvement in our "sub-groups" we could be up for state take-over. Our administrators' goals are simple: keep their jobs and pull up test scores, actual learning be damned. Sadly, the decisions they keep making don't seem much in line with doing anything that will improve test scores. And they definitely aren't doing anything that make kids eager, ready, and willing to learn. (Mandated three hours of homework at the middle school level, anyone? And then they wonder why our kids hate school so much...)

Anyway, on a more positive note, a friend I haven't spoken to in at least seven years tracked me down and emailed me today. We were roommates for two and a half years in our college days, and I'm really excited to be back in touch with her. We've been friends as long as my husband and I have; I met them both in sixth grade! It's these occasions that remind me of the wonder of the internet.

By the way, if anyone is looking for a decadent dessert, may I recommend the Caramel Apple Cake in Rachael Ray's November 2007 issue. Just make sure you cut yourself a really small piece...

(I'm actually thinking that you could halve the frosting recipe, double the apple recipe, and instead of frosting the whole cake just frost the sides and then top it with half of the apples (the other half goes between the layers). I've spent too much time reading Cooking Light to be totally comfortable with the abomination of butter we baked. Though it is mighty tasty, I must say!)

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Giddy with anticipation...

Okay, okay, I have one thing on the brain. And oh, how much it has changed from the one thing that was on the brain when I was in my twenties...!

Last year, I ordered seedlings from The Natural Gardening Company; they're organically grown, and no GMO crops. Everything except the peppers did really well, and the peppers were my fault because I planted them too early. And they did all bear, so they weren't a total wash or anything. I just placed this year's order, and I'm ridiculously, prematurely ecstatic. They won't come in until May 4th at the earliest, but that doesn't matter!

I've ordered eggplants, peppers, and tomatoes again (may I recommend the Brandywine, Juliet, and San Marzano tomatoes, and the Fairy Tale eggplants?) but I've also ordered some things I've never grown (or had) before, like sorrel and Noir des Carmes Melons. Sorrel keeps creeping up in things I'm reading, so I figured what the heck. It is supposed to be good in eggs, salads, soups, etc. The melon is like a canteloupe, apparently, but is not so large.

This year I decided to order some of my herbs from them as well. I've had trouble finding good Greek Oregano around here, so that's in the basket. I also bought Foxgloves in the lovely shade of apricot. Is it May yet?

You know, the only reason I make it through February and March is that I'm teaching poetry to the kids. I use poetry with them all year--as our beginning of class reading, to spur thought/writing, to tie with something else that we're doing--but the big reading/writing/exploring unit is at the end of winter. The timing is good, because it often coincides with things like my first robin sightings, the lone purple crocus in our yard poking up his little head, and the blooming of the hellebores. It also coincides with my absolute desperation to be in the garden, so I can channel that into my writing. Most of the poetry I write (all genres, for that matter) comes in February and March. After that, I'm in the garden and the writing slows down considerably.

I live for our poetry study every year. There is something about watching fourteen year olds realize that poetry doesn't suck--not only does it not suck but it's AMAZING--that makes everything else recede temporarily into the shadows. And the writing that the kids produce during this time is inspired and inspiring. Teaching poetry teaches kids:

-to be "precise and concise" as Sara would say;

-to use figurative and sensory language;

-to think about how their writing sounds;

-to write for multiple reasons and audiences;

-to be kinder, gentler people;

-to laugh;

-that even if you don't like to read really long things, there are still things out there to read;

-that they can write;

-that when they're overwhelmed, poetry can help get it out;

-to listen to each other;

-to be brave;

-do I really have to continue the list? Okay, it also teaches punctuation, vocabulary, imagery, the importance of word choice...

(Just cause I'm not sure about how the legality works, the tomatoes are from

Friday, January 4, 2008

Three Words and Thankfulness

I've just finished gobbling up Sara Holbrook's most recent blog postings and she has, as always, made me think. After reading Eat, Pray, Love (great book) Sara wondered what her three words would be; she chose Hope, Love, Create. I have to admit that in my Friday fuzzy brain haze I'm having trouble coming up with anything other than Sleep, Snore, ZZZ. Those aren't especially inspiring, though, and on Saturday morning they won't sound quite as good.

I know that Eat belongs. Strangely, the horizons that have opened up for me just because of my interest in food are pretty wide, and there's a lot more tied up with EAT than just survival of my physical body. It is related to Feed, and Enjoy, and Pay Attention. Eat now encompasses Cook, Grow, Till...and I think that last one may be one of my three. Till.

Tilling, turning, nurturing the soil that grows our food is as nourishing as the food itself. The chance to sink my hands (or shovel) in dirt and smell the rain, heat and Earth that goes into it is transforming. It doesn't just produce food, but also beauty; a full grown tomato plant heavy with the warm red globes glistening with their faint yellow pollen dust is one of the most breathtaking sights I've encountered. Likewise a blooming Oriental poppy, its safety-orange, crinkly petals slowly unfurling over its silvery-green, sturdy stem.

But tilling isn't just for the Earth, it's also for any new growth. We till and prepare ourselves for new knowledge and adventures and wonders all the time. Teaching is like tilling; cultivating the students' minds so they are ready for the seeds that will come, so they can grow...you get the extended metaphor.

So, Eat, Till, and I think I'll also stick with Love. When things are hard, I remember what I love--the above mentioned Sara, tomatoes, poppies, my husband, my friends, my frustrating but fabulous family...the list goes on--and the feeling swells inside until my skin tingles. It doesn't always keep me from wanting to scream and pull my hair out, but loving does often prevent the actions. Particularly pulling out my hair.

Eat, Till, Love, and be thankful. If I can hold onto these ideas through the year, it will be a good one.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

First posting...January 3, 2008

In my head, it's already Spring. I've been staring longingly at the flower and vegetable catalogs, and they're helping to keep me sane. With fifteen degrees the high today, tomatoes seem a loooong way off...

Gah! That's because they are! Approximately EIGHT MONTHS off. Sigh. Okay, think about the forsythia; they're only about four and a half months off. Good God, winter is long.

While I wouldn't say I despise winter--after all, look at the amazing light and clarity in the air-- I would say that I despise its interruption of my garden. I know, I know. The plants need down time, some have to have the cold to bloom, yada yada yada. But I need flowers NOW.

Besides, it's the gardening that helps me avoid strangling the people in control of my teaching life, who so often seem not to be me. I have to say, it's hard teaching in a place where the things we do frequently have little to do with what is best for kids, and lots to do with what is best for state test scores and our school administrators. The good news is, once I shut the door, I can take back a little of the control and do what my observations show me is good for my students.

I'm going back to school myself, soon. Strangely, I'm feeling a little trepidatious about the whole thing. As if that didn't make me a big enough idjit, I'm feeling most nervous about just getting to class on time! It's going to be a haul from the end of the school day into the city; hopefully the Green Line will consistently show up when I need it to. I'm also a little excited. I can add to the hopefully list the thought that there will be people in my class to talk about teaching with, and from whom I'll learn new things.

I recently read Ghost Map, a look at the cholera outbreak in the Soho area of London in 1854. I love the consilience of the social, scientific, and historic lessons the author writes about. I also love having learned the word "consilience". :) (Though I'm not 100% sure I've used it correctly in the first sentence--my context for the word so far is limited to the book.) It is the perfect descriptor for what I so love about a lot of the non-fiction I've been reading, like Omnivore's Dilemma and the books by Frances Mayes. The drawing upon many fields of inquiry and knowledge to come to an induction/conclusion. Love it! It's what makes learning so much fun. Well, for geeky me anyway.