Saturday, April 30, 2005

Spoof Emails

I fell for a spoof email for the first time today. Luckily, a few warning bells had gone off, so although it tricked me for a few minutes, I didn't give anyone any personal info or anything. The email claimed to be from eBay. It warned me that someone was using my account to place fraudulent bids, and provided a link to follow to rectify the situation. Everything in the email was spelled correctly, the sender email address looked plausible, the URL provided looked real, they used eBay's logo, it made it into my inbox instead of getting caught by the junkmail filters... The threat to suspend my account in 48 hours seemed a little overwrought, and it seemed like it was leading to a site where I would be asked to "verify" my account info, so I had my guard up... but I clicked the link. Bad, bad. Never click links from suspicious emails. Luckily, this one led only to an error message. I went to eBay's security site, read their spoof email tutorial (which is awesome!) and discovered a screenshot of the very same email I'd received. *sigh* It's an arms race.

Circuit Bending

Throwing caution to the wind as far as housecleaning and schoolwork are concerned, I went with a friend to a Circuit Bending workshop at The Tank this afternoon.

Circuit bending is when you open up children's electronic toys (cheap ones, if you're a beginner), play around with the electronic stuff inside, and see if you can find ways to make the shrill electronic nursery rhymes a little more interesting: feedback, looping, distortion, etc.

The first hour or two were frustrating. I unscrewed the back of a little keyboard, experimented with shorting various circuits, made one interesting noise, and then dead-ended. Same thing with the "Funny Camera" I tried next. The Funny Camera* had two buttons. One, when pressed, cycled through a series of three phrases/noises and set off a light on the third. The other did just the third noise and the light. A. and I became fascinated by whether and how one could control which of the three noises was made. I had a few ideas, took some stuff apart, but no luck. "Smile!" "Say cheese!" "Click/flash!" over and over again, always in the same order. I did find one way to short the circuit so that it made a scratching sound alternating with the click - A. said it sounded a lot more like a camera than any of the actual intended sounds. But that was it. I had another idea of how the three sound cycle might be working, but one of the wires connected to the batteries broke off and I decided it wasn't quite worth the effort of stripping the wire and attempting to re-attach it.

I was reaching the give-up-easily point when A., who had been playing around with the keyboard I'd abandoned, discovered that it had two settings: the first, one-note-per-key, the second, a-whole-tinny-nursery-rhyme-per-key. "Beautiful Dreamer," "When You Wish Upon A Star," "Happy Birthday," we had 'em all. He also found some promising "bends" and we were off. We hooked up resistors of different sizes with a switch so that we could alternate between normal speed, normal pitch and high speed, high pitch ("Alvin & the Chipmunks"). We tested different resistors until we found just the right chipmunk-setting, not too fast, not too slow. We changed the switch to a potentiometer so that we could alter the speed & pitch on a gradient instead of just slow/fast. And finally, coolest of all, we replaced the potentiometer with a light-sensitive resistor so that by waving our hand over the sensor, we altered the speed and pitch of the nursery rhymes. Oh joy! Hours of fun!

And I must point out that given time, space, and tools to experiment, a basic information sheet explaining the purpose of the varous electronic parts, a couple of more experienced folks around to answer questions, and a partner who stuck it out when I got frustrated, I learned more about how circuits work than I ever did in any of my formal education, and I raised several questions about what I could do, how things worked, and what would happen if... What would happen if a computer with internet access, or a few basic books on electricity and electronics were on hand? If I could come back a couple more times and play around?

I think I just experienced truly open-inquiry learning.

*Don't you DARE buy any toys like these for my hypothetical future children. Is that clear?

Skipping Stones

The science behind the art of skipping stones.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Zen & the Art of 8 Weeks Left

Eight weeks.

The entire human body.

Genetics & evolution.

The frog dissection (because I promised we'd do it).

The ILS Exam, which, by the way, is in far, far less than 8 weeks.

Review for that exam, because they are not, sadly, in as good shape as I had hoped, based on the results of the practice test I gave before vacation.

A million graduation activities.

I am trying not to shake in fear: how in the name of... am I going to teach them everything they need to know both for the test and for bigger and better reasons like these are the things everyone should know and you'll need it later in your education and you want to know it you just don't know that yet?

Breathe in: you can only do your best.

Breathe out: this is the first time you've taught this subject, not technically, but the first time you taught it in this school where there is enough time and order to even consider finishing everything.

Breathe in: you've prepared them enough so that when they see the things you didn't get to, they'll be ready to learn them.

Breathe out: these are topics they will definitely see again.

Breathe in: back up a week from the exam date to account for lost days you don't even know about yet, then begin sketching in the things they need to know, then write a list of objectives, pick the most important ones, and start planning lessons... it will happen, somehow.

Breathe out: you are really, really gonna need that frog dissection when the sun is shining, the kids are sweating, the girls are begging their moms to let them skip class to get their hair done or buy a dress and the boys are daydreaming about the Yankees (and the boys want to get their hair done and the girls are daydreaming about the Yankees) and graduation is just days away and did I mention the sun coming in the window and the ice cream truck playing nursery rhymes on the sidewalk and summer and high school are so close the kids can almost touch them...

On the bright side, 8 weeks minus a dozen days for special events is really not a whole heck of a lot of planning to do (hours come sailing back into my vacation!).

Thursday, April 28, 2005

While waiting in Union Square on Saturday, I encountered a performance of Morris Dancing, an old form of dance from England. Morrises from around the Bay showed up. My favorites were the White Rat Morris, who reminded of what might happen if a biker gang took up square dance.... Posted by Hello

The table set for a potluck feast with friends. Posted by Hello

Detail from a mural near 24th St. in the Mission. Posted by Hello

At SFMoMA, you can look in any direction from any location and you will see art, on the walls or in the architecture itself. Posted by Hello

For some reason, I found this very simple salad really pretty. Maybe it was the time to sit alone with my thoughts in the sun that was actually beautiful, and the salad is just a symbol... Posted by Hello

Need I say more? Posted by Hello


I can truly say I had a fantastic vacation; I reconnected with people I haven't seen in a long time, I had moments of ultimate relaxation, I spent time by myself, I threw a dinner party, I attended inspiring events. I ate really well. Really, REALLY well.

Saturday, I was awake for most of 24 hours as I left New York at around 3 am, arrived in SF around noon, entertained myself in the downtown area for a few hours, fell in love with a dress at BCBG (if only someone I know would have a summer wedding...), and then met an old friend for dinner and a poetry slam. OK, not a poetry slam, THE poetry slam. It was the two of us, a few dozen other grown-up educator-types, and about 3000 teenage poets. Although it was technically a competition (and, technically, the team from NYC won!) the spirit of the evening was celebratory. The poems were very good. I've been to a lot of slams, and I have to say the quality has never been so consistently high as at this one. The future could look like this: diverse, appreciative of differences, politically-charged, optimistic, creative. By the time the slam ended, I was toast, but it was worth staying up for.

I spent Sunday with one of my best friends, who came up from LA to visit. We walked up Twin Peaks, talked about what we want and what our friends want in relationships, how to date casually, how to want something more serious without joining the women marching down the yellow-brick-road-to-marriage. Then we shopped at Rainbow, the worker-owned-co-op grocery store, and returned home to prepare a feast. Several friends (and my brother) came, everyone pitched in on the cooking or table-setting, and we ate ourselves silly. We also started talking about feet and how one friend's yoga class spent an entire hour working on lifting the outer arches of their feet and the next thing you know, we had all pushed back our chairs, slipped out of our shoes, and were comparing our arch-lifting abilities. From there, we moved on to sitting properly versus sitting the way it was done in Elizabethan times, straight-backed, with more experimentation. And then we had dessert, strawberry-rhubarb pie, almond torte, fresh strawberries, whipped cream. Oh my gosh. I am STILL full from that meal.

Monday, I lay in the grass in my friend's backyard garden and read an entire book (albeit a small one) and dozed. Then I roused myself and we went to Osento, a little women's spa on Valencia St. which uses a sliding scale so as not to turn anyone away. So for $15 we soaked in the hot tub, sunbathed in their backyard, dipped in the cold pool, and sweated in the sauna. Oh fabulous. If I lived there I would like to do that every week. Later I met this gal and we swapped stories about school, relationships, and the horrors of education grad school classes. Oh, and ate the most incredible three-layer mousse cake: passion fruit, mango, and papaya. I am STILL full from that meal, too!

Tuesday, I was planning to take the train down to Stanford to see my brother for a bit longer but the timing wasn't working so well, so instead I went to SFMOMA for the day. I got there so early that I had the place to myself, nearly. I tagged along with a tour guide who was introducing a group of high school students to the art. She was really good, no nonsense, sense of humor, kept things moving, asked them what they saw in the art and what it might mean. When they went up to the next floor, I took things more slowly. I am fond of their permanent collection and they always have fascinating exhibits. Nothing I looked at felt decorative, though much of it was beautiful; they managed to feature art that was both visually appealing and meaningful. I think this is one of my favorite museums. The architecture of the building itself is beautiful, the light inside is beautiful, the objects are placed so that they draw you forward, and you can see everything in a few hours and not feel wiped out.

I spent the rest of the afternoon in the little cafe outside the museum, thinking and reading about this project. If I blog significantly less for the month of May, it might be due to another writing project. Their official month is November but there's really no time like the present. Then again, I might chicken out.

I had dinner with another friend, a science teacher who is moving to Ecuador to work in an international school there next year. And then it was time for the Izzies/Bay Area Dance Awards, an event which my friend produced. I had heard about - and seen firsthand - all the hard work and stress that went into the production, so it was gratifying to be there and to know that the evening was a success. Of course, it was also a bit like going to the Oscars without having seen a single movie all year, given that I had no idea who most of the dancers or companies were. Luckily there were three performances throughout the evening, flamenco, ballet, and hip-hop, which helped keep things interesting.

And yesterday I returned home. I have a lot of grading and laundry to do.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Gone Fishin'

I'm off to San Francisco for a few days.

Poem in Your Pocket Day

Yesterday, the city celebrated National Poetry Month by encouraging everyone to keep a poem in their pocket and share it with others throughout the day. Besides Mayor Bloomberg and the teachers and students of NYC, I'm not sure how many people actually celebrated this event, but it was a really cool event at my school.

The kids had been studying poetry for a few weeks anyway. It's a unit they love. The eighth graders put together small books of their own poems and bound them in covers they decorated themselves. Their unit culminated in a "Poet's Cafe" during Communication Arts class yesterday.

The seventh graders celebrated by memorizing poems - their own or published work - and presenting them during classes throughout the day. Because I don't teach any major subjects to the 7th graders, I was not included in this, but one 7th grade boy from my Health class asked me on Wednesday if I was going to bring in a poem, so I did. I actually printed it & cut it out and carried it in my pocket all day. I brought "One Art" since I had been thinking about it anyway. At the beginning of health class, I read my poem. They chided me for not having it memorized, and asked for my interpretation (another part of the assignment) at the end, but they seemed to really like the poem. A couple of kids then volunteered to share their poems even though their classmates had already heard them earlier in the day.

I liked the experience so much - it is lovely to step out of one's subject area identity once in a while - that I shared the poem with my two eighth grade classes as well.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

What does it feel like to know that you're the pope?

When yesterday you weren't? Or have you spent so much of your life surrounded by powerful Catholic leaders and in important roles yourself that you have already assimilated the idea that you could one day be the leader of the Catholic Church? But still, when you wake up in the morning, is it like, Whoa, I'm the pope... ???

(I'm kidding, but I'm also serious).

This week in Ms. Frizzle's class,

we are taking tests.

Monday, I did a presentation on gymnosperms. The root of this word is interesting; it means "naked seed." Gymnosperms are basically plants that produce seeds but not flowers or fruit. The types are conifers, ginkgo, cycads, and a very odd collection of plants called gnetophytes. The only one you're likely to have heard of is the plant that produces ephedra.

Teaching the kids the lifecycles of angiosperms (flowering plants) and gymnosperms has proved a bit challenging. The textbook introduced plants by saying that all plants have two generations in their lifecycles, the sporophyte and gametophyte generations. In ferns and mosses, these two generations are fairly distinct and make sense when explained clearly. In seed plants, however, the gametophyte generation is tiny (just a few cells) and fully contained within the sporophyte plant. The textbook - and most teachers - kind of gloss over it and just say that the anther produces pollen which is sperm and the ovary produces ovules which are eggs. But the truth, as best as I can summarize it, is that the anther produces microspores which grow into pollen grains which are the gametophyte plants which then produce sperm, and the ovary produces a megaspore which is the gametophyte plant which then produces an ovule. That's still a bit rough as I must admit the concept that there's another whole generation of "plants" in the middle of the lifecycle is a bit hard to get my head around. The breakthrough came when I realized that the crucial detail that makes the gametophyte plants separate plants and not just small parts of the sporophyte plants is that they have different DNA due to meiosis.

So, does a middle school student need to know this? No. But if I tell them that all plants have these two generations, and then gloss over the gametophyte generation for two kinds of plants, someone is going to ask a question. And then I will have to go into it. And I also think, from my own experience, that it was much harder to learn about the two generations later, after being taught a simplified but not really correct version the first few times we covered these topics. In the end, I was honest with the kids and explained my reasoning in teaching them the more complicated version of things. And for their test tomorrow, there are a few multiple choice questions that deal with the basics of these lifecycles, and then I ask them to explain ONE of the four types of plants in detail. So they can go with their strengths and wait for reinforcement in high school if they don't quite get all the finer points of microspores and megaspores. I think it's good middle ground.

Today was a review day. I gave out study sheets and gave them an hour to review their notes, the textbook, handouts, etc. and to ask me and their classmates questions. I was pleased to see that most of them used the time well. They definitely have a better idea of how to study than they used to.

Tomorrow is the plants test.

Thursday and Friday I am going to give a practice test for the Intermediate Level Science Exam for diagnostic purposes. I think they are in pretty good shape although we have a lot of topics left to cover this year - but the human body should go quickly and be motivating material, and I just have to sneak the basics of genetics in before June 8th to ensure that they can handle simple Punnett squares. We've skipped most of ecology, so that might be a vacation packet since the ideas are simple enough. I will analyze the practice test to see if there are any areas where all students need review or a quick intro to a topic and then decide how I want to handle test prep. I'm crossing my fingers that what they already know will be enough - which is how it should be, in an ideal world - and that I will have to do only minimal review.

And then, vacation. I think about half of vacation will be spent grading all the stuff I am collecting this week!

Monday, April 18, 2005


When we tried to germinate beans, we grew mostly mold. Now I know how to grow mold, which will be very helpful the next time I try to teach fungus. But do the kids really know much about germination?*

Friday, they read about the differences between monocots & dicots, but seemed a little vague on the notion of a seed leaf.

Today, one of the few bean experiments left hanging in the windowsill came through deus ex machina-style: While a student helped me get the LCD projector working (it's temperamental, but PowerPoint is still really useful, and you get better at the tech stuff, and the kids get better at it even faster than you do, and the kid in my class who troubleshoots desperately needs chances to show his competence, so it all works out in the end, right?), I walked around and showed off the bean plant, which had grown clear out of the bag and sprouted several mature leaves, and still had 2 little shriveled up seed-leaves hanging limply from its stem. Sometimes nature IS on my side.

*Someone on an email list suggested alfalfa sprouts as way less temperamental than beans.

To the person who found my site

searching for "when not to follow the rules,"

I'll give it my best shot:

Don't follow the rules if following them will hurt you or someone else.

Don't follow the rules if following them means violating the truths you hold dearest or breaking your own code of ethics.

Don't follow the rules if it involves your relationships with people you care about. I'd say follow your heart but that's kind of cheesy. Follow that thing in your stomach that tells you what to do and what not to do.

Don't follow the rules if you bought them for $22.00 on

Saturday, April 16, 2005

One Art

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

by Elizabeth Bishop


I find so few people to whom I can really relate; it breaks my heart when friendships end, when people move away and don't stay in touch, when people grow apart. So I have never been the one to ask someone to leave my life, someone I still care about. But sometimes you know something not in your head but in your whole body. I know what I have to do, but it makes me want to throw up.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Look below...

for a post that I started to write last week but lost to the Blogger black hole and finally rewrote tonight.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Lest you think that all we do is attend meetings...

Yesterday, we put celery into water & food coloring to see how long it would take to move up the stalk. The textbook said to check back in 20 minutes, and I carelessly didn't test this myself, and in 20 minutes, you couldn't really see much change, so we ended up leaving them overnight. Today, though, the tips of the celery stalk were colored, and when I cut cross-sections, you could see colored dots where the xylem is. Cool!

The beans have been growing for about a week. Some groups have wonderful results, roots growing everywhere, the first leaves unfolding out of the seed coat, even a stem lengthening daily. Others have mushy beans and black mold. For the life of me I can't tell if there's a pattern behind which bags grew beans and which grew mold, or if it's just luck. I was thinking it might be better to seal the ziplock bags or maybe to purposely leave them open, but I don't detect a pattern. Suggestions welcome! In any case, I've decided to have them write a first draft of a lab report for the fast plants, and a first draft of a lab report for the bean germination, and then I will comment on both drafts and they will choose one to rewrite for a project grade and those who know they're in trouble - or who are just enthusiastic - can do both for extra credit.

This week's evidence of eighth grade laziness masquerading as, "But we thought..." Despite having done more than a dozen lab reports over the last few years, individually, despite receiving one copy of the assignment sheet per student, despite never asking me any clarifying questions, many students chose to interpret "First drafts of lab reports due Monday" as "Go ahead and just have the one responsible member of your group do all the work and turn in one project per group." Um, no. Sorry. That will be a zero, in my book, non-negotiable. You'd better have your OWN first draft tomorrow.

I'm being observed on Thursday - my formal observation. Except that Ms. Dean has shingles and Ms. Principal has food poisoning or a stomach virus, so it might not happen. Observations don't bother me. Of course I make sure I have an extra-good lesson planned and that I've thought through every last detail, but at heart I know that nothing awful is going to happen and I know that I have the support and respect of my administrators.

This Thursday, we are going to do a flower dissection. I spent tonight looking at other teachers' versions of this on the internet and kind of combined them to make one long task for them to complete. I suspect it will actually take them two days, as I want them to dissect two different types of flowers and compare them. The last time I did this - in much simpler form - at my old school, the science dept. chair saw me arrive, arms full of flowers, and made some kind of comment along the lines of "Aww, gee, you didn't have to..." and so did absolutely everyone else I saw between the front door and my classroom.

I'll try to sneak my digital camera to school and snap some pictures but I'm not promising anything!

My brush with the career ladder...

Yesterday morning, I had no intention of starting a graduate program in administration anytime soon. Today, I went with a colleague to an informational meeting about the Bank Street Principal's Institute. Ms. Dean is in this program this year and encouraged both of us to attend the pre-orientation and think about it. "But I don't want to be a principal or AP!" I protested. Then my colleague pointed out that it would give me the thirty credits I need to get my next pay raise, and even though I don't want to be an administrator now, if I have the degree and a really great job opens up, I'll be qualified. Well, when you put it that way...

So off we went to find out more. It turns out that our Region has an arrangement with Bank Street whereby we'd only pay half the cost of each credit - and that's on top of the 50% discount that Bank Street already gives public school teachers. So instead of $32,000, the 18 month program would cost only about $8000. Expensive, yes, but still a good deal. In exchange, you have to commit to work in the Region for at least three years.

What made the program appealing to me is that the director was smart, funny, and completely willing to scare away anyone not fully committed. She pointed out the intense workload - it's 38 credits in just 18 months, and most of those during the school year! The program involves an internship in your current school placement, plus foundation courses in all aspects of administration, plus computer courses, and more. It sounds really rigorous, and it also sounds like you get out of it what you put into it.

When we had a chance to ask questions, someone asked what happens if you don't fulfill your commitment to the Region. She said that you would be expected to pay back the cost of your degree, but then she made a statement that I rarely hear, but that I wish I heard more often:

The meaning of your commitment is not about the penalty, it is about your ethics, your morals, what you can live with.

The program seems like a good program - and competitive - but I'm not going to do it. In the first place, I still don't want to be an administrator, not really. The positions this prepares you for are AP, principal, math or literacy coach, or various regional office positions. None of these really appeal to me. I don't want to find myself finished with the program, committed to working in the Region, and then having to respond to job offers for positions that I don't really want. The only administrative job I can see myself doing right at the moment is some sort of Science Teacher Staff Developer. As far as I know, we only have one position like that in the Region, and it has already been filled, and I don't think you need an administrative degree to fill that position anyway, since the woman currently in that job was at today's info session!

Anyway, Bank Street also has a one-year program for people with fewer years of experience. It isn't enough to get certified as an administrator, but it might provide the specific skills I feel that I need to do a better job supporting the new teachers in my school, and it would provide nearly all the credits I need for my 30-and-above pay differential, and it will still be a rigorous program. It begins in January, so I won't have to decide for sure until next fall.

Monday, April 11, 2005

French Picnic Tart

(This recipe is liberally adapted from Molly Katzen's "Vegetable Heaven" cookbook). Cover some little red potatoes with water and boil until tender. Posted by Hello

Chop up a nice big onion. Posted by Hello

Saute the onion (& a teaspoon of salt) in oil until translucent. Then sprinkle liberally with black pepper & set aside. Posted by Hello

Sliced veggies. The recipe calls for red pepper, but I have two fresh zucchini that need to be used... Posted by Hello

Start with 1 cup of grated emmenthaler or gruyere inside the crust, then the onions and some sage, then the veggies - red peppers and zucchini in my case - and finally, top with cheese. Bake for 35 min. at 375 F. Posted by Hello

The tart, fresh from the oven, and its source. Posted by Hello

I don't usually gloat about my own cooking, but this was one of the best recipes I've ever made! It's a little bit of a project, but not really difficult, and it tastes incredibly good! So I'm giving you this one last look at it in the hopes that you'll be inspired to make one yourself. Posted by Hello

Friday, April 08, 2005

Overheard at the Region's Science Meeting

Last Friday, the Region hosted a meeting of Science AP's - in reality, a mix of principals, APs, lead teachers, science teachers, etc. - to discuss ways to prepare for the written part of the Intermediate Level Science Exam which we will be giving to the eighth graders in June.

I have a lot of respect for the people who hosted this meeting, but I must say that it was a very annoying 2 hours.

I had hoped to get a scheduled opportunity to sit down with other science teachers & administrators, look at the exam and how it is scored, think about what our kids know and what they struggle with, and come up with a bunch of concrete strategies for making sure they rock & roll.

Instead, everyone aired their complaints. I feel for anyone teaching in a school where the kids get only 1 or 2 periods of science per week, I really do. I also understand that many of our students have trouble with the literacy requirements of the test, regardless of how well they might know the science concepts. I think these complaints are valid, but I don't want to sit around and discuss them - without any plan for making change - for two hours on a Friday afternoon when I have classes I could be teaching.

As inner-city school teachers, we have many things to complain about, we see & experience injustices, but I feel that at times people use that to legitimize a culture of excuse-making.

Many people brought up the need to have the help and support of the literacy teachers to make sure that our children have the reading and writing skills they need to succeed on the ILS exam. It's a reasonable point; we can't go it alone. But after that had been brought up several times, it started to sound like a way of shifting the burden of getting the kids through the test onto someone else's shoulders. I wanted to stand up and say to the others at the meeting: "So the kids have trouble with the literacy tasks on the test... so what are you going to do about it?"

The way I see it, we each have a sphere of influence, that circle within which we have the power to make change, to improve things. I wanted to say: Okay, so we all agree that we need the help of the literacy teachers. So, if you're an AP, go back to your school and schedule a time for your literacy and science teachers to meet, provide copies of the tests, and give them an opportunity to come up with real strategies for preparing the kids in both disciplines. If you're a teacher, go back to your school and find one sympathetic literacy teacher and discuss ideas that each of you can use in your teaching to support content area reading and writing skills. If you can't think of anyone who will work with you, then think about assignments you can give that will help the kids understand science AND will help the kids practice the reading and writing skills they will need on the test. If you're a principal, provide more time for science in your curriculum, and arrange for PD on the subject of content-area literacy. Go home and DO something!

I mean, what do you think the literacy teachers talk about when they have meetings? Can't you just imagine them saying, "We need more help from the Science and Social Studies teachers in preparing the kids for the English Language Arts test..." It is self-evident to me that teachers in all subject areas should be reinforcing literacy skills. It is also clear to me that we should not become so overwhelmed with literacy tasks that we lose sight of the best practices in teaching our own subjects. So, we have to find ways to seamlessly integrate science and reading, science and writing, and - dare I say! - science and math.

The presenter put a sample question from the multiple choice portion of the test on an overhead. It was a diagram of a food web, and the question, "What is the role of the fox in this food web?" The four choices were typical ecology terms, like producer, consumer, herbivore, decomposer.

After a bit of discussion, a teacher commented, "Just to play devil's advocate here: my students don't know any of those words!"

Now, if your students only have science once a week, then of course there will be many concepts and words on the test that they haven't seen, and that's a damn shame. Point taken. Over the long term, you might be able to put some pressure on your administration to change that, and you might be able to enlist the Region's help in this. But the question remains: what are you going to do about it in the short term? Teach them something! Sure, you won't be able to cover everything, but even with 5 hours of science per week, I'd be very surprised if my students have seen everything on the test. All I can do is teach them as much as possible, and that's all anyone can do. But to stand up and say, "None of my kids know those words!" ... that's just embarrassing.

The presenter continued by demonstrating how a student could use process of elimination to narrow down the choices for the sample question. Another teacher chimed in, "But remember, our students are under time pressure during this test. Does it really make sense for them to spend time figuring out which answers are wrong when they could be looking for the right answer instead?"

I am still dumbfounded.

I don't even want to argue this point, but...

your best students will see the answer right off, and if they are sure of it, then more power to them;

other students will locate the best answer by going through the process of elimination quickly in their heads, and all should be encouraged to at least scan the other answer choices once they think they've found the answer to make sure there isn't a better answer;

your struggling students might benefit from a structured method of approaching unfamiliar material.


I didn't get a single new insight into the test or how to prepare the students for it. I know because I didn't write down anything, nothing, not one note, and I had a pen and paper ready.

I DID get into a debate with another teacher about how many legs caterpillars have. We were both partly right - they have only six REAL legs (being insects) but they have many more pseudo-legs, which lack the joints characteristic of arthropods. That's why we can tell our students that all insects have six legs - and still include caterpillars - but we can observe real-life caterpillars with many, many legs. Learn something every day, right?

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Reading Material

I've barely had time to skim, but based on that skimming, I think it's fair to say that the Education Wonk has done a nice job with the Carnival Of Education, as usual. "Wonk" is an interesting word. I first heard it following "policy" (that phrase seemed to be everywhere for a time). I understood it to mean someone really knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the technical details of policies. Detail-oriented. How does it relate to geek? Then - thanks to blogs? - wonks were everywhere. And now we have our own...

Since I've been pretty busy and tired the past few weeks, and because the number of education-related blogs has proliferated, and because I try to strive some time away from my computer, I've been a bit lax in my blog-reading of late. Last night, I visited Blackboard Jungle for the first time in a month or so, and wow! Lectrice has been doing some great writing in that dry, funny, reflective tone of hers. I wish I could write like she does... (maybe it's the British accent? LOL) And I suspect she's a great teacher, too.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005


1. A student asks, "What's the name of that bird with the orange belly over there?"

2. A new pink & black bikini.

3. Two out of three passerby are licking ice cream cones.

4. Everyone - EVERYONE - in the neighborhood decided to eat somewhere with sidewalk seating.

5. My need for chocolate is decreasing in direct proportion to my desire for strawberries.

6. Soup = out. Salad = in. Irish coffee = out. Margaritas = in.

7. The sun coming in the window during yoga class (at SIX PM!) is so bright I can't see the instructor and since I don't really understand sanskrit I end up guessing and doing all the wrong asanas.

8. After six years, I finally bought a new bedspread. It's time to put the comforter away for the season, and the old comforter cover away forever.

9. Skirts!

10. Meeting for a drink after work sounds like a great idea... especially if it's someplace with sidewalk seating.

11. 6:45 am: Seagulls mating on the roof of the building across the street from the bus stop.

12. When I find myself walking around the neighborhood around 8 pm in search of someplace still open that sells clothesline so I can hang the students' lima bean germination experiments in the classroom windows, well, it doesn't seem so bad.

13. Strawberries from the CSA!

14. And zucchini!

15. What color nail polish would look best on my toes....?

Monday, April 04, 2005

A Walk in the Park

Spent the day wandering Crotona Park with my students and our wild edible plant guide, Wildman Steve Brill. He visited our school in the fall for a guest lecture on mushrooms, and they had been eager to do a plant walk with him, so I set this up. Whatever the radio said this morning about the skies being partly cloudy and a high of 53, the skies were mostly cloudy and the high was nowhere near 53! So it was a brisk walk in the park.

I could have put the kids on a bus to Van Cortlandt Park or Central Park where they would have likely seen a wider variety of species, but I wanted them to see the plants in their own neighborhood, where they could return with sisters and brothers and other family members and show off their new knowledge.

So, we set out for the park this morning with plastic bags for collecting samples and bottled water to stay hydrated. Wildman showed us lots and lots of field garlic (very much like chives, and abundant in Crotona Park), lemony sheep's sorrel, dandelion greens (taste like lettuce this time of year but become bitter once the plant flowers), and several other edible plants growing just blocks from our school. We rinsed the specimens and then tasted. It was fun to watch the kids' reactions when Wildman popped pieces of plants into his mouth - but before long, many were willing to try just a nibble of this green or that leaf.

Another funny moment was when Wildman was showing the kids mugwort. He described how the English used to put it in their beer to add flavor (hence the name), and how Chinese women would pour boiling water over it, let it steep, and then drink it about a week before their periods to prevent cramps. At that point, the girls fairly rushed him to get samples! Who knows if any of them will try it, but it was pretty funny how open they were about their need for this plant!

Spring is at least a couple of weeks late in coming this year, which made the walk chilly and also limited the number of plants we could see. Although this would typically be a fine time for a wild plant walk, I think if we do this again I will either schedule it another week or two later to be on the safe side, or go to one of the larger parks, or both. Although the walk was valuable - and many kids were really, really enthusiastic - some weren't that into it and it felt like we were out for much longer than we needed to be. If more varieties of plants had been available to look at and talk about (and maybe taste!) then the time would have flown by. Instead, it dragged a little and my restless eighth graders became a bit unruly. I guess I'll find out what they really thought about it tomorrow when we debrief; it may be that they loved it and were just being playful and unthinking, but some of the kids came across as a bit rude in my opinion, especially the first group that I took out. I spoke to them about it but they weren't very responsive.

Not a wild success, but not too bad, either, and I certainly got my exercise for the day!

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Songwriting Challenge

Inspired by the never-ending drive to procrastinate along with Nicole's post about attempting to write a test-taking rap for her students, I am throwing down a challenge: Write an original song or adapt an existing song to help students remember test-taking strategies.

Post your songs on your blog and trackback, send me your songs by email, or cut-and-paste into my comments. I'll compile links & snippets of all submissions into one post next weekend.

I'm working on mine now... er, I'm planning my health lessons for the week.

Nine Parts of Desire

I joined TDF a few weeks ago. I'm not sure why it took me so long. TDF is an organization that allows teachers, people working for arts organizations, and others who qualify to get reduced-price theater tickets to many, many shows around New York City. Already, I see that belonging will revolutionize my ability to see stuff that I've wanted to see but not wanted to spend $60 or more to see...

On Friday, P. and I went to our first TDF show, 9 Parts of Desire. I'd heard it was amazing; a friend said it was by far the best theater she'd seen recently. She was right. It's a one-woman show portraying nine different Iraqi women and their perspectives on what's happened in the past 15 years in Iraq. The show is incredibly powerful and really, really difficult to watch. It shows the complexity of the situation; the women contradict themselves and each other. One woman is a doctor who describes how, under Saddam, the hospitals were among the best in the Middle East, while now, she can't even save the life of a woman going through a difficult childbirth. She describes children wearing bullets tipped in depleted Uranium around their necks. She describes whole families with cancer, and birth defect after birth defect. Another woman is an artist who slept with members of Saddam's family - and possibly Saddam himself - in order for protection. Hers is one of the most difficult and complicated perspectives and I can't do it justice here. Another woman is a political exile who describes protesting wars all around the world but being unable to protest THIS war, given the violence of Saddam's rule. The writer/actor, Heather Raffo, depicts herself watching TV and praying for the safety of her father's relatives in Iraq. She describes the feeling of expecting New York City to just stop out of respect for the war being fought by our country.

The show was very intense, very heavy - it was hard to just leave the theater and have dinner afterwards - but I guess the need for silence and reflection that I felt after seeing it only speaks for its power.


On a lighter note, I went to the supremely geeky, hilarious, and awe-inspiring "Juggle These," the New York City Juggling Festival. Some good stuff included Adam Kuchler, a clown who juggled sparkling cardboard boxes and, at one point, held 16 at once in a row, starting with one and picking up the rest one at a time (he also stuffed most of his body into a shopping bag earlier in the show!). A French juggler, Denis Paumier, did a wonderful routine with a spoon and container of yoghurt. He ate the yoghurt during the act. I think he's got a future with Yoplait, should he ever need some cash. The Trained Human Club juggled and drummed, the balls hitting the drums in rhythm.

Saturday, April 02, 2005


I spent all day Friday at the Regional Science Expo with two student explainers from my school. Last year, it seemed like many of the projects were largely the work of a teacher or parent, but this year it seemed like the projects had been done by students with a lot more choice as far as experiment design was concerned. I'd say my school's projects held up pretty well compared to the others at the Region, which made me happy.

I had a few interesting conversations with other teachers and science-folk, but I have to say that six hours at a science fair is a bit, um, long.

One new teacher I talked to works at Taft. Taft is a big, scary high school not that far from my school. At my first school, the stated goal of the 8th grade high school application process was, "No one goes to Taft." It had a reputation as a violent, dangerous place. Recently, the Taft campus was broken up into four or five smaller schools. One is still Taft. I asked this teacher whether she thought splitting up the school was - in the long run - helping turn it around. She said that of the five schools, one was reasonably successful - meaning that while the other four schools have kids who get 1s and maybe 2s on their state tests (on a 1-4 rubric, 4 being the best, 3 being "meeting the standards"), one school has more kids with 2s and maybe an occasional 3. She also said that the small schools were, ironically, leading to more and more crowding - the school would soon have hundreds more kids than it has ever had before - and it has always been overcrowded. She said that a student was arrested the day before and suggested that the police had roughed up the student before arresting him. The kids have to watch out in the halls to avoid getting jumped and - she initially said raped but then took it back - harrassed. And two weeks ago, a body was found in a dumpster on campus.

What would you do about a school like this? Would you teach there? I'm not even going to ask whether you'd send a child there, your own or one that you teach. How much would you want to be paid in order to agree to work there? Ugh.