Monday, November 29, 2004

Polar Bears: They're All About Keeping Warm!

I drew this myself! It's part of a poster I made to model my expectations for my students' mammals posters. I'm giving them a bunch of poster-type assignments over the next few weeks to try to help them develop a stronger aesthetic sense before the Science Expo comes around and they have to make display boards. I'll post the Mammals Poster assignment at the Teachers' Lounge wiki. Posted by Hello

Ms. Frizzle models "the cheesy... er, creative... title." Polar bears are amazingly cool. They have several inches of blubber, covered by several inches of fur. Their skin - beneath the fur - is actually black, which helps them absorb the sun's heat. Each individual hair is clear, but the way the sun reflects off of their fur, they appear white. They can way on the order of 1400 lbs.! And they can smell a seal from 20 miles away.  Posted by Hello

Here's the whole poster. I'm actually fairly proud of it. Now let's just cross our fingers and hope that it will inspire my students to hand in more polished work - or at least get an aesthetic clue! LOL. Posted by Hello

From the Weekend

The Thanksgiving table at my house. Posted by Hello

One exhibit at Mass MoCA asks visitors to snip out the label from their jacket or shirt and pin it to this map of the world in the place where the article of clothing was made.  Posted by Hello

Here is a detail from Matthew Ritchie's exhibit "Proposition Player," currently at Mass MoCA. Most of it is printed on the wall, but in the lower right corner you can see part of a raised metal sculpture, as well. Posted by Hello

Sunday, November 28, 2004

All in the Family

My mom is going back to teaching.

A bit of history:

My mom taught English before I was born, mostly at the high school level, although she did teach younger students for a few months at a development project school in Algeria. My father also started out in teaching. He taught math and science. During my childhood, my mom was a stay-at-home-mom and community activist, and my dad was an elementary school principal. Then when I was in high school, my mom got frustrated, because she could have done so many more things for our town and county, but she didn't have the right degree. So she went back to school and got her master's in public policy and then got a job at the county planning commission. It was rough having her gone several days a week - she commuted to my grandmother's house in Maine to attend school there - but ultimately helped me understand that you are never, ever trapped in your life. I feel very lucky to have seen my mom and several other women whom I respected make major changes - quitting jobs, changing jobs, going back to school, etc. - fairly late in life.

Anyway, a few months ago, she was laid off from the county planning commission because she was paid by grants and grants have been drying up over the last few years. That was frustrating, because there just aren't that many jobs in her field in the area where she lives, which is all small towns.

She wasn't planning on going back to teaching. Her "lifetime" credential is very close to expiring for good if she doesn't take some courses this spring. But a friend who works at the middle school in a nearby town mentioned that the English teacher is retiring in December and the school is looking for someone to replace him for the rest of the year, with the possibility of continuing next year if things go well. Mom applied, and she found out on Wednesday that she got the job! She'll start by observing his classes and working with him for the first two weeks of December, and then in mid-December, when he retires, she'll take over his classes.

So, she wanted advice about teaching middle school, kids these days, etc. I gave her what advice I could, plus the name and number of a colleague who I think can provide subject area advice. I said to set up some way to meet parents before grading time, since inevitably, some kids will not get the same grades with her that they got with their previous teacher, and it's best if the parents are comfortable with her before that happens. I reminded her that kids at that age are obsessed with fairness and justice - in the world and in their own lives. Etc. etc.

This should be interesting!

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Contemporary Art

I'm back in NYC.

My friend W. came home to Massachusetts to have Thanksgiving with my family.

On Friday, we drove up to Mass MoCA. I've been before, but this time the exhibitions were particularly thought-provoking. First, we saw an exhibit called "Proposition Player" by Matthew Ritchie. Ritchie has created - in his mind and through fiction-writing, painting, sculpture, and other media - his own cosmology (for lack of a better word), drawing on religious imagery ranging from voodoo to the Bible to tarot, as well as scientific concepts from physics to genetics. This could all be really pretentious but it is saved by the fact that many of his paintings and sculptures are beautiful, and all are at least visually engaging. W. was a bit frustrated by his inclusion of various constants and physics equations because she felt it was a tease. I felt that his paintings got you to ask the same questions that we ask about the universe: which parts are purposeful, organized, follow patterns? which parts are random, created by chance? So on that level - and on the straight aesthetic level - I really liked his work.

Another piece that we both really liked was in The Interventionists exhibit. The town where Mass MoCA is located, North Adams, was a sort-of burned-out mill town with a bad reputation until recently. The museum and other community efforts are bringing it back to life. One group of artists asked townspeople to write phrases or sentences - like slogans - for different landmarks and places in town. Then they took a car and put one of those digital advertising things on top of it, like taxis have, and programmed it so that as it drives around town, the screen shows the different comments and statements submitted by townspeople for each location. It provided real insight into the kinds of things that are on the minds of people in North Adams and into the history of the town. Some examples: "We need a skate park?" "Why do so many people in Greylock get cancer?" "A girl drowned up here." "How can you get into Mass MoCA... if you don't have any money?" and so on.

And the trees keep growing upwards....

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

I never thought I'd say this...

but I'm really enjoying teaching sex ed.

It feels so important, and it's oddly empowering for me and, I hope, for the kids.

There's a part of me that's like, "How can I help kids to make good decisions when I still have so many hang-ups myself?"

Ms. Principal gave me a book, Sex and Sensibility, which I finally started reading tonight. The author, who stumbled into sex education back in the seventies, asked (and asks) the same question... it was a relief to read her introduction to the book, to realize that more experienced health educators still deal with the same anxieties and uncertainties that I am dealing with.

Put a diagram of the male or female reproductive system on the overhead, and the kids hang on your every word. They really, really want to know, and they don't know, so they listen. One question inevitably leads to more. The questions they drop anonymously into the question box cover so many topics. They want to know how doctors do abortions. They want to know whether rape causes physical injury.

They want to know why men and women are treated differently. After a discussion of masculinity and femininity today, one girl confided in me that people call her "man-girl" because she is athletic. I told her to hang in there and be herself - not the most satisfying answer, but they were late for their next class. I think she needed to be heard more than she needed any particular answer.

Some questions make me nervous. For example, "What happens when a man puts his penis in a woman's butt?" (I shudder to think what Google searches will find me now...). First of all, I don't know exactly what this child wants to know. Secondly, I want to answer questions that they genuinely want to know about, but I don't want to offer them a forum to try to shock me or each other. Also, I worry that although some of the students in the class may be hearing about and thinking about anal sex, for others it will make them really uncomfortable or expose them to something they have never heard of before. I worry about what they will tell their parents; even though I don't say anything inappropriate, kids morph what teachers say - purposely or not - when they talk to their parents.

How did I handle this one? I told the kids that I genuinely want to give them the best information that I can and to answer their questions, but that some of the questions were starting to make me uncomfortable. I told them that if we had learned the correct word for something, I would expect them to use it in all future questions. I told them that if they want to know something, they should try to ask as clearly as possible, because questions like "What happens when..." are very difficult to answer. Then I read the question and said, "I'm not sure what this person is asking. The name for that behavior is anal sex." And then I moved on to the next question.

I am very interested in what this book that I am reading recommends for situations like that one. I'll let you know!

My new questions are....

  • How can I help kids start real conversations about these topics with their parents?

  • What kind of sex education will help children make good decisions and feel comfortable asking the questions they need to ask, researching things they need to know more about, and talking to others openly and honestly about their sexuality?

Giving Thanks

Tomorrow night, I'm off to visit my parents in Massachusetts. I'll be back in NY on Saturday. Since I'll be busy with school tomorrow, I thought I'd post this now.

I spent the last two nights tossing and turning with anxiety and a cosmic sense of loneliness. My mind got into one of those worrying loops where you start off worrying about things that are, in fact, worrisome, but end up worrying about the fact that you're worrying about missing yoga class since isn't yoga supposed to be relaxing and why - oh why! - haven't you learned to Just Be yet? LOL. It's funny, in retrospect.

If only we got into thankfulness loops akin to the worry loops.

I'm thankful that I finished editing all sixty of my students' lab reports in less than 48 hours, so I can relax tonight (kind of: my theater class is going to see Golda's Balcony).

I'm thankful that I work in a place where everyone cares deeply about our students, where we confront each other - at times, painfully or with defensiveness - about things that need to change, where most days we say a friendly hello to our colleagues, even those with whom we disagree.

I'm thankful to live in a country where people can - and do - disagree. Even as we criticize the media for being bought & sold by corporations and political interests, even as we defend our library records from the feds, even as we get caught up in polarized and polarizing debates about not-the-most-important-things, it is so important to keep in mind that we exercise a tremendous amount of freedom here in the United States. I, for one, still feel that I have enough freedom to disagree, to speak out, to work against the policies that I dislike, that I will be staying here and working for change. I may visit Canada, but I can do so much more right where I am.

And speaking of which, I am so thankful to have chosen a profession where I can help individuals and work for social change all at once, a profession that makes me struggle to become a better person every single day.

I'm thankful for an amazing group of girlfriends - in CA, NY, and scattered here & there elsewherewomen who are ambitious, kind, feminist, funny, creative, and so, so smart.

I'm thankful for P. who has a positive attitude and tons of energy, who loves all kinds of music, who challenges me politically, who is very sweet, who is great in bed. ;-)

I'm thankful for my family. Even though we aren't always close, I know I can count on them for unconditional love & support. They built the foundation that lets me stand up and leap as high I as I can imagine myself leaping.

I'm thankful for my education - at home, in the public schools in Massachusetts, and at Stanford University and Teachers College - for giving me so many things: passion and the ability to follow through on ambitious projects, creativity, confidence, solid writing skills, a love of reading, and so much more. Thanks to all those teachers along the way who helped me become the person I am, some in ways that I remember, some in ways that I never even noticed.

And thanks to everyone who reads this blog! It's great to feel heard once in a while!

Monday, November 22, 2004

From the homework files...

Excerpts of eighth grade lab reports - they designed their own experiments about bacteria growth. These were first drafts.


Question: "Which gender's bathroom has the most bacteria?"

From one girl's Conclusions: "I think girls have more bacteria in the bathroom because some girls sit on the toilet (which I don't do) and because girl problems."


Question: "Which type of water - bottled or school fountain - will grow the most bacteria?"

From one girl's Conclusions (and to be fair, the rest of her thinking was very clear): "I think this happened because being that bottled water is of course in a bottle and the bottles usually come in a bottle, the bottles must not be sterilized therefore making the water catch bacteria."


Question: "Where does more bacteria grow, in a boy's bellybutton or a girl's?"

From one girl's Conclusions: "My hypothesis was wrong because I thought that boys would have more bacteria in their bellybuttons. I thought this because boys are generally more active in my grade than girls."

From her Sources of Error: "Our results might have been affected by the fact that no one watched as the bellybuttons were swabbed, therefore no one knew whether they were swabbed properly."


Question: "Which gender's bathroom has the most bacteria?"

From one girl's Conclusions: "I hypothesized that the females would have more bacteria on their toilet seat than the males because of "lady reasons". My hypothesis was correct. Since females do have more bacteria than males on their toilet seats. I say this because femailes get this "lady thing" and some of them don't clean up after themselves."


Question: "Does it matter the gender of a person to have more bacteria in their navel?"

From one girl's Conclusions: "My results show that the girls have more bacteria than the boys. THat was something that really shocked us. We thought that because boys sweat more than girls they would have more bacteria. At the end of the experiment we noticed that the girls were both African-Americans and the boys were both Hispanic. Maybe that changed our results a little bit."

(That prompted my comment in the margins: "Interesting observation. Do you think race affects the bacteria in people's bellybuttons?")

Her Conclusions, continued: "Our results could have changed because that same day we had gym so both the girls and boys were sweaty. The girls could have been sweatier because with a co-ed gym girls are always competitive towards the boys which caused us to sweat more. While boys who are going easy on us didn't sweat as much.

"When we looked at the bacteria under the microscope it kind of scared me. I thought is this the type of stuff growing on me. Believe it or not it was true. They looked like fuzzy, orange, feet-smelling transparent sand-grain-like bacteria. But wait that was just girl #2. GIrl #1 looked like a waxy, x-ray looking, feet-smelling bacteria."

Petty Paper Issues Addressed?

I met with my principal briefly at the end of the school day to discuss the paper issue. I wasn't all that worried about the meeting going in. I told Ms. Principal that I was worried that the way it had been handled was making many teachers grumble, and that I thought she would want to know that. I tried to make it sound as much as possible like I was on her side, telling her something she would want to know so that she could respond to it.

She got really defensive, and slightly sarcastic, much to my surprise.

That made me a little defensive, though I kept it mostly under control, I believe. I also repeated the fact that it's not a major problem, but that I wanted to help prevent small problems from building up into larger ones, and that this seemed like it had that potential. I also told her that I remembered that she'd talked about feeling isolated and that I wanted to check in about that and offer to help in any way that I could if there were things with which she needed help.

Eventually, I think she saw that I was trying to help, not to attack. The meeting ended on a positive note. I don't know what action she will take, but I think she sees that we staff do not understand all of her thinking about the copier and our use of paper - for example, one system for asking the secretary to make copies had come across to us as optional, even though she thought she had required it.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Inherit the Wind

My final project for my Theater Across the Curriculum class is an interdisciplinary unit plan on the play Inherit the Wind. I have posted it at the Teachers' Lounge wiki. You can find it on the Middle School Science, Social Studies, and Language Arts pages.

Incidentally, this is the last class offered by the UFT that I will ever take. Please hold me to that. Sure, it's cheap and gets me three credits closer to my 30-and-above salary differential, but good grief! My time is worth so much more than this... I came back from class on Tuesday to open the union newsletter to the headline: "Many teachers still find DOE professional development tedious, irrelevant." I was sorely tempted to write them a letter describing the tedious and irrelevant course I am taking from them!

The teacher is a sweet and well-intentioned guy. And I have used many of the activities I learned from him in my after school drama class. But he takes two hours to model activities for us that he should be able to present to us in 30 minutes! We actually spent about an hour walking around the classroom trying out a lesson on stage directions. It was a good lesson, and I used it the following day, but A WHOLE HOUR??? Two weeks ago, we actually spent two hours discussing how to read a theater ticket, how to find your seat in the theater, theater etiquette, etc. I understand the importance of these topics before you take your students to see a play, but again, it was much too basic to spend so much time covering. Classes like this - lacking any kind of rigor - make us all look bad. I hate to add to the litany of criticism of teacher education programs, but as someone who attended selective universities for both my undergraduate degree and my masters degree, I can't spend two hours of my evening bored out of my mind. I just can't. Meanwhile, he's saving a lesson on how to put on a play for the last session of the class. That could actually be useful, and it could easily fill more than a single session if done well. Come January, I am going to start rehearsing a real play with my drama class, and I hoped to get ideas and support from this theater class. I do hope we get to fill out a feedback form at the end of the class.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Going For It

I've decided to plan a conference.

Yes: I may be crazy.

I want to take the grief and anger that I sense in the liberals around me and try to find a way to focus it in positive political action.

I have no intention of creating another Bush-bashing event.

It will be mostly about domestic issues, not Iraq.

This is what I have done so far:

-Set up an organizing meeting for the afternoon of Dec. 5th at a cafe near my home (contact me: if you want to attend). I advertised this to politically-active friends, on craigslist NYC, and on the United for Peace & Justice events calendar.
-Set up an email account so that my regular inbox does not become clogged.
-Created a table listing tasks to be done, ideas that I have, and other thoughts.
-Made inquiries with one or two political organizations as to whether something of this nature is already being planned, and whether they would help me plan it if not.
-Thought a lot about the purpose of the conference and the tasks necessary to organize it.

It doesn't seem like that much effort to organize, if several people get involved. We need a location, a keynote speaker, people to speak on panels or lead workshops, publicity by email & flyers, a website for registration & publicity, food & drink for those who attend, and that's about it. Cookies & juice bought in bulk or donated from a local company would be cheap or free, most publicity can be done via email lists such as Activate, Not In Our Name, and UFPJ, and hopefully speakers will donate their time. The big question on my mind right now - which, when answered, will make the whole thing feel real - is where to hold the event? I know of some small places that would almost certainly let us use their space for free, but they might be too small. Larger places seem a bit harder to book, especially if we are trying to get the space donated. Hopefully, when we have our first planning meeting, lots of people will show up and we can split up these tasks.

Making Policy

A big mystery to me is why Congress is allowed to hide all manner of new policies in unrelated bills. For example, the anti-abortion provision that House & Senate politicians have attached to a huge & important spending bill. Both sides do it; it's sneaky; it makes it harder to fight these policies if you're against them; it means that politicians later can be accused of voting against important bills when the real reason might have been some of the attached provisions. Why is this allowed? I doubt it makes the workings of Congress more efficient? Why not require that each issue have its own bill?

The Junta

I've decided that the most appropriate description of the way my school works is that it is ruled by a junta. Our principal makes some decisions and works quite hard--I don't mean any disrespect of her--but when push comes to shove, a group of three or four of us work behind-the-scenes to make sure that the important things get done and to discuss problems.

Unfortunately, this year, Ms. Dean does lunch duty, and so our little group hasn't really been working together like we used to. The positive side of this is that I am able to concentrate more on my own teaching and responsibilities and no longer get caught up in other people's drama. The negative side is that there are unaddressed issues that remain unaddressed, things that we would normally act upon.

Yesterday was Ms. Dean's daughter's first birthday, and she invited two of us to come over for cake. After the other guests had left, we started talking about some of the issues at hand.

First, my principal made this arbitrary decision about two weeks ago that the teachers are using too much paper. Instead of bringing it up in a staff meeting so that we could discuss ways of conserving and what amount of paper is reasonable, she just told a school aide to limit our paper use to a total of two reams per day. That's 1000 sheets. So, for the last few weeks, teachers have had to beg for more paper, buy their own, and deal with lectures from the school aide about how this wasn't her decision, blah blah blah. It is such a petty issue, and really poisoning the school environment. Plus, the math is easy: We have 210 students. Each has five classes per day. One sheet of paper per class per day would already exceed the 1000 page limit! So it is patently unrealistic. Granted, some classes do not use any paper, but that is easily balanced by other classes that use more than one sheet per period. And our school made the decision to use textbooks as references only, so we have a single class set of each book, rather than one per student. This makes sense, because we are project-oriented, not textbook-oriented, and we create many of our own materials. But a side effect is that we use lots of paper, particularly in content-heavy subjects like Science and Social Studies. Anyway, we decided that I would bring this up with Ms. Principal next week. I had been planning to discuss it with her anyway, but she is having some serious family problems and this week was parent-teacher conferences, so I left well-enough alone. But now that I know how strongly everyone feels about it, I can't let it simmer any longer.

Another issue is what to do about one teacher who is really not working out. To be fair, he was hired in October when additional money was released and the annual fall hiring freeze ended, so he took over his classes from other teachers; that's always hard. Plus, he's a brand new teacher, and learning to teach takes time. Points against him: He has a very light schedule, lots of supportive people helping him, a fairly easy school environment, and periods built into his schedule to observe other teachers and try to absorb how we exercise authority. His classes are a mess. He doesn't seem to see the big picture when designing his curriculum, so he strings together interesting activities, but it is unclear what they add up to. Worse, his classroom management is a disaster. The eighth graders don't respect him, and their behavior makes learning really hard for even the conscientious students. Either Ms. Principal or Ms. Dean often has to linger in the back of his classroom, in the guise of one errand or another, because their presence keeps total chaos from breaking out. And the rest of us have to back him up quite frequently when he kicks kids out of class or is having trouble taking his classes downstairs to lunch. None of this really helps him establish his own authority, but it's to the point where we step in because otherwise the entire school environment would be degraded. Ms. Principal is now taking notes with an eye to dismissing him at the end of December, even though we have no replacement prospects, because he's sucking up so many resources and really hurting the kids' education. It would mean more work for Ms. Dean and a couple of other teachers, but it may still be the best option. It feels really harsh to give someone so little time to get used to teaching--I was a MESS for more than a year when I first started--but he's in a very different school than where any of the rest of us started. He could not ask for more support, better kids, or a lighter schedule. And the cost to the eighth graders is too high for him to continue teaching at our school. *sigh*

Talking about this teacher led us to a broader discussion of our role as mentors to the new teachers. There are other teachers who are struggling, and we are all having trouble figuring out the best ways to help them. None of us had positive experiences with mentors or supervisors who really helped us improve our teaching, so we have no model for working with adults in this context. We all just learned as we went along, absorbing what we saw more experienced teachers doing, learning from our mistakes, getting as much as we could from the classes we took. One of the biggest challenges is working with teachers who don't see the problems that we see. Mr. Kelvin, for example, thinks his kids are learning really well because they can solve basic equations for speed, etc. What I see is that he taught them simple formulas for solving these problems, so they eventually mastered the methods, but they do not necessarily get the concepts. It's hard to help someone fix something they don't think is broken! I also struggle with authority as the Science Dept. Chair. I don't want to treat adults like children, who are to be given assignments and chastised when they do not complete them. I don't want to order anyone around, yet I'm beginning to think I need to be more demanding in what I ask the new teachers to do.

The main point is, the three of us are once again learning as we go. We are in leadership positions, yet we have no one helping us learn to lead! Ms. Dean is in an administrator's masters program, so she gets some ideas from her classes, but as far as real practical help goes, we're on our own. It's frustrating to know that I'm not doing as well as I want to be, yet not know how to find the resources and support that I need.

Finally, Ms. Principal is under a lot of stress. She is dealing with a family member's illness, but even before that, she never seemed like she really likes her job. When she gets stressed out, she becomes arbitrary and unpleasant in the way she talks to people, and unapproachable to her staff. She should be our leader, but she doesn't feel supported, she feels attacked from all sides. Parents are never happy no matter how she handles a situation; experienced teachers are always reminding her of things she needs to do; inexperienced teachers require a lot of her time; the Region makes demands; she is only the "acting" principal and is about to go through a formal hiring process to really get her job - and someone called the school the other day to tell her that he is applying for her job; etc., etc., etc. We can't make her like what she does, and truthfully, most of these pressures are not going to change. This is life as a principal. But many principals are not miserable! What to do, what to do? For the long-term good of the school, something has to change...

There's more. But I am in the process of doing about 100 lbs. of laundry, and I need to put it all in the dryer. Enough school politics for today.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Parent Conferences 2004

S., an eighth grade girl, called her mother on her cell phone to tell her that I was ready to see them. Her mom was around the corner in the same hallway!


The father of a student called his son, M., on his cell phone to tell him that I was ready to see them. M. was down the hall talking to his friends! When he walked in, I'd just finished telling his father that his son wasn't pushing himself enough.

I asked M., "What do you think I told your father?"

He said, "Put more effort into your homework." Bingo.


Not a single student cried during my parent-teacher conferences this time around. And although there were some unhappy parents and unhappy students, no one screamed or hit anyone in my conferences. Hallelujah! I did see one student of mine crying in the hallway, but she'd just been caught forging her mother's signature more-or-less weekly for the last two months...


Ms. Frizzle: Your son's grade is lower than usual because he got a 1* on a poster project.

Mother (to her son): What happened?

Son (sheepishly): Um, I didn't put my heart into that one.


A parent described coming home to find her daughter sitting hunched over in front of the computer, her homework on her lap, looking up from it every few seconds to check the ten different IM screens she had open at one time.


I love seeing the kids as they look "in the wild" - they show up for conferences in jeans, sweatshirts, anything but the uniform. Some parents make the kids spit & polish for conferences, button-down shirts and their nicest pants.


I love playing "village" to the kids I taught last year, but don't see any more, and to the kids that I teach only for a "minor subject" such as health or P.E. I ask them to show me their progress reports. I ooh and ahh over good grades and demand to know what's going when they get poor grades. That's village as in, "it takes a village...."


This year, we gave out progress reports instead of report cards. This came about because we wanted our marking periods to be of equal length, which they were not when we followed the schedule used by the rest of the city. We are still required to hold conferences on the same days as everyone else, even though we have a month left in the first marking period. Unexpectedly, this was a blessing: I could tell parents that their children still have a month left to improve their grades before the final grades are reported.


It's over. Thank goodness!

*We grade on a 1 to 4 rubric - 1 is "far below the standard". Ouch.

To the person who searched...

for "blog of sexy NYC female" and found me, oh thank you so much. You've made my day! (And I love the fact that my blog is the number 7 hit for that particular search in Google!).

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Soooo tired.

Last night I went to sleep at 8. I have plenty to write about - our staff meeting, parent-teacher conferences, etc. - but I am just wiped out by the end of each day.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

An Email from a Friend

A wonderful friend of mine sent me this... I will post my reply later. If you'd like to participate, feel free to email your replies to me ( and I will pass them along to her.

Dear Friends,

In the wake of the election sorrow, I have decided to do something. I don't know yet what all I am going to do, but I have a little project to help me figure it out-- and I would be MUCH obliged if you could help me by replying to this email (even a little bit).

Please tell me what two or three issues you care the most about.

Then, tell me what you plan to do in the next six weeks toward one (or more) of those issues.

If you have a long-term dream of how you would make the world a better place too, I'd love to know... a project you could do that will create a larger good. If you don't have one, don't let it stop youfrom responding!

The goals:
1) A reminder to not just talk, but to act-- even if it's in small ways: and to start now-- today, this week (why wait?) with a specific plan.
2) A collection of ideas to remind us all how many ways there are to act (I'll send you a list of everyone's ideas if you tell me you'd like to get it in a week or so)
3) Hope

I'll go first (that's only fair):
My three top issues: the environment, sexual assault, and education

What I'm going to do:
  • This: remind the people in my life not to sit in saddened silence!!!
  • Volunteer to teach an English class once a week -- speaking English is a huge first step toward getting US citizenship-- and there are many, many people I spoke to door-to-door on election day who would have loved to vote -- almost all for Kerry-- but weren't registered to vote, or weren't citizens.
  • Put a reminder on my calendar to check twice a month to see what issues are being voted on in Congress*-- and take three minutes to call my senators or representative and make my opinion heard (you can do this long-distance for free if you have Working Assets phone service-- calls to your congress(wo)men are free)

* Wondering how? For unbiased info, go to (more helpful when congress is in session). For a wealth of variously biased, well-organized info, go to

And my long-term dream? Work in the West in environmental conflict resolution... and someday maybe be a high school principal.

There. It only took me a few minutes to come up with that... and I didn't even know what I was going to say when I started. I look forward to hearing from you!

Friday, November 12, 2004

I'm not sure why they call it "pie," as it's really more of a cake... Posted by Hello

Rinse the cranberries, then pour them into a 9 inch pie pan so that the bottom of the pan is covered with 1-2 layers of berries. Posted by Hello

Add 1/2 c sugar and 1/2 c chopped walnuts. Posted by Hello

To make the batter, beat together 2 eggs, 1 c flour, 1 c sugar, 1 tsp vanilla, and 8 Tbs butter.  Posted by Hello

I like the swirls... After you've beaten the batter, pour it over the cranberries and walnuts. Posted by Hello

Bake at 375 until golden brown. Posted by Hello

Finished! The whole apartment smelled delicious... (sorry the picture is a touch out of focus, my hands shake). Posted by Hello

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Truly Regrettable

My friend S., who sends me websites to make me giggle, suggested that I visit the Gallery of Regrettable Foods. Coffee jello, anyone? Meatballs in Pink Sauce?

Cross Your Fingers

If you hear yelps of agony, you'll know I killed my harddrive.

After months and months of suffering not-so-silently, I decided Veteran's Day was the perfect opportunity to try to heal my computer's woes. I started by making a backup copy of all my documents on CD. Then I downloaded SpyBot S&D, which is currently scanning for Spyware. I suspect my computer is harboring a lot of spyware, yet so far the scan has turned up nothing. It still has 11,000 things to scan for, though. After I finish the scan, I'm going to defragment.

It's possible that these steps will return my computer to its former innocence and glory. I hope so.

Nevertheless, the machine is going on five years old - Methuselah, in computer-years - and I may need a new one before the year is up. I just hope I can hold out until spring, when I know whether I will be here in the US or teaching abroad next year.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004


After the election, I complained about Mrs. Chew's admission that she is a single-issue voter. I haven't really had time to respond to her comments - so much science-related stuff to write about - but I thought I should mention that she responded, explaining her political beliefs and reasoning.

More Dramatic Results!

Over the weekend, the Winogradsky columns - two of them, anyway - started to get interesting. Two that we placed in front of a bright light have developed deeply red - scarlet, really - bacteria in the top 3 inches of the bottle. It's so red, it's almost purple. They still smell godawful. I am still debating whether to throw out all but these two.

Dramatic Results!

Yesterday, I described some of the experiments my students designed to find out more about where bacteria grow and under what conditions. All told, the students streaked about 50-60 petri dishes with bacteria. In the first 24 hours of the experiment, only ONE of those petri dishes showed visible bacteria growth: the dish streaked with bacteria from a toilet in the boys' bathroom. Not the girls' bathroom, not the teachers' bathroom, not students' or teachers' mouths, not our bellybuttons, not our sweaty armpits, not the doorknobs of any room in the school... only the boys' toilet seat sample.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Twelve little bottles of agar medium bob in a saucepan. Posted by Hello

I had to wipe down my counter with a bleach solution to minimize contamination. Posted by Hello

The agar is melted, the petri dishes are ready to go, now all we have to do is wait for the bottles to cool enough to handle. Posted by Hello

S. helps me fill the dishes. As she puts it, "Being friends with a science teacher is like being an aunt. You get to join in all the fun projects, but you can give the kids back at the end of the day." Posted by Hello

C'est finis! I let the dishes cool, then packed them in boxes and brought them to school with me today. Seriously, you can take ANYTHING on the subways.

The students, working in groups of four, designed their own experiments to investigate bacteria. A few groups are comparing the bacteria from the girls', boys', and teachers' bathrooms, another group is comparing the effectiveness of different kinds of cleaning sprays, one group is testing the bacteria in students' sweat versus adults' sweat, another group swabbed girls' and boys' bellybuttons, and another group is comparing the bacteria found in bottled water to that found in school drinking fountain water. The results promise to be interesting... Posted by Hello

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Everybody's Movin'

Uptown, on 90th St. & Fifth Ave., people were moving fast... I did not stay long enough to see Corie, but I hope she did well! The runners certainly got a beautiful day. Posted by Hello

Downtown, some people were moving very, very slowly... Posted by Hello

In front of St. Mark's Church. Posted by Hello

I believe this was a butoh performance. Posted by Hello

Break on Through

The week was about pent-up energy, some positive and some negative.

This weekend has been about music.

Friday night, feeling like throwing plates at the wall, I went to CBGB's. The music was disappointing. The place itself never disappoints: layers and layers of concert stickers, floorboards that were last mopped...when? It's like archaeology under your feet.

My friend S. knocked at my door at noon, dragged me out of bed, and we went to the Living Room to learn shape note singing, a la Cold Mountain. I love music, but I have very little experience with making music of any kind, and even less confidence. Individually, I get the idea of a scale, rhythm, the length of each note, etc. Trying to combine them, I get muddled. I took a music appreciation class in college, and while everyone else scoffed at how easy it was and how they were taking it to fulfill a requirement, I was struggling to hear the difference between major and minor keys with any kind of consistency! (Yes, yes, I am aware of the fact that music played in a minor key sounds sad). So, I was not sure what we were getting into or whether it was a good idea! But as soon as we entered, everyone started being very nice to us. They laughed at my black humor about music skill, gave us a songbook, and tutored us in the basics.

Essentially, there are four shapes - a triangle is "fa," a square is "la," a circle is "sol," and a diamond is "mi" - which replace the regular oval at the end of each note on the scale. You begin each song by singing it using fa sol la and mi, then sing it with the words. We sat according to our voices - they put newbies in tenor - and people took turns leading.

It was really fun. At first, we could barely follow where they were on the page, but by the end, we could sing along pretty well, especially when there was a strong voice in our group whom we could follow when we started to get lost. The music was all traditional Christian music. Some of the tunes were familiar to me from my own Catholic upbringing, but most of the hymns were unfamiliar.

I think I might just go back next month! The singing was fun and will get easier with practice, and the people were all incredibly welcoming. There was a broad range of ages, from other people our age through people in their sixties. There are so few things that I do that are diverse in terms of people's ages, it's nice to be part of a community that is not just twenty-somethings.

Tonight, S. and I went to Irving Plaza for a concert. Erin McKeown opened, and rocked, as she always does. Then there was a LONG break between sets - everyone started to get impatient - and then the Waifs played. I have their CD but had never seen them live before. They are an Australian band, but their music is closest to Americana. The set got off to a slow start, but by the end, when they did a big rocker with Erin back on stage jamming on her guitar, I was very impressed. This show turned out to be more of a release of my plate-hurling energy than the harder stuff at CBGB's.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Sex Ed, Day 1

Today was the first day of our sexuality education unit in seventh grade health. I am using a curriculum another teacher lent me called "Sex Can Wait" - which is abstinence-only - but am supplementing it with information on contraception.

I gave the kids an overview of the unit, then we brainstormed things that would make the conversations difficult, like giggling, finding the right words for things, etc. From there, each group brainstormed ground rules. We made one final class list of ground rules, everyone signed it, and then I introduced the Question Box.

At the end of each health class, I will give each student a slip of paper. They are to write down any questions that they have, comments for me, or "I have no questions at this time." Then they fold the paper in half and put it in the box. This allows students a forum for embarrassing questions, and it gives me time to prepare answers before the next class. Most of the questions today were very basic. Two boys asked how they can grow faster. It's a cute and interesting insight into the minds of the seventh grade boys. Another girl, whose family is very seriously Jehovah's Witness, asked if I was going to give out condoms. I wonder what that question is about.... I know who asked these questions because many of the students kind of missed the point of anonymity and signed their names!

The class was pretty quiet during this lesson. I don't know if it was just a quiet day for them, or if they got shy all of a sudden, or if it was because two of the more rowdy kids had not brought in their parental consent slips for the class, so they were placed in another class for the period. We'll see what next week is like.

As of right now, I think I'm going to enjoy this. This is information that the kids really, really want to know - and it's very important that they get accurate information - and for many of them, a lot of it is brand new. So they will be paying attention! It's grounded in science. I've already fielded enough embarrassing questions that I think I can handle sex ed. I'm nervous about being put on the spot with controversial questions, but I'm fundamentally confident that I can handle any question a child throws at me. In our discussion of ground rules, I admitted that it's not easy for adults to talk about these things, either, and that occasionally I might blush or feel embarrassed just like they might. I said that I understand that reaction, but we all have to work to be as mature as we can. So, I'm ready and happy to get this show on the road!

Two Funny Things

Yesterday, I was tired, stressed out, focused on the radio, and got dressed in the dark. Around 10 am, I realized I was wearing two entirely different shoes. Only one student noticed.

And check out these truly scary halloween costumes.

In the Pipeline

I spent Tuesday at a Science Conference organized by my Region. Although I already knew most of the material presented in the workshops on inquiry - and am in the process of putting together my own materials on designing scientific inquiry units - it is always nice to gather with other science teachers. Too often, professional development focuses on math and literacy to the exclusion of other subjects.

During the introductory remarks, the Region's Science Superintendent (or whatever she's called) reminded us that in 2007-08, NCLB requires that all states begin testing students yearly in science. Immediately, questions flooded my brain:
  • What will the sequence of courses be? Will it be the same as the current sequence in New York City - life science in sixth grade, physical science in seventh, earth science in eighth?
  • Will New York State keep it's eighth grade Intermediate Level Science Exam, which is only four years old, or will that be replaced?
  • Will the exams include performance tasks like the ILS Exam does?

I took a few minutes later in the day to ask one of the science administrators my questions. She understood what I was getting at, but said that no one knows yet... not even the state. It seems to me that if these exams are for real, we must begin preparing teachers and students for them now. After all, this year's fifth graders will be in 8th grade in 07-08, so if the sequence of courses is going to change, it would be wise to start them on the new sequence next year.

New York State tests students in science in 4th grade and 8th grade, and then yearly in high school for the Regents courses. I happen to like the ILS Exam. I think it sets fairly reasonable expectations, it is grounded in current research on best practices in science education, and that it has begun to force/inspire more middle schools to provide the resources and time for good science education. Students must use at least a few basic scientific instruments before they leave the 8th grade, and they must have basic knowledge of experimental design. Although some schools and teachers are teaching to the test and missing the big picture, I still think in the long run it will foster positive change in how science is taught.

I am strongly against yearly testing.

People outside of education don't seem to understand the amount of time that goes into preparing for and administering a standardized test. Even if the test is only an hour long, test days are basically only about the tests. Teachers and students alike are too keyed up to get anything else done on a test day. Having yearly tests in every subject area means 5 or 6 - or more - days of testing, plus make-up days when kids are pulled from their regular classes, plus practice tests mandated by the city, region/district, or state, plus test prep mandated by the administration or the region/district, plus the teacher's own test-oriented lessons... a small part of this is worthwhile. The rest of it, I believe, is often time spent learning "test conventions" and "the genre of tests," time which ought to have been spent in learning real skills and knowledge. My strategy in preparing for the ILS Exam has been to tailor the curriculum over three years to prepare my students, and I think they will do pretty well. Nevertheless, I will still have to take some time in the weeks before the test to familiarize my students with the format of the test and strategies specific to the types of questions they are likely to see. That's not really science, but it will make a difference in their scores. Doing that for a week or two in eighth grade is fine with me. Doing it every year would be a colossal waste of time!

In addition, I believe that test quality drops the more often tests are given, especially when they are rushed into place as most of the NCLB-mandated tests have been. The ILS Exam strikes me as a pretty high-quality test. I seriously doubt that the same quality could be achieved if the test companies had to produce a test for grade 5, a different test for grade 6, another for grade 7, and another for grade 8, update them yearly, score them accurately, include questions for calibration, pilot new items, etc. I helped score ILS Exams my first year teaching. Because of the new "constructed response" (short answer) questions, scoring the exams is a long process that cannot be done by a machine. Yet it is the constructed response and performance questions that make the exam state of the art. To grade four years' worth of science tests would require many, many hours of work by hundreds or thousands of people across the state - and the funding to pay each of us for that time. Sometimes, teachers are pulled out of their teaching assignments for a few days to score standardized tests, leaving the students with substitutes. The other option would be to revert to straight multiple choice tests which emphasize absorption of large amounts of content over understanding how to do science and explain concepts in your own words.

Finally, yearly tests would run the risk of trying to include far more content than any teacher is likely to teach in a year, which would create an incentive for "covering" material rather than really teaching it.

I don't like the prospect of yearly science testing, not one bit. But if we must have it, I sincerely hope they prepare us for it well in advance. I think we should begin to get a sense of what the new test regimen will look like at least two years before the first set of tests. That is probably wishful thinking, though.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004


I used that awful hairspray stuff to color my hair pink last Friday. My students chose the color. I made good on my bet about the Red Sox. I will probably die an early death thanks to sleeping for a night breathing in the fumes from the spray. After the festivities at school, I went out dancing with friends on Saturday night. My neighborhood - the East Village - celebrated all weekend long, families trick-or-treating at the shops and restaurants by day, grown-ups dressed up as sexy angels, sexy devils, giant toilets, bunches of grapes, cowgirls, cowboys, convention attendees, and anything else you can imagine by night.

I spent most of Saturday afternoon on an Edible Plant Tour of Central Park with Wildman Steve Brill, who will be presenting to my students in a couple of weeks. We gathered, discussed, and sampled a variety of berries, greens, nuts, and roots - and even oyster mushrooms - that we found growing in the park! My favorites were wild onions, which I put in a salad I made that night, and two different kinds of sorrel which both tasted somewhat lemony.

Election results at my school:

Kerry 196
Nader 8
Bush 10

Teachers and students alike were disappointed and angry this morning.

I wish I had the time and contacts to put together a one-day conference: "Next Steps: What Do We Do Now?" I feel the need to talk and listen to other like-minded voters, to figure out where we go from here. We need to harness the liberal energy that gathered in the months leading up to the election. We need to look into the lingering questions about who voted for Bush, why they voted that way, who did not vote at all, why so few young people (18-24) voted, where people get their information and how they assess its accuracy, whether our election processes are fair and accurate, etc. We need to begin to articulate a clear vision for our country that is not just a response to the conservative vision, something that will show people the alternatives and inspire them.

I fear that with a Republican Congress and victory in both the popular and electoral votes, the Bush administration will adopt policies regarding reproductive rights and environmental protection which will do irreparable damage here and abroad. The big question on my mind is what I can do, with my limited time and money, to prevent or mitigate this damage. I need to talk to a lot of people before I decide where to put my energy.

It disappoints me to read explanations like this one at a schoolyard blog. She admits to being basically a single-issue voter, the issue being terrorism. I don't know what she thinks about the other issues she mentions - healthcare, education, gay rights, stem cell research, etc. - so I won't try to speak for her. So far in my life, I have not been willing to sacrifice my other policy concerns for any one issue. I feel very strongly about certain policy areas, and it would give me pause to discover that a candidate whom I otherwise support were strongly in opposition to my views on one of those issues. But I believe that I would still weigh everything in the balance before voting. I suppose at least some of the single-issue voters out there have weighed all the issues and found that one issue tips the balance. I don't know. It feels a little like marrying someone for his tight abs or love of opera or way with children, ignoring the fact that he's rude to waiters, scratches himself in public, and is proud of his ignorance.

I've been desperately craving time to myself, escape. I fantasize about a cabin in Maine, surrounded by fields of snow, five miles from town by skis only. I imagine myself holed up there, learning to play guitar, reading a lot, writing a lot, lying around staring at the ceiling a lot. In reality, I would probably get terribly depressed if I ever retreated like that. But my days are full of people making demands of me and my time. The people making demands are my students, my colleagues, my friends, and myself, I suppose--people I care about--yet the demands still feel overwhelming at times. I may be having a particularly hard time with this sense of having no personal space or time because this summer was such a season of introspection, balance, growth, creativity. I miss that. Teaching is full of creative challenges that I enjoy, yet I long for the time and psychic energy to continue writing poetry, to work on a different blog project that's kicking around in the back of my head, to tell my teaching stories here (properly, not just as notes once a week), to learn to play music, to daydream, to visit new neighborhoods. Ah, it's also the change in the seasons, the loss of sunlight.

The Winogradsky columns are stinky. I air them out every couple of days so they don't explode, but each day when we do our observations, the whole room smells like rotten eggs. They are changing from day to day, but not as dramatically as I'd hoped. So far we have yeast-like whitish stuff and some really black mud, blacker than when I collected it.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Capricious Connection Strikes Again

I have fallen off the blogging wagon this week. I tried to climb back on tonight. My internet then crashed, obliterating my very long post. *sigh*