Tuesday, February 28, 2006


Mr. President:

I agree with you that it is a problem that not many men and woman are going into math and science related careers. I think this is because not many schools offer science or math very often and this is a very serious issue. Another cause may be that some schools dont have skilled and passionate teachers to teach, motivate, and make their students feel confident. Or maybe it is that some schools dont have the right equipment to experiment with, to make learning even more fun. Imagine, Mr. President, learning the difficult, confusing subjects of math and science by just reading out of a textbook. It would'nt really make you want to be a mathematician or scientist when you grow up. -fd

Ms. Farina:

I just wanted to tell you how you can make the city of New York better at Math and Science in the future. Some students get teachers who scream and punish them at Science and Math time. Students will think that these wonderful subjects are not fun. You should fix this. Some students only get Science once or twice in school. And I don't mean every week, I mean for 1 or 2 years! How can there be more Scientists, Mathematicians, and Engineers if this is happening? -bt

Chancellor Klein:

My school has 3 grades and only 2 science teachers. That's a problem. I think each grade should have a science teacher. And we only get Science four times per week, and with all the vacations we have, we don't get enough science. It is already bad enough that I did not get Science in 4th and 5th grades, so I think I need catching up. I only had Science in 4th grade for about a month and that was because we had the science test, and last year in 5th grade it was a privilege to get science. -jj

In his State of the Union speech, George Bush explained how there aren't lots of people in Science and Math professions. How are people going to become science professionals if elementary schools don't offer that many science classes? ... When I was in Elementary school I was only getting science in 2nd grade and 4th grade. We wouldn't have had science in the 4th grade if there hadn't been the test. -lr

You need to ask yourself how much science is being taught in school these days? It's just barely being taught. I'm not talking about [school], but in my elementary school they never taught science; yes I did not receive any science lessons. So how are kids supposed to choose a profession that deals with science and mathematics if they did not get the foundation early in life in elementary school? That should be the foundation for everything we will learn and be in life. If students do not get the basics, it will be like a person who speaks English and tries to speak a language he or she has never heard of. -ln


Letters written after reading and discussing an excerpt from the State of the Union address, an article about the gender gap in science & math, and an article about the race gap in math & science.

Boys of Baraka

A colleague saw a screening of Boys of Baraka this fall, stayed with a friend to watch the credits, looking for some information on the music in the film, and ended up meeting the filmmakers. Today, they treated our students to a screening of the film in the school auditorium, followed by a Q&A.

Baraka was a boarding school in Kenya. Every year, twenty extremely at-risk middle school boys were chosen from the Baltimore Public Schools to travel to Kenya and attend the school for two years, after which they would return to Baltimore, hopefully ready to enter any of the best high schools in that city. The film follows four boys as they apply to and are accepted for the program, say goodbye to their families, and arrive in Kenya. We see them learning to deal with anger, following lizards through the bush, considering running away from the school, dancing, fooling around, and talking to their families on the phone. We find out a little about their families - the mother who is in and out of rehab programs and prison, the father serving time for shooting his son's mother in the leg, the grandmother who is doing all the parenting, the younger brothers and sisters roughhousing. Their neighborhood, at least as depicted in the film, makes the neighborhood I teach in look pretty safe and sane. And the glimpse of one of the regular schools they attend is horrifying.

It's a powerful movie. The kids are funny, poetic, heartbreaking. They talk about their dreams, their desire to have something better, to survive, and it all seems so noble and so close to impossible. Then, in Kenya, you see them beginning to become young men. The possibility of escape seems within reach. One boy figures out, for the first time, that is a math whiz. Another begins to handle his anger without fighting. Another makes Dean's List. They go home for the summer and you know it won't be easy, but you feel hope. And then the political situation in Kenya goes to hell, and the school closes. At this point, all the teachers in the room wondered why they didn't find a small farm in rural Maryland and continue the program, at least for this one class. But the boys are sent back to their zoned schools. I thought I'd cry, seeing the parents' reaction, the boys' disappointment, frustration, determination, and resignation to broken promises.

Our students really responded to the movie. During the Q&A, the filmmaker asked the kids if they'd identified with anything in the movie, or if they'd found any of it moving. One of the most difficult, defiant children in our school, a kid with a horrendous home life, a kid you want to feel empathy for but who is just so hard to be around - stood up and said that she identified with Devon, because of his mother. His mother, the drug addict, in and out of prison, making promises to do better and failing to keep them. A sixth grader told one of my colleagues that he'd realized some things from the movie, that he needed to quit playing around. A seventh grader, also among the most disruptive children in our school, just as defiant and difficult as the girl I described above, said if he loved the movie. If he had the chance to go to a school like that, he'd go. And truth be told, he might thrive in that kind of setting, if only because he's fascinated by Africa.

The film does leave a lot of questions unanswered, especially about the school itself, how it came to be, and so on. But it was such a powerful thing to show to our students.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Since you asked...

A reader emailed me a copy of his article, A Response to Jay Mathews' 'Let's Teach to the Test' from the Real World of Teaching, and asked me what I thought. Honestly, I mostly agree with Mr. Mathews. For starters, I absolutely agree that the phrase "teach to the test" is thrown around without a lot of clarity about what this sort of teaching looks like in real-life.

I work in New York City: trust me, I have seen the bad kind of "teaching to the test." I've read Mr. E's complaints about his school's policy of "all test prep, all the time." Other schools devote certain days of the week, certain periods (ie, homeroom), or certain months exclusively to test prep, that is, to drilling and practicing on sample test questions, to teaching kids techniques which may or may not be useful reading strategies, but which are assuredly good test-taking strategies. I think this kind of "teaching to the test" is awful. It's boring for both students and teachers, it replaces projects that ask the kids to engage with material and take pride in their work, and it is a stop-gap measure that allows schools to avoid punitive policies without necessarily resulting in the kids learning a whole lot that will help them outside of test-land.

That said, I "teach to the test."

There, I've said it. I do.

The test I teach to is the NYS Intermediate Level Science Exam, given in 8th grade.

It's not a perfect test, and god help you if English is not your first language, but I think it can provide a pretty good assessment of what a student has learned in four years of science instruction. It's a mix of multiple choice, constructed response (the test items formerly known as "short answer"), and performance questions. Students analyze diagrams, collect data, explain their thinking, and create graphs. It's a little heavy in terms of breadth of content, but remember, this is supposed to test four years of science instruction.

I think it could help schools assess the quality and rigor of their science programs. I don't think it should be used the exclusive instrument for program evaluation, but it's a useful enough tool. I wouldn't be so desperate to find out my students' scores if I didn't think the test could tell me something about what they learned and what aspects of my teaching were effective.

So, what does "teaching to the test" look like in my classroom?

It means that I'm familiar with the state standards and other documents trying to describe the knowledge and skills possessed by a well-educated individual. It means that I've taken a sample copy of the test itself, to get a sense of what kinds of content and skills my students will need to do well on this test. It means that I've reflected on which of these skills are "test skills" and which are real science or thinking skills. It means that when I sit down to plan my year or a unit or a lesson, I keep all these things in mind, I sequence the content so that one topic builds upon the previous, I integrate the science skills throughout my units. Does it mean that I attempt to hit every topic? Hell, no! Every good teacher knows the importance of making choices about curriculum, what to spend more time on, what to touch on briefly, what to leave out altogether. I firmly believe that, with this test at least (certainly not all!), if I teach the content carefully and in an engaging manner, if I teach thinking and doing skills and provide many chances for practice, and if I throw in a practice test or two and a little review in the last couple of weeks before the test, then come test day, the kids will be fine.

The kids don't need to know 100% of the material in the standards to get a good score. Many of the multiple choice sections ask them to interpret diagrams or graphs; if you've given them a wide variety of diagrams over the years and asked them good questions, they will have the thinking skills to figure out any new ones they see on the test.

And that's why I agree with Jay Mathews on this one:
And if you watched the best teachers at work, as I have many times, you would see them treating the state test as nothing more than another useful guide and motivator, with no significant change in the way they present their lessons.

Matt Lintner, in his response, criticizes the "one-size-fits-all" nature of teaching to the standards:
If, on the other hand, you believe true education is inherently personal, that schools should expose rather than indoctrinate, that there is more than one right way to live; if you value authentic learning over regurgitation and believe self-motivation is the only motivation that truly counts, you’ll resist the one-size-fits-all-or-else fervor that’s hijacked public schooling.

I agree with him that schools - mine included - reward conformity. I'm not a Core Knowledge kind of gal. At the same time, if each of us sat down and made a list of academic things that are important to know, I suspect our lists would be more similar than different. We'd probably include basic math, strong reading and writing skills in a variety of genres, knowledge of our country's history, world history, ancient cultures, some ecology, astronomy, chemistry, physics, and biology (especially human biology), and so on. Some people's lists would include a lot of art and music, others more science or history, but there would be substantial overlap. Knowing these things allows one to participate in the conversation going on around us at all times; this is so-called "cultural capital," something that I am absolutely certain that most parents want for their children. The controversies, which take so much energy, remain at the fringes: this book versus that book, more Egypt or more Maya, evolution versus intelligent design; there are vast territories of agreement. To the extent that a test accurately assesses this body of knowledge, I believe it is fair and useful.

If I sat down to decide what to teach, without the guidance of the standards, I think I'd end up with a pretty similar curriculum to what I design with the help of the standards. But it's a lot easier planning with the aid of these documents.

So, sure, I teach to the test, and it just doesn't seem like that big a deal. I don't feel like I'm selling myself or my students short.

My complaints regarding testing?
  • Too much, too often. Yearly, 2-3 day tests in several subjects are eating days and days from the school year. Enough already. I think three rounds of content area teaching (late elementary school, middle school, and high school) ought to be plenty, with perhaps one additional round of reading testing early in elementary school to help identify kids who are struggling.
  • Mis-use. I am wholly behind the use of such tests by teachers and administrators to help improve their programs. I am not convinced that tests alone should be used to judge whether a school should be shut down or a student held back in 1st grade. It is this mis-use that creates the fear and anxiety which result in test-prep immersion. The test itself doesn't lead to poor teaching; fear takes care of that.
  • Poor quality instruments. Largely as a result of the enormous quantity of testing being done, the tests themselves are getting worse, at least in my limited experience. The ILS exam is pretty good, but there's no way a high quality science test could be given yearly; we'd quickly find ourselves staring down the barrel of facts-only multiple choice.

And that's what I think.


I don't have all my multiplication facts memorized.

This said, casually but not proudly, as one of my tutees tried to figure out 8 times 7 (she'd previously come up with 53).

Three over six, two out of four, 7 over 14, when you see these things I want a giant, golden, glowing one-half symbol to appear instantaneously in your head! I waved my hands in the air, drawing the iconic fraction, then tapped my forehead. I want bells to go off, I want it to be automatic.

It stuns me that it isn't automatic, that all three of my tutees in attendance today spent several minutes struggling with the simplification of 7/14.

All that they don't know presses like water against a levee. Basic multiplication facts. True understanding of what a fraction is, what a whole number is, why you can put a 1 under a whole number to show it in fraction form. Basic division facts. They struggle to divide 72 by two. What's half of 70? I ask. That's easier, but still takes far longer than it should. What's half of 2?

It's been two or three weeks. We've waded through approximately two lessons in a review workbook, first adding and subtracting fractions, now multiplying and dividing them. Multiplying and dividing are easier, but that's only because the algorithm for solving the problems is easier; it belies vast voids of understanding. What does it mean to multiply one fraction by another? What does it mean to divide one fraction into another? (Many adults couldn't tell you that). For that matter, what does it mean to multiply and divide at all? As we deal with fractions, I begin to suspect that their grasp of the essential meaning of these operations is tentative, or non-existent.

I am helping a 7th grader simplify 36 over 56. She knows that two goes into both the numerator and the denominator and can be used to simplify the fraction.

What is half of 36? What's 36 divided by 2?

She thinks for a minute. Nine. I cannot fathom where nine came from. Fifteen.

Okay, I say, trying to help. What's something you really like?

Chinese food.

This is not exactly what I had in mind, but she's not easily drawn into the games teachers play, so I run with it.

Okay, so you have, um, 36 boxes of Chinese food, and you are sharing them equally with friend. You have to take half for yourself, give half to her. You're dividing them by two. How many boxes do you each get?

It gets me nowhere. With other kids, I talk about M&M's. I draw slashmarks, circles, rectangles. I hold up six fingers, put down three. How many are left? That's an easy question. So, what's another way to describe what fraction of my fingers I put down? I raise and lower fingers a few times. It's just so clearly half! But he doesn't see it.

I suspect that they don't see numbers. Seven out of fourteen isn't an imaginable quantity, not even in pieces of candy.

I am bringing in Tootsie Rolls tomorrow, although I'm not absolutely sure what we'll do with them. Count them. Sort them, cut them in half, in thirds. I am contemplating making fraction tangrams, so that quarters can be laid over thirds, to show division. I want to do this right. But to do this right feels like breaching the levee, allowing their mathlessness to flood forward. I want them to have the number concepts and to be able to use the algorithms and to know their basic facts by heart, and I want it to happen all at once, and without my really knowing a thing about teaching math... But I don't want to find worksheets and learn about manipulatives and go backwards, farther and farther backwards until we find one piece of solid mathematical ground on which to build. It's not a torrent I had any desire to get caught up in.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Because it is so, so hard to go back...

I ate an entire bag of chocolate-waffle things from Amsterdam, and now feel like throwing up...

and this is incredibly beautiful...

and my friend Sarah has some smart food writing at Tales From a Tiny Kitchen...

and there are some new teacher-blogs in the blogroll, but I'll let you discover them on your own...

and despite all the procrastinating, I have accomplished something today.

So this is karma...

or, Vacation: teacher-blogger turns music, art, & book critic.

I saw Stars play at Webster Hall last night.

Magnet opened. His is music to swim in: soft, sincere lyrics, melodies that remind me a bit of sixties folk or really old British traditional music, and all of it immersed in a wash of electronic sounds that he creates and then gently pushes out into the room. I don't have a very good vocabulary for describing music, so here's his own description:
"It's almost impossible for me to describe it, but, for me, it sounds like an optimistic and kind of expectant piece of music that deals with slightly serious stuff but doesn't really have a sad feel. It's been described to me as electronic-ana, as in Americana. I think that's sort of humble. Some of the sound scapes are sort of ambitious and big and lush, and then there's a humbleness to it as well."

I liked it a lot. I wanted to watch him play, as the man is sexy in an understated, black long-sleeve t-shirt kind of way. I wanted to close my eyes and let it pour around me.

And that's where karma kicked in. I am a lightning rod for loud, rude people at concerts. This time, it was two Columbia girls who arrived mid-way through the set, stood right behind me, and then, Okay, let me finish my story.... She thinks Mike is attractive. There must be a lot of Columbia kids here. Those people at the bar should be quiet.

No: you should be quiet! Don't you see how still and rapt everyone around you is standing?

At last it hit me. I am paying for a June night when I sat on the lawn in Central Park with a group of friends, picnicking and drinking wine and talking our heads off as the elderly couple on a blanket in front of us tried to listen to the opera. Years have passed, but I am paying. Let this be a lesson.

So, Magnet. You can listen to Little Miss More or Less and other songs.

Stars are the inverse of Magnet. In every way that he is understated, they are overstated. I love them for this beautiful melodrama, for the brass table lamps that switch on one by one as they come on stage, for the backdrop of tiny points of light, for the drummer's red t-shirt, red mohawk, suspenders, & playful grimaces, for Genevieve's violin, for Torquil's horns and the sense that under his bravado, he is a frail soul. There are lots of songs to listen to on their website; go to the section called "Album" and click on the name of the song. Let me recommend Heart:
Time can take its toll on the best of us
Look at you you're growing old so young
Traffic lights blink at you in the evening
Tilt your head and turn it to the sun
Sometimes the TV is like a lover
Singing softly as you fall asleep
You wake up in the morning and it's still there
Adding up the things you'll never be

(This song is from an earlier album, also titled "Heart" - to find it, click on the thumbnail beneath the image of their current album).


When I was in fifth grade, my school's adolescent social world was just beginning to coalesce. My town was tiny, I knew every single one of my classmates, was friendly with all and friends with many. Later, when we all moved up to middle school, I felt as though I were missing some crucial pages of the book you're given at birth - you know, the one that explains everything? But in fifth grade, I was just beginning to feel this way.

I remember lining up to leave the library, and standing in line behind Nik. Even my oblivious ten year old self could tell that Nik was cute and cool, and that I did not have whatever it was that Nik had (what did he have?). So Nik, who hadn't really spoken to me in weeks - months, maybe? - turned to me and asks, How did you get to be so smart?

He was talking to me! He started a conversation with me!

And I, who as a ten year old confused good grades with intelligence, said, Well, if you want to get good grades, you.... I don't remember how I finished the sentence. I do remember his face changing, and the way he turned away in disgust, and my sudden realization that I hadn't answered the question right at all. I doubt he remembers this conversation; I looked back throughout middle school and pinpointed it as my last, squandered, chance.

I went to Stanford with Curtis Sittenfeld. I don't think we ever formally met, but I was vaguely aware of her through various publications and activities. And now, just a few years out of school, she's written a best-selling novel. Prep is an engaging story about a girl from the midwest trying to fit in at an elite East Coast boarding school. Lee makes the most neurotic among us look well-adjusted, and yet can't we identify with her feelings of invisibility, her extreme shyness, her desperate need to be part of things, popular, appreciated, cool? Her desperation itself is what keeps her out. And can't we identify when she criticizes her school and her classmates to a reporter, her observations probably correct, but too biting, and the reporter selects from her words to make them even more biting, but the only one damned by the article is herself? But above all, can't we identify with the thinking, the over-thinking, the re-thinking, with realizing one day that you had it all wrong, but that you still don't fit in?

Friday, February 24, 2006

Muntorren (Mint Tower)

Duvven & Trekken (day 1).
Prinsengracht (day 2).
Koorbankjes (day 3).

My final day in Amsterdam. I woke up later than I'd hoped, and headed out in the cold - it got colder every day! - to the Nieuwe Kerk, the New Church, which had up a huge exhibition on Indonesia. The objects in the exhibition were stunning - statues from an ancient Buddhist temple, traditional clothing and jewelry, much of it made of gold, weapons, palace decorations, musical instruments, shadow puppets. Oddly, the objects were arranged by collector, and nearly all the context provided was about the men (and occasional woman) who had collected the objects, and under what circumstances. Not having a great deal of interest in the biographies of Dutch colonialists and explorers, I would have far preferred to read more about the objects themselves. The exhibit extolled the collectors' meticulous and faithful descriptions of Indonesian cultures, but included very little of this kind of description itself!

Finally, I took a canal tour, on which I learned that canal houses with shutters were warehouses, that the canal house roofs came in four shapes, including steps and bells, and saw Amsterdam's smallest canal house (only a meter wide!), two of the locks (or was it the same lock, twice?) opened to flush the water from the canals five times per week, the "dancing houses" - five canal houses leaning intimately (and perilously!) against each other - and the Muntorren, so-called because money was coined there in 1672. We passed beside houseboats - the city is not issuing any new tie-ups - and beneath bridges.

I hoped the tour would address my burning question: how often do people and/or cars fall into the canals, and what happens when they do? but it did not. I had to settle for a quick snapshot of this sinking rowboat; I like the little moments when reality breaks the veneer of charm. I like seeing someone's shoe fall off when they are bicycling, or a sleeve catch on a door handle, the look of surprise on a person's face, not to laugh at them but to laugh at life, at the familiarity of the moment.

One of the museums I visited, I believe it was the Rijksmuseum, noted that many Dutch painters, Vermeer in particular, included glimpses into other spaces - through windows or doorways - in their paintings. To me, it seems obvious: Amsterdam is a city of glimpses - down alleys, under arched bridges, through windows with shutters cast open, into tiny cabinet-beds - and of shafts of light angling through clouds. In the stairs in Het Rembrandthuis, I peered down through a small round window into one of the drawing rooms below. From here, the uppermost paintings were at eye-level.

And that's the end. When the canal tour finished, I'd hoped to go either to the Verzetsmuseum (Dutch Resistance Museum), or to the Heineken Experience. The Verzetsmuseum seemed too far off in the cold, dark late afternoon, and I got hopelessly lost on Jan Vermeerstraat and turned up at the Heineken Brewery just after it closed for the day. I spent the evening in a French restaurant, eating Swiss fondue, drinking red wine, and reading by candlelight.

Koorbankjes (Choirstalls)

Duvven & Trekken (day 1).
Prinsengracht (day 2).

I started the next morning at the Van Gogh Museum (they pronounce it more like "faan hoek"). It's a bright, modern museum, with an entire floor dedicated to telling the life story of Van Gogh and displaying his artwork, and another floor displaying work from a broader range of artists, his contemporaries. I learned - or re-learned - many things about Van Gogh's life: how brief his career as an artist (about ten years), that he was self-trained, how young he was when he died. All these things, when you are seeing his artwork, only serve to underline his incredible talent. The man simply did not paint like anyone else, and he developed this style in such a short period of time...

From there, I made my way past the larger-than-life statues of "The Night Watch" (in the Rembrandtplein) up to Museum het Rembrandthuis, a museum all about Rembrandt's daily life, located in a large house which he bought and then had to sell again as he had spent too much money on furnishings, artwork, and curiosities. This museum is a gem. At first, it seems a little dull, as the first few rooms are filled with dark, unimpressive paintings by Rembrandt's students and friends. You do get a peek at interesting customs of the day, such as the tiny box-beds in which people slept. An English-speaking visitor told his wife that the people in the 1600's were so short as to sleep lying down in these beds, but I read later that people slept in a seated position. In any case, the box-beds were found in nearly every room; people did not have separate bedrooms. Guests slept in a drawing room where Rembrandt displayed work for sale, the maid slept in the kitchen, and Rembrandt himself slept in another living room sort of space.

Every half hour or so, a young woman gave a presentation in a small studio about the process of making engravings. She used an original plate to demonstrate the process, explaining, in two languages, the three different methods of engraving and the method of spreading ink on the plate and then cleaning most of it off. The museum has an upper floor dedicated to engravings, with dozens (hundreds?) by Rembrandt and others. The prints themselves weren't all that interesting to me - a few stand out, but there were so many... but the process of making them was quite interesting.

Next, I peeked into Rembrandt's cabinet of curiosities. The man collected everything, from pieces of coral and artifacts from island cultures to marble busts and stuffed lizards. I couldn't find anyone to ask whether these objects were arranged in the same way that Rembrandt had displayed them, but... wow. A little creepy, and extremely cool. (You will have to click on the picture to see it clearly, as it was very dark and I was not allowed to use flash).

Finally, I looked around Rembrandt's large, well-lit studio, where painting materials from the day were displayed. The museum has hired an artist to sit in the studio and paint four replicas of one of Rembrandt's paintings, as an apprentice-painter would have done. The man was dressed in period clothing and peered at Rembrandt's brushstrokes before applying his own, but my favorite moment was when his cellphone rang - and he answered it! I love the juxtaposition of old and new, anachronism within anachronism. I tried to take a picture but he would not hold still during his conversation, and even though there were several other visitors standing around, and he was speaking Dutch, the whole thing felt a bit weird.

The Holland Experience is located right next door to het Rembrandthuis, but the next showing was not for 1 1/2 hours after I left the museum, so I skipped it. This is a true shame, as it apparently includes carefully-timed scents coordinated with the images of typical Holland scenes. My guidebook dismissed it as
a kind of sensory-bombardment movie about the Netherlands, with synchronized smells and a moving floor - not to mention the 3-D glasses. The experience lasts 30 minutes and is (allegedly) popular with young kids.
Which, as far as I was concerned, was reason enough to... see it? do it? The tacky at home is just tacky. Tacky in another land: fabulous. And who knows? Maybe it wouldn't have been tacky at all!

You simply can't do everything. Instead, I wandered around - and around - the Red Light district, searching for Oude Kerk, the old church. So, I got a glimpse of the well-known "window brothels" and lots and lots of neon. Cobblestone and neon, another interesting juxtaposition.

Oude Kerk is a beautiful building, able to impress in the way that only very old, very large churches can. Many of the large stone tiles on the floor are graves, and additional memorials adorn the walls. The ceiling is arched and very beautiful, and the church features three impressive organs. The church was originally Catholic, and was stripped of most of its decoration when Calvinists took over in the 1570's, so much has been lost. Fortunately, the Amsterdammers liked organ music enough that the organs were spared, though used only for secular concerts, not during services. The church is another good example of how every time period makes choices about what to protect. The church as it currently exists is still used for organ concerts and other special events, but seems to be primarily a museum, but for hundreds of years it was an active congregation which added chapels, decorated and re-decorated as suited their needs; I can't help but wonder when the balance shifted from church to museum. It was renovated in the 1950's, and some of the graves examined by archaeologists, which is clearly a different kind of rebuilding than what took place during the hundreds of years preceding. Anyway, the Protestants painted over but did not destroy the artwork on the ceiling (mainly because it was too high!), and left intact the choirstalls, with their carvings representing sayings, like "Money does not fall from one's ass," which seemed self-explanatory to me, but was translated in the guide to mean "Money doesn't grow on trees." Indeed. There's also "sitting between two chairs," showing what happens when one agonizes too much over a choice. (Again, you'll have to click on the pictures to see them properly).

After the Oude Kerk, I spent another half hour wandering around the Red Light district, searching for "Our Lord in the Attic," or the Amstelkring. This is an example of a clandestine Catholic church - housed in the upper stories of a merchant's home, from the time when Catholics were permitted only to worship in secret. Unfortunately, I arrived just 15 minutes before it closed, so I had to race through, but what I saw was beautiful, if a bit gaudy. I can imagine worshippers arriving at the ordinary-looking doorway (so ordinary that I passed it at least twice without seeing it!), then climbing the stairs to the sparkling church with its tiny altar. How precious one's faith must have been at that time!

I walked across town as dusk fell, ate at a hole-in-the-wall Indonesian restaurant, where a red-nosed old man chatted with me about "duck sickness" and whether we have it in the US. I stopped in at Chocolata, a tiny coffeehouse on the Spui, for a strong hot chocolate (though not as strong as I'd hoped), to while away some time. And from there, I went to the Tuschinski movie theater to see Brokeback Mountain. The movie was all right, but the theater itself is fantastic. It's famous for its Art Deco interior, with gilt and brightly colored, handpainted wallpaper, grand stage, and more. Even the bathrooms were enormous, Art Deco lounges, with wooden stalls and black and white patterned tiles. My pictures of the interior did not come out very well, so here are a couple I found on the internet. If I lived in Amsterdam, I think I'd go here for all my movies - and I'd want to sit in one of the "loveseats," couches for two in the back of the theater.

Prinsengracht (Prince's Canal)

Duvven & Trekken (day 1).

I slept for something like 16 hours. I spent a leisurely morning trying to warm up over breakfast at Bagels & Beans, then walked the rest of the way to the Museumplein and the Rijksmuseum. The museum is under renovation, and only selections from the collection are available, but they were well-chosen and, honestly, were just enough Dutch Masters and Delftware for one day; more would have been too much. Like everyone, I snapped pictures of the entrance, but I also took a few finger-numbing minutes looking around the garden outside, where I noticed this waterspout and other details of the building.

Two things distinguish the William Rex, a 4 1/2 meter long model of a Dutch warship, built in the late 1600's: first, the incredible level of detail, and second, the fact that there was never a ship called the William Rex, the model was built to show off and pay homage to William of Orange.

If model ships were how the men showed off, the women built enormous dollhouses, models of their own homes. The most famous was built by Prunella Oortman just before her marriage to a silk merchant, and is an exact scale replica of her home, down to the porcelain. It cost as much as a real canal house. To give you a sense of the scale, the Rijksmuseum has set up a staircase, rising maybe five feet, to a little platform where visitors can stand to see the upper stories of the house.

And here are a few more of my favorite pieces from the museum - a porcelain birdcage, a flirtatious statue of "Menacing Love" by Etienne-Maurice Falconet, a surprisingly modern 17th century painting of "The Threatened Swan" by Jan Asselign. Text was added later to the painting, labeling the attacking dog "foreign enemies," the eggs in the nest "Holland," and the swan "the pensionary," refering to Johan de Witt, whose name meant "white" and whose coat-of-arms included a swan. Nowadays, we would shudder at the thought of a later owner adding inscriptions to a piece of fine art, and I do think the painting was better off without; nevertheless, one thing that I thought of over and over again in Amsterdam is how people of every time period make choices about what to preserve, to alter, to destroy. Buildings that we now find fascinating were reviled in their day, neighborhoods developed, artwork and architecture altered. If you live in such an old city, I guess you see regular examples of how the old must make way for the new, what is old to us now was new once, and yet you also see the value in preserving what you can, for the sake of beauty and history.

Both in the Rijksmuseum and later in Rembrandt's house, I saw examples of towering tulip vases, made of interlocking porcelain pagodas, which were interesting enough by themselves, but would have been fascinating to see filled with flowers. Quite a different way of displaying flowers than we prefer today. (Reading my mind, the Rijksmuseum has a photograph of the largest of these pyramid vases filled with red tulips... I am still trying to imagine this in the setting of a grand canal house).

And of course, in the last room of the Rijksmuseum, "The Night Watch", which, I learned, probably was not set at night but was named later as the canvas darkened. Even after it was restored (it still looked dark to me), the name stuck. After seeing Rembrandt's portraits, and paintings of civic brigades by other artists, I kept glancing at the faces of Dutch men on the street, looking for similarities to the faces portrayed in these paintings, the beards, the hair - the styles and fashions in these portraits are so distinctive, I was looking for continuity. What would we look like today if we had portraits painted by 17th century artists? Which is all a compliment to Rembrandt's ability to capture individuals, even in a group portrait.

From the Rijksmuseum, I wandered along Prinsengracht to the Anne Frank Huis, the "secret annex" where Anne and her family hid during World War II. I liked Prinsengracht best of all the streets and canals I saw in Amsterdam, partly because of the elegant houses and cobblestoned streets on either side, partly because it was the first place I could reliably recognize, an orientation-point, partly because I like the word, the prince's canal, named for William, Prince of Orange.

The house is easy to miss, as it is encased in a modern glass building which protects it and provides space for a cafe and additional museum exhibits. The tour is simple and direct, including basic biographical information about Anne Frank and her family, a walk through the various rooms of the house, and excerpts from the diary. There are models showing how the house might have been furnished at the time the Frank family lived there, and cases containing historical documents (the notice calling Margot Frank to a work-duty, which precipitated the family's move into hiding, popular magazines of the time, photographs of the family and those who helped them). You can see the postcards, magazine clippings, and photographs which Anne glued to her bedroom wall to make her room feel more like home. The exhibit ends with images of concentration camps and a short video about what happened to Anne, a childhood friend's story of throwing a parcel of food to her over the fence in Bergen-Belsen just days before Anne died.

The museum has another, modern, multi-media exhibit about fundamental freedoms, which presents short MTV-style videos about recent controversies, poses a question, and then asks viewers to vote using buttons in the amphitheater. One of the more interesting pieces asked whether Orange Order groups should be able to march through Catholic neighborhoods in Northern Ireland, when this has led to violence in the past. It pits one's commitment to freedom of speech and assembly against one's commitment to public safety and to protecting people from "fighting words."

I had a delicious Dutch pancake (with cheese, sunflower seeds, and a little salad in the middle) and a slice of apple pie with cinnamon ice cream, then bought a ticket to see the Subways at Melkweg, a local concert venue-movie theater-art gallery-theater. I had heard of the Subways, a British rock band, though I couldn't remember what kind of music they played, but it seemed like fun to take a chance on a new band and in a new city, too... the opening act was a very quiet, alt-country (Americana?) singer named Jeff Caudill, formerly of a band called Gameface. It was a little bland, but not bad, but a lot of the audience was talking very loudly throughout the set, and several girls came and stood right in front of me and proceeded to talk very loudly and just kind of bump into everyone around them. I didn't want to say anything (not least because I would have to say it in English, and while the Dutch do, more-or-less universally, understand English, it seemed all the more awkward) but I did want to hear the music, so eventually, I asked them if they didn't mind being a bit quieter. One girl was very rude to me, then later apologized somewhat flippantly and promised to be quiet during the Subways.

And that is how I ended up in the middle of a Dutch mosh pit. Jeff Caudill was nothing like the Subways, I have no idea why he was selected to open this show, but the audience's reaction to his music made a lot more sense once the Subways came on and began playing their loud, jump around, crowd-surfing rock & roll. Here's No Goodbyes in QuickTime. (I still wish people would be more polite - nothing excuses talking loudly during a set). Charlotte is an amazing, waif-like, as a Dutch entertainment magazine put it (although they might have spelled it differently), "rockchick." She and Billy, the lead singer, would stand, forehead to forehead, in moments of electric intimacy during pauses between explosions of sound. They jumped up and down, led the audience in clapping and singing along. Bouncing around with the crowd, I realized I should go to far more loud rock concerts. Note that, like raisins in a cereal box, those of us who are smaller (in stature or enthusiasm for crowd-surfing) filter towards the edges and back of the room...

Sweaty and exhilarated, I hopped on the tram home (and was even asked for directions, which I could not give, of course, to Rembrandtstraat).

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Duvven & Trekken (Push & Pull)

I'm going to write about "travelling by myself" as though that were something I've done often. To be honest, this was my first trip by myself outside of some adventures I've had in the US and the first legs of a trip to Cuba and another to Puerto Rico, after which I met up with companions. Nevertheless, it was exactly what I needed; as my friend Sarah has been telling me, You need to learn to live with yourself. For months, I've been "stuck in my head" - or, my head was stuck somewhere other than where the rest of me was - but for four days in Amsterdam, I was nothing but present, in the present. I wasn't writing the story of the trip in my head, I wasn't thinking about how I would tell it to a friend, later, I wasn't wishing anyone else were with me or I with them. I would return to my hotel at the end of a long day and realize that I hadn't thought about anything, really, except where I was, where I was going, what I was seeing, smelling, eating.

For one thing, if my mind wandered, I'd have instantly gotten lost. Amsterdam is a very small city, one I could easily walk across, but even after a few days and many criss-crossings of the Grachtengordel (the "girdle" of canals ringing the south and west of the city), the Dam (a main square), and the Leidseplein (another main square), I would find myself on a streetcorner, map in hand, peering up at the signs posted on the corners of the buildings, wondering how on earth I'd ended up here again... Forget the confusion New Yorkers have when they go to California and realize the water is now to the west: canals were on all sides, running in all directions.

I don't mind being lost. I am often lost. My sense of direction has improved - I was going to say "since I moved to New York City," and this is true, but really, the greater my responsibility for finding my own way. Nevertheless, I expect to get lost, to overshoot highway exits, turn around, and try again, to look at a map, wander for several blocks hoping a street name rings familiar, then pull out the map and check again.

So, on my first day, when I arrived at my hotel before check-in time, I left my luggage locked in their storage closet and set out to get my bearings. I hadn't really slept during my red-eye, and had been awake for something like 30 hours at that point, so I didn't make any ambitious plans, just hoped to find food and get a sense of things. There was a little canal near the hotel - which was on the outskirts of the city center - my first canal! Not a particularly picturesque one, but I didn't know that then.

It was Sunday, and very cold, very foggy, and very, very quiet. The tram passed as I walked along the canal to the stop, and I decided that rather than wait outside in the cold, I'd follow the route of the tracks into town. All the shops along the way were closed, and I saw almost no one on the streets. Eventually, I found an open eet cafe and had a tosti (grilled sandwich - delicious & apparently popular, as they were advertised everywhere, along with tapas, which must also be a craze).

Later, as the fog began to lift, and the sun came out for literally the only time during my entire trip to Amsterdam, I came across a couple of guys moving into a new apartment, lifting their belongings in through the windows using the hook found near the roof. I also found a building adorned with an Emily Dickinson poem in fine gold letters:
To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

I discovered the flower market, which I later learned is the last remaining floating market. It's been there so long and is so nearly permanent that it isn't immediately obvious that some of the stalls are really floating greenhouses. It wasn't exactly tulip-and-windmill season yet, and this was the most tulips I saw in Holland.

I also found a street of shops which reminded me of Soho, except for a little gate, through which I spied a secluded courtyard... as I peered in cautiously, other braver tourist souls walked right in, so I followed them. Several very sweet old houses and a church and little chapel surrounded the courtyard, and everything was hushed. A few people walked in to look around the church, but I decided not to as there was a christening taking place, and who am I to walk in on some other family's sacred ceremony? This was the Begijnhof, which was once a home for women who were essentially nuns, although they had not taken vows and could return to secular life if they chose.

Another gate led me out of the courtyard, down a graffitied alley, and up to the entrance of the Amsterdams Historisch Museum. Since I was there, and it was only mid-afternoon, I figured I might as well learn what I could about the history of Amsterdam. The first exhibit was an exploration of the meaning of the headscarf in the Netherlands; they had dozens of mannikins displaying colorful headscarves loaned by young Muslim Dutch women, who were also interviewed about how they choose headscarves, how they tie them, why they choose to wear them, and how others have reacted to their decision. It was pretty interesting seeing the many different styles of headscarves and methods for tying them, and hearing what young, modern women had to say about why they believe covering their heads is important. From there, I entered an exhibit on the history of the city, the gradual addition of new canals, religious persecution of the Catholics (who were allowed to worship but only in hidden churches), and much more. Unfortunately for my understanding of history, by this point I was falling asleep on my feet. I mean literally, I would "come to" in front of an exhibit and wondering if anyone had noticed me dozing off, or if they just thought I was enthralled... I did appreciate a little loft where church bells were set up so that you could ring them, playing with different combinations of notes. I walked briskly through an exhibit on sugar refining, which is probably very worth seeing when fully conscious, but I wanted nothing more than to click my heels and land at the gate to my hotel. I had to settle for getting Belgian fries from a stand in an alley, stocking up on cheese, bread, and chocolate (in case I woke up hungry at 3 am), and taking the tram home.

And that's about how tired I feel now. My body has absolutely no idea what to do with all this time-zone shifting.

(I realize this is a self-indulgent account - no one cares what I ate - but it is serving three purposes, for myself, family & friends, & the blog, so, you know, read it or don't...).

Thursday, February 16, 2006


I threw away your greatest hits
You left them here the day you split
Your bass guitar and shag CD
Well they don't mean that much to me right now
I'm going through your things
These days, I'm changing all my strings

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Guilt v. Burnout

Sunday night, I lay awake thinking about the week ahead, fantasizing about calling in sick on Monday... and Tuesday... and every day following. I don't really want to quit, but I'm having a really hard time taking back the extra class. The beginning of the week is the worst, two days of almost no free time, plus the new tutoring. We are taking a two-week hiatus from our after school program, starting up again after vacation, and if this week feels like too much, I can only imagine what it will be like with the extra class, two days of tutoring for 75 minutes each, our 6th grade team meeting Tuesdays post-tutoring, and then two days of after school for two hours each.

And then two things happened. First, we found out that only 1 of our 8th graders got a specialized high school acceptance (to Bronx Science). Second, it occurred to me that I could stop teaching after school. Other teachers have. In fact, one of the many extra hats I wore last week was that of after-school teacher rustler, trying to coax more teachers into offering some kind of enrichment program.

I decided to quit HS Prep.

I like the kids in my HS Prep class. It doesn't take that much prep time. I think it's good for them to spend time with each other and with geeky me, working on hard practice problems and learning to do tricky math problems in their heads. But I'm not convinced that I get anyone into any specialized high schools. A few kids come in and get 25 out of 30 on the practice test the first week; the others get 6 or 8 or maybe 11 out of 30. A few months later, the first group is getting 28 out of 30 right, and the second group might be up to 10 or even 14 out of 30, but it isn't going to be enough. I can tell you right now that 2 of my 6 kids have a chance.

I felt this huge weight lift from my shoulders. It's such a small group, and I don't think it's even helping them that much, and I could get my Wednesday afternoons back.....! I'd miss that group of kids, I'd miss the money, but the time - o, the time!

I told my AP. She told my principal. Who promptly spent 30 minutes talking me into continuing the program. Just because only 1 of our 8th graders got in, that's something to celebrate, not a reason to give up. Some bigger schools get no acceptances! We have commitments to the kids, and to their parents. It's good for them. Can't we find a way to make it easier for you? Can we buy materials and just have them take practice tests? Is there something on-line, some CD-ROM, anything? The final decision is up to you, she said, but I really hope you can find a way to make it work.

She's right, of course. And yet, I know that sometimes you have to put yourself first.

And so the decision has not been made yet, and the burden is back on my shoulders.

God, I am ready for this vacation.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

An Early Valentine, & an Experiment

The song I can't stop listening to. Reason alone to buy the album. Another reason: her songs are perfect for those of us obsessed with love and death. (Isn't everyone?)

Melt Your Heart
Jenny Lewis

It's bound to melt your heart
One way or another
It's bound to melt your heart
For good or for bad
It's like a valentine
From your mother
It's bound to melt your heart


When I was a kid, we made Valentines at home. My mom has a box of heart-shaped templates cut from thick pieces of cardboard. We'd buy doilies and red, pink, and white construction paper, and stickers, seals, and rubber stamps, and glitter and candy hearts, and we'd spend a weekend afternoon writing Happy Valentine's Day in cursive in purple marker. We did not buy pre-made cartoon-character Valentines.

In middle and high school, we had a Carnation Sale on Valentine's Day, to raise money for the PTO or somesuch. You could buy red to mean love, pink to mean friendship, and white to mean anonymous. Every year, my best friends and I would send each other pink carnations, and sigh a little as one or two girls received flower after flower. It didn't do any permanent damage, and my school is doing a similar kind of sale this year for the first time.

In college, my house had a Valentine's Day party every year. I lived in a hippie co-op, and everyone dressed up in sexy costumes, and a funk band played. One year, I sewed myself a red tube skirt literally as the band warmed up. Another year, I invited an uptight boy who arrived early in a wool sweater.

My mom sent Valentine's care packages, with candy hearts, homemade cards, chocolate, and foil confetti hearts. She still does. They usually arrive sometime in March; it's part of the charm.

I've had anti-Valentine's Day parties with friends. I've had romantic Valentine's dinners with boyfriends. I've gone to strange and fantastic concerts. I've ignored it altogether. I'm not for or against.

And I have a very sweet little orange cat who came to live with me on Valentine's Day, and was thus christened Valentine.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Come in from the cold...

Third period, sixth graders waiting for me at my classroom door informed me that a bird was in the room. I immediately assumed pigeon, as I've had pigeons in and out of my classroom windows many times. Nope, this time it was a starling. Smaller, smarter, but more easily frightened. It flew around in a panic as we tried to start class, trapped between the window and the shade for a few minutes, then flat-bellied against a heating grate, and open-mouthed flapping between wall and windows. A student found a window pole and we began lowering the tops of the windows. The starling found the wide-open sky quickly enough, and class went on uneventfully.


I've said it before, and I'm sure I'll say it again: you know you're a science teacher when you buy vinegar by the gallon and baking soda in a five pound box. And you know you're a NYC science teacher if you bring it to school on the train.


You must read this.

We never filled our science teacher vacancy. The deal was that I would split a class with another teacher, each of us taking them for a marking period at a time, losing preps for parts of the year, gaining them back at other times. It's my turn again. I am fighting off a drowning feeling.


Graycie, the tower in the picture is a sculpture in the 6th & B Community Garden in my neighborhood. It was built by a local resident named Eddie - I believe he still adds to it. Here's a short video with close-ups of the found objects he incorporates into the sculpture.

And by the way, thanks for the great post on student loans.

Sunday, February 12, 2006


The week to come...

The sixth graders are going to finish their rollercoasters. They have one more day to build and test. We have a half-day on Thursday due to parent-teacher conferences. They will spend that shortened period, plus one full period, preparing a final project to hand in, including their scale drawings, their time trial record sheet, and a decorated scale drawing of their final rollercoaster. They have to label that with information about the kinetic and potential energy of the little metal ball at various points on the rollercoaster. They also have to think of exciting names and other elaborating details for their coasters.

I am also taking one day to have them look through the work in their portfolios and complete a reflection sheet. I am experimenting with student-led parent-teacher conferences in the sixth grade. I'm going to have them reflect on their strengths and areas for improvement, find evidence within their work to demonstrate these things, reflect on their behavior, and then complete a "script" for a parent-teacher conference. They aren't required to stick to the script but it will be there to support them in giving a full description of their progress. They will practice their conference with another student role-playing their parent. Then, on conference night, I am going to have two or three conferences occurring simultaneously, while I circulate and talk to parents when they want to know more than what their child is saying.

We'll see what happens. I had hoped to give them two days to prepare, since this is the first time we're doing this, but what with the half day and the rollercoasters taking longer than expected, this is the best I can do.

Meanwhile, I'm taking over an additional 7th grade class again, as I did at the beginning of the year, as we have still not hired anyone for the position. Mr. Richter is relieved to hand them off to me, and I'm kind of dreading it. It means four fewer free periods per week, plus more planning and grading than normal. I've done a lot of planning for the weather and climate unit that we are starting on Monday, but it's never enough.

We are going to begin with a weather & climate book pass, followed by the kids making K-W charts about the topic. We are also going to start weather journals, which will be the warm-up at the start of class for at least three weeks. At the beginning, they will record just the temperature (I bought an indoor-outdoor thermometer) and some predictions about the weather to come. Later, we will add air pressure readings, cloud observations, precipitation observations, and more. I am having them work in partners, so that if one partner is absent, the other can still gather data.

From there, we will begin talking about air and the atmosphere. We're going to try to show them that gases have mass and density by creating a balance out of a meter stick and two paper bags, one tied to each end. Then we will create a bunch of carbon dioxide by mixing vinegar & baking soda, and we will "pour" the carbon dioxide into one of the bags. With any luck, the more dense carbon dioxide will displace the air in the bag, and it will sink relative to the other bag. Then we can discuss why this happened. They will also read and answer questions about the contents of air - nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, trace gases, water vapor, particles, etc.

The next day, we're going to do the soda can crush demo. You fill the bottom of a soda can with a bit of water, heat it, and then invert the can into a tub of cold water. The heating evaporates the water, which takes up more space in the can, driving some of the air out of the can. When you invert it in cold water, the air inside the can cools and the water vapor condenses again, only this time, air cannot flow back into the can to equalize the pressure. Thus, the pressure inside the can is less than the air pressure, and the can should crumple. For homework, we'll show them these pictures and ask them if they can explain what happened to the tanker.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Oh sh!t.

I was done posting. I was about to go back to work. And then the doorbell rang and the police officer told me that there was a burglary in an upstairs apartment sometime in the last 24 hours. Someone came in through the fire escape, opened a window with a knife, and robbed the apartment.

This comes after a month in which I have heard about at least three devastating apartment fires that happened to people I don't know, but am within three degrees of separation of, and the apartment immediately opposite mine had to be broken into by the fire department because the guy left rice on the stove.

I am really creeped out. The police officer just told me to lock all the windows, but in the same breath how easily these locks slip open with a knife. I couldn't think fast enough to process the fact that he called me "hon," and the fact of the burglary, and the advice he was giving, and simultaneously think of useful questions to ask.

Handwashing sweaters...

(or anything else) has to be one of the most thankless household chores there is. You get covered in soap and water, sweaty from wringing, and in the end, it's really hard to tell if the sweater is significantly cleaner or not.

On the other hand, cleaning mildew off a shower curtain yields a very clear sense of accomplishment, but is just plain gross.

Come to think of it, I don't really like any chores!

To Do, Today:
sweep & mop floors
do laundry
do handwashing
drop off drycleaning
wash stovetop
wash dish drainer
clean sink
clean toilet
scrub tub and walls
clean shower curtain
clean desk
pay bills
empty trash
clean litterbox

and I didn't even include the schoolwork.

Does your cat turn into some kind of ferocious, pouncing predator whenever you put new sheets on your bed? Or is that just my little monster?

Coasting, Again

Sorry the pictures are so blurry. I was taking pictures really quickly because it was the middle of class and the batteries were dying, anyway. Do re-charge-ables have a lifespan?


Sadly, I don't have anything I need identified. Maybe if I get my apartment cleaned and all my schoolwork done and my trip to Amsterdam planned, I could go up there, see the Darwin exhibit, and live-blog ID day. 'Cause I bet people find some incredibly cool stuff. But, um, don't hold your breath on the live-blogging; the amount of work I have this weekend is scaring even me.

Identification Day - Sunday, February 12, 2006

Celebrate Charles Darwin's birthday by asking museum scientists and
experts to identify your natural history mysteries. Bring in your
favorite backyard finds, basement curios, and flea market discoveries
for the museum's annual Identification Day.

American Museum of Natural History
79th Street and Central Park West, Manhattan
1-4p; $free with museum admission
212 313 7278

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Fly on the wall...

Sixth period.

I have just finished telling the entire sixth grade that I am going to be paying attention to who is dawdling when they line up after recess, and those kids will have detention with me, because it isn't fair for them to make their classmates and teachers wait and eat up educational time.

We go upstairs. We'd all be more patient about post-recess dawdling if we didn't have to walk up five floors to our classrooms.

For homework this week, they are writing letters to various public figures in response to some articles we read about the gender and race gaps in science and math fields. I decided to ask the kids what they think, what they recommend. It's not a perfect assignment, by any stretch of the imagination; I would do it very differently next time. But it's a first try. So, I hand back the first drafts of their letters, and make some comments, and give them some addresses and job descriptions so that they can decide to whom to write (I had them get their ideas out first, then choose the audience based on the focus of the letter).

Next, I am going to model how to make a scale drawing.

But I never get that far. A large black insect starts buzzing around the room. One by one, as it passes them, the kids freak out. I tell them briefly to calm down, that I understand it's a little startling but that it won't hurt them and that they'll have to ignore it. I return to my modeling of scale drawings. It flies around me for a few minutes. I ignore it - more modeling! - but a few kids find it urgent to warn me rather loudly. I ignore them. Ignore, ignore, ignore. The dramatics continue. I pause, and wait, and watch 25 eyes follow that dang fly around the room. It is clear to me that this ridiculous fly is all anyone cares about. I repeat my speech, remind them that we have only 40 minutes left for them to work on their rollercoasters. Even as I am speaking, I can see that I have about 4 kids' attention. I tell them it won't hurt them. My pathologically-disorganized, rarely-heard-from kid raises his hand. I'm sorry, Ms. Frizzle, but that's not true. That's a horse-fly, and they bite.

Who knew? He's an entomologist.

Not this one, I want to say, not in the middle of winter, not in my classroom, not if you just freakin ignore it! But I just thank him.

This horse-fly thing is like my anxiety attacks: somehow I have let it take on a life of its own, and it is bigger and badder than ever. (Although, thanks to my friend placebo, I had hardly any trouble breathing today, and I didn't take anything. So there).

I tried to minimize it, and somehow maximized it.

I pause again, trying to figure things out. Little miss gifted-underachiever, easily the most disruptive student in the whole sixth grade, has now rolled up an important Prep-For-Prep letter, and is simultaneously swatting at the fly, offering to kill it for me, and telling me that she has to give this letter to the principal, it is Important and she forgot about it until now. I decline her offer to take out the fly.

And that is how I ended up having them pack up their belongings, put the chairs up, line up, and walk down the hall to my other classroom (the only benefit to teaching the 7th grade), where we did NOT do rollercoasters but worked all period on revising our letters.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006


maybe your anxiety is that you just need somebody to hold you...

Well, yeah. But that's a tough prescription to fill on-demand, y'know? And in the meantime, I'd like to be able to breathe. So, after a chat with a nurse practitioner, I have a small bottle of an anti-anxiety med. We agreed that (a) it could be a little freaky to try to teach on this stuff and (b) just having the bottle in my purse will probably keep the problem at bay, so it seems likely that I will never or rarely take any, but I have it. Do not dismiss the power of the placebo: just calling the doctor yesterday made today 90% better.

Meanwhile, rollercoasters. I introduced the lesson to my third sixth grade class, and started the second day with another class. The second day was so much better than the first - it might not be a disaster after all! And the kids love it. I modeled (poorly) how to make a scale drawing, and why we need them. And then the kids set off to work again. In thirty minutes, at least four of the six groups had built a rollercoaster that fit within the parameters and which the little ball could complete. The other two groups? In the words of one of the kids, We made progress!

What I might not have mentioned yesterday was that I put them in groups based around friendships. Not just any friendships, but friendships that appear to me to be strong partnerships. These are kids who, placed in separate groups, will find ways to chat across the room, pass notes, etc., but when placed together, might really rise to the occasion and produce excellent work. At least, that was my theory. I very rarely group them this way, but it's good to switch things up once in a while and to build on existing strengths as often as possible. In such a high-energy, interactive task, why create groups that are going to fall prey to infighting and distraction when I could create groups based around existing positive relationships? Of course, these groups were based on my observations and each group had to have at least four kids, so they are not perfect. One interesting thing was that when I started thinking about which kids spend time together, confide in each other, and so on, I realized how much their friendship groups break down by race and gender. There are exceptions, but across the board, the Hispanic kids tend to be friends with each other, the Black kids with each other, and boys with boys, girls with girls. I hope no one looks in my room and thinks I'm dividing them up by race! Anyway, I told the kids exactly what I had done, and that I hoped they would show me that this was a good choice - and so far, they have. There are some real powerhouse teams out there composed of children who might have spent a lot of time arguing if placed with people they don't particularly like.

Anyway, while they got a lot done today, and weren't exactly arguing, the voices were raised a bit more often, the "discussions" a bit fiercer. Maybe it was just because it was sixth period. Hmmm.

The whole project is a lot of fun. The kids were eager to show off their successes, inviting me over to watch the little ball zoom through the tube (I usually cannot even see it until it comes out the other end). High fives all around. Tomorrow, they will have to reconstruct today's work using their scale drawings, which will hopefully strengthen their understanding of the scaling process itself. And then they will have to tweak and re-tweak until they slow down the coasters as much as they can.


Wow, it's been a whole year of Education Carnivals. I must admit, I was skeptical at first. Here was this new big-shot, just started blogging and wants to put on a carnival... but I was won over. I'll hand it to EdWonk, he's done a fantastic job and it's been good for everyone.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

What to write?

Do I write about the chaos of implementing this new schedule?

Or about how much the kids I see every day need the extra help? I have spent 150 minutes this week working on adding and subtracting fractions with kids who forget the steps every time I finish going over them, who will spend at least another week of tutoring on this skill because we are going to have to tackle the issue of "borrowing from a whole number" when subtracting mixed numbers like 7 1/2 - 4 3/4. It is so clear to me that the kind of one-on-one attention that they need in order to learn this material is simply not possible in a class where the teacher has 25 or more students, all clamoring for attention.

Today, all six kids were in attendance. I tried to have a conversation about why we are doing this, to promote buy-in, to set some ground rules with the kids rather than just harping on them to stop picking at each other and making me crazy. Two or three are grateful for the help and, while spacey, generally attentive. One resents every minute of it and is a mastermind of finding ways to distract herself and everyone else, to slow the pace down to an absolute crawl. The others are somewhere in-between, followers who could get excited about improving their math skills if led down that path, but who can also spend a whole period flipping pens at each other and whining. The buy-in conversation was a failure. For one thing, it's hard to just convince kids that they need to improve their math skills, that they will use some of this stuff in real life and the rest is important because knowing it allows you to pass through certain educational gateways so that you can... study even more. Oh joy, mutter the seventh graders. And as their tutor, I'm not going to be the one to design groundbreaking units that inspire them mathematically. Nope, we're reviewing, practicing, drilling.

Or maybe I should write about the rollercoasters we're designing in sixth grade science. The PVC tubing arrived on Monday, along with the little metal balls. First problem: the balls, although they fit, were too large and would stick really easily inside the tubing. Luckily, some random kit I got last year came with a milk carton full of BB's, which were not only just the right size but far more magnetic than the balls I bought this year. Third problem: I do not have enough flat wall space to set up work areas for the kids. Next year, I'm getting giant pieces of cardboard and giving each group one of those, so they can work right at their tables. I was nervous about today. Each group got 3 meters of tubing, a few BB's, a magnet to move the BB's through the tube if they cannot complete the rollercoaster course, a stopwatch, a record sheet, a bunch of graph paper for scale drawings, a new roll of Scotch tape, and an assignment sheet. Fourth problem: I bought (shockingly expensive!) gridded chart paper to put on the walls to help the kids make their scale drawings, but they are still a little fuzzy on the concept. I guess that's my mini lesson for tomorrow. Fifth problem: I tried to make a rollercoaster that would meet the parameters, and in the 30 minutes I spent on it, I couldn't do it! Now imagine groups of sixth graders, whose eye-hand coordination, general knowledge of physics, and frustration thresholds are all somewhat lower than mine.... granted, they get three class periods and are working in groups of five, but.... so, I adjusted the parameters. The goal was to make the slowest possible rollercoaster with four hills and 1 "up loop." I changed that to two hills and one up loop, with extra points for groups who include more features. Slow rollercoasters are much harder than fast.

The project had has real disaster potential. Thus, I forged ahead! I had two out of my three sixth grade classes today, and while the kids found it challenging, they worked extremely hard, cooperated very well, and seemed to enjoy the project. So far, not a single group (out of 12) has built even one rollercoaster that the ball can roll through on its own. And scale drawings are more-or-less non-existent. That may change when they realize that without a scale drawing, they have to start all over every day, while a drawing can help them reconstruct what they've already made work. I'll let you know how it goes. I have a feeling this supposedly four-day project might carry me right up to the vacation two weeks from now... which is way more time than the science concepts deserve, but sometimes a project is just a good experience. I keep telling them they are being engineers, this is what engineers do... design, test, troubleshoot....

Or maybe I should write about the almost panic-attack I had this morning. Over the last few weeks, I've been struggling with breathlessness. The first couple of times it happened, I thought, well, that's an interesting new stress symptom, but I'm not going to let it take on a life of it's own, I'll just stay calm until I catch my breath and then forget about it. That kind of worked, but it's really hard to not think about whether you can get enough air or not... and the problem got bigger, and began happening off-and-on for hours each day, and eventually, just before first period today, I found myself crouching down beside one of the tables strugging to breathe and trying not to cry and wondering whether this was enough to warrant an immediate trip to the doctor and a day off, and deciding that I would be perfectly fine in three minutes and would feel like an idiot asking someone to cover my classes. Plus, what was I going to do with the rest of the day, sit at home and worry? So I got to my feet, gathered my stuff, and just kind of yawned a lot all day long. And yawned my way through yoga class. There is a certain irony to getting anxiety symptoms during yoga class. And yawned my way home on the bus, and through the typing of one blog post. I am very eager to talk to the doctor about this. My initial reluctance, stemming from the absolute certainty that they will prescribe an anti-anxiety med, has all-but-vanished, and now I just hope they don't make me jump through too many hoops before writing out the prescription. The really irritating fact about all of this is that I don't feel any more anxious than usual!

Or maybe I should respond to Chris's post about the point to all this blogging. His post is a response to another blogger's rejection of the idea that any kind of systemic change comes out of blogging about education. What kind of change are we creating? I never thought that blogging would be a primary stage for creating systemic change, just as I wouldn't expect that of a newspaper column, tv show, or any other single means of communication, whether broadcast or interactive. However, I see blogging as one more opportunity to extend the conversation and push ever-so-slightly farther in the direction of positive change, straws on a camel's back or approaching the tipping point or what-have-you. Many, many things have happened as a direct result of this blog, although the overall effect on society remains to be seen. I have had conversations with people in the UFT, the opposition caucus ICE, the DOE, and elsewhere that absolutely would not have occurred without this blog. Has any of those conversations led to some new policy or other immediate change? No. Nevertheless, I am becoming more and more certain that teacher-bloggers are heard by the powers-that-be. Futhermore, I am now part of a growing network of teachers committed to putting our experiences in writing for the world to read. As I've written before, I believe that something positive will come out of it - besides just support in this tough career! - but it will take time to develop. I've given advice and support to at least a dozen new or pre-service teachers who have emailed in response to the blog. I've borrowed ideas from other bloggers' classrooms. I've passed on ideas and resources discovered on blogs to non-blogger teachers. Through reading blogs and blogging, I've found organizations that I might have taken a long time to discover on my own, and I've shared resources with others. I've been spurred to think beyond the insular world of my school, when my natural inclination is to circle the wagons. I've provided a little glimpse of the day-to-day work of teaching and of creating a new school, and in doing so, have allowed people to compare their perceptions of schools to (one school's) reality. Those are just the experiences I can think of off-hand. None of these things is earth-shattering or sea-changing, but they are not to be dismissed, either.

So many topics, so little time. Don't forget that one purpose of blogging, for many of us, is to keep a chronicle of our lives, to reflect. We happen to think others might benefit from our chronicles and reflections (or we're just narcissistic! LOL) so we publish our journals on-line. Writing has become a bookend to my day as never before.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Implementation, Day 1

Today went surprisingly well, considering the number of scheduling changes all taking place at once.

The first adjustment was losing 10 minutes of homeroom. This is kind of sad because it makes it harder for us to play with the "advisory" idea, but there really wasn't any other time of day when we had a "spare" ten minutes. The other bad part, that I hadn't thought about in advance, was that I do not have a homeroom specifically because, as a science teacher, I am often racing around preparing for a lab. My administration knows that I am not a morning person, have a long commute, and can use the time to get ready. Anyway, I have plenty of other duties, including science team leader and 6th grade team leader. I usually spend the first ten minutes of homeroom helping supervise the halls, and the last twenty minutes racing around preparing stuff for class. As of today, that time has been cut by ten minutes, but I'm still expected to keep an eye on the halls.

The rest of the day went pretty smoothly, as far as people remembering to change classes 10 minutes earlier, collect the kids from lunch 10 minutes earlier, etc. I definitely had a few moments of looking at my watch, thinking I had tons of time left, then suddenly realizing we were on a new schedule.

We normally walk our classes downstairs to the exit at the end of the day, but we are experimenting with just letting the kids who are not staying for tutoring dismiss themselves. We have a couple of staff members posted at various points on the stairs, and (in theory - she often does not show up) a security guard at the door, and we are all supposed to watch the halls from our doorways as the kids leave. Today seemed to go reasonably well; I didn't hear any complaints or chaos.

Things were a little mixed-up after that, but not too badly.

One side issue was that a lot of kids received "promotion-in-doubt" letters last week, based on their 1st marking period grades and last year's test scores. This confused many parents and kids - and teachers! Kids were coming to us in tears and it was the first we'd heard about the letters. I asked my AP to please communicate to us when they are sending something like that, so that we aren't left dumbfounded when confronted by families. Anyway, a lot of the sixth graders who received promotion-in-doubt letters thought they were supposed to stay for tutoring (it does make sense, you have to give them that).

We are supposed to keep the kids who have to stay in our last-period classes for a few minutes while the other kids leave, then release them to go their tutoring teachers. I let my sixth graders go to their tutors as soon as the halls looked clear, but my own tutees didn't show up for quite some time, and out of 7, only 4 were present. One girl was absent from school, but I'm not sure what happened to the other two. I notified my AP, then started the session with the others. Attendance issues will be worked out over the next couple of weeks, I'm not worried about that.

The "lesson plan" or whatever turned out to be both useful and way too ambitious for 75 minutes. Basically, we are starting each session with a fluency drill - today's was very easy for them, which was good, I think, to start them off with a feeling of success. We went over that, and I had them do some additional practice "in their heads" and we talked about different strategies for adding two digit numbers quickly in your head. Then I gave them each a workbook, and spent a few minutes going over the example problems, which were about adding and subtracting fractions. This was the part of the lesson labeled "direct instruction," and while it was direct instruction, I did it sitting down at a table with the kids and just walking them through the example. We had to spend a few minutes reviewing how to find a common denominator and what to do once you have a common denominator. Seventh grade. Oh dear. I had them do the first six problems on their own and then check in with me so I could catch problems quickly. It's a good thing I did, because problems cropped up immediately. One boy found the common denominators correctly but then just left the numerators the same. Others... well, four kids managed to find about 10 different ways to add fractions incorrectly... yikes. So, at that point, I kept one seat on either side of me open, and I spent the rest of the period working with one or two kids in those seats while the others worked independently (and snipped at each other), and then took their turn checking in and working with me. And then, in what seemed like no time, we saw kids from another group walking past us in coats and realized we'd lost track of time and it was already time to go.

We still have more than half of a worksheet on adding and subtracting fractions to finish tomorrow. The math department wants us to do homework help and problem-solving practice as well. The kids would like time to work on their homework, so I will try to fit that in, but problem-solving? I just don't see it.

I am a little nervous about what this will be like when all 7 kids show up. Missing today was at least one real space cadet, a very sweet girl who completely zones out and really ought to be in a group of one. And I think the novelty of the experience minimized snippiness today, but I know a couple of these characters well enough to know that I may soon have seven kids spread out at 6 tables!


As for the rest, I took part of my prep today to talk to my AP and Principal. I said that I just needed to say something that was on my mind, and asked why we had not used the last two PD sessions to prepare for this, when everyone on staff thought we were. My Principal did not make excuses but took responsibility and basically said that it had been a confusing time and that she wasn't really aware of the unhappiness among the staff or the understanding we had about how that time would be used. She said it was an error in judgment and apologized, and asked that we be more vocal next time, especially after the first PD, we should have spoken up and questioned her more. Okay. I kind of thought we did, but it was a hectic week and I had many conversations with many people about many things... Anyway, then I said that I felt we needed a back-up plan for weeks when we couldn't have our regularly scheduled team leaders meeting, because that was a time when many of these issues could have been raised and resolved, and because the school decision-making process can't fall apart every time people are sick/called-out-of-the-building/on trips. She agreed and I think we will discuss a back-up plan on Wednesday.

It was that conversation, more than anything else, that made it all okay. I know that when I need to say something, I will be heard. I will listen when others have things to say to me. Sometimes we will yell at each other, occasionally even cry, but we are committed to the conversation and to constantly improving how we handle each situation. The math tutoring will evolve until we come up with something good for the kids and palatable to teachers. I'd rather that I didn't have to do it: of course.