Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Thief in the House

Much as it pains me to admit it, one of my adopted offspring has turned into an incorrigible thief.  It started relatively simply.  I was eating dinner and the phone rang.  I had to go into where my computer is to get some information and when I got back, the last bite of dinner was gone.  I thought at the time, I probably just mis-remembered how much there was left on my plate.

But no, bits of this and that started disappearing at more and more frequent intervals.  And it wasn't always food.  Books started going missing after I placed them next to the bed.  And strange things, too.  The fur I combed out of the long-haired cat's fur was missing from the wastebasket where I had placed it.  

And then one day, I caught him in the act - stealing toaster pancakes out of the toaster.  And I caught him red-handed - or rather orange-pawed.  Yes, the thief slunk off with a guilty, but satisfied look on his face.  And now, I had to face it, there was a thief in the house.  And he is cunning.  He climbed in the cabinet to steal a bag of catnip.  He climbed into the sink and stole a shrimp tail.  

I have found the book - shoved under the night stand along with a furry (fake) mouse.  The missing cat fur was evident when I heard a "hhhhhhhcach" followed by a gloppy mess.  But I still can't figure out where he put the bag of pecans.  

The thief is the one on the left. I suppose I could blame it on his genetics. He is, after all, a pound kitty. Or maybe it was his environment. Where did we go wrong??? And why is he looking so smug???

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Things You LIKE First

For me, with people, it's obvious.  You put the people that you love and like first in your life.  But I have come a lot slower to that understanding with things.

I suppose my new consciousness of it started with silverware.  For everyday silverware, I had inherited my mother's things, when she broke up housekeeping.  And I had gotten a new set when I was married.  All of these jumbled together.  But then a lot of "my" set of spoons got lost.  I call them "mine", not because they only belonged to me, but because I chose the set and my husband and family had no interest in their choice or their design.

My husband, thinking that the simple design of "my" silverware meant that it was not the "good" silverware, put many of the spoons in the kids' lunches.  (Yes, he usually fixed the kids' lunches, so I am grateful.)  So we used a lot of Mom's silver, mixed in with mine.  Then, for some birthday or anniversary, my mother asked me what I wanted and I told her I really longed for a nice set of silverware - with all of the spoons.  I knew it was extravagant; I didn't REALLY need it, but I wanted it.  And she bought it for me.  I put it in a beautiful silverware case and the set sat there, waiting for company.  But company doesn't come that often and the beautiful case remained closed most of the time.  

So, one day, I decided to take away all of the old mishmash of Mom's silverware and mine.  I put Mom's and my silverware in an extra drawer and took my new set OUT of its beautiful case and put it in the regular silverware drawer.  And now, we use the new set every day.  It comes as a surprise to me that I enjoy that little thing so much.  No, we don't have a beautiful set reserved for company, but company can enjoy the simple and elegant set we use every day.

And now this corruption of saving things for special occasions has spread to my wardrobe.  Anyone who would take a close look at what I wear each day would notice that, for some reason, I seem to favor white turtlenecks or white short sleeved knit tops as a first layer.  But I had a hard time finding ones that fit.  Many of the ones I bought seemed OK at first, but after I washed them, the arms of the long-sleeved ones were a bit too short.  And I have never had the inclination to remove them after washing and line dry them.  

So I have accumulated a lot of white (and other color) turtlenecks that are still serviceable, but don't quite fit right.  Then, I found a turtleneck that REALLY fit, that I could wash and dry, and it STILL fit.  And I did something right:  I bought 5 or 6 EXTRA ones of this brand (Hanna Andersson, in case you want to know).  But, I was still trying to "use up" the ones that didn't quite fit right first.  Once I wore them out, I would use the Hannas, the ones that REALLY fit.  

But just a few weeks ago, I decided to apply the silverware strategy to the white turtlenecks.  Now, I wear the Hannas FIRST.  If and when they wear out (they seem to last forever, by the way: outstanding quality), I will use the ones that don't fit as well.  Most likely the reason that I will have to retire a Hanna is not because of wear, but because I tend to stain them.  And, I still have 3 brand new Hannas sitting in their wrappers on the shelf in my closet, so it may be a while until I have to wear the turtlenecks that really didn't fit.  

Maybe I can even recycle some of the things I am not using any more.  What a novel idea!  

Saturday, July 19, 2008

My Living Spaces

Pursuant to our discussion of choices about living room furniture and where to put the books, these are candid pictures of my living areas. By candid, I mean that I probably should have cleaned/straightened up first, but I didn't - I just took the pictures as is. I apologize in advance to my husband, who likes things much more tidy, and would think this is completely weird.

Starting with the mostly east wall of the living room: You see the chair I usually use (the brown one), much in need of re-upholstering. Then the chair my husband uses the most. Behind are the three heavy bookcases. Note the overflowing stacks of books to be finished.

Next is the mostly south-facing view. On a clear day, you can see the Alaska Range. It is too cloudy in these pictures to see the mountains.

Then moving toward the west, there is the view of the dining area, with an extra table to collect stuff.

There is a closer view of where I sit in the kitchen.

Back in the living room, there is the half wall that encloses the steps going down to the lower level. The cats (Calvin, the orange tabby and Hobbes, the Maine Coon), love the half wall. It is their territory. You can also see one of my favorite toys, the jigsaw puzzle globe. Unfortunately, I think the company that made them is no longer in business, so I only have update number 2.

You can also see the cat's cat tree. This is a most favored spot for playing.

I skipped the entryway and the closet, which are basically pretty boring.

This is my work area in the upstairs bedroom. I am not the tidy one in the family.

Just to the right of my computer, there is this view.

And finally, a better view of the "boys".

Weird Ice Cubes

My refrigerator has an ice cube maker, but it has never worked. We could have looked into getting it repaired, but, since we aren't sure about our water quality, we have used ice cube trays instead. One of the interesting things about using these trays here is that a good percentage of the time, we get strange ice cubes, ones that stick up, rather than are flat or rounded. Even more interesting to me is that these upward spikes don't all go in the same direction. They are at crazy angles. I think someone explained to me once that a small jolt during the freezing process will cause an initial protuberance which then extends as the water is drawn upward along the small protuberance, like the meniscus on a glass of water. I am not sure if I completely understand it, though. Here is a picture of one of the ice cube trays. Yes, I do know how crazy it is to take pictures of your ice cube trays. Sigh.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Taking Testing to the Next Level

The school district I sub in is doing their annual testing this week. So last week and the week before that, I was in several classrooms that were preparing for the testing. How? By taking a test that was virtually identical in form to the tests that are being given this week. I am assuming that the specific content is different, but I do not know that first hand, as I haven't seen the real tests.

But last week, at any rate, I was specifically teaching to the test. This is something that has always held a negative implication in my mind. If you teach to the test, you restrict the experiences of the students to those that can be tested. You focus their attention on filling in bubbles and giving back answers in format and content like those that will be expected on the tests. To my mind, it was a bit like saying to students, "This is the only thing that is important and if you can spew back information in this form you pass."

Only, last week, I saw that the kids actually needed this. Maybe it is because they aren't taught like this all of the time or maybe it is because they only take tests seriously, not their everyday assignments, but the practice tests actually helped. The part that I am thinking of that helped the most was the part containing the constructed response reading questions. One of the questions read something like: "Compare these two characters (from the reading). Tell about two ways they are similar and two ways they are different. Use information from the passage to support your writing." Now, in general, I have found that when kids are asked to write answers to questions such as this, they ignore most of the directions. They usually read only the first sentence of the directions, e.g., Compare these two characters. And then they start writing. Typical answers will be only ONE sentence, e.g., Character X is taller than character Y.

So, one of the things I did with the kids was to make them read ALL of the directions. Then I had them underline the important parts of the directions, e.g., TWO similarities, TWO differences, information from passage to support writing. After doing this, I had them actually write their answers. Then we went back and had students read their answers and we checked to see if they fulfilled the requirements. Most did not. So we kept at it until the kids had a decent idea of what constituted an acceptable answer to the question.

I came away thinking that teaching to the test might not be such a bad idea, as long as the tests have such worthy questions. Maybe the practice tests are a way of teaching the teachers how to pay better attention to some things that need to be taught, but are sometimes lost in doing workbook pages and scripted lessons.

And, in general, I have found that asking kids to read the directions for any specific assignment is a much needed intervention skill. Time and time again, I have found that simply asking the kids to read directions for an assignment will answer their questions about what to do and even how to do it. You would think that it would be obvious, but it is a standard joke in educational circles to point out that even adults don't read directions. Give a group of adults a list of things that they are to do, with the direction at the top that they are to read the entire list before doing anything. Then make the last thing on the list, "Do NOT do any of the things on this list, just sign your name and turn your paper over." Then stand by and watch as most of them do each thing at the top of the list, until someone discovers the final instruction and laughs.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Career Path in Education

I am a substitute teacher - partly by choice, partly due to circumstances. I was talking to a regular teacher today and I mentioned how much perspective a substitute teacher gets through seeing lots of other classrooms and dealing with a wide range of kids. This led to the idea that, perhaps the best thing for new teachers to do would be to sub for a while, before taking or getting offered a full time position. What a good way to view many different ways of classroom management, to get familiar with the ages and stages of a wide range of students, and to see how different buildings and different staffs operate. Even with the best of student teaching programs, this is usually not possible.

Requiring new teachers to sub a year or two, in fact, might be a solution to another problem, too: as a sub, I do not make enough money to live on. Even though my school district pays more than any other school district I have subbed in previously, last year, I only made $11,000 gross. If I had subbed every single school day possible, I would have made less than $21,000. Considering that there are no benefits in connection with this job - no health insurance, no sick leave, etc., it is not enough money to live on. Thus subs are generally either retired teachers or people who depend on spouses or others for health insurance and other benefits. If new teachers were hired as full time teachers, although staffed to substitute positions, they could make enough money to live on and good teachers might not be marginalized out of the profession before they even get started.

I suppose there are logistical problems: what do you do with subs that aren't needed? what do you do when you need more subs than you have? how do you pay for full time teacher subs? would it work to pay new teachers at a teacher pay scale rate, but only for days that they work?

I will have to think about it more. But I do think requiring new teachers to sub for a year or two is a good idea. It gives them a much better perspective on the different variables involved.

Friday, March 14, 2008

I Made a Mistake and Lost My Temper

And here is a rant I wrote the other day, after a bad day subbing. I have gone back and forth in my mind about actually publishing it, because it doesn't show me in a very good light. Face it, I lost my temper and I should have been in more control.

I had a bad day subbing the other day. Well, it didn't actually start out that bad, but especially in the afternoon, it fell apart. Was it the two girls (approx. 9 years old) who refused to stop coloring when they were supposed to be doing something else? Was it being constantly interrupted before I could complete an entire sentence? (Yes, in spite of all of the teacher techniques of waiting for silence and reminders about classroom rules) Was it the little boy who decided to unfold paper clips and, with the addition of a rubber band, make a sling shot that could shoot the unfolded paper clips, sharp points out, at fellow students? Was it the boy who refused to listen to anything I said and hid under the table or walked around the room whenever he wanted? Was it the two boys who were laughing and teasing each other so loudly that they completely disrupted the lesson? Was it the fact that even separating them and telling them that they would have to sit out for part of recess made no difference it their behavior? Was it the dozens of other things that I won't even bother to detail?

No, the thing that really frustrated me was a parent. It was at the end of the day and I was exhausted from having to remind the kids about their classroom rules, which were clearly posted and signed by all. I was trying to get them to put away their things and clean up the room. Repeatedly, I would go around pointing out things that needed to be done and the kids would pretend to do what I asked, but would stop when I went further. Finally, I got angry and I was reprimanding the students for not helping to clean up the classroom at the end of the day. The parent, who was in the classroom picking up a child 3 minutes before the bell rang, said I was "out of line" to speak sharply to the students. (I told them that their behavior was unacceptable - that they needed to help clean up the classroom and listen to the teacher.) The parent's student was one of the children who, during math class, was putting pencils up his nose instead of doing his work. But I was the one who was "out of line". I was supposed to calmly outline the expected behavior and enforce the rules. I suppose, actually, he was right. I shouldn't have let my frustration get the better part of me. I think the frustration was justified, but I should have handled it better. Sigh.

Maybe I, too, should quit subbing. In general, I feel that I am actually a good sub. A teacher who was observing me last week (she is a long term sub who takes some of the students for part of the day, since the two 6th grades have 28 and 30 students respectively) said that she thought I did an excellent job. So it isn't just my own opinion. But it really does upset me that the students' behaviors are so difficult and that parents seem to think that it is out of line to tell them so.

I guess the saving grace was a little girl who asked the parent "who told him he could tell the teacher what to do". She, too, was probably "out of line", even in my opinion, but it helps put a bit more perspective into the situation for me.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Truth: There're No Consequences

A friend of mine recently decided to quit subbing, because of the general lack of discipline and brattiness of the kids (she is in a different state from me, but I think the problem is more general than just our two states). She complained that the kids don't understand the meaning of "consequences" any more. As a sub, I often share her frustration. I have frequently come to the point where I seriously consider quitting subbing, too. Only my continuing fascination with observing children and their classroom environments keeps me going.

But here is my current diatribe about consequences:

Part of the problem is that there really ARE no consequences any more. Physical discipline is out. In our schools (the schools I sub in), you can't keep kids after school, because most of them get to and from school on buses, which run VERY tight schedules. You can keep them in from recess, but often the kids who need to be kept in are the kids who need the physical activity the most. And, for various reasons, many of the kids actually WANT to stay in for recess. You can't give them extra work, as they aren't able to finish the work that they have. You can't assign them classroom jobs, as they find the jobs more interesting than the work that they need to do. It doesn't matter if you change their seats, it just means they have to shout a bit louder to talk to their friends across the room. You can send them to the office, but there is an unwritten rule that you can only send one or at most two kids to the office - and if you do that, they think that it is your fault for not being able to handle the discipline problems. You can call their parents, but the parents often can't keep the kids under control either.

In my day, shaming kids into behaving worked for some, but nowadays, they just think it is funny to be ignorant - and, in terms of school work, being ignorant has its rewards. If they are ignorant enough, they get sent to a tutor, where they get one-on-one attention and if they play ignorant with the tutor, the tutor will usually give them the answers to all of the questions as they work through them.

I have noticed this with direction-giving, too. Kids will pretty much ignore directions given to the whole class. It is to their advantage to do so. After the directions have been given, all they have to do is get this puzzled look on their faces and say they don't understand, and the teacher will explain the whole thing again for them individually. If they still look confused, the teacher will usually give them an answer or two and will sometimes even restructure the assignment so it is a bit easier.

As far as discipline goes, there are a few things left that work: denying them a coveted privilege, such as inviting someone to eat lunch with them, may work. Putting them in an isolated spot to work can help, if there is such a place in the room or in the hall. But the arsenal for subs is pretty limited. Working for a class reward (such as an extra recess) sometimes works. But often, for me, it feels WRONG to reward them for behavior that should be the norm - just to keep them from behavior that is unacceptable.

I don't blame her for quitting.

Monday, February 04, 2008


I subscribe to A Word A Day by Anu Garg and I enjoy the words. But in all honesty, I enjoy the quotes even more. I like how they make me think about something. They are almost like poetry of ideas.

Here is today's quote:

We all have handicaps. The difference is that some of us must reveal ours,
while others must conceal theirs, to be treated with mercy. -Yahia
Lababidi, writer (b. 1973)

This is a quote that could easily appear on one the the GT groups that I belong to. Gifted people, and yes, I must use that "G" word, since it is the professionally accepted term for people who are fast and/or deep learners, are one of the groups that must often REVEAL their handicaps in order to be accepted. I have frequently taken part in conversations where, at some point, someone in the group will say, "You are so smart, I just can't keep up with you!" After such an outburst, the only way to get the conversation going again, or at least the easiest, is to admit that you might know a lot about X (whatever was being discussed), but you are terrible at Y (something equally valued - optimally something the blurter is good at).

People who are good at sports have to do this sometimes, too. "Yes, I am good at basketball, but I just don't get my math homework."

I guess it comforts us to think that, in the greater scheme of things, while some people might be good at X, Y, and Z, they aren't good at A, B, or C - to think that things might be marginally fair or equal, if we look at everything. The problem is, we really know that it isn't true. There are some people who are good at just about everything they try. And some people who truly aren't very good at anything.

But we can ignore reality, as long as people are willing to play the social game of pretend.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Does 90% Equal an A? Or 93%? Who Knows?

There has been a recent discussion on GT-Families about grading scales - in different parts of the country different percentages are used to determine what constitutes an A, a B, etc. But my feeling is that unless there is a standard reference of curriculum and test, percentage is a completely undetermined measure. It is like saying that I can eat half of a pizza. Unless you know how big the pizza is, that tells you very little.

(from post to GT-Families)

Why I Think the Actual Percentage Behind the Grades Means Nothing
by Laura Walsh

Test 1 on Cinderella
1. How many stepsisters did Cinderella have?
2. Was Cinderella's stepmother kind to her?
3. In the movie version, what animals helped Cinderella (name two)? (2 points)
4. Did Cinderella get to go to the ball?
5. Did Cinderella leave the ball on time?
6. What were Cinderella's shoes made out of?
7. Which girls were supposed to try on the glass slipper?
8. What happened when the glass slipper broke?
9. What happened at the end of the story?

Test 2 on Cinderella
1. What rank did Cinderella's father have in the realm?
2. Explain the derivation of Cinderella's nickname and the meaning of the original name.
3. What is the sociological significance of the stepmother in fairy tales?
4. How does the absence of the original mother effect the fairy tale?
5. Compare the stepmother and the stepsisters to people in other fairy tales?
6. What is the significance of the fairy godmother?
7. Why are Cinderella's slippers made of glass, when shoes are normally never made of this material?
8. Why is it psychologically important to the story that the prince be kind and handsome? How would the story change if the prince were fat or ugly? (two points)
9. Compare the Disney version of Cinderella to a Cinderella story from another country in the world.

Town Meeting on Education

(from post to GT-Talk):

There was a town meeting on education here yesterday, where around 150 people came together to discuss their concerns about education and to suggest action plans for progress. All in all, it was a very positive meeting, with a lot of people who are passionate about improving education for children and adults.

Even so, it was a bit discouraging to me. There was a lot of interest in helping kids who are struggling, early childhood education, vocational education, violence prevention, parent and community involvement, communication about resources, institutional racism. But there was little interest in teaching foreign languages in the elementary school (our group was only 5 people), gifted education (again only 5), and matching curriculum to students (only 2).

The one concern that is always of interest to me was one group that ended up discussing raising expectations. The thing that interests me is the apparent conflict between the discussions about all of the kids who are struggling and need extra support and the people who keep saying that our expectations are not high enough and we need higher standards. People never seem to make what is to me the obvious conclusion: the expectations need to be tailored to the abilities and current levels of the students. Some students need much higher expectations, some students need much more support to achieve the current level of expectations.

And, as an aside: I am a bit blind-sided by the fairly large group that was discussing institutional racism. My perception has been that this is one of the LEAST prejudiced of the communities and school districts I have lived or worked in. While I understand that Native Alaskan children aren't doing as well in the schools as they should be, I see significant efforts on the part of the school district to deal with that problem.

Presidential Candidate Quiz

Here is how I rate on the quiz (only I have no idea who Chris Dodd is):

94% Chris Dodd
94% Barack Obama
92% John Edwards
92% Hillary Clinton
85% Joe Biden
84% Bill Richardson
81% Mike Gravel
81% Dennis Kucinich
42% Rudy Giuliani
30% John McCain
28% Tom Tancredo
24% Mitt Romney
23% Mike Huckabee
15% Ron Paul
12% Fred Thompson

2008 Presidential Candidate Matching Quiz

Sunday, January 06, 2008

New Year's Resolutions

In the past, I have made long lists of New Year's resolutions, with goals in many categories of life: job, money, exercise, reading, kids, marriage, etc., etc. They seemed to help me focus on things that I really wanted to accomplish and at the end of the year, while listing goals for the next year, I was often impressed that, to some extent, they had worked.

This year, with some physical problems really annoying me and a desire to focus on only a few things, I am cutting my list down to four resolutions.

1. Lose weight.
2. Read books I already have.
3. Throw out, sell, donate, or recycle stuff.
4. Better posture, especially at the computer.

I know, losing weight is a cliché resolution. But many of my physical problems are exacerbated by the extra weight and I need to get serious about losing weight again. I have been so discouraged about it. I swim 48 lengths of the pool (2/3 of a mile) 4 times a week, so I DO get exercise. And I eat good food, not junk. So the main methods of attack this year are portion size and making sure that I don't eat for emotional reasons. One thing my doctor (well, actually, a PA, a physician's assistant) said when I went in lately for a routine check up was helpful. I was lamenting that I had lost 60 pounds a year ago and had gained it all back. But he put a positive spin on it: at least you know you CAN do it. Maybe that will be my mantra.

I used to think that you could never have too many books, but lately I am feeling owned by the books, rather than owning them. Goals 2 and 3 go together. I want to read the books I already have and pass on to others the ones I am finished with. I haven't decided if I want to sell them, trade them, or donate as a group to some needy school - or just take them to the library and let them either use them or sell them. I guess I should focus on something I WILL actually be able to do. I have thought about donating them to a school for a long time, but it doesn't get done. Neither does selling them or trading them. Taking them to the library has worked for me.

Goal number 4 is related to back problems I have had. One of the outcomes of my recent visit to the PA was that, after he told me that my back problem was probably just a muscle pull or strain from bad posture at the computer, I finally decided that I needed to find out if it really was just that or if it was something more serious. After all, he had told me the same thing a year or more ago and a muscle pull should have gotten better in a year. So I went ahead and pretty much insisted that he order x-rays of the back. Diagnosis: degenerative disk disease with probably at least two fused vertebrae. In a way, I feel a bit vindicated. At least I haven't been complaining about nothing. But I am still thinking about the diagnosis. Does it just mean that I have arthritis in my spine? Should I see an orthopedic surgeon to see if I would benefit from surgery? Are orthopedic doctors objective enough to say no, or do they always say yes to maximize income?

Ironically, sitting up straighter at the computer does seem to help.

So there they are.

Snowbow and Visions of Alaskan Winter

At first glance, I thought it was a sun dog. But sun dogs have always appeared higher up in the clouds. This looked much lower, almost touching the ground - like a rainbow. Only it was certainly much too cold for a rainbow. So I call it a snowbow.

People ask me how hard it is to tolerate the darkness in Alaska in the winter, but with a view like this out of my window, it isn't a matter of toleration, it is a matter of exquisite beauty. How can I not tolerate Alaska in the winter?

And besides, what's not to love about a place where getting up at dawn to see the beautiful sunrise means that you can sleep until 10 a.m.?