Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Story of Rose...errrr...Spot, the Rabbit.

Last year, while she was in first grade, Big Sis got a bunny in her bonnet.

All I want is a rabbit, Mommy.

"Wishes for bunny" is probably a box in the developmental flow chart of the average little girl, in this case right before "loses first tooth" and right after "masters two-wheeler."

We hoped it was a phase that would pass. We're dog-and-cat folk, after all, of the "one each" variety, and occasionally reluctant goldfish owners. We don't know rabbits.

But we found it difficult to explain to our daughter why a rabbit wasn't a reasonable request. "We don't want one" was the most truthful answer. Truth is, we didn't really want a big plastic talking dollhouse in our living room either, but such are the things we do for love.

Attempting to both stall and discourage Big Sis, we required her to research rabbits and explain to us their care and feeding. She dutifully checked out bunny books from her school's library and reported her findings.

In the meantime, my mother helpfully clipped newspaper articles (the kinds which appear around Easter) detailing the reasons Why Rabbits Make Poor Pets.

And then, we all forgot about bunnies. Maybe. I suspect our daughter was taking a break from her campaign and preparing for a Fall Blitz.

At any rate, she developed a genuine loving interest in our current pets, growing into their best friend and advocate and taking charge of walking the dog.

At my school, meanwhile, we have a French teacher/4-H Rabbit-Raiser/Dr. Dolittle, who from time to time has broadcasted her bunnies available for adoption (and fresh eggs available for purchase). Back in the initial stages of Rabbit Research, she detailed her own daughter's journey through rabbit raising, and both dispelled and confirmed my fears about taking on a bunny ourselves.

This week, in an email about classroom supplies and schedules, she slipped in mention of a sweet bunny looking for a home.

This week, The Week Before Big Sis's birthday.

And that is how Rose the Rabbit came to spend a day in the Vice Principal's office and then a lifetime in our home (gulp). I mean, backyard. We're looking for a hutch.

Our daughter was surprised and amazed that her wish came true so unexpectedly, and giving gifts under those circumstances is just awesome.

After we got over the initial euphoria, we still had a bunny. So we set out to get to know him. Rose. Rose the Male Bunny.

Turns out he is a show rabbit, a "Dutch." Our teacher's daughter tattooed his ear, as is customary with show rabbits, before learning that He was not a She. Rose will have "Rose" forever emblazoned inside his long lobes. I suggested "Axl" or "Bud" as appropriate male additions to his feminine moniker, but he has been dubbed "Spot" by his new owner. Allrightythen.

The first time she held him, Big Sis's eyes grew wide, in awe of what she'd asked for and gotten: Bunnies are nervous. Bunnies scratch. Bunnies, we have learned, bite.

"Do you have buyer's remorse?" I asked her.

She gulped and nodded solemnly. "It's a big responsibility, Mom."

But she is determined. She is holding that bunny as often as she can, and enduring some rascally rabbit habits.

Thus, Spot has joined the fold, is part of the team. And my husband is happy to have another guy around.

Monday, August 23, 2010


It is our first day of school with our teachers; students come on Wednesday. I am thinking about all the new teachers opening classroom doors and greeting students for the first time. My sister-in-law is one of them! I am thinking about how our state's budget crisis is affecting how we all do our jobs, and about how the pressure of accountability and student achievement increases nonetheless.

Today's post is the text of a keynote address I delivered several years ago--while I was still teaching--to a group of teachers concluding their beginning teacher induction program. It's about accountability for one's own success, and the power of reflective practice.

When I was a young child living on the East Coast my parents would take my brother and me to Tanglewood in Massachusetts for outdoor symphony concerts under the stars. I remember watching the famous Arthur Fiedler conducting the Pops. I was mystified by conductors. It seemed to me that they controlled a hundred musicians with a baton. I thought that it was the waving of that baton that inspired the actual notes and melody. I longed to be a conductor, to see what kind of music would result from the command of my amateur hands.

On the first day of school, on my first day of teaching, I felt like a conductor, for when I asked my students to sit and please listen to me, they did. I was astonished at their distracted obedience and was tempted to ask them to stand, and sit, over and over again. They were giving me power I hadn’t earned yet. Teaching is one of those jobs that constantly asks you to assess the fine line between power and utter powerlessness. It would not be long before I remembered wistfully the day my students sat when I asked them to.

I am here to talk with you about reflective practice and the value of looking critically at your students, yourselves, and what you do. So I thought about you, “graduating” from “beginning-teacher-hood” and moving on to “you should know perfectly well what you’re doing now,” and I thought about myself in my first year of teaching. It was 1993. I taught middle school science in inner-city Washington, D.C. through the Teach for America program, and therefore without the benefit of a teaching credential or any long-term formalized training.

I am quite sure that I was advised by someone in those early days and months to keep a teaching journal, so I could record triumphs as well as frustrations and learn from my mistakes. Of course, that didn’t happen. All I could muster in terms of reflection and record-keeping was a gridded teacher’s plan book. In one column I would write the plan for each day of the week, and in the next columns, I would jot quick notes about what we’d managed to cover in each period, because it was never the same from class to class. I pulled out that plan book to prepare for my talk today because I remembered that as the students would leave class, I used to draw a face for each period—smiley if class went well, frowny if things had gone awry, with notes about which parents to call. There were a lot of frown faces in those days. And in retrospect, I realize that this was my first form of data collection.

I’d like to share with you a couple of the anecdotes:

Wednesday, September 15, 8th period: “They talked, I yelled.”
Monday, September 27, 8th period: “Had to treat them like babies again.”
Wednesday, September 29, 1st period: “Like a cliché. Paper flying across the room. Something needs to change.”
Tuesday, October 5, 8th period: Frown face with hair spiking out: “Nightmare. Tears popped out.”
Tuesday, November 2, 7th period: “Detention for the whole class.”
Tuesday, November 9, 8th period: “I lost it, everyone fighting with each other, Tonya shoved me.”
Wednesday, November 17, 8th period: “The usual hell.”
My favorites: Monday, December 6, while I was at a meeting and had a sub for 2nd period: “Lollipops stolen. Gradebook erased.”
Then Tuesday’s entry: “Discover grades erased off computer, too.”
Wednesday, January 26, 8th period: “Total chaos.”
Tuesday, February 15th, 8th period: “Ricky threatened my life, and my nonexistent car.”
Tuesday, March 1, 2nd period: “gave teary, impassioned speech about humility.”

And the inevitable, “I hate my job” in mid-March.

I laughed as I read those entries from long ago, and marveled at the fact that I am still a teacher. What I haven't read to you, though, and what are also included in that plan book, are the small successes, like “Armando tried today—he really tried!” and, “Had a good talk with Terika,” and, “Successful lab; kids excited to learn more about buoyancy.” There’s a definite trend toward more smiley faces by the end of the year.

The thing is, only I and those students really know what happened in that classroom that year. I am certain they learned something about science, as well as about kindness and optimism and hope, which we all demonstrated by showing up at that school day after day. But I have no proof of this. We are isolated as teachers, believing in what we do and thinking we know what’s good to teach and what really works with kids. Unfortunately, though, that’s not good enough. We need to prove that what we do and that how we do it produces results. For our job is not to entertain children or to control them. Nor is it to make them believe what we believe. We must demonstrate that our students have developed, progressed, and grown in skills, knowledge, and the ability to think critically while under our tutelage. This is what we’re paid for. Data collection and reflection are ways for us to own our curriculum and instructional strategies—for us to show that what we do is making a difference.

You are often being studied and assessed and your students’ data analyzed without anyone truly observing or understanding what happens in your classroom. And if we are not careful, this data, in the form of grades, SAT-9 results and reading scores, will be all that is used to judge us and our students. We know that those numbers do not represent a complete picture. So as teachers, we need to increasingly stand behind our own numbers. This means choosing data to study in your own classroom.

For example, I suspect that students in my AP Literature class became more avid independent readers this year. In order to show this, I have asked my 12th graders to list the outside reading they’ve done which was inspired by required reading for class or recommendations made by me or other students. I can then compare this to the ways in which students characterized themselves as readers at the beginning of the year.

Data collection takes many forms. When you give a quiz, do you analyze the items to determine which questions are most frequently missed? What could you do with this information? Will you reteach something? What is this quiz really about or for, anyway?

Often we teach concepts without knowing if it’s necessary to do so. Getting together with other teachers and analyzing students’ papers for trends can often be informative. You might find that students have mastered the use of semicolons. You might find they’re not capitalizing properly. You may find that they are consistently missing the more complicated fractions problems. The point is, your teaching is then informed by data. And when you compare later outcomes to that first set of papers, you can prove that something happened.

We all have favorite lessons or units that our students love and we think “work.” But we need to examine the benefit of these lessons—how can we defend them with measurable outcomes? That term, measurable outcome, is one we’re growing to resent when it is applied from the outside. As consumers, though, we expect it, when we pay for the Weight Watcher’s program, or hire a plumber or stockbroker. And our students’ parents expect measurable outcomes from us.

Data collection allows us to reflect on what we do. And even if you are not in the habit of analyzing data, you are forced to reflect, because students represent a gigantic mirror—in them we find our flaws, our triumphs, pimples we hadn’t noticed yet, etc. I remember, from that fateful first year, when Tonya, particularly frustrated with me and my class, walked out in the middle. But before she left, she turned on her heel and told me, “Miss Moore, you are a chicken-legged bitch.” My students were horrified, agape. Angry students had called me a bitch before, but never “chicken-legged.” Meanwhile, I was seeing myself in a whole new light: I’ll take chicken legs, I thought. Much better than thunder thighs!

Teaching is a give-and-take, a dance, as I mentioned before, between power and powerlessness. But reflection involves abdicating some power. Because absolute power means essentially that you are always right, and the students, if they don’t do well, are the ones who are wrong. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. You must be willing to examine the effect you have on students—qualitative and quantitative—to truly improve as a teacher. Last year for my teacher research group I planned to study editing and revision practices in my Creative Writing class for seniors. It was to be purely scientific. I would study the students’ writing behavior and look for ways to challenge them. It became clear, however, that in my first year teaching at the high school level, I had some behaviors of my own worth examining—strategies and assumptions and attitudes that were not working with older students. Last year was a crucial year for me to study myself qualitatively as a human working with other humans.

Reflection—whether it’s done in a teaching journal, in a group of other teachers, or actively in your own head--means celebrating your and your students’ successes, and from the failures, looking for new ways to succeed. You can tell by the look on a student’s face when you’ve hurt his feelings with something you said; reflecting is thinking about the ways in which you respond to students. You know when your students have all performed poorly on an assessment; reflection is considering why, and what you can do about it.

Leaving the clutches of an induction program means you are pretty much left to your own devices to be good teachers. I would admonish you to humble yourselves. Never assume you have it all figured out. And if you do, have the data to prove it. Model reflection for your students as you ask them, too, to consider their strengths and weaknesses. The classroom is a place of learning for both students and teachers. And as I ultimately learned, conductors may wield the baton, but they need a cooperative orchestra to make beautiful music.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Snapshot: Tuesday Evening

Why don't you take the dog for a walk, he suggests, knowing I am tired. Not grumpy. Quiet tired.

Who wants to go with me? I ask on my way out the door.

I don't, chirps Little Sis.

I do, counters Big Sis, slipping on flip flops.

Why can't I go? Little Sis whines.

Big Sis laughs. You can go, Silly.

Fingers intertwined with her sister's, Little Sis shouts, Let's go look for peaches on the corner! They skip down the block in search of grounded fruit. But peaches are done for the summer.

Oh well, says Big Sis. She takes the leash and lopes along the sidewalk with Amani, whose puppy grin and prance celebrate our walk, her life's simple pleasure.

We hold hands and cross the street, waving at neighbors and pointing at the moon and thunderclouds to the east.

Do they have thunderstorms in Colorado? asks Little Sis.

Yes, I answer.

But we can't see Colorado from here, adds Big Sis.

Do you have to take an airplane to Corolado? asks Little Sis.


We did that once! We went to a wedding in Colorado, remembers Big Sis.

We stop to examine unusual flowers. We chat about sunburns and camp buses and friends.

I offer Little Sis the leash. Our dog, a jumper and feline-chaser, trots blithely past a cat sprawled on a table and Big Sis celebrates.

Good, GOOD DOG, Amani! she shouts.

She is a good dog, I agree.

And we are almost home again.

I am so happy, Big Sis sighs to herself, and to the sky, and to the neighborhood.

And I almost respond.

But instead I pause and take this picture.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

wow said mommy

Big Sister is still working on her novel I mentioned in February, The Grassland Secrets: The Princess and the Crystal Stairs.

It's pretty darned cute, and I can't help transcribing it here for you (with Big Sis's permission as well as her own spellings and punctuation).

Chapter 1 the Stairs

One day Jessica was cleaning up in her bedroom. Then her friend Kiki came over. she came in Jessicas bedroom and accidentally fell on the new toy box. and then a flashing golden light appeared upon the box! the girls were exited they looked down into the box and saw crystal stairs!

the girls jumped into the box. Right when thay jumped into the box their friend Max showed up. He saw the girls looking around. Looking confused Max jumped in the box too.

Chapter 2 the princess

When they got down they all looked around then they shut the toy box and a princess appeared out of nowhere.

hi said the princess.

The children did not no what to say finelly Kiki said who are you?

I am the grass land princess she said my name is lily.

But I don't see any grass said Max.

I know I will take you to the grass she said I have a secret ship that takes us there said the princess.

Cool! said Max that sounds really cool!

Then come on! lily, Max, Kiki and Jessica raced to the ship. They got in and saw how cool the world was!

They zoomed fast and finilly stoped. They looked all around they saw only grass!

Um lily asked Kiki where is the butterflys, trees, and flowers?

I told you why.

But why asked Kiki

because it is called the grasslands!

Oh! They said.

They did cartwheels on the grass they played till dark.

Hey do you want to have a sleepover? lily asked.

well said Kiki I'd really like to!

O-K let's do it!

Right when they startd walking they heard a weird whooshing sound.

What is that? Asked Jessica.

Oh no said lily.

What? Asked Max. that is the black flying rug and the green goblins!

Oh no said Kiki!

the brown king of the goblins live in the southern woods in a small codenge. With liveing trees with branches that grab you!

Chapter 3 goblins

it is night now said Kiki.

Remember we are haveing a sleepover said Max!

But first said Jessica we need too ask My parents! We will come back in just a minute. We just need too ask My parents.

after Jessica had a big talk with her Mother she came back. She said it was OK!

good said Lily. I wanted too have a sleepover.

Chapter 4 Sunflower Medow

they played some more fineally they went to bed

were do we sleep? asked Jessica.

in my secret tree house.

ca'nt the goblins swoop down and get us? asked Max.

no said Lily. there is a code to get in and I only know the code.

cool said Max.

So they went into the tree house they went to bed in sleeping bags Made of flowers.

the next morning they woke up and went exploreing

wow said Kiki. it is so beautiful!

I know said lily is'nt it amazing!

So, were are we going? asked Jessica,

you'll see said Lily

when they got there...

(to be continued)

Monday, August 9, 2010

In the Saddle

I started School Year 2010-11 this morning after a glorious Sunday of kayaking, sailing, and sunning with family and good friends. And whaddya know? I got compliments on my hair and my glow today, so I recommend waiting days to wash your hair and getting sandy and salty. The next day, when you shower, you will be FRESH. And people will notice.

Of course, some of that glow may be attributable to my grin and Look At Me! I Am Back At Work and I Am Happy About It! You Betcha! Not Bummed At All To Give Up The Slip 'n' Slide and Fairy Houses!

But I fell right into registration, working the line for the last names starting with C and D. I greeted old students and new, enjoying the look on incoming freshman faces when I introduced myself as "your Vice Principal!"

The summer may have felt short, but lots can happen in a few weeks. Kids grow taller. Bad habits become problems. Problems find solutions. Water flows under bridges. Families shift and students let us know they're moving away.

I've had my family only as the locus of any concerns for the past month or so. Going back to work means opening up a World of Worry for Others.

The transition back to work always feels a little overwhelming. I'm off long enough to fully embrace the routine of Home With Kids, and long enough to forget I Somehow Manage when I return. I get up extra early for the first few days; set out my clothes the night before; make lists. My bum still needs time to settle in the saddle. It won't be long, though, till I drop the reins and become Look Ma; No Hands!

I just need my work groove back.

I've talked to other educators about the identity crises which come at the beginning and end of summers off. But I think most of us would agree this gig is worth the funky falling-off points.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Chocolate for Everyone!!!

It's official: No one can control who eats chocolate, and when, or even why. Yummy for California!

Turns out, getting in the business of other people's chocolate is unconstitutional.

Duh, we knew that.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Be My Thrill

I've done a great job of not mourning the days and weeks of my summer rolling by and instead, have existed largely in the moment. Most of those delicious moments (and a few hair-tearing ones) in the presence of my daughters.

It has been a wonderful summer. And I am so lucky to have one.

But today I felt the blues slip in, the Back-to-Work-Soon Blues. The kind that hinder my ability to enjoy my last week off. I'm fighting them mightily, and we'll start here, with a Weepies song.

One of the more magical days of July was a family trip to Lilith Fair, where we camped out in a shady spot and played Uno between sets by artists the likes of Kitten (she wears knee pads for a reason), Marie Digby (check her cover of "Umbrella"), Miranda Lambert, Brandi Carlile, A Fine Frenzy, and, of course, Sarah MacLachlan. We scored cotton candy, expensive beers, free tampons, and upgraded seats to an amazing and undersold show.

But best of all, I fulfilled a dream to bring my daughters to a music festival.

The Weepies played late-afternoon, charming as always. The single off their new album seems part love song for a small child ("I miss all of the joy you kill/but I love you still") and mostly lover-love song ("Be my everything but/my little hot slut"), and I will simply add it to my repertoire of Weepies' "Happy In Love" songs.