Monday, January 28, 2013

Lesson-up Express:It's Time for a February Fling

It's Time for a February Fling

In his delightful book, Chicken Soup with Rice: A Book of Months, Maurice Sendak managed to find  something joyous to cheer for every month-even dismal as dirty snow February. His words even hint at love, the predominant emotion of this month.
    In February it will be
    my snowman’s
    with cake for him and soup for me!
    Happy once
    happy twice
    happy chicken soup
    with rice.
(Maurice Sendak  Chicken Soup with Rice: A Book of Months)

Love, romance and sometimes marriage have been focal points the stories surrounding the celebration of Valentine's Day, the central holiday of the month. Some say that it was named after Valentinus, a Catholic priest who performed marriages for soldiers and their ladies even through the Roman rulers had outlawed the practice. The Romans thought that men were better soldiers without families. Valentinus disagreed and was sentenced to death for his beliefs. While in prison, he cured the blindness of Julia, the daughter of the prison warden. They fell in love, and right before he was executed. Rumor has it that he sent the fair Julia a letter signed, "from your Valentine," creating the much-repeated Valentine love letter phrase.

The Catholics made him a saint and chose February 14th  for the Feast of St. Valentine. Another side of this historical story, though, believes that the Catholics wanted to overshadow the non-Christian Romans' pagan festival of Lupercalia, a fertility fete. During the festival, a goat was sacrificed and men slapped the fields, and the women of childbearing ages, with the skin to promote fertility. Then men and women were paired up by a lottery-type system to live together for a year, resulting in many babies and some marriages.

The Middle Ages brought a love letter from Charles, the Duke of Orange, to his wife who was cooling her heels in the Tower of London prison. Geoffrey Chaucer jumped on the Love Wagon with his  Canterbury Tales, where courtly love reigned in the stories and probable actions of the Knight, the Squire, the Prioress and the inimitable, Wife of Bath.

Maybe all of these celebrations were conjured up because February is no box of chocolates in the weather and holiday columns and something had to bring people joy. The Italians even describe this second month of the year as "corto e maledetto-short and accursed." Hmmm. As I look out my windows at this bone-chilling wet and raw day, I have to agree. Obviously, so do millions of people who feel that love and romance will chase away the dreariness and ennui it brings to bear. For now, over one billion cards are sent on this holiday filled with verses of love, florists are busy creating aromatic bouquets of flowers and merchants fill their shelves to overflowing with hearts full of candy.

This month calls for a much needed February Fling down the Curriculum Corridor. Here, to paraphrase Mr. Sendak's words, teachers can be, "Happy once, happy twice, and even happy thrice" with the activities that I offer in this blog. With 20 teaching days, this trio of Common Core  aligned lessons will spark students' vitality, will captivate them mentally, and will increase their comprehension and higher-order thinking skills. Students will latch onto the concept that love and passion are synonymous with learning, just as they are to romance.

Happy Teaching,

Let's make this a quartet of February Fun.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Are We Having Fun, Yet?

Are We Having Fun, Yet?

The other day, my daughter, Kim, and I were discussing that common malady that afflicts many spouses and children, Stair Clutter Blindness, better known as SCB. Just the night before, her eight-year-old daughter had been getting ready for bed on the top floor of their home, couldn’t find her pajama top, and questioned why her mother hadn’t brought it up the two flights. “Excuse me? It's on the bottom stair where you left it this morning,” my daughter responded in her appalled at such a disrespectful innuendo mother-tone. My eldest granddaughter quickly back pedal with a, “Just kidding, Mom.” Kim and I chuckled over this familial and familiar situation, one of the many that generations of parents share, and then the thought bounced into my brain, “When did the fun end?”

Kim and her husband, Rick, started to prepare their daughters to be supportive family members, part of the Task Force that insured a warm and cozy domestic life when each of their girls hit the four-year mark. My husband, Tim, and I had done when Kim and her brother, Matt, each hit pre-school age. Together with their children, they drew up a list of chores that fit each child’s age and ability level and agreed on the rewards, both monetary and recreational. They kept us updated on the girls’ progress during phone conversations. Tim and I often experienced, first hand, our grands’ desires to show us how responsible and reliable they were. When visiting, they would eagerly offer to help me (Nanda) make dinner or set the table, or share their skills by assisting Tim (PopPop) with the dishes.

For some inexplicable reason, though, when Emily slid into her seventh year, her helpfulness abated, unless asked, just like her mother's and uncle's had at the same age. Hannah doesn’t hit the Seven-Year-Slump for ten more months; she still drags her chair to the counter to cook or to wash dishes. Domestic tasks are still fun for her.

When and why does gratification over successfully completing some of life’s duties and responsibilities morph into ennui? Why are work and enjoyment considered polar opposites? Why are the words, “I’m going to work, now,” groaned, more often than not, and “I’m going to play,” uttered with happiness? And one of my prime concerns, why does the joy of an eight-year-old running to the school bus mutate into adolescent academic apathy?

According to an article by guest writer, Ellen Wexler, in Francesca Duffy’s Teaching Now Blog, “A majority of elementary school students—almost eight in 10—qualify as engaged, the poll found. By middle school, however, that number drops to six in 10 students. And when students enter high school, it drops to four in 10,” (Education Week. Gallup: Student Engagement Drops With Each Grade. January 14, 2013). These statistics were culled from 500,000 students enrolled in over 1,700 public schools spread over 37 states who responded to the comment, “At this school, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.” (Interested readers can see the full results to this survey on

Any parents and educators who deal with school-age children would probably appreciate the findings of this poll. I know that I do, although I do take exception to the,
“what I do best” part of the prompt”. If students are only exposed to situations where they already succeed or excel, than schools are not doing what they should be doing: helping students to think and creating a desire in them to explore new areas where they might achieve “doing their best” status, but that’s another article.

When did the fun end? It ended when society decided that FUN: amusement, enjoyment, pleasure, joy, exuberance, entertainment, merriment and diversion to name a few synonyms should hold top priority in any situation calling for human actions/reactions/responses. The qualifying emphasis is misplaced. Precedence in all tasks- domestic, work outside the home and academic- should be on the word, ENGAGING. Appealing, involving, occupying, absorbing, engrossing, participating, but open-ended engagement, not the narrow, “what I do best” kind referred to in the poll. (All synonyms are from the online Thesaurus: English (U.S.).

Tasks or responsibilities that stem from a sense of pride, respect, obedience and duty, in oneself, one’s home, one’s job- home or away from home (and school is a job), might not be fun. The value of completing a mission or assignment to the best of one’s abilities, though, should be engaging…and priceless.

This isn’t to say that I dance around the house in heels and pearls humming happily while I dust, scrub and scour, like Mrs. Cleaver, Donna Reed and Harriet Nelson; when I clean, I’m more like Lucy Ricardo on one of her grungy offbeat days. Nor did I perform a fun dance in my classroom when faced with students suffering from bouts of apathetic entitlement or acting like impacted wisdom teeth daring me to extract their lack of a desire to learn from them. Hard work, both physical and mental, does not always conjure up warm, fuzzy feelings of, “Wow! This is fun!” - in me or in anyone, for that matter.

Work is just that-work. Who says, “I’m going to fun, now,” as he/she grabs a mop, lunchbox, backpack, tool belt or briefcase? When I searched MSN Office for synonyms for work, the first offerings were nouns such as: labor, employment, job, and occupation, followed by: effort, exertion, toil, slog, drudgery.

Note how the meanings start innocuously enough, but the slip into the netherworld of negativity as they continue. But then…then, (cue chirping birds, radiant sun and angels singling) the synonyms transformed into nouns for Composition: design, creation, opus, masterpiece, production, handiwork and oeuvre, and to verbs such as: act, produce, perform, succeed and thrive. Ahhh, a light does exist at the end of the Work tunnel. These latter terms swerve 180 degrees away from the negative connotations to those that showcase inspiration, stimulation, motivation and…Engagement.

So, are we having fun, yet? I don’t know. After all, fun-like beauty- is in the eye of the beholder. But I do hope that we are engaged-at home, at our jobs and, oh so importantly, at school.

As for SCB, I’ll work on a masterful cure. If you have one, please let me know so I can pass it on to my daughter.

Check below for a FREEBIE stimulating activity where students can share their reading comprehension as well as their analytical thinking and writing skills for any text.


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

You are Invited to an ELA Activity Party

Students love parties! And who couldn't use a party to add some sunshine and excitement to these January days? Here is a project that ties in with any reading. Although a novel or novelette works best because of the abundance of details and information, short stories can work, too. For the latter type of reading, students might have to dive into their imaginations to create specifics that will match up with the text, though. But that's a good thing since higher-order thinking skills love to be exercised along with concrete reasoning. A non-fiction personal narrative is also chock full of the elements of literature (characters, plot, conflict, setting, themes, symbols) and would be a good alternative choice. Besides, the Common Core Standards are looking for more non-fiction in the classrooms.

This Common Core Standards-based activity, You are Invited!, is 16-pages long.  Students will choose the type of party, the guest list, and more  using the information they have gleaned from a novel (or short story) that they have been studying in class or reading independently. They will showcase their knowledge and comprehension through the invitation they design, the people they invite (as well as the reasons for their choices), five conversation topics that would occur during the party, who would be a part of these discussions and why, and their choices and reasons for the food, drink, music and entertainment.

Two pages of Teacher Notes are included as well as notes for the students to clarify what is required on various segments of the project. Students can use the method of their choice to create and design the invitation and other graphic elements. Three examples of sites with invitation templates are included.

This project allows students the opportunity to showcase their understanding of any text and the role that the elements of literature play in its structure by combining their creative and design skills with their understanding of the reading material. The activity handout is 16-pages; two blank slides for text and two for graphics are included so students can add any other elements teachers might require or that they choose to include on their own. Although I created this as an individual project, teachers can choose to use this as a group assignment. In that case, though, they will have to alter the requirements to fit this type of activity.

Isn't it time to party?

Enjoy the party,

Note: The Great Gatsby (F.Scott Fitzgerald) is used only as a sample to depict what type of information should be revealed in the various project segments. Images and references to this book are merely for example purposes.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Lesson Up Express: January Jaunts

The Lesson Up Express:  January Jaunt

Many of us, students and teachers alike, fall victim to the PHD (Post Holiday Doldrums) Plague after the nonstop excitement and frequent vacations from Halloween to the New Year. We can ward off this virus in their classrooms by guiding our charges through engaging learning journeys that encourage our students to unplug ITunes and to tune into ILearn.
Colleagues: Check out these offerings for a January Jaunt. They will hook students with lessons that intrigue and challenge. These activities reinforce previously learned concepts, promote reading comprehension and instill deductive, critical and analytic thinking skills, both orally and in writing. Each lesson conveys specific assessments and outcomes, is a teacher-led and student-centered activity, and provides the opportunity for our charges to accept ownership of their work. I am a firm believer that if they are to succeed, students need to Hear, Read, Think, Write, Speak and Do as often as possible. The activities selected for the January Jaunt allow them to do this as they combine the events and celebrations of the month with their comprehension and understanding of any literature study from this academic year.

Some students prefer to work independently and dislike group work. Others are stimulated by their peers and enjoy sharing thoughts and ideas. Some want step-by-step instructions and others need only to be presented with a task and can take it from there. Some want to analyze a concept, a character’s motivations or the cause and effect of a situation; others want to imagine the whys and why nots of a character’s actions and interactions. In other words: Left Brain-Right Brain-Whole Brain.

What this boils down to is Choices. Each lesson and activity must offer structured tasks as well as those that are more creative. We must always challenge our students to think, to analyze and to evaluate; but we must also give them time to dramatize, to sketch and to create. By doing so, each journey will be memorable.
Note: The Dynamite Resolutions and Hail to the Chief activities can be individual or group work. For the latter, the members of the group will need to divide the tasks;  Score Big With the Literature Super Bowl is a group activity and Dare to Dream works best as an individual assignment.

Above picture:
This is a great way to keep students focused on the literature they are studying when they are psyched up for the big game.
Students can add some belief to their own dreams with this activity.

Some fictional characters still might need to compose their resolutions for this year. Check out this activity.

 Get students thinking about all things presidential as they await the inauguration.

Have an exciting January Jaunt on the Lesson Up Express.


Thursday, January 10, 2013

Beware the invasion of the databots!

I have a recurring nightmare where every phone call that I make is answered by a male or female Operatorbot with a nauseatingly pleasant voice, like those heard on approximately 98% of all business/agency/company phones. In all walks of life, aloofly efficient databots have become the fonts of all information deemed important by
someone not necessarily in-touch with what we the people need. That’s because they want we the people to be just as emotionally unavailable as they are.

Ah, what a dystopian…oops, I mean…what a utopian paradise a databot-driven society would create. Just think how much more could be accomplished without the interference of subjective or creative thoughts fueled by the messy interference of personal problems, passions, obsessions, tempers and egos. Just think how cost efficient databots would be compared to real-live mortals who understand peoplespeak and who demand livable salaries, benefits and personal understanding.

For example, during an annual exam last June, a test I took revealed a situation that might (and did) result in surgery. The time to allay my fears revealed in my anxious emails and phone calls to my doctor probably cost her many hours she could have spent with another patient…or two, or three. And I was just one of her triple-digit list of patients. Instead of compassionate Dr. B, Doctorbot could have responded with terse, “Just the facts, ma’am,” type of comments and moved on to the next nervous case load number. What a boon to Insurance/Medicare revenue that would be. After all, more time=more patients.

Speaking of Medicare, try calling the Social Security Office for any benefit reason. Friday, I spent 22 minutes trying to get past Agentbot and all of her, “Pick a reason for your call,” listings to speak to a real live human being. No matter what I said when none of her choices fit my reason for calling, I was fed a monotonous migraine-causing, “I do not understand your response; choose an option or say, Agent” reply. I’d say, “Agent,” but get a reiteration of her same blasted list! All I wanted was to
have an application form for Medicare Part B sent to me. The real-live, really pleasant lady who I had just spoken with in the Human Resources department of my past employer wanted me to fill it out and send it to her so she could initiate the change with my medical care provider. Simple? For the HR lady and me, yes; for Agentbot and me? Not so much. Exasperation set in and I finally hung up.

Footnote: in Monday's snail mail, I receive a nice fat packet with everything that I required from the FCPS HR Department. Thank you, accommodating HR lady, for understanding my simple need, and for keeping me from having to speak to Agentbot ever again.

Trying to get clarification to issues not found in the Businessbots’ vocabularies, be they answering the phones in retail, service, transportation or any of the wide variety of commercial industries we might encounter on a day-to-day basis can initiate teeth-gnashing, hair-pulling, head-pounding primal screaming results. Try to get past Ticketagentbot on any airline carrier to request a seat change. Good luck! I hope you make your plane.

Although the situations mentioned in the last four paragraphs can be totally irritating, what truly frightens me is the Let’s Dehumanize Education bandwagon, rolling into a school district near each of us. Educationbots, stuffed but not satiated (too many statistics and metrics on the data buffet to still devour) with data, chew up and spit out every Standards of Learning test score by ethnicity, English proficiency, economic status, and student disabilities. School staffs then meet in large groups (faculty meetings), medium groups (departments) and small groups (grade levels) to dissect this information and to analyze it and to discuss how to apply it to their teaching repertoire. Past tests are also made available for teachers in the different academic subjects to analyze for content specifics that need to be strengthened in future lessons.

These results provide vital knowledge. Teachers, like their administrators, want, and need, to know what works and what doesn’t. They consider all of this data as well as the related conversations with their departmental colleagues when they tweak their lesson plans. But, and this is huge because this difference is what makes the data-driven bandwagon a frighteningly out-of-control vehicle, teachers also contemplate what else might be hampering Jane’s or Johnny’s success. Data alone, which is derived from controlled situations, does not and cannot consider qualitative details.

Is Jane or Johnny, or any classmate of theirs, coping with an illness (theirs, a parent's or a sibling's), a pay-the-rent crucial after-school job, a romantic or platonic break-up, or any academic, social or personal feelings of inadequacy? Are dealings with drugs, alcohol, gangs or other risky choices negatively affecting his or her desire to learn- to succeed in school? What about apathy and feelings of entitlement ("I'm here, so pass me."). In other words, educators must also consider qualitative matters that affect student learning (and test-taking), subjective measures that cannot be supported as can quantitative (objective) data.

About a month ago, I ran into an old colleague at Target. Her questions about how I was enjoying my retirement (“It’s everything that I hoped for and more.”) led to my asking her about her school year. She enthused about her students and subject matter, but lamented the infusion of data-driven forms to be completed after each and every in-class student assessment, work that was sapping her colleagues’ and her passion and energy for teaching. “You know me, Connie,” she said, “I absolutely adore my students, yes, even the challenges, and I love teaching, but all of the time consuming data this, data that forms are making me dread going to work. And that makes me so very sad.”

Her words disheartened me because she is not alone- not by a longshot. Way too many fine educators across the country are leaving the profession. Not because of salaries or non-contract time spent on professional duties; all teachers are well-aware of these issues before they choose the profession.

School districts are losing quality educators because they care more about lesson plans built on test-related data, and molding teachers to be the proper robotic
purveyors of that information, than they do about creating an environment where students’ actions and reactions are understood and taken into consideration in lesson planning and teaching, and where learning and knowledge is key…not a few statistics or numbers that fit into a metric somewhere. As Frederick M. Hess said in his article, The New Stupid, (Educational Leadership December 2008/January 2009, 12-17) “We must take care that the ready availability of data on reading and math scores for grades 3 through 8 or on high school graduation rates--all of which provide useful information- do not become streetlights that distract more than they

What student dreams about a classroom led by an Educatorbot like Ditto in the movie, Teachers, who had students pick up activity sheets out of a wire basket every day, negating even his personal touch on the papers, and then turn them in at the end of class without a word spoken between them? What teacher wants a room full of Studentbots who can spew out factual data, verbally and in writing, but who can’t think analytically, critically or creatively on their own?

Not me. Don’t misunderstand my objectives; I pushed my students so they would be able to correctly answer questions about the who, what, where, when, why and how of any literature or literary terms that we studied. Oh, how I would have missed, though, those lively conversations debating whether Gregor had really morphed into a dung beetle or not (Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis) or those arguments defending/opposing John Proctor’s choice at the end of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and the examples of metaphor students found in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Discussions where both the students and I learned a new concept, a clever idea or an thought-provoking opinion... or two or three.

In classrooms, on the phone and in life, give me people and the messy interference of their personal problems, passions, obsessions, tempers and egos, but give me, “Just the facts, ma’am,” too. When Socrates, a teacher, was on trial for heresy he said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” He believed that in order to lead a fulfilled life of their choice that people needed to analyze and synthesize the facts about who they were, physically and mentally, with their emotional, unique, critical selves.

Socrates' path will cause stress, anxiety, laughter and tears, but these are all a part of life. Databots merely exist. Humans live. I choose the latter.


Wednesday, January 2, 2013

I am resolute about No New Year’s Resolutions

Anyone who knows me understands that I hate New Year’s Resolutions. Why should I allow this ONE DAY to be the time when I MUST make changes in my life, my beliefs and/or my actions? What an angst-causing, pressure-filled cauldron that is! Talk about a set up for failure! Maybe on January 1st I’m not ready to go on a diet. Promising myself that I will quit procrastinating and will work on my contemporary romance novel for four hours, minimum, every day starting on January 1st may not be a challenge that I wish to tackle on that auspicious date.

After all, I have a book, The House of Comprehension, for ELA middle school teachers coming out the beginning of March. Although I am done with manuscript revisions, I am sure that I could be marketing, or doing something for it…anything that will keep me from dredging my brain for witty repartee for my characters. After six months of non-stop writing and revising, my creativity, like Elvis, has left the building, my idea-rich fat lady has sung and Ms. Witty has hitched a ride on the Brain Train’s last car out of my Imaginarium.

Knowing myself as I do, the creativity bug probably won’t bite until 2:32AM on March 19th when, once again, on the morning of the 20th, I will mentally kick myself for not crawling out of my dream and stumbling to my office to add that great, but now forgotten, dialogue to Chapter Eight that had awakened me. The Diet Dictator probably won’t convince me of my eating decadences until 3:16PM on June 2nd when I really, really want to bake that to die for Chocolate Peanut Butter cake chock full of sugar, fat and calories (and incredible yumminess).

My point is, I won’t make a change that will endure until I am 100% ready to make the commitment. That might be on New Year’s Day, or, then again, maybe not. It has always rankled me no end that some ancient Babylonian philosopher/pundit (who some say is responsible for the resolution tradition) decided that everyone must be ready to commit to life changes on January 1st each and every year. Hmmm, no thank you; not for me, Philosopher Baby.

Until June 2011, my new year always began in September, anyway: First as a student, then as a teacher, next when my oldest child turned five, and then after my youngest started first grade, and, finally, as a teacher once again. Each and every one of those Septembers sang of promises I made to myself as a student, a wife, a mother and a teacher. My inner clock still seems more inclined to make personal commitments the beginning of September. This year, for instance, 9/1 was the day I smoked my last Virginia
Slim, a promise I had made to myself and had been gearing up for since June 27th. Quitting has never been so easy. My guess? I was resolved to make the committment.

For me, January 1st has been only a part of a much needed winter respite, not a day set for new beginnings, even now, a year and a half into my retirement. This New Year, I chose to find some words of wisdom to guide me though the next twelve months. Maybe a few will become resolutions to last me the rest of my life, not just for the next 365 days. My plan is to choose whichever one will reignite my usually positive outlook when I am huddled under my sadness cloak, the one that fell on my shoulders on September 30, 2012 when my incredible mother passed away at age 95. Also, I will choose one (or two) as my mantra when I am lost in a miasma of negativity due to self-inflicted moodiness that is bolstered by the thoughtless and insensitive actions and words of people I know personally, or those whom I encounter through daily life, the news and other outlets. This quote list will energize me on days when my procrastination monster is threatening to send me into my Scarlett O'Hara, "I'll think about this tomorrow," mindset.

These quotes aren’t listed in any order of importance, but are culled from those word gems that have made an emotional impression on me throughout my years and years of loving the written word. For me, they are all personal because they speak to the times that I need to “Screw {my} your courage to the sticking place,” as Lady Macbeth told her angst-filled husband. Maybe one or two of them will add meaning to 2013 for you, too.

1. The place where you made your stand never mattered. Only that you were there... and still on your feet. ~Stephen King

2. Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured. ~Mark Twain

3. Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat. ~F. Scott Fitzgerald

4. The most effective way to do it, is to do it. ~Toni Cade Bambara

5. We are what we believe we are. ~C.S. Lewis

6. Boldness be my friend. ~William Shakespeare

7. Everyone ought to bear patiently the results of his own conduct. ~William Shakespeare

8. Find ecstasy in life; the mere sense of living is joy enough. ~Emily Dickenson

9. Man, when you lose your laugh you lose your footing. ~Ken Kesey

10. Remember if people talk behind your back, it only means you're two steps ahead! ~Fannie Flagg

11. We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be. ~Jane Austin

12. Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn't matter to me. Going to bed at night saying we've done something wonderful, that's what matters to me. ~Steve Jobs

So here is my New Year’s Day advice to my readers: Resolve to commit to changes when you are mentally, emotionally and physically ready to confront your personal Achilles' heels, not because of a high school or family reunion, a trip to the Caribbean, advice from a relative, or a date on a calendar. Let the day of your choice become your personal Resolution Day.

Whatever you decide, may 2013 bring you good health, joy, love, laughter and satisfaction in all that you endeavor.


PS. Start the year with an engaging lesson: Dynamite Resolutions for the New Year. Spark your students' analytic thinking skills after the long break with this terrific activity where they create resolutions that characters from their readings would make. After they do that, the students analyze why this is a good pledge for each person.