Thursday, June 29, 2006

Saint Mary's College Feeling the Budget Crunch

Look at the photo closely. So where exactly is the college? Do professors hold class as students sit cross-legged in the grass, gazing adoringly at them? I'm afraid to ask about the dorm accommodations.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

A Bibliophile's Summer


When the school year ends, your body goes into a state of decompression. Minor episodes occur over Christmas and spring breaks, but once your body recognizes it has made it through nine months of students and school-related issues, it crashes.

Unfortunately, my brain still hasn't realized I'm done with the year. Perhaps you've heard of teachers having dreams in August about the coming year. I can attest to that. Sometimes I have a flawless day in my reverie, but normally I stress over all that could go wrong. Dreams pertaining to this year still plague my nights, though. School has been out since June 7, and yet I keep planning versions of the last couple days of school during my sleeping hours and having conversations with my students as we run into each other in my imaginations.

When awake and coherent, I have been indulging in some quilting, made difficult with frequent showings of our townhome. My sewing machine, mat, rotary cutter, and fabric take over the dining room, and it is a minor battle to stow them away again, as they don't look very attractive to prospective rentors. Since I don't know when my hobby is to be interrupted again, I've preferred just letting everything remain stored.

So my indulgence has been reading. No surprise coming from an English teacher who, even at a young age, was never found far from a book. In truth, a key requirement when searching for a new purse is whether or not it can adequately hold a book (or three) without seeming obvious.

I finished Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. This analysis of a murdered family and the trial and executions following can be plodding in parts, but I appreciate the extensive length Capote goes to in covering all aspects. I haven't seen the movie Capote, yet I probably will. My only squeamish thought keeping me from renting the movie immediately is that of watching footage of the murders, as they were gruesome in the book. But I also recognize the movie is focused on Capote's writing of the book and not just the contents of it.

Then came The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I had a student with Asperger's, so reading a 'mystery' told from an autistic protagonist allowed me to better understand her.

The Kite Runner has enjoyed popularity, warranted in my view. The story begins in Afghanistan and follows the relationship of a boy growing up comfortable in his father's status and the novel centers on how he relates with a servant while revealing how the country's core is changing politically. A betrayal causes a rift, and scenes fall upon each other in quick succession. I had known of the twist, as it spilled out of the mouth of a friend when she assumed we had all read it, but knowing what was the surprise didn't detract too much from the read. Kite fighting is a new concept, and I would love to watch it in action someday.

Since it had been recommended both by a colleague and student, I just finished My Sister's Keeper. I appreciated the use of first-person narrative switching from character to character, and Jodi Picoult writes them convincingly, though I struggled with sympathizing with all of them. Nevertheless, it fostered my desire to get inside people's heads, and it brought up interesting issues of stem-cell research and genetic engineering. This book is geared to be commercial and doesn't delve too deeply into those topics, but I found myself pondering the issues in my mind, trying to find my own beliefs when faced with the ethics of the situation.

So there is my literary summer so far, excluding some forgettable ones. I have some more on hand that have been recommended. One that I'm currently reading is called Ella Minnow Pea, premised on a small island community who reveres the man who coined the sentence: "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." One day a letter tile falls from the monument, and the town deems this a sign from the other side, that the letter is to be stricken from use. More tiles fall as the story unravels, and the author ceases using those letters as he writes his epistolary novel. Books are destroyed and consequences are handed out if one speaks a word formed with a banished letter or is found to be in the possession of correspondence containing such anathema. We'll see how it develops.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Political Correctness to the Extreme

This weekend we helped some friends move into their first home; the wife is eight months pregnant and not allowed to do much beyond point where boxes are destined to sit.

While in the kitchen, we were enthralled by the neighbors' pet. It appeared to be a cat, but we've never seen a feline so large; it could cover as a small dog or a furball gone out of control.

While relaying this to her husband, she said, "Our neighbors have a huge black cat!"

His response: "African-American, dear. African-American."

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Diminutive Campuses and Mortal Remains

My youngest sister registered for her freshman year of college classes today, and we joined her in time to go on a campus tour. It brought back some nostalgia of the college experience, but I know she's intimidated to start anew with friendships. She knows one upperclassmen, but it's a small campus, and she's my sister, so she'll do fine. I anticipate the stories that will be relayed to me starting next fall.

Later that evening, since our townhome owners are trying to find new tenants, we evacuated for yet another showing. The Science Museum of Minnesota had an exhibit we were interested in seeing, so we took this opportunity to drag my older sister there with us. With her degree in biological pre-med illustrations, she was intrigued. The exhibit was called Body Worlds, and featured actual human bodies in posed states, as well as separate cases with specific bones and organs. They have a process of plastination to prepare the bodies, and if you're interested, you can click on the link I've provided. Be forewarned: weak stomachs should not indulge; on the home page, they have a couple images that are on other touring exhibits, one of which is a man, his muscular system exposed, holding his skin at arm's length.

Some of the exhibits were fascinating, like the cuts taken from a 120-pound and a 300-pound individual. The obese one had died when his heart finally gave out, and it was no wonder when you saw how the excess fat surrounded all the organs. Examples were also of healthy and smoker's lungs, as well as what livers looked like with excessive drinking and what spleens looked like when attacked by leukemia. There was a spine of someone with an aggressive genetic trait that caused it to curl into the shape of an S and examples of heart valves and hip and knee replacements.

I'm sure you can remember instances where you saw the various systems of the human body on overlays in a book, but this caused everyone to really pause and marvel at how all the systems worked and how intricate the human body is. It was even interesting to see how many blood vessels are in chickens and birds and be able to physically see the muscles of athletic people posed with a basketball or a male in a figure-skating pose holding a woman aloft with one hand while she balanced on her back. The hardest exhibit for me was the woman who suffered from a terminal illness and passed away when she was two weeks away from giving birth to her child, and they were unable to save the child in time. They had the woman reclining, with her stomach bare so you could see the child curled in her womb. Quite sobering. And yet, it reminded me again of how women's bodies are created with the ability to bear children and how they adapt as the body grows inside. Bodies are so complex.

We spent two hours going through the exhibit before venturing to the dinosaur skeletons and the hands-on activities. It was a captivating experience.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

South Bend Update, Part Three

Our offer was to be received or rejected by 6 PM tonight. We didn't ask how soon we could expect a call, and Eric's heart was aflutter until we heard.

We spent our time watching some TV, playing cribbage, Speed, and War (even with an introduced rule after the first game). It has been rainy out, and we were hesitant to leave our phones, so we nixed the pool, but we should find our way there by the end of the day.

Finally, as six was nearing, and passing, we were growing more on edge. We still had a runner-up to fall back on, but it was the waiting that was difficult. A little after six, our phone rang. Our realtor passed on the good news; our offer had been accepted, and the sellers had been meeting with their realtors at five to sign the agreement. Contingent upon a successful inspection, we are proud homeowners in mid-July. It looks as if we will move at the end of July, and the fun begins. There's the daunting responsibility that when things go wrong, we can't just pick up a phone and call our landlord, but it's comforting to know that our mortgage payment is less per month than rent would be here, and we should be able to recover money when we sell it.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

South Bend Update, Part Two or "The Waiting Game"

Today our realtor had arranged a few more viewings for us. Our very first one made us forget our three from yesterday. It had been well maintained and was clean. It even boasted a beautiful deck that led to the above-ground pool. The primary downside was that there was no separate dining room, and the kitchen was fairly small, so a table could be tricky to maneuver.

The homes that followed were all measured against this first one but found lacking. Until one came along. It was very unassuming from the outside, but the inside was perfect. It even had a finished basement, one long family room that could be sectioned off as we saw fit. And while it had no pool, it did boast a screened-in porch. It quickly trumped the first. Two other showings on that home took place earlier today since it's new on the market, so we decided to make an offer. We will hear one way or another by tomorrow night. Should they decline, we may try to schedule a second showing of our runner-up and even place an offer before we leave on Monday.

Until then, we wait. We will swim, play cribbage, and read to pass the time.

Friday, June 16, 2006

South Bend Update, Part One

In our hotel, we are able to have wireless internet access. Eric checked his daily sites, and claimed Pearls Before Swine was written for me today. Touche.

Our trip here yesterday was uneventful. We spent almost three hours driving around town, trying to get an idea what the neighborhoods were like.
South Bend has such disparity in it; even going down a single street can demonstrate this fact, which was made exceedingly clear to us.

Our travels were fruitful. After all, a picture online can be deceptive to the quality of a home. Since it looks as if we will be in South Bend for five or six years, we're wanting a place that will be easy to sell again in that time; location will have some to do with that.

This morning we met our realtor and spent a few hours visiting homes. When we parted, there were three possibilities that remained. We'll see how they will compare with tomorrow's fare. From today, we could see ourselves potentially living in any of three, but there wasn't a single one that stood out. They all had strong points, but there was something about each one that kept it from being the best fit. For instance, they all seemed solid, but one had a very small kitchen, another was beautiful overall but was very tiny, and so on. There is a steep learning curve, and we're learning a lot.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Sleepless in Minnesota

Here I am, at 1:30 in the morning, supposed to be sleeping. Normally, I wouldn't care exactly when I found myself in bed on a summer night, as the last couple summers since graduation have had me not working but instead looking for a teaching job or packing for a move. But early Thursday morning we are on a flight to South Bend in anticipation of buying our first house. I was going to be good, get a good night's sleep so I'm ready. And I just tossed and turned for over an hour and had to crawl out of bed. No telling what is keeping me awake.

One explanation could be anticipation of a big change, but I don't sense that as the catalyst. I would more likely place the blame on the start of my summer. I seem to be rested from my school year, and my body is realizing it can get more than six hours of sleep on a weeknight now that I don't have to be out the door by 6:30 AM. I don't think my body has completely accepted this, so getting about eight hours a night is decadent and murmurings of mutiny are sounding. Apparently I was well adjusted and my body, even though exhausted with that sleep schedule during the year, likes the thought of it in the summer. We'll see what transpires.

If we're lucky enough to get free internet connections on our travels, you'll get updates during our trip. Otherwise, look for a summation upon our return next week. Perhaps Eric will still be in shock after dropping a down payment and gasping with the thought of a mortgage.

School Memories: Leet

You will find geeks in every grade you teach. Many of us can remember who the geeks were in our classes growing up (some of this may hit too close to home for some of you, as you represented these awkward individuals). One such student, a gregarious geek in my American Lit class, was not ashamed to show his roots. He would wear shirts with slogans such as: "There's no place like 127.0.0.1" and many would look confusedly while the elite, the few knew what the numbers represented--your home network.

I heard the term Leet thrown around last year, and couldn't completely understand it until this student forced me into a corner. With Eric's tutelage, I was able to make sense of it. Essentially, in my overly simplistic definition, Leet is a language for nerds alone. They take letters and morph them into similar looking numbers and symbols, so the transliteration can be indecipherable to some. This can be called Leetspeak, or 13375p34k. Make sense? There can be many variants of how to do this, but if you look closely enough at the shapes, you can pick up on it if your mind can think abstractly. For the curious who want to know more about how it came to be called Leet or some common transliterations, Wikipedia tries to define it for the ignorant masses. And Google created a search page in 1337 to cater to fans who just can't get enough.

So how does this relate to teaching? Well, once in a while, this student would write a phrase in Leet, and when I had no idea what it was, it read as a meaningless jumble. One day, after I'd been educated, I was handing out a quiz on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Students are rarely ecstatic for quizzes, so this student groaned and threatened to write his answers in Leet. I wasn't intimidated, and he began. What was meant to be a relatively easy quiz, just meant to assess that students were keeping up in their reading, kept him busy in his attempts to make it challenging for me to read. I had to make a copy of it before I graded it so I could remember this antic. For instance, in response to my question,
"What is one superstition Huck believes in?", this student writes:

"+l-l120\/\/1l\lg 54l_+ 0\/312 j00r 5l-l0l_312," which translates to:

"Throwing salt over your shoulder." Easy, right?

Thursday, June 08, 2006

School Memories: Perks of a Chaperone

In the fall, the seventh-graders have an opportunity to go on an annual field trip. It is an educational experience involving team-building activities and physical challenges. I was invited as a chaperone, as one of the regular teachers had to remain behind for potential jury duty.

In her stead, I was told I had big shoes to fill. The challenge every year is the same: see if you can get through the whole trip without having to bus your own tray. I was up to the test. The one rule was simple: students could not know this was a challenge; they must agree out of the goodness of their heart. It was early in the year, so the "honeymoon" stage was still in full force.

I'm not a pushy person, so I knew if I was refused, I would cave and just do it myself. I had several students, when asked directly, gladly agree to take my tray. Sometimes they took it if they got to eat my dessert, which was a fair trade in my eyes.

I had to get creative when I was in charge of my breakfast crew: we ate first, and then cleaned all the other trays of the students as they finished. Here I had a small sampling of volunteers to coerce. I was elaborate in my ruse. Once the first student finished and sat waiting for the rest of us, I mentioned that I was taking pictures of our time so my husband knew what I was doing in his absence, and would she mind dumping my tray so I could take a picture? (This trip tried to make students aware of food waste, and had students separate leftovers on their trays into separate tubs and then weighed the results.) She looked at me doubtfully, but another student chirped up, "I'll do it!" She posed so well, too!

The field trip was a success; I bused my tray once, only because one night when I finished, there were no more students in the cafeteria. I figured I could have one blip from the trip when I had all other meals covered.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

School Memories: The Last Day of School

Today was the last day of school. Even with that being the case, I still have several "School Memories" to share for the next week or two. I've found this is a good way to catalog my memories from the year before they become fuzzy and lost.

Even though I've only experienced two "last" days of school as an educator, I feel that they are anti-climactic. In the high school, we end with finals: students come in on one day, take a seat, take a long test, and then leave when the time ends. In middle school, we slowly ramp down: students have some casual days with word games, have a final day where they ask teachers to sign their yearbooks, and all this during a whirlwind shortened schedule. I try to somehow capture what we have experienced together, but words fail me and I falter.

Then there's the rush to make sure that your room is closed up for the summer and that you get checked out as efficiently as possible. Students are straining to have summer begin, while there's this feeling of, "What's next?" I wonder what will come of my students, how they will change, what forces outside their control they will encounter and how they will respond.
Unfortunately, I will learn little of these developments, since I'm taking my leave of the district. Some updates will reach my ears and I will rejoice in the successes and mourn at the losses. Once they leave my room, we lose a special connection; I am a teacher they rushed to daily with updates about life, and I learned of the reasons for their mood swings. We are a collective that bonded through the year, and now this unit is being separated. I, too, am glad for a season of change, but I need to reflect on how this time has changed me before I too quickly celebrate my freedom from the more trying children.

So at the end of the day, I am left with a few new tokens to expand my collection, gifts and cards shyly given by students, and I fondly remember the words of colleagues spoken in parting. I go through life day by day, sometimes too distracted with minor demands that I loose sight of those around me. However, I always cherish the connections I make with teachers in passing. One esteemed math teacher entered my room before school today and wished me luck, speaking specifically as to why she will miss me. As she did so, she became choked up. As I went for a hug, my eyes became teary as well. Here, a woman I greatly respect was counting me as a friend and spoke of the impact I had on her, even with the slight encounters we had throughout the year.

This is a bittersweet parting. I feel as if I'm on the cusp of relationships; were I to stay, I would be delighted to see them deepen and to watch my students mature and become adults.

So as this chapter ends, I remain grateful that a high-school principal saw potential in me and offered me a job in a district that shaped and supported me through the process.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

How to Become a Real Minnesotan

This past weekend I became a real Minnesotan. Just in time, as we're looking to move to Indiana. Wondering how I acquired such a sought-after title? I ventured to my first cabin. Yes, we headed north and even wandered to the Apostle Islands--Madeline Island, to be exact. Sure, that meant we were in Wisconsin, but we were following in the steps of seasoned Minnesotans. With the weather being ideal, I now understand why so many endure the gridlocked traffic in the Cities every Friday afternoon in order to enjoy the solace of nature. I spent a couple hours Saturday morning sitting on a bluff and reading poetry written by my little sister as the birds trilled an appropriate soundtrack to the event.

In our short visit (taken with seven others), we were able to see the shops in town, visit the beach, and lounge with friends on the spacious deck. It was a meaningful time with friends just as one couple is moving out of the country and Eric and I are leaving the area as well.

School Memories: Gifts

Teachers are periodically given gifts. When I completed student-teaching, I received some small gifts from individual students; the one that probably meant the most to me was a card and a small trinket cup that said, "Super Teacher" on the side. These were given to me from some ESL students I had been able to help during their study hall on a couple occasions.

As a high-school teacher, the gifts are scarce. As a middle-school teacher, however, I can boast of my small collection of odds and ends. They range from a pound of coffee from the local establishment to a small radio/travel alarm/calendar combo. Some of these are accompanied by cards, which are gratifying to read and serve as nice mementos.

In my first-hour class, I have two caffeine addicts who regularly frequent Caribou Coffee and finish their drinks during morning announcements. These girls were telling me last week that they should bring me a drink on the last day of school. I smiled, but didn't hold my breath. Students are constantly speaking whatever's crossing their mind at the time, not necessarily meaning it. Tomorrow is the final day of the school year. As I arrived in my room today, one of my addicts walked by and I greeted her. A couple minutes pass and into my room enters the two of them. One asked, "Do you like chai tea, Mrs. H?" while from behind her back she pulled a delicious cup of froth. Oh, joyous refreshment!

Monday, June 05, 2006

School Memories: Verbal Faux Pas

One student had asked for my help on his computer. As I was en route across the room, another student tried to snag me with a question. I reminded him he needed to wait his turn, as I was already occupied with Jack's request. Heads of several nearby students shot up quickly when I finished my response, mouths agape. I had to replay the scene in my head to learn why there was such interest in this commonplace scene.

So this is how I learned I need to be careful how I address certain students' names followed immediately by verbs. For instance, "Jack asked..."

Thursday, June 01, 2006

School Memories: Sherlock Holmes is on the Case

When I find worksheets with no name on them, I set them aside and refrain from grading them until they're claimed by their rightful owners. Otherwise, it's amazing to see how many lackluster students suddenly "remember" they had chosen to complete that assignment and it had slipped their mind to write their name on the paper with the perfect grade. Perhaps with the lack of practice with assignment followthrough, that's a believable oversight on their behalf?

Seventh graders are notorious at leaving their names off of their papers, especially at the beginning of the year until they've been adequately "trained." My process is honed to an art: each paper missing a name is appropriately marked with the hour of the day it came from before I set it aside (this helps narrow down the field of suspects significantly). I then mention the findings in the appropriate sections during the day, where they are thus returned to me, now with the owner's John Hancock in its rightful place. If the offender is not paying attention to the desperate calls issuing forth from the unredeemed worksheet, then their property is relegated to the depths of a file folder, only to be referenced if the delinquent notices the slip in their grade.

One student of mine lacked the necessary foreknowledge to connect "not doing assignments" with "midquarters sent home," so when the dreaded gradeslip arrived in the parents' hands, she was chastized. Naturally, she claimed she had done the work and her teacher must have misplaced it; I rarely receive this complaint, but when I do, it has never been substantiated. In the unlikely event that I misplace an assignment, I am not going to consistently do so for only one student all quarter. It just doesn't happen like that.

When that tirade was over, her next move was to claim she must have forgotten her name on the papers. This is faulty, in that she was missing assignments in which the whole batch of turned-in papers proudly boasted their ownership, leaving none unclaimed. Again, I must remind you these no-name papers cry out in desperate shrieks, begging for their owners to rescue them from their forsaken place. Said student had not exhibited the usual signs of an owner with no-name papers adrift. Nevertheless, I braced myself for their mad cries as I brought forth these lost souls for her examination.

When left alone with these papers, said student attempted to claim work that I had unwittingly graded before I noticed the lack of a name. The two assignments she was passing off as hers happened to be two perfect assignments. Not yet red flags, but perhaps rose ones began to go up. I couldn't quiet the pleas of these papers, either. The only fate worse for jilted papers than remaining discarded without another thought is to be taken home by harsh masters, overlords only interested in taking advantage of what you have to offer them; they would probably be hurled to the recycle bin seconds after being handed back. I finally noticed what these papers were trying to convey to me: there, blazened in a dark, dare I say attractive, scrawl, I had jotted two separate periods of the day.

Said student, handing these to me, continued to display her guilt as she nonchalantly stated, "I write in two different ways." This statement revealed the fact that these assignments were, indeed, quite different; one was illegible chicken scratches, the other quite elegant in penmanship. I called her bluff, so she then proceeded to demonstrate how she writes "differently" by first writing her name quite large, then she wrote it in a smaller size...no other changes.

I could have walked away with a sigh, no longer acknowledging this facade. Lesser teachers have been known to stumble in the face of absurdity. But said student was no match for our heroine. I examined the two papers, perhaps I even paced and struck a stance. If I would have had my small-rimmed glasses on, I could have looked over the lenses, as this strikes fear in all. One of the assignments had pretty sophisticated words employed. I asked her to write one such word. She bit her lip, she rolled her eyes, she gritted her teeth and tried to calm her raging heart. As she gripped the pencil, the words I longed to hear issued from her lips: "How do you spell that?" This victim was doing a fine job implicating herself. As expected, she butchered the word. Apparently, she must also write in a third way.

Never fear. The elegant penmanship assignment was returned to her rightful owner. Praises were sung by the jubilant masses; our heroine polished her magnifying glass and rested her head after another job well done.

Add stellar deduction powers to my list of skills.