07 December 2014

Stupid Alabama

  One of my oldest friends, affectionately known as “Little Matt” has also developed a friendship with Isaac.  For Isaac’s birthday this year, Matt sent him the book “Stupid Alabama” by his friend Michael P.Wines.  Matt assured me that despite it’s length it would hold both of our attentions with numerous humorous scenarios involving bodily functions.  

    The boy ended up begging to read more every night.  

    It is the story, a fifth grade Brooklynite Melvin has  adventures with his Uncle Petro, a biologist in Alabama.  It is a fish out of water story that doesn’t discount the city kid’s intelligence and savvy.  I appreciated how expectations about what it means to be an environmentalist, outdoorsman, and even a Southerner are all shown to be more complicated than you would initially expect.  

    Every few chapters, “Petro’s Field Notes” provides humorous information about animals mentioned in the book.

    Uncle Petro works at a university lab and is trying to save some local endangered species.  The reader gets a glimpse at some of the day to day reality of being a scientist, but also some of the eccentric personalities that are drawn to this line of work  
    The closest thing I can compare it to is one of Hiaasen’s young adult novels like “Hoot”.  There is a little bit of age appropriate romance, but the animals, pranks, and adventures are the real draw here.  

     If there was any weakness, it would be the buffoon like investigative journalist.  A great foil for kids to hate, but I just couldn’t help imagine his part being played out like any of the hundreds of bad kid’s movie comical villains I have seen.  

    I think kids from  ages 8-14 would love this book, especially if they like reptiles, and the fluids that those reptiles excrete when threatened.   


06 August 2014

A Reading Community

Our drive to and from Florida takes us through some small towns in three different states. I like being off the main highway for part of the trip and enjoy the slower pace and scenic views of the country roads. There are some towns that we drive through that are picturesque and quaint. And there are some areas we drive through that are depressed and run down.

In South Carolina, there is a small town called Society Hill. It is a town I look forward to driving through despite the abandoned buildings and empty storefronts that line the county road. In Society Hill there is a library -- right there on the main road for everyone driving through town to see.

For years when we drove to Florida, we passed this small library and saw a fundraising sign out front tracking the progress of the effort to build a new library building. Then one day, as we drove through, there it was. The brand new, modern, beautiful Society Hill branch of the Darlington Public Library.

When I first saw the new building, it struck me as such an enormous undertaking for this small, poor town. Then I thought about the commitment that the people of that community must have to literacy and education. What better gift could they give their children than to make sure they have a place to find books, to connect to the world with technology, to gather with peers, to learn?

I have been doing a lot of professional reading this summer -- trying to evaluate my practices and beliefs. I read Donalynn Miller's books about teaching reading, The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild. She writes about how she works to create a community of readers in her classroom. I have been thinking about how I can create the same kind of community at my school and help teachers build that community in their classrooms.

When I think about a reading community, I picture the Society Hill libraries, old and new. It may only exist in my imagination, but there is a reading community there. A group of people that are dedicated to making books available to everyone, to making sure that resources are on hand to help people find the information they need, to making a space that people can meet and discuss and get to know each other.

Donalynn Miller has been added to my teaching heroes list. I will have her books on hand this year as I work to build a reading community at my school. I will also have a picture of the Society Hill library posted by my desk to remind me of the reading community that has been there and the commitment that they have to keeping it going.

22 July 2014

Brilliant But Weird

We have been listening to a lot of Weird Al this past week.  His new album was recently released and eight days in a row he released a new video from the album. I thought the first two songs and videos, "Tacky" and "Word Crimes," were brilliant and fun. The later songs I thought were typical of his work, but they did not resonate with me like those two did. It does help to know the songs or the styles he is parodying and I willingly admit to being so woefully out of touch with pop culture that I am mostly clueless about where the parodies on his new album originate.

Isaac, as you can imagine, loves Weird Al.  That's his wheelhouse -- the guy gets 8-9 year olds' humor. Isaac knows slightly more of the music that is being parodied than I do, but only slightly. For him, though, the the humor does not come from the parody, it comes from the lyrics and funny videos. Most of his favorite Weird Al songs are older ones like "White and Nerdy" and "The Saga Begins" and "Eat It."

In the past week, there has also been a lot of criticism centered around the new album, specifically the song "Word Crimes" in which Weird Al uses Robin Thicke's song "Blurred Lines" to parody grammar mistakes. In it, he uses negative language to refer to people who use improper grammar. So, his song lyrics, while moderately educational and maybe even well-intentioned, are actually reinforcing stereotypes and the marginalization of a segment of society. There is supposedly debate about who he is actually parodying -- the people who use the incorrect grammar or those who are such sticklers about it.

I listened to Grammar Girl's podcast yesterday about the song and she has some pretty strong opinions about which side he falls on and the message his song is actually sending. I get it -- his terminology could, and should, have been more carefully selected. But I still think the song is fun to listen to.

Would I use the video with my students? No! Before the criticism of the song began, I knew I could never show it to my students or share it on the school Facebook page. Regardless of the degrading words he uses, the video has sexual innuendos that are not appropriate for the classroom. As much as kids, Isaac especially, love his stuff, it isn't meant for school.

Weird Al is brilliant, but he is also crass and his humor is base. Like I said, perfect for 8-9 year olds. I Googled some of the artists and songs he parodied on this album. See? Woefully out of touch. While Weird Al may not be the most high-brow influence on Isaac's musical tastes, I much prefer him listening to Yankovic than the artist "Word Crimes" came from.

Isaac and I made our annual 9 hour drive to Florida last week. Weird Al was played most of the way down. A friend commented that he didn't realize there was 9 hours worth of material. I assured him that there isn't, at least not on Spotify. And Isaac has some definite favorites. I now know them all by heart. I realized that Isaac is now about the same age I was when I first listened to Weird Al. I like that we have that connection and when a song comes on I can say, "I remember seeing this video when I was a kid." There are worse things over which we could bond.

21 July 2014

A Summer of Reading, So Far

I don't read as much during the school year as I would like. I especially don't stay caught up with the new novels that come out for elementary age children. This summer I am trying to play catch up and read some things that I have had on my list and become familiar with some books so I can make better recommendations next year for my students. So here is some of what I have been reading.

Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage is the first book in what is now a series. The story is set in the fictional North Carolina town of Tupelo Landing, which is somewhere "down east." Mo LeBeau, whose mysterious beginnings set the stage for a puzzle that will span future books, considers herself a detective and jumps into the fray when there is a murder in her small town. Her antics sort of help solve the crime, with some bumblings and interference along the way. Her best friend, Dale Earnhardt Johnson III, is her partner and the backdrop of small town, everyone-knows-everyone-else's business, life brings in a host of interesting characters. There are nosy old women, overly helpful local politicians, eccentric business owners, the town bully, and rivals turned friends. Mo is funny and earnest, mostly funny because she is so earnest, but her insecurities will resonate with many kids who are asking questions about life and self and the mysteries around them.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio made me cry.  A lot.  I cried in the first chapter and in the middle and I sobbed at the end.  It is the story of Auggie Pullman, a seriously disfigured 5th grader who is going to school for the first time.  His story is told from multiple perspectives -- his, his older sister's, his classmates', his sister's friends'. Through the eyes of all of these characters we get a picture of Auggie finding his path through the world and finding friends to make the journey with him.  He is bullied and hurt but it is a story of triumph and healing.  This is a story of perseverance and acceptance that everyone should read. But have a box of tissues on hand.

A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff is about a fantastical world in which most people are Talented. The Talent may be a bizarre one, like having perfect spitting aim -- or an artsy one, like being able to weave elaborate braids -- or a sentient one, like being able to place orphans with their perfect families on first meetings. In this world, in Poughkeepsie, NY, live some interesting characters whose lives become tangled together as one searches for her forever family, another searches for her Talent, another searches for adventure, another searches for a long-lost treasure, and yet another searches for an escape from the past. This story is also told from multiple perspectives and it weaves in and out of each character's experiences, all the time tying everything together and showing how people's destinies are often connected to those around them. Sometimes we all need to be reminded that what we do affects others. This story will help kids make that connection.

Twerp by Mark Goldblatt is set in 1960's Queens. It is about 6th grader Julian and his struggle to come to terms with some bad things he has done and what kind of person it makes him. Julian is suspended before the novel opens for an act of bullying, we assume, though what actually happened is not explained for most of the book. His English teacher gives him an assignment as additional "punishment" -- keep a journal for the remainder of the school year and get out of writing the "Julius Caesar" essay the rest of the class will have to do.  The novel is Julian's journal.  In it he works his way through typical 6th grade problems -- self-esteem troubles, friend troubles, girl troubles, friend troubles caused by girl troubles, self-esteem troubles caused by friend and girl troubles -- and eventually does some deep self-examining, which we all, including Julian, knew was his teacher's intention in the first place. I liked that the characters in this book were real, with real defects. Julian knows what his teacher is trying to do and openly resists it.  Julian also knows that his best friend is a bully, but can't quite admit it to himself. Instead, he defends Lonnie, even at the end. But he also stands up to him and makes him do the right thing. That kind of courage is hard to find when you are 12. This is a different perspective on bullying and one I think many boys will connect with.

Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo is about a lonely girl and an unlikely super hero.  It reminded me a lot of The Tale of Desperaux, also by DiCamillo. Flora, the daughter of a divorced accountant and a romance novelist, is a cynic who doesn't believe in hope. Her approach to the world has been formed from reading The Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto -- "Do not hope; instead observe." Ulysses is a squirrel who got sucked into a vacuum cleaner and emerged with super powers -- strength, flying, writing, understanding humans. Flora, with the help of some weird neighbors and unexpected friends, saves Ulysses from his arch-nemesis. In the process, she loses some of her cynicism and even finds hope.  The tone is very similar to Desperaux -- characters is both books are on a journey of self-discovery and the main animal character views the world with a sense of wonder. What I think will really appeal to children about this book, especially boys, is the use of comic-style illustrations to tell part of the story.  Flora also constantly refers back to her comics as she struggles to work out the various obstacles she and Ulysses encounter.  The book is a nice mix of the two styles of storytelling.

I have also done some professional reading and read some adult novels, this summer. We finished reading Harry Potter with Isaac -- he is now reading Timmy Failure:Now Look What You've Done. I read Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman, and enjoyed it. I also have a stack of books with me to read on vacation, so my reading is far from done. Now to decide what to read next . . .

18 July 2014

Fortunately, The Milk reviewed by Matt

My old college friend Ben McFarland compared Neil Gaiman’s Fortunately, The Milk to an un-aired episode of Doctor Who for children. That was enough to make me want to read it. Isaac, like many children, has a love/hate relationship with the Doctor. He is both fascinated and terrified of the science fiction creatures on the show. I leapt at the opportunity to give him the same intellectually playful and non-cynical experience of Doctor Who without the chance of him coming to our room at three in the morning to tell us about his dreams of the Cybermen.

Gaiman actually has written an episode of Doctor Who, “The Doctor’s Wife," along with many other books including Coraline, The Graveyard Book, and co-wrote Good Omens which had me gasping for wind from laughing so hard when I read it for our church book club.

Fortunately, the Milk is the story of one father’s attempt to bring some milk home from the store and the shaggy dog adventure he had on the way home.  (Sort of a cross between Dr. Seuss’s To Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street and The Usual Suspects).  It also reminded me of one of our favorite web comics, Axe Cop, in it’s rambling “everything including the kitchen sink” method of storytelling.

The Doctor famously once said,People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but *actually* from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint - it's more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly... timey wimey... stuff.”  And that certainly applies here.  It gives young children a chance to experience non-linear cause and effect in a fairly simple way.

The book takes maybe 30-45 minutes to read and all three of us enjoyed it immensely.  Pick up a copy and let us know what YOU think.

15 July 2014

Giggling Angel

I've written about Aunt Sarah before.  She has been a constant in my life -- someone who offered unconditional love and support.  She died yesterday morning.  She was 102, her mind had grown fuzzy and her body weak.  Her life on Earth had become a burden to her.  It was time.

I learned a lot from her -- things that have helped me as I grew into myself and things that I want to pass on to Isaac.

From Aunt Sarah I learned that women could be independent.  She never married.  For a woman born at the beginning of the 20th Century this was unusual.  To be honest, I don't know if she stayed single by choice or if the chance to marry just never came along for her.  There were some things you just didn't ask when I was growing up. Regardless, she set an example of womanhood outside the traditional married-with-children-staying-home-keeping-house model that most women of her generation, including her sister, my grandmother, subscribed to.  She worked her whole life and was proud of her career - she often had stories to share from her days with the Steamfitters and would defend unions against the staunchest foes.  She supported herself and learned how to manage her money so that she would remain independent even in her retirement.  Whether it was her choice or just the circumstances of her life, she embraced her single state and enjoyed her independence.

From Aunt Sarah I learned that your are never too old to try something new.  As a young girl, and later as a middle aged working woman, she always relied on her feet or public transportation to get around.  She never learned how to drive.  But when she retired and prepared to move to a more rural town, that would not suffice any longer.  So, in her late 60's she took driving lessons and got her license.  After that she was never an adventurous driver, and she definitely did not like driving at night, but she had the freedom to visit family, go to the store, or do whatever else she had the mind to.  I am probably remembering her drive down the mountain to our house as longer than it really was, but I can still picture her driving along in her little Ford Escort a few times a week to bring us something or pick one of us up to spend the weekend with her or to just visit.

From Aunt Sarah I learned the value of making something new out of something less than ordinary.  Having lived through the Depression, and probably also from having to economize as a single working woman, nothing was ever wasted.  My sister and I had the best dressed Barbies on the block because Aunt Sarah used the scraps of material (left over from making her own clothes or clothes for us) to make dresses for our dolls.  We didn't have a fancy store-bought doll house, but we had a two-story mansion made from boxes, covered in wallpaper scraps, that we enjoyed playing with just as much.  She always arrived at our house with plastic bags hanging from her arms carrying whatever it was she was bringing -- whether it was groceries or her clothes for an overnight stay.  She reused everything.  Shoe boxes were covered in patterned contact paper to hold loose items. Paper towel rolls were cut down to organize cords.  She could make a fortune today blogging about her methods for repurposing.

From Aunt Sarah I learned the joy of organization.  Well, to be honest, I don't know that she was really organized --  but she did love "sorting" her many contact-paper-covered boxes of things.  After she moved in with my mother in her 90th decade, you could often find her in her room going through her things -- mostly paper and photographs, things that connected her to her family and her old friends, she loved looking through these items and reliving memories.  She had her own system of organization and it worked for her.

From Aunt Sarah I learned the importance of generosity.  She was always buying something for me or my sister or giving us money.  Big or small, it was always gifts -- never loans, never any conditions.  She always said that she would not be able to take it with her and she would prefer that it be put to good use during her lifetime.  As long as she had enough to buy food and pay rent, everything else could be given away.  Every time I was at her apartment, there was a letter thanking her for her contribution to this charity or that organization.  She wasn't indiscriminate in who she gave to -- she chose causes she felt strongly about or had a connection to or maybe sent her address labels. She gave responsibly and often.  Money was not important to her.

From Aunt Sarah I learned to love books.  She often took me to bookstores -- the dark, dusty bookstore downtown to buy old copies of Nancy Drew books or the sunny, cheerful bookstore by her apartment to buy my set of Anne of Green Gables books, one book at a time.  I can still remember visiting both stores with her and buying books that I still own.  Thinking back now, I don't recall seeing Aunt Sarah read much, though I know she did - she was a Dick Francis fan - but she definitely supported my love of books.  She would take me to the library regularly but spend as much time parallel parking outside on the Pike Street hill as I spent inside choosing books.

From Aunt Sarah I learned that going to church every Sunday is not what makes you a Christian.  I know that she was active in her church in her younger years, attending regularly and teaching Sunday School.  But I don't remember her stepping foot in a church except for weddings when she was older.  I also don't know that I have met many people with a stronger faith than hers.  She had a quiet, but strong faith.  It was important to her that we have a foundation in the church, but once she retired and moved, finding a church was not a priority.  She knew what she believed, she had her Bible and her hymns, and her faith in God was evidenced in how she treated the people around her.

From Aunt Sarah I learned the importance of family.  She gave up her youth to nurse her sick mother and take care of her widowed father.  Probably gave up any chance of having a family of her own, too.  She adopted us as her own and treated us like we were more than just great-nieces.  She moved to Florida with us to stay close.  Her mind wandered back to her early days with her family when the fuzziness started to set in.  Family was her life, her reason.  She would have done anything for us.  And us for her.

From Aunt Sarah I learned to laugh.  She had the most infectious giggle.  Oftentimes, she was laughing at herself as she recounted something silly she had done.  Most family dinners that she attended ended up with our stomachs hurting -- not from eating too much, but from laughing with her.  Sometimes the story wouldn't even be that funny, but something would set her off giggling and then we were all caught up in her mirth, with tears running down our faces, gasping for breath.

It is the laughter that I will miss the most.  There are so many other memories that have flitted through my mind as I wrote this -- watching ShaNaNa in her apartment as she cooked me a hamburger, her telling me not to stick my arm out of the window as we drove up the mountain because she had a friend whose arm was cut off doing that (yes, I believed her), her standing at the refrigerator eating out of the ice cream container (her favorite food), the homemade skirts she wore (always skirts, never pants) --but her giggle is the most vivid memory I have.

She lived a good, long, full life.  She was the last of her generation and now she has joined her family who went before her in Heaven.  The family she left behind will miss her, but her memories will keep her alive.  I can almost hear her laughing as she catches up Grandma and Poppy and everyone else on what they have missed since they left.  But I know, too, that she is up there watching over us.  Our own giggling angel.

14 July 2014


Our summer has been dominated by the World Cup.  We have not watched every game, but we have scheduled our weeks around the games we wanted to see.  Now that it is over, Isaac and I will have to be more creative about how we fill our time.

Even though Isaac has played soccer with the YMCA since he was five, we are not a soccer household. American football has firm roots here and always will, I am sure.  But I discovered over the past few weeks that I really enjoy watching soccer.

I don't know that the World Cup would have even been on our radar had our favorite coffee shop not advertised that they would be showing the USA group matches.  Isaac saw the poster on one of our weekly visits early in June and immediately decided he wanted to watch them.  Since we do not have cable, going to Geeksboro or a sports bar was going to be the only way to do it.

At the first match, I was barely tuned in, but after the win over Ghana I got caught up in the excitement.  We went back to see the second match and then I even planned to go watch the Germany match despite the fact that Isaac was in camp and wouldn't be able to go with me.  I had to be able to give him an update, right? We watched the USA lose to Belgium in the Round of 16 and Costa Rica pull off a win after being down a player and making it through extra time to come through on penalty kicks.  Then there was their loss to The Netherlands in a similar scenario, and Netherlands loss to Argentina again on PK's, culminating in Argentina's loss to Germany in the final.  My track record held through it all -- ultimately the team I was routing for met its demise.  But it was still fun to watch.

As I told friends who talked me through some of the finer points of the game -- why the goalies' uniforms are a different color, what the yellow armbands mean, why they get a goal kick rather than a throw-in -- I know enough about soccer to sound stupid.  I love watching the constant action, but I don't yet understand the finer nuances of the game -- what will get a yellow card vs. a free kick, when the players are off-sides, though I do finally at least understand what that means, whether or not the player writhing on the ground is really injured or just buying his team some rest time.

I marvel at the athleticism of the players on the field and am amazed at their running stats at the end of the games.  Watching the game without interruptions, without ads, without stopping after every play pulled me in and let me get caught up in the rhythm of the play.  So much different than football with its stop and go motion and TV time-outs and halves that last twice as long as the clock says they do.

What really pulled me in, though, was being part of a community of soccer fans.  Watching the games at Geeksboro, many times in their intimate basement theater, cheering with a crowd, and catching the other fans' excitement is what brought me back game after game.  For a few weeks, we were part of a larger soccer family.  Even after "our" team lost in the finals yesterday afternoon, I smiled to see the Germany fan running up the Geeksboro stairs waving his team's flag and cheering.

Last fall Isaac chose to play flag football instead of soccer.  This fall he wants to play soccer again and I look forward to watching his games, though my heart will be in my throat if his coach puts him in goal again.

And the Women's World Cup is only 326 days away!

30 June 2014

Finally Harry!

We started reading Harry Potter!

I love the Harry Potter books.  I knew that I wanted to read them with Isaac some day, but I waited because I also knew that I did not want him to read them too early.  As Harry's character grows and matures, so do the themes in the books.  It is my personal opinion that the later books are not suited to elementary students, despite the fact that many have read them.  So, it was just last year that I began asking Isaac if he wanted to start reading the series.  The answer was a resolute "no."  Until last month!

Many of his classmates were reading Harry Potter this year and I had a feeling that he would jump on the bandwagon.  We have been doing family read-alouds of novels recently, and he decided our next one should be The Sorcerer's Stone.  I was elated.

Matt is reading the story out loud, with a wonderful British accent and voices for each of the characters.  We try to read a chapter a night - luckily we are flexible on bed time in the summer since some of the chapters are rather long.

We just read the chapter about the sorting hat.  It is one of my favorite chapters in the entire series and I was excited about reaching that point in the story.  Matt and Isaac both thought my enthusiasm was a bit odd as I bounced in anticipation of reading the chapter.

In "The Sorting Hat" chapter Harry, along with the reader, sees the interior of Hogwarts for the first time and meets most of the principal characters in the series.  Rowling's descriptions of the ceiling of the main hall, the ghosts, the food appearing on the plate are vivid illustrations of the magical world we have finally entered.  The reader shares Harry's amazement and his trepidation as he takes his turn with the Sorting Hat.  The Hat's monologue as he decides what house Harry will be in sets the stage for the conflicts that will carry the series through to its conclusion in book 7.  The glimpses we get of the professors -- McGonagall, Snape, Dumbledore -- introduce us to the characters that will shape Harry into the wizard he becomes.

We still have a lot to read of the first book, and then there are the other six to read after.  I am not sure that we will read all of them out loud, though I will re-read them as Isaac reads so we can experience Harry's adventures together.

I have been waiting to share these books with Isaac for almost nine years.  Now that the time is finally here, I am content to take it slow.  I am hoping Isaac will love these books as much as I do.

02 June 2014

We Have Come to The Age of Testing

Actually, the testing started in kindergarten, but the stakes weren't as high as they are in 3rd grade in North Carolina.  This year, parents of 3rd graders were told in August that if our children did not pass the test, then they would be able to promote to 4th grade, but as a transitional 3rd grader receiving remedial help.  Then in December, parents were told that if students did not pass the test, but had a complete portfolio which showed that they had mastered twelve standards, then they could promote to 4th grade with no strings attached.  Then parents were told in February that if students had received a certain score or higher on the beginning of the year "pre-EOG", then they did not have to have a portfolio.  Then in March, we heard through the grapevine that instead of looking at a portfolio or the "pre-EOG" score, teachers could use the quarterly assessments that they give each student to determine promotion to 4th grade if the student does not pass the EOG.

Needless to say, I was in Isaac's classroom one afternoon a couple of weeks ago asking what the deal was and what the steps would be if Isaac has a bad day and does not pass his tests this week.  His teacher looked at me with pity and pointed out that if I am confused, imagine what parents who don't work for the school system are feeling right now.

So this is what needs to happen for a 3rd grader to promote to 4th grade, free and clear.  First chance is to pass the reading EOG tomorrow.  If Isaac accomplishes that, then we are done.  If not, then the second chance is a different, supposedly easier test next week.  Ace that, and it is over.  If not, his teacher will look at his end of the year assessments.  If he is proficient, then he is a 4th grader come June 13th.  If not, then he is off to summer school, or whatever fun name they are choosing to give it.  If he makes it through summer school and shows that he has mastered what he needs for 4th grade, then he will officially be a 4th grader.  If not, then he will be in a 4th grade classroom in August, but with a 3rd grade label.  Clear?  Of course not.

Isaac's teachers have tried to keep the stress level down in class as the tests have gotten closer, and I have tried to keep away from the subject at home, while mentally preparing for a rough week and planning how I can make it easier for him.  But about three weeks ago the lamentations began -- Isaac wishing EOG's were over and wishing that he didn't have to take them at all.  Isaac worrying about not being to sleep the night before because he would be thinking about the test.  Isaac feeling like the weeks were dragging and the tests would never be behind him.

I have worked in education for 14 years and been involved with EOG's every single one of them.  I have never liked them, but I have always accepted that they are a necessary evil.  Now, experiencing the testing from the perspective of a parent, I no longer believe they are necessary, but I definitely believe they are evil.

Of course, there have been children's books written about testing.  They are humorous works for the most part that point out the ridiculousness of the process and try to help kids relax before the big day by making fun of how stressed the teachers get about it.  And a few of them are spot on.  Every teacher who reads them recognizes the absurdity of what we go through each year.

Testing Miss Malarkey by Judy Finchler is a great parody of what happens as the tests get closer.  The students prepare for the IPTU test as the teachers grow more harried and exhausted trying to make sure they are ready.  Parents have bedtime bubble practice sessions and ramp up the protein.  Just as in real life, the kids catch on that the test is a little more important than the teachers were leading students to believe.

Hooray for Diffendoofer Day is a posthumous collaboration between Dr. Seuss, Jack Prelutsky and Lane Smith.  Seuss began the work and Prelutsky and Smith finished it after his death.  Diffendoofer is a one-of-a-kind school with unique teachers and students.  But its existence is threatened when the students are made to take a standardized test that doesn't quite measure what and how they have been learning.  But because the students have been taught how to think, they do just fine.

A Fine, Fine School by Sharon Creech tells the story of an over-exuberant principal who believes his school is wonderful, as are his teachers and students.  So wonderful, in fact, that they should come to school every day to learn more, do more, and test more.  So no more weekend tree climbing or summer-time woods exploring.  It is school all the time, until he is reminded that children do need school, but they need to be away from it, too.

The Report Card by Andrew Clements is a novel about a girl-genius intent on staying out of the spotlight until she gets fed up with the fuss over test scores and grades.  So instead of the straight A's she normally brings home, she deliberately fails every subject.  Then she really gets attention.

Yes, I see myself and my colleagues in these books.  Like it or not, we have to test and the tests not only determine the kids' futures, they determine whether or not we will have jobs in the future.  So, Isaac is out playing ultimate Frisbee right now because exercise is good for his brain and he will be exhausted enough to sleep tonight.  He is going to bed early so he can get plenty of rest.  I am making him a high-protein breakfast all week so he won't crash mid-morning right in the middle of a reading passage.  I am teaching him stretches to do after each reading passage or every ten math problems to wake up his brain.  We are keeping this week low-key so he doesn't have any disruptions to his routine or extra things to worry about.

Incidentally, we already know how the students did on their end-of-the-year assessments, so I know whether or not the outcome of this test will directly affect what happens the rest of this year or next fall.  But Isaac doesn't know.  I want him to do his best, try his hardest, so he can feel successful when the letters get sent home with the test scores.  And I want him to know that regardless of what the letter says, he is smart, talented, supported and loved.  If there were a test for that, we would pass with flying colors.

04 May 2014

The Pull of Disney

Disney has been a part of Isaac's life since he was born.  Having family in Florida has meant that he has been going to one park or another since he was four months old.  We will probably never do the week-long-stay-at-a-resort-and-binge-on-the-parks family trip because we have gotten so used to day trips on which we can pick a park and a few things we really want to do because we know that we will probably be back within the next year or two.  That and I don't like Disney and its tourists enough to spend more than a day there.

Isaac has seen just about every good Disney movie that has come to the theaters since he was three, and a few of the not so good ones that I was willing to sit through.  He and Matt stay updated on changes at the parks and watch YouTube videos of old rides.  I am often thankful that we don't have a girl and are not caught up in the Princess craze, but we still buy into our share of the hype, in our own cynical way.

So, since Disney is such a presence in his life, it was only natural that he get excited about finding a biography about Walt Disney on the library shelf.  It is part of the Who Was/Who Is . . . ? biography series, the ones that depict the subject on the cover as a caricature -- kids are always asking why they have such big heads.  The series is very readable for middle elementary students, but I can't decide if the covers are drawing kids in or are just a distraction.

Either way, Isaac really enjoyed reading about Walt Disney's life and telling us about the time he brought a pet pig to school and other antics from his childhood.  He liked the biography enough that he was excited to find two others about Harry Houdini and Barack Obama.  He started with the Houdini one but was not as interested in it, probably because he lacked the connection with the subject.  He turned it in before finishing and then decided not to bother reading the Obama biography.

Of course, after Isaac read about Disney I was ready to go out and buy him the whole set thinking that we had hit upon another series he liked.  Not so much.  Instead, maybe I should hunt down some more Disney biographies.  

27 April 2014

Costco, Polar Bears and Meetings

Isaac periodically has the dubious pleasure of attending meetings with me.  It's just too much trouble to leave school, go the meeting, go back to school to pick him up, then get to wherever we have to be next.  So he gets out of school early about once a month.  He starts off excited, then after two hours of sitting and being quiet he is bored to tears.  Surprisingly, though, he is always very good -- snacks and his Kindle help.

There was a meeting a few weeks ago that caught his interest more than the previous ones.  Encouraging boys to read more, specifically African American boys, is an important initiative in our school system right now.  So, as librarians, my colleagues and I have been an important voice in the discussions and have sat through numerous trainings on the subject.   At this particular meeting, a consultant was sharing some of the best books for boys published last year.

The day before the meeting, Isaac and I had been to Costco to stock up and he had browsed through the books while I meandered through the clothes.  He brought back a copy of Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made by Stephan Pastis and asked if I would buy it for him.  While I encourage his reading and have been thrilled that he has been so eager to spend time with a book, we are also trying to teach him that money doesn't grow on trees, so I told him he was welcome to buy the book with his own money.  He agreed!  Then he asked if I would buy the second book so he could have both.  Um, no, but I said if he read the book and liked the series I would think about buying him the next one.  And we left Costco with a new book, among other things.

Timmy Failure was in Isaac's bookbag at my meeting the next day and he was excited to hear the presenter mention this book on her recommended list for boys.  He even held the book up to show the group and read the first sentence aloud for them to hear at the presenter's request.  It starts off like this, "It is harder to drive a polar bear into someone's living room than you think."

Timmy is the founder and CEO of his own detective agency and his partner is his pet polar bear, Total.  Hence, trying to drive a polar bear into a living room.  The book is written by the creator of Pearls Before Swine.  On the front cover is a blurb from Jeff Kinney, which caught Isaac's attention, and I explained that often other authors will read and recommend books that they like.  Knowing that the Diary of a Wimpy Kid author thinks Timmy Failure is cool made Isaac smile.

Timmy Failure was read and enjoyed.  Isaac considered donating it to the school library when he finished it, but then realized he couldn't take it back later, so he decided to hold on to it -- in case he wants to read it again.

We made another trip to Costco the other night and I offered to buy the second book, but they did not have it.  There was much disappointment, but we will find it soon.  In the meantime, Isaac has a bookbag full of other books to read, which still amazes me.

13 April 2014


Matt and I love Carl Hiassen's books. A friend introduced Matt to them years ago, and I started reading them soon after.  Now we wait for the next one to be published.  He is a native Floridian who writes about the eccentricities of his state.  His oddball characters make you cringe and laugh, but if you have lived in Florida long enough they also remind you of someone you know.  His satires often target the many threats to Florida's natural environment and are witty and irreverent.

About a decade ago Hiassen started writing children's fiction.  As a huge fan of his adult work, and as a children's librarian, I have to admit that I was not happy when his first children's book, Hoot, was published, and even less happy when it won a prestigious Newbery Honor.  It was around the time when the Harry Potter craze was at a peak and many adult and celebrity authors were cashing in on the suddenly lucrative children's book market.  I read his first effort and was less than impressed.  It felt watered down -- like he had taken a plot for an adult novel and forced it into a framework for a children's book, removing the foul language, sex and violence that are found in his other books.

Okay, I was wrong.  I was just a cynical fan and a suspicious children's librarian who questioned why he was all of a sudden writing for children.  Hiassen's kid's books are really pretty good.  They still have the quirky, Florida characters, the environmental threats, and the craziness that is Florida.  And they are not dumbed down for kids -- they are just cleaned up a little.

I decided a couple of weeks ago that it was time to introduce Isaac to Carl Hiassen, so we began reading Hoot at bedtime.  It was a family effort.  Matt read a couple of chapters a night while Isaac and I listened.  In the book, a shoeless, but fleet of foot, runaway boy is sabotaging a restaurant chain's efforts to build on a vacant lot which also happens to be home to nesting pairs of protected burrowing owls.  He is joined by his step-sister and a new-to-the-neighborhood-via-Montana boy who realizes in the book that, though there are no mountains, the Florida environment is awash with variety and beauty.

There are the typical Hiassen characters -- the bumbling cop, the corrupt businessman, the brawny hired thug, the less-than-smart bully, the vacuous blond actress, the wily activist, and the accidental hero.  And Florida itself -- with its gators, poisonous snakes, swamps and thunderstorms.  And unlike many books written for children, there is not a nicely wrapped happy ending.  The owls are saved but the runaway boy does not return to the family fold which is made happy and whole again.  Life is not perfect.

Isaac loved Hoot.  He made sure we read it each night, and the night before he and Matt left to go on a camping trip, he asked if we could stay up late to finish it.  So we did.  Then he checked Scat out of the school library to try and read on his own and Matt bought a recorded copy of Chomp for them to listen to on their trip.  Isaac is North Carolina born, but he knows his Florida roots.  And now he has joined the Carl Hiassen fan club.  Indoctrination at its best.

27 March 2014

Banning "Busy"

Sunday evening Matt commented that it had been a very Isaac-centric weekend.  Soccer game Friday night, (Matt) taking Isaac fishing Saturday morning, Isaac's talent show Saturday evening, a meeting after church on Sunday about a camp for Isaac, meeting up with scouts at the Children's Museum in Winston-Salem Sunday afternoon.

Before Isaac was born, I said that we would limit the activities that he became involved in so that he was not doing too many things at once,  I understood that it is not good to have kids over extended and stressed out in elementary school.  I was intent on not becoming "that" parent.  But there have been weeks recently when it feels like I have forgotten that pledge.  When Isaac started playing sports through the YMCA each fall and spring I allowed him to drop tae kwon do because I knew that doing both would be too much.  But last Thursday we were running from school, to a drum lesson, to soccer practice, to a scout meeting, and that was a simpler version of the evening since I opted out of a school event that same night.  And that does not factor in Wednesdays, when we have to be at church for Isaac to practice tone chimes and attend choir rehearsal or Mondays and Fridays when we have soccer practice and games.  Yet I know that we are much less busy than other families whose kids are involved in multiple sports, or who have multiple kids they are running around.  I don't feel as frazzled as some women, but I know that I could be doing better.

I recently read Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time by Brigid Schulte.  After hearing two interviews with the author in one day I was intrigued enough to buy it from Amazon and recommend it to a friend. The author's message of feeling like there is never enough time to get it all done resonated with me as I often feel that way myself, along with most mothers I know.  I found enough free time over the past week to finish the book, though -- I guess I am not as overwhelmed as I thought.

A couple of years ago, a friend shared an article about how "busy" was a self-imposed social construct created to make people seem more valuable or important than their friends or co-workers.  Being busy had become a virtue.  In one of my favorite lines in the article, the author states that "if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary."  I was thankful that my job, teacher or librarian, take your pick, appeared in those books.  But I also tried to take to heart the author's message that idleness is not for the weak.  That my value did not lie in how much I accomplished in a given day, but in how fully I lived.  

That article has been cited and shared by friends and co-workers more than once since it was written and I thought of it when I heard Schulte interviewed about her book.  She started her exploration with a time study and examining her own life through the lens of the time crunch that many women, in America in particular, feel.  She found many factors at play, ranging from the still inequitable division of labor in the home between men and women, the inequity that still exists in the workplace, and how little our society values play or leisure time.  She portrays her own struggles to overcome outdated expectations and the work that is being done to overcome them in the workplace.  In the end, her argument is that, if we are to live full lives, then our ideals need to change and the focus cannot just be on the role of women and making mother's lives easier, but on restructuring the workplace in addition to realigning our society's expectations for women and men.

In the three areas that Schulte outlines in her book, I feel like Matt and I are on the right track for the most part, but it is hard to ignore all of the external forces.

Matt and I have never been caught up in the "ideal worker" mystique that Schulte describes in her book.  Neither of us want or expect to be stars in our fields.  We have both chosen professions that focus on serving the community and are quite happy being worker bees to our supervisors' queens.  We both work hard and try to leave work at work.  Matt's situation makes it easier for him to do this than me, but I am attempting to limit when and where I will allow my work to enter into my personal life.  Neither of us are the ideal worker who is always on call, always checking email, always working.  But I still find it hard not to try to live up to extreme expectations.  There is the adage that 20% of the people do 80% of the work.  I don't want to be seen as part of the 80% who slack off and allow others to carry the load, so I do more -- if I am involved in multiple aspects of the school then I will be indispensable, right?  And then there is the tool by which my job is evaluated.  In my position I cannot be given highest marks unless I am a leader outside my school, preferably on a state or national level.  So I have to decide if I am going to put in the extra time and effort, outside of the time I am paid, to be "Distinguished" or if I can accept being merely "Accomplished."

Matt and I do a pretty good job, I think, of sharing parenting responsibilities.  That weekend that Matt described as Isaac-centric, I had spent less time with him than Matt had.  After Isaac was born, I nursed, but I also made sure I was able to go out to the gym or to dinner with friends while Matt stayed home.  He has taken Isaac to doctor's appointments, been the drop-off parent for daycare and school, is the stricter disciplinarian, and helps with homework.  I never wanted to be or felt I had to be a stay-at-home mom and we both knew that parenting was going to be a partnership.  But I have not escaped the guilt that Schulte says comes from an expectation of the "ideal mother."  I feel bad that I am not crafty or that I don't bake Isaac's birthday cakes or that I haven't started fun traditions around every little holiday or make creative snacks so that he won't be a picky eater.  I shrug on the outside and say that's just not me, but on the inside I feel like I should have done more to make life fun for Isaac.  And, yet, even as I write this I know that that feeling is ridiculous.

One thing Matt and I do not do well, is share housework.  And I am mostly to blame for this.  In many aspects of my life I live by the rule that if you want something done right, do it yourself.  I am a bit of a control-freak.  I do the grocery shopping because I can stay on a budget better than Matt, I think.  I do the cleaning because I will pay more attention to detail, I think.  I do the cooking because I am the pickier eater and I will not like what Matt cooks -- this one has actually been proven true many times.  The other things? Matt is perfectly capable of doing all of them and offers to.  But when he asks what he can do to help or what needs to get done, I usually pass.  I am not willing to lower my standards, standards that I learned growing up, mainly from my grandmother who was a homemaker.  Logically, I know that my house does not have to be perfectly clean, but I still get frantic that it be spotless (at least the visible parts) before friends come over, which stresses everyone else in the house out, too.  I know that the house does have to be clean before we leave for vacation, but I get tense thinking about coming home to a mess.  I have relaxed some of my expectations and let go of some chores -- I don't worry about the bed getting made, no one will see it.  We all do our own laundry, even Isaac, and if our clothes sit in the laundry basket until we need it for the next load, so be it.  I have been committed to cooking more, so often the cleaning schedule that hangs on my bathroom mirror gets ignored.  Isaac now makes his own lunch, though sometimes that feels like more of a hassle than just doing it myself, to be honest.  My obsessive control of the housework affects our time to play.

While reading about the ideal worker and the ideal mother and how our society values productivity over leisure, I deliberately took time to read rather than cleaning the bathroom, or mopping the floors, or putting the dishes away.  I also took a couple of walks, started getting my containers ready so when this interminable winter ends I can plant herbs, and wrote a couple of posts for this blog.  Matt and I are starting to plan our summer vacation and, rather than plan a week that will keep Isaac entertained, we are going to take a few days to ourselves while he stays with family.

At the end of Overwhelmed, Schulte advises her readers to really think about what they want and begin to structure their lives around that.  So these are some things I want:

I want to take more walks.
I want to sit on my porch and drink a glass of wine in the evenings (if this winter would ever end).
I want to enjoy lazy weekend afternoons napping on the couch.
I want to ban the word "busy" from my vocabulary and instead focus on the time we have spent playing.

Right now I want to watch the UF v. UCLA game.

24 March 2014

Unlikely Hero

The new Lunch Lady graphic novel arrived at school last Thursday.  Isaac was there to see the new arrivals when I opened the box and claimed first read as soon as he saw it.  I don't think he had read any of the other books in the series -- we don't have all of them in the library, just a couple that I have been able to acquire the past couple of years.  But he knows that it is a graphic novel series and was interested in reading it.

I did make him wait until I had cataloged it before he could bring the new book home.  Since I knew he would ask about it the next day, my promise motivated me to catch up on some processing tasks I needed to get done.

So, Friday afternoon I checked out to Isaac the newly barcoded  Lunch Lady and the Schoolwide Scuffle.  I also brought home my personal copy of Lunch Lady and the League of Librarians for him.

He started League of Librarians on the drive home that afternoon and sat in the car when we arrived to finish it.  He read Schoolwide Scuffle Saturday after coming home from a morning of fishing with Matt and a friend.  The weather was beautiful so he sat on the porch to read. 

Lunch Lady is the creation of Jarrett Krosoczka.  He has written picture and chapter books in addition to his graphic novels.  When you think of school personnel as likely heroes, the lunch ladies probably aren't the ones that come first to mind.  But the Lunch Lady heroine and her assistants have adventures most women in the serving line wouldn't dream of having, and most kids who go through the line would never imagine them having.  

There are some fun videos and activities on both Krosoczka's website and the Random House website.  There is now even a School Lunch Hero Day site to promote a special day set aside to honor School Nutrition Professionals the first Friday in May.  I think I know what my library helpers will be working on once National Poetry Month is over.

I think we will be searching Ed McKay for other Lunch Lady books.  I will even overlook the fact that the school librarian was the bad guy in #2.

18 March 2014

Inspired by The Doctor

Isaac is both fascinated and terrified by Doctor Who.  We came late to "The Doctor" fan club and still don't watch it regularly.  Matt usually has it playing while he is on the treadmill and occasionally he and I will find the time to sit down and watch an episode together.  But, for about a year, if it was playing Isaac refused to be in the room.

At the same time, any reference he saw excited him -- pictures, cartoons, toys.  He bought himself a Dalek necklace at a comic book convention last summer and peruses the rack of figurines at the local comic book store whenever we are there.  One of our favorite coffee shops has a Tardis replica that Isaac loves and wants in his room.

Matt has been frustrated by Isaac's resistance to watching the show.  I have had to remind him many times that he is still only 8 -- his threshold for "scary" is different than ours.  He is starting to get past it, though, and has sat down and watched a few episodes with Matt recently.  Because he wants Isaac to warm up to it, Matt has been careful to pick ones that are less scary and he is always mindful of taking the time to talk about what they watched once it is over.

Last fall, a friend of ours sent Isaac a book commemorating the 50th anniversary, Doctor Who: The Vault.  Isaac will sit and look through it over and over.  He will compare The Doctors and look at the monsters and try to pick out characters he remembers.  He is not really reading the book, it is more of a browsing volume.  But if there is a question that comes up when he and Matt are watching the show or talking about something that happened, he will pull out the book to look it up.

One of Isaac's buddies is also a Doctor Who fan.  Last week, on the way home from school, Isaac announced that he and Abe are going to write a book of Doctor Who poems and illustrations.  I am pretty sure this was Abe's idea, but Isaac was excited about it -- he and Abe already had a couple of poems composed and pictures drawn.  Here are a couple of their verses . . . .

Doctor Who?
You know who
The Companions know
And so do you

Fezes are red
Tardises are blue
Daleks are evil
But The Doctor will save you

I am not sure what the plurals of "fez" or "Tardis" are, but I thought these were a pretty good start.  There was apparently a debate between the boys about the last line of the second poem -- Abe wanted to pay homage to The Doctors' bow ties, but Isaac insisted that bow ties were not ubiquitous enough in the show to merit it.  Upon arriving at home, Isaac proceeded to look in his book at every Doctor to see how many wore bow ties.  He felt vindicated when his search was complete -- a majority of The Doctors were sans bow tie. 

There has not been much progress on the collection of original Doctor Who poems in the last few days.  Maybe this snow day will jump start the creative process again.  Or maybe we will watch a few episodes to get some inspiration.

17 March 2014

Matt Reflects on Burying Our Cat

P.S. Your Cat is Dead

Between the neverending winter, and the upcoming soccer season tying up our weekends, we needed a change of scenery so we decided to take an overnight trip to visit some friends in Charlotte. There was the normal frenzy of packing and planning for travel.  Nancy came home and cleaned the house and I packed a change of clothes and called on our neighbor to check on our pets.  As we were walking out the door, Nancy told Isaac to feed the cat.  I remembered thinking that I hadn’t seen the cat in a few days.  This was not unusual.  Our cat Angelo preferred to sleep in the sewer on cold snowy nights rather than stay inside. (I couldn’t help but take it a little personally when he would howl at the door and pee on everything until we let him out into the snow, only to disappear down the storm drain.)

Isaac asked if I had checked her hiding spot, behind a recliner in the loft.  I went upstairs and looked behind the chair, saw our motionless cat and knew right away that she was dead.  I called her name “Miss Ophelia” twice to see if it would wake her up, this method proving successful on the many many times that I assumed that our dog had died only to find out that he was, in the words of “Miracle Max,” only “mostly dead”.  

After she didn’t respond, I announced, “She is dead.”

Nancy and Isaac both came up and confirmed it.  Nancy gave me the same look she had when Isaac asked what exactly the commercial for Tampax was advertising, a look that conveyed “I am the responsible adult most of the time, but you need to deal with this one.”

I knew the vet up the street offered cremation services, and already had their number in my phone (referring back to the time the dog was only “mostly dead”).  I am not going to lie.  I was as surprised as anyone.  We had been preparing Isaac for the dog’s death since we suspect he had had a stroke, is blind, deaf, senile, and those damn vultures circle whenever he goes out in the yard.   

Miss Ophelia was our retirement pet.  She was self sufficient, pretty, sweet, funny, and loved everyone (except neighbor cats and possums).  She was also seemingly very healthy, although in retrospect she had to have been about 15 or so.  You never know with rescue cats.  She was small and you could tell that her black fur was brown when she was in bright sunlight.  

In the last few years, I had grown terribly allergic to her, my eyes itching fiercely for hours, and my hands swelling up and sprouting red blisters if I touched something that she had been lying on.  But she was loyal to Isaac, often sleeping on his bed whether he liked it or not.    

I am not sentimental about bodies.  This is a function of being in the medical profession, and my religious upbringing.  When I asked my elderly grandmother if there was any music or scripture she wanted at her funeral, her response was “Do whatever the hell you want.  I won’t be there.”  

I donned rubber gloves and spread out some waterproof table covers that we use for surgical trays.  I picked her up, and the grief that was welling up was immediately superseded by the nausea from the smell.  

There is a bit of controversy here that will probably last in our family for years.  This is no slight to Nancy’s housekeeping skills, but there was a dead cat for somewhere between 2 and 5 days in the house without us noticing.  Nancy will claim 2 while Isaac’s version is 5.  

Isaac and I put the bag with the body in the back of the truck and drove up to the vet. It was a slow afternoon and the one receptionist was on a phone call, so we had to wait.  When another employee asked how she could help us, I explained the situation and asked how much cremation would cost. She looked it up on the computer and the cost came to $68.  

I called Nancy (who was home airing out the house) and she deferred to my wisdom.  I made a few calls and realized that there was no way we were getting rid of the cat cheaply.  (Footnote here….No cat is ever a “Free Cat”.)   

We live in a townhouse so don’t have 1) a yard or 2) yard tools to dig a hole.  I thought about calling friends to borrow either a bit of yard or at least some shovels, but couldn't reach any and waiting a few more hours was not an option.  Isaac, ever the pragmatist,  looked at me and said “Dad, if we pay $70 , we won’t have money for snacks on the road.”

So we drove to Home Depot to buy some shovels instead.  I asked Isaac how he was doing and he told me that he was holding in his tears until later.  I told him that he could cry whenever he wanted to.  He could be mad if he felt like it.  He could ask God “Why?” if he wanted to.  I told him that he may cry two weeks from now or not at all.  

We picked out two shovels and Isaac carried them through the store.  When he said “Two shovels?  We got ourselves a party!” my uncontrollable laughter teetered on the edge of tears.  I told him that it was okay to joke, too, to which he replied “Well….we are off to bury a dead cat!” in a fake cheerful voice.  I replied, “Easier than an alive one.”  He came back with, “Much less screechy.”  

As we walked into the woods near our house, he quipped “The time comes in everyone’s life when sooner or later they have to bury something in the woods.”  We found a spot and set to digging the hole.  He and I both dug until we had a hole that seemed more than deep enough.  

Isaac backed up to avoid the smell when I removed her from the bag and the wrappings (having heard my 15 minutes of dry heaving, he was reasonably cautious.)  We dropped her in the hole, said our goodbyes, a prayer and offered up “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust.”

Isaac threw the first dirt in the hole and we set to finishing the job together.  

When we finished, he said “Our work here is finished.”

And I said, “And now the worms do theirs.”  

There are some of you who would find it disturbing to joke like this, but this is how my family chooses to deal with pain.  We name our fear, and then joke: not out of false bravado or a misguided feeling of invulnerability but a real sense that one day we will all be there, and there is nothing we can do about it.

I hope that Isaac appreciates how fragile and unexpected life is.  Death is ugly, but fearing it can make you waste your life.  I also hope he learns how to grieve in a healthy way -- by talking with people he loves and doing the work that needs to be done when someone or something dies.  

Strength and Honor,

Smart about the States

One of Isaac's favorite apps on the iPad is "Stack the States."  It is one of the few apps for which I have paid to upgrade to the full version.  He often plays it in the car during our commute to and from school.  During the game he has to answer questions about various states to reach the next level and, periodically, he will throw a question out to me about one state or another -- most of the time I can answer them.

Since he has been playing the game, he has become interested in looking at maps and locating states.  There is a bulletin board outside the library with a map of the United States on it that he will pause to look at and try to name as many states as he can.  Unfortunately, he often does this when I am not in the mood to dally and just want to get in my car and get home.  

Since Isaac has shown such an interest in geography and United States trivia, I bought him a Smart Book on the states at the last book fair.  There is a page or two of facts and trivia about each of the 50 states along with QR codes that link to videos and quizzes.  I thought the interactive format would appeal to him and would be a way to combine screen time with an educational activity that was geared toward one of his interests.

As a break from reading chapter books, we have taken the time to read through a few pages before bed on a few occasions -- reading the information and watching the accompanying videos, then taking the quizzes.  I have been a little disappointed in the videos that the QR codes link to and the quizzes for a couple of the states do not actually ask about information that was in the text.  Isaac will either ignore the videos entirely and just read, or skip the reading and go straight to the videos and quiz.  He hasn't put the whole experience together, yet, of using the videos to supplement and the quizzes to bring it all together.  

The format of the book is also a bit confusing.  It is arranged by region, with states grouped geographically.  There is a Table of Contents, but it still makes finding specific states harder than it would if they were simply arranged alphabetically.  The QR codes for each region in the Table of Contents do not necessarily add to your knowledge of the region, either.  I thought they would link to an explanation of the region, but some are a short video or just a random slideshow.  The link for The South, for instance, is merely a slideshow of regional foods, while The Pacific Region links to a short video about cable cars in San Francisco.

Overall, the book is appealing and is the type of text that many kids are drawn to -- books of lists and trivia are always popular because they are quick reads and can be read in snippets.  The "smart" aspect of this book, though, is weak.  This is a case where technology for the sake of technology does not add to the experience.  It is not integrated into the content well enough to be necessary and the book would do just as well without it.  

05 March 2014

What's for Dinner?

Two years ago, Matt and I gave up meat for Lent. We did not intend to give it up completely, just to cut back on what we ate during the 40 days (minus Sundays) between Ash Wednesday and Easter.  But eating meat only a couple of times a week became eating no meat at all.  It had been something we had wanted to try for a long time and we were both surprised at how easy the transition happened.

Then Easter came along and we hosted our annual lunch for which I prepared a ham, and we both decided to continue to refrain from eating meat.  We were not missing it so we saw no reason to start eating it again just yet.  For the next seven or eight months, we managed to find ways to eat that did not include beef, poultry or pork products, though we did decide we were going to eat fish.

I have never considered myself a good cook.  Utilitarian is the term I have used to describe my culinary skills -- I cook well enough to keep my family fed.  I would never have said that I liked cooking, either.  It was something I did because I had to.  A survival skill.

After almost a year of subsisting on a meatless diet, I knew that if we really wanted to continue then we needed more variety.  Even when I was cooking meat, we ate similar menus every week.  It was boring.  I sometimes tried new recipes, but was particular about how many ingredients and steps they contained.  More than five of either and I skipped it.

Isaac was doing okay with no meat.  He actually kind of likes the meatless substitutes for ground beef and chicken.  And when we went out, he could choose to have chicken or beef if he wasn't in the mood for a grilled cheese sandwich.  But he is almost always in the mood for a grilled cheese sandwich.  He was rather a picky eater, but I was, too, and so are many kids.  But I felt like I should be trying harder to expand his options and broaden his palate, and mine.

So, at the beginning of 2013 I did something unusual for me -- I made a New Year's Resolution.  I resolved to find and try one new recipe each week to vary our diet and keep this meatless lifestyle we were trying interesting.  Matt and Isaac were supportive.  They bought me a cookbook for Christmas and our journey began.

It was an interesting year.  Some of it was a struggle, but for the most part my challenge was rewarding.  I did not become a great cook -- as evidenced by the puddle of egg and milk that ended up running down the cabinets yesterday afternoon when the quiche I was preparing overflowed.  I am a more confident one, though. I have learned how to look at a recipe and see beyond the ingredient list and multiple steps.  Honestly, I rarely follow a recipe step by step, taking shortcuts or making substitutions along the way.  I have used ingredients I never would have tried before and even discovered that maybe I do like food that is a little bit spicy.

My resolution was probably hardest on Isaac.  Matt will eat anything, so he never worried about what showed up on his plate.  But there were nights that dinner was a tense, teary affair.  I have never been willing to make Isaac a separate dinner -- our rule is that he eats what is put on his plate, then if he is still hungry he can choose an alternative.  I tried hard to never give him a large portion and there were a few nights I relaxed the rule because I knew that he would hate what we were having.  I mean, I wouldn't have eaten brussel sprouts just two years ago no matter how much cheese they were smothered in, so how could I force Isaac to eat them?

But we finally seemed to turn a corner late last year.  Isaac tries things much more willingly, now.  He is either discovering that food with color isn't that bad or that it's not worth the fight.  Either way, dinner has been much more pleasant recently.  I have also started buying him chicken and ham occasionally because I know that his dietary needs as a growing boy are different than mine and Matt's.  I even make him bacon many mornings before school.  There have even been nights, however, when he declared that whatever it was that I made was the "best" thing he had ever had.  And he asked for seconds!

It was a bit of a relief to come to the end of 2013 and be able to relax my weekly recipe search.  I have not given it up completely, though.  I still spend most of my time on Pinterest hunting for recipes to try.  My resolution kept us at home for dinner more often, which is something we definitely want to continue.  I have found that I really like knowing what goes into my food, so I have stopped buying items like salad dressings, hummus and guacamole and started making my own.  Last summer I finally managed to grow some herbs on our back porch and used them in my cooking.  I am already eager to begin this year's herb garden (if only the weather would cooperate).

I kept a list of all of the recipes I tried last year.  Most were main courses or side dishes for our dinner, but some were desserts or snacks.  Some were variations of a meal that we used to eat with meat, but many were new foods or contained an ingredient I had never used before.  But none of the recipes were hard -- I still mainly keep to my five ingredients and five steps rule.  I may have surpassed the basic survival skill level of cooking, but I am still a working mom with about 30 minutes to get dinner ready each night.  The act of cooking, though, no longer causes me stress.  I have actually come to like the time I spend getting dinner ready, puddles of egg and all.  I never thought I would have said that at the end of 2012.

So here is what we ate last year -- some months I cooked more than others, but I averaged about 2 new recipes a week.  Isaac's favorites are the desserts.

Butternut squash apple gratin
Meatballs with apricot almond couscous
Baked gnocchi
Slow cooker vegetarian lasagna 
Italian mushroom polenta bake
Spicy polenta black bean casserole
Roasted stuffed peppers
Mediterranean flatbread
Bell Pepper and ricotta calzones
Shrimp fried rice
Polenta with sautéed vegetables and spaghetti sauce
Creamy mushroom quinoa with asparagus and olives
Vegetable enchilada casserole
Pecan honey crusted grilled shrimp 
Asparagus "delight"
Penne fresca pasta salad
Garlic dill baked salmon
Hummus cups
Roasted veggie tacos
Lentil sloppy joes
Black bean quinoa casserole 
Lemony red potatoes and green beans
Smashed potato lettuce wraps 

Spring vegetable risotto
Summer squash tartine with ricotta rosemary and lemon
Zucchini rounds with tomato and feta
Crispy polenta with sautéed vegetables
Eggplant, tomato and feta stacks
Leek and asparagus quiche
Cheesy vegetable crescent rolls
Cast-iron charred corn
Tomato corn quiche
Zuchini fritters
Onion dipping sauce
Bell pepper salad

Potato kale enchiladas
Open face feta omelets
Pumpkin pecan dessert bars
Pineapple cheesecake dessert bars
Shrimp couscous
Crunchy baked taco casserole
Acorn squash soup
Harvest cheddar soup
Pumpkin blossoms- chocolate and vanilla
Parmesan crusted tilapia
Corn potato gratin
Mexican style eggs in a nest

Black bean and rice skillet with roasted carrots
Veggie pita pizzas
Spaghetti with homemade lemon pesto
Mujaddara with quinoa fatoush salad
Veggie gyros with lemon dill couscous
Tomato tart
Veggie Korean pancakes 

Buttery garlic spaghetti with herbs
Strawberry tomato bruschetta 
5 layer Greek dip with toasted pita chips
Spaghetti squash with apples, pecans and goat cheese
Crockpot tortellini
Roasted veggie hummus wrap
Red pepper goat cheese frittata
Black bean mango quinoa salad
Spaghetti squash bake
Edamame rice bowl (quinoa instead of rice)
Creamy shrimp rigatoni
Frying pan donuts 
Baked eggplant parmesan
Baked zuchini sticks
Roasted eggplant penne with basil pine nut crumble
Eggplant rollups
Salmon with sriracha sauce
Roasted eggplant with potatoes
Calabacitas with zuchini and corn
Peach salsa
Siracha hummus

Broccoli cheese soup
Quinoa omelette breakfast cups
Ranch dressing
Skillet hash browns 
Tatsoi cheese spread
Banana egg pancakes
Mama samberg's cranberry relish
Pecan bars

Lemon broccoli pilaf 
Lentil scallion fritters with feta 
Meatball mozarella biscuits
Stuffed portobellos 
Spaghetti squash quinoa bake
Potato Brussels sprout frittata 
Brussels sprout gratin
Roasted broccoli chick pea orzo salad
Pea ricotta spread
Phyllo bird nests

Cilantro lime fried egg on sourdough bread
Quinoa burgers
Tofu pineapple stir fry 
Honey lime slaw with salmon tacos 
Cheesy chile quilles with fried egg 
Broccoli pesto braid
Creamy polenta with poached eggs and olive-herb pesto
Breakfast potatoes
Butternut squash penne
Spinach mushroom cups
Parmesan baked tomatoes
Crestless spinach zucchini mushroom feta quiche
Angel hair with roasted eggplant and yellow squash
Black bean yellow squash boats
Spaghetti squash caprese
Grilled peaches with margarita cream
Eggplant pizzas
Pumpkin spice white chocolate chip cookies
Jamaican patties
Greek yogurt Mac and cheese with spinach
Kale goat cheese frittata
Polenta cheese bars
Corn cheddar quiche
Coconut candies
Two ingredient oatmeal cookies
Creamy hash brown frittata