Class Notes #4: Odes, Superheroes & Fan Fiction

IMG_1042It was a better week all around. The midpoint of the quarter is approaching in another week and every student receives a progress report with comments. So some are becoming mindful about accountability and focusing a bit more. The disciplinary dean follows up immediately when I email him and he assigns detention as needed. I’ve become better with the technology, both in the classroom using the smart board and also with the merit/demerit system. And the lessons are flowing more smoothly as I figure out what the students need, want, and can accomplish in the time period.

Having spent most my teaching career with 8th graders, I am amazed at how less mature the 7th graders are. What a difference a year makes. The 8th graders are striving to apply to preparatory and parochial schools, some boarding out of state.

I met with the instructional coach who gave me a couple classroom management tips that I tried the next day. Simple things like putting the start and end times on the board when giving a timed writing and walking around with the behavior tracking clipboard and using it. Consistency is key, similar to raising kids!

The 8th graders continue to complain (and of course that’s age appropriate) about content and that the class is too much like their regular English/Language Arts class. So I added a little more fun—alliteration stories and inventing new cereals and writing advertising jingles. Always open to ideas—please share!

We looked at a couple odes by Pablo Neruda, some student models, and students wrote their own on subjects ranging from pizza to the color turquoise. In their daily “do nows” they wrote about a time they were angry and their most embarrassing moments. The 8th grade girls were gone half the week on a school-sponsored camping trip so I encouraged the boys to catch up on missing assignments and we also did some round robin writing where I put a story starter on a sheet of paper and they passed it around, adding a sentence of their own. They enjoyed the activity and the stories were fun to hear. The challenge is to find ways for them to chat quietly that also keeps them on task.

The 7th graders are writing superhero stories, having created a superhero by writing their first name backwards. We’re having fun filling in character charts with all the gadgets, vehicles, clothes and aliases of the superheroes. I gave the 8th graders a fan fiction assignment where they take a character from a favorite book and extend the story as a prequel, sequel or even add a middle chapter. Some however are choosing instead to write a science fiction or horror story for a writing contest I found.   A prize provides motivation much more than a grade!




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Ban Football: Turn Stadiums into Velodromes

The news that high school football player Evan Murray died shortly after taking a hit during a Friday night game shocked the state and has drawn attention nationwide. The autopsy on the 17- year -old star quarterback revealed he died from a ruptured spleen and has been ruled accidental.

No head trauma. No heart attack. While this doesn’t make his family feel any better, coaches and football fans are breathing in relief—the sport at least can’t be blamed.

I disagree.

Murray, a three-season scholar athlete who also played basketball and baseball, may have been suffering from the lacerated spleen for a while. The hit to his stomach during a football play aggravated the injury and led to his death.

Ok. I’m not a doctor. But perhaps, had he not been playing football, he might have been saved. He had been showing signs of “wooziness” and slow movement. Maybe he was displaying symptoms and ignored them—I know how athletes think. One of my sons ignored a wrist ache after wrestling – by the time he said it bothered him, he needed a bone graft. He could have escaped surgery with a few weeks in an ace bandage.

It’s time to ban football. Not just in high school. But every level, from little ones through college. The reports of concussions, long sustained head injuries and so on continue to grab headlines yet no actions are taken.

I’ve been grumbling a lot about football in New Jersey to my husband. I hate that my state taxes support Rutgers University football, a team that has been embroiled in controversies ranging from corrupt coaches to criminal players.

Other sports can replace football. Road cycling, for one. Yes, I’m biased.  Fans watching a race can get as excited as football fans at a game.  Not that cycling is without scandal; Lance Armstrong showed he could pop steroids among the best of them.

But very few people die from bike racing. Or rowing. Or even hockey and wrestling. Or swimming. And the list goes on.

It’s time to turn football stadiums into velodromes.


Posted in bike riding, commentary, Cycling, Education, exercise, parenting, teenagers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Class Notes #3: Second Thoughts

The third week has been a bit rocky and has given me second thoughts about whether or not I’m right for the school and it for me.

A couple of teachers serve as instructional coaches and pop in to observe classes, taking notes and then arrange a meeting with the teacher. I’m fine with all that, having worked as a consultant, I’m used to people coming and going. While a distraction to the students, I usually  can ignore visitors. What they see, they see.

On Monday, I met with the principal to review use of the computer. Since we are former colleagues, she asked me also how things were going. She’s worked hard to provide instructional support for my two classes—paraprofessionals who assist in keeping students on task and with management, time keeping, etc. Frankly I believe no teacher from pre-K to college, should be alone in a classroom. We’re too litigious as a society. With middle schoolers, who are physically strong and emotionally volatile, I believe two adults can keep order better than one and keep everyone safer.

The principal asked me if I’d heard about the son of another former colleague, who I’ve kept in touch with and consider a friend. I knew immediately that bad news ensued as this young man had struggled with alcohol for years. He had died the previous Friday. I burst into tears, shocked and saddened for my friend and her husband who had worked so hard to help their son.

Regardless, I pulled myself together and managed to work the computer and begin my class with the 8th graders, yet this news didn’t stray from my thoughts.

A few minutes after class began, one of the coaches appeared, clipboard in hand and sat in the back to observe and take notes. And she returned again the next day.

I had students engaged in a small group activity using literature books to find examples of narrative leads, or story hooks. They were chatting yet on task and eager to share the leads they found with the class. Apparently in the coach’s eyes, the class was out of hand and she called in the curriculum director. Neither of them interfered with class activities and the coach emailed me to arrange a time to meet later in the week. I suggested Thursday after my 2nd class ended, at 12:30.

I took Wednesday off for Yom Kippur and visited my parents.

I left a lesson for the substitute that involved imitating list writing using commas and a colon and suggested students could do it alphabetically. From what I could tell in their notebooks, the assignment went well.

On Thursday, prior to my 8th grade class, a woman unknown to me appears and informs me she’s an English/Language Arts consultant and will be observing my class. I hadn’t been informed about her and while annoyed that yet another person would be causing a distraction, I figured go along with it. The students line up outside the class and are supposed to be at what the school calls Level 0, completely silent. They take their seats, a couple students distribute the notebooks and they’re expected to write the “Do Now” that’s written on the board. That is the ideal scenario. In reality, the students are chatty, don’t take their seats directly, and fool around. I refuse to yell or clap my hands to get attention so stand silently and wait, noting on my clipboard behaviors. They eventually settle in and focus.

However this consultant didn’t like it and decided to redirect them, telling them to leave and re-enter. This made the students angry and off-task, and undermined my authority in the classroom as the teacher. I decided then and there that I was leaving.

I made it through the period and the next. While the majority of the 7th graders are working and sweet kids, a few are disrespectful and lazy. And being young teens, they tease each other. One girl’s notebook was missing, I think hidden by another student and eventually given to her later in the class. This poor girl became so enraged, at one point, she stood, came to the front of the class and screamed as loud as she could and ran from the room. I had to call the office for someone to find her.

I packed up my things and found the principal, head of school, and curriculum director together in a meeting. The door was open so I went in and relayed the day’s experiences, particularly my frustration with the consultant, and notified them I was resigning, citing my misgivings about the strict rules and the unprofessional and humiliating cycle of observations so early in the school year.

I never made the meeting with the instructional coach.

The curriculum director apologized for not informing me about the visit, saying she must have forgotten to send the email. The principal and head of school appreciated that I brought things to their attention and requested I stay.

I agreed to give it another couple weeks and then will meet to assess.




Posted in Education, teaching, teenagers, Writing | Tagged , , | 18 Comments

Killingworth, CT New Places to Visit

How common is it to not visit places in your own town? Visitors can travel from all over and plan to see all the sights. Yet when we live near something of interest, we may never go—too busy, assume we’ll get there one day and so on.

I visited my parents this week in Connecticut and when I arrived I asked my mother if there was anything she wanted or needed to do. Often I accompany her on simple errands and we take walks. This time she said she wanted to visit some places in Killingworth, where they’ve lived for more than 50 years. Two of the sites are fairly new so we can’t blame ourselves for never going.

One was the Lavender Pond Farm.  Spanning acres and acres on gorgeous landscaped grounds, the farm sells lavender plants and products.  IMG_1068 IMG_1066 IMG_1064No one was there when we arrived so we walked around a bit and said hello to the chickens. IMG_1069

Then we went to a new bed & breakfast that has opened. Set back in the woods, surrounded by ponds, it seems a perfect getaway yet close enough to area attractions. We met the innkeeper who told us the site has become popular for weddings. My mother, a Justice of the Peace, offered her services to conduct marriage ceremonies.

Next we stopped into Parmelee Farm, a 19th homestead purchased by the town that includes hiking trails and a community gardenIMG_1072

a Little Free Library at the gardens

a Little Free Library at the gardens

Of course no sunny day is complete without a walk on the boardwalk at Hammonasset State Park.IMG_1076



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New Jersey Tour de Farm Ride

IMG_1058Last minute we decided to participate in the New Jersey Tour de Farm ride. Scheduled three times in August and September, the routes are designed around farms. Local farms serve as the rest stops and provide tastings of their wares, water, and portable restrooms. You are welcome to spend time chatting with the farmers and visiting animals. It’s a reminder why New Jersey is called the Garden State.

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A surprise meet up with Natalie.

A surprise meet up with Natalie.



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Class Notes: Writing: Broken Hearts, Dogs, & Shoes

There’s something about Back to School Night that’s inspiring. Meeting parents of students, even if only for a quick handshake, reinforces why I’m back in the classroom. Yes, it’s for the kids. But also for the parents, who work hard and put their trust in us to help guide their children along the sometimes rocky path of adolescence.

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The second week of school was still a bit disruptive with the interruptions caused by testing. Knowing I see each group of kids for about 8 weeks, I’m feeling the time crunch.

I’m working on lesson plans. Having left the classroom so long ago, I have only a few student artifacts to use as models. What I do this quarter will give me some for the rest of the year, though I’ve never been a teacher who can simply pull a lesson from a file drawer, re-date and reuse. Every class and every student has different needs and lessons need to be tweaked.

The plan is to have them answer a “Do Now” question in their notebooks—the entire school uses composition notebooks for all work. Then a mini-lesson, demonstrating something about writing, then more time to write. I’ve created long term short story assignments for each class so students have something to do when they’re finished with the daily work and so they’ll experience the writing process of drafting, conferencing, revising and rewriting.

Students have been selecting some writing from their heart maps. One girl wrote, “broken” in block letters then wrote a long saga about a failed relationship. The next day, she crumbled up the heart and her writing, and asked for a new one, and a fresh start. Ah, the whims of teenagers.

There have been a few pet stories. One student wrote about how he misses a dog that died who doesn’t compare the two dogs he now has. I asked him if he’d mind if I used his story as an example on how to expand writing as a basis for next week’s lessons.

I received my school-issued computer so now need to take attendance every period, do all progress reports, grades, and disciplinary actions—there’s a merit/demerit system, on it. It’s a PC and I’m an Apple girl, so there’s a learning curve.

Of course one of the very fun parts of working is dressing for the job. Mostly skirts and tops, though the classrooms are air-conditioned, it still can be quite hot. I pick out my clothes the night before—a habit encouraged by my mother when I started school. I have fun selecting the right earrings and bracelets and for now at least, sandals. I’m an avid Dansko clog and sandal wearer and the past couple of weeks reminded me how annoyed I am with the company because they’ve discontinued favorite styles. I’d been composing a letter to them for years in my head and finally wrote it and emailed it.

I said:

…the styles in recent years have been hugely disappointing and offer none of the class or comfort of ones that have been discontinued. I’ve had strangers stop me ask where I got my turquoise Maxines or red Heloises. I can wear a pair of these sandals all day walking around New York City and never get a blister, no matter how hot the temperature. At school, colleagues ask me where I got my sandals and I direct them to you but have to tell them that the styles I have no longer exist…


I received this response:

Thank you for your email.  I am so happy to hear how much you love your Danskos! :)  I will certainly share your feedback with our Product Development Team. 

The writer encouraged me to look at the company’s new styles scheduled for a January debut.

Oh well. No gift certificate. No guarantee they’ll consider my requests, but maybe a good writing exercise to share with students. You never know when writing a letter could have some affect.




Posted in commentary, Education, Fashion, teaching, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

Class Notes: A Weekly Feature

Since leaving my last teaching job, I have done many things to keep busy and challenge myself. I self-published two  books,  I stretched my writing comfort zone to new genres by enrolling in a playwriting workshop that has resulted in two plays, and took an on-line poetry class.

I knit my first pair of socks, defying the advice of the local yarn store that insisted I could only do so if I took the class they offered. I followed directions on the pattern. While they won’t be winning the blue ribbon at the state fair, they’re warm, and remind me of what I’ve always said about knitting socks: why put time into something that’s covered by pants and shoes. Still, they’re fun to make and I’ll do a few more pairs. IMG_1043


Last week, I returned to the classroom as a teacher. I’m teaching creative writing at Link Community Charter School in Newark, NJ where I started my teaching career nearly 30 years ago. It’s part-time, 4 days a week, two classes a day of 7th & 8th graders.

Did I forget the energy required? Teaching, as any good teacher knows, isn’t all about content but about classroom management: how students enter the room, how materials are distributed, how attendance is taken, how grades are given, how questions as asked, how lessons are presented. I feel a bit like a 19th century schoolmarm in a 21st century environment. What I lack is the technology skills. White boards, Power School, and all sorts of other tools that are used to present lessons and manage data.

As a former English/Language Arts teacher, I mostly taught writing as an extension of reading- responding to literature, and prepared students for high stakes testing by drilling them with 5 paragraph essay topics. I tried to include some of the fun stuff, like short stories and poetry around the demands of the curriculum. April was poetry month, and that fell conveniently after the state tests, so we could relax and explore.

That was then. Now testing seems to happen throughout the school year, beginning next week. This school has delegated creative writing as part of its arts block. Each student gets a quarter of music, drama, creative writing, and fine art. So the challenge is to teach writing that doesn’t interfere with what the English teachers are doing and to enhance and engage students in writing. Who knows, some may realize they too can become writers.

There’s more to get used to. There seems to be more rules. There are infractions for not wearing the uniform correctly (thankfully I can wear what I want as long as I look professional.) Students leave their backpacks in the hallway and all materials are provided and distributed in class. IMG_1042

I plan to run the class as a workshop. Students will create a “heart” map and find their own writing territories. They’ll draft, confer and revise and create their own “chap books.” At least that’s my vision.

I’ll learn how to use the technology I need from the younger staff. Teachers are always students.

Stay tuned for a weekly update.


Posted in Education, Knitting, teaching, teenagers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments