Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Dear Rian Johnson,

I go to the movies to escape, and The Last Jedi certainly provided that for 150+ minutes this weekend. A few of those minutes, though, jarred me right back into my body, looking wide-eyed from the darkened theater out into the sometimes darker world. (This is the part where, if you're reading this letter and you're not Rian Johnson, I should warn you, "There will be spoilers.")

I work with young people -- a vantage that renders social media both fraught and fruitful. So, when Rey and Kylo start chatting across distance (Forcebook?), I can't help wondering: Where are the mentors and role models to coach these kids through using their new powers?

Supreme Leader Snoke, loafing around in his creepy lounge-wear, definitely should not be permitted this role. Maybe because I just completed Team USA's SafeSport training as part of youth coaching responsibilities or because the US gymnastics team and its former team doctor have been in the news, I can't help seeing Snoke as a prototypical predator. He exploits his power to finagle alone time with Kylo and Ren, then grooms them with false promises. (Rather than being red-clad enablers, what if Snoke's' Praetorian Guard had mandatory-reporting responsibilities?)

And what about when Benicio del Toro's DJ pulls back the veil from the military-industrial complex that's been profiting from all these Star Wars? When our legislators propose tax cuts favoring the wealthiest citizens alongside 12-figure defense budgets, I now picture DJ smirking in the shadows.

One of the movie's most visually arresting moments occurs when Vice Admiral Holdo jumps a rebel transport to light speed through the First Order's command ship. I heard the theater audience gasp in the initial beat of silence when Holdo's maneuver draws a slice of light across her target. On one hand, a noble sacrifice that helps her compatriots to safety; on the other hand, what distinguishes her from present-day aggressors using vehicles as weapons? (Another kind of doubled-edged dizziness fills me when thinking about Chewbacca, Porgs, sustainable food supplies, vegetarianism, and my own eating habits.)

For this viewer, moments like these in a fictional galaxy far, far away probe tensions in our own time -- escapism sparking reflection. Not all moments of connection need to carry such weight, though. I'll close with an allusion from the movie in a different register: Finn scrambling out of his wrecked speeder, just after his rebel co-conspirator careened into him to stop his kamikaze run at the First Order's latest weapon of mass destruction. "Why'd you do that, Rose?" Finn asks, holding his injured friend in his arms. Suddenly, he's Jack, and the two of them may as well be in Titanic.

Thanks for sharing your creativity and for getting me thinking.

A fan

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Warning: Graphic Contents

My reading life veered 10 days ago after seeing this Nerdy Book Club post by Amy Estersohn. She shared a list of "graphic novels for readers who don't like graphic novels," and I dove right in even though I like graphic novels. It's just been overlong since I've picked up one, which made now -- in my informal estimation -- a perfect time for a binge.

The friendly neighborhood public library set me up with five titles out of the gate. I polished off Here by Richard McGuire and America is Under Attack by Don Brown before leaving the library's confines. The former is a time-bending, largely wordless study of place; the latter reports on the September 11 attacks in sharply intimate, middle-grade-appropriate detail for a generation born after those events.

In my backpack, I carried away Ms. Marvel, Threads: From the Refugee Crisis, and Sea Change. I started with Frank Viva's Sea Change about a boy named Eliot banished to spend the summer with crusty relatives in Nova Scotia. Quirky character notes and funky illustrations enliven this coming-of-age tale. Next was Kate Evans' Threads, a beautifully drawn, wrenching memoir of times she spent serving at a refugee camp in Calais, France. After that, Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson presented a change of pace. In some respects, I was back to the medium's superhero roots, except those roots had been grafted onto a nuanced story of cultural identity thanks to the title character being a Muslim teen.

Momentum from those reads has carried me right into Out on the Wire by Jessica Abel, a behind-the-scenes view of how and why so much current radio journalism proves so gripping.

Two weeks' reading has refreshed my love for graphic novels, renewed my appreciation for the format's limitless range, and reminded me about the power of defining literacy generously. Don't take my word for it: Listen to Jarret Kroscozka, whose timely words just came my way via Twitter.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Eavesdropper, door propper

I've been dialing down direct instruction as one of my classroom modes for about 18 months now. In some (many?) cases, that frustrates my students. The ones who feel this way say, "You're not teaching us" -- or comparable crushing accusations.

Today, though, as I circulate after a mini lesson and observe students working, I overhear one talking to himself or maybe to his neighbor, sotto voce. "I really need to stop procrastinating," he says. "I should probably look at Mr. Rozinsky's sample writing to figure out what to do."

Words like his kindle my flickering hope: What if "not teaching" props side and back doors that students' themselves eventually push open to learning?

My doubts fade, for a moment.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Open letter

Dear student who wrote in an email Sunday, "I was just wondering if there was anything I could do to raise my grade as the semester starts to come to a close,"

Thank you for checking in. I have fielded countless requests like yours over the years, online and in person, from students as well as their families. Few, though, have come from a learner who's earning an A as you are.

Part of me wants to pat you on the back while I marvel at your ceaseless drive to improve. Another part of me seeks a more consoling gesture as I fret whether your fragile learning motor might wear under apparent strain. (Time for my own wondering: How accurate is your perception of how you're doing in our class, anyway?)

Let's celebrate the forest you've cultivated before we get lost in the trees that debatably delineate, say, 92 from 94 percent. While I am confident more remains for you to learn, I am less sure these steps will elevate your grade in noticeable, calculable ways. For instance, you tend towards the taciturn, so what if you took a more active role contributing in class? Or, since you embrace your comfort zone by usually working with the same partners or reading similar genres of books, what if you took controlled risks to try new things? Would stretches like those lead to new experiences and capacities? I believe so. Would they boost your grade? No guarantee there. Then again, imperfect grades have never been able to circumscribe all the learning that we do.

So, stay motivated and curious. Even as you aim your critical eye at how to improve your game more than your grade, make sure those eyes recognize successes and growth, too, which merit celebrating.

Your teacher

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Son of I can't believe it's not a run-on sentence: Q & A

Was the glass half empty
or half full
this Thanksgiving--
when unprecedented
arid warmth
settled over the high country,
oscillating early-season
slope conditions
between icy crunch
and squishy slush
on the single paltry
open ski run;
rendering hiking paths
passable only until noon,
before they melted
into sucking mud;
holiday driving
a relative pleasure?


Monday, November 20, 2017

Round 1: McPhee vs. Balboa

Let me tell you about a connection I wasn't expecting to make.

Earlier this week, I finished reading John McPhee's Draft No. 4. That collection of essays has left me with a lifetime of writing-craft matters to ponder. I'm picking one from page 82 for this slice:
No one will ever write in just the way that you do, or in just the way that anyone else does. Because of this fact, there is no real competition between writers. What appears to be competition is actually nothing more than jealousy and gossip. Writing is a matter strictly of developing oneself. You compete only with yourself. You develop yourself by writing.
Daunting and empowering words, though maybe that's just because I'm two-thirds of the way through my truncated whack at National Novel Writing Month. I also find myself reflecting on my role as a responder to student writing due to how McPhee continues the preceding passage. He advises, "An editor's goal is to help writers make the most of the patterns that are unique about them." So I wonder: Am I helping young writers make the most of their distinctness? How might I do better?

The connection I mentioned happened earlier tonight when I finally caught up with a movie from two years ago, Creed. A scene sticking with me is this one:

"Develop yourself" resonates as a powerful mantra, arguably one on which workshop and studio classrooms -- or training gyms -- are built. Yet, notice how Rocky (the teacher) sets up Donnie (the student) to do his work before announcing, "I'm going to leave you two alone for a while."

That's a sweet science to which many educators aspire, and not alone. While we may compete against ourselves, we can collaborate with anyone.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Summit descent

Ten days out from attending a local EdTechTeam Summit, I'm still unpacking my learning. Here are five-plus souvenirs I brought back for you...
  • Keynote speaker Amy Burvall reminded me of the beautiful simplicity that mantras unlock: Creating things is fun. Sharing is worthwhile. Play makes learning sticky.
  • Speaking of creating... When digital projects need images or icons, check out Emojipedia or The Noun Project. (Thanks for pointers, Ro Jaimes and Sylvia Duckworth, respectively.)
  • AutoMastery via Mary Ellen West is a clever dot-connecting add-on for those who assess via Google Forms and then want to parcel out differentiated follow-up practice to students.
  • Jessica Loucks introduced me to free coding resources like CS First and Code Monkey that transform computers into more than mysterious -- dumb! -- black boxes.
  • These words from Jeff Heil: “When kids are chasing grades, they don’t take chances. When kids are chasing learning, all they do is take chances.”
What recent learning knickknacks have you collected? You're invited to strew them in the comments!

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Reading in the wild

(Hat tip to Donalyn Miller -- @donalynbooks -- for title I borrowed)

I didn't have anything to read, a source of notable chagrin while riding the bus home from school on a snow-gray afternoon. I poked at my phone and saw a branch library had copies of two appealing books on the shelf. One was Celine by Peter Heller, which I'd climbed half way into via audio book on an October road trip. Subsequent car time had proven harder to gather, and this wasn't a story I wanted to leave hanging. The other book was John McPhee's latest, Draft No. 4.

So, rather than walking home from the terminal, I called a commuting audible and hopped aboard a crossing bus route that would take 10 minutes to transport me to the library. I was treated on the way to an animated conversation between two passengers about the merits of author David Baldacci. A different group of bus readers meanwhile debated the merits of e-books versus print ones. I had stumbled into my tribe, apparently, and they happened to be on the 5:07 headed north.

My library visit was a clinical strike: in and out with two books in hand and back on the same bus, which had looped around for a return journey south. I couldn't help noticing the two riders now on board, looking down with Mona-Lisa smiles, lost in reading.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Seven costumes remembered

A clown, face made up with paint that couldn't stand up to my onslaught of tears for no reason I can now remember. The over-sized T-shirt with its technicolor magic-markered design was a masterpiece. (Thanks, Mom!)

A robot made from a large cardboard box, plastic batting helmet wrapped in aluminum foil, copious glow sticks. In case anybody couldn't tell what I was, I wrote on the box in big Sharpie letters, "I am a robot."

A traveling salesman, which involved drawing on a mustache with eyeliner and raiding my dad's supplies for a briefcase and one of his exceptionally wide ties. (Thanks, Dad!)

A group of friends and I dressed as the Marx Brothers: Groucho, Harpo, Zeppo, Chico.

A long-distance relationship. Girlfriend and I labeled ourselves as far-flung locations and wrapped ourselves together in phone-cord coils (back when phones had cords). Another time, feeling topical, we were bird flu. I wore a curly, yellow wig (not blond, yellow) and fashioned a jersey to approximate Larry Bird. She was a chimney.

A goriila -- because once I had a gorilla suit, this one was low-hanging fruit.

Whatever costume you might don, hope your Halloween is happy.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Penny for your thoughts

There's a literacy organization I support. In today's mail, I received a flyer from this organization touting an annual short-story contest. Students from grades 1-12 may participate, provided that they adhere to guidelines that "must be carefully followed."

A quick skim reveals requirements that sound intricate but fairly routine. One, though, lodges in my eye like a dust mote:

"Manuscripts with content dealing with self-destructive behavior will NOT be considered for an award."

I'll concede: Specifying go and no-go zones is the prerogative of the contest host. Still, my nose wrinkles at the scent of censorship. Shouldn't an opportunity open to teens permit them to mull a fraught topic like this through story telling? Or at least not explicitly rule it out?

What if this constraint were removed? Would the judges find themselves inundated with tales of self harm?

I worry that labeling topics taboo, like self-destructive behavior, makes them harder for young people and those who support them to address honestly, whether in writing or conversation. Are there times we must close doors like this so firmly? Are there times we shouldn't?

Community, what do you think -- in this case or related ones that now come to mind? Share your two cents in the comments below, and I'll make a donation for each thought shared in October to the American Library Association, which champions free and open access to reading and annually observes Banned Books Week.

Postscipt on Nov. 1: ALA contribution made. Thanks, community, for your thoughts.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Dystopia cornucopia

Usually being late to the party, reading or otherwise, I'm not surprised to be into dystopian fiction long after the genre's popularity wave has likely crested. This past weekend, I chomped through Francisco X. Stork's latest, Disappeared, and Emmy Laybourne's Monument 14. The former, a serendipitous library find prompted by a past winner from the same author (e.g., Marcelo in the Real World); the latter; a breathless eighth-grader's recommendation.

Stork's fiction hews close to realism, tracking the challenges of two siblings in northwestern Mexico: a brother being tempted into the drug trade and his sister, a tenacious journalist, investigating her best friend's disappearance. Their stories generally unfold by the numbers, nonetheless revealing a corrupt society unraveling even as people with integrity struggle still to do the right thing.

Laybourne travels a more sensational route: a weather apocalypse triggering numerous catastrophic dominoes. Despite this sky-is-falling scenario, the book's perspective proves intimate, focusing on a small band of teens, tweens, and younger kids marooned in their town's big-box store. I expected the story to devolve into Lord of the Flies in Walmart, but it sprang different surprises.

Most recently, I've begun The Dog Stars by Peter Heller, which a friend of a friend touted while we watched playoff baseball. This one is aimed at adults -- its spartan, brutal style and subject matter for older readers. As with the previous titles, the world we know has ended. (It's not yet clear why.) I'm in the company of two perhaps paranoid survivors with access to a junky prop plane. Where we'll go, I have little idea.

Writing this slice, however, I have a better sense of my motivation for this three-book genre streak. Dystopian dysfunction mirrors a school year herky-jerkying its way through October's annual minefield.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Reading eyes wide open

I favor reading widely, and I encourage students to do the same. That partly explains why something I recently read in Nabokov's Favorite Color is Mauve sticks in my brain.

In this accessible nonfiction text, author Ben Blatt crunches numbers about writing and literature. Quirky inquiries abound. He uses big data, for instance, to see how well Elmore Leonard and other authors heed Leonard's advice to spend exclamation points parsimoniously. In another chapter, Blatt compares professional and amateur authors regarding how much (or how little) they deploy cliches.

Blatt also explores, in his calculating fashion, how language might reveal implicit bias. One way he does this is by determining ratios of gendered pronouns in various texts. That leads to this observation on page 41:

Reading this, my brain felt like a record being scratched. I wondered: Should I now think less of The Hobbit and its author? Did the text still belong in a formal English curriculum? If so, how might I frame it to account for its slanted grammar? Should I go out of my way to tout, say, fantasy writer Tamora Pierce to balance Tolkien on this particular seesaw? (For that matter, might gender be more complex than a seesaw analogy?) Does a crude he/she ratio even qualify as a sufficient hook on which to hang my abashed hat? Lastly, to adapt a notion from Grace Lin: How much should reading mirror the lives we live versus open windows onto different -- sometimes unsettling -- experiences?

For now, I'll reach back to my first sentence like a life preserver: read widely -- in terms of text selection and keeping my eyes and mind open to what I find therein.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

I can't believe it's not a run-on sentence, #3

In this mountain-studded, aspen-robed state that touts some 300 sun-splashed days each year, the current stretch of low gray skies and nine days of rain in the last ten disconcerts the denizens, yet even this seemingly aberrant meteorology -- an unsettling gambler's fallacy of drab forecasts, a radar loop of gloom -- fades inconsequentially in the somber shadows cast by Monday's headlines.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

It takes a toll

As I scanned September's credit-card statement, an unfortunate voice in my head blared, "Fake news!" (Another grumbled, "Curse you, Equifax!") One weird charge stood out.

The billing company was a rental-car toll entity. Its charge dated to July, a time when I was (to the best of my straining recollection) responsible for a rented mobile. However, the date was off: one day before the second driver returned the vehicle to the airport and, deducing from the amount, the tolls applied on a road to the airport. Doubly weird.

I called the rental-car toll business, whose representative curtly asserted I was responsible for these charges.

"Do you have a picture of the car going through the toll?" I asked.

"We can order one from the toll authority," the representative said.

"Please do," I said. "And may I get a copy of the bill?"

"We can email you one," the rep said.

"Thank you, please."

That document landed in my email moments letter. It listed toll fees along with three cryptic numbers where those had been collected. I had to call the toll-road operator to learn how those digits corresponded to real-world locales. Turned out they're on a stretch of airport access road opposite the direction from which I typically travel. I live to the northwest of the airport, but these tolls were collected to the southeast.

I rang back the rental-car toll mafia, eager to report my detective work.

"Without photographic proof of you and the car someplace else, you're still responsible for these charges," I was told.

"I know I have to wait for the official pictures," I said, "but do your records tell us the make and model of the vehicle I was driving?"

"Let me see," the increasingly disinterested voice said, "red Ford F150."

"My rental car was a green Toyota Sequoia," I said.

"Oh," came the reply. "You'll need to call the rental-car company to remove this charge from your account. I can't do that here."

A fifth phone call finally erased the red from the ledger. Or, at least, that's supposed to be the result in three-to-five business days.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Data driven off the deep end

Pam Allyn, Feb. 2017: Have we "medicalized reading" -- made it sound like a health emergency?

I remember, years ago, the first time I heard the phrase 'false positives.' Unsurprisingly, the context was medical. More surprisingly, it was awkwardly social as I found myself the plus-one at a a dinner sponsored by a medical imaging company. (Back when that sort of event was deemed kosher.)

Taking in the presentation along with some chocolate mousse, I reached the layman's conclusion that the spotlit imaging technology proffered both wonderful benefits and needless worry. For every legitimate problem detected, the cordial company representative warned, the equipment might flag false positives -- benign spots that looked, at first, malignant and might prompt unnecessarily invasive, costly treatments.

Now wearing my professional hat and considering digital reams of reading data for middle-school students, this notion of false positives looms again. The data are the fruits of the latest effort where I teach to screen kids (note: medical term) universally via online tools. The first broad strokes have me scratching my head about how best to prioritize next steps.

According to this one measure, sixth graders demonstrate a reading range from first through ninth grade; seventh graders from second through ninth; and eight graders from third through 10th.

My mind, untethered, spins with numbers. I feel urges to triangulate and validate. ("How much can the data be trusted?" a little voice in my head wonders.) I feel desperation to intervene, helping students progress at the low end, keeping students engaged and growing at the high end, not losing sight of students in the middle. ("Isn't this deficit mindset hurtful?" the same voice frets.)

Hundreds of snapshots of student literacy now in hand, I'm far from certain what I know even as there's no doubt I can't un-know it.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Celestial & existential

Today, I heard a radio piece about this, which led to me browse this, which led me to write this:

Early in the second year of my career as teacher,
NASA coincidentally launched the Cassini orbiter.

By the time that spacecraft reached Saturn seven years later,
I had relocated west, discovering myself to be a mountain creature.

For 13 lucky years, Cassini became one more ringèd feature,
of that remote planet, its moons pocked by countless craters.

Just shy of a 20th anniversary, Cassini's to be an atmospheric breacher,
disintegrating harmlessly (in theory), not unlike some careers.

Monday, August 28, 2017

An English teacher has a sobering realization

A sucker for animated features, I watched The Red Turtle yesterday,
a story told almost entirely without words.

That power inherent in speaking. writing, reading?
Sometimes, it's optional when pictures prevail.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

What if -- musing on grades & their alternatives

The online grade-book with which I am saddled -- Infinite Campus -- has spaces for both grades and comments. This week, our second back from summer, I wondered:

save imageWhat if I lean extra hard on the comment box as a feedback repository and only use the grade box for either a symbol indicating a task has been turned in for my review or it is missing? What if comments spotlight both strengths I notice and moves to improve the quality of the work so far? (What if my Twitter training actually helps me satisfy the character constraints in the comment field?)

What if I bounce this idea off my principal, and she sounds supportive?

What if middle schoolers and I dialogue periodically to agree on a grade reflecting as best we can their self-assessments of their work and the growth they see (or lack thereof) via our ongoing feedback loops? Grades still play, after all, particularly when formal progress-report season comes around.

What if I'm pleased by several students rising to the initial comment bait, adding quality pieces to their work (responsible citations, say) or completing incomplete tasks?  What if I try this with some kind of new-fangled test rather than a low-stakes summer reading assignment?

What if some of these students aren't yet intrinsically motivated, but going round and round until they grab a gold grade ring?

What if I describe this approach to parents next week at Back to School Night? What if they later come looking for comforting grade symbols and become antsy when they find uncomfortably messy comments?

What if I'm curious to explore the possibilities of these what-ifs?

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Funny thing happened on the way to work

One blog topic to which I resort happens to be transportation and commuting since riding a public bus to work affords unexpected grist for this mill. Today's slice, though, finds me behind the wheel of my own vehicle about 14 hours ago.

It's the first day of school, and I'm a solo commuter -- one more drop in the fast-rising traffic waters where I live. Then, just a few minutes from home, I spy my science-teaching colleague at another bus stop. No cars behind me, I flick on the hazards, roll down the window, and make an unscheduled stop. "Want a lift?" I ask. Once the incredulity clears from his face, he accepts. Our first point of conversation is whether we'll see our history-teaching colleague, another sometime bus rider.

At the next stop, we do. So we gather a new passenger, and now we have a spontaneous carpool. We dispel nervous energy en route to meet our new students.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Summer reading 2017 recap

Now that professional responsibilities have formally resumed, I suppose summer reading must lose its seasonal qualifying adjective. To mark that occasion, here's a list of books I finished since Memorial Day (along with parenthetical notes)...

Ideas Are All Around by Philip C. Stead (soft-spoken picture book inspiration)
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (first tome in epic -- yet intimate -- fantasy trilogy)
Teaching Literacy in the Visible Learning Classroom by Douglas Fisher et al (Hattie's effect sizes explored, applied)
The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser (still topical, alarming inspection of Internet's influence)
Waking Up by Sam Harris (meditations on meditation)
Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo (more sweet than bitter MG ride with plucky young hero)
It Ain't So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas (memoir where cultures collide, sometimes causing cliches)
The Beekeeper's Lament by Hannah Nordhaus (in-depth look at often overlooked insects and the industries/people trying to harness them)
Zeroboxer by Fonda Lee (YA sci fi takes on mixed-martial arts)
ROLE Reversal by Mark Barnes (early adopter on minimizing grades and maximizing project- or problem-based learning)
Loving vs. Virginia by Patricia Ruby Powell et al (YA verse novel inspired by mid-20th century interracial romance)
Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly (intersection of US aeronautics industry's launch and related rise of brilliant mathematicians who were black women staring down Jim Crow)
It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by Danah Boyd (think twice about assumptions re: teens and tech; question pervasive, pernicious cultural forces)
Translanguaging with Multilingual Students by Ofelia Garcia et al (make room for multiple languages to fuel learning)
New Boy by Tracy Chevalier (Shakespeare's Othello re-imagined in 21st-century elementary school; aimed at adult readers)
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman (Saab story re: Swedish curmudgeon hiding heart of gold)
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson (Anthology of mind-expanding essays about still-expanding universe and its phenomena)
Why?: What Makes Us Curious by Mario Livio (Look at brain science and historical paragons fell short of stoking my curiosity about this trendy focus)
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (Dizzying adult fiction about three-plus Dominican generations across five decades)
Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal by AKR (Actual text presented as amusing interactive hypertext, with musings loosely inspired by various school subjects/tropes)

This list comprises eight works of fiction and a dozen nonfiction titles. I consumed seven as e-books, one as an audio book, and the rest as I-turned-actual-pages paperbacks or hard covers. Of the latter, two I owned and the rest I borrowed from the library.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Risky business

I signed a waiver that I did not read. In my lame defense, the whole waiver transaction was electronic, without even a copy linked for perusal. I strutted past the signs that proclaimed, "Helmets mandatory." I saw nary a protected head, so I figured my baseball cap would suffice. I read the posted caution about getting off the alpine-slide track if it became wet with rain. ("How?" I should've thought to wonder even as dark storm clouds slid over the sun, making my neck cool.) I felt the first fat drops fall as I rounded turn six. By turn seven, the skies opened; the sled's brake no longer proved effective. I spent the next third of the ride traveling with -- not on -- my sled, experimenting with alternate ways to stop. I also had my camera available (for posterity, I like to tell myself).

The eventual self-arrest came at a reasonable cost: a little skin from one hand, one elbow, and one knee, along with the soaked-through backs of my shorts and shirt. I clambered out of the track with my sled just before the next rider whizzed past -- the last one before the slide closed temporarily due to weather. I considered the possibility of walking down the rest of the way. My escape, though, fueled new hubris, and my scrapes didn't sting much. I dropped the sled on the track, hopped backed on, and finished the ride.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Mesa Verde verse

Crabbing my way
through a low stone entry
polished pearly
by 800 years (nearly)
of hands and knees,
I feel simultaneously
part of and dwarfed by

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Floating an idea

I'm sitting in a raft on the Cache la Poudre River, snugly tucked near two friends with whom I used to teach. Their young sons perch at the bow, bubbling more with excitement than nerves. Our raft floats in an eddy on one side of the river. Across the way, seven other craft in this morning flotilla show varying states of preparedness.

"How come they're not ready yet?" asks one boy, pointing his paddle towards the far shore.

Joey, our guide, clicks his tongue philosophically. "Everybody has their talks," he says, encompassing his fellow guides in that pronoun. "Me, I figured out just to tell people what they need to know. Extra stuff just confuses them. We can figure out the rest as we go."

Something in the hibernating caves of my teacher brain stirs; I decide to carry this wisdom back to the classroom in August.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Self, propelled

If getting there is truly half the fun, I glean more than my allotment when moving under my own power -- trail running, hiking, backpacking, bicycling, ski touring, or just walking.

My fun cup runneth over during summer when five of these six modes of transportation are abundantly available. (Skiing, your time will come again.) These pursuits encourage me to appreciate the good health I must not take for granted; the public lands in need of stewarding through which I move; the companionship of friends and family; the unexpected encounters with anyone called outside no matter age or experience, whether we're going the same way or in opposite directions.

And it occurs to me I've left off another essential mode of transport: reading. In its way, it moves me too, during summer and all year long. It stretches my mental and emotional faculties; it reveals literate lands in need of their own stewarding; it introduces me to countless others, real and imagined, like me and not.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Two unique people I met this week

a.k.a. Writing short to keep a slicing streak going

Johnny, who replaced my windshield. He's been working on auto glass for 38 years and takes exceptional, laudable pride in his work, no matter the project before him.

Bill, who is in the midst of running a marathon in every United States National Park. He just tallied the last one he needs in the Lower 48 at Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Click here for his story.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

DIY recipe

First, watch one or two YouTube clips. Next, mistrust video learning, so browse a few pages of home-improvement books at the library. Confirm most of what you watched online. Draw up a vague shopping list of necessary supplies. Head to the hardware store and spend at least an hour, dizzyingly considering the pros and cons of products for stripping wood finishes, the relative merits of competing stain brands, the incremental arrays of sand-paper grains, just the right brushes for the job, and so forth. Tell a parade of employees who ask if they can help you that you're doing fine. Return home, exhausted and amply equipped.

Lay down newspaper in the work areas because you're marginally responsible. Stir stripping goop a paranoid amount and brush on. Wait. Scrape off the goop along with (most of) the former finish. Discover, through trial and error, the sweet spot that achieves this purpose without gouging the wood. Wait again for surface to dry. Remove lingering bits of tenacious finish with three different flavors of sand paper. Not only does this buff out many gouges, you'll learn it also opens the wood for subsequent stain absorption. Vacuum up sandy residue. Brush on wood conditioner, which will promote even staining. Wait while conditioner dries. Brush on stain. Wait for more drying time before applying second coat.
Now the big wait: over night for stain to dry thoroughly before applying finish.
The next day at dawn, three thin layers of finish go on, requiring at least two hours of drying between each. (Incidentally, this makes a fine excuse to read, which will help you put a dent in any magazine piles lying around.)

And the payoff, from before:
To after:

That unsightly hole in the screen will be gone soon when the window is replaced to do its refurbished sill justice. That, by the way, will be a job for professionals.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Bubbling up

I'm in the middle of reading The Filter Bubble, written by Eli Pariser and published in 2011. It's about the consequences -- both intended and not -- of technology that increasingly personalizes experiences for users. So far, I've highlighted a few juicy quotations such as:

  • "[W]hat is good for consumers is not necessarily good for citizens." (18)
  • "[M]edia that prioritize importance over popularity or personal relevance are useful--even necessary." (75)
  • "Innovation requires serendipity." (96)

And speaking of serendipity... On an unexpected drive today, I heard a radio item featuring Mr. Pariser. Turns out he's the co-founder and CEO of Upworthy.

Now I'm trying to discern if this is a case of "If you can't beat them, join them" or whether Pariser envisioned Upworthy in its hey-day as a filter-bubble busting site. Or perhaps it's just that much can change in six years.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Catch my drift(s)

I rode my bike in the Rockies yesterday, and it was lovely. Mostly. Brilliant sunshine and gusty winds insured that the day sparkled. At the highest elevations, snow patches still stood out against the dark peaks while scattered wildflowers splashed colors down lower. Temperatures in the 70s meant streams gushed with run-off.

I picked a stretch of the Colorado Trail that I had ridden before, which meant I started pedaling up a dirt road to access the trail. About an hour later, I hooked into single-track and started a stouter climb, happy for the trees's shelter from the breeze. A thrilling, jouncy descent brought me to a bridge and across a creek. I knew that meant more climbing in order to escape that drainage. What I hadn't anticipated was how high I'd have to go. As the trail crossed 11,000 feet in elevation and curved around a ridge to a cooler, shadier aspect, snow patches started to appear with more frequency. Drifts of varying sizes encroached on the trail. Footprints and tread marks told me I wasn't the first person to cross these hurdles. The next hour was a grunt, offering short, dry trail stretches between squishy obstacles that necessitated carrying my bicycle. I felt enough frustration to consider turning back, but made enough progress to press on until the aspect and elevation changed in my favor.

Lesson mostly learned: While being in the right place at the right time can deliver abundant joy, a few subtle changes (say: direction and elevation) can send that moment sideways, toggling those rights to wrongs. At the time, the stubborn Capricorn in me offered up a silent serenity prayer, then kept pedaling; or walking; or, in a few chilly cases, post-holing.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Something old/new/borrowed/blue

The #sunchatbloggers are a loose affiliation of reflective educators and, yesterday, one of them (Marilyn) suggested devoting blog space to musing about the school year's end. I'm going to combine her inspiration with the weekly Two Writing Teachers invitation and one old-saw structure to package four slices in one.

Old - I'm an avid reader who, for a long time, has aimed to champion choice reading with the middle-school students I teach. The recently concluded school year was the second in a row that I made a concerted effort to bolster what I value with time. Students started each class reading something they chose for at least 10 minutes, making for a pleasant soft opening to the period and affording me the chance to check in with a few readers each day. In year-end feedback, many students told me they value this time, too.

New - I took cues from several in my professional learning network and experimented with new grading/feedback dynamics in 2016-17. Rather than following a more conventional rhythm of tests and writing assignments within prescribed units, students continually updated an electronic portfolio in which they justified their mastery of course standards. Students could draw on our work together as proof and also from reading, writing, speaking efforts they made in other classes. My responses involved confirming their mastery evidence, coaching them singly or in groups toward needed next steps, or planning whole-class follow-up when warranted. Grades were derived quarterly from the ratio of standards mastered and confirmed. This likely counted as one of my riskiest endeavors as an educator, and it proved an uncomfortable leap for many--me included! By March, feedback from some students, parents, and the principal necessitated that we navigate back to more familiar ground. That, too, was a new experience.

Borrowed - Students and I cribbed several gamification moves this school year, playing Breakout EDU in actual and digital forms. These days palpably lifted the classroom energy. I appreciate Breakout's open-source ethos that encourages borrowing and fosters creativity.

Blue - I've been fortunate to have my own classroom for the past two-plus years. It's a space with one blue wall, the rest being cream colored. In May, I learned that I will need to vacate the space in 2017-18 to facilitate other needed changes in who works where and why. The upshot is I'll migrate between two rooms (and perhaps one office). Anticipating feeling like an interloper in colleagues' spaces initially made me a little blue. Now, though, I'm starting to see opportunities in the change. The clouds are parting; increasingly, the blue I'm noticing is the open summer sky.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Funathlon tritina

Saturday, grab a paddle;
carve the river water like a sharp ski.
Down Arkansas rapids, we ride.

Sunday, a short car ride
leads to snowfields, wide as a paddle,
softening in the sun to ski.

Monday, after that delicious ski,
time to ride
bicycles; each pedaling foot, a flagging paddle.

Three days in Colorado outside: paddle, ski, ride

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Hair today, gone tomorrow

But at my back I always hear / Time's wingèd chariot hurrying near --Andrew Marvell

Carrying out the barber's mission,
Scissors snick with cool derision.
Down in my lap, I smirk to see
snipped silver locks,which came from me.
My thoughts turn dark, my smile galled:
Will I first go gray -- or just bald?

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

I'd like to thank the universe and the library

I live around the corner from a public library, which is a blessing and a curse -- but mostly a blessing. Monday, I stopped there heading home from school because I needed two items.

I checked out a To Kill a Mockingbird DVD. It will be the viewing prize when (if?) students crack a book-related digital breakout. I also borrowed both copies of Go by Chip Kidd, to use as in-class resources during a design project that culminates our study of symbolism, literary or otherwise.

Heading for the exit, I followed a woman ambling into one of the library's gallery spaces. She was, to my eye, joining co-workers in the process of mounting a new exhibit. Her voice giddy with enthusiasm, she said, "This is the most beautiful, inspiring library I've ever been in. And that's just walking to the bathroom."

I smiled and silently thanked the universe for reminding me of such blessings.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Beating a dead (grading) horse

Here's another idea collage, cobbled together from recent reading.

About two weeks ago, in the May 2017 Atlantic, I read a review of new-to-me poet, Patricia Lockwood. One line in the piece touted Lockwood's flair for Pun Lightning -- "that jolt of connection when the language turns itself inside out, when two words suddenly profess they're related to each other, or wish to be married, or were in league all along." (28)

Yeah, I needed to spend more time with this writer. So on a foray to the local library last week, I tracked down a poetry collection of hers; therein, I found "The Hatfields and the McCoys" and this bruising bit:

I chuckled and wondered: Are grading exchanges truly feud-worthy? These lines nevertheless packed extra punch since, just the day before, I had received an email from a student. It was a response to my prior alert that the student's grade (for the moment) might look distressingly low due to missing work from absences accrued while on a school-sponsored trip. "I want to avoid any unnecessary panic," I had written and gone on to sketch out the requisite catching-up steps. The message I got back: "Thank you for the email. I am currently panicking as I write this so I will be coming to office hours to solve this." At first, I wondered if there was dry irony to be gleaned from this note. Knowing the student, however, I was skeptical. Turns out a panic attack actually precipitated the student writing to me.

These two messages - Lockwood's and the student's -- juxtaposed in 24 hours strengthened my resolve to keep seeking alternatives to grades's scarring influences in schools; to help learners see grades as fungible, not tattoos.