Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Spring training - 3.31 #sol21 Story Challenge

We land at the Challenge's end, a
small miracle. We have each become a student
of daily habit, presented
for the first time or again with this writing place, theirs or ours, hers or his,
welcomed to the fold of a just so, chef-turned omelet.

It amazes us still how the
writing ritual itself becomes our instructor.
At a keyboard, we poked
until it
surrendered (or revealed) a slice. And
perhaps once, an idea shook
us so suddenly -- as a hitter who meets his
bat head
to a ball that he
even bother
size up, the abrupt taste
coming only from the unseeing instinct of it.
I sometimes know how he
feels, tipped
over with the swing's effort, putting his all into it,
blind hope that the result will be more than trash;
the payoff of essential optimism, not unlike an
unexpectedly delicious filling cached in an omelet.

Our simple writerly wants
might in fact distill to
a wish to be
vulnerably soft
when standing in
of earthly bustle, pillowy
any and every experience, the
unthinkable alternative being to lose touch.

Source text for this golden shovel poem: Dirt by Bill Buford, page 130

Tuesday, March 30, 2021


Today, I believe, represented the largest number of young people with whom I've shared an actual classroom in over a year. I'm rereading that first sentence to myself because I find it barely believable. I counted 17 students, seated compliantly in desks arranged in rows, each separated by at least three feet from the next. They all remembered to bring charged devices to school; their families cleared new hurdles by submitting electronic health screeners in timely fashion. A video set-up cobbled together at the front of the classroom brought another seven students into the proceedings from home. I plopped into what I wrongly thought of as a command center of sorts, toggling my attention between the remote and in-person crews. We were all using laptops to mediate our participation, yet we were together. ("Together"?)

We read aloud and discussed two poems. Even with our masks deployed effectively, we could all hear each other, whether in the room or patched in digitally.

Everyone contributed, by speaking or writing or both.

That's something.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Other than under glass - 3.28 #sol21 Story Challenge

"Pheasant, peasant? What a pleasant present?" --William Steig, Shrek

Upon returning home today from the winter forays I've been writing slices about this past week, I found a neighbor blocking our apartment entry with his truck. He apologized, saying sheepishly how this had never happened before. "No big deal," I responded. "We have stuff to unload ourselves, and we can just park behind you for now." He said he'd move the truck right away, to make room for us. We shuffled vehicles and proceeded to jockey bags to our respective doors. In the process, we all traded pleasantries about what we'd been doing since we had last seen each other. For us, skiing; for our neighbor, hunting.

"You like pheasant?" he asked.

"Never had it before," my wife and I replied.

Our neighbor said he had bagged more than he could use, so he would bring some by. I spent the next stretch of time fretting about bird heads with beaks or feathered bodies that might need my attention. Soon, though, a knock came at the door along with our neighbor bearing a plastic bag containing three cleaned ('processed,' I think, is the word) pheasants, ready for cooking. Convenience and carnivorousness go hand in hand, I now realize more acutely than I did before.

I turned to one resource that I thought might be able to help me out of this sudden culinary jam: How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman. Bittman didn't disappoint and, about 70 minutes later, my wife and I dined on pheasant braised with onions, mushrooms, and dried fruit, served over Israeli couscous.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Phew: clerihew - 3.27 #sol21 Story Challenge

With this month dwindling rapidly, I'm overdue
for a clerihew!

We met a mountain guide named Joe
near Mount Uneva, scouting solo,
for ski lines where he could lead paying clients
who trust his understanding of snow science.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Ski safari continues - 3.26 #sol21 Story Challenge

Lakshmi, another slice writer, asked a question that inspired today's blog. On Wednesday, she asked -- in response to one of my recent entries about sliding on snow -- "What type of skiing is this?" That particular slice focused on cross-country skiing, also referred to as Nordic skiing (deserving of a capital letter, I learned from the Internet's copy desk, though 'internet' these days is acceptable all lower case).

Cross-country skiing equipment's relatively light weight suits it best for two-dimensional travel. While going up and down is possible for short stretches, it's a different experience than downhill or alpine skiing. Those activities, with their three-dimensional demands were our focus today, involving both a slower pace (at least on the self-powered way up) and burlier gear (for the gravity-fueled way down). In between, the reward was a view like this:

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Serendipity - 3.25 #sol21 Story Challenge

I'm back on skis today because spring break remains in effect. I'm chasing after my wife along a nordic center's groomed trails. She's flying, uphill. Over the pounding of my heartbeat in my ears, I hear someone shout, "Lafayette Jazz!" This would typically be a strange thing to call out in these circumstances, except those are exactly the words splashed across the royal blue t-shirt I'm wearing. It's the name (or former name) of the high-school Ultimate Frisbee team I coach. The moniker's origins are semi-mysterious, particularly the bit after the name of the town where the school is located. I surmise the speaker must be one of two women waiting at the crest of the hill for me to summit so they can descend. No one else is around, not even my wife. As I approach the pair, one introduces herself as the mother of a former team member, a graduate last spring. One glance at the mountains around us makes clear that, after all, the world is far from small, and yet...


Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Not to ski - 3.24 #sol21 Story Challenge

Today set up as the opposite of yesterday. Where Tuesday was relaxing, Wednesday was stressful. Where Tuesday's perambulations on skis were mostly free and easy, along well-marked trails, Wednesday's involved questionable route finding and gluey snow. Tuesday's weather aided and abetted our journey; Wednesday's worked against us. If, yesterday, we operated on autopilot, today we relentlessly worked the controls without much reward. Successes proved fewer, hard-won, fleeting. We learned plenty today, including that we need valleys to appreciate the peaks, or vice versa.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

To ski or not to ski - 3.23 #sol21 Story Challenge

My wife grew up as an avid skier. Since we met and moved west together, I've been trying to catch up, a dynamic that I've reported on previously.

A year ago, the early days of the pandemic put an abrupt kibosh on downhill resort skiing. Ski resorts have happily kept the lifts turning this winter, through a mildly inconvenient combination of now-familiar precautions (masks, distancing, limited if any access to indoor space) and new routines (advance reservations required for skiing or parking or both). Those constraints led to a fairly easy decision for my wife and me: mothball this season's ski passes and explore -- we hoped -- snowy roads less traveled.

In preparation, we each added a modest new arrow to our quiver in the form of cross-country skis and boots. For the uninitiated (which was us in December), these are skinnier, lighter siblings of downhill skis. They have a textured area of scales on the base under one's feet, to prevent constant backsliding. These particular skis also featured metal edges, adding a little weight in exchange for a little control (very little, turns out). The boots, our grateful feet read as soft slippers compared to the hard plastic shells of the downhill equivalent.

And off we went (which amounted to glorified walking at first). Over time, we elevated our kicking-and-gliding technique through a blend of YouTube videos, practice, and strategic seeking out of flatter terrain. We worked our way up to bigger adventures (sometimes, too big), and today felt like a culmination of sorts: a tour through a high-elevation landscape of evergreen forests and rolling meadows, mostly to ourselves, freshly dusted with enough snow to make our passage quiet. When the trail went up, we didn't become Keystone Kops running in place; when the trail went down, we didn't panic or crash (much). We moved through many miles, bodies working, minds relaxed, hearts content.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Moment of near silence - 3.22 #sol21 Story Challenge

Whatever small slice of life I might've written about today is being set aside. This afternoon, in the town where I live, an armed person shot and killed multiple people at a grocery store. Details remain scant, hours later. (This blog entry sat on my screen for ages while I thought about what else to add. And then clicked Publish.)

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Car talk - 3.21 #sol21 Story Challenge

Cresting the hill, we register brake lights from several cars ahead and, in front of them, strobing red flashes from an emergency vehicle. We stop, turn off the ignition. The day is clear; the road is dry; yet something has gone wrong with a Sunday drive. Three fire engines and two ambulances arrive over the next several minutes, sirens screaming the wrong way down the empty oncoming lanes. A state department of transportation truck follows, stacked with traffic cones -- a signal, we figure, that the road may reopen eventually. We sit tight for about an hour. Not much to see, and not much point in turning around for an alternate route. Eventually, one ambulance speeds away. The second follows. One fire truck and then another navigate multipoint turns and return from where they came. We're moving soon after. We crawl past the accident scene: two totaled vehicles, their makes and models no longer identifiable. The driver's side door of one has been removed. The other is about as pancaked as I've ever seen a car outside of a junkyard crusher in an old movie; its front wheels, still attached by an axle, somehow face the sky. Our thoughts are with whoever was in those cars.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Alternative fun - 3.20 #sol21 Story Challenge

Picture a group of people clustered on a ski slope. From a distance, it looks like it might be a ski lesson. Clusters of ski patrollers have also swooped past on the same run, so maybe this is more of them. Except, no, most of these skiers are (look again) on their bellies, legs splayed behind, knees bent, skis crisscrossed above their backs a little like a bizarre scorpion stinger. They're sledding, and their bodies are the sleds.

I continue my methodical uphill pace until I'm even with these adventurers: giggling kids and one instructor. "Look at us," I comment, "having alternative fun." The grown-up nods, says "Last day of the season, and they get to do whatever they want." Turns out what they want is to body surf slush.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Twofer - 3.19 #sol21 Story Challenge

Two observations from today about two pieces of technology that I habitually overlook:

1. Toilet flappers. A cranky commode (in my abode!) gave what amounted to its final cry for help -- more of a whimper, really. Sounds of water dripping in the wee hours suggested something in the bathroom plumbing wasn't right. My light-sleeping wife was the one who stirred, and she honed in on said toilet as the sound source. For a quick fix, she shut off the water valve. Later, in waking daylight hours, we ascertained that the flapper was practically in tatters. (Water, your combination of harmlessness and destructiveness always amazes me.) A trip to the hardware store was called for, and that leads to...

2. Self check-outs. As someone who still recalls formative high-school work experience behind a grocery-store cash register, I have mixed feelings about the reassigning of this labor to customers. Today, with a new flapper in hand, I made an unexpected discovery. Self check-outs are still legion, and yet there's new work for people to do during the pandemic: Between each customer transaction, an employee whisked in to swipe every touchpoint with a sanitizing wipe.

Anyone want to wager on the future delivery date of self-cleaning self check-outs? What if I set the over/under as before or after my newly seated flapper next fails?

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Time machine - 3.18 #sol21 Story Challenge

In the tradition of tooth fairies
stealthily swapping coins for canines,

unseen strangers sweeping snow, unasked,
from windshields and walks not their own,

samaritans picking up others' trash from the grass
and dropping it in the nearest receptacle,

yesterday (better late than never),
in a quiet moment just past dawn,
I set all six
of the school hall's portable clocks
ahead one hour.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

One small step - 3.17 #sol21 Story Challenge

Where I teach, students have been on campus at times over the last year: morning cohorts, afternoon cohorts, arranged by need or grade level. Different schedules for different ages, with younger students often able to avail themselves -- or, more accurately, have their grown-ups avail them -- of in-person time at school; meanwhile, high-school teens have remained the furthest from "life as we knew it." We've scaled up or down for a year, in response to Covid's communal degree of communicability.

Amid those ebbs and flows, today marked a milestone. Scheduled classes met this morning for students in grades 6-12. (I understand: it's a milestone in these parts. Others have been operating this way for months if not most of the school year.) Still, I felt momentous hope seeing students processing in to start a day in relative unison. A closer look would reveal we remained a ways from what used to qualify as normal. For example, the halls lacked the tell-tale slamming of lockers (off limits) or the chaotic ricochet of students (now directed by floor arrows to move in straight-ish lines, right to class). Taking attendance involved also verifying via a separate system that all those present had answered health screening questions before their arrival. New hoops, sure, yet also the familiar thrill of being (half)face-to-(half)face exploring what we might learn together.

p.s. Me, I learned I need practice toggling the sound settings on different devices to maximize clear hearing for those in various hybrid modes and minimize (sqweeEE!) feedback.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Other angles - 3.16 #sol21 Story Challenge

Monday, the sun returned after two cloud-heavy days smeared two feet of snow on my community. Schools closed, affording time for city employees (as well as residents) to clear side streets and sidewalks. So, I repurposed some of my own work hours -- not counting shoveling -- to go for an aimless walk with my camera.

Everything wore a wet, white coat, even this art installation with its 55-degree slope. I know that precise measurement because it's the title of the sculpture, named after the Flatirons geologic formation that you can see pitched at the same angle in the distance at left.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Angles - 3.15 #sol21 Story Challenge

More than a year before the pandemic began, my wife and I removed the blinds and curtains in our apartment. This step was a necessary precursor to old windows being replaced. Once that job was done, however, we never reinstalled the old treatments, and we have yet to purchase new ones. The reasons for this turn of events are many: e.g., we like natural light, our privacy doesn't seem noticeably compromised, we're victims of inertia.

To date, said inertia has a single exception of which I was recently reminded. After the nation set clocks back last November, the south-facing window next to which I work became an unexpected sun magnet. While I suppose I should've anticipated this change, it affected me not at all during my many years commuting to school. Teaching from home at all hours changed my exposure, and neither my efforts to squint nor my laptop's maximum screen brightness proved adequate counters for sun glare.

After several weeks working in nature's spotlight, I eventually slunk over to a home-improvement store in search of window covering. I'd measured the opening with care, but could find no off-the-shelf solution that would fit. Rather than track down an employee to custom cut something, I grabbed the closest standard option. (Inertia strikes again!) My DIY installation proved to be three inches short on either end, perfectly practical for sun protection and perfectly deserving of my wife's subsequent heckling. "At least I've got it nicely centered," I tried, but she remained unimpressed.

With clocks springing back to standard time yesterday, the sun arcing higher in the post-equinox sky, and an imminent return to in-person learning around here, my somewhat shady shade remains an odd memento of a year that's been unlike any other in my career. 

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Timing's everything - 3.14 #sol21 Story Challenge

I'm sitting by the window, wondering what I should write a slice about tonight. Even as I think 'tonight,' it doesn't feel right, given how bright the world still looks. Wet snow coats everything. School on Monday has already been canceled.

Movement across the street tugs my gaze. I see a man in snowshoes trudge across the whitewashed landscape. Out of view, I hear a plow scrape by. Another sound punctuates my musing: a layer of snow slathered on the roof slides off and thumps on the ground. And, still, the flakes sift down.

Spring ahead? Hardly.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Safety first or tenth - 3.13 #sol21 Story Challenge

Quick slice as today's posting deadline is looming: Snow is dosing my environs, which meant my second vaccination date officially got postponed until next week. On the same day I learned this mildly disappointing news, I received email from my health insurer, notifying me that an explanation of benefits had just become available. Turns out that was related to my first shot three weeks ago. To ascertain that fact, I had to jump through the usual hoops to access an online portal I rarely visit. My visits are so rare, in fact, that the system demanded I set a new password before the digital gatekeeper would let me through. "Fine," I thought to myself, no longer surprised by extra layers of security. I did give one go at seeing if the system would accept me entering my old password, but that attempt was quickly denied. What I saw next, though, did surprise me. A scolding error message said that I could not enter my previous password or any ten I've used on the site before. I'm accustomed to rotating passwords, but ten? TEN? My memory looks at its cards and folds. I suspect I'll be clicking the "Forgot your password?" feature the next I need to log in.


Friday, March 12, 2021

My new co-worker - 3.12 #sol21 Story Challenge

This week, I've been preparing for a launch of hybrid learning on Monday (weather permitting). Part of that effort has been getting familiar with REVAS: a way to connect students at home as seamlessly as possible with what's happening in the classroom. There will be some seams, I predict. The 'S' in REVAS stands for system, which may be an overly generous name for the combination of tripod-mounted web camera, oversize monitor, and Chromebook. Since any Chromebooks on campus have long ago been pressed into service, I found myself with a deprecated model in the classroom where I teach. It didn't seem to have enough something (memory? bandwidth? stamina?) to stay reliably connected to a video call. In hindsight, maybe that's because I test drove said system during meetings that necessitated having an unseemly number of tabs open. Or maybe, while Chromebooks have their niche, crisis response isn't quite it. At any rate, I scrounged up a newer device to swap in and enjoyed marginally better connectivity.

I kept trying to press my advantage, wondering if there was a hint of speed to be gained by deleting the dozens of user accounts that had aggregated on the device over its years of service. I started clicking names followed by the remove-account sequence and found myself plunging into a whirlpool of memories. So many of those names came with faces I could still picture and stories that left me with some combination of smiles, smirks, eye rolls, and head shakes. At varying spots on the list of accounts, I saw siblings, years apart in age -- another sign that the device on which I was typing was at least a metaphorical graybeard.

This is where the pandemic has relegated me, distant from colleagues and imagining instead trading tales of students' shenanigans with a chunk of plastic and transistors. [Cue eye roll and head shake.]

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Desirable difficulty - 3.11 #sol21 Story Challenge

On this cool, gray afternoon, I'm on a sports field with 15 masked-up teenagers getting better at -- among other things -- playing Ultimate Frisbee. Another coach and I have arranged a drill involving a sequence of cutting, throwing, and catching, aiming to get the players coordinating their actions. We two coaches have taken positions simulating defense. Our players are beginning to understand the patterns of movement, how the timing of one action triggers another. They are going through the motions, literally.

So, I alert them that I'm going to change my placement, reflecting a shift in defensive strategy. Their careful orchestrations of a moment ago prove fragile, crumbling into disorder. Auto pilot, rather than automaticity. They hadn't understood what they were doing; rather, they'd been mindlessly repeating the steps we coaches had taught. We paused the drill to unpack why better. We encouraged players to pay close attention to my defensive tactic and counter it with purpose. Within a degree of agreed-upon structure, read and respond. If-then. After a few more repetitions, no matter how I stationed myself, they were executing the scheme with more decisiveness and consistency. Not perfect, but better, and that was excellent.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Ouch, March - 3.10 #sol21 Story Challenge

"April is the cruelest month," wrote T.S. Eliot in "The Wasteland. When I think about it, though, March is even farther from unicorns and rainbows. During past years' Slice of Life Story Challenges, I've written about miseries and obstacles during this third month (here, here, and here, among others), and this year seems no different.

Is my psychology's inclination to negative bias or my brain's pattern-seeking behavior to blame? Or do I just glean perverse enjoyment from defensively pessimistic accounting? Regardless of the motivation, here's the latest run-down threatening to run me down:

  • A cell phone that decided spending the rest of its life on the boot screen would be its preferred mode of operation
  • Car with flat tire
  • Remarkably uneven riser installation on the stairs leading to my apartment
  • An impending blizzard this weekend, perhaps necessitating a snow day at the vaccine clinic where I'm due for dose #2
As this list reveals, I truthfully have much to appreciate (communication, transportation, shelter, health care), even when these systems are, for a time, on the fritz.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

I can't believe it's not a run-on sentence 9 - 3.9 #sol21 Story Challenge

Two days after watching the Coming to America sequel (Coming 2 America), I found myself pedaling my bicycle to work on an unseasonably mild day, zigging and zagging along road shoulders, multi-use paths and neighborhood sneaks -- the latter being where I found myself, standing over the top tube of my bike, shimmying it and me through the gate gap in the fence surrounding a local elementary school -- when I paused, surprised, to take in this incongruous sight: scattered on the narrow sidewalk, a public easement between two tall hedges, I saw handfuls of flower petals, deep magenta slashed with sunshine yellow, not connected to any ostentatious plant nearby, which made me wonder abruptly, "Might some members of the royal family of Zamunda have passed this way mere moments before I?"

Monday, March 8, 2021

Boxed in - 3.8 #sol21 Story Challenge

Fewer than 24 hours after I unboxed a phone to replace one that had seemingly, suddenly self-destructed, I found myself at school for my second unboxing day in as many days. See, I needed to sort out equipment for my first foray into the world of hybrid learning.

Everything had already been unboxed, truth be told. I just needed to put the pieces together. To enumerate:

  1. What a big monitor I have, all the better to see the 20-25% of students who've opted to continue learning from home through the school year's fourth quarter.
  2. What a tall tripod I have, atop which sat a remarkably small web camera, all the better for students at home to see me with, provided I move either constantly or not at all to optimize the lens's fickle focusing feature.
  3. What a brave Chromebook I have; to be determined whether it will prove all the better to juggle these inputs and outputs while maintaining video-call connectivity.
Two colleagues and I took the setup for a test drive this afternoon. We were pleased that the one of us who had called in remotely could participate and be heard via the speakers built into the monitor. We were disappointed, though not surprised, that the Chromebook microphone couldn't pick up my masked voice coming from the far corner of the classroom in a way that was audible to the remote audience. (Note: Pandemic protocols like social distancing and face coverings aren't conducive to excellent digital sound quality.) While we were amused by the closed-captioned approximations that resulted, we figure we need to pave a more reliable road to understanding, especially for remote -- in all senses of that word -- learners.

Students will join the mix Tuesday, and then we'll then start shooting troubles and solving problems together.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Unequal sequel - 3.7 #sol21 Story Challenge

Downtime last night meant flopping on the couch to watch the recently released "Coming 2 America." (I'm not even sure 'released' is the right word in these blurry days when streaming has become king.)

I have fond formative memories of the original movie from 1988, its fairy-tale adjacent story injecting new life into old formulas -- based largely on the shapeshifting talents of peak Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall. While the sequel had its moments (revolving around in-jokes linking the two films), my overall impression was of a movie trying too hard to black-out its bingo card with cameos.

Nostalgia is a two-edged sword if ever there was one, luring us back to the promise of experiences from our past while so often leaving us at least a little disappointed with how they've -- and we've -- aged. (Omnipresent cinematic de-aging technology not withstanding!) Yet I can still cling with desperation to a small ring of delight from older me writing this paragraph, of which younger me never could have conceived. In that way, we are always writing and rewriting, slicing and re-slicing, our own sequels.

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Super bowl - 3.6 #sol21 Story Challenge

Cereal, for better or worse, is my go-to breakfast. Furthermore, I like fruit atop said bowl of whatever flakes, ohs, clusters, nuggets or magically extruded matrices (Life, I'm looking at you, baffled). Banana slices are my most frequent topping, with raisins a close second. Blueberries or strawberries are in the mix. Dried cranberries, too. Rarer, but also enjoyable, have been diced peaches or nectarines.

Yesterday at sun-up, though, I veered in a new direction. The usual fruit suspects were not on hand, but I did spy a lone plum in the fridge. Why not? I decided, chopping the little globe into bite-sized pieces, scattering them over Cheerios, and splashing on soy milk. The combination proved delicious, leaving me marveling at there still being undiscovered country in cereal consumption. 

And that illustration captures the way I most often cook these days: improvisationally. In matters of cereal or salad or stir fries or stews, show me a template in which I can plug and play nearly infinite variations, and I revert to being a kid in a sandbox seeing what I can make.

Friday, March 5, 2021

Up and up - 3.5 #sol21 Story Challenge

In the waning days of the quarter, one question never fails to come up.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Reading gifts keep giving - 3.4 #sol21 Story Challenge

A member of the school library staff and I teamed up to apply for a grant earlier this year. We were inspired by this project that involved matching young people with new books to read and, through that effort, we saw a way to respond to literacy needs both related to and independent of the pandemic.

After beating the virtual bushes last fall for 405 student-interest surveys and then assembling and delivering that number of reading care packages in January, we checked in this week to gauge students' reactions. One prompt we posed involved students shopping a list of adjectives to find one that summed up their reactions. We asked them to justify their choice, and here are some of the most encouraging:

  • "Thrilled, because I don't read books but this book looks interesting to read and I'm hoping to find [more] books like this."
  • "Helpful because it taught me how to go into the year positive."
  • "Delightful. I picked this adjective because it has been fun getting a book that I have never heard of yet to keep for myself."
  • "Thankful because it has opened my mind to new books."
  • "Bright because it made my year of online feel a bit brighter."
  • "Helpful because I wasn't reading as often when the second semester started and this really got me back into it :)"
  • "Grateful because I got to see how many amazing books there are which match what I like."
  • "I would describe it as successful, because the book I got is honestly so perfect for me."
  • "Excited because now I really like to read, and I look forward to reading each night."
P.S. In addition to a book, each middle-school student we serve received at least one associated bookmark with further reading recommendations. Here's the digital copy of those bookmarks in case they prove useful for you and readers you know.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Here - 3.3 #sol21 Story Challenge

In my first classroom forays on the teacher side of the proverbial desk, mumble-mumble years ago, I recall among the earliest routines I had to master was taking attendance. (Truth be told, I remember the process from the student side of the desk too, a litany of teachers reading a litany of roll calls, names pronounced with varying degrees of accuracy, "here" periodically called out in response with varying degrees of interest as tick marks did or didn't dot the page.)

As a first-year teacher, I collected from a mail cubby in the main office a tattered folder containing a sheaf of Scantron bubble sheets. I made marks "complete and dark" in one column for students who were present and in a neighboring column for those absent. Once completed, the Scantron landed in a folder taped up outside the classroom, to be gathered in the purposeful sweep of an attendance coordinator who would feed all the sheets through the noisy machine that would process the day's, week's, year's attendance record for each pupil.

That pseudo-magic has migrated online, #2 pencils scratching replaced by fingers clicking -- with one seemingly ageless anachronism: paper hall passes. Eleven months ago, every part of that familiar system buckled under the pandemic. The familiar ways of accounting for bodies in seats proved ill suited for distance learning. Where I teach, we hatched a new system for, what we (like a team of amateur marketers) called "tracking engagement." We filled in weekly spreadsheet tabs that reduced each student's appearances on class video calls and the related completion of learning tasks to a number from 1-4. A small team of staff members continued to translate that data into our existing attendance system. Meantime, the numbers also served as a screener to show students who were or weren't doing new school, which guided subsequent follow up, whether in celebration or intervention. The whole thing felt like a relative Covid win.

With the next transition now upon us, a return for ~80% of our students to in-person learning, we're about to revert to the old clicky system. It's a decision driven by efficiency and probably even necessity. Yet, there are also questions about how attendance routines can or should apply to the 1 in 5 students at my school who will still be joining classrooms by video calls. Our march in March will teach us plenty about this, the first lesson being attendance is on the list of professional responsibilities I had come to take for granted, but don't anymore.

P.S. If you've got winning experiences in the school attendance realm, especially in blended or hybrid environments, I hope you'll share them in the comments and add to my learning.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Certainties - 3.2 #sol21 Story Challenge

For countless reasons, this slice cuts deep.
See, I fear I'd started losing sleep
amid strangling doubts
that I didn't know the whereabouts
of tax forms
whose arrivals mark annual norms.

"Where are you

Then you arrived without fail
in Monday's mail,
thwarted neither by pandemic disruptions
nor postal corruptions.

And now, ho hum,
I'm glum.

Monday, March 1, 2021

Non-Stopping by Woods - 3.1 #sol21 Story Challenge

Two days before returning for my sixth year participating in the Slice of Life Story Challenge, I went for a walk. Really, it was a cross-country ski. Really it was two cross-country skis.

The first involved a pleasant five-mile amble through the woods with my wife and two friends. At the conclusion of that loop, I found myself craving more time outdoors. "Okay if I ski back to where we're staying?" I asked my significant other, who readily agreed. We parted ways at noon.

The second ski took me along trails that I knew well enough from mountain biking in other seasons, though months of snow had transformed the landscape thoroughly and magically. I saw a handful of other skiers and a few groups on snowmobiles as I shuffled and glided. I reached a familiar spot that I recognized, from prior forays, for being a frequently confusing intersection by bike. I proceeded to get confused. I found what I was pretty certain was a different trail going in generally the right direction. I followed its ruffled snowmobile track until a downed tree marked where those never-seen snowmobiles had turned around. The path, though, beckoned invitingly into the distance under a defined canopy of trees, so I clambered over the tree and proceeded to break my own trail across the blank snow's canvas, my tracks adding to the pockmarks and dimples of animals. At some mysterious point, the trail was no more, and I thought it prudent to verify my location by phone, not to mention check in with my wife. The cold, though, rendered my device powerless once it blinked the time at me. It was just before 4pm. I felt a pang of worry.

Not one for turning around (a tragic flaw in another version of this story), I pressed on. I could soon see I was contouring along a ridge, a few hundred feet above a basin that I speculated -- dreamed? -- held the road I was seeking. From somewhere below, I could detect more snowmobile buzz, which I took for encouragement. I picked my way down the least intimidating slopes. I popped out at a familiar junction, conveniently by a map kiosk that pegged me far west of where I had intended. From here, I knew my way. I muttered Frost verses from memory about "promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep" and resumed striding with purpose. I made it home at dusk, just after 6 pm, or about 15 minutes after my wife had alerted county search and rescue. I had a few sheepish, apologetic phone calls to make and my first slice.

p.s. For those who like pictures with their words, here are my Family-Circus-style noodlings: