Slice of Life, Chapter 23

(This is part of the Slice of Life Project)

“Daddy, when is Bella coming home?”

The query comes from the back seat. We are on our way back from the store. Today, I kept the music off. He fills the gap with conversation, just as I had hoped. My afternoon had been spent in meeting trying to rejigger our class schedules next year to make more time for math while not losing too much of our other content areas. My brain was too full of school stuff. I needed family time.

“She’s not coming home, honey.”

“Where is she?”

“She’s in heaven.”

Bella was our family dog, and we had to put her down in December. Every now and then, the little one still wonders about why Bella isn’t meeting us at the back door with wagging tail or greeting him in the mornings at the bottom of the stairs. Or barking her head off at every animal or human walking near our house. We even miss (kind of) the tuffs of white fur scattered around the house. (I still use her pic as my avatar)

“Dog heaven?”

“Yes. Dog heaven.”

Silence.

“What does she do there?”

“She plays. She runs. She watches over us.”

“In Dog Heaven?”

“Yes.”

“Hey — that’s just like the book!”

When Bella was dying, I brought home a book called Dog Heaven as a way to explain where our dog was going and why we could celebrate her spirit in our lives even after she was gone. The older boys got it, but for the youngest one, it was and is too abstract. Thus, the questions — the same questions — emerge from time to time as his mind tries to grapple with loss. Every time he counts out our family or names each of us, Bella is right there in the mix.

I ask, “Do you miss Bella?”

“Yes. But she’s in Dog Heaven. Right?”

“Right.”

“Is she happy?”

“Yes. She is happy now.”

“She’s not sick?”

“No. She’s not sick anymore. She’s happy. But we can still miss her. I miss her.”

Silence.

“I’m hungry. I need a snack.”

A few hours later, in an eerily similar conversation with my middle son, he presented me with a craft that he had made at an after-school program in which someone from a local animal shelter teaches children about caring for animals.

“I made this,” he said, showing me a cute little cat craft. It had the name of our elderly cat — Coltrane, for John Coltrane, the legendary saxophonist — painted on the front.

“So, when Coltrane goes to heaven, we can remember him,” he added.

My kids amaze me every day.

Peace (in understanding and remembering),
Kevin

Slice of Life, Chapter 22

(This is part of the Slice of Life Project)

I’m slicing into the local news today, focusing in some smaller stories that seem to have some bigger reverberations in the world. I suppose we could all do this kind of slicing and allow the local to become an inroad into the global. Such is the power of the Slice of Life concept, right?

So here goes:

Slice One: Our city may be closing one of our elementary schools. I don’t teach in the small city where I live but my kids go to school here, and so my wife and I are following these developments quite closely. I was a newspaper reporter here in this place the last time an elementary/neighborhood school was shuttered and it was not pretty. The reason for all the talk by the mayor and School Committee about ending the life of one of the four elementary schools is, simply, money. The school budget is about $800,000 out of whack for next year. We have consistently been on the wrong end of the state’s calculations under a School Reform bill from about 10 years ago because we were already supporting our education system to a fair degree. Those are the districts that got punished under School Reform. The poor districts got an infusion of money. The rich ones didn’t care. The rest of the middle has been mostly left to fend for itslef, and that has meant cuts every year since I can remember. Teachers are laid off, left and right. The arts program is reduced to rubble. Textbooks are out of date. (you probably know this story well)

I don’t think the school where our sons go is on the list for getting closed but larger class sizes, more disruption and other intangibles are certainly part of any package for an infusion of an entire elementary school across the district. There is a lot of distress in the air.

Slice Two: At a neighboring town, the middle school administration has decided to clamp down on the student newspaper. The middle school journalists were concerned that students were having no voice for change in their school. They developed a survey. They administered the survey. They collated the data and created charts. They were about to publish the results (which show that almost 80 percent of the kids at the school feel left out of all decision-making) when the principal yanked the newspaper from their hands. The administration apparently told the students that the wording of the survey and they way they gathered data was faulty and unethical. The ACLU has stepped in to support the students. It is a bit ironic that the students create this document to show how voice-less they are and then they are stripped of their voice. An update in the newspaper says that administrators were really most concerned about the quality of students writing in the article. Can’t you see them with their big red correction pens, standing over the news and chopping out word after word? Perhaps that is unfair to stereotype the administrators, but when it comes to freedom of the press and student expression, I have some pretty strong feelings.

Slice Three: Finally, on a positive note, a local band is making it big! And they ain’t young pups either. (And, alas, it is not my band). The Young @ Heart Chorus is a group of elderly residents of our city — led by their energetic and young music director — who has toured the world and they now have a documentary movie that has been made about them. The movie is being released this week by Fox Searchlight Films (which is apparently a wonderful movie, according to David Ansen of Newsweek, who wrote about the flick this week and gave it kudos for entertainment and emotion). The Young @ Heart Chorus is not your traditional elderly chorus singing traditional. They choose hard, modern rock songs (they’ve covered Sonic Youth and ColdPlay) and make them something different with their life experiences. It is so heartening to see the possibilities of music transforming people — both the performers and the audience. They also have a wicked sense of humor, as evident by this cover of The Ramones “I Wanna Be Sedated.”

See video here:

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/McCpBsH9cOQ" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Peace (in rockin’ out the years),
Kevin

Slice of Life, Chapter 21

(This is part of the Slice of Life Project)

We are Ice Legend!

I could not resist that recent-movie-inspired opening, as my students have collaboratively and with great interest (and, I am happy to report, very little dispute) decided upon a name for our class team in this year’s Quidditch Tournament (coming up in April).

This decision on what to call ourselves is always an interesting process to watch unfold and I do try to guide it carefully to keep everything civil. Some years, the choosing of name can lay to waste a year’s worth of good will, particularly if the class divides itself down the middle. It’s only a name to me. To them, the name defines them, so I have to be sure to keep the weight of such a decision in mind as I move us through the process.

Over a few days time, they brainstormed a list of names. This gives everyone a chance to contribute, even if the contributions are sometimes silly. I allow room for this silliness since it helps keep us grounded (gotta foster silliness at times if you wanna stay sane). Thus, we get names like The Typhoon Penguins or Hodgepodge (they love to make fun of my name in times like this).

Next, we do some talking about the names and then move on to some silent voting, going through a couple of rounds to see which ones have no support at all and which ones seem to float to the top. The voting this year took four rounds to get to our final name.

Perhaps in some anticipation of this name emerging as a winner, one of my boys — not always on task — presented me with this possible symbol (soon, we will be designing t-shirts and posters and flags and other items and we try to have a common symbol):

So, We are Ice Legend.

But I kind of wish they have voted for Ice Writers (he says mournfully). But that name only got one vote in the early round (it wasn’t me — I don’t vote) and then it was knocked out of consideration.

Now, we need to invent the legend of the Ice Legend (cue music: Led Zep’s Immigrant’s Song: We come from the land of the ice and snow ….)

Peace (in collaborative decision-making),
Kevin the Ice Writer

Slice of Life, Chapter 20

(This is part of the Slice of Life Project)

The trees are about set to run.

Any day now, I will look out my window and see a few cans and buckets dangling from the bark of the trees in our front yard. A neighbor will have come over casually (and quietly, now that our dog has passed away) and he’ll pin up the buckets and attach a series of odd hoses to our trees. He makes do with whatever is handy. This is not a professional operation.

The warm weather is coming. The trees know it. We know it. And the maple sugar syrup-ers (what is the name for someone who collects sap and turns it into syrup?) certainly know it and are waiting with hopeful intent for a good season.

When the sap flows, it is pretty amazing.

The collection buckets fill up fast — sometimes within minutes, as if a little tsunami of liquid has surged from the tree — and we enlist our kids to carry the buckets over to our neighbor’s yard and return with empty cannisters, quickly. The sap sloshes in waves in the cans, so the kids move carefully to the corner house where our neighbor friend puts out a huge collection pan and stokes a fire. The sap in the pan smokes as water is steamed off, leaving behind some rich amber gold and bringing forth the sugary goodness. We lick our lips in anticipation of the first Sunday morning of pancakes and sausage with the syrup made from our own trees, in our own yard. We dip our fingers into it and don’t worry about manners. This is Our Syrup, after all.

Our neighbor — a rabbi and thoughtful man — goes beyond making syrup with his operations, What he really is making are connections in our neighborhood. He is showing us all how collectively, we can come together. He is showing us the richness of our world, if we would just take time to look for it. We never even considered our trees for anything other than shade until he asked if he could tap them.

Sometimes, a crowd of people gathers about over at his house, breaking wood, feeding the fire, bringing in small sap buckets and just chatting away. We don’t see each other as much in winter as we should, and by the time the sap is flowing in March, the kids all seem to have grown a few inches and news abounds from all corners of our worlds.

Yep, soon, there will be buckets. Soon, there will be spring. Soon, the neighborhood will be inching its way back to life.

Peace (in community),
Kevin

Slice of Life, Chapter 19

(This is part of the Slice of Life Project)

This week, it’s all about the students.

This is our spring stretch of parent-teacher conferences and along with getting a glimpse inside families, the meetings with families gives my team of teachers an opportunity to come together for an extended period of time to talk deeply about how all of our kids are doing in school. (Note: I am the writing instructor on a group of four — with other three teachers dealing with science, social studies and math, and then we all teach literature to our homerooms.) We talk about the students all the time, of course — before school, at lunch, after school — but not in so quite an organized and systematic way.

Yesterday, our team meeting became a three-hour marathon session and although I was tired from lack of sleep and still feeling sick, it was just so interesting to go in-depth on various students whose work and behavior and actions differ so greatly depending on the setting, the personalities around them and the content areas. A student who shines in writing may be struggling mightily in social studies. The hands-on elements of science might play right into a strength of someone who isn’t keeping up the district-mandated accelerated pace of math instruction this year (actually, almost every student is being “left in the dust,” as our math teacher tells it, and he is not even near the place in the curriculum where the district has told him he needs to be at this point in time). You come to realize how often skewed your view of a person can be when you only see them from one angle. As teachers, we need to remind ourselves to step back and see the whole child at all times.

There are times when my team and I use Google Docs for collaborative notes around students prior to conferences, although we did not do that for this spring session. (I can’t resist the opportunity to pull more people into the Web 2.0 Revolution). The writing on Google has been very helpful for us, I think, since parents choose to meet with just one of the four of us, and our job is to represent the rest of the team. Most parents would just like to meet the math teacher but we cap the limit of sessions that any one of us can have, so they are placed with the rest of us. They must wonder how the writing teacher is going to explain the math curriculum, but I actually have a pretty good handle on what is going on in the math class. I talk to my students all the time.

My meetings with parents yesterday went fine and the conversations were meaningful and instructive for both sides. As it turns out, the one meeting I was looking forward to about a very bright and creative student who seems to be putting no effort into the work unless it completely is of interest — oh, but he has put up dozens of home movies on YouTube and he was part of my claymation movie camp last year — was a no-go as mom was a no-show. That was frustrating.

We have more conferences today, and then, tomorrow, we finish things up. By then, my brain will be suitably numb with comments, suggestions and ideas on how we can best help all of our students to succeed.

Peace (in partnerships with parents),
Kevin

Slice of Life, Chapter 18

(This is part of the Slice of Life Project)

Sometimes, buried treasures comes in cardboard boxes.

Our recent discovery was one of a cache of comic books that arrived via FreeCycle (the site where people get rid of stuff and other people bring stuff home — we’ve unloaded cribs and received a beautiful dining room table through Freecycle). The box was loaded with books, always a good thing for a house like ours, and there at the bottom, was a thick pile of comic books of all shapes and sizes.

Bonanza!

We immediately divvied things up. I grabbed the Baby Blues, which chronicles a couple raising children (perfect). One son took the Foxtrot while a friend went through The Far Side (still a big hit with kids and adults, I find). A plethora of Garfields lay scattered on the floor (no doubt, a comfortable repose for the fat cat).

A little while later, I surveyed the scene. Even the three-year-old had grabbed a Garfield book and was fully engrossed in the colorful pictures. The living room was silent. And it remained silent (except for the sudden “guffaws” now and then) for almost 20 minutes, which is quite a long time in our house. There is something about comics and humor that pulls most people in, isn’t there? I know we can often dismiss comics as juvenile but there is something about the narrative structure of telling a story in just a few frames, with visuals, that can be a powerful reading (and writing) experience.

Not long ago, my older son developed his own comic strip character called “The Ugly Peanut” and he wrote dozens of comic strips about the adventures of the strange little creature. Some of the jokes (excluding the obligatory fart jokes) were pretty advanced (although he later admitted that he “borrowed” from the books that he had read and adapted for his character, which I told him was perfectly acceptable for the starting of a character).

I will leave you with a look at his creation, The Ugly Peanut:

Peace (in frames),
Kevin

Slice of Life, Chapter 17

(This is part of the Slice of Life Project)

My wife and middle child have been soaking in the sun and fun in Florida for the past five days, taking in Red Sox games and Disney, while I have been battling a chest cold and trying to keep the older and younger kids amused and engaged. The kids have been mostly wonderful (although last night, the little one was chewing on an M&M and purposely spit the chocolate goo from his moutn onto the white futon cover of the couch, causing me to lose my cool for a short time. He wisely played quietly with his trains while I pounded around the house, fuming, and wrestled with the futon to get the cover off and the stain remover on.)

This weekend, the three amigos went to a local Butterfly Museum and I return with this audio-visual Slice of Life report, told in part by my three-year-old son and pictures from our visit. (A quick disclaimer: in one picture, the narration talks about a Monarch butterfly, when in fact, it is an Owl butterfly in the video. Somehow, I jumbled pics in the editing process. My older son corrected me on that one, quite firmly.)

[kml_flashembed movie="http://video.google.com/googleplayer.swf?docid=681539785303927390" width="400" height="326" wmode="transparent" /]

If you can’t see the video, you can listen to the podcast version (although the video is mostly in sync with itself)

Listen to me and my son talking.

Peace (while floating on the air),
Kevin

Slice of Life, Chapter 16

(This is part of the Slice of Life Project)

My ten-year-old son faced a moral dilemma yesterday. I wished I could have done a better job of guiding him through it — maybe even told him what to do — but this was one of those moments where you let your child move forward on their own and hope for the best.

Yesterday was Little League baseball “evaluations” in which the ball players move from station to station to show how they can run, hit, pitch and catch. All the coaches mill about, like an NFL combine, and take notes for the upcoming draft day (yes, they do a draft and I feel uncomfortable about it). Last year, my son went all out, trying his very hardest at every task put in front of him. He then went to a team that struggled all year, even though he emerged as a star player (in our humble opinion).

What he really wants to do this year is to play on the team coached by a dear neighbor. That team won the entire championship. More importantly, he is a wonderful human being and mentor. Our friend wants our son, and we want him to be his coach, but our neighbor also pledges to draft any returning players from the prior year and it seems unlikely that our son (who can pitch — highly coveted) will still be in the mix when that time comes around.

So my son asked me in morning before the evaluations: “Dad, should I do bad today? So they don’t know if I am good?” What he means is that if he did poorly in the evaluations, maybe he would be still available when our neighbor has a free slot on his roster. Maybe he would slip by all of the other coaches.

My answer: “That decision is yours. If it were me, I would do my best. I’d want a coach that knew all of my talents. But I am not going to tell you what to do. You have to make that choice. I am OK with it, either way.”

I gulped inside when I said it. I want him to do his best, at all times, and not throw the game like some member of the Chicago Black Sox. It seems to me that just by thinking as he was thinking, his moral compass was coming slightly askew. Or maybe I am over-reading the situation.

Later, after the morning’s events at Smith College’s beautiful indoor track, I asked my son how he had done and if he had tried his best.

“I ran fast. I tried to get some hits. But I didn’t pitch as fast as I could have. I guess I did OK.”

So … there. Now, we wait until we hear from this year’s coach on March 26 to find out what team he is on. We all have our fingers crossed.

Peace (in growing up),

Kevin

PS — Last year, as part of our ABC Movie Project, I created this digital story about the baseball season in our house and so, I figure I can share it again here, as it relates to my Slice of Life. (That’s me, in the middle, in front of the coach with the white shirt)

[kml_flashembed movie="http://video.google.com/googleplayer.swf?docid=-8891800749316318329" width="400" height="326" wmode="transparent" /]

Slice of Life, Chapter 15

(This is part of the Slice of Life Project)

It used to be that I would dread waking up in the morning and opening up the basement door. I always expected to be greeted by a layer of water. Noah, I wasn’t. Sometimes my fears would come true. We live near the bottom of a hill and gravity pulls the streams of run-off water from other homes beneath our house. It didn’t help that our foundation had cracks in which water would visibly bubble up from beneath in the rainy seasons (spring and fall). It was horrible. I remember spending long hours lugging buckets of water up the stairs and out the door and then worrying about the mold being left behind.

It was the health concerns that finally moved us into action.

Two years ago, we got smart. We invested a good bit of money for construction to fix the mess. The guys came in one day and dug a trench around the entire indoor perimeter of our basement, laid down some pipes and fed the collected water into a sump pit, where we put in a sump pump that has earned it rightful place in the family album.

This time of year, the pump seems to work non-stop, glugging away like some monster in the basement. The strangest sound, though, comes after the pump has done its work. The water first flows up, and then over, and then out into the drain-water system (we may be illegally hooked into the city’s pipes, so you must swear to secrecy). There must be some trap door in the piping and the water sloshes and galoshes as if it were the ocean. It moves back and forth and back and forth (When my poor dad  sleeps over, his bed is on the couch in the living room and that is the soundtrack he has to listen to all night — the pump kicking in and the water moving through the pipes — not exactly soothing night sounds — Hi Dad! — he reads my blog sometimes)

I went down there with my voice recorder to capture the sounds, although it doesn’t do it justice. So, today, I offer up this audio Slice of Life from the confines of my basement. It’s dry down there. Plenty dry. But water still flows.

Take a listen to the water flow.

Now we just pray the pump never fails. We’re in big trouble if that happens. And if it happens, I am packing up and moving to the top of the mountain for higher ground.

Peace (in pumps),
Kevin

Slice of Life, Chapter 14

(This is part of the Slice of Life Project)

I was so much more of a writer than a teacher yesterday. What a great feeling.

After my students finished up presenting their expository paragraphs on “how to do … something” (ranging from how to play Guitar Hero to how to start a zoo to how to draw a cow to how to avoid joining a gang), we entered into freewrite time. The instructions? Just write. Write whatever you want, in whatever genre you want, on whatever topic you want. Just write.

The room was so quiet. And I was right there with them, sitting amidst their desks with my notebook open and pen in hand, scribbling away. Gosh, I wish every day could be like that. We didn’t share (OK. I miss that doorway into their private universe but I am willing to give that up once in a while in exchange for what was happening right then and there). We didn’t revise. We didn’t talk. All we did was write.

And so, I present the poems that I wrote over the course of the day. They are still sort of rough, but they can go into my bin of poems that were formed during my OnePoemEveryMonthforaYear project.

First, I wrote a serious poem as I watched my students in the act and I thought about the quiet revolution going on in my classroom.

Entering into Freewrite
Listen to the poem as podcast
I’m listening to pens – the words have no sound –
It’s all thoughts on the page.
These quiet moments are delicate pockets of complete freedom,
encouraging composition of poems, stories, plays, songs
and even comics –
They write with heads bowed and eyes focused;
Some move lips to mouth the words;
A silent incantation springing forth from mind to paper and back again.
I move among them as a ghost – a spiritual companion –
writing my own poem about them, writing,
in a sort of tacit recognition that what they do here has meaning,
even if the only eyes ever to read their words are their own,
and only their own.
We move on this journey, together,
as writers.

Then, I wrote these haikus. I am calling them, ahem, Haikus Inside the Classroom. I was really thinking about some of my individual students as I wrote and also about the classroom atmosphere.

Haikus Inside the Classroom
Listen to the poem as podcast

Ink never runs dry
when dipped in wonder and joy
…the silent boy dreams

She’s thinking of home;
A family of cold winter
That shivers her bones

Outside noise comes in
on a wave of disruption
and they ride it hard

Syllables slip by
eluding capture, escape
beyond my fingers

If I could sing songs
I’d sing in celebration
0f every writer

Finally, I wrote this poem about Quidditch (see yesterday’s post) in a humorous mood. I was thinking along the lines of James Prelutsky, I think. Just a version of the couplet.

This Game We Play
Listen to the poem as podcast

If every day was Quidditch, this place would be a mess
There’d be kids up on the ceilings and we’d have no need for desks
There’d be quaffles in the kitchen; There’d be snitches in the air
There’d be bludgers in the hallways and we really wouldn’t care
‘cause the game we play called Quidditch is all about the team
It’s a bevy of excitement (just listen to them scream)
You could say we might go crazy; you could say we’ll lose our minds
But I tell you, ever truthful, it’s an exhilarating time.

Peace (in poetry),
Kevin

PS — I stumbled on this fantastic poetry site called Poetry Archive, where famous and not-so-famous poets are reading their own poems. Here, for example, is one from the wonderful Billy Collins, reading his poem to his reader called “You, Reader.”