Slice of Life, Chapter 29

(This is part of the Slice of Life Project)

It astonishes me to think about how many blogs are part of the natural progression of my week as a teacher and writer. Perhaps, there are too many blogs. But each one does serve a different purpose. Each one is a different platform.

Come, then, on a little tour of the blogs that I used in the last week or so.

I won’t include Kevin’s Meandering Mind because if you are here, then you already know what a creative mess it is and how unfocused it is. I like this blog a bit cluttered, I think, because that gives me freedom to think. I can share teaching practice; poems, stories and songs; things that I stumble across that seem interesting; and collaborative projects like Day in a Sentence.

When I am not writing here as a teacher, I am sometimes writing as part of a collaborative blog called TeachEng.Us that Ben, a friend from the National Writing Project and regular of the Day in a Sentence, started up as a way to bring together teachers of writing to share some strategies, best practices and technology hacks that they have found useful. I just filed away a post about using hyperbole and tall tales in the elementary classroom. I like being one of many writers in that blog community and I am learning from the experience of others.

I have a central classroom weblog called The Electronic Pencil. This is the fourth year that I have had a blog for my classrooms, and it seems a lifetime ago that I started one up using an old Manila-based platform that was given to me by the National Writing Project to experiment with blogs and writing in the classroom. When NWP ended its Manila project, I jumped over to Edublogs. I know some teachers have each kid with their own blog, but I still prefer to have all of my students as members of one larger blog. It connects the four classes that I teach as writers. I also regularly use it as a launching pad for Internet exploration for my students. The Electronic Pencil is like a safe haven for them, I think.

Last year, I convinced the members of my teaching team to use a weblog for a daily homework site, so that parents and family members and students could access homework assignments and project guidelines and resources from home any night of the week. It also provides a year-long glimpse into our curriculum across the content areas, which is interesting for us as teachers to reflect upon. Also, if students are absent, they no longer have an excuse of not knowing what they have missed. The blog has been a huge hit with parents and with students. And my team easily understood how to post to the blog. A bonus: our principal loves this concept of using technology to reach out to families!

Last year, I began a podcasting project called Youth Radio. I wanted my students to use podcasting and the concept of voice and audience to connect with other elementary students from the US and the world. Now in its second year, the Youth Radio blog has ups and downs of activities, but I think its potential remains enormous. The difficulty is always in finding the time and place in the curriculum for the podcasting work. As a result, I often double-post from The Electronic Pencil to Youth Radio, and vice versa.

Finally, this year, I wanted to find another outlet for getting news out about the Student Council at my school, including a venue for publishing an online version of our student-written and student-produced newspaper. (I created the Student Council to give students at our school a voice and am the main teacher-advisor). A blog seemed a natural fit and again, I turned to Edublogs and created this site. My intention is to give more authority to students for posting to the blog, but that has not yet happened, I admit. But, again, the central office and the principal love this concept of using the technology.

Peace (in communication),
Kevin

Slice of Life, Chapter 28

(This is part of the Slice of Life Project)

It is just so strange to hear my words and thoughts and melodies coming out of someone else’s mouth. It’s a sensation that I must come to grips with but still, it can be a struggle.

As the main songwriter for my band, The Sofa Kings, I write with my voice in my head. But in the band, I try to pass the songs along, so that others have a chance to be the singers on our original material, too. And now that we have a new singer — she has a wonderfully powerful voice — we are trying to even the field a bit more than before. Which means that I am giving up some of the songs that I have traditionally sung.

The other night, I listened as she sang, and although I could hear places where I wanted her to go with her voice, I could tell she is starting to make the songs her own, even in the short time that she has been playing with it. It’s both a fantastic feeling and a bit unsettling. It’s like giving up a child that I have nurtured, even though I know she will care for my words and melody with love and passion. I trust her. I do. But there is some separation anxiety that happens, too. I have refused to pass along a couple of songs that have some deep emotional attachment for me. There are some songs that are more important to me, personally, than others. I can’t and won’t give them up.
We are giving her a crash course in our originals because we have a gig coming up in just a few weeks. This is a show being put on by the man who recorded our band for much of last year. We are the headliners of the show and, to be honest, we are still trying to find our new sound, following the decision by our keyboardist-singer to leave and pursue some solo recording. I am now playing keyboards on some songs, along with sax and guitar, and it all feels a bit uncertain. However, the other night, something started to click and come together in a nice way. I think we will be fine.

Peace (in music),
Kevin

Slice of Life: Chapter 27

(This is part of the Slice of Life Project)

Today’s Slice of Life is a convergence of communities.

I write this as part of the ongoing Slice of Life project being guided by Two Writing Teachers but I also want to invite anyone and everyone to contribute to this week’s Day in a Sentence feature. After first settling in Australia, and then traveling off to Israel, the Day in a Sentence is back home here.

In some ways, the Day in a Sentence is a nice companion to the Slice of Life and I hope there continues to be some cross-over between the two writing communities that I am part of in this Internet world. The Slice of Life, which is nearing its end, is a collection of bloggers who are reflecting on their days through their posts over the course of a month. The Day in a Sentence is a weekly entry into reflection and sharing through a single sentence or writing prompt. (see some of the archives)

Day in Sentence Icon

If you are a regular Day in a Sentence contributer, I invite you to head over to Two Writing Teachers and follow some of the Slice of Life threads. If you are a Slice of Life friend, I warmly invite you to contribute some words to our Day in a Sentence feature.

Here is how Day in a Sentence works:

  • You think about a day of the week or your entire week
  • You boil it down into a single sentence (no special prompts this week)
  • You post your sentence here by using the comment link on this post
  • I collect all of the sentences, collate them and publish them on Sunday
  • Feel free to hyperlink to podcasts, or photos, or other files, if you want
  • That’s it!

Here is my sentence for the week:

I’m realizing that I need to spend less time on the keyboard and more time in real life, and so, a little withdrawal is necessary.

Peace (in community),
Kevin

Slice of Life, Chapter 26

(This is part of the Slice of Life Project)

There was a bit of a silent revolt in my classroom yesterday.
It was the second day of our standardized testing — three sessions of reading comprehension known as MCAS — and they were met in the morning with a schedule for the day that included the testing and then a session of Math Lab, which is an additional math class they get twice a week instead of recess. They could not believe that we would be doing Math Lab after all that testing. One of the other teachers had hinted that perhaps we might skip Math Lab and they latched onto this like crazy glue.
First, they tried to bargain with me.
Then, they started to plead with me.
Finally, they got together and began to write.
They developed a petition, had everyone in the class sign it and then presented it to me in the most dramatic reading imaginable.
This is what they wrote:

“We, the people, signing this today want to state that we were promised recess but instead, we got Math Lab. Just think of us, sitting there all morning, taking MCAS. And you are just going to break our little hearts and tell us that we can’t expend our energy outdoors, in a recreational way?
Signed,
(the class)”

I told them that I would take their petition under advisement and so it sat on my desk during the four hours of testing.
During our morning meeting later in the day, I then announced that, due to the persuasive nature of the petition, there would be no Math Lab today and instead, we would have extra recess time. A cheer went up.
What I didn’t tell them was that this had been the plan all along and that I had only written Math Lab up on the board so that I could surprise them later in the day.

Peace (in action),
Kevin

Slice of Life, Chapter 25

(This is part of the Slice of Life Project)

We’re starting to see the history of our city through the diamonds of baseball. And, like most things, it begins with a book.

Last weekend, the local Little League held a Baseball Equipment sale. Families donate things that don’t fit anymore and then they come to find things that do fit. It’s a nice reciprocal trade agreement that benefits the kids. But there are also usually a bunch of odds and ends that I always find fascinating. I picked up a couple of baseball books that I know the boys are loving. As I was perusing the book table, one book in particular caught my eye.

It is called The Last Hurrah: Baseball in Northampton and in it, writers and historians Brian Turner and John Bowman explore the world of the early days of baseball in our city, from the various semi-pro leagues that sprouted up around town in the early days to the legends of the day that still spark the imagination.

The book was developed as part of a series at the local historical society. Inside, there is a wealth of photographs of baseball teams and baseball diamonds, and all sorts of characters who made their way through the area in the days before baseball took hold as America’s Pasttime.

One interesting fact: Northampton is the oldest place on record to indicate that one of the teams was integrated with black players. The writers used historical evidence to place a black player on the Northampton Meadowlarks in 1878 (his name was Luther Askins). This is not too surprising if you know that Sojourner Truth lived here and was a local leader. Frederick Douglas was also a regular visitor. Still, this is the kind of fact that makes me proud to be here.

My son was also interested in Stu Miller, a local boy who went to pitch in the Major Leagues. And then there was also the story of Buck Weaver, who played in Northampton before going off to the Chicago White Sox and then being implicated, along with others, of throwing the 1919 World Series as part of the infamous Black Sox.

It’s pretty fascinating stuff, and it made it all worthwhile when the older son, after digging into the book for quite some time, announced: “I guess this place isn’t so boring after all.”

History is all around us. You just have to know where to look.

Peace (in the ballfields of yore),
Kevin

Slice of Life, Chapter 24

(This is part of the Slice of Life Project)

Our family’s church is raising the roof. Literally. Figuratively. Musically.

Let me back up a bit. Our church — The First Churches of Northampton — is an historical site in our downtown. Some version of the church has been a centerpiece of the city for almost 350 years and the congregation was the home to religious firebrand Jonathan Edwards. The building has burned down a few times, yet the community has remained. The church plays host to a variety of social service agencies and its rooms are often used for musical and artistic acts through the years. It is an integral part of this place.

Last year, however, the roof on the church began crumbling in the sanctuary, and engineers started to notice structural damage to parts of the building. The sanctuary was quickly closed and the entire massive pipe organ was dismantled and put into storage (what an operation that must have been). The cost for repairs? $2 million. Yes, that is two million dollars, much more than the church community can afford on its own.

So, some folks are organizing a huge music concert in early April called Raise the Roof at the nearby Calvin Theater in hopes of raising awareness and earning some money for the project. I had tried to get my band involved but it was too late. My children, however, will grace the stage of the Calvin as part of their children’s choir. (lucky ducks).

My own connection to this church is not quite as strong as the rest of my family. I am not religious, by nature, although I am spiritual.  I fall a bit on the agnostic side of the world (hoping I don’t fall off the edge.) This church is such a wonderful community of caring people and the sermons are always so interesting and insightful such that I always feel at home there.

The music director has allowed me to compose and then produce choral pieces for the choir and pipe organ. I have played my saxophone with the choir, too, on more times than I can remember. The pastor organizes family football games in the winter that are loads of fun. It is a given, and it is accepted, that some kids may cry during the service, and that is just fine for everyone. It is a sign of a healthy congregation, the pastor reminds us. The church even developed an environmental covenant to advocate for respect and responsibility for Earth. These are all things that I adore and love about our church.

Yesterday morning, as I sat through the Easter service, I reminded myself to appreciate this warm and loving community and to support its campaign to “Raise the Roof” and get the sanctuary back up and running. My appreciation of the congregation and its people constitute my slice of life today.

Peace (in spiritual paths),
Kevin

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