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.”

Slice of Life, Chapter 13

(This is part of the Slice of Life Project)

Duck! There is a snitch flying over your head. But don’t duck too fast or you’ll get creamed by a bludger. And then there is also the quaffle to avoid as the chaser is moving fast towards the goal with just one thing in mind: score.

Phew!

Standing in the middle of our field of Quidditch is dangerous work but as the “coach” of a fledgling team, grounded perhaps by lack of magic but wound up by the chance to play a magical game, I am trying to keep track of three or four different layers of the game going on at once. The beater is trying to nail the opponents (with a soft ball) to knock them out of play for five seconds; the chasers are weaving in and out of people, attempting to score on the keeper in the goal; and the seekers have their Quidditch cups raised high in the air, moving to scoop the flying snitch (ie, foxtail) as it floats through the air after a release from the sideline launchers.

I’m barking out advice — “go for the corners — the corners! — good!” — and encouraging my team — “excellent block … now find the open player … that’s it!” — and singing praises for the entire group — “you guys are fantastic out there!”

It’s crazy, I tell you. And a whole load of fun.

This week officially begins Quidditch season for our sixth graders, who will compete in a day-long tournament in front of the entire school in April. It’s not all about the winning. Not exactly. It’s about teamwork and cooperation and good sportsmanship and physical movement. It’s about coordination and following the action on many levels. It’s about multi-tasking in a physical way. It sometimes is too much for even me to track and I’ve been known to nurture a headache at the end of the day. But the kids just eat it all up.

Our game of Quidditch was first designed and implemented by a student who wanted to bring her love for the concept of Quidditch in Harry Potter to the school. This was about eight years ago now, and our physical education teacher has worked to improve the game every year. All students — even my most needy and disabled students, everyone — are in the mix, getting involved and being part of the team effort. No one gets left out.

Yesterday, I watched from the sidelines as some of my stronger athletic students went out of their way to help some of the not-so-athletic students on the floor. I saw a team starting to gel and I saw our class coming together in a new way. There were no Quidditch hogs on the court yesterday.

I think about this as I remember two students in particular. The first, the most shy and fragile student I think I have ever taught, is on the sidelines, tossing a snitch into the field. That is a major victory in itself. The second student, who has Asperger’s and is diabetic, is running, yes running, down the court as a chaser. A teammate tossed them the quaffle and they catch it and toss it towards the goal. This, too, counts as a major victory. It was more movement and integration into physical activities than I have seen in a long time from either of them. We could quit right now and declare the season a success.

Here is a basic scheme of what our Quidditch Court looks like (and if you click on the photo, it will bring you to a Flickr site with written description overlays on the picture itself of various positions).

quidditch field

Peace (in play),
Kevin

PS — I know it’s not about winning but my class won the tournament last year for the first time and it was pretty exciting. Our team name was Arctic Shock! The kids are working on brainstorming a name for this year’s team.

Slice of Life, Chapter 12

(This is part of the Slice of Life Project)

It was all about praise in my classroom yesterday. Our school is part of the Peacebuilder’s network and The Responsive Classroom, which means that we work on a social curriculum designed to foster positive peer interaction. I’m not always sure how much my students buy into it, though. They seem to just drone out our morning Peacebuilder’s Pledge that asks them to seek out wise friends, notice the hurts they cause and make ammends,etc.

It has become just words rolling off their lips. I can tell and it bothers me. It’s not that I am all into Peacebuilders program, per se, but I am into peace and the cooperative nature of my classrooms. I know that not every student is going to get along with every other student every day of the week, but I certainly expect them to respect each other as individuals.

Yesterday, I tried to move them into a place where such ideas make sense to them in a meaningful way. We began converting some of the walls of my classroom into a Praise Wall. We use colored sheets of paper where students can write notes in praise of each other. This is not about telling your friend that you like them. It’s not about false praise. It’s not a contest to see who gets the most praise. It’s about recognizing the actions of others by identifying them as people, explaining the things that make them noticed, and then signing off on the note.

As you can imagine, this is a mixed bag of messages for my 11 and 12 year olds, but most of them got it, I think. Each of my four classes spent time building the wall with their words and even those kids who seem to fall outside of the traditional circles of friends were being praised. Such things warm my heart, I don’t mind saying.

Here are a few of the words that now don my wall. They all begin with praise for an individual:

  • for being there when I feel bad. You are always a pal.
  • for helping me in math when the teacher is busy.
  • for picking up those pencils in library when nobody else was watching.
  • for always asking me if I am OK.
  • for standing by me through thick and thin.
  • for helping me up when I fell down into that deep puddle.

I was helping a student with some writing when another of my students tapped me on the shoulder.

“Mr. H,” she said, holding up a pink Praise Note. “I wrote something for you.”

I took the paper. She was praising me “for caring about the people of Darfur and working to help people other than himself.” I smiled and thanked her, but what I really wanted to do was give her a warm hug (not allowed, of course). She made my day.

Peace (everywhere and all the time),
Kevin

Slice of Life, Chapter Eleven

( I seem to have been off a day with my chapters, so I am skipping Chapter 10 and moving right into Chapter 11).

(This is part of the Slice of Life Project)

The sun was bright so the older boys were out — one on a bike ride around the neighborhood and the other on a walk with a friend. Neither went out the door with a jacket, so I almost yelled at them to get back in here and bundle up. Then, I figured: what’s the use? There’s freedom in being able to abandon your jacket for the fresh air. I let it go. There’s too much snow on the ground, though, and there was a biting nip left in the air. But still … still … Spring is inching its way closer, I can tell.

I thought about this as I went out in the backyard to put some rotting veggies and fruits in the compost bin (our little effort to cut down on the landfill and create some black gold). I came upon what remains of our Christmas tree poking up through a pile of ice and snow. I felt the urge to dangle an angel on the top, just as a way of angling my faith for warmer weather. My youngest son spied the Christmas tree out the window and he demanded to know what it is doing there. He doesn’t understand that it has been there for months and only now, with the thaw, is it coming back into view. (We had to remove the tree from the house in the dead of the night to avoid separation anxiety. It was like a spy operation, although more like Maxwell Smart than James Bond.).

I told him that we will soon burn the Christmas tree and use the darkened ash for our garden, bringing its spirit into our world in a different way. He is alarmed at this, however. He doesn’t understand how fire can be something that is good since fire is so hot. Later, he back at the window. A little bit more of the tree was now visible, thanks to the emerging Spring. And the wreath wasn’t far away.

“Christmas tree. The wreath,” he whispers to himself. Standing behind him, I give him a hug and, together, at the window, we wait for the spring melt to continue in our yard and wonder what other treasures might reappear from beneath the white cover of snow.

Peace (in the backyard),
Kevin

Slice of Life, Chapter Nine

(This is part of the Slice of Life Project)

I’m going to call this The Story of the Magical Manicotti Mood Swing.

Let me set the stage: Three year old boy. Daylight Savings Time has ripped an hour from the clock. Lunch was little more than a nibble of humus and crackers and strawberries. Long hours of playing with dad. Forgotten snacktime. Van ride over the river is just enough time to doze off but not enough time to nap. Suddenly, starvation and tiredness sinks in.

It’s tantrum time.

Get situated at the dining room table and slide a plate of spinach manicotti in front of him. Calms down enough to be interested. Wipes tears from eyes. Stops screaming. Begins eating like there is no tomorrow. Then, raises the index finger of left hand high up in the air, forcing his body upward towards the ceiling.

Me: What are you doing?

Him: My finger is a potato (giggles)

Me: A potato?

Him: (ignores the question) My name is …. Apple.

Me (now confused): Apple?

Him (laughing, with manicotti sauce on his lips): My name is … Banana.

Me: Oh.

Laughing, laughing, laughing. That manicotti was working its magic last night.

Peace (in the ups and downs of the day),
Kevin

Slice of Life, Chapter Eight

(This is part of the Slice of Life Project)

Last night, I was accused of being a “Northampton Nationalist.” I accept that label, with pride. Northampton is the city where I live and it is a wonderful little place, with a vibrant downtown full of the arts and restaurants and music clubs. The outskirts where I own a home is a peaceful place. It is a neighborhood of giving and supportive people. I love that we are raising our family here.

The comment about my nationalism came following a Letter to the Editor that I wrote to the local newspaper on the topic of our city’s Poet Laureate program. It was published yesterday morning. This is the second time the city has chosen someone who does not live within our city for the post and it completely befuddles me. I know the reason — they want a higher profile — but I can’t fathom why we can’t have someone who lives here representing poetry for our residents. (The two Poet Laureates who are the outsiders are this year’s Leslee Newman — a talented writer and educator — and Martin Espada — a fantastic political poet). We even have a very active Poet Society that puts on shows and readings and events.

The playful accusation came during a large block party called The Spring Blues, in which more than 150 neighbors, complete with hordes of kids, gathered together to eat 35 pizzas and try to win an assortment of prizes (ie, junk) in a fun-filled raffle that also raises money for our neighborhood civic association. We did not want the cast-iron potbelly stove nor the doggy shade tent, but we came home with a box of baseball cards, 15 small rubber duckies, a large fire truck (the catch of the night for the three year old), a white stuffed bear and a potato gun (there’s gonna be trouble, I can tell).

Eight people at the party pulled me aside to agree with my letter to the newspaper, so I guess I was on to something.

Here is my letter:

I am writing to both praise and question the city’s Poet Laureate program. I heap plenty of kudos on the initiative because, as a writer and as a teacher of young writers, I think the role of a City Poet is such a wonderful concept. I love that we as a city can celebrate writing and poems in this way and that the Poet Laureate is designated to act as a sort of ambassador into the world of rhythm and rhyme and verse. What I don’t understand is how we can be choosing Poet Laureates who don’t actually live in Northampton and then call them the Northampton Poet Laureate. This is not to be considered criticism about Leslee Newman, who is a fantastic writer and who works diligently with others to promote the power of writing. (I also understand she used to live here but no longer does). I know there may be a desire for a higher-profile person on the part of the selection committee. But I believe that we have such talent in Northampton itself and such a diverse group of writers that we should be able to choose someone who is now living in the city and who is part of our city life to be the designee. It strikes me as wrong that we need to seek talent from outside our community. I would rather have our poets come from within the city itself.

Peace (in pizza and life slices),
Kevin