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

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