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

Slice of Life, Chapter Seven

(This is part of the Slice of Life Project)

Not more than four years ago, I could barely turn on a computer and use anything other than MS Word. Today, my home seems littered with technological debris. It’s amazing how quickly the Revolution takes place.

This was brought to my mind last night as our older sons pitted my wife and I against each other in some tangled version of “Are you smarter than your spouse.” The boys were asking us trivia questions and my wife and I were expected to shout out the answer — the quickest answer got the point. My wife is much smarter than I am and quick on the draw, too, so I was down in the points column for some time (ie, forgot that the capital of Illinois is Springfield and I shouted out Thomas Edison for discovery of electricity — doh — too much pressure, I tell ya).

At one point, we were all unclear about a question and answer, and my wife told the boys to get a dictionary and look it up. Now, we have dictionaries all over the place (when both of your parents are educators, that will happen). But they looked at us as if we were some oddities from another planet.

“Let’s just Google it,” the older one said.

“No, get a dictionary,” my wife insisted.

They went into the other room and ostensibly came back with the dictionary, but later, I found my computer screen on Google, with information to the answer we were seeking. I guess they could not resist. The technology is there, so why not use it? (I imagine they thought if it this way and, well, why not?)

That’s when I glanced around my house and thought about all of the technology that we have and the world they are growing up in. What are we exposing them to?

So here is my Household Technology Inventory:

  • One Dell desktop computer (about 5 years old now but still running smooth)
  • One Dell laptop (mostly used for movie editing and for workshop presentations)
  • One XO laptop (my little green machine)
  • One Canon digital videocam
  • One Pure Digital flash video camera (the pocket-sized one)
  • Two digital cameras
  • Four MP3 Players (don’t ask)
  • One digital voice recorder
  • An assortment of flash drives
  • Plus, the usual array of microphones and speakers, etc

What about you?

Peace (in too much cool stuff),
Kevin

PS — I made a strong comeback in the trivia game, correctly getting the capital of Puerto Rico and the years that Franklin Pierce was president (pure guess). We celebrated by having the boys put away laundry. Mom and Dad were both winners!

Slice of Life, Chapter Six

(This is part of the Slice of Life Project)

It’s pothole season and I feel it in my teeth. Here is my dilemma: there is long way to get to school that is boring and non-descipt and there is a short way to school that is quite a lovely road. I, of course, want to go the short way, and not just for the time saved. It wanders through the open fields and pastures of some local farms, moving through quiet residential neighborhoods. At one point, the road opens up onto the top of the hill with a fantastic view of a local mountain and a sloping farm with horses. I get some comfort saying a silent hello to Mr. Ed out in the fields.

So, you say, what’s the problem? Take the short scenic route.

The problem is that this time of year, after all of the snow and ice and rainfall, the entire road comes alive with car-killing potholes. Due to ts relative quiet, the road is barely on the local public works map. Driving to school becomes a death sport, swerving to avoid the holes that were not there the say before and cringing at every dip in the road. If if were safe to close your eyes, you would do it.

And so, my teeth hurt from every bump and bang in the road that jars the car into submission. It’s already at the point where I am considering the long way to school, if only to avoid a costly trip to the local garage for an alignment. Remember? It was me wishing for Spring? Yeah. I just don’t remember putting in an order for the potholes that come along with. I guess I had a classic case of New England Amnesia.

Peace (in dips and holes),
Kevin

Slice of Life, Chapter Six

(This is part of the Slice of Life Project)

Sigh. Today’s slice of life is all about frustration.

At my school, I am one of the two technology coordinators, which really means that if your printer goes down or your email doesn’t work, we hack into your computer and tell you the words you most want to hear: “I have no idea what’s wrong. Sorry.” And then we call in the real technology support from the school district. You can imagine, though, how busy I look while I sit at your computer and how much tech jargon can fall from my mouth when I want it too.

No, it’s not like that. Not really. We do kind of know what we are doing, some of the time.

Anyway, one of my tasks is to keep one of our carts of laptops up and running, which I don’t mind doing since having the cart housed in my room makes it SO much easier for my students to use them. But, from time to time, I do have to say goodbye and watch the rolling house of computers go out of my room to another classroom. That is good. That means more kids are using technology.

But …. I wish other teachers would take better care of the equipment. It’s bad enough reminding kids to be careful. “That costs $1,000 — if you drop it, your parents buy us a new one!” I also have to come down hard on my teaching friends and colleagues, who just don’t seem to get it. And here is one reason why there is often a great divide between teachers and technology coordinators. At our school, teachers have ripped power cords from the wall (luckily averting a power surge into the cart of laptops), lost crucial connecting wires for our video cameras (Did you know a power cord for a video camera costs almost as much as the camera itself?), dropped digital cameras, misplaced microphones and headphones, and let kids do all sorts of stuff unattended on the computers.

Yesterday morning, I opened up the computer cart — my students are part of the Many Voices for Darfur social action project — and I completely flipped out. All of the power cords from the laptops were jumbled up in a rat’s nets of wires. It was an incredible tangle that was jammed so tight together that I could barely get the laptops out of the cart. It was like trying to do a complex piece of origami with the shakes. I was furious and had to spend 15 minutes of my own precious time working all of the wires free and tucking them back in, and then I discovered that a handful of the laptops had not even been plugged in to the cart the night before and so, they were never charged up. Ahhhhh.

Luckily, there were no kids in earshot as I swore my head off, cursing and muttering to myself. I was much cooler later in the day when I confronted one of the teachers who had used the cart. She expressed ignorance and said she had seen the wires but did not know if it had been her students or if it had been like that before she got the cart from another teacher. What? I had to resist the urge to berate her (since that is very unprofessional) so I diplomatically used my words (just like we teach our kids) to let her know that SHE NEEDS TO A BETTER JOB OF TAKING CARE OF THE COMPUTERS!!!

Sigh.

Peace (in untangling the mess of life),
Kevin

Slice of Life, Chapter Five

(This is part of the Slice of Life Project)

Remember Interplanet Janet (she’s the galaxy girl)?

Janet is the name of the newest member of my rock and roll band (The Sofa Kings) as last night at practice in the third floor attic where we play, she sang out her heart and won the praise of all of us. This has been a tough couple of months for us as a band. We had spent much of 2007 working on a CD project (now completed) and then the lead singer/keyboard player decided that he wanted to pursue his own projects. This was a bit of a shock to the rest of us, needless to say, and now the CD is on the way back-burner (did I mention it was done and ready for release?) as we have been trying to regroup and figure out a way forward. I am the main songwriter, saxophonist, sometimes-rhythm guitarist and periodic vocalist.

I’ve been playing with a core group of friends for about 12 years now, and we have had any number of people come and go (and we have gone through a few names, too). The addition of someone new always changes the sound and the energy. Therefore, it is a bit stressful. In the past few months, we have auditioned a handful of folks, including one computer science engineer who sang baritone as if he were a karaoke machine. We had someone who has been in the news as a suspected child molester want to audition (he forgot to mention that fact but someone in the band figured it out). We had keyboardist who also played trumpet, saxophone and who knew what the heck he was going to pull out of his Magic Bag next. I was waiting for the kazoo. (He needed a band that was playing out a few nights a week – that ain’t us).

Then we met Janet, who is a singer and, get ready for it (drum roll, please) … an English teacher (two big pluses in my book). She was game for anything we threw at her, including having her sing lead on a couple of original songs. She didn’t complain. She wanted to rock. We wanted her in, even though it means that along with my saxophone and guitar, I now have to dust off my keyboard for a few songs in an attempt to fill in some of the gaps of sound. It’s hard to bounce around on the stage behind a keyboard.

It’s a new chapter for the band and I hope we can find a way to get our CD out into the world (did I mention it was all set to go?)

Peace (in rock and roll),
Kevin

Slice of Life, Chapter Four

(This is part of the Slice of Life Project)

My wife and I have pretty tight reins when it comes to television (only now and then, usually for movies) and Internet (check out NBA/MLB/NFL scores or game site) for our children and I suppose it is not so much being prudish as it is wanting them to be adept at coming up with games and entertainment, and reading books, on their own. This is a skill that is clearly lacking in many of the students I teach: the ability to use free time to construct imaginative play.

When our kids are on the Internet, we also have some rules, including no YouTubing it without a parent being present. (Imagine my surprise to learn that one of my son’s classroom teacher lets them surf YouTube freely during snack break — yikes. I love YouTube and think it has great value but a quick search for anything remotely inappropriate pulls up some strange stuff that is prob not appropriate for a 7 and 10 year olds eyes). For the most part, the boys adhere to the rules. But, well, kids are kids.

I was reading a magazine in the living room when I heard music coming from the sun room where our computer is. It didn’t sound like the familiar electronic theme sounds from a game. It had a groove to it. Hmm, I wondered. I walked in, and there the two of them are, dancing. On the computer, the screen is open to YouTube. They were watching a music video. They thought I was upstairs and out of earshot, the rascals.

Pause for a second.

I am about to berate them for going onto YouTube without my permission but my attention is first drawn to the video (and them, dancing). The video is … The Backstreet Boys! Now I am doubly angry. First, because of YouTube and second because, well, it’s the Backstreet Boys. If it had been Green Day or the Pogues or even Matchbox 20, I might have danced along with them for a moment before putting on my Dad Hat. But no, it has to be The Backstreet Boys in all of their producer-made, plastic-pop glory. And it wasn’t even a good song!

I shook my head and turned off the machine in mid-dance step.

“Awwww,” said the 7 year old. “We were dancing.”

“Not to the Backstreet Boys, you aren’t,” I commanded with as much authority as I could muster (stifling a laugh), as they looked at me with great confusion before the “Dad Talks About YouTube” lecture began. I wonder if there is a Boy Band filter on this thing ….

Peace (in childhood rebellion — get a soundtrack!),
Kevin