Slice of Life: The Solar Panel Dilemma

A few years ago, when we were replacing our aging and faulty heating system in our home, we decided to spend a bit more for a heating unit that was more efficient than others but it is also one that could “easily” be connected to solar panels, should we decide to that route. For the past six months, the “solar panel energy collection” idea has been percolating on our minds. We’ve been consulting with one regional organization that provides a “neighbor to neighbor” co-operative element — folks help folks with their projects, and then the cost of installation gets reduced. It’s a great concept.

But we have come to be a little wary of the group. They have blown off meetings, leaving us hanging around waiting for hours. The quotes we received were not for the kind of system we wanted. When we chat on the phone, we are not even confident they have our files in front of them. A friend with some inside knowledge of their work on one particular site questioned the quality of the installation and the claims they had made to the homeowner. We also are not all that confident that the payback over time is what they promise.

So, we tried another route.

Yesterday, we chatted with a plumber we’ve worked with over the years, and he also does solar installations. (He also installed our heating system, so he knows it inside and out). He was surprisingly and refreshingly frank about the situation, telling us that it makes no sense right now to use solar for the home heating system but it might make sense to consider the hot water system, with a lot of caveats about savings and water use and more. He’s going to draw up some estimates for us, but … we seem to be leaning away from solar right now. It’s not often you get a plumber being so honest, and risking losing a job. I respect that in him.

To be blunt: while we want to do our part as a family to cut down on energy consumption, we want to do things primarily to save money.

We don’t have the kind of disposable income (three kids, the oldest moving into high school, college costs around the corner) to invest in things that don’t have a tangible cost savings, no matter how good it would make our “green” side feel. We feel sort of sad about this latest direction of the solar idea, though, since we did have this vision of our house with solar panels and being more self-sufficient. Maybe more tax breaks and incentives down the road will make such a project doable. Maybe not.

For now, our energies are going into more traditional upgrades of the home. The solar panels can wait.

Peace (in the sun),



The Meta-Slice about Slice of Life


(This video is me, as I was writing this morning’s Slice of Life. I used a stopmotion capture, in time-lapse mode. My eyes move a lot! I guess it must be all that thinking! It would be funny to have the camera trained on my fingers one of these days. You’d see a lot of fixin’ and backspacin’ going on. – Kevin)

We’re into the 10th day of the Slice of Life challenge over at Two Writing Teachers, and the sheer number of teachers who are writing with Ruth and Stacey and others this year is … startling.

I have been participating in the Slice of Life for the past four or five years (It’s a blur), taking small moments from our days and writing about them in a reflective way. The first year, we had about eight to 10 regular writers. Each year, it got a little bigger as the challenge took hold. But this year, it has exploded (thanks in part to the influence and impact that Ruth and Stacey have brought to the table as teachers of writing and their book, Day by Day). On any given day, there are more than 100 posts by Slicers, and some days that number has pushed up beyond 150 posts.

That’s a whole lot of teachers writing, and blogging.

I’ve been trying to carve out time to read some of the posts and add comments, just as I have appreciated that many of my fellow Slicers come here, and read and add a few thoughts to my posts. There is a real sense of a connected writing community, and audience is never more real than this kind of writing challenge.

I do get the sense that the intimacy of a smaller community has gotten lost this year, I think. In other years, I would visit a handful of bloggers whom I knew through their writing, and I had some history with them. Their stories resonated because I knew a bit about the back-stories. We created a sort of history together over the month of March. Sometimes, those stories would unfold in different ways the following year, allowing us to notice patterns in our lives.

This year, it’s different.

There are just so many writers that I am meeting someone new just about every day. I am purposely trying to read slices from bloggers that I don’t quite know. Is that a good shift? In some ways, yes. The more we widen our circles, the more we get exposed to different thinking, different teaching strategies, different writing styles. That’s a good thing.

But I do feel more like a boat on the ocean this year, rather than a raft on a lake, you know? I wonder if Ruth and Stacey feel that way, too. In the past, they have worked hard to ensure that every blogger in Slice of Life received a comment. No dead space. No writing into a voic. Someone out there was reading and reacting. I can’t imagine they can pull that off this year. They would have to take a leave of absence from work and family to do all that reading and writing.

In the end, it is heartening for me to see so many teachers exploring with blogging, though, and a few are using Slice of Life as a writing activity in the classroom. My hope is that as teachers use digital tools for writing, they are reflecting on the possibilities for their students in the classrooms. I know, I am. You, too?

Peace (in the meta-slice),


Slice of Life: The Wedding Ring

I can probably count the times on one hand when, sometime over the last 14 years, my ring finger has been empty. I just almost never remove my wedding ring. I do remember the first week after our wedding when we were wearing our rings for the first time, and it felt like I had a little golden spider on my finger, and I would catch glimpses of it from time to time out of the corner of my eye. Now, it’s just part of me, a  symbol of how far my wonderful wife and I have come over the years on this journey we are on (along with our three sons).

Last night, I was keeping the score book for my middle son’s basketball tournament game (they won!) and then I helped break down the equipment and put it into storage for today’s tournament game. As my boys and I were walking down the hallway to go out to the van, I reached into my pocket for my keys. Something felt odd. The keys were there, but normally, my wedding ring scrapes across the pocket of my pants (something I don’t ever remember noticing before except now it was a clue that something was amiss). My hand went a bit too smoothly into my pocket. I pulled out my left hand, puzzled.

The ring finger was empty. I stopped dead in my tracks. My sons, who were chatting about the game, stared at me.

“What?” one asked.

“My ring. My wedding ring.” I held up my empty hand. “I don’t have it.”

My brain rushed to remember: when did I last see it on my finger? I could have sworn it was there earlier in the day. That means it might still be in the gym. Great. We rushed back to the basketball court and began scouring the floor with our eyes. I was thinking, a gold ring on a wooden floor … like a needle in a haystack. I went into the equipment room, and opened up some of the boxes with wires for the scoring machine.

“There it is!” my son, who has followed me, shouted. And there it was. My ring had come off when I was wrapping up wires, I guess, and fallen into the box. Phew.

At home, as my wife and I were getting ready for bed, I told her about losing the ring. She got this panic look on her face.

“I took mine off, too,” she said, and now began scrambling around her bedside table. She couldn’t find it. I went downstairs to the “shelf” where she takes it off when she does baking or cooking. She doesn’t want to lose it in the pizza dough, you know? Nothing. Then, “I found it!” The ring had fallen off her bedside table and rolled under the bed, I guess.

For a second there, I was wondering about bad omens and such. But the night ended with two ringed fingers, held together by years of marriage. Disaster was averted!

Peace (in the ring),


Slice of Life: Quidditch Comes Around Again

Fellow Slice of Lifers from the past know that March and April mean Quidditch at our elementary school. In about three or four weeks, we hold an entire day of Quidditch for the four sixth grade classes, using rules first invented by a student and refined over the years by other students and teachers.

My homeroom class color is blue, and the names that the class comes up with usually is associated with blue and/or cold. Yesterday afternoon, we launched into the collaborative discussion around names. They brainstormed as many cool names for our team as they could, and then we went through an entire election process — sort of like a presidential primary but without the negative ads. And no Super Pacs either. As far I know, no money was pushed under the table.

In about 30 minutes of fun and heated discussions, and after three rounds of voting, the majority arrived at this year’s team name.

Our Name is Permafrost!

A few were wondering just what permafrost is, even though they liked the sound of the name. I guess a little science lesson is in order, eh? The photo here shows the way voting took place, and how we ended up with our consensus. Next step? Coming up with an icon for our class team that represents Permafrost.
permafrost quidditch
And so we’re off into Quidditch season …

Peace (and magic),
PS – and this is how we play our version of Quidditch!

Celebrating International Women’s Day w/Women in Science


I know every day should be a day of recognition for women in all fields. But it is nice to have today designated as International Women’s Day around the world. I try to do my part in my classroom by countering the gender biases that my sixth grade boys are already beginning to develop (just the other day, this happened when we were using a Time for Kids magazine that featured women pioneers) and to remind my students of the inequities of history, where women were often forgotten or shunted aside.

Google has a cool Google Doodle today.

And I wanted to share out (again) a video game that I made for my students about Women in Science.

Peace (in the recognition),


Slice of Life: A Little Jabberwocky

Yesterday was Read Aloud Day. How could I pass up an opportunity to take part in that? So, I dusted off Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll and we spent part of our classes reading and discussing poem as part of our explorations of poetry. The kids had fun with the made-up words, and we had some deeper discussions about the story underneath the nonsense.

It was interesting how quite a few know of the Jabberwock (the creature) but not the poem because it was featured so heavily in the Alice in Wonderland movie a few years ago. (It also meant they had an image in their mind before we read the poem, which is too bad). Two of my students said their older siblings were memorizing the poem (I had the siblings, too! Can I take credit?) for fun.

We ended our discussion on a note of craziness — watching The Muppet Show version of the poem.

Peace (beneath the TumTum Tree),


Book Review: Gregor and the Marks of Secret


Regular readers here (hi, you!) know that I am reading the Gregor the Overlander series by Suzanne Collins with my youngest son. We have just finished up the fourth book — Gregor and the Marks of Secret — and are now starting the final book in the series, Gregor and the Code of Claw. The Marks of Secret has been the darkest of the bunch, no doubt about it. A quick summary of the series: Gregor is a 12 year old boy who falls through a grate in New York City, finds an entire underworld of humans and creatures below the surface, and is hailed (and feared) as the Warrior of various prophecies carved into a wall.

The rats emerge as the clear nemesis in this fourth book. Collins also alludes to the Holocaust in no uncertain terms, as the rats (the gnawers) are driving the mice (the nibblers) to their death by forcing them into a volcanic area known as the Firelands where the poisonous gasses are killing the mice by the hundreds. Gregor and his friends are on a mission to the stop the rats, and save the mice. There is no resolution of that storyline in the fourth book, as Collins is clearly setting up a confrontational plot line for the end of the series.

I think I mentioned last book: I am ready to leave the Underland, but my son isn’t, so I am staying with it. The writing is fine, and Collins does a decent job with character development, but the dark overtones of the setting and story weigh on me as a reader.  The death of characters in each book is sad. And although the book has not crossed any lines for the young ears of my son, I worry about it. He seems fine, though, and is rooting on Gregor and the good guys with all of the enthusiasm of a good listener/reader. And so, I keep going.

Peace (in the overland),


Slice of Life: The Video Game Challenge

In December, my students worked on an entire unit around science-based video game design. They created and published their own video games. It’s more complicated than I can explain here (but we did capture it on our website about the gaming project). Many kids are still working on revising and improving their video games long after the project ended. One of them has almost 1,000 plays of his game in the Gamestar Mechanic community.

Yesterday, I helped a handful of students achieve a goal of theirs. We submitted their science-based video games into the 2012 STEM Video Game Challenge.

I have no idea how they will do on the national stage against other middle school game designers, but they were very excited to get all of the application completed and to know that their video game creations (which are excellent examples of gaming, science and writing, if you don’t mind a very biased opinion) are in the mix for a national award.

Me? I am proud of them for sticking with it and having the confidence in their abilities as game designers, and I am very glad that we seemed to have gotten everything done that we needed to get done for moving their game into the challenge (as far as I can tell. To be honest, the application process is not as clear as it could be).

2012 National STEM Video Game Challenge [image courtesy].

And now, we wait until May, when the winners are announced. But we will still be playing and building games. That never stops.

Peace (in the game system),


Graphic Novel Review: Baby’s in Black (and the Beatles)

This upcoming graphic novel from First Second Publishing provides an alternative look at the early days of The Beatles. Told mostly through the experiences of photographer Astrid Kirchherr and her love affair with the so-called “fifth Beatle” Stuart Sutcliffe, Baby’s in Black by Arne Bellstorf brings us into the club scene of Germany where the future pop stars of the world would begin to hone their skills. Sutcliffe came on as a bass player at the invitation of his friend, John Lennon, but he really wanted to be an artist.

Kirchherr would help him find his muse in the time before his early death, which was probably due to some brain hemorrhage (the exact cause was never fully determined). Strains of the cover songs that The Beatles were playing filter in and out of this love story, told entirely in black and white graphic illustrations. There’s a sort of melancholy feel to the story, as Sutcliffe is tired of playing music, drawn into his love for Kirchherr (a photographer who tastes fame herself with her images of the band), and ragged from an unknown illness that eventually takes his life.

Most of us music fans know parts of this story from the Lore of The Beatles, but Bellstorf does a nice job of keeping the graphic novel lens on Kirchherr, and we see German youth through her interactions with her friends, one of whom is a diehard fan of The Beatles who drags as many friends as he can to the bars to see them play.

I have a friend my band who is a crazy Beatles fan. I’ve passed this one along to him and he was very interested. He even knew who he was going to pass along to once he was done with ut. (It looks like the graphic novel gets published sometime in May, by the way.)

Peace (in the music),