Category Archives: From the classroom

One thing to love

I’m discovering that “city life”, as it is commonly thought of, is not very much to my liking. There’s no surprise in this for me, really. The pointless traffic and acres of asphalt leave me wanting for home…

One perk, though, is that the mass of humanity I live among is a stop on many a national book tour. I can slog my way into the ridiculous traffic that always looms outside the door and find myself, at the local Baptist church, in the company of some of my favorite authors. This week it was Khaled Hosseini touring for his new book, And the Mountains Echoed.


“… a novel about how we love, how we take care of one another, and how the choices we make resonate through generations. In this tale… Hosseini explores the many ways in which families nurture, wound, betray, honor, and sacrifice for one another; and how often we are surprised by the actions of those closest to us, at the times that matter most.”

If you’ve somehow never read his earlier books, please do find them. He’s a wonderful storyteller. They are not easy happy stories, but wonderful in the way he leads his characters through a world of sadness and loss to a place of hope.

For many years I used Hosseini’s The Kite Runner in the remedial reading classes I taught at the community college. For most of my students, it was the first novel they “willingly” read and discussed. Many of them, as well as my colleagues, questioned my choice of a novel about Afghanistan and one with such difficult themes. The thing is, while his books are mostly set there, they’re not necessarily “about” that faraway place and it’s the poetry of his words and his ability to speak to emotion and human shortcomings that make him a great read, I think.

I brought along my dog-eared copy to be signed by the author. I was embarrassed at the thought of actually having him sign it, with the state it’s in… pages falling out, a hundred vocabulary words highlighted, my notes for student discussion scribbled in the margins.

: )

I was saved from offering him any explanation by rain pelting the church windows and the sound of sirens. We were told a “strong storm” was approaching and the signing line was hastily closed. Totally drenched on my way to the car, I asked someone what the sirens meant…

Add the possibility of tornadoes to the list of things that are not to my liking… where I come from, the only time we heard those sirens was on winter mornings to announce to the community that schools were closed for a snow day. Do they still do that where you’re from? Those sirens are a happy sound in my memory! Talk about culture shock.

Please take the opportunity to hear him speak if you should be lucky enough to live somewhere that his book tour will visit. He feels like a very, very genuine man and is as great a storyteller in person as on the pages of his novels.

As always, let me know what you think! Let talk books!

Questions we didn’t know we wanted to ask

I don’t think I’ve mentioned that I’ve not been teaching for the last year or so. I miss my students at the community college, miss their stories, miss the chance to work so closely with a small group of (almost) eager learners.

I was digging around in the attic the other day and came across a lesson I’d liked to use in the mid-point of the semester on questioning techniques. It’s something we readers do automatically; question as we read, but it’s a skill that less-seasoned readers need help with.

I’ve always been a questioner; not ever satisfied with the surface answer, always intent on whatever lies beneath. I’m sure that as a child this drove the adults in my life half-nuts, and I know it drives my present-day students to distraction. I’m not the type of teacher who returns papers with plain check marks in the margins or terse comments in red ink; instead I’ve always hoped for my students to think a bit deeper and tend to ask questions that make them consider another viewpoint or angle… prodding at their laziness or inattentiveness. I like the chance to dangle speculation before them, or even wonder.

Imagine that! Wonder in the classroom!

So… while the course I teach is one of reading strategies, the writer in me tries to give back some of the kind of questioning that continues to be crucial to my own growth, as a writer (!) and as a person. I like to introduce the idea of questioning and speculation with the use of Pablo Neruda’s Book of Questions, wherein the poet asks a series of questions, without ever really caring if a response is likely, or even possible. Neruda’s questions invoke vivid images and tend to demonstrate a unique way of seeing and questioning… just as an example or two:

Why do the leaves kill themselves
as soon as they turn yellow?

How do the seasons discover
it’s time to change their shirts?

Some of the things I work on with my students during discussion are:

Which is more important: the question or the answer?
Which is more powerful?
Do all questions have answers? Is there only one right one?
Do we all ask the same questions? In the same way?

A part of what I’m hoping my students will discover with this exercise is that we all have a unique perspective and this *stance* is important to consider in our writing as well as in our reading of other authors.

My favorite part of the lesson is giving students the time to come up with their own questions, using Neruda’s as a model. There’s a fair amount of imitation, but the whimsy is palpable and fun! I encourage them to be playful with language and subject matter, like Neruda. Nothing is exempt from wonder, right?

Some favorites:

How come people say the moon is made of cheese and not waffles, for example?
Why do flowers bloom out and not in?
Who do we make mistakes?
How come there are more girls than boys in the world?
Where does Jimmy Buffet get his songs?
Why do cookies disappear faster when you’re not the one eating them?


I love that last one!

Of course you know to expect this, but…


What questions are you just dying to have answered?

What would you ask if no one dared laugh at your silly question?

May Day

There was a time when May Day meant sentiment. It was preceded by a busy week when young fingers were weaving baskets and small cornucopias out of colored paper. Between spells of basketmaking, scouting expeditions were made to the woods and fields, to see how the season went with wild flowers. And at least one trip was made to the candy store.

On April’s last day, as late as possible, the scouting expeditions were followed up. Purple violets, preferably those big, dark, long-stemmed ones which grow at the edge of the swamp, were picked. Dogtooth violets were gathered. and windflowers, if any were to be found. Spring beauties were sought, and Dutchman’s breeches. And the most delicate of young fern fronds were gathered for garnish. All were carried home in the dusk and stowed carefully in cups and glasses of water.

May Day morning called for early rising. In the bottom of the basket or cornucopia were put a few jelly beans left over from Easter, a few gumdrops, and at least one heart-shaped wafer candy printed with coy words of affection. Then the flowers were added till the basket brimmed with beauty. And at last, before breakfast if possible, the trip was made to Her house, where the basket was hung on the doorknob. The bell was rung and the basketer ran like mad, to hide around the corner until She came and found the tribute.

That was May Day, in the morning, when there was sentiment in the date. The candy might be cheap, the flowers somewhat wilted; but the sentiment was real. What ever happened to it, anyway?” –Hal Borland, Sundial of the Seasons

The closest I’ve ever been to finding a May Day basket outside my door was the year I had my 2nd graders make them for the other teachers at our school. Paper plates, tissue paper flowers and gumdrops… and a school full of happy smiling teachers at the start of the day.

Does anyone still make May Day baskets? Anyone remember them? Stories please!

Let it be

Is it possible to will away poison ivy, do you think? Ignore it away, maybe? I’ve been trying to not see the funny little blisters that are replacing the sunburn on my arms and shoulders from a morning at the beach last weekend. First I thought they were blisters from too much sun on my winter-white skin. Then they started to itch a bit and I decided them bug bites. But I know better, I think.

I forget that I can’t be so cavalier in my approach to poison ivy anymore. Getting it once should have been a good lesson, but the sun and a warmish breeze off the bay at Sandy Hook conspired to make me absentminded. I was more concerned with scratching up my bare legs among the beach plums, apparently, than minding what the rest of me touched. Foolish with spring-fever, I’ll pay the price by itching until Memorial Day.

I got poison ivy for the first time only about five years ago. It was the end of the school year and I was teaching high school at the time. My classroom that year was a *modular* one (makeshift would be a better word) – school construction had a number of classrooms relocated to the gym. There were walls to separate each classroom from the next, but no doors and no proper ceilings. You can imagine the fun a group of freshman boys might have with that set-up. I always knew if there was a substitute teacher in one of the adjoining classrooms because all manner of things would come flying over the walls, hitting my angelic students on the head while they toiled over their Spanish textbooks. Great fun. At any rate, there was no air conditioning in the gym, of course, and poor poison-ivy covered me couldn’t hide my calamine-lotioned skin under long sleeves or pants for fear of fainting in the heat at the end of June. School ended and I went off to celebrate in the Adirondacks and was eaten alive by black flies on top of my poison ivy. Talk about misery!

Poison ivy is impossible to avoid at Sandy Hook – it grows in great impenetrable thickets – and this time of year it’s not looking nearly so pretty or obvious as in this pic from May of last year. There was nothing but branches with just a hint of leaves… how dangerous is that?


Don’t tell me. I’m pretending not to notice, remember?

Disorganized like me

I came across an interesting article yesterday at the NY Times website (link) that sounded so familiar to me – as I’m sure it will to the rest of you teachers out there; but I wonder if those of you who parent boys won’t find it to ring true also.

One of the major challenges that I have working with my college-age male students is a lack of organizational and study skills. I saw the same in the few years I spent teaching elementary and high-school boys. The article talks about the need for these kids to visit tutors in order to learn those skills, which, let’s face it, are so basic to success in school that I wonder why they’re not ever taught as part of the regular curriculum.

Teaching kids how to learn seems so… basic; yet the assumption is that kids just know how to do those things that make success at it possible. That I or any other college professor should need to spend time, week after week, showing the same boys how to organize a binder or how to keep a record of when assignments are due – how silly, I think, considering all the *more important* stuff that schools are so focused on.

The funny thing is that I’m not a very good role model for the type of behavior I teach and my students sometimes see it. Too often they get a peak into my messy school bag filled with last semester’s final exams, grocery store receipts and that great new poetry book I picked up weeks ago and then immediately misplaced.


Do as I say, not as I do – right? Thank God no one ever sees the state of my desk here at home – the piles of bills mixed with the piles of books and the blotter still stuck in April of 2007 covered with fragments and whispers and book titles and phone numbers important enough that I won’t turn the page.

Anyone willing to fess up along with me to being a disorganized girl?


4/25/07 Mid-week bunny-butt fix

You might recognize this pic of Cricket’s butt, as I’ve posted it before, but it’s a favorite and well… I don’t have any others right now. I gave my final exam tonight and I’m breathing a huge sigh of relief that the semester is very nearly over. I took Friday off from work to go on a special birding trip, but I’m afraid it may be canceled because of the rainy weather for the next few days and instead of birding I’ll end up spending the day grading exams. That would be a waste of a day off! The spring peepers are very happy with the rain and were calling loudly from the pond across the street from the college parking lot as I left school tonight.

Confusion reigns

My remedial reading students at the community college had their mid-term exam last week. I’ve been moaning and groaning since last Wednesday trying to get the exams graded. I’ve mentioned that the department changed the course; not so much the curriculum, but the method we are using to bring these students up to college-level reading skills. We’ve tweaked things some since the fall semester and made the mid-term more difficult. So far I’ve seen mostly low C’s, a few F’s, and one B. Not promising.

The course I’m teaching is the second in the series, yet these students are not reliably able to find the main idea of a paragraph or to make inferences about what they’ve read. Those very basic skills used to be covered in the first course and in the past I spent most of my time working on higher-level college reading skills and study strategies. It seems now that students are coming to me without those basic abilities which makes me wonder what in the world they’re doing for the first semester of the course.

Anyway, Lynne recently shared some funny student responses to math test questions. Most of them were very creative and showed that the student had a bright mind, but maybe just forgot to study for the test. It occurred to me that you might like a look at the work my students are doing. I’d like to think their answers are funny and show creative thinking, but I’m afraid not.

The mid-term was based on a short article about nutrition and students were expected to read the article and use particular strategies that they’d been taught to help them understand what they’d read. There were also questions to guide their reading that required them to find the main idea of certain paragraphs and to make inferences about the meaning of particular passages. Every single student got this question wrong:

The text reads: “Recent research shows that our food choices rival transportation as a human activity with the greatest impact on the environment. By 2020, people in developing countries will consume more than 39 kg of meat per person each year – twice as much as they did in the 1980’s. The people in industrial countries such as the United States will still consume the most meat – 100 kg a year – the equivalent of a side of beef, 50 chickens, and one pig each.”

Students were asked to explain in their own words what the italized sentence means. Some responses:

  • “Our food choices make us how we act and how much energy we have.”
  • “People who are competing for the same thing can have an impact on the environment.”
  • “It means that we ask for so much food that we will need more deliveries of it in bigger quantities.”
  • “We eat food that we can get to that is close to us.”
  • “It means that consuming more food in the future is going to be a result of people being more active than before.”
  • “People eat while on the go and don’t take time to eat a good nutrient meal. It is also easy to transport food.”
  • “Since foods are easier to transport people are eating more meats than ever before.”
  • “Food is competing with us, it lowers us in.”
  • “We can’t walk long enough because we are to fat. So now in stores they have electronic carts to help these people get around. Not a good thing.”

Can you hear me moaning and groaning? And screaming?!? I shouldn’t make fun, but they are clueless.

I don’t think this question, or the article as a whole, was very difficult. What do you think? Can you find any correct responses? Am I just being too tough?

Surprises from the classroom

We’re 4 weeks into the semester now and I’ve almost learned everyone’s name. I only see these *kids* once a week , so it seems to take forever to know who’s who.

They’re a pretty mixed group, with a surprising number of boys. Usually in a class of eighteen students I’ll have only 4 or 5 boys, but this semester it’s the opposite. Boys make me nervous. They tend to cause flashbacks to the year I spent teaching Spanish at an elementary school and had to bear the torment of 6th and 7th graders on a daily basis. I was not a happy camper then and ended most school days very near in tears. I did much better with high school boys who didn’t spend all their time trying to figure out ways to harass me.

The boys at the community college are very much like the high school students I taught. It’s interesting to me to imagine what they must have been like in high school and what group they fit in to. With a new start at college, some of them are trying out new roles, but many times they seem to fall back on their old ways. Oftentimes I have the athletes who spent their high school years charming their way through classes. Confident and very personable, but sort of lazy. They smile at me a lot and crack jokes, call me *Professor* when everyone else calls me by my first name. Very amusing. Very charming.

Then there are the boys who try to blend into the walls and hope I won’t pay any notice of them. Well-behaved and quiet and badly in need of help, but afraid to ask for it. They got through high school by not causing any trouble and they’re hoping that strategy will still work for them. They’re the hardest for me to connect with in the classroom because they won’t respond to either the friendly cajoling I frequently employ, or the stern *teacher talk* that I hate to have to resort to. Stern doesn’t really work for me and they see through this act of mine.

As a teacher, I know that I shouldn’t have any preconceived ideas about my students, but I can’t help it. What I enjoy is watching them trash the ideas I have about them as the semester progresses.

There is the muscular football player who last night volunteered to read poem after poem out loud for the rest of the class as we talked about the connections we make when reading that help us to understand text better.

And his friend who asked if we didn’t have time to write a follow-up to one of the peoms we read that the class had really enjoyed. (I think that was a ploy to avoid doing any *real* work!)

The shy Haitian student who every week arrives early and rearranges the furniture so that I, and the rest of the class, won’t have to do it.

The student who skipped class the first week, arrived late with a smirk for the second class, but then produced a perfect Origami crane while I floundered to make something resembling a box as a demonstration of the value of background knowledge when reading.

I like for them to surprise me. I’m glad to find these good things in unexpected places and talents in unexpected people.

Have you ever had a moment where you wondered how on earth you got to that point? I often feel that way in the classroom. I came across this picture, my college graduation pic, this evening while searching for an old friend’s address. I was 22 and engaged to be married and had no clue what I would be doing the following week, let alone near 15 years later. Never would I have imagined myself to be teaching college. I look at it and wonder what my college profs thought of me, the quiet girl who always sat in the front row, but never said a word. I was terribly shy and hated to speak in front of people. How I find the courage to teach puzzles me, still. My knees sometimes shake, but I’ve learned to stand behind the desk at those times!

I like to think of what the students I have known will become and how they will find their place in the world. Most I never hear from again, but a few do keep in touch and will email me once in a while. I like that they do that and wish that more did. I think it’s the nature of the course I teach, and the way I try to do it, that leads some of them to want me to know that they’re doing well and that they’ve beaten the odds. That they’ve surprised themselves, even.