Monday, February 28, 2011

The Problem of Homework

A few weeks ago, I read an essay in the New York Times by Judith Warner.  When she characterized children's homework as "compulsory school "involvement" (that is teacher-delegated busywork packaged as a way to Show Your Child You Care)" I wanted to shout my affirmation out loud.  Really, really loud.

I've had a lot of reasons to think about homework of late.  I haven't had much time to actually think about homework, however, because that work doesn't get done on its own.  And that reality, the reality of assignments for my child that require hours of time and parental help to complete, has got me thinking about homework in the classes I teach.

Most nights, JT comes home from school with an hour's worth of homework.  Often, it takes more than that to complete.  When you add in additional projects that are an even greater time commitment, we are feeling a little overwhelmed at Sassafras House.  And I'm not convinced that the end result of all this work is beneficial to the bottom line goal of sustaining an engaged, independent, life-long learner.

The good news is that my frustration has gotten me thinking about my own classes and how I use homework.   And I'm in a mood to put down my thoughts in a more concrete form.  Before I assign any homework, I ask myself the following questions:

1.  How does the assignment support my instructional goals and the materials we are studying in class?

2.  Am I giving the students enough time to complete the assignment and actually think about the ideas?

3.  How does the assignment coordinate with other work my students are receiving?

4.  How does the assignment serve the larger objective of the course?  For example, if I want the students to master the details of a particular event or concept, how does my assignment help to make that happen?

Finally, and this is a deal-breaker:

5.  Can my students complete the work on their own?  Independent learning is essential at all levels of instruction.  Full stop.  If the students cannot do their work on their own, then the value of the assignment is so compromised as to make it meaningless because it's not showing the student how to be responsible for his or her own learning.

Asking these questions will make me a better teacher.  More to the point, it will help to make more effective learners out of my students.  And isn't that a teacher's ultimate goal?

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Behind the Curve

I have at least one t-shirt that reads 'Bruin Nation'.  I've recently been trolling shops to get JT a t-shirt that reads 'Cardinals Nation'   But at the gym today I saw a girl wearing a t-shirt that read 'Yankee Universe'.  Clearly, the rest of us are behind the curve.

Wherever he is, Mr. Steinbrenner would be proud.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Real Life Conversations with JT: Connecting the Dots edition

The backstory:  It's been one hell of a week around here and on Thursday, JT and I raised our heads enough to stop at Starbucks to get a cookie for JT and life-affirming coffee for me.  On the way out of the shop, I grabbed some paper napkins, thus prompting a comment from my boy.

JT: Why bother with napkins when I've got a sleeve?

I like to think that he was kidding.  But based on my cursory review of the laundry at my house, I suspect that he wasn't.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Real Life Conversations with JT: Bibliophile edition

The backstory:  For his birthday, Grandma and Grandpa gave JT some book money and on Monday evening, he was combing the Amazon shelves looking for more Sterling biographies to add to his collection.  Each time he looked at a new biography, Amazon gave him a choice: audio edition or old-school book-to-read edition.  He found this tiresome.

JT: Again it asks what I want….the book or the audio edition?  I may be lazy, but I'm not that lazy.  I'll take the book.

Good to know.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

T Minus 70 Minutes

Tonight is party night at Sassafras House.  At 4 pm, JT's having some boys over to celebrate his birthday.  We've got a boy bacchanalia on tap: Pizza, liters of soda, a Costco-sized bag of potato chips, and a giant homemade chocolate cake and ice cream to polish off at the end of the night.

With the generous nagging help of his grandmother and me, JT managed to get the playroom in condition to receive the boys and their sleeping bags.  He's got 3 different movies to entertain his brethren, though in my experience these boys never lie still and watch the movie. 

I've sworn a promise that there will be some sleeping tonight lest they go pancake-free tomorrow morning.  Grandma and I are suited up and ready to rumble.

Bring it.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Real Life Conversations with the Sassafras Sister: Text edition

The backstory: My mom is in town to help celebrate JT's birthday and since there's no use having a clone if you don't put her to work, she's been busy quizzing JT for his history test, mastering prime numbers for the math test, folding the laundry, and helping with JT's animal report project.  On Friday night, while JT was at a a school dance (!), we ran errands to get supplies for JT's weekend birthday party and his animal report.  We then settled at Starbucks for a cup of coffee before heading back to school to fetch our tween.  There, we texted my sister, who was driving to Southern California for the weekend. 

Me:  Are you headed south? Mom and I are at Starbucks waiting to pick up JT from a school dance.

KO:  We are on 99 [the local highway out of my home town].  Actually we're stopped at some truck stop because Spence needed to use the restroom.

Me:  For Christ's sake, don't stick his head in a trash bin. [Note: once, on a family trip on Highway 99, my sister announced that she felt like she was going to hurl.  My fast-acting mother shoved KO's head in the trash bin at the McDonald's in Valencia, thus ensuring that KO would hurl.  It's a story we fondly recall. Often.  My mother endures this].

KO:  Good call.  I hope JT got his freak on. What time is the dance over?

Me: 10.  We are draped over coffee.  Scored supplies for party and dingo report.

KO:  Ummmm dingo report? Is that code for something?

Me:  No.  He has to write a report on a dingo.  No joke.

KO:  Fucking prep school.  Did he choose a dingo?

(This particular comment caused  my mother and I to burst into laughter and disrupt the other patrons.) 

Me:  It's an under-appreciated animal.  Much maligned.  Also was assigned.

KO:  Keep telling yourself that. Concerned that some teacher might not like JT. But I don't know what other animals were assigned….

Me:  It was random.  I hope.  At least I'd heard of it.

KO:  Focus on the positive.

At that, we went to go fetch JT.  All reports suggest that he did actually dance at the dance.  I'll have to check with my sister to see if that means he got his freak on.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

11 Years of Keeping the Faith

JT turns 11 today and I've been thinking a lot about the last 11 years.  When JT was first born, the pediatrician looked him over and then reported to me that he had ten fingers and ten toes and that he was perfect.  It had been a long journey to get my baby, and perfection sounded about right to me. 

These days, it's apparent that my baby is a baby no more.  Instead, I am now the mama of a tall and strong 11 year old boy.  The past year has been filled with Little League games too innumerable to count, adventures big and small, and the day to day laughter of our life together.  Increasingly, I'm discovering how handy it is to have a strong capable boy to help around the house.   In ways too numerous to count, JT is the biggest blessing in my life. 

I sometimes feel as if my life is a series of mis-steps and errors, mistakes that I can't even begin to unravel and correct.  But in my baby, my boy, there is a perfection that still takes my breath away.  He still has 10 fingers and toes, and I have the sure knowledge that he is far more than the sum of his parts.

Since he was born, I have sung songs to JT.  For some years now, he's sung along with me.  Every few months, we burn a new CD to play in the car and we've had  many favorites over the years.  This winter, he developed a particular liking for a song by John Hiatt called "Have a Little Faith in Me."  And on those mornings when he sang from the backseat, "When the tears you cry are all you can believe, have a little faith in me. Have a little bit of faith in me," I was reminded of the power of my belief in him.  We've come a long way in the past 11 years; there is plenty of journey yet to complete.  At this point, I sometimes feel that I don't know much.  But with a complete certainty, I know that I believe in JT.  

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Living Room Re-Design

I've been putting off a final posting on my living room re-design because I'm not sure that the room is complete.  But while I consider some very small finishing touches, we're living in the room (appropriate, considering the name and all) and the more that I live with it, the more that I like it.
Feminist art not with-standing, the room is not overly girlish, which I like.  The new sofa is the most comfortable seat in the house, which I love.  The new chairs are scaled to suit me; also very comfortable.  The new curtains (thanks, Mom) add color to the wood blinds at the windows, but they don't overwhelm, which I like.

I did not get an ottoman, thinking that I'd give that change a try.  It did not suit, and I went to Ikea for an ottoman with a washable cover (essential under the circumstances).  While I like the color, I'm not convinced that it's perfect for the room.  I'd like another ottoman of sorts and am toying with my options.
The room is warm in tone, especially suitable for this year's very cold winter.  But it doesn't feel oppressive, so I think the room will make the adjustment to the warmer seasons quite nicely.  The room is welcoming and comfortable, which was my original goal.   I am pleased with the outcome, so I am declaring the project a great success. 

Monday, February 14, 2011

Real Life Conversations with JT: Patriarchy is Dead edition

The Backstory:  In his 5th grade social studies class, JT is studying ancient Chinese history.  There was a whole section devoted to Confucius, and today's quiz is on that section of the book.  All morning long, I was quizzing JT about Confucius's ideas.  He was apparently weary of my "help."

Mama:  What does Confucius say about family obedience?

JT:  He says that mothers must obey their oldest son.  And I say we are done studying.

Mama:  This isn't the Middle Kingdom, son.  You're in the Mama Kingdom.  Back to work, kid.

Today, he was happy to get to school.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

All Adventure

Last weekend, JT and I joined the Ceramics students from my school at Peter's Valley, where the potters were firing their work in some special kilns.  JT and I had no ceramics to fire, so we were just messing around.  There was plenty of snow that far north and it was icy and slick, so JT gave sledding a try.
He didn't meet with much success, but he didn't mind. 
Instead, he threw icy snowballs at me, then begged me to make him hot cocoa to drink while he was beating me at endless card games.  And, yes, of course I fell for that.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Black is the New Cast

The alternate title of this posting could be "smell my cast."  Quite an offer, no?  JT often invited me to do just that over the last few weeks.  I deferred, because my mama didn't raise a fool.  And now I'll never have the opportunity.  Yesterday, after three weeks of funky-smelling, casted glory, JT's thumb got sprung.

As the last-minute photos of the cast reveal, it was none too soon.  For the next three weeks, he's going to wear a chic black brace whenever he's involved in any activities (which is to say unless he is asleep).  He can shower without having his arm wrapped in a plastic bag.  The thumb has healed well and is ready to take its rightful place alongside the other nine fingers.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Honeysuckle: Color or Inappropriate Description of Your Privates?

So, the color divas people at Pantone have declared the color of 2011: It's Honeysuckle.  If you need a good laugh, here's the press release celebrating the color.  If I read it correctly, and I dearly hope that I have, Honeysuckle is really going to improve our lives.  We'll be "viscerally alive",  "uplifted", "confident", and "courageous."  It's guaranteed to produce "a healthy glow" for all who wear it, so you won't see me looking like death on a cracker any more. 

I had no idea it would be so easy to fix my many inadequacies. 

In the press release it looks as if Honeysuckle might be a little passive aggressive.  Honeysuckle damns its predecessor, Turquoise, the has-been color of 2010.  Turquoise was great and all, we're told, but it "served as an escape."  Man up, people.  With Honeysuckle by your side, you won't need to escape; you'll be emboldened to face your problems head on, not like that coward Turquoise, who really brought out the worst in you.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Real Life Conversations with Students: PG-13 edition

The backstory: In my government class, the students learn about Constitutional law, including the 1st amendment protection of free speech.  All of my classes have recently learned about Supreme Court  rulings on obscenity and pornography, which is not considered fully protected speech.

Me: It's 11:11, make a wish.

Student X: I wish we could talk more about porn.

Me:  It's going to be a very, very long period, isn't it?

I survived.  I can't wait until we get to the cases on privacy, which includes sodomy protections. That will be fun.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

The Chinook

In the Laura Ingalls Wilder book The Long Winter, the family knows that spring is finally coming when they hear the wind blowing from the south.  It's a warm wind that ushers in milder weather and they call it the Chinook.  When I lived on the prairie, I came to both know and appreciate that wind.  On a cold late winter day, in a few hours, a Chinook wind can bring air 20 to 30 degrees warmer.  In just one day, the chinook carries the promise of spring.

We've had a very cold and snowy winter; certainly the coldest winter I've ever experienced in New Jersey.  Unlike the Ingalls family, we haven't suffered hunger and isolation for our troubles.  Around here, the roads are quickly cleared and we're able to get the usual supplies from the local market.  But the cold is still biting and we've grown weary of the slippery conditions and the piles of glittery, icy snow that remain everywhere we look.

After a cold and icy Saturday, Sunday dawned with a watery sunshine yielding temperatures that rose into the 40s.  By the middle of the afternoon, JT and I were exchanging our fleece sweatshirts for t-shirts and sniffing the gentle air like our cats at an open window.  Yesterday felt equally mild.  It's not exactly Florida and a cold rain is falling this morning, so winter has not yet lost its icy grip on us.

But we've seen the future.  It was glorious.

Monday, February 07, 2011


Friday night, there was an art opening at my school.  It was the annual show of faculty art, so JT and I got to see the work of my colleagues and his art teachers.   We looked at the work, we talked about what he liked (and enjoyed a few snacks, of course).  At the end of the evening, as I tucked him into bed, he announced, "those artists must have really good imaginations."

My boy is a big fan of imagination.  He uses his imagination to make things: pictures, drawings, and the creation of new games from old toys are some of his favorite things to do.  Lately, for example, he has turned a dozen of his playmobil soldiers into skiers.  He does this by taping rifles (they are soldiers, remember) to their feet to make skis.  Then they ski off of ramps made from a variety of toys re-fashioned for that purpose.  Earlier this year, he made a card game for himself, drawing all the playing cards for the game.  These activities are the outcome of his imagination.  I don't know if he will grow up to earn his living as an artist, though I'd be thrilled if he did.  But I am confident that he will grow up with an appreciation for art; with a respect for the limitless world of a good imagination.

That's very happy.

Friday, February 04, 2011

What He Said

I'm a regular reader --- largely because I like the way that the things Kottke posts add to my fact hump.  And sometimes, he just makes me think, "yeah, that's right."  So I direct you over to a recent Kottke post on cell phone use.  All I have to add is that I whole-heartedly agree.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Nine (Hard Knock?) Lives

Being home in the icy rain gave JT and I an opportunity to observe the behaviors of our local wildlife.  Tiger and Lucy were undaunted by our weekday holiday, convinced that we're just here to serve them anyway.

6 am
Cats experience a disgruntled awakening as it becomes clear that I intend to demand additional time and a fair allotment of space in the Queen-sized bed.  Lucy retreats to her princess pillow; Tiger opts to taunt the window-blind cord.

7 am
Both cats entranced by the sound of a bird chirping outside. Apparently, birds do not get a snow day.  Lucy goes to the window to check things out. Tiger takes advantage and attempts a nap on her royal highness's pillow.

8 am
Two-legged servants head downstairs.  Four-legged supervisors do the same.  They demand kibble and then, exhausted from their supervisory responsibilities, take a nap on the warm radiator in the dining room.

9 am
Tiger relocates for a nap in the study window, enjoying the heat of the radiator and the view outdoors. Lucy follows me around, meowing her complaints about the current regime. Checks of the kibble and water bowl reveal that complaints are unwarranted. Nonetheless, Lucy has something to say and I will be forced to listen.

10 am
Lucy is napping on her bed.  Tiger is in seclusion.  Probably napping.

11 am
Napping, part II.

12 noon
Napping, part III

1 pm
Human went outside to shovel the ice; cats watched the excitement from the window sills.

2 pm
All that ice removal work made them tired.  Nap, part IV.

3 pm
Napping, part V.  I'm sensing a theme here.

4 pm
My God, these cats are lazy.

5 pm
Tiger is watching ESPN with JT.  Lucy is watching the inside of her eyelids.  JT got a warm cookie delivered to his grubby paws.  Tiger got kibble.

6 pm
Nap time!

7 pm
Kitty wrestling match.  Tiger would play this game forever but Lucy eventually walks away and then he's left to assault me or JT.

8 pm
Both cats are watching basketball with me…..curled on the warm afghan on my lap.  They support Syracuse (who finally breaks their losing streak, beating U Conn).

9 pm
Upstairs for washing up and bedtime. Tiger and I have a tradition whereby I bring a glass of water upstairs and he stands on the edge of my bed, perched between the bed and the nightstand, sipping the water from the nightstand.  Lucy sometimes participates.  Then, exhausted, they curl up in the flannel nests with JT or me.  Last night, both kitties had a drink and then curled up on my bed while we watched a little more basketball.

10 pm
Lights out.  Lucy headed to the the boy's bed.  Tiger opted to sleep on my feet; always a risky proposition as he will attack as warranted, which means whenever he pleases.

We're headed back to school today, so the cats will be on their own.  I feel confident in asserting that they will sleep away their day.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Over It

It's yet another cold, snowy/icy day here in central New Jersey but JT doesn't give a damn.  He's suiting up for the next season:
Fact: Sartorially speaking, nothing goes better with one's pajama bottoms.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

February 1: Clematis Vine

It's no secret that it's been a cold, snowy winter.  Certainly the coldest and snowiest I've experienced since I moved to New Jersey.  The clematis vine has been hidden under a blanket of snow since just after Christmas.  This morning's photo is blurred by the sleet falling as I was outside making the picture.  And if today's weather forecast is any indication, it will be wearing snow and ice for some time to come.
Even so, there are some hopeful signs that winter can't last forever.  The days are getting longer and the garden catalogs make a nice solid pile by the side of my bed.  I've placed my spring seed order.  I've a feeling that this is going to be the sort of winter where the snow fades to reveal bright green grass.

I'm looking forward to that.