Thursday, July 31, 2014

Our Compromised Understanding of History

A few hours into our visit to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, T and I realized that our view of the Civil War is shaped by the fact that neither of us come from states with deep associations with the war.  The first time I saw Civil War battle sites was when I lived in Tennessee and was 22 years old.  At places like Shiloh and Franklin, I experienced the horror of the war in a firsthand fashion.  I’ve been to several Civil War  battlefields over the years, but I had never seen Gettysburg.  As I contemplated my fall history class, which will start with colonial settlement and end with the Battle of Gettysburg, I decided that it was time to see the place where the tide of the war turned.

It’s a war I know well, having taught the story of the battle for years.  To see these famous places in person was unexpectedly powerful.  T and I opted for a horse-drawn carriage tour of the battlefield.

Seeing these now quiet battlefields with a guide at the pace of a horse-drawn carriage turned out to be a great choice, because it gave us time to really appreciate the depth of the horror of those 3 days at Gettysburg.  

The carriage drew us up through the peach orchard to the site of the wheatfield battle, where we saw Culp’s Hill, Little Round Top, and dozens of the monuments that dot the now-preserved battlefields.

The battle surrounded the small town of Gettysburg and north of the town we saw more monument-filled fields that seemed so distant from the violence of those days in 1863.

Of course, the horror of the Civil War is that such violence could break out between people who were part of the same nation; people who shared a national identity but were frozen by their disagreement about slavery.  That  is a troubling fact in the current political climate, where we also seem frozen, this time into a state of permanent disagreement and dislike, unwilling and unable to see that we must shake-down together to attend to the business of our nation.  We need reminding that conflict need-not be our natural state of political affairs.

At the National Park Service Museum, we sat in a theater and watched a film about the Civili War, a discussion of its causes, the conflict, and the aftermath.  The film concluded with a recitation of the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s passionate defense of self-government.  As the film ended, the crowd clapped in a manner that seemed proud of the experiment in self-government that is the United States.  I clapped too; I am often very proud of my nation.  It isn’t a blind pride.  I am also aware of our failings.  

One of the best explanations of the Civil War comes from historian Shelby Foote, who argues that the war broke out because the American talent for compromise finally failed us and we instead set our powerful resources to work in an effort to destroy one another.  These days, as Republicans in the House of Representatives sue the executive and the President vows to undertake executive action where Congress has failed to legislate, we are once again failing to compromise.  Of course, we aren’t in danger of another brother-upon-brother bloodbath.  But neither are we determined to embrace our historical destiny and listen to the instructions of President Lincoln who reminded us to respect the notion of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.  If there is just one lesson from Gettysburg, it’s that we are all in this together.  If history tells us anything, it’s that this is a terribly difficult lesson to learn.  Gettysburg is a reminder of the terrible costs of such a failure.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Gettysburg, Take One

Over the weekend, T and I took a ride to see the Gettysburg Battlefields in Pennsylvania.  I’ve been to plenty of Civil War battlefields in the South, but this was my first visit to a Northern battlefield.  It was an amazing place to behold, lovely beyond measure.  At times, it was hard to believe that a brutal war could have erupted here.  Of course, that’s the power of the Civil War itself: a ferocious internal conflict amongst a people who temporarily lost their gift for pragmatic compromise and then proceeded to beat the stuffing out of one another.  I’ll have more thoughts on Gettysburg later this week.   For now, I offer this picture which lingers in my mind.

These woods are deceptively lovely and still.  It seems extraordinary that anyone would shatter such quiet beauty.   But for three days in July 1863 it was the site of a miserable, bloody exchange that would forever alter the course of the war and, ultimately, the history of this nation we now call the United States of America.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Real Life Conversations with T: Regional Awareness edition

The backstory: T and I went to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to check out the battlefields and brush up on our Civil War history.  While there, we took the time to stroll through the charming town of Gettysburg, where I sighted a Mexican restaurant.

Me:  That Mexican restaurant looks cute.  I wonder if it’s any good?

Without missing a beat, T issued her response.

T:  In Pennsylvania?

Enough said.  We had supper elsewhere.

Thursday, July 24, 2014


Weekends typically find T and I making a visit to Home Deport for the ingredients of the weekend’s project du jour.  We enjoy Home Depot and have been known to wander around unsupervised, checking out all sorts of things.  So it was that we came across the toilet section.  Having recently read Bill Bryson’s At Home, I was a little more attuned to the value of a toilet than usual (our ancestors had frankly appalling sanitary habits) and T and I were both bemused at the names assigned to toilets.  There is the Prelude, which raises some interesting questions about what follows some time spent on this toilet.

Perhaps the Wellworth is more suitable.  A seat here is well worth your time?

I suspect that the Cadet is for the newly toilet-trained.

Those of us who are proud of our efforts might prefer the Champion.

My sister suggests that toilets should simply have serial numbers, which would be more tasteful, though less amusing.  Internet, we can do better than this.  T and I think we should simply call it as we see it.  To that end, we recommend some new toilet lines, with bold and proud names.

For your manly toilet needs, may we recommend:
Jimmy Cracked Corn
Commander Commode
The Rear Admiral (comes in camo)
Dark Logger
The Stink Ninja
The Clearinghouse

We also decided a line of toilets for children is warranted.  How about:
Lil’ Johnny 
The Poop Tray 
The Scout

Let’s not forget the ladies:
The Fashionista (in a lovely Pantone colors, of course)
The Chamber Pot

In our specialty line, we suggest The Elvis: King of Thrones.  This one comes with a spandex jumpsuit and rhinestone belt and buckle.  For obvious reasons, one should take care when seated on this toilet.

Once our line of toilets is manufactured, we intend to stage a store opening.  The theme song is an obvious choice.  We’ll be playing Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way.”

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Bird House

For Christmas, T gave me a birdhouse.  I rather dithered about where it should be hung before settling on a hook alongside the garage in the backyard.  Over the weekend, T hung up the sweet new bird residence.

I think it looks great and welcoming.  Tiger and Lucy stay inside, so they are no danger to the birds, though the cats are quite delighted by the prospect of better wildlife viewing.

That’s happy!

Monday, July 21, 2014

On the Pleasures of a Simple Taco

I made chicken tacos for Sunday afternoon’s early supper.  I’ve been making tacos in my kitchen for more than 20 years and the familiar steps of simmering the chicken, grating the cheese, chopping and stirring together the salsa, and preparing the refritos and rice is something I now cook entirely from memory.

As I was pulling Sunday’s supper together, I started to think about all the ways that tacos have featured in my life.  Growing up, it was my favorite supper.  It was always the best school lunch as well.  In the fourth grade, when our brand new house caught on fire, it was the oil my mom was heating to fry taco shells that was to blame.  Tacos were the last homemade supper my mother made before I moved away to college.  When I moved from California to Tennessee, standing in the bread aisle looking for tortillas showed me just how far from home I had travelled.  Turns out that in the rest of America, tortillas aren’t in such high demand, so they stay in the refrigerated section.  Over the years that I have been away from California, I've turned looking for authentic Mexican ingredients into a high art.  

These days, many of my favorite Mexican food ingredients are available locally, thanks to New Jersey’s diversity.   There's a supply of fresh cilantro and loads of chiles in the produce section; tortillas can be found with the rest of the Mexican ingredients and aren't in a refrigerated case.  And homemade tacos are still my favorite meal; they still taste like home.  

Sunday, July 20, 2014

My New Superpower

At work, my colleague T mentioned a scone recipe that sounded delicious.  I promptly made a batch of my own and then I was off and running, adapting the recipe to include vanilla bean.  For Saturday breakfast, I served it with freshly whipped cream and homemade strawberry vanilla jam that I had made earlier in the week.


Saturday, July 19, 2014

Firefly Summer

Once upon a time, the transition from the school year to summer was a difficult thing for me.  I’d feel out of sorts with all that unscheduled time on my hands, as if I had lost my anchor.  That was a while ago and for at least the last 6 six years, my unscheduled summers off were a lovely break in a very busy life of work and parenting.  JT and I would plan activities for some days; for other days, we’d relax and let summer have its way.  I came to relish the generous unscheduled time.  

This summer, as a result of my new job, I’m working.  The workdays are shorter and the pace is considerably more relaxed, but I still go in to the office with a list of tasks to complete.  Happily, almost all of those tasks will help to male the school year less stressful.  I’ve had some time off and will enjoy more, but most days I get up and head to school.

The more scheduled summer days have found me missing my relaxed summers, with day after day of sleeping in.  I’m determined to make the most of my time.  I sleep in a little later than I would on a school day and getting ready involves neither blowdrying nor makeup.  Flip flops are my only shoes.

Each morning, I sit outside with a cup of coffee and I appreciate the day.  I repeat that in the afternoon, armed with iced tea and a good book.  I plan chores, errands, workouts, and time in the garden to maximize relaxation.  I make two daily walks through the garden, always making sure that one is at the point in the evening when the lightening bugs are first awake and twinkling their magic in the hazy twilight.  I take the time to appreciate the small daily changes in the garden and admire the state of every dahlia bulb in my care.

Earlier this week, my morning visit happily coincided with the first of my zinnia flowers making an appearance, which thrills me.

I keep an eye on the progress of the season’s first tomatoes.

I count the pears left on my fruit tree, hopeful that a few will escape the notice of the wildlife who like to eat my produce.  

When I get home from school, most days I put work away and choose to relax.  I take the time to really soak up the relaxed pace of the days.   I still miss the prospect of dozens of lazy mornings, but I’m loving my summer days.  I appreciate the way that my new summer schedule reminds me to strike a balance between work and play, mindful that relaxation is a good thing.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Giving Summer Thanks

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve surely heard that the Polar Vortex is back in the middle of the nation this week, bringing cooler temperatures with its breezes.  In my corner of New Jersey, mid to late July is typically the hottest part of summer, usually with a generous side of humidity to go with the heat.  Instead, this week, we’ve instead gotten dry warm air, high temperatures in the mid to low 80s and cool nights and mornings.  It’s been lovely and it puts me in mind of the January cold snap that the Polar Vortex delivered earlier this year.

There were many icy mornings in January that I sat in my car, waiting for it to warm up, bundled up in coat, gloves, scarf, hat, and still cold for all my efforts to block the cold.  On those mornings, the temperature outside was barely in the double digits.  As I grew weary of the cold this past winter it was hard to envision summer and the ease of stepping outside in flip flops.  But the winter did eventually pass.  So today I pause and give thanks for warm breezes and sunlight.  I may even be prepared to take back the unkind comments I once made about the Polar Vortex.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Real Life Conversations with JT: Professional Attire edition

Real Life Conversations with JT: Professional Attire edition
The backstory: One day last week JT came to school with me to help with summer open house tours.  I made him wear khaki shorts and a school shirt for the day and I wore a school shirt and made an effort to look more professional myself.  Afterward, he had some complaints about my unreasonable khaki shorts requirement.

JT:  Why did I have to wear khakis instead of regular shorts? Note: For JT, “regular” shorts are any number of ratty nylon athletic shorts.

Me:  Because they look nicer and more appropriate for school.  I wore a nice school polo shirt with my skirt.

JT:  You also wore flip flops.

Me:  In the summer, I only wear flip flops.

JT:  And that’s supposed to be “professional”

Me:  It’s summer and I’m a native Californian who was born wearing flip flops so, yeah, that’s professional.

I don’t think that he was persuaded.  Perhaps he’s sad that he wasn’t born in California and therefore is not entitled to lay claim to flip flops as professional attire.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Great Belt Bridge

Our ship passed under the Great Belt Bridge twice during our trip, once around midnight as we headed east into the Baltic Sea and then around 7 pm, headed west as we returned to Copenhagen.  JT and I watched both times, impressed by the sheer scale of the bridge.  For miles as we approached it seemed impossible that the ship would fit underneath, but of course we did.  This picture was made on the journey west and I think the light is lovely.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Teaching and Learning: In Praise of Projects, part II

Teaching Middle School after years of teaching older students has been an epiphany for me.  While it is new and the comparisons are fresh in my mind, I’m making note of some of the biggest distinctions between middle schoolers and older high schoolers.  These thoughts of mine are sometimes open-ended; I don’t have any big answers.  But I do have plenty to mentally chew upon and I intend to do so.  Today’s topic is a continuation of yesterday's posting on class projects in lieu of final exams.

Yesterday, I made the argument that projects are better method of assessment and college preparation than exclusive reliance on midterm and final exams.  Today, I’m going to explore the experiences that brought me to this point of view.

Two years ago, as an exercise to prepare for midterm exams, my 11th grade U.S. History students formed groups and created illustrated projects on some big theme ideas in the first 100 years of U.S. History:  the missions and motivations of the different colonies, significant moments in the Revolutionary War, and major compromises from 1776-1860 were among them.  We did this as a way to bridge the gap of weeks of instruction lost to Hurricane Sandy and to practice use of iPads, which the school was adopting as part of a 1:1 initiative.  Between review, research, planning, and learning to use a new technology, the students spent a week’s worth of class time at work on the projects.  They enjoyed creating the projects and then shared them with one another to use as a study tool for the midterm.  Those midterm exam scores were the best I’d ever seen.  That they came from a class that hadn’t been particularly strong was noteworthy.  My mind was opened to the value of big ticket projects, the kind that take time to create and perfect.

So I was already thinking of the value of projects when my own child came home later that same school year year excited about a project he was to make in lieu of a final exam in his 7th grade U.S.  History class.  The task: to create a theme park based on American history.  A child who had spent most of the year complaining about schoolwork settled right in to create his very own American history theme park.  From the Jamestown Scavenger Hunt for Food Snack Shack to the Boston Harbor Lazy River Ride, my 13 year old wrote nearly 5 pages worth of creative and analytical descriptions of American history, creating and engaging with ideas and material in a way that he and I both found thrilling.   The project showed him just how much information he retained. It also persuaded him that he could write more than a paragraph without whinging and moaning.   In fact, more than a year later, JT remains proud of the project and open to the idea of creating more big-ticket projects.  He embraced the 8th grade end-of-the year- project.  American history remains alive and thrilling for him.

So it was that by the end of the 2012-2013 school year, I was sold on the value of projects as a learning tool superior to the traditional exam format.  This past school year, my 6th graders have practiced answering multiple choice questions on quizzes and they have written about history in all sorts of ways, from statements of fact to explanations of why certain events occurred.  For their end of the year project, in lieu of a traditional final exam, they generated an historical time travel brochure, written and illustrated work that illustrated the historical value of select places and people they studied in the Medieval world.  The final product was digital and illustrated with images selected from the Internet.  They worked on it in class and at home for two weeks and in the process I saw both how much they have learned and how they internalized the lessons about people in history.  In their final projects, I can see the sophistication of their thinking as well as their sense of humor.  Most important, the individual projects were fun to make and the students are proud of their work.

Reviewing the value of final projects, I’ve generated a list of the skills gained in my 6th graders' most recent project work.  It's a list that can be applied to other project-based assessments:

1.  Thinking big and then narrowing down to specific examples to support a point of view.
2.  Reviewing the whole of material studied in the school year.
3.  Creativity in a whole variety of ways, from design of the brochure to organization of their time travel tour.
4.  Planning, organization, and time management.
5.  Practice in both detail and analytical writing.
6.  Practice and facility with variety of digital applications.
7.  Patience, as they manage big ideas and summarize them in a useful fashion

I think it’s this list that really confirms the value of projects.  Midterm and final exams are useful, but they cannot lay claim to this kind of value.  Projects are about process and the final outcome.  The students have something tangible to show for their year in the class and that’s of much greater value than an exam score on a sheet of paper.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Teaching and Learning: In Praise of Projects

Teaching Middle School after years of teaching older students has been an epiphany for me.  While it is new and the comparisons are fresh in my mind, I’m making note of some of the biggest distinctions between middle schoolers and older high schoolers.  These thoughts of mine are sometimes open-ended; I don’t have any big answers.  But I do have plenty to mentally chew upon and I intend to do so.  Today’s topic is class projects in lieu of final exams.

Learning has many moving pieces and assessment is a big part of the process.  The idea behind a midterm or final exam is to measure student knowledge over the course of a semester (or year).  In theory, a major exam is an important part of that process and it is one that is proceeded by review so that the students can identify the material they should master in preparation for the exam.  I’ve given plenty of exams in this style.  Some students do very well; some don’t.  But it’s fair to say that no one really enjoys taking such exams.  And as much as we like to tell ourselves otherwise, enjoyment is essential to successful long-term learning.

In my experience, most prep school teachers are fans of midterm and final exams.  Convinced that the world of college will require big exams, teachers rely on their own versions of midterm and final exams to fulfill the preparatory part of their mission.  Our teaching goal in a college prep environment should be to provide students with the skills to prepare for the large final exam-style standardized tests that will sometimes occur in college.    This is not the same as taking sample examples of such exams.  Here is where I take a non-traditional stand:  preparing students for college need not require endless rounds of midterm and final exams.  To fulfill the goal of successful preparation for college, we must consider the fact that giving major exams ourselves is neither creative nor particularly useful as the major assessment in a course.  

Big exams are understandable preference, but I feel that it is short-sighted.  I can say this because I used to be a fan of midterm and final exams.  I’ve since seen the light when it comes to projects as a replacement for major exams.  My epiphany wasn’t immediate.  But over the course of the last two years I’ve come to see that midterm and final exams don’t really facilitate creative, long-term learning.

Tune in tomorrow, when I will have a post about the value of projects as final course assessments.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Real Life Conversations with JT: Know Thyself edition

The backstory: JT was in my debt and had to come to the mall with me.  Before we left the mall, I announced that we would stop in the Uniqlo store.  Questions ensued.

JT:  Why are we going in here?

Me:  Because they have nice clothes for you and I think we should look at them.

JT:  For me?  You * know I don’t shop for my own clothes. 

*True story, as I well know.  JT does not enjoy shopping, preferring that new clothes magically appear when he needs them.  As shopping with JT is like chewing glass, I have been known to indulge him in this preference.  

Monday, July 07, 2014

Summertime on the Porch

Two weeks of travel in June rather delayed pictures of the front porch in June.  It was lovely and prior to my departure, I enjoyed a cup of coffee in this rocker each morning.

The table had a bright oilcloth covering and the plants enjoyed the sunshine and warmth.

I hung some bright lights along the porch ceiling.  Thanks to a timer, the lights came on in the dark and turned off at sunrise and they added cheer to the June porch.  Just the edge of the light string can be seen in the picture below.

As is my custom, things are changed up for July.  The lights have been removed and my summer flag has been added.  It’s cheerful in the breeze.  

I added some new plants to the mix on the table and changed out the oilcloth covering for some red polka dots.  

I also added some polka dots in the form of a teal blue cat in the schefflera pot, a Christmas gift that is quite charming.

I have a glass of iced tea and read a book out here most afternoons.  Summer seems to settling in quite nicely.

That's happy!

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Among the Noble Swedes

Despite our constant temptation to make Swedish chef jokes, we were welcomed into Sweden with the gracious charm that seems to characterize all of the Scandinavian people.  For this shore adventure, Grandma joined the party.  The boys helped keep her in line.

Like everyone else in northern Europe during our trip, the Swedes were enjoying long daylight hours and though the temperatures weren’t as warm as they would have liked, we were nonetheless charmed by the beauty of it all.  Our trip to Sweden found us docking at a southern harbor town, Nynashmn, and then driving 58 km north to Stockholm.  The drive was pretty and I enjoyed the views of the Swedish countryside.  The city itself is built on a series of islands that lie at the juncture between the Baltic Sea and Lake Malaren.  Our tour guide took us to a spot which afforded us a lovely overview of the city and our first view of it was splendid.

The Swedes are proud of of the Nobel Prizes they award each year and our tour took us to the museum created to commemorate the history of the prize.  The square outside the Nobel Prize Museum in the old town (called Gamla Stan) was a lovely example of the city’s architecture and history.

As we left the museum and walked up the block toward our bus, we happened upon the changing of the guard at the Royal Palace of Stockholm.

After lunch, we visited the Stockholm City Hall, a lovely 19th century building where some of the Nobel Prize ceremonies are held (the peace prize is awarded in Oslo, Norway).  The building is rather splendid.

City Hall is built alongside the water and the view from the promenade was lovely.

All in all, I found Stockholm to be a lovely city.  Our tour guide explained that the city was sometimes called the Venice of the North because of the river and islands that dot the city landscape.  It was certainly awfully lovely.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Freedom and Justice for All

The alternate title for this posting could be “Poor People Love Their Children, Too.”  I also considered “Happy Birthday, Nation of Immigrants.”  By now it should be clear that I am writing about the current immigration crisis of children being detained at the border as they seek to enter the United States.  NPR has been running some terrific stories about the problem.   And they have lingered in my mind.  If you’d like them to linger in your mind, you can find them here.  

My day is filled with the needs of children.  They are well-loved children who are safe and secure, which is a very lucky thing.   The challenges in my world are most often in terms of their parents who, like parents everywhere, worry about their kids.  The Latin and South American parents who are sending their children on an unknown journey north in pursuit of the elusive American dream are sending their children because they worry about their children’s safety, security, and ability to eat.  These are basic needs.  Concerns about them can cause reasonable people to take risks that the rest of us find unthinkable.  There is no way that I would send my 14 year old on a harrowing 1500 mile journey to sneak across the border.  Of course, I don’t have to do that to keep him safe and nourished.   The fact that other people do have that worry makes me terribly sad.  That they live in our world, let alone our hemisphere, makes it my responsibility.

That responsibility is complicated by the fact that I live in the United States, a nation of immigrants.  The privilege of being an American is not one that I earned; it’s an accident of my birth.  I respect the fact that good luck that put me in this situation and I believe I should pay it forward.  I expect my government to do right by the children we find at our borders.  As I see it, we have two options:  send them back to safe homes or keep them here.  Sending these children back to safe homes means helping the governments in places like Guatemala and El Salvador to keep their citizens safe; it means ending government corruption and finding a way forward for the citizenry’s basic needs.  If we can’t (or won’t) do that, then these children should become ours.  We should keep them safe, nourish their bodies and minds, and find a way to take them into the homes, churches, schools and communities of their relatives in our nation.  If they don’t have those resources, we should share ours.  

I realize that neither of these solutions is easy.  I understand the complexities of opening our nation to strangers.  But, after all, as a nation of immigrants from all over, we have always been a nation of strangers.  And with that status, we have fostered some powerful ideas (the Declaration of Independence is a big deal, a fact we acknowledge every year on July 4).  We have done some powerful things (the World War II victory comes to mind).  

There are children at our doorstep and they need us.  Let’s show them the basic humanity that we would extend to a stranger on our own front porches.  Let’s do right by these young immigrants and fulfill the promise of freedom and justice for all. 

Thursday, July 03, 2014


When we saw this truck parked at our local Sonic last weekend, complete with logos for Sonic and Dunkin' Donuts, T observed that the van was a ride to delicious.  Indeed.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

July 1: Front Yard Flowerbed

It’s rather hard for me to believe that the month of July has already arrived.  June passed in a busy blur of travel adventures and I am just now settling into my summer routine.  It was hot and sunny while we were away and we are headed into another spell of heat and humidity this week, all of which is good news for the flowers in my garden.  The day lilies have bloomed.

The dahlia bulbs are coming along nicely.

I’ve spoken to them about the achievements of their Swedish dahlia cousins and while I can’t be sure that I was heard, I am hopeful that blooms will be coming my way soon enough.

I take a walk around my garden every evening, marking the progress, counting the fireflies, and enjoying the lush green growth that surrounds me.  This month and next will be filled with garden produce as I reap the rewards of patient cultivation of plants.  That’s happy!