Saturday, April 30, 2016

April Book Report: Warleggan by Winston Graham

Last year, a blog that I regularly read and enjoy compiled a list of happy books.  I love happy stories and the generous assortment of recommendations sparked my imagination.  The list is an awesome resource for a reader like me because of the sheer volume of books listed there that I had not yet read.  And happy books?  I am in! Among the books that looked most intriguing to me were the Poldark series by Winston Graham.  Historical novels of Cornwall England with a series of more than eight books to read seemed too good to be true.  I set to reading at once.

This month’s book review is of Warleggan, the fourth in the series.  The cover looks like a cheesy romance novel, but that is not at all the case.  As the series has progressed from the first novel, Poldark, characters in that first story have been developed.  The same characters are present in all of the novels thus far, but to varying degrees as time in the story has progressed.  The series begins as the story of Ross Poldark, a young Cornish gentleman returned from the 1776 war in America to find that his family estate and modest financial prospects have rather crumbled and that his beloved is set to marry another man: his cousin.  The fourth novel, Warleggan, find Ross slowly re-bulding his fortunes while his rival, new money upstart George Warleggan gains a seeming triumph of his own.

The basic outline of the story doesn’t do justice to the power of these novels, which are carefully written explorations of life choices, the foibles of humanity, and the path toward meaning and happiness in the world.  Though they are very much fixed in the time that the stories are set, the late 18th century, they are timeless as well.  It’s a story of privilege and opportunity; of poverty and exclusion; of wealth and power.  The authority of the natural world figures prominently, as both an arbitrary and capricious source of both misery and happiness.  

Happy has its own definition in these novels, as the characters search for happiness, only some of them aware that we must work toward our own meaning in life.  Reading them fills me with reflections about my own world and the ways in which I understand the meaning of happiness.

Dogwood Saturday: Week 5

April is about to come to a close.  We’ve enjoyed a warmer than usual month  and though the last few days have been chilly, the dogwood is looking quite lovely.

Today is a mixed bag of sun and clouds in preparation for a cool, rainy Sunday.  But Spring has taken hold and in the last week I’ve seen more and more trees with freshly opened leaves to be admired.  

I expect that the last of the dogwood flowers will hold on for several more days.  I will welcome the sight of them each morning.  They add cheer and balance to my days and are a good way for me to embrace the last month of school, which is often such a whirl of activity that I forget to enjoy the beauty around me.

Friday, April 29, 2016

12 Months of Miss Read: April

The backstory: At the start of 2016, I pulled out my very favorite Miss Read book, Village Centenary.  The novel is structured in months and each chapter explores a month in the year of a village school that is celebrating its 100th anniversary.  This year, my own school is celebrating its 250th anniversary and as we think of our past and look to our future, I thought that Miss Read would make a lovely companion for me.  For each month of 2016, I plan to read Miss Read’s reflection on the month.

Miss Read is a pseudonym for Dora Jessie Saint, an English author who wrote between 1955 and 1996.  Her novels were tales of every day life in small English towns.  Village Centenary is set in Fair Acre, an imaginary Cotswold community.  As is the case in nearly all of the Fair Acre novels, the novel is written in the first person and it is through our narrator, school teacher Miss Read, that the story unfolds.

The British have a saying that “April is the cruelest month,” a reflection of the fact that April is tantalizingly close to May’s flowers and warmth even while the month often features lingering cold and chilly rain.  April feels a bit like we are being teased with the promise of warmth to come, even as May still feels a bit out of reach.  

April with Miss Read
Miss Read’s April was filled with thoughts of the meaning of her school in the tiny community of Fair Acre.  That has been a theme for my April as well.  A successful school is a community with foibles and annoyances, to be sure, but also a sense of itself as part of something greater for the presence of us all.  As Miss Read contemplates organization of a school celebration to remember the school’s contributions and history over its 100 years, I’ve been thinking of the way that school plays out in the daily life of the middle schoolers with whom I spend my days.

As my middle schoolers come to school each morning, I strive to be in the hall when they pass through the front doors.  I offer smiles and good mornings like so many talismans for the start of their day.  In this way I can take the measure of my charges and their needs for the day.  In April, the students are impatient for warmth and the outdoors; ready to stretch their suddenly longer legs and arms.  They are eager for the pleasures of the seasonal change at hand.

A blustery, cold day finds them wilder than usual.  Sun and warmth is eagerly absorbed like they are ripening fruit on the vine.  One moment they are children, the next they are teenagers.  They move back and forth between the two identities with a speed that they themselves don’t understand.  One moment they offer a profound thought; the next they look about frantically for a pencil case that looks more like a stuffed animal than a item for school.  They are caught between two worlds.  They strive to make sense of this intersection of life and the world beyond it, a combination of of fresh and new; warm and cold.  They are April and like April, they are lovely in their own charming way.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Real Life Conversations at School: the Strength of Hope edition

The backstory:  7th grade history class is closing in on the start of the Civil War and the students are exploring the events of the 1850s.  We started with the Compromise of 1850 and then marched our way forward: publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin; the Kansas-Nebraska Act; Bloody Kansas; the beating of Senator Sumner on the floor of the U.S. Senate; and yesterday’s topic, the Dred Scott ruling. The words of Justice Taney in that ruling, declaring enslaved people to be property and not citizens and invalidating the right of Congress to end slavery, are racist and profoundly unsettling to an audience of diverse and tolerant 7th graders.  They were not amused and sought to wrap their minds around the details and its consequences.  

Student D:  Did enslaved people ever lose hope and take their own lives?  

Me:  I don’t know of any stories of people taking their own lives.  Remember that we’ve talked about the fact that faith was a profound comfort to many people living in slavery.

Student D:  They were so strong, weren’t they?  Talk about living in hope!

We’re headed to a short-term happy ending of sorts in the form of emancipation.  But I suspect there’s a longer term happy ending also in sight in the form of twelve and thirteen year olds prepared to truly understand the very complicated history of race in the United States.  

I’ll take it.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Primary Tuesday: Connecticut, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island

On the heels of the mutual-assisted suicide plan stirred up by John Kasich and Ted Cruz, whereby they divide up the remaining states and stop campaigning against one another in order to insure that T-rump doesn’t reach his magic delegate total, T-rump is about the score some big points in today’s voting.  The Republican party primary is basically a contest between shiftless jackals and today’s lead jackal is going to be T-rump, who isn’t capable of being thoughtful or presidential, led alone gracious in victory.

T-rump will win in all four states today, with over 50% of the vote in both Connecticut and Rhode Island.  He’ll win Maryland and Pennsylvania as well, but with just a shade less than 50% of the vote, meaning that the combined Cruz-Kasich share of the vote will be greater.  This will lend itself to yet another round of delegate-math speculation, so we’ve got that going for us.

Over on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is going to be coming up roses today.  She’ll win Connecticut, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, with over 50% of the vote in all three states.  

Bernie Sanders will score a victory in Rhode Island, but it will be be less than 2 percentage points.  The end of the road is closing in on the Sanders’ campaign after tonight, a fact that the candidate seems to understand.

Once the Democrats close ranks for Clinton, the buffoonery of the Republican campaign will be even more apparent (yes, that’s possible).  

Monday, April 25, 2016

Civilized Mornings

One of my most cherished habits is my morning coffee.  I grind beans the night before and set my coffee pot on a timer so that fresh-brewed coffee awaits me when I come downstairs in the morning.  I get up early each day to allow time for a leisurely cup or two of coffee.  During the school year, I use the time to get started on the day’s work, while I drink coffee and eat my breakfast.

Each evening, I set up the morning’s mug and creamer.  When I come downstairs, things are ready for me and it feels like a treat.  It’s an easily organized treat that makes my morning pleasing.  It helps me to sustain a quiet space at the start of my day.  Between work and JT’s sports seasons, that day may very well last 12 hours.  I feel civilized when I start my day this way.  That’s happy!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Stopping to Enjoy the Tulips

Several years ago, I planted a group of yellow and red variegated tulip bulbs in a circle in my front yard.  When the green shoots first emerge from the soil, it’s always a happy development.  Last Sunday’s sunlight saw the flowers open up and all week long, I’ve enjoyed their display when I walk outside in the morning.  These flowers won’t last for long and this spring I made a picture each morning so that I made sure to enjoy their lovely blooms.

Day 1, Sunday, 4/17

Day 2, Monday, 4/18

Day 3, Tuesday, 4/19

Day 4, Wednesday, 4/20

Day 5, Thursday, 4/21

Day 6, Friday, 4/22

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Dogwood Saturday: Week 4

Each morning when I come downstairs, I peek out the stairway window to admire my dogwood.  This view is more lovely as the Spring progresses and this morning we had a bit of rain as I peaked out the window.

Rain on the heels of a warm week can only mean one thing: flowers!

The tree is still have divided between fresh leaves and flowers but Spring has taken hold around these parts.

That’s happy!

Prep Scouts: Day 3

The last day of Prep Scouts was a field trip to celebrate Earth Day.  We went to one of the most lovely places in our area, Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve.  Bowman’s Hill is an outdoor museum of Mother's Nature's wild-growing plants and it is a magical, lovely place.   The flowers and plants that can be seen at this time of year are called ephemerals because they can only bloom when there is warmth in the air and the plants can soak in the sunlight because the trees that grow above them have not yet leafed and blocked out the sunlight.  There were May apples, one of my favorite plants.

There were trilliums getting ready to bloom.

We saw bloodroot flowers and ferns just emerging alongside the bluebells and poppies.

There were fields and fields of bluebells alongside yellow celandine poppy flowers, so lovely they took your breath away.

Wildflowers in early Spring is guaranteed to charm even the most jaded of observers.  Of course, middle schoolers are not the least bit jaded and they enjoyed the beauty that we saw.  

We stopped in the gazebo to make a group photo.  Most of them held still long enough to have their picture made.

Wildflowers in April....that’s happy!

Friday, April 22, 2016

Prep Scouts: Day 2

Prep Scouts Day 2 found us busily at work with our friendship bracelets.  Most of the scouts had hardly finished their first before they were planning for their next bracelet, so that’s been fun.  Day 2’s second craft was the creation of seed starters made using shredded paper and flower seeds.  Each scout had the chance to make one.  

Our clever school assistant, Mrs. O, was the person who gave me the idea, and this one was a winner. Next week, we'll wrap up our creations so the students can bring them home and give a hand-made gift to their mom for Mother's Day.

Our cooking project was the creation of homemade salsa and guacamole, two activities the scouts enjoyed very much because both involved eating, a very popular activity for middle schoolers.

Today we head to a wildflower preserve just over the border in Pennsylvania.  It’s a beautiful place and with any luck the rain will hold off until we board the bus for the ride home.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Prep Scouts: Day 1

We started Wednesday's Prep Scout fun with the creation of old-fashioned friendship bracelets, which the students weaved for themselves and one another.  The bracelets are fun and pretty quick gratification for our efforts.  Once we started them, the students sat outside and worked on the bracelets while we prepared our other crafts and activities in smaller groups.

Wednesday’s second craft was the creation of marbleized paper, a craft I learned about on Cup of Jo.  We followed the procedures as instructed and then set out our cards to dry.  They turned out very well and the students are excited to make more of them today.

Later on this week, we’ll write hand-written notes on our cards.  We’ll put those in the mail before Adventure Week ends on Friday.  We wrapped up our day by hand churning cream to make butter, which we slathered on saltine crackers and enjoyed very much.  Today will feature a new set of Prep Scout adventures.  That’s happy!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Adventure Week Starts Now!

Each year, the Middle School presses pause on our regular classes and we switch to immersion classes organized around a variety of topics.  We include the 5th graders who will join us for next year’s school year and teachers chooses classes and topics that they are excited to explore with a dozen or so students.  We invite teachers from both the Lower and Upper School to organize a class and then we turn everyone loose to learn something new and have fun while doing it.  From the exploration of baseball statistics to fishing along the banks of the river behind our school, the students get a chance to immerse themselves in something that excites them.  This year, there are more than a dozen Adventure Week courses on offer.

My Adventure Week course is a shared project with a fellow teacher and we call it Prep Scouts.  It’s all the fun of scout-style activities without the unattractive uniforms, tiresome cookie sales, or inexplicable discrimination.  Instead, we’re making crafts, trying our hand at some simple food prep activities, and enjoying the outdoors.  We’ll wrap up on Friday with a field trip to a local plant sanctuary, Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve.

The supplies are organized and we’re ready to go.  For the next few days, I’ll chronicle the day’s Prep Scout activities.  Let the adventure begin!

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

If You Can Make it Here You Are Probably a Front-Runner Anyway: New York Primary

My proximity to New York ensures that I am all up in the New York primary, which happens today.  From ads for Bernie to my local NPR station's daily Donald Trump story, today's electoral contest has been inescapable for the past few weeks.  New Yorkers are rather giddy at the prospect that their votes will shape the voter choices in the 2016 contest, though giddy in a brassy, opinionated, New York kind of way.  

Let’s start with the GOP.  Donald Trump is from Queens and he can claim New York as home.  Upstate, he’s likely to be appealing as well, though it’s an appeal that comes from his name recognition and not his ideas.  Neither Ted Cruz nor John Kasich are any competition for Trump and he will win the state so the real contest is about the numbers.  If Trump wins more than 50% of the state’s GOP voters as well as a majority in the state's Congressional districts, he will get ALL of the state’s delegates.  I expect that he will come in at 53% and he does have a shot at every Congressional district.  Kasich will take second, with 24% of the vote and Cruz will roll in third, with 18% of the vote.  Trump will be very close to the GOP threshold for the nomination coming out of this race, so expect more conversations about a brokered Republican convention as we move forward.

Over on the Democratic side, both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton can also lay claim to New York.  Sanders was born and raised in Brooklyn; Clinton moved to the state and represented it in the Senate.  The contest between them is real and will be shaped by the demographics of their supporters.  Both have been airing ads in the state and in those commercials their demographics are laid bare.  Sanders is hoping that students, labor activists, and the Working Family Party  will come out in big numbers; Clinton is looking to score big with women and African American voters in the state.  Bernie may sound like a New Yorker, but Hillary’s connection with the state’s are the real deal and run deeper.  The state’s delegates will be awarded by Congressional district for the Democrats so both Sanders and Clinton will score some off them.  Clinton  will score more with 54% of the vote and a majority of the state’s delegates.  Sanders will come in at just a shade over 44%.  

Rather ironically, both sets of voters in the state will be casting a majority of their ballots on behalf of the established front runners.  So much for shaking things up, New York.  We’re headed to Connecticut, Maryland, and Pennsylvania next week…..the circus isn’t over yet, folks.

Sunday, April 17, 2016


My backyard has reached the point in Spring where there is change most every day.  When I wake up in the morning, I have the chance to admire the new green life.

The line of hostas that grow in the backyard along the garage get plenty of sun and they are the first to pop up in Spring.  They are looking lovely these days.

Soon the hostas will unfurl and fill in a thick, lush line.  Until then, I’ve some elegant pink tulips to enjoy.

That’s happy!

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Dogwood Saturday: Week 3

For every one of nature's seasons, I find there are a few weeks where we stand between one season and the next, not quite ready to make the complete transition, with the changes slow in comparison to the pace of the days.  Those days are filled with promise and they inevitably yield to an explosion of seasonal change.  

We’re at that point in Spring.  After a rainy and cold patch last weekend, each day in the past week has featured a bit more warmth to go with the increasing sunlight.  The forecast for the week ahead is even more warmth and sun and soon enough Spring will have come on full blast.  My dogwood is looking to lead the way.  

Well, half of the way; the branches that get less shade from the house are the advance guard of Spring.

Closer to the house, the branches in the shade are a bit slower to grow their flowers.

The glory of Spring is everywhere I look.  That’s happy!