Easy Like a Sunday Morning

God, don’t you hate it when people procrastinate and end up doing things at the last minute?  My daughter Sarah is one of those procrastinators. I have no idea where she gets it. Picture this, I’ve been up since 7:30 on Sunday morning, even though we don’t have to be at the train station until 9:24.  We’re heading to New York to celebrate my sister’s 60th birthday.  Sixty is a big deal, I imagine, not being nearly as old as my sister.  I’ve had breakfast, fed the dogs, read the newspaper, and played a few rounds of Wordscape on my Ipad before remembering that I have to wrap the present for my sister.   I do the wrapping with minutes to spare, rush upstairs, take a really quick shower, get dressed at lightning speed, and I’m down in the family room tapping my feet by the garage door by 9:05.

It is at this point that my daughter decides to one-up me. “Should I print now?” she calls down from her room.

“Uhh, yess!” my wife shouts as she heads to the basement.  “I’ll make sure there’s paper in the printer.”

Sarah has been up for much of the night studying for a genetics test she has to take later in the day.  She wants to come with us to New York to celebrate my sister’s  birthday, but she wants to use the two train rides as study sessions.  Now, she decides to print her notes?! Honestly!

I hear our printer chugging away.  I head down to oversee the work. It’s a six-year-old Sloth 3250, top-of-the-line when it comes to careful, prudent, and well-thought-out printing. It prints on both sides of the paper, which is great for preserving our natural resources.  It pauses between sides, of course, leaving a calming message in its display window: allowing ink to dry.  How thoughtful! I watch as page 5 of 64 slowly releases the last of its moisture. “God, for once just smear the goddamn ink!!” I scream, maintaining the “cool under pressure” persona that others envy.

Finally, a hefty wad of paper has accumulated in the tray, and I see that the final sheet is the first page of chapter 7.  Good.  We’re done.

It’s 9:15.  I race upstairs.  On a good day we can get to the train station in 5 minutes. This will need to be a good day. I hand the stack to Sarah.

“That’s not the whole thing,” she says, rushing past me toward the basement.

“No, really, it is,” I counter.  “It says Chapter 7 on the top sheet.”

“There are four more chapters.  Can’t you hear the printer still going?!”  She looks at me like I am a total fool.

I run my hands through my hair.  “We’re gonna miss the train! How many more pages are there?!”

“Just go without me.  I’ll catch the next one.”  

“No, I’ll wait.”  I whip out my phone to purchase our tickets.  We’re certainly not going to be able to buy at the kiosk.

9:17.  Sarah is still in the basement.  “C’mon, we really have to go,” I holler down the stairs. “Why did you have to wait until the  last minute to start this printing, anyway?”

“Please, just go without me.  I’ll meet you there,” Sarah screams back, dragging out the vowel in her plea.

“No, I can’t go without you.  I just bought the tickets.”

“Please.  I’m begging you.  Just go.”

9:18  The printer continues in snail mode. “Fine, I’m going.”  I grab the adorable butterfly gift bag that I was really hoping my wife or daughter would carry, it looking more like an accessory to their outfits than mine.  I slam the door, just in case they were not aware that I am a bit peeved.

9:23.  I arrive at the train station sporting the butterfly bag, my Ipad, and a few other items I might need during the ride. I pace on the platform.

9:24.  Sarah and Nancy pull into the parking lot and walk briskly to the platform.

9:25.  “I knew the train would be late,”  Sarah sighs, as though this waiting is exasperating.  I know what she’s thinking: she really could have printed at least another ream of notes.

9:26.  The train pulls in.  “Well, that worked out well,” says my wife, the one who normally arrives 30 minutes early to every event.  I’m startled by her out-of-character behavior. Apparently, when I’m impatient, she has to counter that force with extreme serenity.

9:27. We’re settled in a three-across seat. I’m trying to cool down.  Procrastinators. They really raise my blood pressure. I pull out a sheet of construction paper and a Sharpie from the butterfly bag.

Sarah looks up from her notes, giving me a sideways glance. “What’s that for?” she asks.

“Oh, I just need to make a birthday card for Barbara.”

“Ahh.  Good thing you didn’t wait till the last minute.” 

I begin forming the artful bubble letters, grumbling to myself.  If there’s one thing I hate more than procrastinators, it’s people who have no tolerance for hypocrisy.


Hey, it could happen

I’m reading Kate Messner’s Breakout to my class.  It’s a narrative that employs the artifact motif (post-its. letters, drawings, photographs, transcripts of text messages, morning announcements, and press conferences) to relate the story of the famous prison break from Dannemora in 2015.  Inspired by that, perhaps, I’m passing along a few artifacts from my school.  I have changed the names so as not to embarrass or implicate the guilty.

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Dear Mr. Hester,

I am writing to call your attention to a most disturbing problem that I have recently been made aware of in my son’s kindergarten class at your school.  I assure you that I have spoken to as many other parents from his class as I possibly could during my initial stage of outrage.  They, too, are now as alarmed as I was.  This problem is getting worse by the moment.

My concern is the way that my son’s teacher is taking this whole “kinesthetic learning” craze to ridiculous extremes.  I’m not sure whether this is something that is being done with your blessing or whether, as I suspect, it is being done surreptitiously.

When I brought this to the attention of my husband, a graduate of both the Wharton School of Business and Harvard Law, he too was appalled and irrationally irate.  He is right now considering filing a lawsuit on behalf of all of the affected students, particularly the boys, since they are…well, boys.  Unfortunately, he is currently out of the country doing something very important and lucrative, so he has delegated the protest to me.

I’ll get right to the point.  Here is my concern.  This is my bone of contention, what really gets my goat, riles me up, and has me irate, indignant…and…well, hopping mad.  My husband and I have spent a great deal of time and tutoring capital trying to get our son to sit still and do his homework.  In pre-school, this was very challenging for him.  However, after much cajoling and a reward system that my husband developed along with his chief financial analyst, we were  finally able to harness Johnny’s energy so that he could press himself firmly into a seat and not budge for several hours.  The Ipad helped, too.

Please imagine my dismay, when at Back to School Night this past week, I came to discover that my child’s teacher has been plotting to undermine our work by employing her newfangled, and frankly absurdly-inappropriate writing strategies.  Both my extremely well-educated husband and I believe that before some cockamamie new wave left-wing, writing program infects our school system, we deserve a chance to voice our displeasure.  Consider it voiced.  In conclusion, I firmly believe that all students should sit while they write, and I, for one, will not stand for a writing program that promotes any other posture.


Mrs. Cray Zee


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Exhibit A (Actual sign found on the wall in a Kindergarten Class in my school):


Inside Doing Outside Work

Monday was not a terrific day in my class.  I’m sure I was a factor along with my students.  I hadn’t slept well (it was, after all, a Sunday night), and I enhanced the problem with the hyperactive intensity I get in the week of Back to School Night. Must create bulletin boards to create the illusion that I care about important things like bulletin boards. Must have classroom charter posted on 15-sheet poster that I puzzle and glue together…because parents really care about our classroom charter. Yes, after 30-plus years the evening gathering still makes me anxious. So, at 7:45 a.m., when sleep-deprived hyper man meets 24 “I’m-a-little-too-tired-to-pay-attention-to-anything-academic” children, it’s something less than synergy. Collectively we had “a case of the Mondays” (a favorite scene)

Today, though, dawned even less promising.  I walked the dog in a steady drizzle. That’s okay, because it’s now dark at 6:00 a.m., so I wasn’t going to be enjoying much scenery anyway.  The temperature had dropped, too, so I had my first cause to practice the winter hunch.  I splashed my way to work, remembering that when I arrived I had to meet with my assistant principal to learn  how to check and uncheck accommodations on the standardized assessment I’d be giving to my students today.  So, a test instead of real reading, interruptions from instrument lessons sprinkled through the day, and then, of course, indoor recess. It looked like school heaven, for sure.

Imagine my surprise, then, when in the afternoon, around 1:50,  the time when fatigue and cabin fever turns ten-year-olds punchy or giddy, or giddily punchy, events took a surprising turn.  The rain intensified outside. I had abandoned a plan I’d had from the weekend: tracing our shadows over the course of the day. Hard to do in the rain…the chalk washes away!   I had also abandoned the plans I’d had from the day before. No, I’m not sure we’re going to try looking at art cards and writing poetry (though it might have been ready by Back to School Night!).  Instead, I told the class I wanted to give them a challenge. I told them about the field trip that was coming up. In true reverse pep talk form, I told them that I was a worried about the trip. I warned them of the challenge of a 500-acre outdoor sculpture museum.  I told them it would feel like the world’s biggest playground. The structures would tempt them like climbing equipment. The hills would beckon like ski slopes or runways. Each distant object would call to them, urging them to race from piece to piece. But they could not.  They needed to remember that they were in a museum… without a roof…or walls. I warned them that they would need to slow down, not speed up. They would need to stop and observe. Sit and sketch.

Next, I showed a few pictures on the smart board and then set out a hundred photos from previous trips, spreading them over the tables.  I said this afternoon’s challenge would be smaller. They needed to walk among these photos until they saw one that seized their attention.  Then they should stop on the spot, sit down, and sketch for 5 minutes, about the time that they might reasonably pause in an outdoor museum on 500 acres of forests and fields.  

And they did.  

On this dreary, soggy Tuesday afternoon, the room was silent for 30 minutes as we wandered, paused, sat, sketched, and wandered more. When it seemed like some were beginning to tire, I asked them to return to their seats and reflect in writing.  And they did. And they shared. And they listened to each other! When it was time for dismissal, many didn’t want to stop. Several asked to take photos home so they could sketch more.  I sighed (as though it were a great sacrifice I was making), and said, yes, they could, as long as they promised to take good care of my photos.

It was a better day inside than out, and it gave me hope.

Bridging the Divide – How I Can Nurture New Slicers

Note:  I wrote this draft way back in April, but I never published it to the blog.  I guess it seemed too practical and not “slicey” enough.  Still, I returned to it because I’m trying (struggling) to get things rolling this year.  I have a number of students who really like to write, but I also have quite a few who clearly don’t.  Changing their minds about writing will be another kind of challenge.

The  March writing challenge worked well for me, but it also created a disconnect between my  writing life and my teaching life.  It doesn’t have to be like that.  I need to figure out what I can do to build bridges next year.

First, I need to lay the groundwork for the challenge much earlier in the year…like September.  I think I’ll have kids do something like the Tuesday Slice of Life, creating a once-a-week routine.  Even more important, I think, will be having kids keep lists of possible slices.  Every time I created a list, it gave me a burst of energy for my writing, a sense of being full, or even overflowing, and that made it much easier to head to the computer.  If we create lists throughout the year, tapping into them each week, but adding to them, as well, then I think we’ll all feel more optimistic about entering the big challenge.

Certainly, we’ll also try to stay open to the moments that actually happen during March.  That, too, was an important development for me, cultivating the sense of alertness that can make ordinary moments seem slice worthy.

With the foundation in place, I will also feel better about pitching the idea of the big challenge.  This year, I really had no idea how hard it would be for my students.  A few persevered, but it was not really due to any external supports I had provided, and I think most writers need some bolstering.  I will have this year’s slicers write a note to next year’s students, letting them know how they managed the time and how it helped them as writers or observers.  I think if I get more students to try the challenge it will become more self-sustaining.

I also learned how important  feedback is if you want to keep the energy flowing.  I wrote, in part so that I didn’t let myself down on a pledge, but I also wrote because I loved having an audience.  I loved getting responses.  I think next year I will create a system for kids responding to other kids, similar to the welcome wagon that Two Writing Teachers employs.  I may recruit other teachers and parents as well.  I think I could have done much more to help those kids who started the challenge keep it going.  Similarly, I didn’t encourage the slicers from my school to respond to students outside of our school.  If we had paired with another school and focused on writing thoughtful responses, I think that camaraderie would have created more incentive to push forward.

That divide between my writing world and my teaching world made it tougher for me to feel good about the time I was spending on writing.  I felt like I was neglecting my class at times.  In addition, I longed to bring more of my experience into the classroom workshop, but it only seemed to relate to a few kids.  The chasm for me was that I only had five students slicing, and that meant that I could rarely do any whole-class  writing or sharing.  I had a parallel experience going on, where I was working on my own writing, but I was maintaining (or trying to maintain) a dialogue with students about their writers’ workshop projects.  I felt like I had drawn a line between my personal work and my professional work.  They were competing instead of blending.   Next year I’ll try to build bridges between those worlds.

Failure to Launch

I haven’t written in a long time.  I’m having more trouble getting started these past few months than I had all of last year.  I will try to get back in the boat.

Last weekend I took my new canoe to a beach nearby.  I went with my daughter.  This canoe, it’s very light.  I think it’s 28 pounds, but it could be 30.  In any case, the man who sold it to me told me to be careful when I put it on top of my car.  “Be sure to hold it down with one hand…or better yet have someone else hold it down while you’re tying it to the rack.  They’ve been known to blow away.”  Yeah, it’s that light.

This is of course a great attribute when you are hauling the canoe over land to get to a watery destination.  In August, in the Adirondacks, this allowed me and my wife to trek two miles through the woods to get to a spectacularly deserted pond at the foot of several mountains.  I will admit that even 28 pounds begins to feel a bit heavy after two miles of up and down trail, but it’s very manageable.  Actually, after I came up with the proper portaging posture (canoe tipped back so that I could see the trail better), the two miles back from the pond was very easy.  But I digress.

While the weight (or lack of it) is great when you are lugging a canoe over land, it has another affect in the water.  The canoe sits low in the water, because if it sat high in the water, it would be particularly tippy.  We wouldn’t want that.  I grew up paddling very heavy canoes at the summer camp I attended.  I went on a lot of overnight trips, and while I did not enjoy the portage experience (read: despised), I became very accustomed to the stability of these hefty aluminum vessels.

On this most recent venture, Sarah and I headed to a state park, where we planned to just launch from the beach.  We headed out in the late afternoon on a holiday weekend and were surprised (why?) to find the park quite crowded.  Who knew that people liked to go to the beach on a holiday weekend at the end of the summer?  I’m including this detail, only to show that perhaps my mind was not at its sharpest, and I suppose to hint at the prospect of an audience for our later feats.

With some bravado (I’m not really “bravad-ish,” but when you have a 14-foot canoe that looks heavy, but only weighs 28 pounds, sometimes a little bravadishness eeks out) I set about readying for our voyage.  After untying the canoe, I swept it off the roof of my car, holding it aloft for any onlookers to admire, perhaps also admiring my nearly superhuman strength.  For good measure, I then spun the canoe a few times on my middle finger.  Sarah grabbed the paddles and the life jackets, and surprisingly, both of us remembered to leave our phones in the car.  Well played!

With only about 50 yards to the shoreline, I didn’t even put the canoe over my head.  I just rested it on my left shoulder, kinda casual-like.  You know, like the way you sling a backpack over one shoulder when it’s really too light to bother with both straps.  When we got to the water’s edge, there were only about 40 to 50 people at the beach.  We put on our life jackets, set the boat in the water, and picked up our paddles.  Being a gentleman, I offered to let Sarah get in first.  I always liked the expression we used at camp.  It sounded so…nautical.  “Bow man in,” I said to Sarah, with a bow.  She looked at me with an odd look.  She gives me that a lot, so I didn’t really think much of it.  “Oh, excuse me, bow person in.”

“Seriously?  Is that how you usually do it?”  She looked genuinely surprised.  Sarah had become a pretty experienced canoeist over the past few summers as a counselor at the sister camp of the one I’d attended.  It always seemed that the girls’ camp had different rules…well, actually, what they had were rules.  The boys’ camp had very few, being run by former boys.

“Why, how do you do it?”

“No, it’s just that whenever we launch a canoe, the stern person gets in first, and the bow person gets in second and pushes off before sitting down.”

“Hmm.  Sounds reasonable.  But I like saying, ‘Bow man in.'”

“Couldn’t you still say that from your seat in the stern?”

“Mmmm. It would seem less gentlemanly.”

“Whatever, I’ll get in first.”  She was being very agreeable.  Clearly we were not in the camp millieu, or we would have had a full-on debate.  She proceeded to seat herself in the bow of the boat.

“Now, what I do, is I push the canoe out a little, so that it’s in a little deeper water, like this.”  I was giving her the professorial voice.  The voice of the experienced canoeist.  I pushed the canoe out a bit further, but not too far.  The waves were already beginning to buffet the featherweight canoe.

“Then, I place one foot into the canoe, being sure to have one hand on either gunwale for stability.”

“Whatever, Dad.  Can we just get going?”  Sarah had her paddle ready and her back toward me, so she couldn’t see me as I mocked the “whatever.”  Nor did she see me as I placed one crocked foot carefully and confidently into the center of the canoe.  Nor did she see me as my other foot, the one still in the water, stepped confidently onto a poorly-placed slimy stone. Hence, she was caught completely unaware as my weight shifted abruptly to my left, causing me to enter the canoe in a far less graceful or confident manner than I had intended.  In fact, it came as rather a shock to both of us, as the canoe leaned hard to the port side, took on substantial amounts of water,  flipped onto its side, and pitched both of us, rather uncermoniously into Long Island Sound.

The water was surprisingly refreshing.  No one was hurt, though the 40 to 50 onlookers seemed to be holding their sides in some pain as they turned away, their shoulders convulsing.   Fortunately, I could easily stand up, tip the canoe sideways, lift it out of the water, turn it upside-down over my head, and pour the contents back into the sound where it (they?) belonged.  It was at that point that it occurred to me that I wasn’t entirely sure that the key fob from my car was waterproof.  Hmm.  Interesting thought.

Out of gentle-manliness and deference to my daughter, I agreed to try her launch technique for our second attempt.  As expected (by her), it worked.

In and Out of my Zone

I’m wondering why writing has been so challenging for me this summer.  Last summer I made that 500-word-a-day goal, and I charged through the summer with a lot more energy.  This summer, I’ve had much more trouble with focus and drive.  I’ve allowed a lot of silly distractions to get in the way .  I took part in the Teachers Write virtual camp, and I loved visiting  the blog every day.  Kate Messner is a writer I really admire, and she gathered a ton of great writers who gave helpful tips, posed creative challenges, and responded to our questions. Still, something kept me from diving in fully.  So many of the other teacher/writers seemed to have “projects” they referred to as their WIPs (works in progress).  I didn’t have a project.  So many of them were asking questions about how to write a query letter.  I didn’t even know what a query letter was.  I had to infer from the responses.

I think this class was not quite in my “zone of proximal development.”  At this point in my writing life, I can crank out a slice, or work on a poem, but I don’t seem to have a historical fiction novel in the works.  I don’t have a non-fiction research project brewing either.  Is there a market for Slices?  I never had the nerve to ask in one of the Q & A sessions.  I pretty much knew the answer.  The Slice of Life table at Barnes and Noble is still in its conceptual phase.

This is sounding somewhat negative, but I think I’m finding out what might have  been holding me back.  Perhaps I was out in the deep water before I had really gained enough confidence to swim to the other side of the lake…or to keep a metaphor afloat.   Maybe what I need most is another year of 500 words a day with my SOL community.  I’ll be collecting moments and maybe keeping my eye out for something that could grow into a WIP.

In the meantime, I’m heading up to the Adirondacks with my family and my new canoe this weekend.  I’m thinking I can collect some “sliceworthy” moments on the mountains and in the lakes.

Heck, I’m playing “golf” tomorrow morning with an old teacher friend.    Slices?  Pretty much guaranteed.

Spending Time

I’m thinking a lot about time today.  For one thing, it’s time (7:32 p.m. EDT to be precise) to write something for the Slice of Life challenge, which has seemed like a significant challenge for me this summer.  I have wondered on several occasions, how I’ve managed to do so little in such an expanse of time.  Today is the last day of July, and that makes me very aware of time.  July is like the Saturday of summer,  long and carefree.  August, on the other hand, brings me the same anxiety I get on Sunday nights.  It’s not always a bad nervousness, but I worry about things I have to do in a shrinking number of days.  I recognize that one of my weaknesses is my time management.  I stew about dwindling days, but that doesn’t always make me tackle the things that make me nervous.

To counter that, I went to school today and spent some of my shrinking time in my classroom.  I was busy, but I’m not sure an observer would say I used my time well.  I unpacked and stowed away new supplies.  That was productive, and I now have that satisfied feeling, like my  friend from Nova Scotia admiring his massive  pile of split logs.  I have enough pencils and post-its to make it through the winter.

But then I plopped down at my desk, listening to my 80s playlist, and spent two hours culling  files from my overstuffed cabinets.  I recycled a lot of papers today:  writing projects from 2011. Jettisoned. Report card comments from 2006.  Discarded.  Copies of math tests from two curricula ago.  Subtracted.  At each juncture,  though, I actually paused to consider how much time had passed, and to wonder if there was any chance that this student might stop back in my room and want to see their old DARE essay. “Hey, he was in the class that just graduated from Staples.  Too bad I didn’t whip this out when he was visiting.”  Or, “Hey, I think I have this one’s sister in my class this year.  They might be amused.”  It’s doubtful.  More likely it’s just me, wanting to  pump the brakes on the time train as it speeds into the past.  I’m proud to say that I did not hold onto too much, and I now have lots of space for new keepsakes.

As I left today, my room actually looked messier than when I entered, but, it’s still July.