Thursday, July 25, 2013

How to Tell You're MIddle Aged

I turned 44 the other day.  Nice palindromic number.  My lovely mother-in-law gave me a check, with the notation "for some clothes shopping."  She knows I like new clothes, but have no budget for them.

Instead, I went to a kitchen store and bought two new hot pot mitts, a kitchen towel, and a French press.  SO CUTE.  But I had to laugh at myself.  Really?  Kitchen towel?  For a treat?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

In Which I Have a Lot to Say About Books and my Kids.

I currently have 77 items checked out at our local library.  Maybe 7 are novels for me (okay, I admit it--YA novels and trashy mysteries).  Another half dozen are DVDs.  The remainder are books to read with the kids.  Pictures books, easy readers, a few nonfictions on topics of interest, and three books of science experiments.  We didn't get them all at one time, but each trip we get, oh, 40 or so items, then a few weeks later we round up all the duds, the ones that we can't renew any longer, the stupid fucking based on a TV show books I hate to read to them but they keep checking out anyway, and the ones that we are willing to give up in order to justify getting new ones.  We bring 'em back, so we can swear under our breath (oh wait, that's just me) at the library's new "automated" book return, which accepts one item at a time, except that after each three items it kind of gets nervous and shuts down for a bit.  Nothing is more fun than trying to return 30 books and DVDs one by one, while the machine stalls out, the kids squabble over who has handed in more books, and I try to remember to keep the cursing internal, or at least subvocal.  Oh, wait, I do know what's even more fun--being the person behind us in line.  Sorry, that person.


Several months ago, Linden came home from school asking if I'd read the Elephant and Piggy books.  I hadn't, although I felt as if I'd heard of them.  "Can we look for them at the library?"  she asked.  "They're by Mo Willems!"  So the next visit, I went looking for books by somebody Williams, because I figured she had the name a bit wrong.

She didn't.  You probably knew that.  May I just say how much I adore that her kindergarten teacher has taught her to pay attention to the author's name, so you can find other books by the same person?  That was totally a Mr. B. thing, not a Mom thing.  I guess there are some ways in which 35 years of teaching kindergarten give you some clues as to what kinds of things they need to know.  Me, I'm constantly being surprised.  Either, "You know that?  How do you know that?!?"  or "You don't know that?  Wait, was I supposed to teach you that?  My bad."

So.  Mo Willems.  My literary hero, although I'm not sure why Knuffle Bunny got the big awards.  The Pigeon books are hilarious, and Elephant and Piggy have this unique power to make my kids want to read them aloud.  Both kids are just barely starting to read, but when I pull out the E&P books (or, to be more precise, when they are slammed into my lap by eager children), the kid who grabbed it out of the pile fastest gets to choose their "part," then the other kid chooses theirs, and I get whomever is left over.  Linden has memorized the stories Mr B. read them, so she can get through those just fine.  Oak sometimes gets frustrated halfway through and asks me to take over, but between the humor, the way the words are color-coded to the character, the way the type fact reflects the emotions of the speaker, and the memorable quality of the stories, he is always willing to give it a try, and gets further each time we read.  I guess it's because it's dialogue rather than narration--a kind of built-in readers' theater.  I realized early on that, other than "books" that are horribly summaries of some  stupid My Little Pony or Dora movie, kids' picture books run the gamut from amazingly wonderful to pretty darn good.  But Mo Willems is in a class of his own.

(Then there was the time I was coerced into reading one of the horrible ML Pony books, and as it ground to a halt, just before I exploded with "Oh. My. God.  Nothing happened!" Linden gave a happy little sigh and said, "That was nice."  Nice.  Okay.)

On our most recent trip to the library, we noticed and checked out a book we'd renewed for months awhile back.  It's a sweet little "I love my daddy!" kind of book about a bear cub and his father.  Yes, I go out of my way to check out books that promote loving family relationships.  They asked me to read it tonight, putting it in the highly prestigious and hotly debated "last book of the evening" spot by unanimous decision, because "it's not silly" and "it ends with them going to sleep."

I opened the book to the familiar illustrations, and began to read.  "Hmm," I thought  in the back of my head.  "I don't remember the rhyming being quite this sing-songy."  As I kept reading, I figured it out.  I had never actually READ the words to this book before.  That other time we had it out must have been quite a long time ago, because the words I remember saying along with the pictures were really poorly translated summaries of what was going on in each scene.  I had read it to them (and they fell in love with it) in my pidgen attempt at their first language.

When I feel somewhat panicky that my kids are barely reading, it helps to remember that less than a year ago, they did not know any English. Now, they can follow along with not just picture books, but those short chapter books known as "early readers."  (Here, a shout-out to Cynthia Rylant.  I know her YA books, and am delighted to discover her different series of charming little chapter books.)  They have learned SO MUCH.  Reading will come.
When I read to the kids. Linden sits on my right, Oak on my left.  Then they lean.  They're trying to see the pictures, I know.  But the amount of weight pushing against me, especially on my left side, has increased dramatically over time.  I can talk to you about reading readiness, English language development, the beauty of children's literature, and fostering a love of reading, but what really keeps me reading night after night, despite my complete inability to stick to all the other schedules and plans I've put in place, is that lean.

It feels like love.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

An Open Letter to my Middle School English Teacher

Dear Mr. Johnson,

I had the hiccups yesterday, so I sat quietly on my couch and stared at a picture across the room until they went away.  It worked, as it always does.

When I was a sixth grader in your English class in 1980, if we got the hiccups, you would take us into the hall (so we wouldn't get the giggles from the other students) and tell us to look at your eyes.  You would gravely hold our gaze until we realized--they're gone!  When several of us had experienced this miracle, you told us how to do the same thing by looking into a mirror at home.  Eventually, we figured out it wasn't the eyes, but the calm focus, and so learned how to calm our hiccups anytime, anywhere.

You were my teacher for all three years of middle school.  You sighed and told us that it was too bad, because we would benefit more from having other teachers, being exposed to other styles of teaching.  We knew better.  In your classroom we sat in organized rows.  We took spelling tests every Friday, covering our papers as you had shown us, so nobody would be put in the awkward position of having seen a neighbor's paper and wondering if we would have remembered how to spell the word on our own.  We knew it was also so we wouldn't cheat, but appreciated the respect you showed our integrity.  We diagrammed sentences, a skill that finally paid off when I started learning foreign languages in which dative and accusative cases were recognizable to me as indirect and direct objects.  We took notes, and learned how to organize our binders.  We came in every Monday eager to see the three new posters that were sure to be hanging behind your desk.

Every Monday.  I can't get over that.

I had another favorite teacher in middle school, Mrs. Boughton.  She was a part-time counselor, part-time math teacher, and taught the TAG class.  The TAG class and your English class were basically the same group of kids.  The year she taught TAG, we sat in a circle and talked about our feelings.  One day one of the "popular" kids, whom I feared and resented, grumbled, "It's so easy for kids like Wendy; all the teachers like her.  They're always just waiting for me to do something wrong."  It was the first time I saw him as a person, and the first time I saw myself from another point of view.  Her class was so very different from yours, but I knew even then what it was that made me love both.

You both loved us.  Every kid in that room was important to you.  You knew us as individuals.  You'd been teaching for decades, but you never acted bored, never just went though the motions.  We mattered to you.  Mrs. Boughton, sitting in the circle with us, cared about us.  You, up at the chalkboard, challenging us to recite our helping verbs in five seconds, cared about us.  (By the way, I can still say them, and so can my brother-in-law, who had you at Capitol Hill in 1969).

I've been a middle school ESL and English teacher for fifteen years.   I have never been and will never be as organized as you were.  (Seriously, three new posters EVERY MONDAY?!?)  I'm more of a Mrs. Boughton than an Ol' Man Johnson.  Sometimes this bothers me.  After all, I learned how to spell Cincinnati, raspberry, and hygiene from you; not to mention the whole sentence diagramming bit; and a love of what I now know is called the Oxford comma.  In Mrs. Boughton's class, the only lesson I distinctly remember was reading A Separate Peace.

Then I think again.  What did I really learn from both of you?  From Mrs. Boughton, I began to learn to not judge others so quickly, to be willing to listen to the story from their point of view.  In your class, I learned valuable organization skills, all the more important because it doesn't come naturally to me.  From both of you, at a time in my life when self-criticism and social bullying were constant, I learned that I had value.  These are the kinds of lessons I want my own students to learn in my classroom.

My students know I love them.  I teach many things: skills, habits, information.  They don't all learn the things that are on the lesson plan, but they all know how important they are to me.  If I am to some of them what you were to me, then that is your legacy.

Sincerely (because that's another word you taught me to spell) and with love (because it's true),

Monday, July 1, 2013

This is Now a Cooking Blog. Kidding.

Peanut Butter Pig-Outs

This is my cookie for hot weather.  My mom got the recipe in about 1978, from her friend Valerie.  They were nurses together.  This is, however, not a healthy dessert.  It is delicious (hence the 3/4 empty pan) and requires no cooking, other than a little microwaving.

Mix: two cups of peanut butter, a stick of butter, and a pound of powdered sugar.  (That's 1/2 cup of butter and about 3 3/4 cups of powdered sugar.)

Stir in 3 cups of rice krispies.  Unless you're out, and forgot to get them when you made a trip to the store specifically to buy the ingredients to make these.  It turns out honey nut cheerios also work.

Spread the whole thing into a cookie pan.  Then melt a cup of chocolate chips in your microwave, and spread the gooey chocolate over the peanut butter layer.  At this point, I usually say, "I should have used more chocolate."  Feel free to actually use more chocolate if you'd like.

For years (MANY!), I've made this with crunchy peanut butter, because crunchy is good.  Yesterday when I was at the store with Oak (on that "let's get all the ingredients EXCEPT ONE" trip), I was looking at two seemingly identical peanut butters and wondered aloud, "How are these different?  Oh, one is crunchy and one is smooth.  Which one do we want?"  

Before I could answer my own question with "Crunchy, because it's good," Oak gravely replied, "Smooth, because if someone has a loose tooth, the crunchy kind can hurt."

Well.  I hadn't thought of the "if someone has a loose tooth" angle.  Since I was pretending to make these for the kids, I went with his advice.  

It's good either way.