Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Back to School

My nephew on his first day of kindergarten


Remember being a child lying in bed the night before the first day of school? The anticipation and excitement that kept you awake, tossing and turning under the sheets and wondering when it would be time to put on those new clothes and skip to the bus stop carrying your new loose leaf book with the cool pencil case? Perhaps you even had a fresh haircut. Of course, for the youngest children there are photos to be taken and visiting relatives to see you off with a kiss and a hug.

The long lazy days of summer had come to an end. No more playing in the pool or running through the sprinkler with your brothers. No more long stays with the grandparents who spoiled you with ice cream sundaes and miniature golf. Time had slowly passed and now you find yourself staring at the ceiling in a dark room waiting for mom to come wake you.

I could never get to sleep the night before the first day of school but God knows I tried. Some years I would decide to go with it and just stay awake. I tried talking to my twin brother with whom I shared a room but his breathing told me that falling asleep was not an issue for him. I might go downstairs for a drink or look out my bedroom window to where the street lamp was shining on the pavement, what vivid memories I have of doing that.

All is quiet. The world is asleep. Everyone except me. In the darkness I'd glance over at my fancy new red, white and blue polyester button up shirt longing to slip it on. How cool was I going to look? Spiffy and dashing to be sure. (It's funny how time can alter one's perspective.)

The minutes pass, as do the days and the years and the decades. I am no longer a child but the familiar anticipation of the first day of school has stayed with me. Only now instead of being a student and wondering what my teacher will be like, I am a teacher wondering about my students.

I know in some schools teachers are given a class list well before the first day of school. These teachers have their rooms set up with children's names labeled on cubbies and desks. The more enterprising teachers may have sent out welcome letters introducing themselves to the kids and their parents. The really anal dedicated pedagogues may have even made home visits to gain insight into the child's family life and establish a rapport before the child enters school on the first day. But for me this is not the case. I usually get my class list the day before the students arrive and changes continue to be made during the first and second days of school.

There is always that bit of wondering about the dynamic of the classroom, student personalities and interests and where the journey of the new school year will lead. I always have a bit of hesitation with a new class as well. In our school all of the teachers meet the students in the cafeteria for breakfast. We sit with them as they eat and share stories about our summer. Most of my incoming first grade students I know already because I pop into the kindergarten classrooms quite often during the year. But, knowing a child and having them as a student are two vastly different things.

I find myself gravitating towards past students who are jumping all over me vying for my attention while others continue to come over in a steady stream. I can't resist them. Every year I want to gather up last years class and bring them up to the classroom. This is when teaching is tough. The kids grow up and move on. I get attached. Gratefully, there are others who also need to be taught.

Well, I have my new clothes and my hair is freshly cut. The students arrive next Tuesday so on Monday night you know where I will be...staring at the clock, listening to the train whistle in the distance and wondering when my alarm will go off so I can pop out of bed. Until then there is work to be done. This Thursday and Friday is the time for cleaning out and setting up (in addition to endless meetings). I love this part too. As the song from The Sound of Music goes "I must have done something good". Yippee!

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Tips From My Mom #3

Thankfully I have made it safely back home from my visit to Florida without having to pull a Karen Black and take over control of the plane. The night before I left for Florida I watched both Airport '75 and Airport '77. Somehow, it was oddly comforting. As though if something did go wrong I would be that much more prepared. "It's okay" I'll say "I know how to gauge air speed against altitude so the plane won't stall." This is how my mind works.

But the flight went off without a hitch and I was greeted at the gate by both of my smiling, enthusiastic parents. I last saw them in May and every time I see them I think I love them a bit more, if that is possible.

While I was there my mom was voted Employee of the Month at the hospital where she works. This is quite a recognition because there are over 1,000 employees with everyone up for consideration; doctors, nurses, administration, housekeeping, clerks, etc. My mom works in the housekeeping department. Everyone on staff is able to submit someone each month and then the names are brought to a committee who make the final decision. Once chosen they give the nomination ballots to the 'winner' so they can read all of the positive statements.

Mom brought these home on Thursday night and it seems as though many of the comments remarked on her ready smile, positive, optimistic attitude, boundless energy and friendly personality. They wrote how she is willing to take on any task, big or small, at a moment's notice without complaint. And that she is a hard worker. My reply is "No kidding". This is a 67 year old woman hauling around a cart full of cleaning supplies and mopping floors.

The Employee of the Month heading off to work.

The honor comes with several perks; a choice parking spot for a month, dinner with the CEO of the hospital (dad can come), a small monetary allotment, her picture in the newsletter and on the wall of the hospital and acknowledgement of her efforts.

This brings me to Tip #3.

No matter what you do, do it to the best of your ability.

I am so proud of my mom. She puts her all into the tasks set before her with unending energy. I know that she is very proud of me too because of what I do and because of who I am. But, I also know that she would be proud of me no matter what I did if I committed fully to it. Who I am and my outlook on life and work is directly related to not only her words but her example. I remember once she told me never to think less of a person just because they clean toilets if they do it well. I am paraphrasing but the sentiment is clear.

As I was thinking on this I was reminded of a book I read in High School by Richard Bach titled Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

During that time I was struck by a quote that has stayed with me always.

Live never to be ashamed if anything you do or say is published around the world - even if what is published is not true.

So, congratulations Ma! You deserve it.

Monday, August 20, 2007

You Are What You Eat

Have you ever noticed that once you begin to shift your awareness to a specific topic (or a person for that matter) it keeps recurring? Lately, I have been keenly aware of aspects pertaining to a healthy diet; making wise nutritional choices, how the food we eat today influences our long term health, changing old eating patterns, consuming food that is indigenous to the areas in which we live, growing vegetables and eating organically.

This issue has of course been floating around me for some time but it seems that those surrounding me have embraced it more whole heartily as of late. My brother-in-law, Mike, has done his research and is currently enamoured with two books. Each one outlines the positive effects of planning a healthy diet.

The first book is entitled Eat Right for Your Type by Dr. Peter J. D'Adamo. As I understand it our blood type correlates with particular foods that are either beneficial or harmful to our digestion and overall health.

The official website states:

Everything you put into your body today—and how your body interacts with
it—become the raw materials determining your biochemical future. Every day, how
your body interacts with what you eat influences your:
Energy Levels
Healthy Weight
Mental Clarity
Ability to Handle Stress

From what I gather from my cursory review of this book is the premise that certain blood types evolved during our history depending on the culture of the time. If man was ingesting large amounts of meat at a specific point in time the blood type matched this diet to gain maximum nutritional value. As diets shifted to include more vegetation a new blood type arose to compensate and so on. Each blood type can find its genesis in a particular point in time.

Today in our world of fast food, chemicals, processed and manufactured foods we are doing ourselves a huge disservice and actually limiting our lifespans and quality of life. Mike was telling me that our ancestors had longer lives than we will because of the food we eat.

The other evening I was having dinner with my parents. My mom said that she never ate red cabbage or canned cranberry sauce until she met my father and moved to New York. Her family in West Virginia grew all of their own vegetables and if they didn't grow it, they didn't eat it. Simple. My great grandmother lived to the age of 98.

Another book Mike was telling me about is The Maker's Diet by Jordan S. Rubin. This one I have had even less interaction with than Eat Right for Your Type and it has a religious connection that I have yet to understand but the premise seems to be the same.

You are what you eat.

Here is a snippet from their website:

Most of us eat great quantities of food frequently, based on convenience.
In fact, the entire fast-food and TV-dinner industries have flourished due to
our fast-paced lifestyles that demand we eat convenience foods.

Unfortunately, the Creator didn't design our bodies to operate at optimum
levels on junk food, fast food, or prepackaged foods prepared in microwave
ovens. His laws that govern our entire human nature, including our health, bring
consequences when violated, whether or not we accept the fact that they are
still in place.

More and more of my friends are becoming vegetarians or vegans. They are eating healthy foods and making wise choices. In a time when cows are being fed antibiotics and steroids to produce more milk and there is a plethora of artificial substances widely in use this makes sense. Mike and my sister now order much of their food on line from organic farms. They have cut out gluten and various kinds of milk including soy, which is evidently not as wonderful as I was led to believe.

This issue is also playing out in our schools. Most cafeterias provide children with prepackaged, frozen lunches. Preparation for many of the foods consists of "just add water" or microwave. I have seen reports of schools in America that are shifting away from this and actually cooking healthy lunches. They state, in response to the naysayers, that it IS cost effective and that the students have more energy and stamina to participate in classroom/school activities and learning. Many of my colleagues visited the Reggio Emilia schools in Italy where the food is all organic and lovingly prepared with respect for the students. If it saves money AND is better for our children, why don't we provide a healty choice?


The point of all this is that perhaps it is time for me to make some changes as well. But, honestly I am a bit overwhelmed. Where to start? This is where I put it to you -- what are your suggestions?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

And...

And...

The envelope please...

Tina over at Writer's Block passed along the Inspirational Blogger Award to me this past week.

Here is what she had to say.

This man has an outstanding blog. I recently discovered it and I really like what I see there.There are fantastic teacher resources in his blog and I really find all his posts, which are accompanied by lovely photos, interesting.

I realize that there are copious amounts of various and sundry awards circulating around the blogosphere and I sometimes think it a bit silly - but that was before I got one! (Actually this is not my first, that honor goes to the Schmoozer Award.) Truthfully, my opinion has changed on these awards because they are kindly recognition or acknowledgment that your 'baby' has been noticed in some positive way by a stranger. How amazing is that? So, a heartfelt, joyous thank you to Tina for thinking of me. I am really pleased.

In the spirit of these things it is imperative that one pass along this kindness to five others. Here is where I will break from the expectation just a bit. I would like to bestow this to only one blog/blogger.

Joy at I've Got a Crush on Me. A blog with the tag line, "The journey of a formerly suicidal manic-depressive as she discovers the joys of being alive every single day". By detailing her day to day existence with humor and tenacity Joy hopes to bring optimism to anyone who might be suffering as she has in the past. Her message is that things can change for the better if you just hold on long enough to work through the pain and depression. Her words stand as a testament to the fact that it can happen. If that is not worthy of Inspirational Blogger I do not know what is. So, go check her out - besides she is my BFF.

And...

I went to see Linda Ronstadt last night in concert at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia. She sang a potpourri of songs encompassing her wide range of musical stylings; big band standards, rock and roll, pop, jazz, Afro-Cuban influenced and country. At this point I have such an intimate relationship with her (not that she knows it) that I could tell she was not on top of her game. Although she still possesses the most impressive instrument of any singer I can think of she seemed a bit over it last night. But, she did interact with the audience more than she has in the past and it is a pleasure to know that our political views are on par with one another. It seems that my teenage adoration has finally moved into a more grown-up realm.


And...

My nephew Josh getting out of ICU this evening. He is able to eat on his own and the plastic surgeon is going to take the stitches out of his mouth and face tomorrow morning. At this point he is feeling antsy, a tad grumpy and bored. All good signs as far as I am concerned.

And...

Tomorrow morning I fly to Florida (and boy are will my arms be tired) to spend a week with my mom and dad and my older brother Wally and his family. This will be a different experience this time because my oldest nephew Jamie (Wally's son) is now in the United States Air Force. It'll be my first visit down to Florida without seeing him and he will be missed. Actually, he is supposed to leave for duty in October to Afghanistan which also worries me. It does not worry him however so I suppose all I can do is keep my fingers crossed.

My parents now have a computer and I should be able to access the Internet. So next time you hear from me I shall be even hotter than I am now. If that is possible.

My nephew Jamie and I climbing the Empire State Building.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Song ~ Book

Singer/Songwriter Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary held a book signing for his beautiful new children's book Puff, the Magic Dragon at Barnes and Noble in Fairless Hills, PA on Monday evening. Much to my chagrin I could not attend the event but I was lucky enough to pick up three autographed copies this afternoon.

The illustrations by Eric Puybaret that accompany the lyrics to this well known folk song are so exquisite. The paintings capture the magic and adventure with simple, clean lines and comforting colors.

I love this book!

I guess it does not hurt that I also have a soft spot for this song. However, the book stands on its own as an engaging tale for children to read again and again. It is high quality goods that my description here can never do justice. The book also includes a four song CD containing new recordings of Puff, the Magic Dragon, Froggie Went A-Courtin', The Blue Tail Fly and an instrumental version of Puff, the Magic Dragon. I feel a bit like the cat that caught the canary as my mom would say.

This idea of giving new life to a song by re-imagining it as a children's book got me thinking about other songs that have gone the same route. A few years ago I bought my sister the children's book Sunshine on my Shoulders originally written and sung by the amazing John Denver.

This song has special significance for my sister and I as it is our song. When she was little there was a television program called The Sunshine Years (which I cannot seem to find any information on) about a widowed father raising his young daughter, Jill. He was a musician and they traveled around singing and spreading his wife's ashes. The dad was very loving and protective of his daughter and I always likened that TV relationship with me and my little sister. Sunshine on My Shoulders was one of the song's he played for Jill and I used to sing it to my sister when I tucked her in at night. Over the years I have given her the music and sang it to her accompanied by my trusty player piano. When this book/CD came out I simply had to get it for her.

Now she plays it for her youngest daughter who is four years old. When I was out on LI to see Josh (who is still in ICU with a bleeding spleen but on the mend) I sat and listened to the song while my niece and I followed along in the book. We did this twice and both times the song/book brought tears to my eyes. I am such a softie.

The book is adapted and illustrated by Christopher Canyon who has also transformed two other John Denver songs; Grandma's Feather Bed and Take me Home, Country Roads into children's books.

I shall conclude this list of song ~ books with the title that was actually the first instance of this phenomenon that I came across. It is Dolly Parton's masterpiece Coat of Many Colors. If ever there was a song that screamed children's book this is it.

Not only is it a beautifully moving song with a perfect message but it also translates effortlessly into a book for children and adults. The illustrations by Judith Sutton initially did not do it for me but I have come to appreciate the fact that they were perhaps meant to take a back seat to the lyrics. I ask you...Is there anything that Dolly cannot master?

So, good for me. I have two more Christmas gifts bought now that I am really excited about and another wonderful book to share with my first grade students this fall. Yippee! Somehow it seems so wrong that I could walk through the children's section at Barnes and Noble and feel so blissful. Children's books are getting better and better. Well, there will never be another Curious George but I must admit to the world that yes...I am a children's book addict. Can you say "Welcome, Gary"?

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Don't Drowse and Drive

Another cell phone shot. Josh is on the right.

Early Friday morning my 21 year old nephew, Joshua, was driving home and fell asleep at the wheel of his Jeep. He drove straight into a large oak tree on the side of the road and is thankfully alive to tell the tale. No, there was no alcohol or drugs in his system - the hospital checked him for that. He had spent the evening tooling about with my 16 year old niece and another friend. He had just dropped off my niece at home and was looking forward to a quick rest before heading off to work at 4:30 a.m.

I went out to Long Island yesterday to visit him in the hospital and give whatever support I could to my twin brother Larry, Joshua's father. Joshua's injuries are many (a broken nose, fractured wrist and knee, bruised ribs, lacerated chin and extensive damage to his mouth which required plastic surgery and many stitches, loss of his front teeth and three others, some damage to the spleen but that is unclear just yet, scraps and scratches from crawling through the driver's side window because the doors were unusable) but in time he will heal. The further details of the damage he sustained are too nasty to get into but our family is grateful that he survived. We are told it is a miracle he walked away from the wreck and if anyone was with him they would have surely perished.

Damn.

Jack Nerad for Driving Today writes:

The U.S.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that
approximately 100,000 police-reported crashes annually involve drowsiness and/or
fatigue as a principal causal factor. Those crashes result in an estimated 1,500
fatalities and 71,000 injuries each year, and an annual monetary loss of
approximately $12.5 billion.

It is amazing the carnage isn't worse,
considering a recent survey by Farmers Insurance. More than 10 percent of
drivers admit to having fallen asleep at the wheel, while more than 20 percent
say they have momentarily dozed while driving, according to the study of 1,024
drivers.

Referred to as "the silent killer" because it is so often
overlooked as the cause of an accident, drowsy drivings full effect is not yet
known because reporting is imprecise, police are not trained to detect
sleep-related crashes and there is no Breathalyzer-like test to determine
whether someone was driving while dangerously drowsy. Click here to read more.


I guess I have underestimated the seriousness of falling asleep while driving, as have so many others. This is hard to believe given my encounters with it.

In January 2006 I got a call from my principal telling me that the mother of a boy in my class was killed in a car accident. She was driving home from work early in the morning and her exhaustion caught up with her. She fell asleep and slammed into a wall. I attended her funeral and seeing her two young children sobbing at her casket is a sight I never want to witness again.
More recently, a friend of mine departed for home after a night of light drinking and hanging out at another friend's house. Before he left I noticed he looked tired and I thought about trying to persuade him to crash where he was but blew off my worries because they seemed overly dramatic. Well, he fell asleep while driving and ran his car off the road. The car was totaled but he was unscathed.

There have been times when I have driven in a less than alert state. In those times I usually call my friend Joy who is usually awake at all hours or I roll down my window and blast the music. Last night it took me almost five hours to get home from L.I. after I left the hospital. I was getting quite tired myself and decided that I had better stop off and grab a cup of Joe (actually, that is exactly what it is called at Burger King).

So, do me and yourself a favor. Take this seriously. Do not drive if you are tired. Stay where you are if you can or pull over and take a power nap. The link above provides some tactics to fight drowsiness.

Josh was lucky. Let's not push it.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Along the Way

One of my summer pleasures is going out for a bike ride along the tow path behind my house. This trail along the Delaware/Raritan Canal stretches for more than 50 miles. My usual trip consists of about 13 miles and includes a stop at Washington's Crossing Park in New Jersey. This is the site of Washington's historical crossing of the Delaware which proved to be the turning point in the Revolutionary War because he was able to sneak up on the Brits to win the Battle of Trenton.

Nowadays it is a peaceful park nestled near an amazing row of homes in Titusville, NJ. It is my lofty ambition to one day own one of these homes overlooking the Delaware and to sit in an upstairs room near floor to ceiling window or on a wrap-around porch and write my dramatic plays. Mind you, I do not write plays but it feels very Tennessee Williams there and brings about a certain inspiration.

On a recent jaunt I brought along my trusty cell phone/camera and took a few pictures. I ride along and look at these things and feel so good. It is nice to take a break every once in a while. Very good indeed!
These poor babies were screaming out for water as they wilted in the hot sun.
This town is riddled with American flags and other patriotic symbols. That is all I am saying.
I wish I had a good duck joke to insert here. This picture seems to be calling out for "Two ducks walk into a bar..."
My friend Mike and I discovered this gate leading down to a private dock and a small boat on the Delaware. We imagine that in the hands of a skilled photographer this image can be used for either his album cover or my book jacket.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Communion Sunday

Religion is an endlessly fascinating topic for me and often the disparity it creates in my mind between unquestioning belief and factual knowledge can be likened to standing out in an open field during a thunder storm. Exposed, vulnerable and ultimately resigned to getting a little bit wet.

I am a member of the congregation in a Methodist church here in New Jersey. I sing with the choir. I lead the church in prayer and praise every so often as liturgist. In the past I have conducted the children's portion of the service by imparting some simple or fun message - for instance teaching the little ones how to sign "Jesus Loves Me" or reading from a children's book. Many years ago I taught Sunday School and attended bible study sessions of my own free will.

I have taken the spiritual journey that many folks have traveled before, regardless of ideology or dogma. And although I have done all of these things and have a deeply rooted belief system that is infinitely refined and redefined, as I journey on I have my reservations. The manifestations of our religious rituals and rites seem so arbitrary.

For example, Methodists take communion the first Sunday of each month. This differs from the Catholics who receive communion every Sunday. There are also some other key differences between the two religions. Methodists see the bread and wine (grape juice) as a SYMBOL whereas my Catholic friends tell me they believe that the bread and wine transform to become the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ. Of course, there exist differences in the rules between many religions. It seems that everyone is eager to send someone else to Hell because it is our way or the highway. Some organized religions are more welcoming to outsiders than others. I was told that I am not permitted to receive communion in a Catholic church because I am not Catholic. So, I take my bit of bread and wine where I am invited to partake...and somehow feel better.

No matter how silly I may think it is that simply admitting my sins washes them away or that I question the logic behind such pronouncements, when the time comes I am happy that for a brief moment I am good to go.

It brings to mind what I read about Joseph Campbell. He was the go to guy for comparative mythology and how it influenced all of the religions of the world. He saw the logical progression of mankind's belief system from coming to understand the surrounding environment by assigning greater power to unknown forces to the development of comparable religions across the globe from Buddhism to Christianity. With all his knowledge he still considered himself to be a Catholic.

But maybe that is the point. Maybe having belief AND being able to question that belief is the journey. After all, who really can prove anything that will happen after we die? We can look to the past and base our questions in that knowledge and then let our, what... hearts?, souls?, minds?... take us where it needs to go.

I strongly believe in giving children options and exposing them to big questions early on in their lives. I have found many children's books that deal with issues of God and religion and choosing a particular one over another depends on your religious inclinations. However, to promote discussion and to foster questioning I have come to respect the following books.

What is God? by Etan Boritzer and illustrated by Robbie Marantz. This book is dedicated to the children of the world. It explores this "very big question" through an exploration of the beliefs and history behind it. Children gain exposure to various methods of worship which highlight the similarities across religions rather than the differences as well as prayer. The simplistic drawings help give children access to the heavy messages. A book worth revisiting again and again.


God Lives in Glass: Reflections of God Through the Eyes of Children by Robert J. Landy. I copied this descripton from Amazon.com

"Children from around the world show us God in ways that we may have forgotten!

What does God do? How do we let God in? If you met God, what would you say?

Here are the "theological" answers of young spiritual thinkers from around the world, representing more than twenty different religious traditions. In sharing how they see God, they'll help you to see God in new ways.

In a poetic language of images all their own, these children re-awaken us to the mysteries and wonders of the universe, and lead us to our own understanding of the spiritual. "

Friday, August 3, 2007

Lumos!

I thought I would shed some light upon my recent activities since it has just been brought to my attention that I have not posted in almost a week. I blame this on two things...

Harry Potter


and



Grading papers.

The former involved a rather intricate dance of wanting to read but not wanting to finish reading. So I would come up with myriad things to prolong the inevitable conclusion of this journey of my belov├ęd hero. Creating diversions for oneself is an easier task than I previously thought. However, much to my chagrin I ended the tale of 'the boy who lived' yesterday with tears and a bit of dramatic fortitude.

Interspersed with my avoidance of reading I buckled down to grade the final papers of the Cosby scholars. Although the summer institute ended on July 12, students in my class had until last week to turn in their 10 page reflections/musings. They had been given a detailed rubric with guidelines from which to steer their discussion. I looked forward to sitting with each paper for a while and consequently providing encouraging feedback.

Grading takes me a while.

I blame this on my own constant state of studentship. Over the years I have written quite a number of masterpieces and they have not always been given the proper fanfare and applause I felt they warranted (although I must say that many have). When I write a scholarly paper I agonize over every word until I achieve perfection, or at least until I am so sick of looking at it I don't care anymore. It pains me when I get these little gems back with a cursory "well done" or some such gibberish.

Why can't my papers be shown the respect they deserve!


In order to right these injustices I settle in with each and every paper I receive. Of course the easiest thing to critique is the structure of the thing, which should be in APA format. After providing copious bullet points pertaining to this I dig in. For each paper I provide at least one page of type written feedback, sometimes more. There have been times in the past when I have actually written more commentary than was in the paper in the first place. This is my nature. I believe student and teacher form a team wherein we learn from each other and create a sort of dialogue. Even if I am ultimately grading their efforts.

Feedback such as this is a form of schmoozing. As La Bellina Mammina surely noticed when she awarded me the schmoozer award, I like to schmooze.
I have lifted this definition from her blog...

"As it goes, schmoozing is the natural ability to converse casually. Good schmoozers effortlessly weave their way in and out of the blogosphere, leaving friendly trails and smiles, happily making new friends along the way. They don’t limit their visits to only the rich and successful, but spend some time to say hello to new blogs as well. They are the ones who engage others in meaningful conversations, refusing to let it end at a mere hello - all the while fostering a sense of closeness and friendship".

In the spirit of paying it forward I would like to pass this along to Reya at The Gold Poppy for simply being herself and for sharing her thoughts so consistently.

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