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Rats! June 28, 2010

Posted by alwaysjan in Home Front.
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Okay, while rats is the operative word, it’s a metaphor for so much more… Rats leaving a sinking ship, as in eleven, count’em, Thank You cards lined up to sign for colleagues who received a RIF notice.  Rats! Some of the best teachers ever are being put out to sea, while the sinking ship that is education takes on more water (aka students).

To add insult to injury, as the teachers struggled to pack up last Friday, the fire alarms went off at one-minute intervals – for five hours (okay, they took a break for lunch).  My son, who was helping me pack up my room, looked stricken.  I said, “Can you see how this could drive you crazy?” as we wandered in circles looking for the one roll of masking tape we needed to cover all the bookshelves with paper.  Especially, if you’re already crazy to begin with,” he shot back, but I’m immune to his caustic comments. I don’t know why the military engages in waterboarding, when the most effective form of torture I can think of is having you pack up a filthy classroom with fire alarms blaring.  Think about it.

I checked out of the school by 1 p.m.  My husband was late joining us for lunch.  He’d been at home waiting for “Johnny Rat,” the pest control specialist, to check out our growing rat problem.  (Yes, that’s how his name is printed on the card.) Think tiny claws in the walls at night and palm fronds that suddenly collapse with tell-tale nibble marks.  We’ve been in denial about “the rat problem” for years.

When I wrote I Smell a Rat, we were talking about ONE rat.  Now we’re talking about legions.  Think of the movie 300 only with rats in the starring roles.

So Mr. Rat and his sidekick, Nelson, from the Rat Patrol took a look see, and the news wasn’t good.  I think the only reason we don’t have a termite problem is because the rats have crowded them out.  So my first day of summer vacation was spent listening to the ills that could befall of us if we don’t take care of “the rat problem.”

I now know way more than I ever wanted to know about personal lives of these wily rodents (or vermin, depending on your POV).  We were informed that once the rats had all been trapped and new screening installed so they can’t jump from the trees onto the roof and move back into the attic, that a new problem of biblical proportions will emerge.  Rat mites!  Without a delicious rats to feast on, the starving mites will come looking for fresh flesh and blood…us!  Through the walls…through the ceilings. We couldn’t write the check fast enough. This will be an ongoing battle and from an evolutionary standpoint, the rats have an advantage.  We’ve trimmed all of the bushes and trees four feet back from the house. Johhny Rat and Nelson are all that stands between us and these flesh eating mites.

Mr. Rat winced when we introduced him to our son’s two pet rats, Peanut and Brittle.  My husband informed him that rats are smart and make great pets.  Johnny agreed that they are smart as he’s been trying to outsmart them for years.  But the look on his face said it all.  Pet rats!  I think he thought we were crazy.  But then he met the pig and now he knows for sure. Rats!

Let the “Screwball Games” Begin! June 13, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Teaching.
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The entire school year I’ve tested my students ad nauseam, so what do we do on that last day of school?  We test!  But this test, aka “The Screwball Games,” gives kids the opportunity to show off those all important skills and talents that standardized testing overlooks.   Skills such as the vastly under rated ability to cross your eyes, which sadly I am unable to do.  So each June I’m humbled by these children who only come up to my armpits, yet can cross their eyes, do the splits AND wiggle their ears.    

Students work in small groups and are so eager to participate in this freak show, they actually work cooperatively!  But as the teacher, you must set clear standards for each skill so it can be accurately assessed.  For example, staring intently at your nose is NOT crossing your eyes.  

The “Screwball Games” also provide the opportunity for students to demonstrate overlooked talents, so truly NO child is left behind.  One year four boys came to the front of the class and belched an entire song. That’s got to meet some Listening and Speaking Standard!  Because it’s the last day of school, don’t waste your time on such mundane skills as cartwheels, armpit farts, or being able to do the crab walk.  Encourage kids to go for the gold!  You’d be amazed how many kids can flip their eyelids inside out, or pop entire portions of their bodies out of joint.  Talk about multiple intelligences! 

Want to play?  Here’s how it works.  Students receive the following form:

The Screwball* Games

*screwball- Definition: odd and eccentric

Group Members: 






Who can:

Wiggle their ears?

Do the splits? (in ANY direction)

Sit on the floor with the bottoms of their feet touching while their knees are on the floor?  (you can’t use your hands to push your knees to the floor)

Raise one eyebrow?

Cross their eyes?

Roll their tongue?  aka “Taco Tongue”

Snap their fingers?


Put one foot behind their head?  Two feet?

Separate their fingers two by two?  (Also referred to as the Vulcan greeting!)

Stand on one foot for one minute

Please list any other overlooked talents:


Give students about 20 minutes to meet with their groups so they can each demonstrate their special abilities to the other group members.  Have one person write down the names of those who can. Then have students return to their seats and name a category.  All of the ones who can do it come up front and demonstrate at the same time.  The effect is fantastic!  When all of the them are hopping on one leg while you man the timer, it’s like watching a deranged performance of “River Dance.”  One year I had three students who managed to get their foot behind their head, but failed miserably at getting it out from behind their it.  This required a calm demeanor to extricate them from this rather embarrassing predicament.  Note:  Tell the girls ahead of time to wear pants.

The “Screwball Games’ provides a good hour’s worth of hilarity,  and more importantly, the chance for you to sit back and be entertained.  So let the games begin!




How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Days… June 7, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Teaching.
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I’m really going to miss this year’s class of students, but I can’t miss them until they’re gone. The calendar screams June and even my students know that the little number at the top of the whiteboard is the number of school days remaining.  Yet there’s still a barrage of tests to administer, report cards to write, not to mention adding those comments to the cums i.e. “This will go down on your permenant record!”  How on earth will I get all this done?  The same way I get into my size 8 jeans.  I’ll just have to squeeze it all in.

The end of the school year is also riddled with assemblies, events, and even more importantly, non-events.  With all this work to do, teachers are looking for time fillers aka time killers.  

Someone wants to demo a sample lesson from the new music curriculum in my class? Come on down!  I know those books are behind my desk somewhere.  I was just too busy ferrying my students to chorus and practicing the recorder to crack them open.  Besides, I’m still suffering from flashbacks involving music lessons from my own childhood.  They include a teacher with tightly curled hair, who played a mean pitch pipe.

There’s a scientist who wants to make a presentation to students about sea otters?  Wait a minute, aren’t they those cute furry little guys who float on their backs and crack open mussels on their bellies?  They’re adorable AND they’re endangered?  Hey, endangered begins with an “e” and so does “educational.”  Pencil me in.

The key to surviving the final weeks of school is to keep students believing, until the last possible minute, that everything they do counts.  If they’re watching a video, you’ve got them convinced you’re grading them on their listening skills.  You can even up the ante, and fill/kill more time, by having them write a summary of the video.  But call it a critique because it sounds more important.  Better yet, have students storyboard the entire video and learn animation, which will especially be valuable if they ever move to Asia.   A really good teacher can shoot students a look that says, “Pay no attention to that man standing behind the curtain!”  while standing atop a student desk and prying staples out of the wall with ruler.

At our school, teachers are told everything must be taken off the walls or covered, so the custodians can “wash” the walls.  I’m sorry, but I haven’t washed the walls in my own house since the last century.  Besides, our classroom ceilings are 12 feet high and the periodic leaks in the plumbing wash away any pesky cobwebs.  The other thing I’m loath to hear is that my classroom will be used for summer school.  Everything must then be covered to minimize dust (as in dusting for fingerprints, because some of your stuff will mysteriously dissapear.)

Packing up the class for summer is akin to striking a movie set without the crew.  Some teachers pop in a video/DVD, dim the lights, and don’t look back unless they hear screams or gunfire.  Then there are those teachers who, usually out of sheer desperation, enlist the help of their students. WARNING! – This is a double-edged sword and someone WILL fall on it.  

Years back I volunteered to help out in a friend’s classroom.  It was the last day of school and the kids kept asking if they could help.  Finally, she acquiesced and what followed is still vividly etched on my mental hard drive. No sooner had she said yes then children swarmed like a plague of locusts and began ripping the butcher paper off the walls. They made soccer hooligans look like a bunch of rank amateurs.  Thank god there was no car in the classroom, or it would have been overturned and set ablaze.  At one point, I looked over and saw the the American flag falling.  I remember thinking that quite possibly, I was witnessing the fall of Western civilization. When all of the paper had been ripped from the walls, the children collapsed on the floor and rolled around in the scraps of paper like pigs in mud.  

There is also the, “Should we have an end-of-the-year party?”  dilemma.  My solution is to have a party on the second to last day of school.  I don’t want to be scraping turquoise cupcake frosting out of the carpet on that memorable last day.  By the end of the year, the cupboard is bare, so if students want a party, they better bring the food.  If they come bearing shrimp chips and Gummi worms, that’s what’s on the menu.  No plates or paper napkins?  Have a student bring back paper towels from the bathroom then show them how to fold and cut them into heart shapes.  It’s never too late to squeeze in a lesson on symmetry and for students to hone their cutting skills with dull, rusty scissors. 

Finally, there are always those kids who ask if you’re going to give them a present.  I blame this on those over-achieving kindergarten and first grade teachers, who are permanently stuck in precious mode.  You can count on them to send the kids off with some insufferably cute keepsake.  This ensures that later in life, their students will use the name of their first-grade teacher as the hint to recall a forgotten computer password.  

By the end of the year, if your students are still asking what you’re going to give them, you’ve failed at instilling the most important lesson of all.  That you’ve already given them the most valuable gift you have to give – your time.  

This said, I do stockpile blank journals from the 99 Cent Store and give them to students the last day of school.  I write my address on the inside cover and tell them if they write me a letter over the summer, I promise to write back.  And I do.  Now some teachers think this is sheer lunacy.  “What about those disgruntled parents?  They’ll know where you live!”  I choose to be an optimist.  I’m sure those shots fired on my street several years back were not intended for me.  A case of mistaken identity, no doubt.  Or teachers envision an even worse scenario.  “You don’t want to have to write letters to your students when you’re on vacation!”  I just smile.

The first year I gave out my address, I even enclosed a stamp in the journal, then waited for the letters to come streaming in.  I waited.  And waited.  The most letters I’ve ever received is three.  The first year I took it personally.  How could my students have forgotten me so quickly?  But now, I realize it’s nothing personal.  My students are just as eager to have a break from school as I am.  Knowing this, I remind myself to treasure my last eight days with them before I send them out the door that final time.