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February 2016

January 2016 entries

Shameless Self Promotion

I saw an ad for freelance writers in our local newspaper, The Williamsport Sun Gazette.  They were looking for writers specifically for the Showcase section, a weekly feature focused on the arts in our region.  I decided to apply -- nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?  And I was given an assignment right away!  My first article on a local photography exhibit was published this past week.  I just finished my next piece on a blues music festival tonight.  It should be printed in the Feb. 11 edition.  I am really excited about this new adventure! 

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Rubik's Cube "Competition"

In December, Aidan received a boat load of Rubik's cubes from Santa Claus.  Cubes I never even knew existed, with mystifying names: Pyraminx, 2-by-2 bump mirror cube, Megaminx. A current student of mine saw a post on Facebook of Aidan's cubes and messaged me: "Mrs. Connor, do you know about the Slow and Steady Winter Rubik's Cube Competition at the University of Maryland in January?  I bet Aidan would really like that."

Thanks, Natalie.  Thanks.  

It just so happens that Aidan turns 11 on Wednesday, and a trip to MD for a Rubik's Cube Competition was the most perfect present my little nerd could ever want.  I signed him up for the 3-by-3 and the Megaminx, and booked the hotel.

We arrived at the University's Student Union Building and I was immediately greeted by that oh-so-familiar clicking sound of cubes being solved . . . except it was like the daily soundtrack of my minivan on steroids.  Kids were everywhere, geeking out on their cubes.  It was beautiful. 

Once we got set up inside, we met some really great people -- from the family from Gettysburg with kids Aidan and Ellie's ages to the guy with the massive smorgasbord of cubes that every kid came by to drool over.  World Record Cuber Collin Burns was there.  When he arrived, an excited whisper crescendoed throughout the room:  "Look!  It's Collin!"  

(I confess -- I had to "Google" him to see what the fuss was about.  The guy -- who looks about 17? -- solved the 3-by-3 in 5 seconds.  Yes, I said 5.)

Aidan performed his personal best at the 3-by-3.  His times have been around 1 minute (Did I mention he got these cubes all of a month ago?), and his best-out-of-five time was 54.16 seconds.  His personal best was 46.45 seconds. 

(Unfortunately, he did not make the time limit for the Megaminx, which is a BEAST of a cube.)

Here's what struck me as most impressive about this "competition" :  Yes, it was a competition.  But, at the same time, it wasn't.  Kids weren't eyeing each other with jealousy or ill-will.  When Aidan's new friend AJ scored a better time than he did, Aidan was genuinely happy for him.  When super-star kids solved the same puzzle in 12 seconds, everyone stood in awe of their accomplishment, and not in jealous resentment.  I loved it. 

I hope that Aidan continues to cube, and I won't be too surprised if the other kids start to follow in his footsteps.  After about 8 hours there, none of the kids wanted to leave to come home.  That's a lot of cubing . . . I guess it's a good thing that I am getting used to that clicking sound while I drive!

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Ellie's Living Doll

The  other day, I heard Ellie and Liam playing together, chattering happily in Ellie's room.  They were rehearsing Ellie's new play, "Monster at the Stables," a My Little Pony - inspired tour de force involving Liam in a break-out dual role of a pony AND a monster.  Ellie also designed the costumes (AKA "I dressed my brother in my clothes because I can").  

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I Think I'm Doing OK

Aidan had a rough day-- a mean substitute teacher, lost homework folder, accidentally thrown away homework, a headache, etc. I helped him keep some clear perspective of what will actually matters ("I'm going to fail for the marking period!" "Honey, it's one homework assignment. You did really well on that test on your book. That's a great start to the marking period!"). And, naturally, I then shifted through the trash in the outside bin to help him find the accidentally tossed homework -- we were victorious! (I had him clean out his book bag in an attempt to find his folder and unearthed scads of old papers...one mistakenly made its way to the trash...and back again!) He was pretty emotional at a couple different points, and I resisted a very strong urge to dismiss his problems as the irrational wanderings of a middle schooler. I wasn't so sure I was successful until he spontaneously came up to me just before bed and gave me an enormous hug: "Mom, thank you so much for everything today. Your support made me get through everything. Thank you for listening and being there for me." Parenting Gold!

Apathetic Readers

It's requisition time.  That means I need to decide what needs to be ordered for NEXT school year for my classroom.  As usual, requisition time comes when I am knee-deep in the current school year, and I find it hard to imagine what I want for next year.  But, the bean-counters know best: we have to budget for the upcoming year so that the Board can approve spending.  

Here's my other problem:  I really want to re-vamp how I teach Honors English 11 in an attempt to combat reading apathy in my students.  Far too many of my college-bound juniors say, "I don't read," or "I don't like to read," without flinching a bit. 

So, what's a teacher to do?  

I've decided that I want to help my students fall in love with reading again.  A large part of why they don't like to read is because some adult has been telling them WHAT to read for years.  I want to give them more ownership of their book choices, and I believe the best way to do this is to implement literature circles in my classroom. 

What is a literature circle?  Well, I do a modified version of lit circles now.  We all read the same assigned text.  Students are assigned various roles for any given portion of the text.  For example, my AP students are reading The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.  I've placed them in groups of 4, and the roles that they will rotate are: Discussion Director (write at least 5 discussion questions based on the reading); Passage Master (find at least 5 passages and analyze the way the author has written the passage); Wordsmith (make a list of at least 10 words you didn't know and their definitions, or make a list of at least 10 words that carry some significance in the passage); and Connector (find and make at least 5 connections between the reading and real life or other academic subjects).  The students come together on a pre-determined day and these roles help to facilitate a book-club type discussion on the text. 

In true literature circle format, the students not only complete various, rotated roles for discussion, but they also select the book that they will read.  This means that at any given time, students in one class may be reading 4 or 5 different books at once.  

Clearly, I need to be flexible enough to handle that many texts being read/taught ... and assessed at once.  Because I believe that literature is a vehicle for examining the human condition and that a myriad of reading and writing skills can be taught through any book, I think I can make this work.  The fact that students will have a say in what they are reading and perhaps even rediscover a love for literature makes it worth the work, to me.  

Here's the tricky part: It's requisition time.  I have some possible books selected, but I am not completely done with the selections, so I am hoping I'll be able to put a placeholder in that says, for example, "I want 12 of a book whose title has yet to be determined, but will probably cost about $15 a piece."  

Here's to trying, anyway! 


Thought for the Day

I came across this quote (when I probably should get back to grading the 90 midterm speeches I collected on Friday), and I think it's pretty darn good:

"Blowing out someone else's candle doesn't make yours burn any brighter."

There isn't much I can add to this -- it really speaks for itself.  How often have I felt like my own candle has been blown out by someone else who resented my intelligence or my talent or my relationship with other people?  My first reaction has been to feel hurt, to feel offended.  But if I can detach myself from the situation (always easier said than done), I begin to realize that what has been said to me has very little to do with ME to begin with.  It's almost always a reflection of the person blowing the candle out.  

The kind of person who blows someone else's candle out is the kind of person who doesn't want to admit their own failure or their own shortcomings.  It's the kind of person who doesn't want to do the very real work required to improve themselves, so they find solace in tearing down others.  

When we take a step back, we all realize this.  But, as I've already said, it's easier in the hypothetical than in practice.  Unfortunately, the more often your candle is blown out, the easier it becomes to not only distance yourself, but to guard that candlelight from the toxic people around you.  We can't escape them all, but we can protect our candles. 

And that's more than enough extended metaphor for tonight.  


Once on This Island . . . of Montoursville

We have started rehearsals for the spring musical, Once on This Island.  It's a little known show (to those outside the theatre world, I mean) based on Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid.  It's set on an island like Haiti, and the story focuses on the divisions in the society: for them, it's mostly historical and racial, which carries over to economic division.  It's no secret that Montoursville is not a diverse enough school to cast a multi-racial cast.  But, the ways that people label and judge each other go far beyond skin color, sadly.  For our show, we will focus on peasants vs. rich.  

At our read through, I asked the students to come up with a "spine" for the show -- what is the message that holds the story of the show together?  What do we want the audience to walk away with? Why do we believe this show is important, here and now? I like the spine to be short and to the point: it's not a paragraph. It's a sentence.  After some really great conversations about the power of love and the influence of history on discrimination, the students came up with this: "After the tragedies of our past, we build our future on a foundation of love."  

Do I teach some insightful kids, or what?  I love that we spend timing truly understanding the text and the story -- as opposed to reducing a show to notes and lyrics.  I also gave them journal assignments which encourage them to delve into the plot events and the character choices, in addition to asking them to write a biography for their assigned roles.  Even my ensemble members are asked to create names and backstories for their characters.  

While musical season means larger to-do lists and longer hours at the school, I love that a new script brings a new story and a new adventure with a new cast.  I am very blessed to have such a creative outlet in my career. 


Happy New Year!

Happy January 1st! We spent last evening at a the house of some friends who have children the same ages as Aidan, Ellie, and Liam. We had fun -- lots of good food, a disco dance party with kids' music, noisemakers, silliness, and fireworks.

So, here's to a new year, a fresh calendar, and a bright future!

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!


Holiday Break Highlights

I'll be honest: I don't sit still well. And I hate cold weather. I would much rather have a shorter holiday break and add those days to our summer break most years. Fortunately, this year has been unseasonably warm, which has allowed me to get outside a lot more over break. I even ran 5 miles outside on Christmas Day!

Other than the usual Christmas festivities like mass and present-giving, we did a variety of fun activities over the past two weeks. We had our nieces over for a sleepover -- complete with a trip to the Children's Library and a pottery glazing place where the girls painted their own pieces. Leann and Scarlett ADORE Gabrielle, and want to be with her at all times. She loves every minute of it, and it's hilarious to see how worn out she gets just from one visit.

We also visited my parents and sister near Altoona. Dad has this rough-terrain Kubota vehicle that is essentially a really big toy for grown men. We drove all over the mountainside and raced through puddles. It was a mess by the time we were done, but we were protected in the glass-encased heated cabin.

And we can't forget to mention our trip to the movies with Miss Hopkins! For a while now, we have made it a tradition to go see new children's movies when they come out. We saw The Peanuts movie a few months back, and this time it was The Good Dinosaur. I'll be honest: it was a little too "Lion King" and every other character-gets-separated-from-his-family movie for me. But, the animation was amazing, and there were times when it was hard to tell if the scenery were computer-generated or real. The time with Miss Hopkins was great, as usual.

So, in all, though I am ready to get back to a regular routine and some exciting projects in the new year (like musical auditions and a student teacher), it's been a refreshing break.

Holiday Break Highlights

Holiday Break Highlights

Holiday Break Highlights

Holiday Break Highlights