Archive for April, 2010


When I Was Having That Alphabet Soup, I Never Thought That It Would Pay Off.*

April 30, 2010

Why is the alphabet in that order? Is it because of that song? The guy who wrote that song wrote everything.
• Stephen Wright

I colllect alphabet books. It might seem as though they would be similar, but they are actually extremely varied. Playing with the twenty-six letters that form words in English provides countless brainplay opportunities:


Oh, fudge, these alphabetical things almost always fall apart at xyz, don’t they? But that’s the advantage of doing this sort of thing. I know now, although I cannot currently use it, that xanthous means having yellow or red hair and that a xebec is a small three-masted pirate ship. I am equally fascinated to learn that when I am gracious to my visitors, my hospitality is xenial.

But perhaps my favorite x word is xenodochelonology or the love of hotels. Not one I’d like to encounter in a spelling bee. I’ll be staying at a motel tonight. I wonder if that counts and if I can work this into the conversation when I leave: “Thanks for your graciousness and for the clean sheets and tiny bottles of shampoo and conditioner. They have increased my xendochelonology!”

And while I’m thanking people or things, thanks to for their exceedingly thorough lists. This site is a real boon for Scrabble® players too. A phrontistery is a place of learning; I work at one and didn’t even know it.

“lol this isent me cheating on my HomeWork or anything this is me challenging the minds of young Yahoo people” someone on Yahoo Answers claims about a query looking for synonyms to replace boring words. I say good for them and good for you if you use online tools to improve your writing. If I were being really diligent this morning, I’d hunt for replacements for those two goods.

I love dictionaries—it’s relaxing to page through them, but you probably have to be a logophile to want to do this. Hunting for specific words online is more likely to help most folks improve their vocabulary.

And so it goes. I have not nagged about vocabulary for weeks. Weeks! Have you been adding five new words to your vocabulary each week? Five new words a month? One new word since last I wrote about it? It’s never too late to turn over a new leaf—or turn to a new page in the dictionary—and begin.

Come on—make me happy. Learn five new words this week and use them in your everyday conversation. Just imagine the self-satisfaction that will accompany this feat! You’ll feel a humongous sense of pride and accomplishment! Small children will throw rose petals at your feet and a chorus of chanting cartwheelers will follow you about, praising your name! Perhaps.

We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.
• Booker T. Washington

* Vanna White is the abecedarian whom we can credit with the title quotation.


:) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) Smiley Faces Banned at Meeting

April 29, 2010

It’s so easy for a kid to join a gang, to do drugs. We should make it that easy to be involved in football and academics.
• Snoop Dogg

It’s true. I was once asked to remove my watch at a meeting of teachers—after school—in a high school library. The face of the watch was a smiley face, a gang symbol, I was told. No students were around. I was not an employee of the school district. I was an invited guest at the meeting. I reluctantly removed my watch (at least they didn’t confiscate it), and here’s what I wondered as I also thought about how often schools push students out with arbitrary and sometimes senseless rules: Why don’t gangs adopt the clothing of mainstream upright uptight folks. What would we do then?

Suits and ties would be verboten for principals and other male administrators and teachers. Ladywear would be restricted for their female counterparts. No suits or dresses or pencil skirts. Sansabelt slacks would be forbidden for teachers and visitors alike. Muumuus and other loose and comfortable dresses, polyester slacks with lots of stretch, and dozens of other choices meant to provide room for visiting the all-you-can-eat buffet after school without pain would suddenly be off limits.

No more sweatshirts and t-shirts and track pants with school logos. No one could wear those probably very comfortable yet truly ugly shoes that promise good arch support and practicality right down to their soles. Every comfortable and traditionally uncomfortable piece of clothing would be co-opted. Parent conferences would be a nightmare as clothing police personned the doors, banning unsuspecting folks who’d come to school in inappropriate attire.

And then there would be the gang that festoons itself with holiday-themed clothing. Elementary school teachers everywhere would awaken each morning with nothing to wear. Instead gang members would glitter with rhinestoned snowmen and show off their sequined valentines and bunnies and firecrackers. Crocheted pumpkins and cornstalks, bats and belfrys, holiday trees and menorahs brightly adorning vests on male and female alike would be off limits for staff and proudly worn by youth. You’d be able to see them coming for miles on a sunny day in their sparkly and colorful garb. (Hmmm—delightful as this is to imagine, it’s improbable that such visibility would be appealing to any gang.)

And colors? No more navy blue or maroon or forest green. Forget about plaid jumpers and striped ties. White button-down shirts? Polo shirts? Nope. All gone. As fast as a school could come up with a list of the forbidden, the gangs would move on, adopting the allowable in an ongoing dance of futility.

It’s not that gangs aren’t a serious issue in schools. They are, and not just the organized and sometimes violent gangs that plague larger—and even some small—cities. Everywhere that outsiders are created by groups of “others” is fraught for opportunities for bullying and violence, mental and physical. Technology has made bullying even more prevalent. But it’s not a problem to be solved by banning smiley faces :).

What can schools at all levels do to support inclusiveness? What can you do?

I had friends at school, but I was never part of a gang and I dreamed of that sense of belonging to a group.
• Emily Mortimer, British actor

Every city in the world always has a gang, a street gang, or the so-called outcasts.
• Jimi Hendrix


When Someone Asks If You’d Like Cake or Pie, Why Not Say You Want Cake and Pie?*

April 28, 2010

I am not a strict vegan, because I’m a hedonist pig. If I see a big chocolate cake that is made with eggs, I’ll have it.
• Grace Slick

I love cake. Cake with buttercreamy frosting. Lots of buttercreamy frosting. Cake soaked with rum. Cake with mocha frosting. Cake smeared with raspberry jam between the layers. Cake with lots of buttercreamy frosting. Cake with chocolate ganache. Cake with nuts. Carrot cake. Spice cake. White and yellow cake. Chocolate cake. All of it slathered with buttercreamy frosting. Please don’t forget the frosting and please don’t be stingy with it.

Fortunately, I don’t bake anymore, so temptation does not surround me. I won’t be running to the kitchen to whip something up. Cake must be purchased. This is more difficult than it sounds. All cake is not good cake. Some cake is bad. Some cake is mediocre. Some cake isn’t worth eating. Famous brands of cupcakes and spongecake fingers filled with cream do not tempt me. Little Miss Anybody’s varikinded cakey treats are not for me. Even some fancy-dancy bakeries make stuff I don’t want in my mouth.

I am a picky cake eater. Cake eater is not a flattering term, harkening back to the apocryphal story about Marie Antoinette. Look it up. She probably never said, “Let them eat cake,” but the real story seems open to multiple speculations. Cake eaters are ritzy, rich people; fat-behinded folks who eat donuts for breakfast; inconsiderate slobs who snag all the goodies for themselves.

This is not me, although you should protect your flanks if you cut yourself a bigger slice and most especially if you take the big pink frosting rose without offering it to moi first. I will not be happy. Nor will I be charmed if you are cutting a sheet cake and give me an inside piece. I want the outside, preferably a corner. It’s the frosting, you know.

Satisfying a cake hankering isn’t easy. Whipped cream is not buttercream frosting. Pudding is not a substitute for frosting. If that’s what you’re serving, count me out. And if you’re planning to offer me a piece enshrouded in that shiny stuff that looks kind of like marshmallow fluff, but tastes like something made by amateur chemists in an underground laboratory, don’t bother.**

If I’m going to have cakey calories, I want the real stuff, moist, tasty, scrumptious, and generously topped, middled, and sided with you-know-what. The perfect cake? Yellow or white with layers alternately drizzled with rum and spread with raspberry jam before being topped with mocha buttercream. Thick mbc on the sides and top and sliced almonds on the sides. Adding some chocolate ganache on the top will increase my delight. What would I be celebrating as I eat this concoction? Cake, of course! Happy “Let Us Eat Cake Day.” That’s a Mirthday Sillybration I’d like to observe. How about you?

If you could have any kind of celebratory cake you want (end-of-term, passed-the-test, finished-the-paper, graduated!!), what would you celebrate and what kind of cake would you design?

All the world is birthday cake, so take a slice, but not too much.
• George Harrison

* Lisa Loeb provided the incredibly sensible title quotation. And yes, I do like pie. Homemade apple pie (no canned apples, please), cherry pie, blackberry pie, lemon meringue pie, chocolate cream pie, pecan pie, pumpkin pie, and more. But if I had to choose, let me eat cake.

•• And, Dear Heloise, I often love your advice, but putting marshmallows on a hot cake after removing it from the oven is NOT frosting it. Seriously. What are you thinking?

P.S. Please don’t turn my “Let Us Eat Cake Day” into a celebration of healthy alternatives to delectable gateaus made with real butter, eggs, vanilla, and sugar. That is not what I intend. I’d rather have a salad, thank you very much, and forget about the faux cake imposters. I’m not advocating that everyone eat cake every day. I’m just saying that the real thing is pretty tasty and that every once in a while, there’s good old-fashioned tastiness that could be–nay, should be–sampled, just to keep your tastebuds reminded of once-upon-a-time.

P.P.S. Ice cream cake is not cake. It’s good, but it’s not the kind of cake I want, although I do miss ice cream cake roll (vanilla ice cream rolled up in chocolate cake), best served topped with hot fudge and whipped cream.


Every Writer I Know Has Trouble Writing*

April 27, 2010

I must write it all out, at any cost. Writing is thinking. It is more than living, for it is being conscious of living.
• Anne Morrow Lindbergh

There’s one thing I hate about this blogging thing besides its onrushing daily pressure to perform. It feels like I’m writing less when I’m actually writing more. All of my journaling, regardless of the kind, has usually focused on things I want to say to myself. My professional writing has always been situation- and audience-specific, written for particular purposes. Because all writing could probably be categorized as self-indulgent in some way or another, awareness of an amorphous potential audience—and their potential interest—makes this infinitely more difficult regardless of whether or not I really give a damn if anyone reads it. The word count here may be the same as in a journal, but there’s much I edit out.

I have many words inside of me, like the novelist Vladimir Nabakov (Lolita) who wrote that “the pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible.” This project bullies the other words inside of me; they’re there, but they don’t seem to be coming out to play. Their playtime is dominated by this bigger thing. And, yes, I could stop. Just stop. But not yet.

One of my students, Amy Sidwell, wrote this untitled piece. I hope she’s still out there writing.

I searched this weekend for stories of places like this, people like us.
Living, breathing, rolling their eyes when someone is silly,
pretending not to see when someone cries.
But in all of my books, I could not find our stories.

There were stories of pirates and talking cats,
Women in bloomers and children playing games outside.
I’ve never met a pirate.
My cat doesn’t talk.
No one I know wears bloomers.
And today, children have forgotten how to play outside.
We stay locked inside safe.
Away from the speeding cars, away from the gangs of fear,
away from the winter wind,
Away from the sweetness of a springtime rain.

So I searched for our stories.
In books filled with wild things and sidewalks ending.
In poems full of walks in the woods and lonely beaches.
Our stories our stories are not there.
We keep our stories locked inside like our children.
Only we can write them down, let them out to play in the winter wind.

What’s your story? If you were writing a daily blog, what’s the first thing you’d write about?

Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.
• William Wordsworth

* Thanks to Joseph Heller (please read Catch-22 if you haven’t) for the title quotation.


You’re Awesome! I’m Amazing! This Post Is Awesomely Amazing! No, Wait! It’s Amazingly Awesome!

April 26, 2010

Awesome: inspiring awe, admiration, or wonder. Amaze: to affect with great wonder, to astonish.

Don’t be afraid to be amazing. • Andy Offutt Irwin

Several weeks ago, I read Ann Handley’s post “9 Business Buzzwords I’d Like to Ban Because They Make Us Sound Like Tools (Part 1).” Her April Fools’ Day post was no joke. I am an educator and we are particularly prone to the dense and often incomprehensible use of meaningless jargon and overused buzzwords. Here’s Handley’s list (see for her wisdom): impactful, leverage, learnings, synergy, revolutionary, email blast, proactive, drilldown, 30,000 foot level.

I’ve never used some of these, but there are two I’m fond of. Proactive is one. Students need to be and yet they sometimes sit in class and wait for fate to happen to them rather than asking questions if they don’t understand something or aren’t certain what course requirements are. Waiting until it’s too late to do anything seems to be the opposite of proactivity; I’m not sure what I’d replace that word with. And then there’s synergy.

I’d like to make a plea to retain the use of the word “synergy,” using it when it cannot be replaced by Handley’s offerings of “cooperation,” “help,” and “joint/pooled/combined effort.”

I’ve worked on many committees. I’ve team taught and presented at conferences with other educators. Despite many opportunities to work with others, I have seldom experienced synergy, where combined efforts produced something that was greater than the sum of the parts. Indeed, I have sometimes found that combined efforts can lead to a kind of anti-synergy as creative energy is sucked from the group by endless wrangling and sub-committee-ing and nay saying.

Finally, forget dumping business words. I’d just be happy never to have to hear “awesome” or “amazing” being used to describe anything, except, of course, when I use them.

What words would you do away with because they are overused? What words would you keep even if they are overused because, frankly, they’re just so awesome and amazing?

Always and never are two words you should always remember never to use.
• Wendell Johnson


There Are No Rules Here—We’re Trying to Accomplish Something!*

April 25, 2010

Beaver: The rules are a lot easier on grownups than they are on little boys.
Wally: Sure they are, Beave. The grownups make the rules.
• Leave It to Beaver, Season One, 1957

You’re a grownup. What rules have you created for your life? What do you do and refuse to do? Why? What rules do you believe other people should observe? I’ve been going through 3×5 cards looking for quotations to include on my summer syllabi and found this list of rules:

Living Wisdom School Rules

1) Enjoy yourself.
2) Practice kindness.
3) Choose happiness.
4) Be a loving friend.
5) Laugh often.
6) Trust yourself.
7) Find the joy within.
8) Use your will to create good energy. (I have an 8 here as in the numeral eight, following the numeral 7, but I see on looking at this post that it turns into a smiley face, and thus I am reminded that computers are mindless hunks of junk good only when I direct their doings.)

I Googled® Living Wisdom School to find out more. These are rules I could live by. These are rules I already try to live by. According their website (see, the slogan of the Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, California, is “Where Learning and Joy Come Together.” As a fun researcher, I was delighted to read further and discover this: “Our success is based on a tested principle: when children are happy, they approach learning with enthusiasm.” Indeed. Isn’t this true for pretty much everyone?

The LWS rules leave room for diversity, for creativity, for idiosyncracy, for individualizing, quite different from the kinds of rules often found in schools and other public spaces. As one of my students observed last year, “Is there anything more constrictive to learning and creativity than a room where the walls are plastered with what you cannot do?”

Yet as William Howard Taft, twenty-seventh President of the United States and our tenth Chief Justice—the only person to hold both offices—said, “No tendency is quite so strong in human nature as the desire to lay down rules of conduct for other people.” Sometimes we even create rules we can’t follow ourselves. Anyone who’s ever observed a group of teachers knitting, whispering, grading papers, passing notes, reading, and otherwise paying zero attention at a faculty meeting knows this.

What we would like to have happen is often far removed from what is realistically likely to happen, whether it’s in a classroom or at home or in line at the DMV. The Living Wisdom rules are appealing in part because they are positive, although they would take deliberate and ongoing attention to achieve. They’re all things that sound worthwhile—and easy—until you try to live them daily. I know because I try. The truth is, rules are no easier for grownups than they are for little boys.

Marilyn Monroe said that if she’d observed all the rules, she’d never have gotten anywhere. What rules have you questioned or broken? Why? What rules would you institute if you were designing a school to nurture the joys of creative learning (or whatever it is that your educational goals would be)? The Living Wisdom rules were stated in twenty-five words. Can you state yours in twenty-five words or less?

Freedom requires that you discover your own inner language—your own life rules—your own vision.
• Zephyr Bloch-Jorgensen

Feelings of worth can flourish only in an atmosphere where individual differences are appreciated, mistakes are tolerated, communication is open, and rules are flexible—the kind of atmosphere that is found in an nurturing family.
• Virgina Satir

* Thanks to Thomas Alva Edison for the title quotation.


A Thought That Sometimes Makes Me Hazy: Am I or Are the Others Crazy?*

April 24, 2010

He suffered occasionally from a rush of words to the head.
• Herbert Samuel

Once upon a time, almost thirty years ago, I had an appointment with a psychiatrist. I was selling radio advertising for a living and I detested the job. I thought there was something wrong with me. I liked my clients. My clients liked me. I was successful, but I dreaded every morning that I had to go into the office and out onto the streets. I was so stressed that my doctor recommended I see someone. It only took one visit to find out that the problem was the job. I quit sales and have never done that kind of work since.

Of course, I already knew that this was what I needed to do. Sometimes, we just need official permission.

I wrote a poem in the waiting room:

Owed to a Psychiatrist
by W-OZ

Welcome to my brain,
take a walk inside my head.
You’ll find it more than int’resting
for you can see what I once said.
‘Cause all my thoughts and secret dreams
are filed in little drawers,
and pictures from my past still hang
along the corridors.
Yes, my brain’s a fine and lovely place,
a dandy place to visit,
and while you’re there
I’m sure you’ll see:
It isn’t crazy,
is it?

I spoke with the doctor for less than fifteen minutes. He told me that his prescription was that I find another job. I did.

Are you doing something you shouldn’t be doing? What are you going to do about it?

If I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad.
• Lord Byron

Oh, you hate your job? Why didn’t you say so? There’s a support group for that. It’s called EVERYBODY, and they meet at the bar.
• Drew Carey

* Thanks to Albert Einstein for the title couplet.