Dress up #SOL19 28/31

First, I put on a navy Land’s End dress. You know the type: knee-length, wide neck, 3/4 sleeve, tasteful pattern, ties around the waist. I wear this dress often and it is very teacherly. I check my reflection then go downstairs. “Do you think this looks ok?”

My husband is perplexed. “Umm… yes?”

“It’s parent-teacher conferences,” I remind him.

His face lights up with comprehension. “Oh! Right! Yes. Yes, that’s perfect for parent-teacher conferences. You’ve worn it for them before, I think. Great choice.”

We eat our breakfast, he heads up for a shower, and I get the kids out the door. After they leave, I smooth down the dress and think, I never know which tights to wear with this. And what about shoes?

I head back to our bedroom and check the mirror. The wide neck shows a bit of my bra strap. That’s the end of it. No. Not this dress. I take it off, turn to my closet and start moving the hangers.

Too dowdy. Too short. Too revealing. Maybe pants? No, not pants.

The people who come to meet me at parent-teacher conferences tonight will be diverse. They will be newcomers to Canada or born here. Some will be native English speakers; some will bring children to translate for them; some will struggle through this important conversation in a language that is not their own. Some will be White; many will not.

Some of the “parents” coming tonight will be guardians rather than biological parents. Some are single. Some will come with a partner, but the status of their partner will vary: spouse, significant other, stepparent.  They will be artists, business people, bureaucrats. Their wealth will vary. 

Some of their children find school easy, but many do not.

Each of them will walk into my room with their own cultural expectations of “teacher” and I will or won’t live up to that pre-formed image. But – and here’s the crux of the matter – I really want our talk tonight to focus on their children: on what their child is achieving and what their child can achieve, on how we can work together to help their child reach new goals. I do not want my clothes to challenge anyone’s notion of teacher. I don’t want them to notice my clothes at all.

Hmm… I stare at my closet, perfectly adequate on almost every other day of the school year.

My thoughts cycle through my various students, culling what I know about them, trying to imagine what their parents see in their mind’s eye when they hear “teacher.” How can I honour my students and their parents tonight? How can my presentation of myself speak to them of respect?

Finally, I choose a knee-length black skirt, blue Oxford shirt and black tights. I hesitate between boots and pumps. Pumps are culturally safer but it’s going to rain. I glance at my watch. I really need to get to school. Practicality wins: boots it is.

I check the mirror. “Honey?” I call, “How do I look?”

He comes in, looks at me and smiles: “Like a teacher.”


Now I’m ready to spend the evening not talking about me.



Curses #SOL19 27/31

Today was our big standardized test: the OSSLT, fondly known as the Literacy Test. In Ontario, this is the test all students must pass in order to graduate. They take it in grade 10 (and again if they fail). I more or less hate it, though when I look at my American colleagues, I know I should be grateful that this is the only standardized test we do.

While I was proctoring (well, during a bathroom break), I saw this post from a friend (hi, Katie!):

An itchy curse: May Poison Ivy grow on your grave.

poison ivy
This is the picture Katie took

There’s not a lot to do while you proctor a standardized tests. Some years I try to write haiku or other short poems about students, but I can usually only keep one or two in my head at a time. This year, I made up curses, and let me tell you, I had a hard time not giggling as I “wrote”. Here are the ones I remember:

May your colleagues be chatty.
May your partner be taciturn.
May you read only 5-paragraph essays.
Worse, may you write only 5-paragraph essays.
May your pizzas all be gluten-free.
May your ice cream be ice milk.
May your coffee be lukewarm.
May all your white t-shirts have yellow pits.
May your hairdresser retire.
May raccoons nest in your roof – over your bedroom.
May your children be precocious.
May your library books come due two chapters before you finish.
May your pencils be dull and may your ink pens leak.
May you write standardized tests every day for a year.
Worse, may you proctor standardized tests every day for a year.

Heeheehee. First thing I’ve found in a while that made me smile during testing.



Hello, it’s me again #SOL19 26/31

For part one of this saga, see this post from last year.

Dear Amanda,

I tried to tell you about your doctor’s appointment tomorrow, I really did. I got the email in plenty of time, but – I’m not going to lie – I kind of ignored it since you’re so far away from me. I mean, the only thing Oklahoma and Ontario have in common is that they start with O and I figured the doctor would get in touch. That said, when the next email came and said that they were going to cancel your appointment, I felt a little bad and looked you up. I found out a lot about you, and I nearly called, but then I decided that it might be an unusual introduction. “Hi, this is Amanda Potts, and I’ve been getting your emails… but about that doctor’s appointment, I really think you should go.”

Now, Amanda, maybe you cancelled that in favour of the reunion dinner? I mean, it’s in New Orleans, so it’s going to be hard to make it there after that doctor’s appointment in Oklahoma, but I think you could do it. After all, I’ve got your invitation right here & frankly, food and conversation in New Orleans sound pretty good when viewed from snowy Ottawa.

Rhodes college

As for you, Amanda, I know Arizona is a long way away, but you could keep in touch a little better, I think. I got those emails from Baby Center about trying to get pregnant for so long that it actually started to sound like a good idea. I would not have had to spend the better part of 20 minutes trying to figure out whether or not you had actually had a child if you had just updated the account. (Or if I weren’t avoiding grading, but whatever.) Finally I caved and unsubscribed, but I feel like we’ve fallen out of touch.

And Amanda, Toastmasters is no follow-up to last year’s trip to Portugal. If it wasn’t bad enough that you sent me all of the pre-trip information, having the group share all the pictures with me was really just rubbing salt in my wounds. I feel a little better, however, knowing that this March sees you attending toastmasters rather than yoga on the beach. That said, self-improvement is always a good thing, so you go, girl. I swear I won’t snicker when you’re looking.

And seriously, Amanda, I don’t know which one of you gave my email to Polk County Jail, but I was pretty taken aback when I got a request for communication from an inmate who counts you among his friends and family. Just FYI, since I don’t fit that bill at all, you’re going to have to figure this one out on your own.

Finally, I have a bone to pick with you all: whoever signed up for Ancestry.com and Siriusxm – you’re on my shit list. Let’s stick with more interesting mistakes, please, I’m going to need to update this letter next year, and that sort of novice error just isn’t going to cut it.

Hugs and kisses to all of you,
(the real owner of that email address)


They, um, sort of understand #SOL19 25/31

Paula Borque over at litcoachlady has been offering a wonderful list of ways to spark writing all month long. I’ve been tucking some away, trying some myself and sharing some with my students. On day 18, Paula shared an idea about using sketchnoting to synthesize our reading.  Since I’ve been actively trying to incorporate sketchnoting in my classes, I was instantly intrigued.

My students are in Grade 10 and many (though not all) arrive in my class without a strong reading base. They will admit to reading few or no books for several years, to fake reading, to avoiding writing and more. I’ve been using choice reading with conferencing to assess their understanding and development as readers, but all of this is mediated through words. I wondered what would happen if I used Paula’s spark and asked my students to sketch something from their reading after our independent reading time. The results were fascinating.

Some students clearly understand what they are reading. Below, I can see this student’s focus on character relationships, plot and even some emerging theme in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.img_8421

The next student is reading HP Lovecraft (!) and his sketchnote highlights his focus on sentence structure and diction. He chose to sketch a two-sentence paragraph that he found hard to understand because of its diction and complex structure. Afterwards, he said that sketching helped him figure out what it meant.img_8428

Another fascinating moment was this one, where a student who is really a novice reader tried sketching a moment from Monster. He originally thought that Mr. Harmon was the judge, but as he drew, he realized something didn’t fit. We spoke briefly, looked at the text, and learned that Mr. Harmon was the father not the judge. He was talking to his son in the visiting area of the prison. This sketchnote helped him clarify his understanding and helped me see his gaps.

The next day, that same student picked up far more details as he read:


Finally, one of my English Language Learners spends her independent reading time working with our (amazing, generous, talented) librarian on language development. Right now we’re specifically working on English vocabulary for everyday words in her home, since her family doesn’t speak English. Rather than sketch her understanding of a book, she sketched a room in her house and labeled as many items as she could. Then I was able to sit with her and identify some errors and add a few new words. This was incredibly effective. I was able to see that she hears/says “belw” for “pillow” and “cheer” for “chair.” Her pronunciation of those words improved almost immediately once we recognized this. Moving from “rog” to “rug” was harder. We also added “dresser” “sheets” and “bedspread” to her lexicon. Baby steps.


To be clear, I didn’t just walk into class and say, “Hey guys, draw today.” First, I sketchnoted my own reading – the graphic novel 7 Generations – alongside my students. We talked about my choices in terms of plot, character, important ideas and images. I’m never going to win any awards for my art, but I think the students felt better knowing that I really wasn’t looking for perfection.


Then, we did it three days in a row so that they had a chance to really “get it.” Some students moved quickly back to writing – no drawing for them, thank you very much –  but others stuck with sketchnotes. In the end, I think that sketchnoting our understanding of our reading expanded the way some students could express themselves and let them show me what they know in a way that isn’t exclusively mediated by words. Sketchnoting let me see some of the processes of student comprehension. It feels like this is another tool in my toolkit to help develop proficient readers. Thanks, Paula.


Tidying up #SOL19 24/31

Buried deep in the folds of a soft blanket on the couch, Thomas whispered, “She’s so nice” and I knew we were in trouble. He was at home sick for a second day, something I can hardly remember happening before, and he had turned on Marie Kondo’s show on Netflix. It was that bad. Also, he was in love.

Thomas is our tidy child. He likes predictable days, down time and organized spaces, so I should have known that Marie Kondo would appeal to him. Once he felt better, he surveyed our home with barely hidden disdain and declared, “Our house is WAY too cluttered. We need to declutter and tidy up.” He was relentless and March Break was coming, so we spent a fair amount of March Break decluttering, as per Marie Kondo. And Thomas. 

On day two, I attacked the papers. Twelve years ago I moved from Paris to Ottawa. The year before that I moved from Washington, DC to Paris. In both cases, I had to fill out reams of paperwork – visa applications, work permits, teaching certifications, permanent resident applications, banking information, moving documents… Getting married in the middle of all this meant marriage certificate, followed by birth certificates, passport applications, dual citizenship forms… My whole life seemed to depend on a flurry of papers, originals and photocopies, sorted and organized into binders and folders and sent to various agencies or presented at kiosques to people who made decisions based on paper.

So I didn’t throw much out.

Actually, the evidence suggests that I stopped throwing out any paper at all. I had a lot of paper.

My husband and children gave me some space (hours and hours) and I went through the papers, a history of my life in documents, keepsakes and cards.

A horoscope, ripped from the newspaper and squirreled away for reasons I can no longer fathom
More than one to-do list, partially checked off
A moving announcement – the toddlers in the picture are now in middle school; the family has moved twice since this announcement – and baby photos of children who are now in high school
A Father’s Day card which I’d swear I’ve never seen before from my mother to her father when I was a few months old
Multiple bookmarks and untouched writing notebooks
French poems, papers, and general teaching materials. I haven’t taught French in nearly a decade.
A 22-year old checkbook register
Handouts from a course I’d forgotten I’d taken
A printout of an article I was quoted in from the Chicago Tribune
Patterns for sweaters that I am frankly glad I never made
Annotated texts I taught 20 years ago
Evidence of early decluttering attempts – saved, of course
More than one article proving that I’ve been worried about my weight forever. Sigh
Approximately a million cards from friends, family and former students. I was not able to throw away any of these away. 

In fact, Marie Kondo would be horrified by how much of this I kept, and I pretty much can’t let Thomas into the attic for fear of the righteousness of a 10-year-old, but I was pretty proud of how much I recycled and shredded.

And I was rewarded for all my hard work. In the middle of the keepsakes and the papers, I found a small envelope with a pink border and my name printed in pencil. It was thick enough to make me curious, so I opened it and found… 500 euros! Triumph! We just won’t discuss the fact that I haven’t been to Europe in 12 years and I have no idea who this came from or how long it’s been there.

This was obviously the ideal place to take a break. And after a few hours away, I realized the break could possibly extend for months, or even years. Those papers are still up there waiting for me, but that money is in the bank. And hey, someday maybe the memory of that will encourage me to follow more of Marie Kondo’s advice. Next thing you know, I might be letting my socks breathe or spacing my t-shirts out. Not so sure about keeping up with the papers. 



Hey, Turkey! #SOL19 23/31

After yesterday’s post, which included turkey vultures, the children would like me to explain how turkeys have come to figure prominently in our family jokes.

Our camping trip had been largely a bust. We’d had a good first day, but now everything everywhere was wet. The rain came sporadically – just enough to keep us from doing anything but not quite enough to send us home. Mercifully, our tent wasn’t leaking, but keeping an almost-4-year-old and a 6-year-old occupied in a tent was taking a toll on everyone. Finally, after an aborted attempt to tell yet another story, Andre declared that it was “just water” and loaded us all into the car to go find a trailhead and take a hike.

Camping in the rain1

The children were shocked.

“But it’s raining!” protested one.

“And muddy!” objected the other, looking at me because I, too, was grumpy and this sudden decision to hike in the rain struck me as, um, unwise. I kept my mouth shut and tried to be impressed by Andre’s enthusiasm, but I was mostly annoyed as I imagined more mud in more places.

We shoved everyone into rain gear and drove the five minutes to the trailhead in silence.

As we got out of the car, the drizzle began again and a breeze shook water from the trees onto our heads. Commence loud complaining. Andre, whose ability to be creative and funny in the face of daunting circumstances never ceases to amaze me, stepped onto the trail then stopped short and said, “Ssh… you don’t want to scare the turkeys!”

Wait. What?

He crouched down a little and looked towards the forest as though turkeys might appear at any moment. “Ok,” he whispered, “these are special giant turkeys unique to this region. The biggest ones can get as big as a small car. Actually, one was nearly as big as our car.”

The boys looked doubtful. I was trying very hard not to laugh. Andre continued, “If we want to see them, we need to proceed carefully. And we need to call them. Do you know how to call a turkey?”

We all shook our heads no. Andre, still crouched and tiptoeing, started to gobble while the three of us, convinced he had lost his mind, just stared at him. Then I thought, what the heck, and I started to gobble, too. Thomas watched us briefly and joined in. We proceeded cautiously towards the trees, gobbling like maniacs. Only 3-year-old Eric hung back.

Andre turned around and said quietly, “C’mon, Eric, don’t you want to help call the turkeys?” Eric just stared at him. He shook his head.

Thomas and I chimed it, cajoling, “Come on, it’s easy, you just say ‘gobble, gobble’.”

Eric shook his head again. He was not going to gobble. The rest of us might have gone insane, but he was maintaining a firm grip on reality.

Andre tried one more time, “Ok, Eric. If you don’t want to gobble, how do you call a turkey?”

Eric fixed us all with narrowed eyes, put his hands around his mouth, leaned back and bellowed, “HEY! TURKEY!”

The rest of the hike was lots of fun.



Bedtime Routine #SOL19 22/31

“I would like to be chased upstairs by turkey vultures.”

If this were Survivor, the contestant would be sweating. In our house, it’s bedtime.

Allow me to explain.

We have a really long bedtime routine at our house. It takes at least an hour – usually more – and, in addition to the standard washing and brushing, includes the kids reading out loud in French, me or their dad reading out loud in English, and often time for reading quietly in their beds. And lots of snuggles, some of which are code for “for the love of all that is good, stop moving your body.”

From an outsider’s perspective, that may seem excessively long, but last evening alone perfectly illustrates why our children need so much time to settle down.

7pm, our kitchen

I look up from commenting on a blog post. “Thomas, you know the rule: no handstands after 7. Are you done making your lunch?”

“Yes. Just let me get in one more good one. Wait – will you take a picture? No wait, a video. You can put it on your blog.” He continues to do handstands. Up. Down. Up. Down.

I stare implacably. No, wait, I don’t. I actually say, “Sure, one picture” because I am a sucker and I am tired. Plus, I am twenty-two days into a month-long blog challenge, so I will take almost any topic. Three handstands later, I crack, “Enough. That’s all the handstands for today.”

In the background, his father is unperturbed. This child does a lot of handstands.

Thomas pleads: “Please…. Just one more. Wait, that one wasn’t good. One more good one.”

This time I hold firm and shoo him up the stairs. I am turning my focus to child #2 when my husband jumps in to help.

“Mr. Eric, do you need to do any more on your lunch or would you like to be chased upstairs by your father screeching like a Tyrannosaurus Rex?”

Long pause. Eric tilts his head and shoots his father a mischievous look. 

“I would like to be chased upstairs by turkey vultures.” He tears out of the kitchen.

And dad is up, running through the house, lifting his knees high, gobbling like a turkey while flapping his “wings.” Eric runs shrieking in front of him, swings around the newel post and flees up the stairs.

Don’t judge, it’s the fastest way to get him up to bed. But it does make a for a long bedtime routine. Good thing we all like the snuggles.