Saturday, February 28, 2015

Never Tease Mother Nature

So, last Saturday, we blithely planted our tomatoes. We lolled around outdoors in the balmy sunshine and patted ourselves on the backs for living in this pleasant climate in February.

Sunday, the wind picked up, the chill blew in, and it poured cold rain for hours. We shivered through the day. I worried that our tomatoes were going to need a cover for the night. It didn't get that cold, however. But, as the day did get pretty dang cold. This was the view from the school parking lot on Monday morning.

See the top of that mountain behind our house? The one WITH SNOW ALL OVER IT?? And that was just a dusting. The tall mountains across the valley were totally white. It was fantastically beautiful!  The lower-elevation red rocks with were dusted more thickly with snow than our big rocks and they were spectacular! There is something especially attractive about red rocks and snow.

Well, it has remained quite chilly all week. We just barely made it into the 60's each day. (I know, I know...New England is under a blanket of ice. It's even freezing in the South.) They're predicting more rain and snow here again this weekend. Guess, we've learned our lesson. We will definitely wait until March before we plant tomatoes next year. February is STILL WINTER, and we won't forget it.

 The students were SO excited to see the snow this close to home.
It stayed cold enough that it wasn't all melted until we went up to collect them from recess at 1:10 P.M.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Washington's Birthday

Did you know that George Washington was a farmer? And that it was his favorite job of all the things he did in his life? Well, he wasn't exactly the guy with the shovel in hand. He owned thousands of acres, and had a big staff and a large group of slaves, too. So, of course, they did the actual work part with the shovels, the plows, the horses, etc. But, in my teaching of 4th grade back in Maryland, we went to Mt. Vernon, his home, on a field trip each year. We learned all about his life before, during, and after the visits,  and one of the interesting ways they taught the students about his life was to divide it into the four jobs that he had.

First, he was a surveyor as an older teen. Second, he was a farmer. He'd inherited the estate from his older half-brother, Lawrence, upon the brother's untimely death. The third job, of course, was general of the Continental Army, and, fourth was president of the United States. During the Revolutionary War and the Presidency, he maintained Mt. Vernon as his home, and his wife, Martha and her two children lived there. (She was a widow when she married George.)

His other roles caused him to spend so many years away from Mt. Vernon, and because he loved living there, he lamented the lost time. If you've never gone to visit this historical site, you need to put it on your list. It's beautiful and educational, and it is easy to see why he didn't like being gone. He was an innovator, not just a farmer who did what had always been done. He built a large greenhouse and grew lemon and orange trees, and even a few banana trees. When he was at Mt. Vernon (and not fighting the French or the British or being president) he kept extensive records about everything grown there, the latest results of tree grafting, and which kinds of wheat were turning out most suited for their soil. He quit growing tobacco early on and went into grain because it gave a better return for the effort. He'd go out everyday and ride all over the estate to check on things.

So, why am I talking about farming, again? Well, we celebrated the 1st president on Saturday by doing a little farming ourselves. A mighty little...we planted our tomatoes. We've found that if we get the tomatoes in the ground by early March, we can usually get a big harvest before the strong heat starts up. It's one thing to be 105 degrees during the day, but until early June, it usually cools down a little at night. But, when the nights stay hot, too, then the tomato flowers won't bloom anymore and the few blossoms left won't set fruit. So, since the plants need 60 days to produce fruit, we've learned to plant them so they have plenty of time to pop out juicy tomatoes for a month or two before they wilt in the summer blast.

If we do that, then we just let them sit there sagging through June, July and August. By mid-September, the nights are cooling down again, and the tomato plants perk up again. In October they put out new leaves and pretty soon we get flowers and all through November and December we can harvest more tomatoes! Usually around Christmas time, it starts to get really cold, dropping into the 30's at night. So, I go out and pluck off all the green tomatoes that have formed, and bring them in to ripen on the counter. We always get some frosty nights in December and January and that finishes off the plants. So, tomato-time is officially finished until my favorite month: February.

 It isn't just my birthday that makes me celebrate. It's the sunlight increase, and the warm air that spreads across the desert. We decided to take advantage of the fabulous warm week we'd had and dig up the garden, pluck out the weeds and plant this year's tomato crop. Even though it is raining and brisk out there tonight (40 degrees---it was 77 yesterday!!) I know that winter is OVER and we're on the countdown to caprese salad and tomato sandwiches and the yumminess of the world's healthiest food.

 Here's a close-up of one of our plants.

 I didn't plant anything else but tomatoes this year. We have ten plants. I'll add basil next month when it's consistently warmer.
 Basil thrives in the summer blast furnace.

 Spring is really here! The geraniums survived the freeze because I brought them over from the edge of the patio to the shelter of the house and covered them with beach towels. They like the sunshine and warm air. Me, too.

Here's what happens to desert plants that get lots of water.
 Flowering succulents are beautiful and bees love them.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Best Valentine Bag Ever

The fourth graders had some time to make a Valentine bag in school last week. I gave out a bag and some pink, white and red paper to each student and let them have at it. One boy asked if he had to use hearts. I assured him that it was his container, and he could do with it whatever he chose. Voila:

His dad is a retired Army ranger. I told him it was my favorite Valentine bag, ever.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015


Unless you are the mother of a nine-year old girl, or a fourth grade teacher, you may not realize what a important day it is tomorrow in our schools here in Las Vegas. You see, on Friday, there is a staff development day planned, so no students will be at school. That means, that TOMORROW, THURSDAY, is the BIG DAY.

I went for a quick trip to the market tonight to pick up milk and oranges and a couple of things. I drove into the parking lot, and was --- for a minute -- astounded at how busy it was! But, I immediately realized why so many cars were there, and the parking lot was filled with moms and little kids. They were all rushing in, at the last minute, to get their Valentines! The place was packed with elementary aged kids, agonizing over the choices left in the pick-over section where all the cards, candy and doo-dads were stacked.

Now, I know that probably some parent hadn't realized until today that they needed the cards tomorrow. Or maybe some people were counting their coins to make sure that they'd have enough to pick up the cards today. I know that some of my students have been laboring for a while, hand-making their cards. That's what happened at our house during those certain elementary years when my daughters wanted just the exact right cards to convey to all their friends how much they adored them on this day of love.

It isn't about "love" when you're nine. Oh, maybe there is a certain boy you might have a little crush on, and so you get or make an especially nice card for him. But mostly it is about the fun, the candy, the tradition. At nine, most of your passions are directed at your best friends---usually the same gender as you. Valentine's Day is just a chance to show them, officially, that they mean something to you. I love Valentine's Day as a teacher. It is really important to my students, so it is really important to me. We'll have fun tomorrow, during our subdued celebrations, with our mandated "healthy" treats, and everyone will enjoy opening their cards and squealing.

My 11 year-old granddaughter sent me this photo of the Valentines that she has been making for her friends. They contain a little word search and a dot-to-dot---all made by her, of course.

She inherited this attention to detail, and craftsmanship, from her mother who is shown here at a slightly younger age, making Valentines at the dining room table. Note her trusty assistant: Eskimo Pie, the pet rat.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Telling More Stories...One Seed at a Time

Here's another "watermelon seed" story I wrote to show my class how you should focus on just one small part of a vacation. So many times they tend to write down every single thing that they did if they went to Disneyland or somewhere. It ends up sounding like a list instead of a story. When I read this one to them, I ask if anyone heard anything about the S'mores we made at the campfire that night? Or did I tell about burying our grandchildren in the sand up to their chins? Do I even tell them that this was part of our four day camping trip and there were about 12 people with us?  No...because those things could all be part of other stories. The whole camping trip is too big to explain everything that happened, in just one little story. Good writers just tell a piece at a time. It should be a little movie in the reader's head.

It was like being on a cloud. I was floating on the green, cool ocean along the edge of Carpenteria State Beach. It’s one of my favorite places in the world. The oak covered mountains loomed into the sky off in the east. The dim outline of Santa Cruz Island was visible through the misty clouds hovering off-shore. I was suspended in between, drifting and bobbing like a piece of human seaweed. 
            I could hear the surf splashing as it landed on the sand. I could hear laughter and yelling from the people using body boards or just frolicking in the wave break. But all the noise was far away as my body dipped and rose with the moving ocean. 
             As I gazed around, a dark form appeared from above, and I was astounded to see a pelican dive, bill-first, straight into the water not ten feet from me. He was such a perfect arrow shape that his body hardly made a splash. He disappeared entirely into the water and then, almost immediately, bobbed back up—gulping down a fish. I could see it through the skin on his throat as he swallowed. 
             He floated there serenely, looking at me, blinking, not even caring if I shared his watery feed ground. I was simply one more creature in the vast Pacific Ocean.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

One Little Moment

One thing I try to teach my students when they are learning to write a personal narrative is to just tell a little story. Don't write a long list of every single thing that happened. Just choose one moment or experience and describe it. Here is an example of this--a story I wrote one period while my students were also writing...
           How many years have I been driving cars? Let’s do the math: 57-16= 41 years. Plus, for many years before that, I drove tractors. My point here is that I have a lot of experience in pumping gas into vehicles with an internal combustion engine.
            But, I felt like I’d dropped into another universe on that Saturday afternoon in Swan Valley, Idaho. I’d pulled into the gas station and got my ATM card out. It was a glorious Indian Summer day. Aspen leaves glittered gold on the hillsides. There was a gentle breeze. I slid my card through the slot, pushed the buttons to select the desired octane, and then the beeping started. It was an exceptionally irritating beep, too. Loud, persistent, piercing the pleasant afternoon ambiance; and I couldn’t get it to stop! Nor could I get any gas to move into my car.
             I looked all over the face of the pump. The screen said, “Push to start pump” in white electronic letters, all the while that obnoxious beeping continued. I pushed every button I could find---nada—still beeping! So, I hit the “cancel card” button. I examined it all again. Carefully I re-did the entire sequence. “BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!” Still, no gas! I cancelled a second time.
            “Okay,” I thought. “There has to be an answer here.”  Ah…Finally I saw it. Up above all the pump handles and hoses, there was a yellow sticker saying, “Push Here to Start.” So, I slid my card, pushed my choices on the keypad, lifted the nozzle, chose my octane, and “Pushed Here to Start.”  It was a miracle! The numbers on the pump sprang to life and gas finally flowed into my car. 

Sunday, February 01, 2015

The Learning Goes On

I meant to write something every day last week, then I'd get home, and  just drop onto the chair exhausted. However, there is no rest for the wicked...I spent all day Saturday at conference on Blended Learning. I'm obligated to attend two more of these techie conferences--one in February and one in March---in order to earn my professional development credit. Yes, even though I've completed two separate college degrees, the requirements never cease to add more notches to the belt in order to continue license renewal. I'm sure most professional certifications are like this. But, I learned some great things!

Ha, ha! One of them was about a system that is somewhat like Facebook for teachers and students to interface on the computer in school. It's called Edmodo, and, although I've had an account for a year, and I've gone to at least three other sessions to learn about it, finally yesterday it clicked! I sat there, in the "beginners" session, once again, and as I logged into my account, and listened to the moderator, I suddenly saw everything she was talking about! This time as I gazed at the screen, her words and directions made sense! I inserted some skill quizzes for my students to practice; I replied to a query from someone; I realized how I could easily use this in my classroom! YEAH! So, the main lesson I learned yesterday is that I need to revisit the introductory classes for new technologies at least four times, if I don't "get it" the first three times! I'm so excited to go back on Monday and get this going in my classes.

Another interesting event from yesterday was that I was the answer to someone else's prayer. Yes, she told me. In the parking lot, I saw another person wandering from door to door trying to figure out which one was open and where we were to check in. She joined up with me, and we finally were successful. I asked her which classes she intended to go to and she asked if she could just follow me to the first one. Sure...I had a plan. Well, it turned out that she was hired in September, and just moved here from Colorado. It was also a career change for her, in that she'd been an engineer for a telecommunications company for a couple of decades. She was recently divorced--hence the big move to another place. Anyway, she was felt overwhelmed by her new job, and came to this tech conference for ideas on managing her classes. She declared that I was the answer to her prayer that morning to find someone who knew what they were doing, and she could just pal around with them, to get her from spot to spot. Turns out that she teaches in a middle school just up the street from my school. Students that I taught go to that school (as well as a couple of others) and so we share the demographics and families. She announced that when she found out all these details, she knew I was sent to her to help her today. I thanked her very much, and we really did enjoy one another's company for the whole conference, and lunch.

So, my lessons for the week: prayer works, and listen to/read the directions enough times and finally they will mean something!