Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Hot Wheels

My daughter Sera has recently been playing with some small die-cast cars we got for free inside one of our 200 boxes of Golden Grahams. I never really considered buying her any toy cars, but the other day we were at Toys R Us looking for pads for her tricycle, and I found Hot Wheels track. Yes, they sell individual pieces of Hot Wheels track for $0.89! You remember the orange strips of track with the plastic pieces that hold them together, don't you? Well, today we had some fun as we put them together to make a track all the way across the living room. The only two cars I had handy, of course, were Batmobiles, so we put them both on the track. And yes, the 1966 TV Batmobile is faster than the 1989 movie car. As it should be. It's way cooler.

Monday, June 23, 2008


I wonder what George Carlin would have had to say about this.

Yahoo! I'm a Teacher!

Yahoo has a great article called, "Five Rewarding Careers that Let you have a Life:"

"Teacher K-12
Many teachers use the summer to catch up with family, enjoy long vacations, and complete additional online education courses. Even with three months off, many K-12 teachers earn over $41,000 per year. Changes in recruitment policies now mean that you can start a teaching job in many places before completing a degree in education.

New state and federal mandates require job applicants to complete at least a few online education courses before beginning their teaching careers. Many school districts have even invested in dedicated recruitment programs designed to help professionals from other fields earn education degrees. For retirees, a teaching career offers the chance to stay active while earning an income and enjoying summers off."

Do any of you teachers out there have three months off at this point? Our school system is about three weeks short of that every year. It's called June, July, and the first week of August now. And, do you know that under No Child Left Behind, you are not a "highly qualified" teacher until you have a degree in the subject which you are teaching, as well as certification? And wow, $41 WHOLE thousand dollars a year? I couldn't make that if I worked in a factory. Oh, wait, yes I could. The part they left out is that 50% of new teachers quit within five years of joining the profession. It's high-stress little reward, and Yahoo makes it sound like a vacation for retirees. Sheesh.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Getting Ready to Roll

Preparing for a long trip can be tiring. Ordinarily, our big trips are south to see Magi's whole family. We stay in the same condo every time, stop at the same hotel every time, and usually stop at the same restaurants on the way down.

This time is different. This time, we are traveling west, to somewhere we've never been. We're going to go to Wizard World Chicago (a comic book convention) on Sunday, then leave for Omaha Monday morning to go to the zoo. I just got tickets to the Rockies game at Coors Field in Denver for Tuesday, and then on to my dad's house in Utah on Wednesday. I've been west several times, mainly to Arizona and once to California, but I've always flown in. I've never driven west of St. Louis, so this will be a truly different trip. I've been picking up picnic supplies so that we can make stops on the way out to eat lunches. I have to pick up a little gas grill this week to tailgate on the trip as well. McDonalds is okay to buy a Coke, but I hate their food.

Next up is making hotel reservations. We'll stay at hotels on the way out, but I'm not sure what we'll do on the way back. Outside of visiting my sister, I haven't planned that part of the trip at all, which makes it kind of spontaneous and fun. We may camp; we may find something else we want to do. I guess that's what vacation is all about, right?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


I played golf today for the first time this year. I'm more of a social golfer than a serious one. I have a cheap set of clubs and I'll go when people ask, and generally enjoy myself. But today was kind of nice, as it was the best nine holes that I ever played. I shot a 56, which is not good, but for me it was a tremendous boost. I didn't get double digits on any hole! I hit everything pretty well today except my driver, which I'm pretty sure is hopeless. I'm going to get one with a steel shaft. The flexibility of my current one just makes me slice everything. I gave it up after two drives and started teeing off with my three wood. It was 100% better.

When I got home from my round I took Sera out to play miniature golf. She whacked at the ball a few times, but generally had fun looking at the elephant and giraffe statues and throwing her yellow ball and retrieving it. Next time I'm bringing my own putter to the place. I could use the practice.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Hail to the Chef!

So there we were last night, headed out to a Father's Day dinner. The Tigers had won their sixth consecutive game with a nail-biting finish and we were all hungry. We piled into the car and headed west...right into a hail storm. It came on without warning. One second it was fine, and then a torrent came down on our windshield. Tree branches started falling across our path, and hail the size of quarters rained down on our new van. We turned around and high-tailed it right back home!

A few minutes after we got back the storm lessened and then moved on, but Sera was already scared by the first storm so we decided to just cook at home. I ran out and picked up some ribeyes, and when I got home about 20 minutes later, here was the scene in our back yard:
Sera's flowerbed (click here for the before pictures) was a little worse for wear, but her tomato plant and geranium survived okay, despite the collection of hailstones in the pots.
I cooked us all a nice meal and even had leftover steak, from which I made a Ribeye McMuffin with Egg (with a healthy whole wheat English muffin) this morning. When McDonalds starts serving that meal, they'll get my business for sure!

Double Double Feature

Okay, now what could be cooler than a double feature of "The Incredible Hulk" followed by "Iron Man?" Nothing!

No spoilers. Keep reading!

Saturday night was a perfect night for the drive-in. My buddy Doug and his whole family went with us to Plymouth. This is the time of year when the theater's concession stand starts getting crowded, so we ate before we left. We stopped by Little Ceasar's and picked up pizza and sat around and chatted for a while, then made the short trip down to the drive-in. From Doug's house, it's a really short trip because they live in a spot where back roads bypass two speed trap towns that we ordinarily travel through every week. The towns are no joke. When they post 35 miles per hour, they mean 35. Their main source of revenue is from speeding ticket fines. I think they have Mad Max's Interceptor vehicle from the 80s standing by in case it's needed.

When we got to the theater we pulled up next our blue poles as usual, and got out the chairs. We spread a blanket on the ground for Sera to play on and I ran in to get the popcorn. We always tell Sera to stay on the blanket so she knows where her boundaries are. When I got back, Sera asked for her baby's blanket, which I dutifully got from the car. She laid it down next to her blanket, thus extending her permitted travel area! This girl is a precocious one. Uncle Doug brought back cotton candy for his two youngest and Sera got to share in the sugary goodness. I figure they owed me at least one sugared-up kid. Back when their 16-year old was eight, I took him and his then-teenaged uncle to a movie and then bowling. We went to Seven-Eleven to get a 44-oz. Slurpee right before I brought him home, and they reported that he bounced off the walls for hours. At the time I thought I was safe from retribution, but I was mistaken!

When the sun set and the movie began, we settled in to watch. "The Incredible Hulk" did not disappoint! Unlike the Ang Lee film, which I didn't think was bad, this movie was great. I think it was almost as good as Iron Man. It captured all the right beats of the tragedy that is the Hulk's story. It showed Bruce Banner as a responsible guy on the run, and trying to get out from under the curse of his gamma-irradiated alter ego. Like "Iron Man," there are nods to the past, some subtle (and some not-so-subtle) in-jokes, and of course the ubiquitous Stan Lee cameo. Every time I see Stan on the screen, though, I always think that it's too bad that co-creator Jack Kirby couldn't have lived to see this.

Marvel Productions has really done a good job establishing a new paradigm for their superhero movies. Seeing both these movies together, you really do get the sense that both characters live in the same world. It doesn't appear to be the same world that the movie Daredevil, Fantastic Four and X-Men live in (I haven't seen "Ghost Rider" yet), but I do think Spider-Man and the Punisher as portrayed in the movies would fit in well. It will be interesting to see what they do next as far as establishing future crossovers.

It's a great time to be a comic book fan at the movies!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Father's Day

Happy Father's Day to all of you dads out there.

I have found that being a father is the most rewarding thing I have ever done. I'll give you an example: Last night, we went to the drive-in to see "The Incredible Hulk" and "Iron Man," and Sera was awakened at 2 AM from all the cars leaving and didn't go back to sleep for the whole ride home. She struggled to sleep even after we put her in her crib last night. Finally, at 4 AM, I went to get her out because she was crying. As she lay in the bed, she jumped around and punched me in the eye! But one thing made the entire sleepless night worthwhile was when she kissed me on the cheek. Magi and I often pretend to be asleep and the one of us that remains awake tells her that the way to wake the sleeping parent is to kiss them on the cheek. So, when she kissed me on the cheek, I actually did wake up and gave her a hug and she told me, "I love you."

There is nothing better than this.

Church Signs

There is a church in nearby Mishawaka whose signs just kill me. It seems like each week they say something more outrageous than the one before. This one was especially entertaining to me, because I am an atheist. I respect other people's right to believe how they choose, but it seems like it doesn't always go both ways. When I am asked in class about my beliefs, I am reluctant to express them, because it always invites a debate that I am not about to have. I like working too much. While Christian teachers often engage students in public schools on the subject without repercussion, atheists don't have that same luxury.

I'm reminded of Jon Stewart's quote: "Yes, the long war on Christianity. I pray that one day we may live in an America where Christians can worship freely! In broad daylight! Openly wearing the symbols of their religion.... perhaps around their necks? And maybe - dare I dream it? - maybe one day there can be an openly Christian President. Or, perhaps, 43 of them. Consecutively. "

Friday, June 13, 2008

Sera's Dollar Monday and Summer Plans

On Monday night, we were watching the news when the forecast for the Silverhawks game came on during the weather. Magi asked me if I wanted to go. I had quite forgotten that it was Dollar Monday again, so instead of cooking dinner, we packed Sera up in the minivan (now dubbed "The Crimson Cruiser") and went.

We arrived later than usual, and I had to park three blocks away and carry Sera, since I had dropped Magi off at the ticket window. We found our seats quickly, but it was crowded. Sera had very little room to move around, and the crowd was fascinating to her. She wanted to see everything. I was also a little leary about sitting on the third base line because of the people who had been drilled with line drives the previous two times I had gone. I'm pretty sure I can protect myself, but I wouldn't stake Sera's life on being able to deflect a ball coming right at her unless I had my glove with me, and I didn't. So when the announcement came over the PA system that we could upgrade our dollar tickets to box seats at a cost of $2 each, I ponied up the $6 and we sat right behind the plate. Sera now had her own chair, an unobstructed view of the action, and a screen to deflect foul balls that came our way. I could finally relax!

From these seats, I observed five people with radar guns sitting in the same section. Not only were they charting the speeds and locations of the pitches, but they were also making notes on position players and their hitting strengths and weaknesses. At one point, I saw a scout pass over a business card with the Kansas City Royals logo on it to another scout. There were other scouts without radar guns making notes of the game as well. Magi leaned over to me and suggested that it would be my dream job. Gee, I don't know, being paid to travel all over the country watching baseball games? That just sounds rough. When I was single, I would have done it for free, but as a parent I know it would be hard on my family, just as it is for the players and coaches of teams in both minor and major leagues.

When I retire, I want to do stuff just like that. I love to write in this blog. I would love to travel, take photographs and write about the places I visit. That's why I'm looking so forward to July. Once summer school ends on June 27, we are taking off. First, we'll be headed to Utah. We're going to pass through Omaha to see the zoo, and spend the night. Then we'll stop in Denver to take in a Rockies game. After that, we'll visit my father, and then my sister in Utah. We haven't even decided on our route back, yet. We might just be spontaneous, and see where the road takes us!

Later in the month, we are going to Mackinac Island for a weekend at the Grand Hotel, which was a gift that Magi's dad gave us two Christmases ago. We didn't even get a spare weekend last year to use it, which is probably just as well. Sera will appreciate it more this year with all the flowers and "horsies" there. We're going to camp in northern Michigan with my buddy Eric for the week leading up to that weekend, too. I'm going to start plotting out that trip soon, because there are certain places where I know some good camping spots and beautiful sights to see. Magi's never even been to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan before, and I used to live there when I was in sixth grade. It is a beautiful place to visit and live.

All I have to do is make it through two more weeks of summer school and then we will be off!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Double Feature

Now, is Screen 1's double feature a comic book fan's dream come true, or what? Yes, that's "The Incredible Hulk" on a double bill with "Iron Man." Seriously, how many of you would have ever thought that we would see something like this happen in our lifetimes?

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Back to School

Well, after four days without kids, I'm back at it today. Yesterday was spent in my new classroom planning every hour of the 17-day summer school session. High school summer school kids meet with the same teacher for 4.5 hours, with five minute breaks every hour. It's more relaxed, and yet it's not. Attendance is strictly adhered to. You miss more than two days for any reason and you're out. It's not a bad day, really. You're out by noon, home by 12:20, and you get to have lunches that look like this:

I made these by hand the other night, and they were good. I love my new grill!

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Father's Day Came Early!

My wife suprised me with a Father's Day gift almost three weeks early. When Magi told me that she had a Father's Day gift in mind for me and that there was a timely sale involved, I correctly guessed that she wanted to get me a new gas grill. I bought my last gas grill (left) in 1999, and it has certainly seen better days. Five years ago, the electronic ignition went out, and three years ago, the burner covers rusted and collapsed, and it hasn't cooked evenly since. I'd learned where the hot spots were, and could mostly compensate for its quirks, but every year we'd talked about getting a new one. So when she confirmed that I was to get a new gas grill I was very excited. While at work the next day, I asked where she wanted to get it from, and she told me that it was from Home Depot. When I looked at Home Depot's weekly flyer, I saw a nice little $200 grill that seemed within our budget. I'd only spent about $100 on our last one, and got every penny's use out of it. But when she showed me the one she wanted to buy, I just about fell over. Now I have a brand new five-burner, 60,000 BTU Charmglow gas grill. It has a thermometer and a side burner, and even a side table where I can work while cooking. She said that it was about time that we had a grownup's grill. I laughed, because even at 43 years old, sometimes I still feel like I should be living a spartan life like a kid living in a college dorm. I'm a father now, and like it or not, I should be grown up by now.

Speaking of being a father, I've undertaken a new endeavor with Sera. Last weekend, we planted in the back yard. We always had a vegetable garden when I was a kid, but my job was limited to weeding and killing tomato worms with my BB gun, execution-style. So I got some potting soil and a tomato plant, and Magi bought some flower seeds, and we went to work. The tomato plant is doing quite well so far, but what amazes me are the flowers. I made small holes with my fingers and Sera laid and covered the seeds, and we both watered, and a week later, here they are coming up out of the dirt! I'm beginning to understand the satisfaction that farmers must get from their livelihoods. It's rewarding seeing results so quickly! If this experiment continues to be successful, we'll plant more next year. I really love fresh tomatoes, and I'd love to have them all summer long!

School's Out!

If you're not interested in my education posts, you may want to skip this one. It's a long reflection on the school year that's more therapeutic for me than informative for you.

There's nothing like the last day of the school year to make me relax. On Friday, I had the whole day to work without students, whose last day was Thursday. I had all my paperwork, grading, and inventory done by 9:00 AM. We are supposed to use the whole day to get done what I finished in an hour and a half. I had done most of the work already because I had so much to do afterward.

First, I was partially responsible for the end-of-year cookout. Our technology teacher, Larry Kiefer, built a grill out of a half barrel and the frame of a broken rolling table a couple of years ago, and we use it to grill hamburgers, brats, and hot dogs at the opening and closing of each school year. In the past we've gotten our meats frozen from Gordon Food Service, and neither Larry nor I were satisfied with the results. So this year, I put in an order at our local butcher shop, DC Meats in Osceola. Not only did I save our principal $50 because they gave me restaurant rates, but the meat was fresh. They divided the hamburger into 1/4 pound patties, and even parboiled the brats for us at no extra charge. The cookout was a tremendous success, and nothing brings us all together like sharing food. We have some outstanding cooks on our staff, some of them having been raised by formerly Amish and currently Mennonite parents who taught their kids how to cook old school. So when we have a carry-in, it's a feast. We had to say goodbye to one staff member, and tears were shed and shared.

After lunch, I had to move every single thing in my room. I'm moving rooms again for the second time in three years, as we are going back to the team concept in our school. We used to have block scheduling with teaching teams and it was extremely effective. Essentially, one teacher from each of the four core subjects, math, language arts, science, and social studies, were aligned with each other, so that they shared a common pool of students. If students had math first period, they would travel together to science second period, then to social studies third period, and finally to language arts fourth period. If a teacher needed extra time with a class, all one had to do was poke a head into the next teacher's classroom and ask for it. We had common planning time, during which we could talk about our students, checking to see if there were common behavior problems that could be solved with a conference call to the parents. It was very effective in both learning and discipline. So naturally the school system took it away.

The problem with the block scheduling was that it is expensive. The shared preparation period was costing the school too much. Teachers were given ninety minutes a day to prepare for cooperative and interdisciplinary lessons and it was decided that it was costing too much, especially since there were groups of teachers not utilizing the time properly. We were also switching to a trimester schedule to match the high school that we feed into. So three years ago, we departmentalized, essentially becoming a junior high school. And now team teaching is back. The kids won't be blocked together, so that part of the strategy is gone. But we will have a shared group of students and 60 minutes to prepare interdisciplinary lessons. So like with an underfunded federal law that shall remain No Child Left Behind, we are being asked to do more with less. They just waited three years before taking away 30 minutes of prep time. And to top it all off, the high school we are aligned with is going back to semesters in two years, so our schedule is going to have to change again after next year. Regardless, this team system will be much more effective because the discipline in the classroom will keep more kids in the classroom. There will be fewer in-school suspensions and out of school suspensions and that means more butts in the seats.

So I spent the entire afternoon moving everything I could lift (and that's everything except my desk and file cabinet) into my new classroom. I didn't have to walk on Friday, because by the end of the day, I had perspired through my clothes. But by the end of the day, I felt like I had earned a four-day break.

Looking back on the school year, I am not satisfied with how it went at all. Even after 21 years, I am still looking for ways to make my class run better. One thing I will be doing differently next year is having my students use mechanical pencils exclusively. I used wood pencils this year, but went through two electric pencil sharpeners. The cost of the wood pencils was lower, but the cost of two pencil sharpeners more than made up the difference. Sharpening pencils loudly is too disruptive, anyway. Next year I will also be putting my students in small groups again, called pods. There will be a pod leader in each one, who will be given additional responsibilities like passing out papers and distributing calculators and dry-erase boards and whatever else the pod needs. The pod leader will also be helping me to monitor student progress. There are arguments that say that these jobs negatively influence the leading students' own learning, but I disagree. Nothing solidifies understanding like explaining it to someone else. If anything, it will help them to learn on a deeper level than before. The pod leader will be rewarded for the extra responsibility with additional privileges for their troubles. The first pod leaders will be determined by RIT scores on the NWEA levels test from the previous spring, but could be replaced depending on behavior and continued academic success.

Another modification to my classes next year will be the keeping of a notebook. I am not even going to distribute the joke of a textbook that we use. Our textbook for pre-algebra is actually more difficult than the textbook they use to teach the same class in high school. As an example, the teaching of solving single-step equations in our textbook is done all in one day. Solving by addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division are all one day's instruction. In the high school book, it's done one operation per day with more specific attention paid to checking one's work. Now when you have adolescents making a transition from Piaget's concrete operational stage to the formal operational stage of development, do you make things easier or harder for them to do so? I will provide examples for the students to keep in their notebooks, and if they are absent, they will be required to copy someone else's notes. I will stamp each student's notebook with my Yoda stamper when I approve of their note taking while the pod leader will record their participation points for the day.

Participation points will be given and recorded each day based on the following criteria: attendance (including punctuality), bringing a notebook and taking notes, bringing a mechanical pencil, bringing the workbook where we will be doing most of our work, and bringing the planner that the school provides. If a student's absence is excused, they will be given full points. If it is not excused, or the student is suspended, they will lose the points. These points will be a small part of the overall grade, but could certainly make the difference between a C+ and a B-.

My classes will also be doing a five-question cumulative review to start each class period, targeting areas in which they are weak and reinforcing skills that they need to be successful in what we are currently doing. We had an in-service on this concept last year, which was one of the few useful days I spent outside the classroom in such meetings. I think it really needs to be done for students who come unprepared for pre-algebra.

I'm still uncertain what to do about homework. There must be motivation for students to do homework correctly and yet not fear for getting problems wrong. In the past, my students have mistaken this thought for having no concern whether they did it correctly or not. I'll be working on that this summer.

The new school year is ten weeks away, but I'm more ready for the next year than I've ever been before at this point.