Sunday, January 31, 2010

Stuck in the Middle

"Don't call me Nymphadora, Remus," said the young witch with a shudder. "It's Tonks."

"- Nymphadora Tonks, who prefers to be known by her surname only," finished Lupin.

"So would you if your fool of a mother had called you 'Nymphadora,'" muttered Tonks.

- Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

If you belong to Facebook, you can find out how original your parents were when they named you. My grade is listed below, along with the link*. Yesterday’s name post made for fantastic comments**, most of which made me laugh, and gave me more ideas about names.

My mother apparently thought long and hard about naming my sister and me. Not only did she give me an Italian name, while bestowing an Irish one on my sister, but she split her name in half – my sister’s middle name is the first part, while mine is the second part.

I HATED my middle name, which even upsets me more than my possible nickname. My first and last name scream Italian saints.

I confess that I have done something similar with my own children. The Jewish religion has a tradition of naming children after deceased relatives. Most of the closest ones on my husband’s side had already been accounted for, and if I did that on my side, I’d be giving my kids Christian names. Besides, it takes the fun out of naming (I know, I’m a bad Jew). My compromise was by giving my daughter the middle name, Rose, thereby using my husband’s and my maternal grandmother’s name at the same time.

Since my spouse doesn’t have a middle name and I hate mine, we decided to skip a middle name for my son. But it bothered me after I gave my daughter one, so I resolved to add one later, which is my paternal grandmother’s maiden name, Walsh. (She’d already given two of her children her name and her husband’s name, so John and Grace were covered. Young Grace was called Gracie, while young Jack was called Jackie). I haven’t done it legally because I’m lazy and have yet to figure out how to do it.

My maternal grandmother was pushed by her mother-in-law to name one of her first-born twins, Vincenza, but she wasn’t having it. She compromised with, Vivian. Instead of giving any of her four girls her exact name, for one she chose, Rosemarie. Who knew she was a Catholic, Italian radical? But when she had a son, there was another Anthony/Tony, just like her husband. Some habits are hard to break, I guess.

Tradition aside, as girls or teenagers, I think we females know what we want to name our children someday.

Sometimes tastes change. (Was I really considering naming my boy and girl Macon and Muriel from, The Accidental Tourist?)

In other instances, we’ve used them for pets, so it seems strange to reuse them for human beings. (My friend called her cat Sadie, and them mournfully realized she couldn’t use it again.)

We can even get burned out by our name choices. (For about a year or two, my daughter named every stuffed animal, Lily, swearing it would be her girl’s name one day. But I haven’t heard it much lately.)

My husband and I decided that our first-born would be Aaron if it were a boy, and Hannah if it were a girl. Unbeknownst to me, Hannah wound up being the most popular name that year, so I’m glad I had a boy. When I was twenty-weeks along, they did an ultrasound, but the fetus refused to cooperate, so the sex couldn’t be determined.

When I was past my due date, the doctor asked if we wanted to know the sex during another ultrasound. It was already too late to avoid getting mint green and yellow everything, but I was anxious to know because if it were a boy, I’d need to have a bris (ritual circumcision) in my house eight days after the birth (Ugh). We were both sick of the previously picked boy’s name, so we chose one of our alternatives, and when we met the little man, his father and I knew we’d made the right choice.

I met someone who’s a single mother, and she said that she found being the sole namer of her son an awesome responsibility. In fact, a year after he was born, she decided that she’d made a mistake, and began calling him something else (I wonder if that confused the boy). She never had it legally changed, so the schools still have the other name on file.

Choosing a name with someone else is all about compromise. For my daughter, my husband and I quickly found a boy’s name we liked, but my husband only wanted, Zoe for a girl. I wasn’t feeling it. I chose three girl’s names: Bella, Chloe, and a third choice. Then I asked my three-year-old which name he liked best. He picked one, and at twenty-weeks, when the ultrasound revealed that I was having a girl, he began calling my belly that name. Since it was two against one, my husband gave up. (Wait, is that a compromise?)

Since I’m not birthing a boatload of babies and I had to negotiate with someone else, I’ll never get to use all my favorite names on actual people. Being an aspiring writer often makes me fraught with frustration, but one of the parts I enjoy about it is naming protagonists, antagonists, and all the rest. Although I use a lot of names to fit the characters, I also make room to use names I love. Getting to choose my favorite names for my characters just gives me added incentive to get these manuscripts published.

"Get it - get it better or get it worse. No middle ground of compromise."

- Henry Ossawa Tanner

* Here's the link:
Your parents get a C- for originality

Ranking - 'Theresa' was the 53rd most popular girl's name in your birth year.

Rarity - 59% of girls had rarer names that year. (Grade: C-)

Peak year - 'Theresa' peaked in popularity in 1961.

Current rank - 'Theresa' is currently the 852nd most popular girl's name.

Current name - Your parents might name you 'Kaitlyn' today (current #53).

** Yesterday’s post:

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Dashes and Diversity in Designations

“The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.”

- Marshall McLuhan

True story: A friend told me about someone who had seen a girl’s name written down as La-a. “Is it La?” he asked, stretching out the ah, like it was two syllables. The girl’s mother replied, “That dash isn’t silent. It’s Ladasha.”

Years ago, names were Americanized. At Ellis Island, my cousins’ family became Ampela from a much longer last name. Grace Lin’s book, Year of the Dog mentions the Americanizing of names. She was Grace out in the world, but had a Chinese name at home. During college, I worked at a music store, and one of the students had been given the American name Herman. When he was ten, his Chinese parents came in and asked me to alter his paperwork to reflect the new name he’d just had legally changed, Michael. Poor parents had given him the wrong American name. People used to take great pains to have names blend in, rather than stand out.

With an emphasis on diversity over assimilation, there’s been a new phenomenon in name changes. I guess it began in the 1960s, but it seemed to be the exception rather than the norm. Subbing, when I look at a class roster, I cringe to pronounce the unfamiliar names*. Now I just have the kids check off their own names. Sure, I don’t learn them this way, but I don’t offend anyone by mangling them either.

I know you can name your child anything as long as it doesn’t have numbers. Is this the singer Prince’s fault? He became a symbol for some years when he couldn’t get out of a record contract. Is it because of actors and actresses bestowing names like Apple and Moses on their children? (I love Gwenyth Paltrow and Chris Martin of Coldplay, so I’m not judging them too harshly.)

My children’s names are more common, but I made sure they weren’t too ordinary. For my son, I wanted something that was Hebrew, but not as ethnic as Moshe. For my daughter, it’s Italian, but it can be a nickname for a longer, Hebrew one. I love the way her first and last name sound together, and wonder if one day she’ll take on a different last name.

The biggest criteria in choosing were that my children’s names had to be too short to turn into nicknames. Throughout my life, people have tried to call me Terri at their own peril. I cringe just writing the name. When I was two-years-old, my paternal grandmother tried to call me Terri, and I testily responded, “My name is THERESA!”

I was named after my mother’s friend, which I didn’t mind, since it wasn’t as common as Jennifer. Once, I had four girls named, Jennifer on my soccer team. But it was odd that I was given an Italian name, while my sister was given an Irish one. When we’re together, we represent both halves of our ethnic identities, but apart, only one.

My name became an issue when I decided to convert to Judaism in my early 20s. Knowing that I was going from Brown to Milstein meant that it would be obvious that I wasn’t born Jewish. When I worked at a car insurance company, lawyers who called, especially Jewish ones, liked to poke fun at it. Looking at me, it’s hard to tell my ethnicity. I had considered adopting a more neutral version of my name (Tess, Terese), but I was already changing my last name, so I had to keep something of me.

When naming characters in my manuscripts, I think long and hard about it – perhaps even longer and harder than I did when naming my children. Designations of main characters are almost always meant to provide clues to character or plot. I recall seeing an interview with J.K Rowling, who said that she had a special notebook to come up with her character names**. She showed an example page, which hadn’t led to a name, but it was interesting to see her process.

My own path to name finding utilizes the Internet. I do a Google search like, “Names that mean sea”, and then I peruse the list. When I find the right one, sometimes I do a separate search to determine the last name. I might search under “Italian last names”, and then play around until I get the right match, whether it because of sound or some other larger meaning.

Your child or protagonist (which feels like a flesh and blood child) has to go through life with that name (or longer if it’s a protagonist from a best-selling book that lasts beyond your lifetime), and all the positive and negative associations it conjures. Unless you are lucky enough to name your child after a dead relative because of religious reasons or to follow some other rule (My father was the third person to have his name in the family), you have to come up with something your child can live with. Naming anyone is an important trust.

“What's in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet;"

- Juliet in play, “Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare

*See previous post for more detail on students’ names:

** Can you imagine what those notebooks would be worth if they’re ever up for auction?

Friday, January 29, 2010


“The illiteracy level of our children are appalling.”

- George W. Bush, Washington D.C., January 23, 2004

Yesterday morning, I received a call to sub for a Special Ed teacher at the high school. What did that mean? I could have my own class or I’d be support for other teachers or maybe there’s a third option I hadn’t even contemplated.

At least I knew that I’d be working in Learning Community R, which wound up not standing for “Riotous” as I had feared the first time I worked in that house*. Since then, I’ve determined that the R stands for “Reluctant”. As much as the Learning Community S students are dreamy, is as much as the Learning Community R students are muddy. S is full of people who want to learn. Although most R classes have been okay, they’re not as studious. I’m more likely to have a battle over cell phones with R.

The secretary handed me plans. Yes, I would have my own classroom, except that it would be in three different places, and I’d be co-teaching one block and have an assistant for the other blocks. I’d also be working straight through until last block.

I had one copy of each handout, but I didn’t know if any copies were made (Didn’t say). Unlike last time**, this classroom was really on the fifth-floor, with a silhouette of the Boston skyline out the window. The teacher inside said it was her room, but she wasn’t the co-teacher, and there weren’t any copies of the handout. I went to the next room I’d be in on the third floor, but it was locked. Of course, the next door was locked. If people would refrain from stealing, the doors wouldn’t be locked, and subs could get inside. Another teacher tried to unlock the door, but her key wouldn’t work. Apparently, this particular door is “tricky”.

Running back up to the room, I wished I hadn’t worn a sweater. Although I knew some of the rooms would be cold, I hadn’t anticipated running up and down the stairs. I read the plans, “Mr. ---- may or may not need your assistance. Please check with him.” The co-teacher asked if the absent teacher left plans (Excellent communication between them). Apparently, the teacher had only left plans for blocks B and C, but not A. Then he asked if teacher was going to be out “long term”. (What’s going on here?) I told him that I didn’t know. The co-teacher would need my assistance. The students were comparing the answers on the board with their homework, and I was told to go around and see if they needed help on any problems. Gulp.

“Are you a math teacher?” he asked.

“I’m certified in Social Studies.”

“Do you know how to do algebra?”

“I haven’t done it for a long time,” I admitted.

“Look in the textbook,” he said, turning to a page of examples, “to refresh your memory.”

Yeah, right. I sat at a desk, and sitting there staring at a sea of numbers, lines, and the dreaded letters, I had déjà vu of sitting in a high school classroom a million years ago being this lost.

3 | 4w – 1 | - 5 = 10

3 | 4w – 1 | = 15 Add 5 to each side

| 4w – 1 | = 5 Divide each side by 3

4w – 1 = 5 or 4w – 1 = -5 Rewrite as two equations

4w = 6 4w = -4

w = 3/2 or w = -1

I just read it over and over again. What?! If it weren’t for my husband’s tutoring, I wouldn’t have passed college Calculus. And that was a L O N G time ago. How could I help the students? Why did the Gatekeeper tell me I should just sign up to teach everything***?

Considering my considerable handicap, I did the best I could. Later, we went to the computer lab on the fourth floor, and they did problems on a site called “Enable Math”. Luckily (for me), the teenagers hardly cared about math, so they cared even less if I knew anything about math.

Then I ran down the stairs to homeroom on the first floor. A chef from whatever community it is that offers cooking classes (C for cooking?) was in charge, so I just sat while the students ate, hung around, and did homework. One gal did a crossword puzzle, while a guy next to her played guitar. As I was leaving, Chef joked, “Good luck. We’re counting on you.” I wanted to tell him, “Don’t count on me. I’m a math illiterate.”

It was time for the second block, and classroom still locked. I tried to get in from the next-door room, but that was locked too, so I went to the class next to that, and got through. Almost there. But when I got to the adjoining door to my room, there were locks on each side. I’d never come across that problem before. I gave up, and found someone who had a key. Great start.

Then I met the aide, who didn’t know much more math than I did. It was a talkative group, but they got the little work done that they were given, and some continued on with a larger assignment that was due on Monday. Here and there, I was able to help because they were doing easier problems, like square roots and exponents. One student was talking about when he was in “the projects”, some guys came up to him and his friends with guns (lovely), but nobody got shot. Then he returned to his “crib”. Later, another student thought it would be fun to say monkey “makak” in Haitian because it sounded dirty in English (Adorable).

Third block had only FOUR students. That should’ve made it easy, but we were back to algebra again. I was hopeless. If I had an answer key, I would’ve been able to puzzle it out. When I’d previously subbed math, I had enough basic knowledge and the students worked with one another to solve the problems. Our algebra skills were too low. The method for solving problems with absolute value eluded me. My solution was to plug in numbers until I found one that worked, to figure out the correct answer. But I could NOT solve them the proper way, and the students knew it. Pathetic.

I realized that instead of being qualified to be a Special Educator teacher for Math, I belonged in a Special Education class for Math.

“Rarely is the question asked, is … our children learning?”

- George W. Bush, 2001 Washington TV/Radio Correspondents Dinner

* The first time I subbed in Community R (Also when I used, One of Those Days quote):

** Here’s about me mistakenly going to the fifth-floor and other stupidity:

*** This is when I got cajoled into subbing high school Math:

Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Tale of Two Fifth-Grades

“You’d be


how many ways

I change on Different



Last Wednesday wound up being a decent job (After Music mayhem**). At least, as decent as it gets when one is a daily sub. Last spring, I’d worked for this teacher once or twice. Her plans were clear and thorough, her students were pretty good, and since I’d just left my fifth-grade assistant position, I was comfortable with the material. The teacher had been so impressed with how the class had run, that she requested me another day.

Near the end of the year, I stopped getting called to work at the school, which perplexed me. Each job had gone smoothly, and I knew that the assistant principal had been happy with my performance in that class, and in other classes at that school. But she’s an easy woman to cross, as I knew from teaching her daughter in the fifth-grade the year before (A whole other saga). This mother had a reputation for torturing teachers. In fact, the first time I subbed at her school, I tried to hide my identity, hoping she wouldn’t recognize me with straight hair. She didn’t (whew), but later she saw my name on the sign in sheet (Oh, yeah).

Whatever the reason, I was called back so the teacher could grade assessments. She didn’t have all the papers ready, but she stayed to explain everything in detail. Her class was wonderful, and we went from subject to subject with only mild reminding not to talk needed. And that was just for a few students. Yes, aspiring substitute teachers, there are a lot of jobs out there that go well, and are even pleasant. Even though the only prep I had was first period, and it was actually spent prepping, I wasn’t exhausted by day’s end.

This school is portfolio learning based, so the students spent a couple of hours working on a cell unit. They read packets, completed a crossword puzzle, and began drawing, labeling, and coloring a cell. The Social Studies unit was spent at the computer lab, perusing a Cuneiform website, and answering questions. During quiet reading, they quietly read. A volunteer who’s considering becoming a teacher, came in to teach math. I spent the day supporting the students as they worked, and was able to direct them to their cell projects or math homework if they finished their class work early.

Fast forward to this week. Tuesday morning, I received another call to sub the fifth-grade. There’s a twist - it was for my son’s classroom. I was glad I didn’t know about the job the previous evening, so I didn’t have long to dwell about whether or not it would be weird.

When my son awoke, I told him the news. His voice got a lift. “Really?” After we arrived at the school, he accompanied me to the classroom, giving me a few details about the routine. His teacher was in the room, getting plans ready for me before she went to another floor to grade district assessments. She didn’t write anything down, but explained everything in detail. She had two prep periods, and there would be reading buddies during Reader’s Workshop, so it seemed like it would be an easy day. Would it?

The teacher said that the kindergarteners were learning about moods, and so I’d read a book to the kids, and then the buddies would do some follow up project or read together. Fresh on my mind from my two “Book Arsenal” posts, I brought up, Today I Feel Silly and, One of Those Days. She hadn’t heard of either of them, but wrote down the titles and said she’d speak with the kindergarten assistant and the librarian.

When the fifth-graders came in, they seemed curious that I’d be their teacher. The new ones didn’t know me, so during morning meeting one of them said, “Are you really his mom?” I replied, “I can take his picture out of my wallet to prove it.” They were a good group, mostly focused. When one or two students would get off task, I’d remind them to get back to work. I used my authoritative voice, stance, and face, so they knew I meant business. They were good enough that I could help a student without worrying that the others would take advantage.

There’s one student who often got in trouble, so when he got too silly, I said, “Remember what happened the last time you had a sub? You don’t want to miss another week of school.” Two weeks before, the building substitute was in charge of the class. This boy thought it would be funny to steal her $300 cell phone, and got a friend to play along. They both received out of school suspension.

I have to admit (and am not surprised) that my son had a hard time focusing. During Writing Workshop, I had to remind him to stay focused several times, eventually moving him to a separate seat (His teachers have complained about this since kindergarten). He had a harder time during Math, but by then, they all wanted a break. I said to him, “At least at school, when I nag you I get paid.” All of the students thought that was funny.

When it was time for reading buddies, the assistant came without a book. It was one of those, “I thought you had it,” moments.

I ran to the library. The librarian said, “Oh, I couldn’t the Curtis book. You’re welcome to look for it. If it’s not there, check section 363.”

Not there. “Do you have, My Many Colored Days by Dr. Seuss?” Ooo, that’s a good one about moods. Why didn’t I think of that earlier?

“No. I don’t have that either.”

I spied, The Mixed Up Chameleon by Eric Carle, which was very much how I was feeling. I grabbed it, and ran to class. I introduced it by saying, “This is about a chameleon that isn’t happy with himself.” That’s a mood, right?

A few fifth-graders said they wished I were their teacher, which is ridiculous since I wished I had my son’s teacher when I was their age. I think it was just a nice change of pace for them, and a sign that the gig was successful. My son had a smile all day, and proudly repeated that the students liked me.

When I’m blessed with an organized teacher and a group of nice students, being a substitute teacher has some measure of stability. Until next time…

“But it all turns all right,

you see.

And I go back to being me.”*

-My Many Colored Days by Dr. Seuss

** In case you missed the Music class post:

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Agent Cheek

“Large offers and sturdy rejections are among the most common topics of falsehood.”

- Samuel Johnson

On my way out the door to drop the kids off at school, I noticed that a pile of letters was sitting in my mailbox. As I shuffled through them, I found a letter with my handwriting on it, addressed to myself. Ah, a rejection. As more agents are taking submissions via e-mail, I get less snail mail rejections. Sometimes, they depress me, but other times, I barely give them a second thought. One time, I opened the letter and got a request for a full manuscript, which was a nice surprise.

Today’s rejection letter made me pause. Oh. I’ve included it below. Note: names have been changed to protect the innocent (Or the delusional, since my manuscript is fabulous).

Dear Author,

Thank you for your submission. We are sorry but it is not for ----.

Do try Publishers directly and if you need help negotiating a contract our legal staff can help you.

We wish you every success in finding the right place for your work.

------ - ------

I once wrote a post, called “Positive Rejections”*, which explains different tiers of rejections. This one is a form rejection, but it has the cheek to basically say, “We don’t think your work is worth our time trying to get your manuscript a publishing contract, but if you happen to get one on your own, contact us, and only then will we represent you.”

Now I know that agents say that if writers submit directly to publishers, and get a contract, they can contact an agent, and it’s often easier to get representation that way. This seems best if a writer has at least gotten a detailed rejection from an agent, demonstrating that the agent saw promise in the writer’s writing. It would be nice to have established some sort of relationship. I’ve never seen a rejection letter offer like this one. It’s certainly not based on my writing or it wouldn’t begin, “Dear Author” and end with just the agent’s name (Sincerely would've been nice).

I decided to do some research, and looked on the Absolute Write website**, which has a forum section, allowing questions and responses. With so many agencies, it’s important for writers to make sure they’re sending manuscripts to reputable ones. I’ve used this webpage to avoid agents who charge fees or have been known to behave in ways that are against industry standard***.

Of course, I’m not stating this literary agency fits in this mold. The comment thread from Absolute Write sounded more like speculation than fact. But it’s hard enough to break into this business. If I happened to send something to a publishing company, and I’m offered a contract, I don’t think I’d call an agency that sent me a form rejection. I’ve submitted to several agents who have taken the time to give me advice on my manuscript. Some writers don’t think representation is necessary, but I’d be wary of handling the financial ends of a contract on my own.

I just hope that someday I’m in that position.

“I take rejection as someone blowing a bugle in my ear to wake me up and get me going, rather than retreat.”

- Sylvester Stallone

* Here’s a link to that post:

** This site has a good forum section:

*** This site is a great resource. They have a “Whom Not to Query” link on the right:

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Book Arsenal II

“We read to know we are not alone.” C.S. Lewis

My escapades as a substitute teacher may be eliciting apprehension among new and aspiring substitute teachers*. Inexperienced substitute teachers are often at a loss of what to do when they haven’t been provided with enough work for the students. There are plenty of websites with canned lessons, but one of the easiest ways is by reading aloud and creating a project around the book. The best part is that the students will not only respond positively to the book and the project, but to the substitute teacher. Win, win, win.

Yoko by Rosemary Wells is an excellent way to begin a conversation about different cultures. Yoko is teased about her sushi lunch, which seems “gross” to the other students. Reading it can lead to a discussion about tolerance. Afterwards, have students write and draw their favorite food(s) from their cultures. This book is good for kindergarten through second-grade classes.

Today I Feel Silly by Jamie Lee Curtis (illustrated by Laura Cornell) is fantastic, evidenced by the fact that I’m willing to put an actress’s book on my list. The rhyming is quirky, and it’s a fun way to get children in touch with their moods. The end of the book has a wheel to match moods with facial expressions. After reading (and playing with the wheel), have preschool to second-grade students draw a picture of their mood at that moment or their mood at another time.

Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts (illustrated by Noah Z. Jones) does a wonderful job illustrating the predicament of a child wanting something he can’t afford. When he finally gets a pair of the shoes he’s desired, and they’re too small, what will he do? Stop before the end to get the students’ opinions. After the reading, find out if they think the boy made the right decision, and why. Good from first to fifth-grades.

The Three Silly Girls Grubb by John and Ann Hassett is a funny take on, Three Billy Goats Gruff. I prefer these girls and donuts to goats and grass. What happens to the boy, Bobby under the bridge is hysterical. Preschool to third-grade kids will appreciate this whacky take on the classic.

Snowmen at Night by Caralyn Buehner (illustrated by Mark Buehner) is a quick, whimsical read for wintertime, even with its gender bias (The only snowwomen are mothers). Do a snowman project with the students afterwards. Preschool to third-grade will enjoy the story and the project.

How I Became a Pirate** and Pirates Don’t Change Diapers by Melinda Long (illustrated by David Shannon) are hilarious, and good for any age. When I was in charge of Word Study in fifth-grade, I read these books as we created a pirate vocabulary list, and then the students wrote pirate stories. For third to fifth-grades, you can do something similar. With younger students, have them draw pirate pictures after reading.

Not Norman by Kelly Bennet (illustrated by Noah Z. Jones) is about a boy who thinks he wants a better pet, until he realizes that Norman the goldfish is perfect for him. After reading aloud, have the children draw Norman, their pet, or the pet they wished they had. This book would work well from preschool to second-grade.

Stone Soup by Jon J. Muth is a touching tale of generosity for third to fifth-graders. The villagers shun three monks until they set out to make “soup” from stones. Curiosity takes over the villagers, and soon they’re providing ingredients for the soup. Stop periodically to ask questions about why the villagers behave the way they do at different times. After the book is done, have a conversation about generosity by asking them to explain the line, “You have shown us that sharing makes us all richer.”

The Red Wolf by Margaret Shannon will entrance students of any age. Beautifully written. See how a princess locked up in a tower (for protection, according to her father) finds a unique way to use red yarn in order to break free. I’d have preschoolers up to second-graders draw either the princess in the tower or the red “wolf” wreaking havoc on the village.

I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato by Lauren Child is a lot of fun for preschoolers to second-graders. See how an older brother tricks his sister into eating her least favorite foods. Then have the students draw and rename their least favorite foods.

That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown by Cressia Cowell and Neal Layton is about a girl and her well-worn (from love) rabbit, and their adventures. A princess who can have anything in the world decides that she wants the dog-eared bunny. See how Emily Brown handles the problem. It’s wonderfully done. I’d read this in preschool to second-grade classes, and then have them draw their favorite part of the book.

The Spider and the Fly by Tony DiTerlizzi, “Based on the cautionary tale by Mary Howitt” is one of my favorites, and a great lesson on vanity. Be sure to also read the letter from the spider near the end. Each year, I read this to the fifth-grades around Halloween, but it’s good any time of the year, for any age. All groups can draw a black and white picture with pencil based on the illustrations.

Sometime in the future, I’ll provide more tricks for substitute teachers to fill in a sparse day. I’ll also write a post that shares ideas for grades six through twelve. As wonderful as these picture books are, most don’t work past the fifth-grade. There are also a couple of teaching tool links on the right side of my blog.

* Read this post to see how a school day can run without complete plans, and view the comments for reactions. There are also a couple of links to previous posts that share non-book ideas to make up for inadequate plans:

** In this post, I used a quote from this book:

Monday, January 25, 2010

Book Arsenal I

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

- Oh! The Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss

Preparing for a sub job is like preparing for battle. When there are inadequate plans or the students finish their work early, the substitute teachers are struggling to find a way to fill in what feels like e n d l e s s - t i m e. Subs need to be armed and ready for such situations.

Books are a great way to bring a class together. Being a mother and an assistant in the fifth-grade for a few years has given me an advantage because I’ve been exposed to a variety of brilliant picture books. I’ve decided to share my arsenal with you, which you can use to just read aloud or to also do a follow-up project (Time-killer). I’ve provided appropriate age ranges for reach book.

An Undone Fairy Tale by Ian Lendler (illustrated by Whitney Martin) is a comical book, which can be used from preschool all the way up to fourth-grade (Maybe fifth). The illustrator can’t keep up with the illustrations because the teacher is reading too fast. See how the illustrator copes. Afterwards, have young ones draw their favorite part of the book.

My Daddy is a Pretzel by Baron Baptiste (illustrated by Sophie Fatus) is a cute story with yoga poses. Read slowly, having preschool to second-grade students try the poses. Can even have them draw themselves doing their favorite pose afterwards. Good for an antsy bunch!

Ish and The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds are about teaching students that they’re all artists. After reading, Ish, tell them to make an “ish” drawing. After reading, The Dot, have students make their own dot. Provide colored pencils, markers, or (if you dare) paints. These are best for third-grade and under.

I Pledge Allegiance by Bill Martin Jr. (illustrated by Chris Raschka) is a good learning tool. How many students recite the pledge each morning, but have no idea what it means? Read it; then write vocabulary words with definitions on the board. Students should copy them, and draw and color an American flag. Good for third to fifth-grades.

One of Those Days by Amy Krouse Rosenthal (illustrated by Rebecca Doughty) is one of my favorites. As a sub, I can relate to having a bad day*. The illustrations will tickle the kids up to third-grade. It’s a short book, so afterwards, have them draw something that happened to them on “one of those days”.

Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems is about a toddler losing her beloved bunny, cleverly written and illustrated. It's a great book for preschool to first-grade. After reading the story, have them draw and color their favorite stuffed animal or special item.

Officer Buckle and Gloria by Peggy Rathmann won The Caldecott Medal. It’s about safety tips, a boring officer, and his zany dog. Kids in first to third-grade will get a kick out of this. Afterwards, have students write an important safety tip along with a picture of Gloria the dog.

The Bugliest Bug by Carol Diggory Shields (Illustrator Scott Nash) has great rhyming, is a fun story, and has lots of bugs. Afterwards, have students from preschool to second-grade draw their favorite bugs and perhaps a few bad spiders too.

Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina is a classic because kids still love it. Encourage students to play the parts of the monkey and peddler as your read it. After reading, have students draw the monkeys in a tree with the caps on their heads. Good for preschool to second-grade.

Fireboat by Maira Kalman is the best book for children written about September 11th. It handles the difficult topic well without being scary. This is a good book to use around the anniversary for just about any age group, but you may want to read it from second to fifth-grades**.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss (illustrated by Bonnie Timmons) is great for fourth and fifth-grades. It shows how the meaning of a sentence can drastically (and hilariously) change as the result of incorrect comma placement. Make copies of the book in advance, and give the students two sheets of paper to show two sentences and different meanings after you read aloud.

Come On, Rain! By Karen Hesse (illustrated by Jon J. Muth) works well with preschoolers to fifth-graders. For younger kids, after reading, have them draw a picture of a hot day, and then a rainy day. For older kids, after reading, go through the vivid vocabulary. Ask what the author means by, “The rain has made us new.”

Check with the local and school libraries for availability, but you may want to have a few on-hand to make your life easier. I’ll share thirteen more books soon. I figured I’d break it up because how many books do you want to see on one post?

*See my blog using quotes from this book:

**Read my Amazon review and my blog about working on September 11th:

Friday, January 22, 2010


“A) No tattooing, piercing of genitalia, branding or scarification shall be performed on a person under the age of eighteen.”*

I was called back to the school where I subbed for fifth-grade two days last week, but this time I was back in the middle school. The last name I was given for the absent teacher didn’t ring a bell, so I wasn’t sure what job I’d have, but I'd at least be familiar with the students. When I arrived, it turned out I’d be subbing for the Social Studies teacher (Yay! I’m actually certified to teach this subject). The only downside is that she has an office between classrooms, but doesn’t have her own classroom. The upside is that three out of four of her classes are in the Science room. A couple of times, I’ve subbed for the Science teacher, and found myself kicked out of the room most of the day so the Social Studies teacher could use the room.

While I was reading the sub plans, another sub came to the room. He thought he was subbing for the same teacher. Because she got married last year, and had a name change, I thought there had been two calls for the same job – one from the secretary using her maiden name, and one from the teacher using her first name. Just as I was preparing to do rock-paper-scissors to see who would get the job (Or I could stamp my foot, shouting “I was here first!”), it turned out that the other substitute was actually here for Math. There were three substitute teachers in the middle school, which I hoped wouldn’t make these zany students any zanier.

The plans that the teacher left were thorough – a stark contrast to the poor plans and missing supporting materials I dealt with yesterday. I’d have four classes, three different lessons, the directions were clear, the textbooks I needed were opened the proper pages with sticky notes providing the correct grade and time information were attached, and the overheads that corresponded with the chapters were included. She didn’t assume I could play piano or play CD’s without providing a CD player.

The first group was quiet and did their work. Since I’m not as familiar with the eighth-graders, having mostly taught sixth and seventh at this school, I didn’t know what to expect. Did this mean they were part of ISP (Intensive Studies Program)? Turns out no, just good students. But the next eighth-grade class might not be as cooperative.

The best part of this job is that I knew a lot of information, which I could add to the lessons. Since it was my subject, and I wasn’t just given handouts or a DVD to show, so I actually could contribute to the lessons.

The seventh-graders during second period started off fine, until ten minutes into class, when two of the most difficult students showed up after helping out with setting up a bake sale to raise money for the victims of the earthquake in Haiti. Apparently they ate too much sugar because they were bouncing off the walls, and their rambunctious ways spread like a virus to several other boys. Getting the entire class to quiet down and concentrate at once became an exercise in futility. I should’ve been firmer, but they’d never been this loud, and I found it harder to change personas midway. So I became persona non grata, or rather, they became personae non gratae.

Third period went better than second, although I had to use my harder voice – louder with a lower tone, like the absent teacher. If I had to do that all day, I’d have no voice left. There were a bunch of boys, who kept trying to misbehave, but I was on top of them (A LOT of work on my part), and they eventually gave up. (There was a brief interruption when a ladybug landed on a hat.)

After having three hour-long classes in a row, I was glad for a break, if just to pee. My last class was working on pamphlets about hurricanes. When a few finished just minutes into class, I worried because no alternative work was left. My solution was to let those who finished help those who were woefully behind, since these were due at the end of class. It was a nice group, who mostly stayed in their seats and talked quietly.

This gave me time to just talk to them. Two students just joined the school in the last week – one from California (an avid reader) and the other from a private school in Cambridge (I got the impression from his stories that he got kicked out). At the same table, a girl showed me her tongue piercing, which floored me (And made me nauseous). What was she, fourteen or fifteen-years-old?

“It hurtsss!” She complained.

“Does your family know you have it?” I asked.

“Of courssse.” Oh yeah, that’s a ridiculous question.

“I guess you couldn’t hide it anyway.”

“Yesss, I could.”

“It changes the way you speak.”

“No, it doesn’t,” she insisted.

From behind her, her friend mouthed, Yes it does, and I tried to refrain from laughing.

Then the pierced girl said, “My mom’s throwing a tattoo party, and I’m gonna get a tattoo.”

“You are?”

“Yes, I’m gonna get my name on my hip.” She pulled the side of her jeans down to show me the planned spot.

At that moment, I was more tongue-tied than she was.

“B) Body piercing, other than piercing the genitalia, may be performed on a person under the age of 18 provided that person provided that person is accompanied by a properly identified parent, legal custodial parent or legal guardian who has signed a form consenting to such a procedure.”*

* How many of you are like me, and learned a new word: scarification?

This information on “Model Regulations for the Body Art Establishments January 23, 2001”,massachusetts,1.htm

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Bag Lady

“I said you wanna be startin’ somethin’

You got to be startin’ somethin’

It’s too high to get over (yeah, yeah)

Too low to get under (yeah, yeah)

You’re stuck in the middle (yeah, yeah)”

- Song “Wanna be Startin’ Somethin’” by Michael Jackson

I knew going into this day that it was too packed, would be too hectic, and I’d be too tired muddling through it. I subbed yesterday after a poor night’s sleep, rushed right to my children’s school to pick them up, brought my daughter to ballet, and then hurried home. I quickly cooked sloppy Joe’s (before my husband came home and took over), put out my clothes and set up the coffeemaker for the next day, and flew out the door for my first night with a critique group. When all was said and done, I was in bed by 10:30pm for a 5:30am wake-up.

In the kitchen doorway, on the way to switch on the coffeemaker, I stepped in something squishy. Turning on the light, I looked down to see cat vomit on: the rug, her cat blanket, and the kitchen floor, and also on my pant cuff. This meant doing a load of laundry before I left.

My first meltdown occurred while I was preparing my children’s breakfasts and lunches. Recently, I had told my family then when I have an early job, I need more help in the mornings. After I put out fruit and napkins, I returned to the bathroom to finish my hair. My husband started something in the kitchen, which I thought was the rest of breakfast, but it turned out that he replaced my fruit with another. Thinking all of the breakfast had been served, I continued with lunches. After a few minutes, when I realized the rest of breakfast wasn’t done, I called the kids in to pour their drinks, causing complaints. My son overfilled my daughter’s milk, and then he told my daughter she poured his water in the “wrong” cup, so she dumped it into the sink instead of transferring the liquid to another cup. That’s when I began screaming.

I left the house a few minutes with plenty of time to spare. Except. When. Traffic. Doesn’t. Cooperate. On Broadway, I was behind a Budweiser truck moving as if it were being pulled by lethargic Clydesdales. A mile later, the truck attempted to park, but didn’t fit, so it stuck out, bringing my lane to a standstill. When I finally made it through and reached Harvard Square, a city bus had broken down, blocking a lane and creating another traffic jam. Next, I was forced to crawl behind a school bus picking up children along Garden Street. By the time I reached the school, I was five minutes late for the first bell. Knowing I’d have ten minutes before the second bell (at best), I dashed to the building.

Resembling a bag lady, I passed by the assistant principal at the entrance. My handbag is huge for my petite frame. In addition, I had a laptop bag holding a couple of DVDs and some handouts (just in case), my Bose and plug (a necessity for Music) in another bag, and my lunch bag. No matter how nicely I’m dressed and coiffed, it’s a challenge to look professional when burdened under baggage.

The secretary handed me the schedule. I would have three classes in a row, with the first group being a bunch of eighth-graders. Great. They were already there, early and disorderly. Greater. I scanned the sub notes. They were supposed to watch a DVD, which I promptly put in the player. A spinning DVD appeared on the TV screen, and after a few minutes “Can’t read disc” popped up. I hit the eject button, but the DVD player didn’t feel like it. After a few minutes of silently arguing with the player, it finally spit out the disc. Thanks.

I called the office, set up my dock, and began playing Michael Jackson*, who taunted me that I, “Wanna be startin’ somethin’”. At least the students quieted to listen. Soon, the assistant principal arrived with another television, reprimanding a few students hassling the curtains. I failed to mention that the class was held on the stage of the auditorium, as if it were a set made to look like a classroom for a play. Trying to appear calm, I thanked the AP, and set up the new TV. The disc wouldn’t be startin’ in there either. Plan B – I brought “Fantasia”, not knowing how they’d react. Can you believe that most of the class pushed their chairs closer to the television, asking me to turn down the lights, while the other half were fairly quiet?

During the movie, I had time to read the rest of the plans:


Today you’ll have class in 4 locations

Period 1 – gr. 8 in auditorium. Please have them watch “From the Top” DVD

Period 2 – cafeteria. It’s just 4 students (gr. 5) They can do choral warm-ups on CD and then sing they know that are enclosed

Period 3 Go up to Rm 221 6th gr. Chorus – same as for grade 5

11:25-11:55 (half hour) Rm. 105. Junior K. Pick games and songs from Feirabend books

12:5501:40 gr 1-2 in auditorium We are starting to learn the song “The Moon” or have them watch “Animusic” DVD

These are incomplete plans. She didn’t tell me her secret hiding place for the CD player, and I couldn’t find it. Next I looked at the books, which are full of songs I didn’t know with music that I wasn’t adept enough to play on piano. (Does that room even have a piano?) Let me also add that third period was NOT in room 221. It was in room 212. Not cool.

Fifth-grade went smoothly. I played Michael Jackson for warm up and sat with them as they practiced a couple of planned songs (“Octopus’s Garden” and “Oh Susanna”). I wished for a piano to fix their off-key notes.

After I located the correct sixth-grade classroom, it was clear that they weren’t interested in singing “Oh Susanna”, and who could blame them? We did the assigned “Octopus’s Garden” along with my iPod a couple of times. After that, we sang a few of Michael Jackson songs, A Coldplay song, and two Black Eyed Peas songs. I was told that I was the “coolest” music teacher. Sure, when I let you sing anything you want.

The pre-K teacher was fine with me showing a video of “The Lorax” by Dr. Seuss, which is an animated musical. The class went smoothly until I mentioned the ages of my children, which led to, “I have a brother who’s eight. My sister is zero. I have a seven-year-old cousin.” I reminded them not to speak at once, and then I spent a few minutes calling on them so they could each tell me the age of a family member.

Schlepping all of my bags back to the auditorium, I got ready for last period, going straight to her suggested DVD, which was kind enough to cooperate. So were the kids. One student said, “At the end of class, if we’re good, she stamps our hands.” Apparently, the stamps are also too precious to put in an obvious place.

Hoping that the lead teacher didn’t mind my changes in lessons in response to her inadequate plans, I was glad that I’d brought alternatives to make it through the day, even if it made me resemble a bag lady.

* Thanks for the MJ music, Mike.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Longing for No Longer?

“When I couldn’t stay awake any longer, I asked Braid Beard to tuck me in and read me a story.

‘Tuck you in?’ he bellowed. ‘Pirates don’t tuck.’

No tucking!’ the crew cried.

… I didn’t even bother to ask about a good-night kiss.”

- How I Became a Pirate by Melinda Long (With hilarious illustrations by David Shannon)

Because I nursed my infants, middle-of-the-night feedings were my responsibility. Those times are some of my favorites, although I can no longer capture their sweet baby scents and the feel of their soft baby skins. It’s easy to look back with nostalgia, forgetting the shock of their cries ripping me out of a deep sleep. I try to dwell on the moments of sweetness, rather than my longing to once again crawl under my covers. Even then, I knew that someday the moment of my baby and I being nearly one being was fleeting, and that I should appreciate it before it was lost forever.

When my son was about two-months-old, his father became the light of his life. As soon as the man walked through the door, my son would brighten, wrenching himself from my arms. Most of the time, I felt like a third wheel while they had their fun, except for nighttime because I was in charge of the feedings.

My son associated sleep (comfort) with me, so when he was old enough for a proper tuck-in, I was often in charge, especially if my husband worked past his bedtime or was away at a meeting. As an extension, I had the duty of nightmare soothing as well. Lest you think nighttime awakenings were a rampant problem, my son only went through a few small bouts, one when I was pregnant.

My role as the nighttime soother became ingrained so that when I was again pregnant, and passed on the duty to my husband, my son balked. Soon, my son got used to the new routine, and by the time my daughter joined our family he didn’t notice that I tended to her. Just before she was born, I was at the doctor’s office, and while the nurse was checking my blood pressure, she looked at my chart and exclaimed, “You’re having a daughter? That’s wonderful! You already have a mama’s boy and she’ll be a daddy’s girl.” Great. I’ll have no one.

By the time my daughter was one-week old, she became fiercely attached to me. When my husband held her, she would often sob, and turn her head towards my voice. One night after I fed her, she wanted to linger, but I wasn’t the lingering kind – I needed my sleep. I placed her in the bassinet, and watched with disbelief as she forced herself to the side of the bassinet to nuzzle against it. Fearing SIDS, I rolled up a thin blanket so she could feel comfort against that rather than the wall.

My daughter’s loyalty to me has continued to this day, with some adjustments. After my baby’s feeding, I’d hand her over to my early-riser husband, who would have to distract her so I could sneak back to bed. When she was old enough to get out of bed herself, she’d often camp out on the floor outside my bedroom door, and if my husband tried to coax her from her spot, she’d glare at him. She’s grown out of that, and now looks forward to spending time with her father, doing activities like ice skating and eating at Dunkin’ Donuts*.

But tuck-in-time has not had the same progression. Until she turned seven, I don’t think I missed more than sixty-evenings of tuck-ins, and that includes when sitters have had to take over the task. At some point, my son switched to having me tuck him in almost exclusively, so I was doing all bedtime rituals for nights on end.

Before you feel too sorry for me, the time these rituals take has shrunk in the last couple of years. My daughter brushes her own teeth and dresses herself, as my son has done for a long time. I have not read to my son in ages, since he now prefers to read to himself. Until recently, I did read to my daughter, but since she started reading on her own, she wants to be like her big brother. Sometimes they read quietly together (Unless they get silly, and then I have to separate them).

My son has been requesting my husband almost every night, his excuse? "I've seen you since I came home from school, but dad's only been home a couple of hours." When my son turned eleven, my husband announced that the boy was too big for tucking, but he would not be dissuaded. Although my ritual has minimized (no songs, but just a couple of nice words from us, and maybe he’ll share an anecdote about his day), he still wants a parent to climb up the steps of his loft bed as a send him to slumber.

This summer, my daughter went through a 50/50 phase, and so my husband and I would alternate nights. That was fine for a while, but then she started missing me, and now I’m chosen nearly exclusively. Yesterday morning, she told my husband to tuck her in that evening, but adamantly changed her mind by bedtime.

While my husband insists that he doesn’t like, “tucking in kids,” I enjoy it. Mostly. When it’s been a long day, and all I want to do is sit on the couch like a starchy vegetable, I try to pawn it off on another adult. In those instances, I remind myself that soon they will be appalled by the thought of being accompanied by a parent to bed. Soon they will be out in the world, and I will gradually lose my control over them. When that happens, I will look back nostalgically on this time of sweet words, sappy songs, snuggles, and smooches.

* A lovely story from inside a Dunkin’ Donuts can be found at: