WAETAG: Day 1

My people got me to the WAETAG conference this weekend. My colleagues. My motivators. MY PEOPLE. Truly. I would have stumbled home after a long day of messing around with Gradebook and fallen into bed with cinnamon raisin toast. Instead, steeled by the fact that I’d get to spend some time with a handful of inspiring women, I sucked it up and trundled over to Shelley Keeler’s house. Off to the world of Tacoma, where you can drive “on the tide flats,” which makes me think of the crazy road from The Woman in Black.

Roger Fisher is the keynote speaker for both days of the WAETAG conference. His keynote was “Creativity, the Basics of Tomorrow,” which was interesting, but not terribly earth-shattering. He’s not the Roger Fisher of Heart, by the way.

Here’s my big takeaway from the keynote.

These two roads of thinking were good for me to ponder.

I crashed at Briana Johnson’s house so I didn’t have to drive home in the dark.

And that was the end of WAETAG. Woooooo.

NCTM Reflections: Day 1

Yesterday marked the first (half) day of the NCTM conference. I am SO very glad I took the extra day to fly in.

I can’t say enough good things about the Belmont Hotel folks. The shuttle service was low-drama and speedy, and everything I’ve inquired about has been answered kindly and efficiently. My greatest discovery was locating the blow dryer. Yessss.

Most of Wednesday was spent sleeping and doing final tweaks on my presentation. I ate delicious food at SMOKE, the restaurant connected to the Belmont (hangar steak salad, BBQ beans). I slept some more, then I headed down to the convention center.

The opening keynote was Scott Flansburg, the Human Calculator, a dropout savant who spent most of his hour-and-a-half presentation name-dropping all the TV shows he’d been featured on and all the famous people he met. The presentation was pretty mediocre, and I was forced to depart early due to excessive cologne application by my neighbor (who was three seats away). I found myself longing for a return visit from the brilliant and charming Jane McGonigal, who was our opening speaker at the Title I conference.

 

Trundled back home, ate dinner at SMOKE (mac and cheese), read books, watched Sherlock, slept poorly. The only thing that kept me from freaking out about my lack of sleep was marathon guru Hal Higdon’s advice. He says that you probably will get an awful night’s sleep before the race (or presentation), so it’s actually more important that the two nights leading up to the night before the race are solid. Seeing as how I slept through most of Tuesday and Wednesday, each time I woke up, instead of panicking, I was able to tell myself, “Aren’t you glad you slept so much before?” 

Have I publicly mentioned how much I adore Skype? Because I adore Skype. In addition to the tremendous potential it has in my classroom, it’s also really freaking amazing to be able to see my sweet husband’s face before going to sleep when I’m away feeling insecure. Also, I got to see my kitty cat. Who is admittedly cuter than my husband. And equally furry, given the current unshorn state of Toby’s beard.

Perceptions of Science

I’ve been thinking a lot these past few days about science and people who consider themselves to be “not science people” or “not math people” and how that winds up playing out in educators and education. The response to the Higgs Boson discovery has been huge and wonderful, but these New York hipsters show us we still have a long way to go.

In my musings, I owe much gratitude to Chip Brock, who has always been willing to answer my random, rapid-fire e-mail questions. My lifetime favorite question is probably when I sent him a message from my internship at The Gazette in Colorado Springs asking how much pressure it would take to blast off a manhole cover. Yessssss.

I owe a lot in advance to Kendra Snyder, who is a science publicist for the American Museum of Natural History. I say “in advance” because I plan on picking her brain plenty in the future, although before yesterday, I hadn’t seen her since we graduated together from MSU in May 2005. Which is an absolutely tragedy, because she is brilliant and wonderful. We didn’t hang out much outside of SNews functions at MSU and our sweet 2003 study abroad, which is a shame.

I was trying to figure out yesterday morning, as I was brain barfing to Kendra, why my passionate interest in lay-person’s science advocacy has been on the sidelines for so long. Maybe it’s because I’ve found science-loving friends in Toby’s coworkers at Cheezburger who made me think that the rest of the world was more into science these days. Maybe I was lulled into a false sense that science was becoming more widely recognized because of popular shows like Mythbusters and Alton Brown’s Good Eats.

But I’m probably really thinking about how most people respond to science because of the reaction most people have when I tell them I’m writing a children’s book about Buckminster Fuller. There are three main forms these reactions take. I am including photos for ease of interpretation.

 

1) Delight. “OMG Awesome! The geodesic dome! Buckyballs! What are you writing about him?”

2) Dismissiveness. “Oh, SHANNON, you’re such an overachiever. Don’t even tell me, I know I wouldn’t understand.”

3) That Look. “That Look” also goes along with “That Voice,” the tone that people use when they talk about science being beyond their grasp. You’ve heard every single TV and radio personality using “That Voice” when they lead into a story about the Higgs discovery. It’s oftentimes meant as a compliment, I’m sure, like “Now we’ll hear from a brilliant person who understands the mysteries of the universe,” but I actually take it as an insult. When you use That Voice and give me That Look, here’s what I actually think: If I am failing to communicate in a lucid way how certain processes work, you are actually calling me an incomprehensible jerk incapable of communicating clearly.

I don’t want you to tell me I’m smart; I want you to ask me questions so I can help you understand too! I want you to be able to see the beauty and majesty and wonder in how science shows us how the world is put together.

How can we get people to be more comfortable and interested in science, especially in a time when NASA funding is nonexistent, education is floundering, and there’s a gross permeating feeling of anti-intellectual sentiment that I can only seem to shake when I’m with the brilliant educators they keep tucked away in the district office?

Well, I can tell you one strategy that probably WON’T work:

 

I’ll be continuing to ponder this further. But for now, I’ll leave you with inspiring words from Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who actually works out of the American Natural History Museum and might have been in THE EXACT SAME BUILDING AS I WAS yesterday.

The Power of Three

Today, I talked with three people from three different passions in my life. Today blew my mind.

Betsy Bird

I met Betsy Bird for lunch. I know Betsy from the reading fangirl part of my life. She’s sort of a librarian, but she is way more than that. Yes, she is as friendly, intelligent, and nimble-minded as you think she would be. We talked about lots of bookish things. I wish we would have lived on the same floor in the dorms, she’s the kind of person I just want to be able to randomly pop in on and start up a conversation with.

 

Chip Brock

I corresponded with Chip Brock. I know Chip Brock (I mentally call him Dr. Brock but he has indicated that he’s fine with Chip, but I feel weird calling him Chip so I compromise by using “Chip Brock.”) from my science fangirl part of my life. Chip Brock was my Navigating the Universe professor at MSU, but he is way more than that. He also does work with CERN, WHICH YOU MIGHT KNOW ABOUT BECAUSE THEY FOUND THE EFFING HIGGS BOSON (-like particle). We talked about science and making it accessible (but also way more than that). And I will be writing way more about that. Tomorrow. Featuring a graphic organizer for Gae Polisner (someone else I only feel comfortable referring to with both first and last names).

Damon Gupton

I approached Damon Gupton after seeing Clybourne Park. I know Gupton from the theater fangirl part of my life. He is an actor, but he is way more than that. I told him that I enjoyed the show and that it resonated with all the work we’ve been doing with equity at Wildwood and I got a little teary and he said that this conversation had to continue, so he invited me along with other cast folks to a pub across the street and we talked about Michigan and Detroit and race and prejudice and it was wonderful.

I am so grateful for wise, kind, fascinating people who are willing to talk with me to try to make sense of this overwhelming world, whether we make sense of it through literature, science, or art.

In which I model my post after Karen Cushman

Sorry, peepz. I was inspired by Karen Cushman.

1. Star sign: Scorpio. I’m supposed to be all passionate about everything. I suppose I am.

2. Favorite food: Pizza, salad, and spam musubi.

3. Favorite music: Have you ever heard Van Cliburn before? You must. He’s the most brilliant human being on Earth. I love all sorts of music, but I don’t listen to it much when I write.

4. Pet: Cricket and Olive. My husband, Toby, loves Olive more than he does Cricket, which is frankly heartbreaking. But it kind of makes sense, as Olive is charming and Cricket eats clothing.

5. Weird things I love: Green smoothies, research, vintage underpinnings.

6. Favorite books: Anything by Laura Ingalls Wilder and other well-written historical fiction, anything by Karen Cushman except Rodzina, everything.

7. Favorite fantasy: Doing everything all at once.

8. Dislikes: Stupid people who don’t want to learn.

9. Best subject at school: Let’s be honest, I was amazing at everything. I don’t know how. Probably English.

10. Subject I wished I’d studied harder: Computer science.

11. Favorite past job: Yeah, I sold out to the man, but I loved working at The Gap.

12. Biggest surprise about me: I’m really, really, really boring when I’m at home just relaxing.

13. Thing I like best about writing: LOL oh that’s right, this is a writer’s survey. I only write when I make blog posts and complete National Board entries.

14. Favorite holiday: Halloween. Although lately I really like telling people that if they pinch their classmates on St. Patrick’s Day, they are insulting my heritage.

15. Heroes: Amelia Earhart, Eleanor Roosevelt, Richard Feynman.

16. What I wanted to be when I grew up: Actor, author, physicist, inventor.

17. Things I love: Cats, restfulness, laughter, surprises.

18. Favorite sport: Baseball.

19. Favorite TV show: The West Wing, CSI, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, How I Met Your Mother.

20. Biggest fault: I GET SO UPSET WHEN PEOPLE ARE STUPID. My patience is limited.

 

 

#titleiconf draws to a close

Wow. I did quite a bit of thinking, pondering, and reflecting at the National Title I Conference the past few days in Seattle. I sat down tonight ready to share some of the things I learned / was frustrated with, but my brain seems to be dried up.

I will point out that Twitter was basically my savior for the conference. I Tweeted a whole bunch, and I met some pretty rad people in person.

My brief overall impressions? The keynotes were excellent, progressive, compelling, and frankly more radical than I thought the Title I folks would be. The sessions I attended were largely awful and overpopulated by people straight-up selling a product. The people I met were pretty cool, and the colleagues I attended with were infinitely inspiring.

More to come. I’m slinking off to bed to finish It’s Like This, Cat.

How old is too old?

I’ve had a copy of Byrd Baylor‘s If You are a Hunter of Fossils in my teacher tote bag for months, waiting for me to write CAFE lessons for it. It was originally a text included in kindergarten Kinderroots kits, but when we switched from Success for All, the books were introduced to general teacher circulation.

I put off posting lessons because I worried the book would be outdated, thus opening a huge can of worms in determining whose role it is to decide whether books are outdated. (It’s our librarian’s role, I’d argue. But we have a half-time librarian who is spending every second he’s in our school making up for the FOUR YEARS when we didn’t have a librarian at all. I don’t think weeding books are at the top of his list. He and our library assistant have added ELEVEN HUNDRED books to our school library this year.)

Despite my initial apprehension, I finally read the book and gave a few lesson suggestions. Hunter of Fossils has held up well to all the recent dinosaur discoveries and changes. But other books don’t hold up as well. And as a school with a teensy tiny library budget, at what point do we retire old books?

 

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/#!/MsHoughton/status/153660132386017283″]

 

There are a bunch of other old books that are in the bookroom. I’m not too concerned about these texts, as they’re intended for teacher check-out, and I assume teachers know how to lead a rad anti-bias, these-were-the-times lesson.

 

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/#!/donalynbooks/status/153657606077022208″]

 

Again, what is the line for “accurate,” though? For example, our school’s Ben Franklin biography is Jean Fritz’s 1975 book What’s the Big Idea, Ben Franklin? A large bulk of the information is pretty accurate, to my mind, but there are some pieces that have been disproven. We included the updated information in our class discussion. There’s an updated version of this book with illustrations by David Small, but I haven’t read it and don’t know if there are any changes.

But what about the books on the shelf available for general consumption? I’m not by any means looking to somehow censor outdated information, but I wonder how we can set students up for success in accessing accurate information.

 

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/#!/cppotter/status/153660546456104961″]

 

As mentioned above, we are fortunate to have a 22-computer lab (Although it is tiny. And many of our classes have 25 students. And we use it to take state standardized tests in.), which many classes use to research information.

But access to information isn’t a cure-all. The nightmare scenario for my kids comes from my own cultural shock in China. I read at least a half dozen books on the country and the culture, but the most lasting impression I had was from Big Bird in China. I LOVED this movie when I was little. ADORED this movie. And as an adult, I knew that some things would be VERY different on my visit, but even the more recent texts I read didn’t prepare me for the changes I saw.

I thought people would be wearing neutral-colored Mao suits. I thought cities would be more run down. In retrospect, I guess there’s always more research I could have done, but I wonder what would have helped me sift out the most recent, relevant information, especially considering I went into the program knowing NOTHING about China. Except pandas and Mao.

Anyway. So I guess I’m still left with my initial question. At what point are old nonfiction books worse than no books at all? I’ll pester some librarians this week, and please leave any thoughts or ideas in the comments!

New Traditions

This year was the first Christmas I celebrated away from my Michigan family. Mom and dad, I missed you sooooo much! The hope was that my new husband Toby and I would be able to develop new traditions to make the holiday our own. Due to my mopiness and gross indecision, nothing earth-shattering was created, except lots of fires, tea, and reading. And mediocre Indian buffet food for Christmas dinner. And frankly, that’s just fine by me.

But now that I’m looking forward to returning to school today, I’ve been thinking about the traditions my students, colleagues, and I have been developing in the five years I’ve been teaching. Here are some things I’m looking forward to in the new year.

Mock Caldecotts. This started last year officially, although I’ve been holed up in front of a computer the morning of the ALA Midwinter Conference ever since Katherine Schlick Noe told me about the awards livestream when I was at Seattle U. My students come in early (if the conference is held on the East Coast) and enjoy breakfast snacks as the awards are announced. If it’s an award they’re not familiar with (last year I neglected to explain the Sibert award to them — MAJOR oversight on my part), they usually look to me to gauge what their reactions might be. This year, though, I think we’re pretty well-prepared to critique the official choices.

Preliminary voting on our classroom Mock Caldecotts, which were featured last year in the Federal Way Mirror, will begin the end of this week, with the final votes cast January 21 or 22. I haven’t yet decided.

Math Team S’Mores. Sometimes, traditions are started for no good reason. I can’t remember why we decided to microwave S’Mores for our math team members at the last meeting of the year, but this tradition is entering its fourth year. Our first math team competition is coming up this month at Green Gables Elementary. Whee!

Tour guide Ms. Houghton on field trips. I’m SO EXCITED to take the next step in this tradition. Every time we head up to Seattle, I put on my best newspaper reporter voice (which is also my best documentary voice-over voice) and point out relevant landmarks. Smith Tower, once the tallest building west of the Mississippi, Port of Seattle, Amazon headquarters, Starbucks Headquarters, the Convention Center that goes right over the freeway (and contributes to Seattle’s traffic woes), the U District, Space Needle, etc. My goal is for my students to take over this role on the remaining field trips we have this year. Wheeee!!!

Reading Challenges. I started my 50-book-a-year reading challenges when I was in college. You can see an early list here. This year I’ve committed to a few challenges, and created a new one. You know I love any excuse to pull out a new retro lady header.

Sibert Challenge

All this chatter about the various ALA challenges going on in 2012 made me long for a few more nonfiction books on my to-read list. And although the Sibert Informational Medal hasn’t been around for that long, I realized I’ve read woefully few of the winners and honor recipients.

So I present to you this year’s Sibert Challenge, which you can find on Twitter as #nerdibert.

I’m not quite sure how to facilitate something like this, so I suppose I should ask you to please post any links to your versions of the challenge in the comments section. Here’s the complete list of award recipients, taken from the ALA site. For now, I’ll say that I’ll attempt to read them chronologically. If I’ve read a book, I’ve linked it to my Goodreads review.

  • Winner: Sir Walter Ralegh and the Quest for El Dorado. Written by Marc Aronson.
  • Honor: Blizzard! The Storm That Changed America. Written by Jim Murphy.
  • Honor: The Longitude Prize. Written by Joan Dash. Illustrated by Dusan Petricic.
  • Honor: My Season with Penguins: An Antarctic Journal. Written by Sophie Webb.
  • Honor: Pedro and Me: Friendship, Loss, and What I Learned. Written by Judd Winick.

  • Winner: Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1850. Written by Susan Campbell Bartoletti.
  • Honor: Brooklyn Bridge. Written by Lynn Curlee.
  • Honor: Surviving Hitler: A Boy in the Nazi Death Camps. Written by Andrea Warren.
  • Honor: Vincent van Gogh. Written by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan.

  • Winner: The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler. Written by James Cross Giblin.
  • Honor: Action Jackson. Written by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan. Illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker.
  • Honor: Hole in My Life. Written by Jack Gantos.
  • Honor: Six Days in October: The Stock Market Crash of 1929. 
    Written by Karen Blumenthal.
  • Honor: When Marian SangWritten by Pam Munoz Ryan. Illustrated by Brian Selznick.

  • Winner: The Voice that Challenged a Nation: Marian Anderson and the Struggle for Equal Rights. Written by Russell Freedman.
  • Honor: Sequoyah: The Cherokee Man Who Gave His People Writing.  Written by James Rumford, translated into Cherokee by Anna Sixkiller.
  • Honor: The Tarantula Scientist. Written by Sy Montgomery, photographs by Nic Bishop.
  • Honor: Walt Whitman: Words for America. Written by Barbara Kerley, illustrated by Brian Selznick.

  • Winner: Secrets of a Civil War Submarine: Solving the Mysteries of the H.L. HunleyWritten by Sally M. Walker.
  • Honor: Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow. Written by Susan Campbell Bartoletti.

  • Winner: Team Moon: How 400,000 People Landed Apollo 11 on the Moon. Written by Catherine Thimmesh.
  • Honor: Freedom Riders: John Lewis and Jim Zwerg on the Front Lines of the Civil Rights Movement. Written by Ann Bausum.
  • Honor: Quest for the Tree Kangaroo: An Expedition to the Cloud Forest of New Guinea. Written by Sy Montgomery, photographs by Nic Bishop.
  • Honor: To Dance: A Ballerina’s Graphic NovelWritten by Siena Cherson Siegel, artwork by Mark Siegel.

  • Winner: The Wall: Growing Up behind the Iron CurtainWritten by Peter Sís.
  • Honor: Lightship. Written and illustrated by Brian Floca.
  • Honor: Nic Bishop Spiders. Written and photographed by Nic Bishop.

  • Winner: Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot. Written by Sy Montgomery.
  • Honor: Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring. Written by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, illustrated by Brian Floca.
  • Honor: Lafayette and the American Revolution. Written by Russell Freedman.

2012

  • Recipients to be announced January 23, 2012!

A Tale of Two Articles

Ever since I learned that you could make your living as a nonfiction writer, I wanted to be a newspaper reporter.

I had a few plum internships, my final one sending me to the Florida Times-Union. The job was stressful and enjoyable, but two main articles stick in my mind seven years later.

The first is essentially the reason I left journalism.

Cause of death released for pair.

My metro editor deserves mad props for giving this story to a metro intern rather than one of the other three cops and courts reporters. Except that I didn’t really want to call a family to tell them their parents were buried alive. At all. Ever. Calling them was the biggest regret I have in my reporting career. My and my editor’s choices were questioned by the alternate weekly, and even by our conservative editorial board. As a human, I do not regret my choices. I can see how a journalist might disagree with me.

Earlier that month, I called L. Patrick Gray’s son to add to the AP’s obituary. L. Patrick Gray was in charge of the FBI during the Deep Throat scandal in 1972-73. Ed Gray called me back as I was leaving the Jacksonville Police Department, where I had just finished sifting through the police reports for the day. I sat in the lobby, a bit unprepared for his call. I asked him all the questions I usually asked for obituary stories, about his life, about their last times together, etc. I figured the AP would have all the Watergate and Deep Throat details. Plus, my knowledge of post-1920 history was woefully minimal (nice work, Stevenson High School), and I didn’t want to look like an idiot.

As our interview reached its end, I thanked Ed for his time and expressed my sympathies. Ed cleared his throat; he’d ostensibly been talking to reporters for the bulk of the day. “Thank you,” he said. “You know, you’re the first reporter I’ve talked to all day who has actually asked me about my father.”

Wow.

I’m glad I’m no longer a reporter, but I still love nonfiction. I hope you join me in 2012 for the Sibert Challenge. More information to come.