Friday, April 30, 2010

Sometimes You Gotta Vent

Arizona is taking a lot of heat over this new immigration law, and deservedly so, but as a teacher, I'm more concerned about what this state is doing to public education. Last year the education budget was cut 14%, and this year schools are being forced to cut another 10%, possibly more. On May 18, the state will vote on a sales tax measure to increase the sales tax by 1 cent, for a restricted three year period. It is estimated the increase would raise 1 billion dollars a year, which could be used for public education and other severely cut social service programs. If the measure doesn't pass, it will mean further dracoian cuts to education. Drastic steps, like eliminating high school sports, are seriously being considered if voters shoot down the sales tax increase. Quite frankly, I'm not expecting the measure to pass.

I'm a teacher, I don't need to tell anyone where I stand on crazy shit like this. It's disheartening to work in a state that already spends less money on education than any other state in the union, and wants to cure its budget woes by depriving children of a quality education. My daughters attend one of the top public elementary schools in Tucson, but budget cuts are sucking the life out of the place. The librarian was cut last year, but luckily parent volunteers stepped up to keep the library open. There's no band/orchestra this year, no PE, it's very bare bones, and now we have to cut more. Projections for next year are so bad, I was joking with the principal that he'll be answering phones next year.

Apparently, eliminating positions isn't enough. There's a very good chance those of us left standing are going to have our salaries cut, anywhere from 2% to 4.2%. Of course, with all the cuts, you can bet class size will go up, which means teacher workloads will increase. I know, I know, lots of people are working more for less these days, join the club. That doesn't mean I have to like it. Sometimes you gotta vent.

Monday, April 26, 2010

A little catch up.....

My only New Year's resolution for 2010 was to spend an hour every day writing. Most days I spend that hour working on a book I started last summer, but as a change of pace, I started this blog. I'm finding it a great way to practice writing. I watch a lot of movies and I read quite a few books, so the original idea for the blog was to write reviews. I'm still interested in writing reviews, but I've enjoyed writing about other topics as well, so I guess the blog will be about whatever is on my mind when I take a break from working on the book. Tonight, I have a bunch of movies and books to catch up on.

Meg and I watched Everybody's Fine a couple weekends ago. DeNiro plays a widower trying to reconnect with his kids. He hits the road to see his kids, and much enlightenment ensues. Pretty formulaic movie, but I'm a sucker for family dramas and road trip movies, so I actually liked this more than I thought I would. The next day I braved the mall and took the girls to see How To Train Your Dragon. I know this is a kid's movie, and my kids thoroughly enjoyed it, but I probably liked it more than they did. That night Meg and I watched An Education. I know this was nominated for Best Picture, but I wasn't impressed. Call me old-fashioned, but I don't really want to watch a 16 year old girl have a relationship with a creepy older guy, especially when he's played by Peter Skaarsgaard, not my favorite actor. I read a number of reviews comparing Carey Mulligan to Audrey Hepburn, but I was reminded of Katie Holmes circa Dawson's Creek, and that's not a good thing. This past Saturday, we watched The Blind Side. It's hard not to like this movie. I can't say it's Best Picture material, but it's a solid movie about a truly inspirational group of people. While I think Sandra Bullock did a nice job, I find it absolutely ridiculous that she won Best Actress for this performance. There is simply no way a sane human being can tell me her performance was better than Gabourey Sidibe's in Precious. That gets me caught up with movies.

On the book front, just a couple to write about, but they're both excellent. This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper is a great book. The main character, Judd Foxman, is going home to sit shiva for his dead father. His family has a hard time being in the same room, so the seven days of shiva are full of plenty of fireworks. Tropper has a great sense of humor and writes wonderful, fully-developed characters. This is the second Tropper book I've read in a month, and I have another ready to go. Big fan. The last book I finished was bird by bird by Anne Lamott. This is an excellent book about writing, full of sage advice and concrete suggestions for aspiring writers. Lamott recommends writing at least 300 words a day. I think this post fits the bill.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Minneapolis Doppelgangers

I received some crazy news from a friend in Minneapolis this week. Well, it's crazy to me anyway. Her son is taking swimming lessons, and a there's a girl named Quinn in his class. Awesome, my youngest daughter's name is Quinn. It's not a common name, but I've seen it out there, it's not all that surprising to come across other Quinns. We actually have a female reporter on the local news named Quinn. I'm sure this Quinn's parents wanted a beautiful Irish name like Meg and I did. I wouldn't be surprised if Quinn becomes a fairly common name. At this point we're talking minor coincidence, but this is where the crazy comes in.

My friend got to talking with Quinn's nanny at their last swimming lesson. Turns out little Quinn recently became a big sister. Her little sister's name? Scout. Hmmm, now that's weird. My oldest daughter's name is.....wait for it.....Scout! Other than her fictional namesake, and Bruce and Demi's kid of course, I am not aware of any other kids out there named Scout, and this is definitely the kind of thing friends and acquaintances would pass along. I've heard of people naming their dogs Scout, which is another topic altogether, but kids, no. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, this blew me away.

Meg grew up in Minneapolis, and I lived there for 8 years. We still have a lot of friends up there, and Meg thinks the other Scout and Quinn's parents heard the names from someone we know. It's definitely possible, but so what, right? We love the names, so why wouldn't other people? I think it's cool. We spend quite a bit of time in Minneapolis in the summer, who knows, maybe we should meet this family. Apparently we have a lot in common.

Monday, April 19, 2010

What Would Isaac Do?

A boy named Isaac has become a legend in the Riley family. In 2008 we had the misfortune of sitting behind Isaac on a flight from Tucson to Dallas. Isaac was the kid you never want to sit by on a plane. The only thing more irritating than Isaac's behavior was his parents' refusal to deal with the young man. Ever since that brief encounter my daughters have been obsessed with Isaac. They make up games in the backyard with Isaac as the villain. When they see kids acting up in public, they think of ways Isaac would be even worse. For the Riley girls, Isaac symbolizes misbehaving children everywhere.

It's actually been a while since I've heard the girls talking about Isaac, but his name popped up this weekend. Meg and I were in the kitchen talking about our summer trip. One of the perks of having a two teacher family is the time off. Every summer we get out of the desert for a while, spending time with family and friends in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. The last few years we've flown, but this year we're going back to our roots, loading up the car for a good old-fashioned road trip. We've taken different routes over the years, so we were discussing places we might stop for the night. As we were talking, riotous laughter began spilling into the kitchen, so we went to investigate. When we asked the girls what was so funny, they said they were making up stories about Isaac. The stories all involved running into Isaac at hotels on our trip, with Isaac doing some ridiculous thing or other to get into trouble. I didn't find the stories particularly funny, but watching the girls lose their minds together was hilarious. Watching your kids laugh hysterically is one of the true pleasures of parenting. Thanks Isaac.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

When Pride Still Mattered

I grew up in Wisconsin, so it goes without saying that I'm a huge Green Bay Packers fan. As a child of the 70s and 80s there wasn't much to cheer about, the Packers were consistently terrible. My generation had no idea what it felt like to cheer for a winner. All we could do was listen to stories of the glory days, passed down from Father to son, stories of the Lombardi era, when the Green Bay Packers were the epitome of success, right up there with the New York Yankees.

When I was 16, we moved to Green Bay, about a mile down the street from Lambeau Field. When you live in Green Bay, Lombardi and the Packers are everywhere. My old high school is on Packerland Drive. My brother and sister both attended Lombardi Middle School. We drove Lombardi Avenue nearly every day. Lombardi may have died in 1970, but his legacy is still very much alive in Titletown.

I read somewhere recently that Robert DeNiro is going to play Lombardi in a movie based on the biography When Pride Still Mattered by David Maraniss. I remembered giving the book to my dad as a gift at some point, but I'd never actually read it myself. I borrowed it from my dad to get a little football fix and brush up on my Packers history. When Pride Still Mattered is an excellent biography, very detailed, informative and entertaining. Sports fans, especially football fans, will definitely enjoy this book. If you're a Green Bay Packers fan this is a must-read.

Monday, April 12, 2010

All Part of the Job

As a teacher, I consider keeping up with pop culture part of my job. You can really connect with a kid if you're able to talk about music, movies, and yes, even books. The Twilight series is a perfect example. Like it or not, these books are huge in the world of middle school. I finally broke down in '08 and read Twilight when I noticed how many girls were toting the thing around. My reaction to the book was lukewarm, and I would have gladly stopped there, but I had some really great girls in class that year, and I let them talk me into giving New Moon a chance. I liked the addition of werewolves, but other than that, I still wasn't hooked. At that point, I felt like I'd done my duty, I would not be finishing the series.

When Twilight hit theaters in "09, I have to admit, I was interested to see it. Not enough to brave the mall, but I did watch it on DVD. I wouldn't say I'm a huge fan, but I actually quite enjoyed it. Some of the special effects were laughably bad, but overall, I thought the movie was an upgrade form the source material. I was done with the books, but I was open to more movies.

This weekend Meg and I watched New Moon. The special effects were better, no more ridiculous shots of RPatz running with Kristen Stewart on his back. We loved the music, great Killers song over the final credits. Citizen Kane it's not, but we had a good time. I still have no plans to read the other two books, but I will watch the movies. Just doing my job.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Little Things

This is isn't the easiest time of year to be a teacher. With Spring break over, it's a straight shot until the end of the year. I only have so much patience for a given school year, and supplies are running dangerously low. You can only say the same things, to the same kids, so many times before it starts to take a psychic toll. We've all heard "there are no stupid questions." Uh, wrong. My 8th graders seem to have a neverending supply. My ability to fend these questions off without losing my mind is quickly waning. Luckily, the end is in sight, and I can start recharging the battery this summer. Not that I'm counting down the days or anything, 33, but yes, I'm counting down the days. In my experience, these are common feelings in the profession this time of year.

Having said all this, something happened this week that reminds me why I love this job, why I can put up with the nonsense. One of my students is obsessed with words. He scours the dictionary and thesaurus daily for new words, trying them out on his classmates and teachers. His attmepts to incorporate the new words into his everyday speech are often misguided, he's like a verbal Don Quixote, but I love the enthusiasm. The other day he asked if I knew what the word lachrymose means. He loves it when he can stump me, and I had to admit, I wasn't familiar with that one. He proudly informed me that lachrymose means "tearful," and mission accomplished, took his seat. That interaction alone made my day, but it got better. The next period was my planning period, and I was straightening up a bit when I noticed a piece of paper on my guy's desk. In large, neatly crafted letters he had written, "Ecstatic people are never lachrymose." I had to laugh. Maybe he left the paper behind intentionally, hoping to impress me, or maybe he just forgot to pick up after himself. Either way, it's a keeper, probably wind up on my fridge. For me, little things like this make teaching truly rewarding.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Spring Break '10

So it's back to the grind for the Rileys. We had a great Spring Break with the Krieghoffs. I'd call it a Seinfeld vacation, we didn't really do anything, but it was perfect. Each individual day felt strangely long, but the week as a whole felt like it went by in a flash.

It was sunny and warm for most of the Krieghoff's stay, and we spent a lot of our time lounging by the pool. I guess you could say that was the main activity of the week, afternoon naps a close second. Our big group outing was a hike in the Rincon Mountains near the house. The girls melted down on us a bit, so we cut it short, but it was still good to be out there in the desert. We ate whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted, and it was never too early for a beer. On the one cloudy day we did have, we went to see Alice in Wonderland. Not bad, but I wanted to like it more than I did. We watched a bunch of movies at night. The kids would watch out in the guestroom, and the adults in the family room. We watched Hoosiers to get ourselves ready for the Final Four. We were all pulling for Butler, and it was a lot of fun watching them beat Michigan State. The Krieghoff's last night we had a Corey Haim memorial and watched The Lost Boys.

Getting back into the routine is never easy, especially as a parent. The girls were sad this morning, definitely not in the mood for school. I had to work harder than usual to pump them up for the day, but I got the job done. I wasn't exactly chomping at the bit myself, but one of the things I told the girls brought some solace. You know you had a great vacation if you're really bummed out that it's over. That's how we all felt this morning, and that's a good thing.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Two Great Reads

Our friends, the Krieghoffs, are visiting from Madison this week. They're out taking a morning walk, so I thought I'd quickly mention the other two books I've finished while my students work on their own books.

The first is Little Bee by Chris Cleave. This is an amazing book, I can't recommend it highly enough. It's a story of immigration, globalization, and the ties that bind us. Little Bee is a Nigerian refugee seeking asylum in England. The only two people she knows in England are Andrew and Sarah, a couple she met when they were vacationing in Nigeria. This brief encounter changes their lives forever. Cleaves has a very fluid writing style; once you get started, I bet you'll have a hard time putting this one down.

The other book is The Book of Joe by Jonathan Tropper. Joe is a writer whose first book is a huge success, even spawning a hit movie. The book and movie are scathing indictments of his hometown, Bush Falls, and many of its residents. When he returns after a long absence to be with his ailing father, the town doesn't exactly roll out the red carpet. High jinks ensue, and along the way, Joe comes to grips with some of his issues. Tropper is a great writer, his style striking me as a combination of Phillip Roth and Michael Chabon, very masculine.

These are both great books, you can't go wrong with either one. I look forward to reading more from both authors.