Sunday, December 27, 2009


syn-es-the-sia n : A condition in which one type of stimulation evokes the sensation of another, as when the hearing of a sound produces the visualization of a color. (Greek syn = together + aisthesis = to perceive)

In spite of the sound of its name, it's not a disease. It's not a disability. I like to think of it as a super-ability. I would never want to give up my vivid world of words and numbers with their colors as I perceive them.

I can't distinctly remember a particular time when I realized that not everyone experienced this, but I know that letters and numbers have always had colors to me. Apparently, this particular type of synesthesia--called lexical or grapheme-color synesthesia--is the most common, although any combination of senses can be affected. Some synesthetes see colors and shapes when they hear music; some taste foods when they hear a sound; some experience smells as touch. There seems to be little hard data out there as to how many synesthetes there actually are, in large part because many don't know there's a name for their perceptions. Current research says that the mixing of senses comes from extra neurological connections that everyone's born with but that most brains prune away very early in life. On occasion, they stay.

What brought this all to mind again was reading the novel A Mango-shaped Space, which tells the story of a fictional 13-year-old girl whose synesthetic experiences were much more intense than mine are. My colors don't impede my ability to do math or learn languages; in fact, they're one of the main reasons I can remember words in new languages so quickly. I may not be able to recall the word exactly, but I'll remember what color it is and be able to deduce the sounds and letters that must be in it. I can remember phone numbers and bike lock combinations by their sequence of colors. I like certain names and words better than others because of the colors in them. I love Denver because of all its different shades of green. Your name has a color to me, usually based on how I perceive its first letter and the other major consonant sounds. After finishing the book tonight, I was inspired to map out my letters and numbers because everyone's alphabet is different. Some of the letters needed multiple crayons to get closer to the right hue and are still not quite accurate, but here you have it:

I've never talked to anyone I knew shared this colored-letter-and-number world, although I'm sure I've met some without realizing it, and I'm curious to hear about other people's experiences. Any of you out there?

Sunday, December 20, 2009


It's well past midnight, and I've been lying in bed since 10:30 without sleeping for a second. I've drifted into almost-sleep, ventured just far enough into surreality to see, through closed eyes in the dark, beams of light streaming from my outstretched fingertips, creative energy straining to be free of the bogged-down-in-work-ness that has been the overarching theme of these past weeks and months. I did eat far too many Christmas cookies before going to bed, but it's more than simple chocolate caffeine bursting around in this brain of mine. It's all the music I want to play, the stories I want to tell, the languages I want to speak, the passion I want to teach, the miles I want to walk, the people I want to love. All of it, all of this light and color, is shooting through me, trying to find its way out, not letting me sleep, more inspired than tired, too impatient to wait for morning. The brilliance of lightning fades all too quickly in sunlight.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Christmas comes early

It's Sunday night, and I'm practically itching for Monday morning to come around so I can get to school and play with my classroom's newest and far-and-away most remarkable toy: our Promethean board.

(Check out more at their website.) It was there waiting for me when I showed up last Wednesday morning; I danced around my classroom and have been mesmerized ever since. For everyone reading without a clue as to what a Promethean board is, which was the case for me a mere three months ago, it's an interactive white board that does everything a computer screen can do but is activated by electronic pens on the board itself, with special software for creating flipcharts (similar to PowerPoint slide shows but with many more interactive capabilities) and hundreds of other exciting tricks. I've had 12 hours of training so far and feel like I've barely scratched the surface of its potential. Ideas are galloping through my mind: class-directed Spanish movies, interactive cultural inquiries, instantaneous analysis of student responses, video conferences with sister schools in Latin America. Tranquila, maestra. Start small. Perhaps an interactive vocabulary lesson tomorrow. Ah, but the horizons are so inviting.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Jello Chilies

I've been craving Peruvian food lately, so I decided to cook up a little ceviche and ají de gallina and guanabana ice cream tonight for some of the old Goshen crew that's here in Denver. It's been quite awhile since I've done any serious Peruvian cooking, but I tracked down some recipes and set off to do the house grocery shopping. Unsurprisingly, there was no ají amarillo (a Peruvian type of yellow chili pepper) to be found at Albertsons or Whole Foods, where we usually do our shopping. I headed for one of the Mexican supermarkets to try my luck, but had none, except for finding some frozen guanabana pulp. I finally ended up at the biggest Mexican supermarket I know, the fourth stop of my grocery shopping trip. After searching all the likely aisles in vain for my ají, and more than ready to be done with shopping, I finally asked the man taking inventory of the spices for help. Our conversation went something like this:

"Excuse me, do you know if you sell ají amarillo?"
"Ají un tipo de chile peruano que se usa para hacer ají de gallina..."
(look of skepticism and confusion) "Jello chilies?"
(look of surprise) "No, no, not jello. A pepper. Un chile amarillo."
"But amarillo is jello."
(half second of silence. epiphany.) "OOOOOhhh, yes yes yes, I'm sorry. Yellow chilies. Jellow chilies. ¿Se los vende?"
"A que no sé que this store is more Mexico, no South want that I talk to my friend from Peru? He will know."
"OK, that'd be great."

He proceded to whip out a cell phone and call up the Peruvian friend, who informed us that the store did indeed carry yellow chilies, and that they were located with the other South American products, although neither one of them could tell me where that might be. I gave a heartfelt thanks and returned to my search, meticulously re-scanning every aisle and feeling rather frustrated until I caught sight of a lone 2-liter of soda on a top shelf, a neon-yellow beacon of pure Perú. Inca Kola. I couldn't help but grin. Sure enough, I found the ají amarillo not two feet away, and bought the Inca Kola for good measure, stopping to find the jello-chili man and thank him again on my way to the checkout before heading home for an afternoon of shredding chicken, chopping chilies, soaking raw fish in lime, and sipping on the Golden Cola, which tasted just as terrible as I remembered but made my heart sing. Craving satisfied. Thank you, jello-chili man, for making it possible.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Photo update

It's wintertime, and I haven't posted any pictures since July. Here you have the three-season highlights: summer, fall, and winter. Without photos of teaching, I wasn't sure there'd be much left...but it turns out I have been playing a little in addition to the work. Enjoy.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Yesterday morning, I was halfway to the bus stop when I realized I was still wearing my slippers. I froze for half a step, debating whether to sprint back to my house to put on real shoes, but I was late and knew I'd miss the bus if I did. So I went to work in my slippers, pulling my pants down as far as I could to hide them while I sat on the buses and walked along the streets, until I made it to school, where I keep teaching shoes in my closet for the days I bike. My classes got a little story and a big laugh at my expense, and they learned how to say slippers, one of my favorite words in Spanish: pantuflas.

Dios mío. It's definitely time for a vacation.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


It's winter. Time for a change of blog scenery.

Old Age

I turned a quarter of a century old today. Unbelievable. Or maybe not so much. It seems I've been alive for quite a long time (although, obviously, I don't have much to compare it to), and plenty has happened in the last 25 years. It's just that not so very long ago, I would've told you that people in their mid-twenties were mature, serious, grown up, boring. Old.

I was playing violin this morning, and for the first time in my life realized that I couldn't see the lines on the staff to read some of the notes. Failing eyesight? You've got to be kidding me.

My bedtime is 9:45 on school nights. My grandparents stay up later than that. Granted, I rarely make it on time. It's a testament to the imbalance of my work and social lives that on a normal week, the only nights I'm in bed by bedtime are Friday and Saturday. Pathetic, ¿no?

There's not much I can do about declining vision or that fact that I actually need my eight hours of sleep, I suppose, but I've certainly been putting forth my best efforts to guard against becoming too serious and boring. After spending the better part of this past Friday night studying for more teacher licensure tests and completing an online training course in school emergency response, I was all too aware of how easy it could be to fall into a dangerously dull adult lifestyle of overwork and underplay. Unacceptable, I say.

So I ventured outside in my slippers through the snow and into the back alley, where the plastic sliding board from our ex-treehouse had been laid to rest in the dumpster. I rescued it. Then, with the amused but skeptical help of my dear and trusty friend Kate, I proceeded to attach it to my bed so I could slide to the floor each morning. Wouldn't you just be itching for the alarm clock to go off if you knew you'd get to slide out of bed?

She told me that maybe once I turned 25, I'd outgrow this severe silliness. I'm watching the clock, and that slide's still in my bedroom. I think I win. But if I end up in the hospital tomorrow morning with a broken hip...well, you'll know what happened.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Shit happens

Well. What to say about this week? The string of luck began when our dead treehouse tree split in two and had to be cut down. Then our washing machine started making dirty water come up through the shower drains. Then our house was broken into, and we're down three laptops, three digital cameras, two gold rings, an mp3 player, several hundred in cash, a checkbook, and a pair of sunglasses. That same night I got pulled over for driving a borrowed car with one headlight out and couldn't find the insurance papers. Two run-ins with the police in the same day! Thought that was as bad as it could get. Then this morning when I ran the dishwasher, all manner of human excrement started bubbling up through all the toilets and showers. What can I say? Can't think of a more ironically appropriate ending to a shitty week.

OK, so to be perfectly honest, I found the whole poop-in-the-showers incident to be rather comical. Maybe I've spent too much time around elementary kids. Maybe if I hadn't laughed, I would've cried. In any case, everything that's happened has made me realize just how lucky I am that things weren't worse than they were. So much of what is valuable to me is worth nothing to anyone who would break into houses. I still have my journals, my photos, my letters. My housemates and I are safe, if not altogether sound. We have a truly amazing support system of people making sure we're OK. And I can still laugh and believe that next week can only get better. Knock on wood.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


There's nothing quite like being a first-year teacher to promote a healthy sense of humility. I guess it goes to show just how absurdly privileged my life has been, but the times I've had to settle for being merely mediocre at anything have been few and far between. And now there is teaching.

There are days when I feel entirely overwhelmed, like it's all one big act, just pretending to know what I'm doing and praying the kids don't see through me. No matter how hard I work, there's always more I could be doing, should be doing. I want to be extraordinary right away, and it frustrates me to no end that I simply can't be. I waver back and forth between feeling like a very competent, talented teacher and like I'll never be able to get to where I want to be. Truth is, those two aren't as mutually exclusive as they might seem.

That's the thing about teaching: you can be exceptional, phenomenal, the best there is, and you'll still be thinking every night about a dozen things you should be doing better. I could spend every waking hour doing nothing but planning and prepping and teaching and reflecting and grading and analyzing, and it still wouldn't be enough. Plus I would've lost my sanity--not to mention my enjoyment of teaching--long ago, and if that were the case, my kids would hate my class because I would too. So I stay late at school, but I come home and cook and talk and write and visit and play soccer and tennis and violin, knowing that even if I can't be an extraordinary teacher overnight, achieving any sort of well-balanced life in this first year is pretty extraordinary in and of itself.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Light-bulb moment

Tonight I am not doing any work at home. I won't even write about teaching. Is there anything else that exists? Ah, but of course.

Not too long ago, I stopped at Home Depot on a Saturday morning in hopes of finding light-bulb housings to use with my paper lampshades from Laos. Unfortunately, as John in the electrical department informed me, Home Depot doesn't carry such things. But--he said--are you handy with wires? Let me show you what you can do.

I laughed, and almost said no, thanks anyway, and walked out, but I was amused enough by his confidence in my electrical skills that I decided to play along. I would like to be seen as the kind of person who is handy with wires, even if I had no intention of actually following through with the job.

First I was shown to a huge spool of wire, and then to bins of plugs and switches and other gadgets. Soon, I was carrying around bulb housings and actually considering taking them home with me and giving it a shot. I read the employees' aprons: You can do it. We can help. Why not?

After admitting to the infinitely patient salesperson that I had absolutely no electrical experience whatsoever, I started taking copious notes and drawing rather indecipherable diagrams on the back of a receipt while he spent the better part of an hour giving advice on how not to get electrocuted and explaining exactly what needed to be done. It'll take you probably two hours, but it's a relatively simple project, he assured me. You'll be fine. I left with a plug, a switch, three bulb housings, heat shrinks, electrical tape, 30 feet of wire, and a big smile. I was going to be an electrician.

At home with my new toys, I informed my encouraging but slightly skeptical housemates of my plans. Kate volunteered to stay close to the phone, ready to dial the hospital or fire department at a moment's notice. I started snipping and stripping, measuring, hammering, shrinking, sealing, feeling quite impressed that I was actually doing these things, all by myself.

In less than the predicted two hours, I had everything assembled. Time for the moment of truth. I held my breath and plugged it in. Nothing. Not a single one of the three light bulbs turned on. How terribly anticlimactic. I disassembled the bulb housings one at a time, checking for problems, and sure enough, the wires had slipped and weren't making contact with the screws. Fixed them up and tried again--and regarde! A light! Three lights! And a feeling of immense satisfaction. I'm sure I could've bought something perfectly adequate from Target and spent half the money and a fraction of the time, but that sense of accomplishment is pretty much priceless.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


Flew to PA this weekend for 36 hours of Mom's birthday, hurried visits to grandparents, and a lovely cousin's wedding. Felt a little sickly, but wrote it off to traveling and teaching exhaustion and the presence of 600-odd adorable little kids generously contributing their adorable little germs to my classroom. Walked through airport security early this morning on my way back home and read the H1N1 warning billboard. Cough. Sore throat. Headache. Damn. Spent the entire afternoon flipping back and forth between the CDC website and my half-finished substitute lesson plans, analyzing my potential as a health hazard. Decided on better safe than sorry. Watched my temp drop from 98.7 to 98.5 to 98.0. Curious. Will sleep long and hard and reevaluate tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


I had my first lost tooth in Spanish class today. And my first pants-wetting incident, because I told a kid to wait five minutes until the end of class. In the same class period. And it was a fourth-grade class. And I had several kids start crying throughout the day, because I didn't call on them, or because they answered a question wrong, or because they missed their moms. Sheesh. Blood, sweat, and tears. And urine. The nurse took care of the blood, and our heroic custodian came and mopped up the puddle of pee from my floor. I did my share of tear-drying. The sweat is mine. No sign of that letting up soon. Welcome to elementary school, maestra.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


This morning I started the usual commute to work along the bike trail as the sun was rising. Beautiful chilly September morning. I was still trying to wake up after another night of not enough sleep when I saw the two bikers coming toward me suddenly collide and fly over their handlebars, crashing onto the pavement in front of me. I threw down my bike and ran over to find a man with a scraped-up leg rushing over to a woman who was lying on the trail between bicycles and making terrible moaning noises. There was also a high-pitched squealing sound, which I thought was coming from her as well until I looked down at her bike on the ground by my feet and saw a squirrel with its head and front leg wedged between the front tire and the bike frame, clearly in great pain, but still very much alive and squealing its head off. My attention snapped back to the injured biker as another man rode up, asking if he should call 911, just as the woman, who had been starting to talk, suddenly lost consciousness and dropped her face into the pavement. He called. She made frightening noises on the ground with the first man kneeling beside her. The squirrel screeched in pain. And I just stood there, terrified, mind racing through CPR training and first-aid lessons, coming up with absolutely nothing I could do, feeling entirely helpless. He got an ambulance on its way. She opened her eyes. The squirrel somehow freed itself and ran zigzagging into the woods on three legs. She told us that her back and neck were hurt (and her head would have been, too, had it not been for the now-cracked helmet she was wearing), and asked me to find her phone and call her husband, which I did. Within minutes, we heard sirens and saw the ambulance come flashing down the trail to where we were waiting. The paramedics asked a few questions and bundled her onto a stretcher, leaving the rest of us, still somewhat in shock, to pedal off to work and never know the end of her story. Had I left my house two seconds earlier, it could've been mine.

Sunday, August 30, 2009


Tomorrow is the last day of August. I have not written this entire month. It's not that I've disappeared; it's that life beyond the computer world has been hurtling me full-force through the past weeks, and I hardly have time to breathe, much less blog. I will not even attempt to catch up on everything that's been happening this past month, but I will start with a little glimpse of the biggest change tonight and take it from there.

I am a teacher. A "real" one. Not a teaching assistant. Not a student teacher. Not a volunteer professor of English in Cambodia. Not a para. A real live maestra de español. Since I last wrote, my classroom went from looking like this:

to this:

And voilà--I am a teacher. A sleep-deprived, overwhelmed, exhausted, and utterly inspired teacher. With 23 classes and nearly 600 students. And it is past my bedtime. Again. Hasta la próxima, pues.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Photo update

It's been a jam-packed July filled with adventures, and I've finally uploaded a bunch of the photos. Find them here in the "July" and "Brought to you by Greyhound" albums. Tomorrow I'm off to the East again for family and a wedding, so the next update may be a long time coming. Until then!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

It's official!

As you may already know, I will be starting a new job as a Spanish teacher in just under a month. It's the same job that I interviewed for way back in March, the one that was offered to me the next day, taken away a week later, and finally given back to me in May. Needless to say, after the first round of making happy phone calls and then having to tell people that I didn't actually have a job after all, I was a little more hesitant to publicize this time around. I told myself I wasn't allowed to get too comfortable until I had a signed contract in hand. And now, as of this afternoon, I finally have it. Along with my brand-new English teaching license that came in the mail today after all my coursework and exams were approved. These Colorado licenses begin, "Be it known..." Yes. So be it known that Erin officially has a teaching job, and a third endorsement on her license, and her own classroom, and 600 K-5 students to teach in just a few short weeks. And she's really excited about it. In case you couldn't tell.

Sunday, July 5, 2009


I baked the bread for communion this morning, and after punching down the dough (my very favorite part) and leaving it to rise a second time, I realized: the Body of Christ really does rise again.

Saturday, July 4, 2009


I got caught in a rainstorm yesterday as I was exploring downtown Denver. It started out with the familiar wind and threatening clouds, and in practically no time, the slow, fat drops had turned into a downpour. I considered braving the elements for the 20-minute walk to my bike and the 30-minute bike ride home until a bolt of lightning seared itself onto my eyeballs and chased me under the nearest shelter, which happened to be the ampitheater at the Civic Center park.

Quite a crowd had already gathered between the Greek columns, trying to avoid the rain gusting in from either side, a real microcosm of the Denver that was not at work at 4:30 on a Friday afternoon. I stood there, watching the storm and the random conglomeration of people it blew in, and getting rather wet until a white guy with a fauxhawk and a joint and dozens of tattoos informed me that I was welcome to stand in the shelter of one of the larger walls with his buddies, that they wouldn't bite. I laughed and politely declined, knowing that I couldn't even pretend to be part of their crowd, and made my way over to the shelter of the second wall, which seemed to be mainly populated by businessmen and tourists and homeless people, and where I felt I could be a bit less conspicuous.

Since the storm showed no signs of letting up, we got to talking (or rather yelling) to each other over the thunder. A cowboy-esque white guy, who seemingly had been sitting in the ampitheater since long before the rain started, told us all about the bizarre and unpredictable weather of Denver. Two guys from Italy, on their last day of a one-month tour of the American West, pointed at the flooded street and told me that they had come to see "the Denver River." There was a black businessman with a sopping dress shirt stuffed into his back pants pocket under his raincoat, and a homeless white man who looked a little perturbed that we had all interrupted his nap. A young Latino guy with his life and sleeping bag in a backpack came and asked if any of us had a cigarrette, and the homeless man sold him one for 11 cents. An older Latino man rode in on a bicycle with a stereo strapped to the back and played Bob Marley and the Barenaked Ladies while the rest of us tapped our feet to the music and chatted and watched and waited.

We watched people on the sidewalks sprinting from one building to another. We watched the druggies at the other wall run screaming into the fountain. We watched Colfax Avenue turn from a puddle to a stormy pond to a raging river. We all jumped at the same earsplitting thunderclaps and laughed sheepishly after looking up to make sure that the columns weren't crashing down around us.

All told, is was almost an hour before the rain died down enough for me to venture out to track down my bike and soggy helmet, but a fascinating hour it was, getting a glimpse into the lives of so many people I would've passed on the street with my eyes on the sidewalk on an ordinary day. Just one more reason to love thunderstorms.

Monday, June 29, 2009

The summer so far

I won't write any more about it here, but most of it's in the captions of two new Picasa albums of summer photos. Look at "Back East" and "Fun in the sun...and snow." Enjoy!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Dancing with Barack

I got to dance with Barack Obama today. At Machu Picchu. In French. As part of a French lesson, in fact. Never mind that "Obama" was really a Spanish teacher named Joshua, or that "Machu Picchu" was the staircase in the hotel conference room. It was still the highlight of my day...and I could tell you the entire story, in slightly imperfect French, without ever having studied the language before: "Il y avait une femme. Erin voulait danser avec Obama parce que Obama était intelligent et sexy..."

I'm in the middle of a three-day TPRS workshop in preparation for my new Spanish teaching job. (I don't think I've mentioned the job here before, which reminds me just how far behind I am in blogging, but I'll save that for a later date. If I tried to catch up on everything in one post, it would be scandalously long, and no one except my mom would read it.) TPRS is a relatively new language teaching methodology that stands for Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling. (For you other language educator junkies out there, it's no longer Total Physical Response Storytelling, although it still makes good use of TPR.)

TPRS is the main method I'll be expected to use in my classroom this coming school year, and I'm super-excited about that. In a nutshell, TPRS involves teaching a few new phrases or structures in the target language (in my case, Spanish) by using gestures or pictures or translation, and then creating a silly story, full of audience participation, using those structures and including celebrities and characters from the class. The students act out the story as it's invented, add funny details, and answer myriad questions about what's happening to get as many repetitions of the target structures as possible. The whole process is highly entertaining when it's done right, and it makes learning a language much more engaging than if you're doing worksheets and reading textbook dialogues.

During the practice sessions today, I got to teach a TPRS Khmer lesson to my group and had them understanding and answering questions--in Khmer--in no time. I'm sure my elementary kids will love this stuff. Heck, I love this stuff, and I'm a full-grown adult. When else would you get to disco with the President in Peru, or watch your classmate and Johnny Depp take the dance floor in McDonald's? Brilliant. I almost didn't notice that the teacher was speaking in French.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Spring Fling

This is a bit delayed, but photos from Spring Fling at school can be found here. As you can see, some of my favorite coworkers and I had entirely too much fun after the students left.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Breaking and entering

My house- and dog-sitting adventure this weekend turned out to be a bit more than I bargained for. I had been happily watching the house of a family from church without incident (other than the dog eating a melon-sized hole in the kitchen tablecloth) when I got a call from the family: they had just gotten word that their neighbor had been unexpectedly hospitalized, and would I be able to take care of her three dogs as well? Sure, no problem. I love dogs. I'm happy to help out in situations like these. No worries.

Half an hour later, I got a call from the daughter of my house-sitting family, who is the normal caretaker of dogs when the neighbor is gone. She asked me if I had a pen and paper to write down instructions for taking care of the dogs. Good thing I had a full sheet of paper, because the directions filled up the entire thing: how to get into the house, where to find the dogs' bowls and food and vitamins and pills, each dog's dietary and medical needs, a description of each dog so I would know who was who, the proper placement of each one's bowl throughout the house during mealtimes, and instructions for shoveling up their messes in the backyard. No kidding.

So I gathered up a bunch of plastic bags for poop collection, and set out for the neighbor's house. First task: enter the backyard. Not so easy without a key. My instructions told me I would have to use a ladder to reach over and unlatch the bolt from the inside, or climb the fence. I had no ladder. I looked around. Broad daylight, with cars driving past and people walking down the or never. I stuck the poop bags in my pant leg to free my hands and hoisted myself up and clawed my way over the 6-food solid-wood-panel fence, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible as I fell into the backyard. I crouched there for a minute on the ground, half expecting to hear shouts and sirens coming my way. I've never felt so much like a criminal in my life. I checked to make sure I had the instruction sheet in my pocket to plead my case when the cops came. Nothing. Sigh of relief.

I finally decided it was safe to come out of hiding and walked up to the back door, which was supposedly left unlocked. Supposedly...#&@%. Now what was I supposed to do, climb back out and fall onto unsuspecting passers-by on the sidewalk and let the poor dogs starve? Then I noticed the doggy door. I couldn't help but laugh as visions of Home Alone came to mind. So in I went, worming my way through the hole and ending up on the laundry room floor in the fetal position, looking up to find a Saint Bernard twice my side drooling on my face, with two other dogs behind him. Pure love and bumbling puppiness. All trials and tribulations worth it. Maybe not worth the $10 I earned, but at least it makes a good story, eh?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


By the way, photos from last weekend's Italian feast can be found here.

Buried treasure

Looks like our springtime snowstorms are finally over--fingers crossed--and the garden is really going to town. Even more exciting than the feeling of dirt under my fingernails while preparing the soil for planting was the hodgepodge of treasures I discovered while digging:

My housemates say I get way too excited about my newfound toys. I say that's impossible. Now the only treasures still buried are my carrots and onions. Checking their miniscule growth every day when I come home from school isn't quite as thrilling as digging up surprises, but it brings its own unique sense of satisfaction, and a connection to earth that I just don't get from horseshoes and rubber frogs. I never cease to be amazed by what miracles climb their way out of tiny seeds.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Good Word List

A while ago I started keeping a list of good words on a sticky note. Words I came across in books or conversations or crossword puzzles, words that are as fun for your mouth as popping grapes. Now the sticky note is full, and I wanted to type up the list before it got lost or thrown away (which happened once, to an earlier version), and figured I'd let you all in on the fun while I was at it. Some of these words I love for their connotations, some for the connection between their sound and meaning, some for the colors of their letters (yes, only in my head.) All of them for their feel in your mouth. So go for it. Read the list out loud.


Well done. Now get your own sticky note and make your own. And don't forget to tell me what they are.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Balls and packages

Seriously, what kind of math curriculum designer came up with the bright idea of giving middle school kids a project designing packages for ping-pong balls? Whoever it was clearly has not spent enough quality time with seventh-graders to recognize the imminent danger in such an assignment.

Here's the background info: we've been investigating volume and surface area of 3-D shapes, and discussing how short, fat boxes have less surface area than long, skinny ones, and therefore save companies money by requiring less packaging material.

Scene from 3rd period today:
I left a table of boys who found it vastly entertaining to make loud farting noises every time I tried to talk and went to check up on another group of boys who appeared to be slightly less off task.

Me: "Can I see some of the boxes you're designing?"

D: "Here."

Me: "Nice; very creative shape. How many balls will fit in it?"

E: "Yeah, do you have two or three?"

Me: Mental note: use caution when referencing balls around middle school boys.
"It asks you to make a small package, a medium package, and a large package. Which one is this?"

(Smirks and giggles.)

J: "He has a small package."

Me: Mental note: use caution when referencing packages around middle school boys.
"Are you going to stack these ping-pong balls on top of each other or put them in a long line?"

T: "I dunno."

Me: "Well, is it better to have a short, fat package or a long, skinny package?"

Silence. They all just stared at me.

Me: %$!&

I got up and left the table, turning my head almost in time to keep them from seeing me laugh.

Can you tell I've spent too much time around twelve-year-old boys?

Friday, April 17, 2009

Why I love what I do

Well, the play is more unexpectedly successful performance under our belts. The show for the school was by far the best we had ever done it, which isn't saying a whole lot, but still. I am satisfied, and it is done.

I mentioned a couple weeks ago at the end of spring break that I had written a list to remind myself of the things I love about my work as a para so it wouldn't be too depressing to go back. Now, after a laid-back teacher planning day with no students, and with yet another April snowstorm turning the world white outside my window, I actually have both the time and the energy to type that list up. (It's amazing how much less exhausted I am after work when I haven't spent the past eight hours pulling teeth trying to get defiant middle school kids to focus. You know I wouldn't say it if I didn't love them.) And one of my students and his friend just knocked on our door and offered to shovel our sidewalks for $5. Even though the snow's still pouring down and we'll have to do it again ourselves in a few hours, it reminded me just how much I like these kids and this community.

So, without further ado: Why I love my job.

Things like spring break and winter break actually exist.

I can keep my Spanish in decent shape.

My knowledge of Mexican slang and expletives is improving rapidly.

I get a crash course in teen pop culture.

I can build relationships with kids working one on one and in small groups.

Students beg their teachers to go and work in my group.

Abby, my fellow para, is awesome. I don't know if I would've survived this year without someone in such a similar situation to laugh and cry and vent with.

The whole staff is pretty amazing. I see teachers here who truly inspire me.

I have a chance study German flash cards while I'm on door duty every morning.

There are always kids who want to talk to me while I'm on lunch duty.

I can teach the girls in my recess how to throw a football.

Students trust me. They tell me their problems, their fears, their issues.

Kids are curious for information on what it's like to be in high school, in college, on your own.

Absolutely miserable days at school make for absolutely hilarious stories.

I get a taste for urban education without having to be the sole person in charge.

I get to see a bunch of different teaching styles and decide what will work for me.

Staffroom gossip is highly entertaining.

I'm getting a much better understanding of educational politics. Better than I ever wanted.

Student fashion sense is a never-ending source of amusement.

I get advice on hairstyles from middle-schoolers.

Since I'm not a "real" teacher, I get invited to chaperone almost every field trip in the school. I've been to the art museum, the skating rink, and the zoo in the past three weeks, and the University of Colorado, the opera house, the contemporary art museum, and the Museum of Science and Nature are all on the calendar for the next month.

FAC. Debriefing on Friday afternoons and spending time with fabulous coworkers in an outside-of-school context is pretty much the best.

I get to go outside for two recesses every Tuesday and Thursday.

I run into my kids in the library, in the park, and just walking down my street.

I can bike to work.

When the weather is miserable, I have a standing offer for a ride from Abby.

I don't have to take work home.

I get to be involved in theater and orchestra.

Kids say the funniest and most ridiculous things in class.

Sometimes I get high-fives in the hallway.

I can be a positive role model.

After our math group one day, one of my kids told me she was actually learning something.

Watching struggling students actually understanding a concept and then running to teach their friends makes it all worth it.

On very rare occasions, kids will actually let on that they appreciate what you do.

And last but not least, there are only 30 school days left before the summer.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Drama, Take II

Six weeks ago, after the against-all-odds success of our first middle school play, Abby and I were asked to carry the momentum and direct a second production. Being agreeable people with tendencies toward overcommitment, we agreed. When I think now of the chance we had to decline and settle for bowing out on the high of the last play, all I can do is shake my head and admit that we should've known better.

The unfortunate truth, though, is that we didn't, and now our April 16th performance of "Jackie and the Chile Stalk" is a mere three days away. Did I mention that we are left with only five of the twelve student actors we started with? And that half of the cast was kicked out due to disciplinary issues with their families or the school or the police within the past week? I have counted a total of one actor in our cast who has not quit the play or been forcibly removed at any point. One. Fortunately, we've reclaimed four others, so between them and a couple of us teachers who spent the weekend memorizing lines as emergency replacements, we're hoping to avoid complete catastrophe and total humiliation in front of the entire school on Thursday. I'm crossing my fingers that that's a reasonable goal. Today, at our second-to-last rehearsal, only two of us had our lines memorized. Sigh. Still, as the kids never fail to remind me, though, "we were badder than this for the last play!" And all I can do is laugh. If I didn't, I'd either be crying or chasing kids around the auditorium in a fit of rage, armed with the magic guitar.

Here it is in writing: I will not say yes to any more plays. None. Until maybe next year.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A bunch of crap

And who would've thought it could make me so happy? Last night, after reading through my Rocky Mountain gardening book, I asked my housemates to let me know if they knew where to find any manure. Approximately two hours later, James came in with the news that someone had just posted a truckload of fully composted horse manure on Brilliant timing. So this evening after work, Kate and I drove over, knocked on the door of this couple's house, and shoveled manure from their backyard into trash bags to fill the trunk. If it doesn't snow this weekend like it has the last two, I'll be out in our garden getting dirt under my fingernails. When work is rough, it's little things like this that give me hope for the world.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Last day of spring break

Sad but true. I wrote a list today of things I love about my work; otherwise, the end of break would just be too depressing. Rather than describe the adventures had, I'll just give the link to the photos. Enjoy!

Thursday, March 26, 2009


Yes, I know, it's been over a month since I last posted anything here. Life is busy. I come home exhausted every day from work, and there's always more work to be done or fun to be had. This week is finally spring break for Denver Public Schools, so I'm getting to catch up on a lot of things that have gotten put on hold during the craziness. Here are a few highlights from past weeks:

The middle-school play. I wrote about this once before, after our first rehearsal. I had hoped things would calm down significantly after that rough start. Who was I kidding? I think we had at least one lead quit (and usually come back) at every single rehearsal, including the one just hours before the show. Pure insanity, I tell you. But they pulled it off, miracle of miracles, and were so proud of themselves. And I of them. So now the after-school program director asked me and Abby to direct another play immediately after that one ended. Next performance: three weeks from today.

Young adult retreat at Rocky Mountain Mennonite Camp. A fabulously fun weekend out of the city with a bunch of people from all over Colorado, New Mexico, and Kansas, complete with hiking, hymn-singing, ping pong, Dutch Blitz, and many hours of broomball.

Standardized testing. Somehow this has come to be my main responsibility as a paraprofessional. Such is the state of education these days. First the CO English Language Acquisition test for all students whose families speak a language other than English at home (which happens to be most of the kids at my school), then benchmark testing to practice for CSAP, then CSAP itself, the high-stakes state standardized assessment that everyone agonizes over. My jobs: to administer the test with my group of students; to track down and test any students who were absent on testing days; to darken bubbles and erase stray pencil marks in every test booklet; and to recopy, by hand, every 87-page test booklet that had a tear bigger than 1/16th of an inch on any page. Seriously.

Job searching. These days, a rather depressing pursuit. There are a total of two Spanish teaching positions open in the district of over 150 schools. I've labored over cover letters, applied for a bunch of jobs, interviewed for several, and finally was offered one of the said Spanish teaching positions--only to be called back the next week and told that no new teachers can be hired until all the current tenured teachers in the district whose positions have been cut have been placed in the openings. Back to square one for me.

English teaching licensure exam. Since Spanish and ESL teaching positions are few and far between, I spent a week cramming American and Brit Lit, the history of the English language, and literary theory to take Colorado's English licensure test, which went very well for me. Hopefully this will open up a few more job possibilities.

Quartet rehearsals. I've gotten to spend a good amount of time violining recently with a fun quartet of people from church. I also took my violin in for a checkup last week and found out she needs major surgery. If it ever stops snowing here, I'll take her in.

Fun in the parks. Hooray for Daylight Savings Time. Football and Frisbee and soccer and croquet, and the occasional grilling of bratwurst and veggieburgers. Beautiful.

Visits from (and to) a number of friends. This is what keeps me going. People coming from near and far, joining us for suppers, sleeping on the couches, keeping life interesting.

That's it for now. I posted a number of pictures of these and other events in a new Picasa album, so check them out if you so desire. I'll try to add some more from spring break before I go back to school on Monday and the craziness starts again.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Wa Kyi

After rough days at school, which seem to occur more and more often recently, few things redeem my faith in humanity like an English lesson with Wa Kyi. Every Tuesday and Thursday after work, I hop on my bike and make my way to her house for an unfailingly entertaining tutoring session.

Wa do I describe her? I only have little bits of information myself, given that our communication is entirely based on gestures, facial expressions, and what English I've taught her over the past four months. I'll let her introduce herself with the questions and answers we've practiced.

What's your name?
My name is Wa Kyi.

Where are you from?
I'm from Burma.

What language do you speak?
I speak Karen.

Do you speak English?
A little bit.

How old are you?
I'm 64 years old.

Where do you live?
I live in Denver.

I was connected with Wa Kyi through the Colorado Refugee ESL (CRESL) program, which I found while I was still in Cambodia and looking for Denver jobs. In addition to offering regular ESL courses for refugees in Denver, CRESL sets up in-home one-on-one tutoring for women who can't attend the classes. That's how I came to know Wa Kyi.

Like I said, our communication is rather limited, but this woman has an incredible story. She grew up as a farmer in Burma, never went to school, and never learned to read or write in Karen, her native language. She lost her parents, husband, son, and daughter in the conflict between the Burmese military and various ethnic groups. She finally fled to a refugee camp across the border in Thailand, where she lived for at least one decade, maybe several, before having the luck to be chosen for relocation in North America.

She's been here in Denver for several years now, and is living with another Karen refugee family, who are all wonderful people with unbelievable and unbelievably heartwrenching stories of their own. In spite of everything she's been through, Wa Kyi is a beautifully feisty, spirited old woman. She's never gone to school, but every day as I leave, I hear her singing her new vocabulary out loud as she hobbles around the house: "Shirt, pants, skirt, underwear! Shirt, pants, skirt, underwear!" Sometime she'll answer the phone in the middle of her monologue, picking up the receiver saying, "...skirt, underwear! Hallo?"

It's rough going, this learning English business. When teaching English to people whose language I don't speak, I depend on "universal" symbols and materials like clocks, calendars, and numbers. But what do you do when you realize that a clock means absolutely nothing to a woman who's spent her whole life in rice paddies and refugee camps? How do you explain the concept of schedules, of appointments, of time? That when a short stick points to the number nine, it means nine, but when a long stick points to it, it means 45? That four round pieces of metal are the same as one green piece of paper? The difference in pronunciation between "80" and "18," "put on" and "put down," "shirt," "skirt," and "shorts?" Why "a" is pronounced "uh?" The change in meaning between "sister" and "daughter," between "woman" and "she?" The meaning of "it?"

We've had our share of frustrations, to be sure, but Wa Kyi is an amazingly good sport. She makes the most hilarious facial expressions, noises, and Karen-English sentences when she's trying to figure something out: "Ooooooohhhh...eeeeeeyaaaaa...I-dunno-la. Ta good ba, brain nih, ooheeeeee...", as she scrunches up her face until her eyes disappear and shakes her whole head.

Today, we were learning family words: mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter. I told her that my family had five people. Then she told me about hers: "Father, die. Mother, die. Boy, die. Girl, die." She pointed to herself and held up one finger. "One. One go to America." Then she got up and walked to the kitchen. "Eat noodle." And she shuffled around the kitchen, making me noodle soup, singing her new vocabulary song of the day: "Mother, father, brother, sister. Father die, mother die. Die, die, die." Humming a happy tune. Bringing me noodles and cake and milk. "Eat. Good-good. A-wii." Delicious. And I come home with my hair smelling like fish sauce, reminding me of one more world that's come crashing into mine.

Friday, February 13, 2009

On a lighter note

It's been a rough week, I'm not going to lie, but now it's Friday and time to switch gears, so here are some little bits of humor from life at the middle school.

Upon discovering that I do not have a TV in my house and that I have seen next to none of the essential movies of the past decades, some of my teacher friends were giving me a hard time, and one of them said, "What, did you grow up, like, Mennonite or something?" I busted out laughing and said, "Yes, actually...Wait, did you know that?", thinking he did and was just making a joke. Then I saw his face get red as he said, "Oh. God. That's embarrassing."

In one of my 7th-grade math classes today, I was teaching one of my favorite students how to solve algebraic equations without resorting to the trial-and-error method. I showed him, "Look, you just reverse the operation, and poof, the number next to the variable disappears! Magic!" He just looked at me, rolled his eyes, and said, as if he were explaining to a small child, "Miss, that's not magic. That's math."

Also today, I got to help chaperone a group of students on a bowling excursion. The other adults and I got in on the fun and bowled as well. Before we started, one of the other teachers, without our knowledge, gave the guy at the desk goofy names for us all to put up on the scoreboard, names like "Z-Rocker," "Abinator" for Abby, and "E-tastic" for me. The rest of us, sitting at our lane, watched our names come up in their five-letter versions: "ROCKR," "ABINA," and then mine: "TSTIC." We nearly died. One of the English teachers told me she'll never be able to think of me as anything else. How am I supposed to go around applying for teaching jobs with a nickname like "Testicle?" I'm just praying none of the students ever find out.

Thursday, January 29, 2009


One of the most valuable practical lessons of my college career came in our senior seminar after student teaching. One of my infinitely wise education professors told all of us aspiring educators that if we left with only one piece of advice, it should be this: teaching is triage. You can't be everything to everyone. Stop the bleeding where the bleeding is worst; anyone who's not dying just has to wait.

At that point, I was still pretty idealistic--still am, to a large degree--and told myself that I would never stoop to that level of educational mediocrity, functioning in survival mode, just trying to keep all my students' heads above water. I had visions of captivating lessons, fascinated students, extraordinary achievements, boundless energy...all in my first year of teaching, of course. If the past three months have taught me one thing, it's to be a little bit more realistic.

Teaching is triage, I believe that now without a doubt, but whom do you rescue first? The kid who can't add single-digit numbers or the secretly brilliant one suffocating in everyone else's apathy? The one who barely speaks English or the one screaming profanity? The one who spends the class drawing gang insignias on his binder or the one talking about the previous weekend's drug use? The one who clings to you begging for attention or the one who has withdrawn completely? The one scandalously dressed or the one without a coat on a negative-temperature day? The one who writes stories about abusive parents or the one who tells you about his brother's and sister's deaths? The one who painstakingly struggles through one-syllable words or the one who flat out refuses to do anything? The one relentlessly bullying other students in your classroom or the one getting beat up in the hallway?

Yes, teaching is triage. And everyone is dying.

Thursday, January 22, 2009


You'd better believe it. In every sense of the word. I mentioned in my last post that I recently started co-directing an after-school theater class, along with Abby, another para at the school who has become a very dear friend and true lifeline when middle school life is just too much to handle. Our theater class began last week with a course intro and auditions, but our first actual rehearsal was yesterday. Heaven help us.

The excitement began as soon as we brought the kids to the auditorium: preteen actors chasing each other through aisles, banging on pianos, screaming into microphones, and swinging from curtains. After a good bit of corralling and explaining how important it is to respect school property (and teachers), we finally got everyone relatively settled down to highlight their lines in the script. That endeavor went reasonably well. Except that a few students complained continually about who got which part. And that the Jester decided he didn't want to be married to his Wife, and they started hitting and calling each other names, just like any good married couple. And that the King disappeared. We eventually found him hiding wrapped up in a curtain, saying he didn't actually want to be in the play at all, that the Jester had recruited him so he wouldn't be the only boy in the twelve-person cast.

Then we began a read-through. Oh, pain. Most of the leads did a decent job and even used appropriate inflection on occasion, but a few seemed to stumble over every other word, which prompted some others to make scornful remarks and mutter under their breath how they should've gotten the part. Cell phones kept ringing throughout the reading, and one of the Ladies of the Court crawled across the stage to where I was sitting to tell me that she had gotten in a fight that day. By the end of the read-through, restless actors were rolling all over the stage--and the entire script is only eight pages long.

We thought we were doing pretty well when we finally got everyone pulled together into the front row of the auditorium to discuss the rehearsal schedule and expectations, until we noticed the Queen bawling in her seat. Upon further investigation, we discovered that the Jester's Wife had accidentally put the Queen's seat up just as she was about to sit down, and she fell right on her elbow. Several Ladies of the Court tried to console the inconsolable Queen, while the King badmouthed the Jester's wife, who consequently whacked him in the face with her script and then started crying as well. Good lord. Gives a whole new meaning to the term Drama Queen.

I went home absolutely exhausted, clinging to the hope that maybe, just maybe, this nightmarish scene would turn out like one of those inspirational movies about inner-city kids and their clueless-but-determined white teachers who somehow succeed in spite of the odds and prove everybody wrong, earning fives on their AP calc exams and playing their quarter-size violins with Itzhak Perlman at Carnegie Hall...sigh. Right now I'll settle for everyone surviving until the performance.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Hit the ground running

Hmmm, looks like I haven't written in over a month. Let's say that's a testament to how busy I've been and not to how much I've been slacking in communication. Or rather, that I've been focusing on catching up with people in person instead of online. In any case, the past month has indeed been a full one: traveling back to PA, spending Christmas with the family, visiting with high school and college friends and lots of relatives, playing many hours of street hockey and Boggle and ping-pong, and making a trip to DC for New Year's Eve. Ah, winter breaks like this are not the least of the reasons I choose to work in public schools.

Since that beautiful vacation, life has been anything but boring. At school, I'm right back in the swing of administering English proficiency tests, working with struggling students, and, most recently, creating an after-school theater class and co-directing a play and musical number. I've also been updating my resumé and looking for teaching jobs for next school year, or even for this semester--stressful even to think about, but exciting nonetheless.

Also, happy Inauguration Day! I skipped my 10:00 lunch this morning to watch the proceedings on the big screen in the auditorium with a bunch of our students. (Granted, political awareness is not necessarily one of their fortes, as evidenced by our inauguration discussion in ESL class today, in which we asked 6th and 7th graders who would become president if something happened to Obama. Their answers: His wife. John McCain. George Bush. And Martin Luther King, Jr.) I don't think many of them fully grasped the significance of what was happening, but they were excited. It was...beautiful. Watching them watching him, I felt more hopeful about the future of this country than I have in a long, long time. Here's to a new day.