The First Week of School

22 Sep

My students and I survived the first week of remote learning. I was more nervous Monday than I usually am on a first day of school. But as the days passed, I felt better. And things got better.

Most of our work this week has been get to know you activities that help us all learn how to navigate the online platform we are using. Friday’s activity, intended to teach students how to upload a document into our platform to turn in work I will grade, was meant to be fun, and a way for me to get to know my new students better.

I asked them to write a poem about how the week went. Of course I gave models. First, I modeled how they could use the rhythm and rhyme of a song or poem they knew to write a poem. To model this, I shared My First Week of School (v1.0)

Twas the night before school started
And I tossed and I turned
My mind wouldn’t shut down
My thoughts were all churned.

The air smelled like smoke
My dreams were overtaken
By thoughts of my students-
There might have been bacon.

And yet as the days passed
My worries abated
I was able to teach
The classes I created.

So now it is Friday
And though things aren’t flawless
They have greatly improved
And in that I find solace.

But not every kid has a sense of rhyme or rhythm. I have read (and written) enough terrible poetry to know this. So I taught them a trick to write a free verse poem: start with a paragraph. Thus, My First Week of School (v 2.0) was born.

It was the night before the first day of remote learning and my brain wouldn’t shut off.  I tossed and turned in bed, fluffing the pillows, hoping sleep would find me. Eventually, I fell into a disturbed sleep where, due to the presence of smoke in the air from Oregon’s wildfires, I dreamed of bacon – a food I have not eaten in decades.

Monday dawned orange, the wildfire smoke obscuring the sun. I hoped this was no indication of the sort of year I should expect. My online lessons went fine, though I talked more in those four hours than I had in the previous week. 

With each lesson, my confidence grew. I tried more features of Zoom and Canvas. I arrived at the point where, when I messed up in Period three, I was able to problem solve quickly.

The wildfire smoke is dissipating and my anxiety about online teaching is waning. I still have a lot to learn, but I am no longer daunted by the prospect of this school year.

I then demonstrated that, by thinking about logical breaking points – maybe places where a reader might take a breath, or want to emphasize a word or phrase – you can turn your prose, into a poem. I shared My First Week of School (v 3.0)

It was the night before the first day of remote learning
And my brain wouldn’t shut off.  
I tossed and turned in bed,
Fluffing the pillows, 
Hoping sleep would find me. 
Eventually, I fell into a disturbed sleep where, 
Due to the presence of smoke 
In the air 
From Oregon’s wildfires, 
I dreamed of bacon – 
A food I have not eaten
In decades.

Monday dawned orange, 
The wildfire smoke 
Obscuring the sun. 
I hoped this was no indication 
Of the sort of year 
I should expect. 
My online lessons went fine, 
Though I talked more 
In those four hours 
Than I had 
In the previous week. 

With each lesson, 
My confidence grew. 
I tried more features 
Of Zoom 
And Canvas. 
I arrived at the point where, 
When I messed up 
In Period three,
I was able to problem solve 

The wildfire smoke is dissipating,
My anxiety about online teaching is waning. 
I still have a lot to learn,
But I am no longer daunted 
By the prospect 
Of this school year.

My Dystopian Life

15 Sep

I think I have figured out why I can’t read fiction these days.

I am living a dystopian novel full of COVID quarantine, remote learning and, now, a smoke-filled world as Oregon burns.

Reading nonfiction is the only bookish solace I can find these days.

We started remote learning at my school with three hundred students yet to pick up their Chromebooks from school. their scheduled pickup day was cancelled due to hazardous air quality.

Yeah, there’s an equity issue there.

I teach at an affluent school, so when the school message is to use a personal device instead of a school device, my students don’t bat an eye. But I think about the school I sued to teach at, only a few miles away, where this would be a real hardship.

With Air Quality still in the hazardous range, there has been no update on when Chromebook pickup will happen. At least the public library system, that canceled my book pickup appointment due to hazardous air quality, keeps sending me updates. Libraries are closed through Wednesday. I rescheduled my canceled appointment for this coming Saturday, hopeful that we will close to normal.

A little normal would be nice.

We started remote learning yesterday. All my students showed up, though some were late. I inelegantly balanced connecting with the student who showed up early with letting in students who were late and answering emails from students who were having trouble logging in. I know it will get better. Online learning might even begin to feel normal.

Calm amidst the calamity

8 Sep

The news mentioned that high wind warnings were in the forecast yesterday. The day seemed calm until the afternoon, when pinging against the window made me wonder if it was raining outside. When I looked outside dried leaves and sticks swirled around.

I am feeling a lot like this these days – some semblance of calm with a lot of “stuff” swirling around – as I get ready for remote learning to start. My mood seems to swing from anxious to angry to accepting and back again.

I went into school Friday, to pick up materials to help pull together my home classroom. I planned to be surgically precise: in and out as quickly as possible. I arrived at eight and intended to be out by ten. I had a list of goals and checked things off as I accomplished them. It felt very satisfying, as if I was really accomplishing something.

I realized it would take two trips to the car to move everything. On my first trip, I stopped in the main hall where I ran into some teachers I hadn’t spoken with since March. It was good to talk to new people; my circle has shrunk in the last five months. They described the feelings that swirled and blew around in their minds and lives.

Early yesterday evening, as the winds whipped even stronger, I went out the back door. I was feeling relaxed after the long weekend. Looking up, I saw the sun as it was beginning to set over the roof across the street. In addition to blowing around detritus, the winds had blown in smoke from wildfires in Eastern Oregon. It made for a beautiful sunset and reminded me that I can find beauty amidst the chaos and turmoil, as long as I take the time to look.

It’s all relative

25 Aug

So much is up in the air.

Last week, we learned that, due to families opting out of remote learning and committing to a full year of online learning, we needed to lose a teacher. A volunteer was called for and we’d hoped to hear by Friday. We also hoped that we wouldn’t get “the call” if no volunteer came forth.

Late Friday, we got another email saying we’d hear next week. That meant another weekend of worry and wondering if and when we’d get details about expectations and requirements for teachers.

My teaching partner and I text frequently to manage our stress and frustration these days. Yesterday was no different. We’d waited all day for news. We both felt hopeful that we were still OK.

I was standing in the kitchen, texting, and could tell that Lucy needed a potty break. I was about to take her out back when I heard rustling in the recycling. Peeking out the back window, I saw a man riffling through the recycing. We’ll wait until he’s gone. I thought and went back to texting.

He was one of the regular recycling people who pass through the neighborhood in which I love. He seemed to be taking longer than usual so I peeked out the back window again and saw that he was actually looking through the garbage cans. I felt my anxiety rise. Our trash cans had been rather full the last two weeks because one of my neighbors was putting his condo up for sale and the tenant in another had moved out. I stayed at the window to be sure the recycler didn’t leave a mess

It was interesting to watch. He rooted deep into the bin and opened bags. He wiped his hands on what appeared to be a well used wet wipe. He was very methodical and stopped frequently, deep in thought as if he were contemplating the very nature of the items he encountered.

I went back to texting with my teaching partner, reflecting on the nature of the relative size of his problems compared to mine. despite the pandemic and the frustration I feel because I don’t know exactly what school will look like, I have a really good life.

It seemed that Lucy could no longer wait, so I leashed her up and we went out. The recycler greeted me in broken English. I returned his greeting as we headed out back in the opposite direction. Lucy was quick and we were back in the house in a minute. The recycler was still there, carefully weighing his options. He had two, fairly full bags. I removed Lucy’s leash, then popped my head out the door and asked the recycler, “Do you need another bag?”

“No. Thank you. I have more bag.” was all he said. He waved to me and headed off to the apartment complex next door.

Three Strikes

18 Aug

Had I’d left the store without paying?

This thought gnawed at me as I sat at my desk to balance my checkbook after doing groceries.  I had no receipt and my bank account showed no pending transactions. I closed my eyes and tried to visualize myself paying, but nothing came. I grabbed my keys and wallet and headed back to the store.

To be fair, it had already been a trying morning. I left the house before eight with three goals in mind: mail two bills, make a deposit in the credit union, and get groceries. It should have been quick and easy.

But, when I stopped at a nearby mailbox, I encountered this:


I was disappointed – and quite angry about the politics behind this situation  – but I knew there was an actual post office not too far from the credit union.

As I approached the credit union, I was surprised to see that the ATMs had been removed. Driving past the front entrance, I  wondered when this branch had been closed and remembered that I’d seen another one opening in a location that used to house a Pier One store. I drove to the post office, where I managed to drop the bills, and on to the former Pier One location, where new ATMs let me do my business.

At the grocery store, I got what I needed quickly and opted to use the self check out. Portland has a plastic bag ban, but my local supermarket has been having trouble getting paper bags. If I went through the regular lines, I had to take plastic because grocery checkers aren’t allowed to pack bags brought from home. At that time in the morning, not many checkout stands were open. I figured the self serve line might be faster.

I had one large item that required a scan by the associate working the self check area.  I called her back a few minutes later, to scan my coupons. Once done, I drove home, prepared to spend the rest of the day in typical COVID fashion.

But, after unpacking the groceries and taking a shower, I realized I hadn’t paid for the groceries.

“I didn’t pay, did I?” I asked when I returned to the self check area, my heart still pounding.

“No, you didn’t,” said the same associate, who waved off my apology.

“It happens more than you’d think. But you came back,”was all she said.

She called her manager, who had to hand enter my order from the receipt the associate had printed when I’d absconded with my groceries. As I paid, I felt my heart rate return to normal.


11 Aug

For several years, in the days between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, my sister and I would ask, “When is Children’s Day?”

Every year, my mother would reply, “Every day is Children’s Day.” She was old school that way.

Apparently, Sunday, August 9th was National Book Lovers’ Day. I missed it, but can’t help channeling my mother because I believe that every day is book lovers’ day.

The pandemic has caused me to lose a bit of my reading mojo. I have lost the desire to read fiction – in print or as an audiobook. I seem to only have a desire for nonfiction, and not just the nonfiction books I have to read for the committee I am on.

I have always been able to lose myself in a fictional world. You would think that, homebound for the most part, I would easily escape to some fictional place, an armchair traveller. But, for some strange reason, I long to escape to real places: under the sea with whales and octopus, to Colombia and Washington, into politics and philosophy.

I know several people who have completely lost their reading mojo. So to lose interest in fiction isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. It’s just a thing.


What should not be forgotten

4 Aug


The sticky handrail
touched by the hands of
1500 middle schoolers

The rhythmic chime
of keys on a lanyard
as a colleague approaches

Second breakfast
with its mug of tea, a banana,
and a colleague with
her bowl of fruit and yogurt

The musty smell
of the locker room
as 120 sixth graders
leave for the day

The flow of students
up and down the staircase
at the beginning and end
of the day

The beep and buzz
of the lock
as you swipe your ID card
before the sun comes up

They joy in your heart
as you stand, before school,
in front of the building,
greeting families,
and one of your current,
or former students,



28 Jul

Lucas Cuartas was in one of my fourth grade classes in Medellín, Colombia. I think it was in 1992-93 school year, because Pablo Escobar was still on the run and times were crazy.  There were police searches, car bombs and assassinations by vigilantes, and paramilitaries on all sides.

Lucas Cuartas was absent one day. The Columbus School was a private school for wealthy families, and kids were rarely absent, so Lucas’ absence was notable. It wasn’t until someone official arrived – the counselor, our principal, I don’t remember who – arrived at our door that I knew his absence was extraordinary. Miss Vicky, the religion teacher, might have been there too.

My small class of 20ish students sat silently as they were told that Lucas and his family had gone out for pizza the night before. As they drove past a police roundabout, a bomb went off, blowing the roundabout to bits. The car was sent rolling. Lucas had a broken arm, but his mom was in very serious condition.

When I was in teacher’s college, no one prepared us to share this sort of tragic news with our class. Maybe they do now, but in Medellín, Colombia, though it was not an everyday experience, few families or classes had been untouched by the violence of that city and country in that particular period. In the class next door, a girl disappeared from one day to the next after her father had been found, assassinated and dumped in a hole by right wing vigilantes who felt they had proof that he worked for Pablo Escobar. Rumor had it that the girl’s mother had taken the remainder of her family and fled to Argentina.

But there were my fourth graders, facing their own tragedy that touched on our classroom family. I think there was a call for questions, I don’t really remember. I do remember, though that a sweet girl named veronica raised her hand.

“Can we pray for Lucas and his family?” was her simple question.

Chairs scraped on linoleum as every kid in my class, including the one Jewish student we had in a room full of Catholics, knelt on the floor to pray.

A few days later, I went with my principal to a mass for Lucas’ mom, who wasn’t doing well. She recovered some weeks later. Lucas returned to school in a cast, but my class felt so much closer than we had before.

I think often about the contrast between the formality of the mass and the simplicity of the prayers of my class. I don’t know if one had more impact on the outcome of the Cuartas family’s tragedy than the other. But I am still awed by the power I felt in that classroom as my students prayed. There is a verse from Hebrew that says that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” That classroom was filled with faith, hope and love for others. If we all had the conviction of those fourth graders and followed the guidelines and safety protocols public health officials keep repeating to keep ourselves and others safe, we will be able to go back to normal, sooner, rather than later. I have faith in that.




Feeding the Beast

21 Jul

Thank you for bringing Lucy in today. She is such a sweet old girl! She has a severe moist dermatitis infection on her ventral chest area and is very itchy….

So began last week’s report from the vet.

Lucy came home with two types of pills and a shaved chest. After the first round of medication, she was already scratching less. And she slept better.

And then the side effects set in.

The antibiotic she is on, Cephalexin, has a list of possible side effects

  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Panting
  • Drooling
  • Hyperexcitability
  • Skin rashes


She vomited twice. Her appetite is off and as each meal rolls around, I have to get creative.

Each meal starts with two bits of naan, each spread with peanut butter, then rolled up to conceal the meds I have hidden inside. Knock on wood, but, so far, these have been well received. Her bowl of food is a different matter. When she first turned up her nose at her bowl of kibble, she deigned to eat it when I sprinkled small bits of turkey jerky on top. I usually reserve the jerky for positive reinforcement on walks, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

After a few doses of the meds, she turned away from her food, so I tried chicken and rice. It worked for one meal. I tried sprinkling probiotics on top. One day, I got a spoonful of peanut butter and scooped some onto individual kibbles in the hopes it would encourage her to eat. It did not. Today, when she turned up her nose at my offerings, I looked in the fridge, grabbed the bag of shredded carrot and sprinkled some on top. Success!

She has three more days of Cephalexin. I am hopeful that I have enough food toppers in the fridge to get her through.

Lucy Turns 14



14 Jul

Lucy hasn’t been sleeping well. As a result, I have not been sleeping well.

Truth be told, my anxieties over the discussions around returning to in person school have also disrupted my sleep. My sleep disruption has impacted her sleep habits, but her issues are more than a reaction to mine.

A few nights ago, she had a really bad night. She woke up around 11:00 and started pacing. Oh, how I wished for wall-to-wall carpeting, because the sound of her toenails on the hardwood floors woke me up – and kept me awake until 3:00. It wasn’t just the midnight pacing – there was panting and staring into space. When she stilled, she didn’t lay down. She scratched, panted, started, then started up suddenly returning to the pacing There were sudden starts and more pacing. She crawled under the bed. I took her out for a couple of potty breaks. I gave her a very early breakfast. And I started thinking about canine cognitive dysfunction: doggie dementia.

She was better the next morning. I was exhausted, but she slept the day away in her usual, 14-year-old way. Since that day, I have been watching her carefully, keeping a list of all the behavioral changes that have happened over the last few months. She’s been itchy and, despite two baths with the medicated shampoo she got last summer, she is still itchy. Maybe that’s a part of the problem.We have a vet appointment later this week. I am hopeful and a little worried.

Lucy Turns 14



Randy Ribay

YA author, teacher, nerd

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