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Little potatoes

24 Nov

Little pitchers have big ears. It’s an old adage, and I love old maxims like this.

More than once over the 30 years of my teaching career, I have had students say something to me that I think is brilliant and, when I ask them where they heard it, they tell me they heard it from me. It’s nice to know they listen. Teaching remotely, I have a gallery view of little pitchers before me. I also have a gallery of little potatoes. You see, I have reformatted the old axiom. I now believe that not only do little pitchers have big ears, I also hold that little potatoes have big eyes.

“Ms Gillespie, what are those books behind you?”

“Ms. Gillespie, what is that art on your wall?”

“Ms. Gillespie, what are those white bags I see?”

This last question came last week. My sister sent me an Advent calendar -and the means by which I could hang it. I did so, and my efforts did not go unnoticed.

Since remote learning began, I have tried to be mindful of what students see behind me. I just never realized how some of them would scrutinize my living room. I have decided to turn this to my advantage and plant things in the background just to see who is looking, and, I hope, to spark some new conversations.

Sunday in the park

10 Nov

Yellow leaves
With a splash of red
Kids dare-deviling their bikes
Down and up the gully
Taking air as they hit the top
Families and dog-walkers
And even one cat walker
Keeping her pet far from the crowds
Under the canopy
I pass one, two, three groups
Doing tai chi
And another practicing kendo
The muddy off leash area
Is full of the sort of dog
That loves to chase a ball
We stick to the path,
Where it is easier to spot and
Tree a squirrel
Ducks in the algae covered pond
Hold the attention of
Small children
And older folks
More than one family is dressed
For a photo shoot
Amidst the fall splendor
Other families and friends
Gather round laden picnic tables
Or sit on lawn chairs
Socially distanced
Their voices and laughter
Ringing across the park.

Richard, the first three days

3 Nov

I saw Richard for the first time as I pulled into the parking lot of the Wilsonville Petsmart on Saturday. He was walking on the sidewalk with one of the volunteers who had driven to and from Bend, a six hour round trip, to pick him up and hand him over to me.

What struck me first was his size – he is double the size Lucy was! I was also relieved to see that his skin wasn’t as bad as I feared. Oh, it’s bad, but his treatment seems to be working.

He greeted me happily when I got out of the car and came over to say hello. He just rolled with it when he was put in another strange car (mine). He settled into the back and was calm on the drive home. Arriving home, I got the parking spot right in front of my place. When Richard got out of the car, he went straight up the stairs as if he knew this was his new home.

He peed in the house once on Saturday.

Fortunately, I am learning to read his signs and there have been no accidents. There have been lots of walks. In Saturday, we just walked around the block in each direction. Sunday, we took a walk to Laurelhurst Park and Richard was like a kid in the candy store. Squirrels! Dog friends! Smells! His enthusiasm was infectious.

Yesterday, was the real test: would he disrupt my classes. Of course he didn’t! I took him on a long walk at lunch so he slept through most of them. He barked once during my last class – that’s his sign that it is almost time for dinner – then settled down after some snuggles.

Yes, Richard seems to be settling in.

There Might Be A New Man in My Life

27 Oct

I gave away the food, first.

I had neighbors with dogs and figured they might be able to use what I no longer needed after Lucy passed away.

Next, it was the wooden boxes I’d kept covered with towels and used as steps to help her up to the sofa and the bed. I left those on the street corner. it’s what we do on my SE Portland neighborhood. They were gone within an hour, as I suspected they might be.

I left the toys and her bed on the floor for a couple of weeks, not yet ready to see them go. Eventually, I got the courage to bundle them up and put them in the trash. They only had value to me.

I kept her fleece blankets, unwashed, on the sofa longer. I knew I’d wash them eventually and put them away in a cupboard. I just didn’t know that day would come so quickly.

Late last week an email came from the president of Oregon Basset Hound Rescue, asking for a foster family for Richard, a 10-year-old basset with severe ear and allergy issues. Well, for years I’d said that once I had no dog of my own, I’d foster. I had to walk my talk. I didn’t think it would happen so quickly, but Richard is probably coming to stay with me.

He has some pretty strict care protocols that his family couldn’t maintain. And they were struggling to afford the care of the specialist he was seeing. His issues sounded a lot like Fiona’s, who saw an ear and allergy Specialist for years. I am very familiar with ear care – in fact, my old vet said I was probably the best cleaner of dog ears she’d ever met.

I am now waiting to find out if this family is really ready to give up their dog. Given the nature of this year, I am worried I might be disappointed and they’ll change their minds. Despite the endless stream of bad news this year, I am looking forward to something positive in 2020.

Back to School Night 2020

13 Oct

Despite the fact that I was home, I was still nervous for last night’s BTSN. It was going to be a weird one.

Two weeks ago, we had to make a video to send to our Admins – a virtual version of our in-class presentation. This was the week that Lucy was failing and then passed and I was in no frame of mind to make a video. I put it off til the last minute and did a couple of run throughs before changing my shirt and recording the final cut. I sent it in without previewing it. The kids get me unedited, the parents should see the real me, I thought.

We were scheduled to meet with parents last night, from 7:25-7:55. We’d set up the Zoom meeting, but my teammates and I, worried we’d be inundated with questions from the parents of the gifted students we teach, sent out a question form last week along with links to our videos and the Zoom link. We figured we could sort through the questions and address the top ones first. By 7 p.m. we had only one question. It presaged the evening.

Like students in a Zoom meeting, the 60+ parents were remarkably quiet. The flood of questions never arrived. It was, in fact, more like a trickle. And there were more than a few awkward silences. We let some stretch. We filled a few.

As we ended the meeting, we reminded parents that, if they had any other questions, to send us an email. So far, I don’t have any. I wonder if the Math teacher can say the same.


6 Oct

Thirteen is supposed to be a harbinger of bad luck. I’ve never had much trouble with it, though. My unlucky number is 14. All my dogs have died the year they turned fourteen. Although Lucy seemed like she might escape the 14-year curse, she didn’t. I lost her on Wednesday.

The house feels pretty empty now and I find myself at loose ends with no one to take out for a potty break between Zoom classes. I catch myself talking to her, saying the funny sayings and singing the funny songs that were our norm. I walk into a room and look around to find her, then I remember.

Yesterday morning, the vets office called to let me know that her remains had arrived and I could pick them up whenever I felt ready. I walked over after my last class ended. The box with her ashes seemed so small and it came with a flat box that contained a clay cast of her paw. I felt the tears well as I was handed the package. I didn’t dare open the package until I was home

Lucy has joined Clara, Louie, and Fiona on the shelf in the living room. Her scent still permeates her spots in the house. In a few weeks, I might wash her blankets, but I’m not quite ready to do that yet. I need to let it linger in the house a little longer and take some solace from it.

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.

Randy Ribay

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