Sunday, February 28, 2010

I could barely carry them all

I think I went a little overboard.

I went to the library today to pick up a couple holds, and left with 18 things. I'm planning some projects in social studies, English, and literature in the next few weeks and months and so I just kept filling my bag with book after book. I could barely carry the bag to my car.

I love learning new things though so I'm looking forward to delving into each one of these books.

The subjects are:
Poetry (for my plans for National Poetry Month activities)
Berlin & the Berlin Wall (my favorite city on earth!)
Neuschwanstein Castle
The Holocaust
Hungary (for a Europe project I'm having my students do)

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Reflections of an Olympic Figure Skating Season

As the Olympics began this year, I was skeptical that any of the four figure skating events would inspire or delight me. As a long time figure skating fan, my passion for the sport has waned quite a bit in the past few years. I used to know the name of every skater from every country and I could rattle off the Olympic medalists in each of the four disciplines from every Olympics since 1976.

I can't do that anymore.

Skaters' names from the past elude me and skaters' names of the present strike no familiarity. The 2006 Torino Olympics were a huge disappointment in terms of stand-out performances so I was expecting Vancouver to be the same. I assumed my passion for figure skating had ebbed.

But Vancouver surprised me. Rather than holding back as so many skaters did in Torino, everyone seemed to skate with wild abandon. Say what you will Evgeni Pluschenko, but Evan Lysacek was brilliant. His jumps were smooth, his footwork was sharp, and his choreography perfectly timed.

The ice dancing event this year was by far the best in Olympic history. Nowhere in the scope of the competition was there outcry over the corruption of the judging panel, and for the first time a North American team won gold and silver. Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada, along with Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the United States skated two of the most inspiring Olympic performances I've ever seen. I never wanted to be a Canadian so much in my life as I did the night they won their gold medal and the entire arena swelled with pride and emotion as everyone sang "O Canada" together.

The ladies event did not dazzle me as much as the other disciplines (which is a first for me as the ladies event what I used to always look most forward to) but what it lacked in bedazzlement, it made up for in emotion as Joannie Rochette, only days after experiencing the death of her mother, skated to a bronze medal finish. The strength she found to pull off a performance like that was so heart-wrenching and I was equally touched by Scott Hamilton's commentating through his own tear-filled eyes.

So while my love of this sport may have subsided over the years, it will never fully go away. The Olympics will always bring out a very opinionated side of me that will suck me right back into the world of a passionate skating spectator. I'm already setting my DVR for 2014 in Sochi.

The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson

Jenna Fox doesn't remember the accident. All she knows is that her family is keeping a very big secret from her and she's determined to reveal the truth.

This book delves into the world of bioethics and the lengths parents will go to save their child's life. It is gripping, page-turning, and full of questions humans today must answer in this brave new world of genetic engineering and biotechnology.

This is the best book I've "read" so far this year (I actually listened to it on audio CD) and think it would be a fabulous book to teach alongside Brave New World.

Equally fascinating is the interview with the author at the end of the audiobook where she talks about how the inspiration for this book came from her experience of dealing with both her daughters getting the same type of cancer and the questions she asked herself about the lengths she would go to save her children's lives.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Poetry Friday

Mother to Son

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor –
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now –
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

-Langston Hughes

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

It's not the skaters, it's the scoring system

Now that we are a few days into the Vancouver Olympics, and we are a day away from crowning a new (hopefully, as in, not a repeat) Olympic men's champion, I can't let this opportunity go by without giving some of my own colorful opinions to the proceedings. Think of me as a much younger, better looking, and more comprehendable version of Dick Button (without the gold medals and skating experience of course).

In my previous post where I lamented about the absence of Michelle Kwan at these games, I think I may have unfairly snubbed some really talented skaters that are competing this year. But I think there's a reason why skating hasn't moved me in a really long time and it has nothing to do with the lack of heart, talent, and passion these skaters possess and everything to do with the new scoring system.

Don't get me wrong, I was the first person who cried foul in 2002 when Jamie Sale and David Pelletier were robbed of gold only to be given a band-aid remedy of awarding dual gold medals to make up for the corrupt back-alley dealings that had been happening for years in skating. Scores "awarded" under the 6.0 system more often than not had very little to do with what was happening on the ice. So when the system was completely scrapped in favor of a new "code of points" I was hopeful that this new system would give dignity back to this beautiful sport.

But what it gave back in dignity it took away in variety. When I watch skating now, all I can see is a system that has created robots out of skaters. In an attempt to collect the most points possible, every skater is doing the same moves, the same spins, and the same combinations. Nowhere was this more evident than in the men's short program last night. Every program was completely mapped out the same way. EVERY. SINGLE. PROGRAM. Each man jumped three times in a row, did a footwork sequence, a spin, a footwork sequence, then another spin. There was a tad bit of variety in the order of the spins and footwork sequences, but I just couldn't believe how blatantly these men were getting the jumps "out of the way" rather than incorporating them into the program in a place that they were suited to the music. I lost count the number of times I saw men completing their first jump what seemed like before the music had even started. There was no intro to the program. It was "start music, do some crossovers, JUMP!"

So last night's event epitomized for me what's left me feeling cold about figure skating in recent years. Don't get me wrong, there are some wonderful skaters out there who do a great job with the hand they've been dealt, but on the whole, when the program's over, I'm left feeling nothing about the actual skating. I feel happy, excited, or disappointed for the skater who does well or who falters, but the actual program makes me feel nothing.

There were two exceptions so far in this Olympics though. The Chinese pair of Pang and Tong, who won the silver medal on Monday night and who, if they hadn't been in 4th place after the short program, might have defeated the sentimental favorite of Shen And Zhao due to their PERFECT, heartfelt, and musical routine to "The Impossible Dream." I was absolutely spellbound by this team. They weren't just throwing elements into their program to collect points, they had actually put thought into what moves go with the highs and lows of the music.

The other skater was Daisuke Takahashi's short program last night. It was musical, innovative, and it stood out from the other men.

Going into the long program though, Evan Lysecek is my sentimental favorite being from the U.S. and seeing as how he redeemed himself from the disaster of his short program four years ago in Torino, but at this point, I am rooting for anyone with a name other than Evgeni Pluschenko. Not only is his skating painful to watch (other than what he does in the air), but his bad attitude leaves me wishing for Tonya Harding to be lurking somehwhere nearby. Whether it's Lysacek or Takahashi (who are virtually tied with Pluschenko even WITHOUT a quad/triple combination), nothing would make me happier than to see that smirk wiped off his face.

Even with the flaws of the new scoring system, I have to say, that despite some needed improvements, it has helped the sport. No longer do talented skaters have to "wait their turn" in order to be a champion. Skaters are no longer judged before they even step on the ice, but instead are assessed on each individual performance and each element they complete. If I had my wish though, it would be to find a way to blend the originality of the programs under the 6.0 system with the fairness of the new system. If we could do that, then skating would be a sport worth getting excited about again.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Going Bovine by Libba Bray

All 16-year-old Cameron wants is to get through high school—and life in general—with a minimum of effort. It’s not a lot to ask. But that’s before he’s given some bad news: he’s sick and he’s going to die. Which totally sucks. Hope arrives in the winged form of Dulcie, a loopy punk angel/possible hallucination with a bad sugar habit. She tells Cam there is a cure—if he’s willing to go in search of it. With the help of a death-obsessed, video-gaming dwarf and a yard gnome, Cam sets off on the mother of all road trips through a twisted America into the heart of what matters most.

- synopsis taken from Goodreads

This is my first foray into Libba Bray territory and all I have to say is: I'm so confused. And I guess that's part of the charm of it - to be confused. What bothers me though is that it's almost trying too hard to be a literary masterpiece. It's over saturated with symbolism, metaphor, allegory, etc that I feel like meaning and comprehension get lost in the shuffle. My brain was trying too hard to deconstruct all of the literary elements that I kind of just forgot to enjoy the story.

Having said that, the characters were memorable (a yard gnome who thinks he's a Norse god? Hilarious!) and I loved the whole lesson the scene at the Church of Everlasting Satisfaction Snack and Bowl was supposed to teach us (we're not SUPPOSED to be happy all the time!).

I almost think this book would translate better on film. It sort of feels like something Kevin Smith would run with since the tone of the story is very similar to the movie Dogma.

Having just watched this crazy interview with Libba Bray though, maybe my assessment of the book "trying to hard" was unfair. Maybe she's just THAT crazy. :o)

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Show Me the Kwan

I didn't think I was going to be excited about the Olympics this year. I've always been a Winter Olympics junkie (well not always - they didn't interest me until 1994 when the whole Nancy & Tonya scandal was ensuing, but it made me a long-time figure skating fan) but this is the first Olympics that has experienced the full-on absence of Michelle Kwan.

Michelle has always been my favorite skater. I have rooted for her since the 1994 Nationals when, in the wake of the world's attention on Nancy and Tonya, Michelle jumped to second place and was named an alternate to the Olympic team after Nancy was granted a place despite her injury. She was a beacon of hope in a sport that had been besmirched by goons and hit men.

In 1998 she was the odds-on favorite to win the gold medal in Nagano after a near-perfect performance at the U.S. Nationals. But she piqued too soon and, in heartbreaking fashion, watched her wunderkind teammate, Tara Lipinski, steal the gold from her hands.

Salt Lake City was supposed to be her year of redemption, but the pressure of expectations and a fall on a triple flip in the long program sent her from first place to third place. My heart broke for her a second time.

A lack of a gold medal certainly did not hurt Michelle's career. Nine national and five world titles to her name, she was deemed "the greatest skater never to win gold" and is probably the most beloved skater to ever grace the sport. But, as the world watched her 3rd attempt at redemption fizzle away in Torino, my heart broke for her once again.

She didn't need a gold medal. She just deserved it. Her heart, passion, ability, and perseverance deserved it.

So as I sit down to watch the pairs short program tonight, I'm going to try really hard to be excited about figure skating again. But with Michelle's permanent absence from figure skating now written in stone, all I can think about is, "Where is the heart, the passion, the perfection?"

I wish there were more performances like this in today's skaters:

I'm just hoping that some skaters at the 2010 Olympics find a way to inspire me again.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Tapas and Sangria: Our Recipe for Maintaining Friendships

About once a month my husband and I meet up with a couple of our friends at a tapas restaurant called Sangria* in Royal Oak, Michigan. This tradition happened by chance when we were visiting with a friend who we hadn't seen in a while and were planning on going to another restaurant that turned out to be closed. We ended up at Sangria and it's now my favorite local restaurant. Not only that, but prior to this first visit to Sangria, this is a friend who we barely saw once a year due to our busy schedules, but now that we have a special restaurant, we're making time to get together a few times a year to catch up and make sure we don't drift apart again.

Prior to my first visit to Sangria, I had never been to a tapas restaurant before, but now it's probably my favorite way of eating. I have never been fond of an over-sized meal, not just because the portion size does not accommodate my petite stomach, but also the fact that my mouth gets bored of the same flavor over and over again. Tapas is such a fun way to add variety into your meal. The nature of tapas is to sample a variety of small dishes rather than feasting on one large entree. Plus you have the added benefit of passing dishes around the table and sharing the experience with your friends rather than the solitary endeavor of eating just one, large-plated meal.

Now, if it were just the food, this would still be my favorite way to eat. But top that with a pitcher of the most delicious sangria you'll ever drink and you have a recipe for the perfect convivial evening with friends.

The last time we went to sangria, was a couple weeks ago on a Thursday night when we were pleasantly surprised to discover they have flamenco dancing. Just as we were getting ready to leave, the flamenco dancer pulled us up onto stage to teach us some of her moves.

Despite being hesitant to go up at first, once it was over and we went back to our table, we couldn't stop talking about how much fun it was.

So if you've never been to a tapas bar/restaurant and you have one nearby, all I can say is what are you waiting for? (Just be careful, when someone asks you what you did last night and you tell them you went to a tapas bar, many people's eyes will bulge in disbelief and say, "You went to a topless bar??!!" That's happened to me more than a couple times).

*Note: sadly, this restaurant has since closed. 

Attention Parents: Sheltering Your Kids Actually Harms Them in the Long Run

I don't have kids, but since I have to deal with parents all the time, I've been following the Free Range Kids blog quite regularly. There's so much on the blog about that discusses many of the irrational decisions adults make in an attempt to "protect" children (e.g. how 'bout this post that mentions a school that banned THE DICTIONARY because it contains the definition for oral sex.)

But this was a great, uplifting post that puts into perspective why we shouldn't be sheltering our children.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Poetry Friday

Thought this poem was appropriate for my blog:


The railroad track is miles away,
And the day is loud with voices speaking,
Yet there isn’t a train goes by all day
But I hear its whistle shrieking.

All night there isn’t a train goes by,
Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming,
But I see its cinders red on the sky,
And hear its engine steaming.

My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing;
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
No matter where it’s going.

– Edna St. Vincent Millay

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Hunger Games Book 3 Announced

If you're a book blogger and you haven't heard this yet then you've been living under a rock because the book world is abuzz with the announcement of the title/cover of book 3 of The Hunger Games trilogy.

I love the title, the cover, and the implied hope and symbolism the colors suggest compared to the previous two books that gave more of a sense of urgency and doom. I hope this means the series ends on a hopeful note.

I can't wait for August!!!!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Young Writers, Follow Maureen Johnson's Advice: Dare to Suck

One thing that beginning writers often fail to understand is that good writing doesn't just happen. It takes practice. It takes loads of rewriting. I preach this over and over again in my classroom, but sometimes I think that they don't take me seriously because I'm their teacher and what do I know?

Maybe if they heard it from an ACTUAL writer they'd be less hesitant to believe that I'm just making them do more work that they don't want to do:

I like giveaways

The gorgeous Stephanie Perkins has a cool giveaway over at her blog. Tell her your favorite romantic scene from a book or movie and you could win a trio of romantic books. Hurry though. It ends today!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Poetry... Monday?

Normally I do poetry on Friday, but this deserves a posting of its own.

This morning during 3rd hour I had two seventh grade girls knock on my door while my sixth graders were writing in their journals. When I opened the door, one of the girls said to me, "Mrs. S do you remember that poem you wrote last year about your sewing closet?"

My first reaction was, "Huh? What are you talking about?" I honestly had no recollection of what this girl was referring to. I can't even sew a button on a pair of pants. Why would I have a closet dedicated to a hobby in which I have no competence? And why did they think I wrote a poem about this nonexistent sewing closet?

"Well we were reading this poem in Mr. A's class when Jake said it reminded him of the poem you wrote last year about your closet. Mr. A wanted us to come ask you if you still had it because he wanted to read it."

It was then that I finally grasped that they were referring to a poem I wrote about my scrapbooking closet.

The poem was not that good, but I was touched that a group of seventh graders (who are a very challenging group to say the least) remembered something I wrote and made a connection to it based on a poem they were discussing in class one year later. And I'm even further touched that it resonated with them.

This is the poem they were referring to:

Memory Keeper

Inside my scrapbooking closet
a piece of paper waits to be cut
pictures wait to be arranged
an album waits to be opened
memories wait to be recorded.


Life’s scrapbook

The colorful layouts
will never do justice to the
of the places we visited.

I can try
but my albums will never
the cold sweetness of the water
cascading down Roman fountains
the overwhelming sense of smallness one feels
while gazing at ocean cliffs in Santorini
the air leaden with history
in the now youthful vibrancy of a united Berlin
the friendliness of a Polish college student
who walks you and your friends
to the Warsaw train station
just to make sure you won’t get lost
and so he can practice speaking English
to a group of four American travelers
grateful for his generosity.

I wish my albums could
capture all of these memories
but when I open my closet door
and cart out all of my supplies
I relive each experience
all over again.

My albums may not
imprison these memories
inside their dazzling pages
but the very act of opening
this closet door
reminds me
that these memories
and are not to be confined
to a page
but rather
kept warm and safe
inside my heart.

- Beth Shaum