Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Day #1

Ah, back to school. The flurry of paperwork and last-minute grouping or scheduling snafus. The scurrying to finalize plans and that sick anxious feeling in the gut that you're forgetting something vital. The constant checking to make sure your fly is up, that your shirt is tucked in, that you don't have food on your face.

I got to school at 6.30 as usual, and by 8.00 I was ready for the kids to arrive at 8.30. Confident, secure, well-planned, I sat down to fire off an email to my boss and spilled a cup of coffee down my new Van Heusen shirt and tie. After a few seconds of panic, however, I touched up with a wet paper towel and everything was dry and A-Ok fifteen minutes later.

The first two periods were 7th graders, the same kids I had last year as 6th graders. They were great, but surprised at how slowly I took things. I modeled how to use a magic marker. I modeled how to put a magic marker away. I made a student model how to use one, then we critiqued that student. Then I modeled how to use the pencil sharpener, how to push in a chair, how to get in a circle on the rug. Each thing we did was modeled two or three times and critiqued with warm and cool feedback. I was explicit about everything, and told them "we wasted too much time last year. I want you to know exactly how to do everything this year. We will spend a few weeks learning how the class works before we get to real class work."

I had a little push back on this during last period, when my new 6th graders were smart alecs and jerks. Well, not all of them--five out of 21. Vermicelli was snide and commented about everything. Keyontae was distracted and talkative. Deyshunconfused kept talking with Nacho and Brickhousa. I kept the five of them after class, and Vermicelli's dad happened to show up and wonder why his son was being detained. I let Vermicelli tell his dad why, and when his answer was unsatisfactory I filled in some forgotten details. I think the three young ladies were proud to have been kept after school. Power need? Love and Belonging need? A few more days and I'll work it out.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Book #27

Spotted this at the Met gift shop in NYC. Had of course read Gombrich's The Story of Art, but never knew he'd penned a world history for wee ones. It has the deficits one might expect from a history written in the '30s, namely that Africa is given short shrift, but Gombrich is surprisingly sensitive to the plights of native peoples at the hands of colonials. He paints a broad swath of world history, and this little tome might be useful in my middle school classroom for students who are ready for more context to events we study in detail. It's a useful refresher for adults, too; I was surprised to note how much I'd forgotten about the 100 Years War, the 30 Years War, and Guelphs and Ghibellines. But I'd be wary of allowing kids to learn Civil War basics from Gombrich's faulty summarization!

Friday, August 26, 2011


Wow--I might have to read the source material for this film. Imagine Russell Banks and Cormac McCarthy working together on a screenplay. They try to out-grim each other, and then hire Tobe Hooper to direct. But Tobe Hooper has too much of a sense of humor so they ditch him.

Yeah, so I'm being a bit silly, but director Debra Granik has certainly studied films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, A Simple Plan, and Deliverance. Like these earlier works, Winter's Bone critiques America's cherished belief that its humblest backwoods citizens are somehow ethically superior to inhabitants of the crime-ridden cities on the coasts. Because Granik so ably holds a mirror up to nature, the film is quite uncomfortable to watch.

Winter's Bone is the best film I've seen in a long time. Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes certainly deserved nominations for their performances. And I might be awake for a while thinking about it tonight.

I Walked With a Zombie is another beautifully wrought confection by Val Lewton and Jacques Torneur. Yes, the voodoo religion and the Caribbean culture of San Sebastian are Hollywoodized to the point of cliche, but the film is moody and mysterious and gorgeous, plot holes and all. Is Carrefour the first shambling zombie in cinema history? He still freaks me out, after several viewings.

Thursday, August 25, 2011


So this is my 4th year as a full-time certified teacher in Baltimore City. I'd thought that by now I'd have the beginning of the year stuff down--instead I feel panicked and overwrought and unfocused. I keep attending meetings which are important and vital and efficiently run and yet I leave these meetings freaking out because I have another dozen things to do and/or think about.

Schedule for tomorrow:

8:30-10:00 Professional Development on Teacher/ParaEducator relations
10:00-11:30 Room Set-up
11:30-12:00 Six martini lunch
12:00-1:30 Using Data to Freak Out
1:30-2:00 Hyperventilation
2:00-3:00 Run screaming down Washington BLVD
3:00-3:30 Pull out hair
3:30-4:30 Bulletin Boards
4:30-6:00 Set up classroom library
6:00-8:00 Balanced Literacy Meeting/Class Grouping Discussion
8:00-9:00 Self-Immolation
9:00-10:00 Staples/Target/Office Depot

10:00-? Heavy Drinking, smoking of bath salts, self scarification

Seriously, I am freaking out. I never freak out. Why does this job get harder and more complex the longer I do it? And yet somehow the shit all gets done before Monday morning when school will be cancelled due to Hurricane Irene anyhow...

Weekend: lesson planning

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Book #26

Ok, I'm done with the Lannisters, Starks, Tyrells, Baratheons, Tarlys, Conningtons, Mantells, Umbers, Karstarks, Boltons, Greyjoys, Targaryens, etc., etc., etc., at least for as long as it takes Mr. Martin to churn out volume 6. After 5,000 pages, the investment of time will not allow me to put the series away from contempt at its latest installment, but I feel sorely tempted to do so.

I feel like this book was all about filling out an obligation to do 8 volumes, because there's a lot of time spent by characters going around and around destinations or toward them and then back for hundreds of pages and few characters seem to get where they're going until near the end. Further complications are added to an already rather bloated epic, and those complications don't seem to add much to the story other than to delay gratification of existing story lines. One waits and waits through 880 pages for something to happen, and then too much happens at the end.

Or maybe I've just become exhausted by the series after reading it all in one fell swoop.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

all shook up

So Gena and I are moving tables in my room, talking about ideas for Humanities planning and summer break and whatnot. There is some construction/renovation going on in the hall. We each grab an end of a long table and heft it and are just about to move it when there's a loud grumbly sound and some vibration in the floor. We continue our conversation as the grumbling gets louder and the vibration becomes rather surprising. I think we both initially assumed there was some extreme demolition or drilling happening, because we didn't really react until the entire school started swaying back and forth. I looked at Gena and she asked "Is that an earthquake?" and then it was over.

Gena's from New Zealand, and seemed amused at the panic some Yanks felt. I remembered the very brief trembler which woke me last year at 5am, but this was definitely the longest quake I've ever experienced. The Big Cheese announced that we had to evacuate the building, and we did so. Most staff went home, but Gena and I and a bunch of middle grades staff stayed behind to continue planning.

Thank goodness there were no kids today--that would have been too much drama!

Thursday, August 18, 2011


Because Robert Wise's The Haunting was a favorite film from way back, I was introduced to the films of Val Lewton by a cineaste friend. "Wise learned a lot from Lewton," he told me. It's quite clear in these two gems, which I revisit during the last week before resuming work.

Cat People isn't really a horror film, any more than The Turn of the Screw is a ghost story. Irena is a young woman who fears the power of her own sexuality. She wants Oliver painfully, yet can't consummate her desires. The powerful myth of the cat people from her native town in Serbia worries her. If she lets him kiss her, she will turn into a leopard and devour him. So for months after their wedding she sleeps in a locked room while he waits patiently.

Finally, Oliver turns to his friend and co-worker Alice for solace of a sort. Alice recommends a psychiatrist, who hypnotizes Irena and learns of her fears. Irena realizes that his methods are a bit questionable when he asks "What if I kiss you?" during a session; she refuses to go back. At this time Alice confesses her love to Oliver, who begins to drift away from his repressed wife. Alice is chased in the park by something inhuman, then she is menaced in a swimming pool by a growling presence in the dark. Her robe is shredded. Irena is on the prowl.

I love the cinematography with its dark silhouettes and bright highlights, which heavily influence Wise's later masterpiece. I love the power of suggestion, which allows subtle readings of the movie beyond the surface horror. I love the sultry actresses with their creepy eyes. The sleazy psychiatrist gets what's coming to him, and Irena's failure to do her wifely duties is tragic. She never wants to hurt anyone, but her profound and mysterious nature confounds these plans. Just as Eleanor might be a victim of Hill House or an overly imaginative young woman with a potent crush, Irena might be a possessive and jealous werecat--or a troubled young woman afraid of her desire.

Cat People focuses on the a young lady on the cusp of womanhood; Curse of the Cat People focuses on a young girl at the border between fantasy life and reality. It's a mysterious and sad fable about Oliver and Alice's daughter Amy, who can't quite leave her dreamy childhood and grow up. Irena returns in the guise of a fairy princess playmate, and atones for her sins by helping Oliver and Amy to develop a true relationship. The film--co-directed by Wise--is gorgeous. I don't think a child's fantasies have ever been so lovingly re-created on film.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


A university lecture which explains the origin of this blog's name. Well, not really, but I saw this when I was about 13, during cable TV's infancy in York, PA, just as I started reading Lovecraft, and only now remembered it, some 30 years later. Of course the episode was on YouTube when I searched.

PS: Rod Serling's Night Gallery was spoofed on The Simpsons ages ago. Do you remember?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Another room nearly complete...

The painting and reorganizing of rooms shall cease until next summer. At least I wasn't completely unproductive this year...

via negativa

My friend Lance has expanded his website a little bit,to include more paintings and some photographs and drawings as well. Check it out!

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Books #24 and 25

Between May and August I read 4,000 pages of A Song of Ice and Fire, and I finished the fourth volume just in time for publication of Volume 5. A Feast for Crows deals with the continuing chaotic devolution of the realm following the death of Robert Baratheon. Three of the five self-styled Kings of Westeros are dead, and new pretenders jockey for position and old survivors try to re-coup losses. Strange new religions arise as old ones attempt to regain power and authority in a vacuum of leadership. Although I like the complex politics and strategic manoeuverings of Martin's enormous cast, I was a bit disappointed to note that this volume is missing most of my favorite characters. Martin's brief epilogue claims that he will fill us in on their whereabouts in volume 5, which happens concurrently with volume 4 but in different regions. I suppose I can get through another 1000 pages before school starts--it's certainly much more interesting (and more believable, dragons and all) than that Girl With a Gazillion Special Talents series I read last summer.

I continue saturating myself with WW2, Nazism, and Holocaust studies in order to teach this era to middle-schoolers first trimester. Bullock's biography is straight-forward and very readable in the abridged version. Even though the subtitle is "A Study in Tyranny," the book sticks mostly to the life and accomplishments and failures of its subject. Bullock avoids psychoanalyzing Hitler or the German people. He doesn't speculate wildly about motives or events for which there is no documentation. The end result is a concise chronology of Hitler's life, from its humble beginnings through the early failures to the spectacular ascent and assumption of dictatorial powers.

Hitler comes across in these pages as a man of limited intellect but astonishing political instincts and an intense focus on goals. What's most surprising is the sustained patience of his early years, and the long struggle to create the Nazi party and win the Chancellorship. After that Hitler was anything but patient, and seemed to become overwhelmed by his own mythology and cult of personality, unleashing long-repressed hatreds and resentments in a fury for expansion and unparalleled atrocity.

I need to start deciding what I want the kids to understand about this guy. What questions get at the heart of his story? What connections can the kids make between their own experience and that of oppressed people in Europe at this time? What warnings does the past hold for us?

Tuesday, August 02, 2011


vermeer, originally uploaded by Blog-Sothoth.

Spent a weekend in NYC with the family. Though it was hot and sticky in the city, it was notably cooler than Baltimore has been, and I had a great time pigging out and seeing some sites. I also revisited some old friends at the Met.