Monthly Archives: September 2017

Free Write Friday: The Epidemic

the epidemicI really like the concept of this book series by Suzanne Young. I also greatly enjoyed the very first book in the series, The Program. For those not familiar with the series, it is yet another offering from the dystopian YA genre. In the world of The Program, suicide has basically become a communicable disease. The Program exists to save kids, in a very Minority Report way, who are potential victims. It’s a very interesting concept and I greatly enjoyed both the characters and the plot.

After the first book though, it’s been a bit downhill for me. Not only did the plots get decidedly more convoluted with every book, but keeping the books in order–considering how similar the titles and cover art all are–is next to impossible.

Because they couldn’t have been written and released in the order of the actual series. That might be too easy. Book one came out in 2013 and book two followed the next year. But then, came book .5, a prequel to the series, followed by book 2.5. then book .6 and finally, at least until this date, book 3. Are you confused yet? Because I sure as heck am.

Jumping back between the stories of Sloane, Realm, and Quinlan–some of whom never meet and have no direct connection, is disorienting.

On top of all that, book .6, The Epidemic, also has a convoluted plot which is hard to keep track of.

One consistent issue I have with the entire series is the element of romance in it. I have no problem with teenagers having relationships in books. I understand why teen characters have sex in books (they do in real life too). What I don’t understand is the overwhelming number of characters in this series who have found their true loves/soul mates before they even hit 18. It is unrealistic, to say the least. Granted, considering that in this series suicide is contagious and can apparently be passed from one person to the next just like a cold virus, I guess anything is possible.

That’s another issue I have with this particular book. In this book, Young basically tells readers that there is a patient zero for this suicide disease and that merely talking to her causes people to become suicidal. Again, more than a bit far-fetched.

The ease in which the main characters are able to escape at the end of the book lacks major believability for me, especially when books 1-2.5 are taken into consideration.

Still, I want to see how it ends, so I’ve just started book 3 (the title of which is so generic that it evades me now).

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Throwback Thursday: Ghost tours

full graveyardI am a sucker for a ghost tour. Not because I believe I’m going to see any ghosts on the tour, but rather because I like exploring new cities after dark and hearing all the sordid tales that live below ground and don’t get told during the nice orderly guided tours through museums and official buildings. I like hearing the hidden history of places almost as much as I like the fact that ghost tours are almost always walking tours that let me explore parts of the city I might otherwise have glanced over or missed entirely.

I was introduced to my first ghost tour when I took a group of high school students to London. As part of a lovely tradition called May Term, students finished their finals in mid-May and spent the last two weeks of the year taking mini-seminar courses over topics ranging from the films of Alfred Hitchcock to orienteering to Asian literature. These courses, which ranged from 2-6 hours a day, gave students a chance for intensive study, often in a very hands-on way. During my 6 years at that wonderful school, I got to lead two May Term courses on trips to England.

It was during the second trip (which my best friend got to go on with me) that we all decided to take both a Jack the Ripper tour and a Haunted London tour. Both tours took place just as twilight was setting in. Even though we saw no ghosts (not that I thought we would), as we moved through crooked cobblestone streets and dark alleyways, I found myself giving into the “spook” and having a great time. There may not have been any jump scares, but picturing myself in Victorian England with the Ripper on the loose was fun. Our guides were very entertaining and could really spin a good yarn.

A few years later, I got another taste of ghost tours when I lived in St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest city in America. I lived on historic St. George street, right next to the St. Francis Inn, which is one of the oldest inns in the country. St. George street is a mess of  brick road that is always filled with either tourists or horse drawn carriages. I can count the number of times I was able to turn onto the street and make it all the way to my apartment without getting stuck behind a carriage on one hand.

Although the carriages drove me absolutely bonkers, living in the heart of such a historic city, especially one with so many fun tourist attractions did guarantee there was always something to do, especially during the summer. While I never went on an official ghost tour while I lived there, many nights as my husband and I were walking back to our apartment after getting some ice cream at Kilwin’s or having dinner at The Columbia Restaurant, we would find ourselves walking behind one of the many ghost tours that haunted our street. It was impossible not to get caught up in some of the tales.

While leading students on another trip, this time to Scotland in 2015, our guide offered us a chance to go on a haunted catacomb tour. The stories weren’t really that creepy, but being down in the catacombs had its eerie moments. Especially while our local guide was telling us the story of a young boy who had perished in the tiny room we were all scrunched into (it was lit by a single candle). It wasn’t the story that made me jump and scream. It was the ginormous football player I’d brought on the trip who had snuck up behind me and grabbed my leg during the story that had me wanting out of that room.

All in all, my experience with ghost tours, while not even remotely spiritual, have been pretty darn fun.

small graveSo, when 9 of my dearest, if not geographically nearest, friends and I got together for a vacation in Charleston, SC a week ago and they asked what there was to do in the area (I’m the “expert” as I visit Charleston every year), one of my first thoughts was ghost tour. Since everyone was pretty keen on the idea, another friend found a tour company, bought tickets and we were on our way.

Unfortunately, since several people also wanted to visit a gastro pub and spend the night on the town, she booked us on the 6 pm tour. Even in September, 6 pm is not only well before the witching hour, but also well before it even gets dark. Unbeknownst to her, it was also the family friendly version of the tour. Our haunted look at Charleston, which our guide kept reminding us didn’t necessitate going into actual graveyards since the entire city is basically built on top of a graveyard, was not exactly spookified.

Even though the tour wasn’t even remotely scary, our guide was charming and had some great historical information to give. Unfortunately for him, he had a group of English majors, one of whom has her PhD in Victorian literature, so his story claiming that Edgar Allan Poe wrote Annabelle Lee based on his romance with a young Charleston girl (who supposedly still haunts the house they courted at), did not fly. And since we are such big geeks, we spent quite a bit of time after the tour looking up “facts” he gave us. Turns out a lot of them were sketchy at best.

Still, he did take us into a really cool graveyard at the Circular Congregationalist Church, which is the city’s oldest burial ground. He wasn’t supposed to. Apparently only one tour company has permission to give tours in said graveyard. But we promised to pretend not to know him if anyone questioned us. He told us some great stories in that graveyard and we got to see some super neat old graves, some of them dating back to the late 1690’s. On our way back to the meeting point, he also took us past St. Phillip’s Cemetery where the famous ghost of Sue Howard Hardy was supposedly caught on film mourning over the grave of her son.

While a few of my friends thought the ghost tour was a bust, I had a great time on it. I loved being out, walking the city with my best friends. I may not have been scared and I may not have seen a ghost, but I got to spend time with people I love and that’s all that I really wanted.

 

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Wild Card Wednesdays: Evil Apples

I have a phone that just barely qualifies as a smart phone. I’m someone who likes to pretend I don’t spend nearly the amount of time on my phone that I actually do. As a result, I refuse to throw hundreds of dollars away on a phone when I can get a reasonable priced phone for just over a hundred. Yeah, I know, you get what you pay for. I buy a cruddy bottom of the line “smart phone” and I should not be surprised that it is mildly intelligent at best.

My biggest complaint about my phone is its complete lack of storage. Even though I bought an additional memory card (which is only half full), several of my apps won’t allow me to transfer them to my SD card (looking at you flashlight and Overdrive apps). And, over half of my storage space was full before I ever put a single app on my phone–stupid “miscellaneous” category that holds .files I have no idea what they do.

Although I immediately upload all videos and photos I take on my phone to Google photos, on a good day I have about 622MB free on my phone. Thankfully that was just enough for me to download Evil Apples, an app that will, in fact, allow me to transfer it to my SD card.

For anyone not in the know, if Cards Against Humanity is one of your go to games, this app might be perfect for you. Although Evil Apples does not have the same social dynamic to it, I like that I can kick back in my comfy marshmallow chair, pull up Evil Apples and play both with friends and strangers any time I want without having to clean my house.

I have not yet played the game against strangers as two of my good friends also play the game. About once a week, usually as we are unwinding after putting our kids to bed, one of us invites everybody else to the game and we play a few rounds before bed.

Just like Cards Against Humanity, it’s gross, irreverent, and often of questionable taste. But it is pretty darn fun. Just like CAH, once you earn enough points from winning games, you can buy extra decks. I recently bought the Dirty Disney, Kama Sutra and Bookworm decks. Coupled with the decks my friends have “purchased” with our winnings, the game is pretty fun.

While the games I play on my own aren’t quite as fun as the game of CAH I played on my recent vacation to Isle of Palms, SC, I’m still glad I was able to add the app to my phone.

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Teaching Tuesday: Sub plans

Sub plans: The bane of every teacher’s existence. After nearly twenty years of teaching, I have come to the conclusion that it is basically pointless for me to leave sub plans….at least not for the substitute teachers.

Recently, I took three personal days in order to meet up with my best friends (none of whom are teachers) for our annual best friend celebration vacation. As over the moon as I was at the prospect of spending 4.5 days basking in the sun and frolicking in the sand with some of the most important people in my life, before I could reach this little piece of friendship heaven I had to write three days worth of lesson plans.

Any teachers reading this blog are probably shaking their heads at the folly of this endeavor and screaming, “YOU FOOL!.” For those readers who are not teachers, allow me to explain. Taking even one day off of work is so much of a hassle that it is almost not worth it. I have come to school dizzy from vertigo, running fevers, feeling like I might vomit, and so exhausted from being up all night (from what turned out to be the beginnings of appendicitis) all to avoid having to get ready for a sub.

For a great many jobs out there, if an employee has to miss work, they have a list of other people who also know how to do their job and can substitute in for them. Many others are lucky enough to have the kind of job that if they have to call in, the work can just wait one day. When teachers call in, however, there is pretty much a minuscule chance that the person called to fill in for them has a teaching degree. On the off chance they do, the likelihood of the sub actually having a teaching license in the teacher’s content area is beyond remote. But, if for some reason they actually did have a teaching license in the content area, the chances of them actually being able to step in and teach the lesson…well, I’ve never heard of it happening (except for long term subs who take over the classroom due to long term illnesses and maternity leaves).

When I have to call for a substitute teacher, I know I am basically getting a babysitter.

And I’d be ok with that if they actually did what a good babysitter is supposed to: read the instructions I leave, give the instructions to the children, make sure the instructions are followed and then leave me notes about how well the instructions were followed. It sounds simple, right? I know from six months of substitute experience that if a class is well-behaved, it is, in fact, just that simple.

I realize that the discipline factor is the biggest variable in the situation. If your classroom is regularly a den of chaos, or even turns into a scene from Lord of the Flies every time you leave, getting even the best sub to follow the lesson plans might be asking too much. However, I have well-behaved classes. This is due in part to the fact that I teach mostly Advanced Placement courses and my kids are pretty much always on their best behavior, and generally afraid of breaking any rules. It’s also due in part to the fact that I have a really good rapport with my students. They respect me and know I’d be very disappointed with bad behavior in my absence, so they behave themselves. Nine times out of ten, my students actually complain to me that the subs hinder their ability to work by trying to talk to them. These are good kids.

So, before I could leave for my three day friendcation, I spent two prep periods getting all of my lesson plans in order. Every single assignment was put onto Canvas, our classroom learning management system. My kids use Canvas on a daily basis and know they just need to follow the instructions I leave them in order to get their work done. The only thing I actually need subs to do is record attendance and make sure no one gets hurt. They don’t even have to read directions to the students (which I tell them in my VERY detailed sub notes). The only thing the sub actually had to give the kids was a writing prompt handout and the access code to the online test. Before I left, everything was completely set up so that my kids would have no problems and all of their work could get done. It should have been a dream job for any sub.

What I came back to…UGH!

For starters, my AP juniors did not take the test. Despite giving the very easy to spell access code of Vacation, the sub apparently didn’t tell them it had to be capitalized. They were perplexed when it didn’t work and I guess no one thought that maybe, just maybe, it needed to be capitalized (as other test codes have been). He did, however, read the writing prompt–which was part of the test that they would do the next day– out loud to them. He even handed a copy of it out to a student who asked if he could see it, despite the fact that it was clearly labelled for handout the next day. He later offered to let several of my AP seniors get a head start on their writing prompt by showing it to them a day early. Luckily, they’ve all had me for two years and knew I would lose my mind, so they quickly declined and told me all about it via email.

The second day I had a different sub who did not give out test materials early. She did, however, read the writing prompt out loud to them. Since it was about honor codes, she started asking them all about our school honor code, looking up information on honor codes and trying to discuss it with them, all while they were trying to write their essays. The information she gave them was of no use to them as they have to answer the essay based on the six sources they are given, but she did manage to both confuse and distract them as they tried to concentrate and write.

She also decided to go through my desk drawers in search of a nail file (which she used). She also searched my drawers for pens, even though I had several out for her to use. In addition, she decided to yank open the door on my lockable cabinet, which was locked, and actually pulled hard enough that it opened, which is how I found it. Thankfully I could sort of fix it when I got back, but man was I mad!

As much as I desperately needed the break with my friends, the two days it took me to prepare to be absent, followed by the barrage of emails I got from my students about my subs AND the two days it took me to straighten out the messes they made, almost made it not worth it.

It should not be this much work not to go to work.

 

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Chocolate Monday: Chuao Caramel Apple Crush

apple caramel barFor me, vacation is not only about taking time to relax and get away from the hectic day to day, but also a chance for me to explore new and often exotic chocolates.

I just got back (way later than planned) from a trip to Isle of Palms, SC. While I vacation at IoP every year with my in-laws, this trip was not about cousins chasing each other through hallways playing tag, or breaking bread with a few dozen members of my husband’s extended family. This trip was all about me bonding with my best friends.

Two years ago, my favorite people in the entire world (who aren’t related to me by blood), jumped on planes and flew halfway across the country to celebrate one of the most beautiful weddings I’ve ever been to. For four glorious days we shared an amazing house in the heart of Denver. When we weren’t sitting around talking, laughing and chopping a damn lot of vegetables in preparation for the wedding feast (it was a simply delicious cookout at the house), we were visiting escape rooms, drinking in video game bars, going to burlesque shows and eating some truly fantastic food. Oh, and somewhere in there we managed a scenic drive to the mountains in order to attend the actual wedding.

Since our quests for gainful employment have sent us sprawling all over the country, being back together for that weekend was a wake up call for us: we don’t spend enough time together. We vowed then and there to make the gathering a yearly occurrence. Last year we all met up in Destin, Florida for fun in the sand, surf and sun.

This year, thanks to the help of my sister-in-law who let us use her beach house, we were able to gather at Isle of Palms. Luck was definitely with us as we arrived on Wednesday, two days after Hurricane Irma blew through, flooding streets and knocking in parts of buildings. By the time we all got there though, aside from some puddles, really high tides and some strongish wind, it was glorious.

One of our first stops on Thursday was Target. We had to get provisions for the rest of the long weekend. My plan was just to get a pair of sunglasses (which I’d left at home), some lunchy foods and detergent. However, since we were already in the food section, I figured it couldn’t hurt to check out the candy aisle.

As I glanced around the aisle, I was thrilled when my eyes settled on a brand new candy bar from Chuao, a candy company I actually found for the first time while visiting Isle of Palms about seven years ago. Like every other company on the planet, as soon as Halloween starts to creep up, so do the pumpkin and apple flavors. My eye was drawn to the shiny green edges of this caramel apple bar.

As I’ve already established in this blog, there is not much stronger than my love for caramel apples. And while I am usually a purist when it comes to my sticky, apple treats, there was no way I could pass up this bar.

When I finally opened the bar, it looked a little worse for wear. I didn’t actually eat it on vacation, so it had to survived a rather long trip to Atlanta in my purse. Then, it had to endure the flight back to Indiana as well. Still, despite being a bit bumped and bruised, it was still chocolate, so I gave it a try.

caramel apple bar close upThe chocolate itself is very creamy. It has small flecks of dehydrated apple in it, which while not really visible in the chocolate itself, are definitely in there. Biting in, I kept getting that slightly chewy sensation that only dried apples give. As much as I like apples, dried apples are one of my least favorite dried fruits, and it’s mostly due to that texture. Since they apple bits are green apples, as I finished each bite, I got little bursts of tart apple in my mouth which I really enjoyed.

I did find the crunchy caramel pieces in the bar a bit of an odd texture. The bar is far more apple and chocolate than caramel, so every time I crunched a bit of caramel it felt strange to me. I tend to prefer my caramel to be liquidy and creamy, so I’m always just a little put off by crunchy caramel bits.

Although I would have liked a bit more caramel flavor, this was a fun bar. It still doesn’t beat out their s’mores bar, but I liked it and have no plans to share any of it with my kids (which is where I dispose of the chocolate I find only so-so).

Overall:

Taste: 8/10
Appearance: 5/10 (the words on it are cute, but not that much to look at)
Value: 8/10

 

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Wildcard Wednesday: Fitness trackers

fitness bandA few weeks ago I was at Target looking for a fitness band to store my iPod Classic (yeah, I’m old school) in while I work out. The electronics department had them, but they were a bit pricey. Thankfully they guy working the desk mentioned that they might have one in the back to school aisle.

I thought this was kind of an odd place to find them until I ventured over to that part of the store and found what were clearly the back to college aisles. Eight weeks ago when I’d gone back to school shopping for my kiddos, hardly any of the regular school supplies were out and none of the college wares were on display.

Not only did I find a fitness band that works perfectly adequately (I know, that is not a ringing endorsement, but it’s honest, and it was only $5), but I also found an off-brand fitness tracker for $10.

Now, for $10 I knew I wasn’t going to get much. However, since it promised that not only would it track my steps and tell me the time, but also allow me to set alarms using gentle vibrations, just like my Fitbit, I figured I had to give it a go.

For the most part, I love my Fitbit. I’m generally pretty darn happy with it. The only way my Fitbit could be better is if it a) told the time (I have the original Fitbit Flex) and b) held a longer charge (it is nearly two years old and now only holds a charge for 4-5 days).

My intention with this new fitness tracker was not to replace my Fitbit. My intention was to use it when my Fitbit is charging. Since I rely on my Fitbit not just to count my steps, but also to wake me up in the morning (a feature I ADORE), I thought this new tracker could be a real help for me. Normally I have to lose steps in order to plug my Fitbit in long enough to charge so that I can still wear it to bed so my alarm will go off. My plan was to wake up, put this fitness tracker on, then charge my Fitbit while I’m at work, then put my Fitbit back on just before I go to bed.

Sounds pretty great, right?

The first day it was. I loved being able to check the time on my tracker. I also loved that with the touch of a button I could see my steps. The only odd part was that I seemed to be taking a lot fewer steps than usual. And, for some reason, the alarm randomly went off at like 4 am and then again at like 8 am and then again at like 3 pm. Still, I made just over 10,000 and it seemed to be a ok.

I decided to wear it a second day. After all the alarm bug magically fixed itself, the band was a cute mint green, and I really liked that watch feature. However, even after doing a Zumba routine, I did not hit 10K. I have never made it an entire day at school and gone to a Zumba class and not hit my 10K. After all that work, the tracker was only registering like 8K. That made no sense to me.

I tried it a third day, which included a trip to the gym (although it was doing circuit training) and had similar results. That was when I realized that I clearly got what I paid for, a cheap watch with an alarm that counted some of my steps.

Oh well, it just reaffirmed my desire to get a new Fitbit which meets my current needs. Plus, my kids have been wanting Fitbits of their own and since I picked up an extra tracker (in black), I have a feeling mine might find its way into my daughter’s stocking while the black one ends up in my son’s.

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Teaching Tuesday: Tech Blues part 1

It’s not secret that for most people technology is both a blessing and a curse. I know in my life it certainly is. I have been guilty of spending too much time engaging online and not nearly enough time engaging with the actual people around me.

When my English department first went 1:1, about 10 years ago, it was hard for me to find a good balance between using the technology and being used by the technology. Thankfully, I’ve honed my skills and gotten pretty good about knowing when I really need the computers and when it would just be easier to use them. I’m all for using technology to help make life easier, but not so easy that it makes my students lazy and incapable of finding information on their own or completing simple tasks for themselves.

I’m especially against technology when it actually makes my life harder, which is what happened today.

Two years ago when my corporation switched to Canvas as our learning management system, I hopped right on board. It was very similar to Moodle, which I LOVED and found a lot of value in. I like being able to organize both LMS by topic. I like that my students have the option to turn most work in online, thus avoiding the myriad of lost or forgotten homework (on their part, not mine). I like being able to upload all of my resources online so that students can view them whenever they need them (again avoiding lost handouts and direction sheets). I like being able to give quizzes online and have them graded instantly.

My kids have been successfully maneuvering Canvas for over 5 weeks now, and last year’s group used it all year with no real issues (other than standard teenage user error). Recently, the word has come down from on high that every teacher needs to be switching over to Canvas. Obviously this is no problem for me. My pages were copied over from last year, assignments and resources all updated over the summer, and ready to go for the first day of school.

The powers that be, however, have decided that everyone has to add this special eLearning button to our Canvas pages. The only purpose this button serves is to provide a link to an attendance form (created for some odd reason as a Google Form), which can be used on eLearning days.

We’ve been utilizing eLearning days for three years now. In the past, teachers told the students their assignments (through email, Google Classroom or Canvas), students responded so that they could be counted for attendance and we input the attendance into Skyward. Easy peasy.

This year though, we have to add this button to our Canvas page so that students can access this Google Form. We still have to click on the Form to collect the responses. We still have to input the attendance into Skyward, but now with the added step of creating this button on Canvas.

Normally this would not be an issue for me. However, since none of the Canvas trainers who took us step by step through the process of creating the button use modules in Canvas, they not only could not give me the proper information about the button, but actually told me at one point I might have to completely restructure my classes in order to make room for this button.

HUH? Restructure over a year’s worth of work to create a button, that serves the exact same function as an assignment I already have on Canvas? I was livid.

After 30 minutes of extreme frustration, the realization that the trainers did not know the proper terminology, and actual tears from being told I might lose everything I worked so hard on, I figured out how to create the button. It took me less than 5 minutes to create it and copy it to all three of my classes.

Technology should not make our lives harder. Adding tech, or even just a tech button, just for the sake of having it, is a waste of time. Tech should work for teachers and students, not the other way around.

 

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