Building a Better Yearbook

Last year I took over as the yearbook advisor (adviser? This is one of these words whose ambiguous spelling haunts me) for our middle school.

I love graphic design and bookmaking and yearbooks. I do. And I was once the editor of our school yearbook — our middle school yearbook, when I was in eighth grade. (I started to do yearbook in high school, but the story of that disaster is a whole blog post unto itself.) So sure. Definitely qualified.

Well… let’s just say that we ended the year with a yearbook. And honestly, it’s not bad. Some people even thought it was good. I love the cover art, I love that there are few enough mistakes that no one has brought any to my attention yet (I’m not so crazy as to assume there really aren’t any), and I love that we got it done on deadline.

But there are so, SO many things that I would have done differently. Fortunately I get that chance this year. Some of my thoughts as I forge ahead:

  1. I still am not sure what to do about my staff, but at least I have my applications in hand. I have too many good 8th graders applying and too few good 7th graders, too many girls and too few boys. I can take them all and have an enormous staff; I can cut some excellent applicants in favor of a smaller, more manageable group. I haven’t decided and I’ve had months to do so. Sigh.
  2. I’m not going to ask the staff about the theme. I know what our theme is going to be, I know approximately what the yearbook is going to look like, and I’m not interested in reopening a yearlong debate with fourteen-year-old girls. They’ll still have creative control of their own pages, within reason, but I’m seizing creative control of the cover, dividers, etc.. Someone may complain now, but they’ll thank me in May.
  3. REALLY hoping I can have my yearbook staff at least 1-2 times a week during Advisory… please oh please… will make such a big difference in terms of communication and organization.
  4. I want to highlight some of the previously overlooked groups and activities in the school. There’s a lot going on that gets skipped in the yearbook due to other, “bigger” organizations and lack of pages. But I think I can address that this year.
  5. I need to figure out how to teach rudimentary design to really young designers — specifically the idea of working off a grid instead of plopping down pictures willy-nilly. Last year, I was really in the “let’s just get it done” frame of mind. This year, I want to get it done well. I want them to have learned something by the time they finish it. I want them to have designed something that they’ll be proud of when they graduate high school.
  6. Definitely going to be more conscious of and deliberate about photography. I’m going to do some direct instruction on photography, and now that I’ve unraveled the mystery of the yearbook cameras we’ll have much better equipment. Last year’s photography was a fiasco. This year, I’m going to be proactive and protective.

Speaking of photography! We have one big D-SLR with some good lenses that will probably rarely be in anyone’s hands but my own. Then we have a set of Nikon CoolPix cameras that are sturdy and surprisingly good. I found the Nikon interface a little confusing, so I took the newest one with me on a family vacation to master it before trying to teach its use to students. I’ll tell you what; for a smaller digital camera without the ability to swap out lenses, the CoolPix was pretty impressive! I loved playing with the epic (yes, epic) zoom capabilities; when other people reached for binoculars to spy on distant sea lions, I grabbed my camera instead.

Here’s an example. Check out this sunset photograph I took on August 7 in Bandon, Oregon:


You may not realize it, but there’s a boat in that picture. Here, I’ll circle it for you:


See it yet? You can click on the photograph to enlarge it, if that will help.

Anyone who has ever tried to photograph the moon knows that objects appear much smaller through a camera lens. I could see that boat with the naked eye, but it certainly wasn’t clear — just an obviously manmade object, moving slowly along the horizon. I decided to use my camera to get a closer look.


From this vantage, I had about as much detail of the boat in my camera as I did with just my eyes. So I zoomed in closer. (By the way, none of these pictures are cropped or zoomed in after I took them. They are original files straight from the camera.)


I love this picture, but I knew I could see more because I hadn’t even started to play with digital telephoto yet.

I kept zooming and got this:


Look at the detail, kids. Look at that. Just look at it. Wow.

And the thing is, I think I could have zoomed in until I saw the people on the boat, if I’d had a tripod. The problem with super duper zoom is that you can’t keep the subject in your viewfinder without steadying the camera, and in this case I had the added problem of a drifting subject. This is one of several different shots I took, each with the boat careening out of view, except this one.

So yeah. I’m pretty happy with these cameras. I think we can do some really good work with them this year. I’m especially looking forward to some good sports and performing arts photography.

And no, Nikon didn’t tell me to write this. But if someone from Nikon reads this and wants to adopt my yearbook staff and give us new gear, I’d be delighted to review it. 😉

Anyway, wish me luck with my yearbook staff and with doing a good job with yearbook on top of my other responsibilities. This is my year when I’m going to kick things up a notch, or at least when I’m going to try. Lots of ideas, lots of blank slates…. whee!


Book Drive

I’m taking a few minutes to sit, and it was either stare gloomily at Pinterest or come over here, so here I am.

I’ve just realized that I never made my work coffee this morning. The coffee in my mug, only half-consumed, was brewed at 6:30 AM. Yum. No wonder I’m tired and thirsty.

Man, I hurt.

Since having Henry, I’ve had pelvic pain — not severe enough that I’ve felt the need to do anything about it, but the muscles or tendons or whatever in there just aren’t as well-strung as they once were. I’m always “yoinking” my hips. Pushing something heavy — say, a cart full of books — goes straight to my pelvis, and because the hip bone is connected to the back bone, that then goes to my lower back, which goes to my stomach, and so basically I’m spending a fair amount of time wishing I could somehow ace-bandage my hip joint into the pelvic bone. Add to that all of the lugging-of-baby and weird positions we sit in while holding babies, and I’m pretty sure I’d make a chiropractor cackle with glee and call his accountant with good news.

So our school has a used book sale every year, which is this massive labor-intensive project, and has been head up for the past several years by a supermom volunteer who lets boxes of books take over her entire garage for the sale while they are sorted and stored. This year, I was encouraged to do the sale again despite the fact that supermom had moved out of state — and no other parents were jumping up and down to take her place. The easiest solution seemed to be for me to step into the volunteer coordinator’s role. I mean, how hard could it be to sort donated books as they come in?

And the answer is, not hard — but hard. I mean, my brain doesn’t falter under the weight of book sorting. But I’ve spent the better part of the day, every day for the last week, pushing around heavy (poorly-wheeled) carts full of often grimey books, bending over, picking them up, sorting them into cardboard boxes, and moving/stacking filled cardboard boxes. And if you’ve ever had the misfortune to help us move, or anyone else with a sizeable collection of books, you know exactly how much fun cardboard boxes full of books are. Nearly 2,200 books so far, and three more days worth coming — hopefully getting us close to my goal of 5,000 (about half of what we’ve had in the past, and not nearly as well sorted, but I’m trying to finish up a yearbook and be a librarian too, so it’ll be what it’ll be).

I don’t mean to complain. It’s kind of fun, and I took it on myself. But it is really exhausting, and really physically demanding, and I hurt.

It’s an interesting project. I open a bag or box of books and it’s a little window into the donor. Most of the kids are bringing in benign bags of outgrown children’s books, but the teachers are culling from their own collections. It’s fun to reach in and pull out a double fistful of gory thrillers, or enough romance novels to fill a bookshelf. Political books! Pedagogy books! Books that reveal religious beliefs, eating habits, family issues. I open a bag and discover a kindred spirit, or someone with whom I apparently disagree on just about everything.

(I want to take a second right now to say that I have no idea which person is connected to which book; if there were names on the boxes/bags, they’ve long since been removed by the time I get around to sorting.)

Who is this person? I wonder. We would have so much to talk about. Or: I wish I knew so I’d be sure never to bring up politics around them.

Then again, that’s a silly game to play, because maybe these books didn’t belong to any of my coworkers at all. They could be a spouse’s books, or books left over from a neighbor’s garage sale, or books they collected for the drive from all of their church friends.

And besides, they’re the books that the donor decided to get rid of — not her treasured personal library. What says more about a person: the books on her shelf, or the books in her donate pile?

By the way, I searched for a picture of cardboard boxes to illustrate this post, and found the picture below, and now I can’t wait for Henry to be big enough to do this because DUDE.


Long Day

I’ve read in several different places humorous lists about how pregnant women are like giant toddlers, and tonight I proved the point. Driving home, I was simultaneously starving and did NOT want to eat anything, and then I started to cry because I was tired and hungry. Waaaaah!

Today was a long day preceded by a night of pretty spotty sleep. Got up at my usual 5:30 and really struggled to find anything to wear that was clean, not hate-worthy, and was dressy enough for parent-teacher conferences. Got dressed, prettified, and fed, then drove to work. I had figured that today would be a relatively easy day (during school hours, that is); I knew I was administering a test first hour that would take the entire period, figured the lesson I’d planned for my other classes would be relatively low-maintenance, and thought that — with the exception of half an hour for a performance evaluation meeting — my prep period would be some good quiet time to prepare for conferences, grade, and maybe even relax a little bit.

Well… first hour went as planned…

Then second hour hit, and everything fell to pieces. My relatively easy, self-directed assignment turned out to be harder than I thought. On top of that, in some sort of Epic Failure of teaching, I’d forgotten that my freshmen were unlikely to be on their best behavior or highest intelligence on the second-to-last day before Spring Break. Ergo: an 87-minute-long headache.

Prep turned out to be one of those prep periods where you’re never alone in your classroom and, while largely a very pleasant way to pass the time, not very restful or productive. About 20 minutes before my scheduled eval meeting, I realized I hadn’t yet visited the restroom or eaten anything. I hit the loo, got waylaid by another situation before I could get to the fridge, and ended up with only eight minutes to eat lunch before the meeting — so instead of cooking my entire lunch, I just grabbed a small snack. I figured that if my eval meeting went the amount of time intended, I’d have almost half an hour afterward to sit down and eat.

Ten minutes after my meeting was supposed to have started, I got a call saying they were running behind and would be there in twenty minutes. Then, more people in my classroom. Then, the meeting occurred. (It was great.) And then my fourth period class was banging on the door to be let in.

And fourth period was much… uh… more challenging than second. Let’s just leave it at that, shall we? Also, did you know that a group of turkeys is called a rafter?

Immediately after school: more people in my classroom.

Let me be clear: I am in no way complaining about all the visitors. It was awfully nice, and pretty much everyone I saw today brightened my day. But I never really had a chance to be “off,” which, as an introvert, I really need in order to recharge my batteries.

Quick dinner, followed by four hours of conferences — which, thank heavens, were very slow. I had only five families all night, so I got a lot of grading done and got some of that much-needed quiet time, although I could never completely relax because someone could come in at any moment. In honesty, I really like parent-teacher conferences, and the ones I had tonight were really good ones. But by the time the end of the day finally rolled around, I was pretty worn out.

Then I got stopped by construction for twenty minutes on a back road that no one ever drives on but me. Who knew they even did construction out there?

Kind of a long, pointless story, but that sort of reflects the day, so there you have it. I have several things I want to write about (strollers! baby showers! dinosaurs!) but none of that is happening tonight. It is time for me to turn off.

ANOTHER Snow Day?!

Yesterday, they were calling for a “big” snow storm in our area. Instead of snow, we got freezing rain, which differs from sleet in that it falls as a liquid and freezes on contact with anything — and everything — it touches. End result? A quarter-inch sheet of pure ice on the roads, sidewalks, and any cars unfortunate enough to have been left outside overnight.

I hadn’t dared think we’d have a snow day, but turned on the news anyway. It was nonstop traffic coverage, with the ACHD saying that the roads were just about the worst they’d ever seen. In fact, both directions of Interstate 84 was shut down all the way from east Boise to Mountain Home when I turned on the news, and the closure extended beyond that within a couple of hours — 87 miles of undriveable highway, with semi trucks stranded and unable to move on the ice rink.

picture by The Idaho Statesman

picture by The Idaho Statesman

While we watched, pretty much every school district and charter/private school east or west of Boise announced that the roads were too bad to hold classes. My district was one of the earliest to cancel. We waited. The Boise School District called in to the television station to tell them that they were not going to cancel classes. The clock kept ticking; no word from Ryan’s district. Finally, the news came in that they were holding classes as well.

Parents were not amused. Lots of angry comments online and on call-in segments on the news. Later, the BSD released a statement regretting their decision. Regardless, Ryan had to go to work, and I didn’t….

Mom came and rescued me from my iced-in house (I sent Ryan with the good car and was not about to ice skate across the street and try those insane roads in a Tiburon). We got Panda for lunch. Then, lacking anything terribly constructive to do, we went over to BRU and I showed her the stroller we registered for. After my complete incompetence operating the thing last time (hey, those things are complicated if you’re not used to them!) it felt good to be able to demonstrate all the bells and whistles as if I actually knew what I was talking about.

I was looking for some specific used books for a unit I’m about to teach, so we went to Deseret Industries (a thrift store associated with the LDS church — has a good selection of books, although not the best prices in town, and the absolute best selection of used maternity clothes). I found some of the books I’d wanted, and then found several maternity t-shirts and XL fleece jackets, all in the $3-5 range, and all things I’d been wishing I had but hadn’t wanted to spend the inflated prices for maternity clothing at regular stores. As I was trying on the tops, I kept thinking how much I liked each of them, even though several were pretty uninspired… and then I realized that what I was really liking was the way I looked in them. I really like my bump! I have (have always had) a weird sort of mild body dysmorphia, in that I usually think I look smaller/thinner than I really do. (An unpleasant surprise when a photograph pops up!) I’ve spent a lot of time in front of the mirror lately, worrying that my bump wasn’t as big as it ought to be. Well, something about this particular mirror or these particular shirts dispelled that notion! I looked every bit as pregnant as I thought I ought to look, and I loved it. 🙂

I waited pretty much all day to hear back from some people who were selling a glider and ottoman on Craigslist. It was the perfect chair for a very good price, and from my perspective they’d indicated that we could pretty much have it — but then late in the afternoon, they texted me and told me that they’d sold it to someone else. Boo, disappointment. Oh well. I’m convinced we dodged a bullet. Clearly it reeked of cat pee and was covered in dog hair and vomit stains. Clearly. But I am anxious to get a chair into the nursery. I like to be in there, but there’s nowhere comfortable to sit….

My snow day has ended with the first episode of Project Runway season 11 — hooray! — and a science experiment, a.k.a. trying out a Pinterest recipe. I substituted mixed berry pie filling because Ryan isn’t a big fan of peach desserts (I know, right? Pass the divorce papers) and may have been a little generous with the brown sugar. It has just come out of the oven and I’m letting it cool a bit, which is an enormous exercise in self restraint because this cold weather and squirmy baby have really triggered my sweet tooth.


I can already see one problem; the cake mix didn’t get fully incorporated into the fruity buttery yumminess, and there are a couple of spots with just plain dry cake mix sitting there. Yuck. Either there wasn’t enough liquid in the pie filling, or the recipe fibs and I ought to mix it up a little bit. (By the way, the recipe calls this a crunch cake or a dump cake, but it really seems like a very simple cobbler to me so I’m calling it a cobbler cake.)

Heck, it’s great big and there are only two of us. We can eat around the dry bits. And it’s got brown sugar and berries and walnuts, and I’ve got a can of whipped cream wonderfulness. How bad could it be? 🙂

Putting out the Trash

trashFor the past couple of days, my freshmen have been doing a collaging activity, which is a teaching euphemism for “chopping up donated magazines and pasting them on printer paper.”

With few exceptions, the English teachers at my school have all new students this semester due to our new pilot program. I don’t know my new freshmen (three classes worth, all above capacity) very well yet, but it was immediately clear that I was going to have some classroom management “challenges” (which is a teaching euphemism for “stuff that really sucks”). One of my classes is under the thrall of a nasty ringleader; another class is a perfect storm of smart-alecky ne’er-do-wells who all feed off of each others’ poor behavior. The third class might be pretty okay except for the fact that they’ve crammed almost 40 kids into the room, and once that stampede starts there’s little I’ll be able to do to head it off.

For the duration of the collage lesson, I’ve been riding herd on these three clowders in an attempt to keep them working and, wherever possible, actually following the instructions. On top of that, I’ve had to ask, beg, direct, and threaten them to clean up their work areas. I’ve never had such a hard time getting students to clean up after themselves. I can walk up to a trio of kids and point directly at the garbage by their feet, ask them to pick it up, and they’ll pretend they don’t hear me. Piles of magazines left in chairs. Markers and rulers thrown under desks. Finally, I’ve succumbed to treating them like junior high kids and have made myself into a barricade across the door, refusing to let any/ of them leave when the bell rings until I’m satisfied with the condition of the room.

(“It’s not my mess.” Well, do you want to leave on time? Then you might ought to chip in.)

I am not entirely certain that freshmen are my thing.

Today, though, I was pleased to see that my nagging had paid off. The room wasn’t pristine or anything, but there was nothing horrifying left over after Hurricane Adolescence passed through. Then I looked at my magazine bin and saw that it had split down the side, spilling old copies of US News & World Report onto the carpet, so I decided to take a few minutes to switch out to a plastic bin and toss out the magazines that were no longer salvageable.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the box was half filled with garbage. Wadded up papers, tiny scraps, even broken pencils and candy wrappers. A crushed empty water bottle.

Blood pressure mounting, I spent about half an hour filling my garbage cans with freshman detritus. As I moved around the room, I found garbage in my bookcases, hidden under the textbooks under the desks, in the plastic shoebox with the colored pencils and — in a moment that will surely go down in history — stuffed into the shavings drawer of the electronic pencil sharpener.

I’m really not sure that freshmen are my thing.

I dragged my small garbage cans into the hall (they were too heavy for me to pick up) and sat down for a few minutes to work on the poetry packet for Contemporary Literature (a junior/senior class). Flipping through anthologies, my eyes fell on “Overworked” by Lucy Partlow:

After we
and prostrate ourselves to creation . . .

After we
raise children
raise grandchildren
raise men
raise hell
and raise the dead in tribal dance . . .

After we
clean house
clean clothes
clean collard greens
clean people’s stores
and clean up the aftermath of wars . . .

After we save souls
save schools
save trees
save whales
and save the world from eternal damnation . . .

After we do
the impossible
the improbable
the unthinkable . . .

Must we also put out the trash?

On first glance, I read it as a reflection on womanhood. Upon my second pass, I realized it could also be about teaching. Being a teacher is a sisyphean task, not only in terms of teaching and re-teaching content an endlessly rotating cast of students, but also of trying to help young people survive their world and themselves long enough to grow up.

The process of developing curriculum, units, and lessons is not unlike that of gestation and birth, accompanied by exhaustion, discomfort, fear, doubt, and impatience to see how it all turns out. We prostrate ourselves to the creation of lessons that meet ever-changing bureaucratic requirements and the needs of dizzyingly diverse students. We give of our lifeblood to nurture and nourish our students’ minds and even bodies.

We raise children when their parents can’t or won’t. We hope they take something of us with them when they leave our classes, that our influence will carry on into their future lives — that, perhaps, they will teach their descendents (biological or not) something we’ve taught them. We try to raise sloppy boys into men and snotty girls into women. We, protective lion(esse)s that we are, raise hell when our cubs are threatened. We, the storytellers and memory-keepers, dance the past into life.

Many of the best teachers I’ve known address teaching — knowingly or not — as a ministry. We know that, for some of these kids, we are the only thing they’ve got. We know that souls, if not being saved (fortunately, I can’t think of any teachers I know who have messiah complexes) are at least being shielded and fed. Good teachers are activists, some quiet and some not; they’re shepherds and counselors and paladins. Good teachers fight for the future, on a small scale — each student’s next year — and, when they aren’t too exhausted to think about it, on a global scale.

Every day, I see my colleagues do little bitty things that are impossible, improbable, unthinkable. Most days, we’re talking grains of sand… but over the course of a career, individual grains of sand build dunes.

And of course, we put out the trash.

Literally, with cuts to custodial staff due to budget problems, we take out our own garbage and are given economy-sized bottles of Spic-n-Span so that we can disinfect our own classrooms.

Figuratively, we deal with the day-to-day garbage of an overextended system, the environmental garbage of a society that doesn’t (or can’t) value education, and the rising tide of political garbage that threatens to flush stressed and disgusted educators out of the system.

Nightly, we drag our carcasses home after a long day of raising other peoples’ children and trying to save the world, and if we’re able, we leave the garbage of the day at the curb before we walk in to our homes.

Don’t paint pictures of teachers in capes, turning thugs into academics through the power of hip-hop and street toughs. Sketch them, instead, with a garbage can full of magazine clippings, closing the door to an almost-tidy classroom behind them until the next morning.