They Don’t Teach You This Stuff in College

It’s a beautiful Saturday morning, the air is cool, the breeze is slight, and the sun is dazzling here in my neck of the woods.  I’ve been mulling over my post for today, but with what was a nearly-unconscious move of my hand, my direction changed.  It’s funny how that works.

I was in the backyard, taking care of our small flock of seven chickens (delicious eggs, and nearly constant entertainment).  With the ladies fussing and flapping their wings as they followed me through the yard, I cleaned and refilled their waterer, and topped of their feeder.  We walked back to the coop in Pied Piper fashion, and after dropping the containers off I turned to head back to the house.  It was then that I realized I hadn’t collected eggs in a couple of days.  

Okay, here’s the conundrum.  Just two days in the spring means I’ve got nearly a dozen eggs to carry back to the house.  Mind you, the house is only 40 feet away, but I’m a guy…no, I don’t want to walk up, get the basket, and walk back to the coop, thank you very much.

I have on a fleece pullover, though.  A pullover with big pockets.  I pulled 4 eggs out of the first nesting box, slid them into a pocket, and reached back to the next box and pulled out three more.  Those went into the other pocket.

You’re thinking I’m about to make a mess, aren’t you?  No, I didn’t.  This isn’t my first chicken rodeo.

As I pulled the last few eggs out of the third box and transferred them into the first pocket, I was careful. Really careful.

My hand went into the pocket, and as I heard the eggs make that indescribable sound (clink? thunk? click? chink?) as they settled in together, I was instantly carried back to the hallway outside of my classroom during my first year of teaching.

I had just left my room, heading toward the front of the school on some errand that I’ve long since forgotten.  What I’ll never forget, though, is that one of my students, a tiny, quiet, impossibly-shy wisp of a girl, was walking toward me with tears streaming down her face.  Her little body shook with each sob, and as I approached her I scanned to see what had to be some sort of grievous injury.  

I didn’t see anything obviously wrong, so I knelt down beside her (I was nearly four feet taller than she was–she really was a small third-grader) and asked her what was wrong. It took a few minutes, but finally she calmed down enough to tell me that her egg broke.

Full stop.  What?

“My egg broke.”  As she spoke, she moved her hand toward the hem of her simple, white cotton pullover shirt.  A shirt made in a fashion quite similar to the one I’m wearing this morning.  A different material, definitely a different size, but the same general idea.  A shirt just right for carrying an egg in the pocket.

Carrying an egg, not to save a few dozen steps, but to be just like one’s older sister.  The older sister in high school.  The older sister doing that activity where she cares for a raw egg in order to get a glimpse of the responsibilities of protecting a baby.  

As I followed her hand down the front of her body, my eyes settled on what was a growing patch of yellow, damp cloth, moving up and down with each gasping sob.

You learn how to be a teacher in college, right?  Suuure you do.

That Darn Tree

It’s what appears to be an early spring here in north Alabama, and while most trees are still bare, new green is everywhere. The daffodils have bloomed and are already on their way out, crocus blossoms can be spotted here and there, and even some early wildflowers have made their appearance. Despite all that, we’re still in what is only the first week of March. The gorgeous pink that will appear with the advent of the redbuds and cherries is still in the (albeit near) future, and the iconic magnolias have yet to let their flowers show.

But the Bradford pears…oh, the Bradford pears.

Bradford pear trees (a cultivar of the Callery pear) command attention throughout the southeastern United States, just as they soon will in regions further north.  Their white flowers, dense upon the branch, cause them to stand out on hillsides so as to be seen from an incredible distance.  These trees are not unlike the regional crepe myrtle in that many people love them (their flowers are striking; they’re easy and fast to grow) and an equal number of people loathe them.  Aside from their many flaws as a tree (they’re easily damaged by wind; their dense foliage prevents much from growing beneath them), they’re an invasive species that spreads quickly.

Why, you might be asking, are they a slice of my life?

Flowers have one primary purpose: Seeds.  Lots of flowers; lots of seeds.  Lots of flowers; lots of p o l l e n.  

Okay, I’m a science teacher, and I understand that Bradford pear trees are primarily pollinated by insects.  That means, amongst other things, that their pollen is typically not an airborne nuisance.  I understand that my allergies (argh!) are probably not caused by Bradford pear trees.  

I don’t care.  It’s irrational, but I don’t care.  I can’t breathe, my eyes have been puffy for a week, and I’m buying facial tissue by the truckload.  Allergy meds are my friends.  

Can’t I just direct my ire at the most visible target?  

No, I really shouldn’t.

Honestly, they are a terrible tree, but beautiful in their own way.  

Besides, it gets worse: Just wait for pine pollen.

Today, I’m Glad I’m Not a Dog

I know it’s a little thing, but I’m glad I get to go potty in the house.  Our dog, on the other hand, enjoys no such luxury.  Not that she doesn’t occasionally cross that line, but certainly not with the blessing of either my wife or me.

As with most of the southeastern United States, it’s rained in Alabama quite a bit over the last few days.  To be fair to Maggie, our dog, “quite a bit” is somewhat of an understatement.  It’s rained a lot; nearly six inches in the surrounding area.  You know it’s going to be real when the National Weather Service issues a flood warning before the first drop falls.

After two solid days of rain, our back yard is a mess that’s a few inches deep in some places, complete with a stream that’s floated a canoe before (we just had to try).  The subdivision developer clearly favored our neighbor’s property.  

This morning, as I have many times before, I put Maggie on her leash, bracing myself for the disbelieving look of betrayal that comes with the back door opening instead of the front.  We went outside into what was a heavy drizzle, me leading the way in a resolute show of solidarity, searching for and finding high ground.  A mournful look, a shake or two, and a distracted stare at what must have been a squirrel in the mist: All of those had to take place before the eventual crouch.

And then we were back through the door.  A solid shake, a cookie, and all was well in the world.  Until, that is, I get home from school.  Here’s hoping that approaching front passes through early.

Ch Ch Ch Ch Changes

I’m writing this on an Apple MacBook Air.  I’ve never been an Apple person (honestly, because during the early years I couldn’t afford to go that route and I became comfortable with the other mainstream alternatives), but here I am, stumbling through “command” instead of “control” shortcuts and wondering why the red X to close a window is on the left side of the screen instead of the right.  Why am I on a Mac?  Because “the district” gave me one to use, so I’m learning it through hands-on practice.  Why did the district give me one?  Because I’ve got a new position and I need a laptop to work as I move from school to school.  

Wait a minute.  I’ve got a new position?  I thought I was a third grade teacher!

You’ve heard it said, I’m sure, that one should never pray for patience.  Patience will come, it’s said, but only through experiencing more trials than any person should have to endure.  The last month or so has been like that for me, but instead of patience I’ve gained the ability to handle change.  Change.  

Okay, I’m gaining the ability to handle change.  I’m not quite there, yet, but I’m getting closer.

I’ve taught third grade (before I go any further, I really prefer to say I teach students who are in the third grade, but that sort of gets awkward to both write and read after a while) for 11 years.  It’s all I’ve ever taught, and I fully intended to do so until I retired in another 100 years or so.  As the last school year came to an end, though, two of my co-teachers found themselves making a change within the school.  One was happy with her change, and the other wasn’t, but as I tried to encourage them I found myself thinking that maybe I could also break out of my comfort zone if the opportunity arose.

And then it did.

A STEM coach position within the district was posted.  I applied.  I interviewed.  And just like that, I’m writing on a MacBook instead of my Chromebook.  This is only a temporary position, and I plan to go back into the classroom in a few years, but for now it’s what I do.

Change.  It’s new, but I can do this.  I’m not, by the way, praying for patience.  I’ve got enough going on, thank you very much.

Show Biz

I’ve learned a few things over the last few days.  Way up on the list of things I’ll remember?  If someone asks whether or not you can catch a bicycle, they’re almost certainly going to throw one at you.  Without looking.  More than once, in fact, until it’s done perfectly.  I’ve also learned shooting video in a green screen environment is fun, and that I want to do it again!

Early Saturday morning I found myself on the set for the shooting of a new Steve Trash science video, this one covering the water cycle.  Steve (whose non-stage name is Richerson) is a world-traveling “illusionist, eco-entertainer, kid comedian, and environmental educator,” as his website reads.  He’s world traveling, but his roots are in north Alabama, as is his love for teaching others about the environment.  Hence the early-morning video shoot at a small studio in the city of Florence, Alabama.

The video opens with a question: “The water cycle: What is it?”  Before he gives the correct answer, the sight gag involves three wrong answers: A tiny bicycle, a unicycle, and a popsicle.  It was decided the first two of those three things would come to him through the air (not so much with the popsicle).  That’s where I got to help.

After a few quick run-throughs, we were ready to go.  

Andrew, the assistant director, stepped to the front of the stage, filling the screen of the video monitor.  After looking to see if everyone was ready, he started the litany I’d hear over and over throughout the morning.


And Damien, the sound engineer, replied with, “Rolling.”


And Danny, the videographer, replied with, “Rolling.”

“Steve Trash, Water Cycle, scene 1 take 1.”  Then Andrew did that cool thing with the clapboard–Just Like In The Movies!

Morgan, the studio manager, read through Steve’s lines one last time before he went into character and performed them.  Andrew, having put down the clapboard, picked up the tiny bicycle as Steve started.

“The water cycle: What is it?” Steve asked.

As Steve was saying “what,” Andrew was in his backswing with the tiny bicycle in order to get the timing right. Without looking, Steve’s arms came up and to the left to catch the prop that had just been thrown to him.  

With just the right amount of exasperation, Steve said, “That’s not the water cycle, that’s a tiny bicycle!”

And then he threw it off camera to his right, into my waiting arms.  I passed it down to another volunteer, JB, and quickly prepared to catch the next wrong answer.

With just-right comedic timing, Andrew lobbed in a full-sized unicycle–that’s right, a unicycle.

“That’s not the water cycle, that’s a unicycle!”

And then Steve threw it off camera at me, er, I mean, to me.

Okay, just a few quick observations: First of all, those tiny bicycles–you know, the kind that you see clowns riding, their knees up beside their cheeks–are heavy!  I mean, 20 or 25 pounds heavy.  I think my full-sized bicycle is lighter than those things.  Second, bicycles and unicycles have parts that move when they’re thrown.  Andrew’s job was to throw them in a manner that minimized the chance of Steve catching an errant pedal the wrong way, Steve’s job was to catch them while appearing not to look in their direction, and my job was to catch them after he threw them without looking at either them or me before he tossed.  My final observation: it was a lot of fun, and I’d do it again at the drop of a magician’s hat.

My job done, the scene continued as Andrew slowly handed a popsicle to Steve, with only his arm visible to the camera.

“That’s not the water cycle, that’s a popsicle!”  As the popsicle (not thrown to me this time) slowly moved back off camera, it paused expectantly.  “Okay, okay, you can eat it,” Steve told his off-camera assistant.

His face and eyes turning back to the camera, Steve paused for a moment to facilitate later editing.


With that last word from Steve (wearing his director’s hat which still looked exactly like a steampunk top hat), the scene was over.  One scene down, leaving somewhere around 60 to go!

Being involved with this project, even in a small way, was a lot of fun.  Steve’s efforts for the environment are multifaceted, but all are geared toward helping people build an awareness of their personal impact on our natural world–the only one we’ve got.  As a teacher, I want to dig into my own bag of tricks to help my students develop that same awareness.  That said, the bicycle was fine, but I hope his next video doesn’t involve one of those cannons…


Note: Within the next few weeks you’ll be able to watch this video along with Steve’s others at



Thank you, Betsy Hubbard, for these words in your post announcing this week’s Slice of Life: “There is always something in our mind or on our heart that we can write about.”  This slice is just that: What’s in my mind and heart this day.

When I stop to think about it, the best example of personal growth I’ve seen since committing to writing on a regular basis is my ability to recognize the stories that go on around me all the time.  They’re everywhere, which, I suppose, is the whole idea behind the “Slice of Life” story challenge.  We live it–now we need to write about it and share our stories.

This week has been no exception.  I’ve experienced big stories that practically write themselves: Exploring wood firing kilns with my artist friend, taking my granddaughters (a wealth of stories, they are) to see the dinosaur exhibit at the local botanical garden, and surviving as a bachelor with my wife out of town are all worthy of writing about.  I’ve experienced countless small stories: Helping a friend through a minor crisis, purchasing a trailer through Facebook messenger, and any number of student stories all come to mind.  Okay, buying the trailer sight unseen might be a big story.

None of those, though, are resonating with me this week.  I wish they were…really, I do.  My mind, it seems, is spinning and I can’t get it to slow down (now that I think about it, wrapping up a school year might have something to do with this…).

As I go on, this isn’t a political post, though it has been inspired through the events of the last week.  Please don’t read too deeply, looking for a position on my part.  This isn’t the place for me to share that sort of thing.

I remember when I was a young junior in college.  Young, as in my late thirties (teaching is a second career).  I was floored by being introduced to the concept of critical thinking and critical literacy.  The ideas weren’t new, and I believed I’d always tried to practice both of them (don’t we all?); what was amazing to me is that they were actually things–things that some people did, things that some people didn’t do, and things that needed to be taught.  Objectivity, people, objectivity.

In the nearly 15 years since I’ve had this awareness, I’m regularly blown away by just how difficult it is for most people I encounter (me included, I’m sure) to think and consume information critically.  It’s hard to be objective; it’s hard to see the other side of any story; it’s hard to be empathetic when an opposing view is in your face.

Read the news lately?

Like many teachers, questions are a huge part of my life.  My two favorites, I tell my students, are “Why?”  and “So what?”  I regularly marry those questions with words that gain more and more importance as I continue to grow older.  Attributed to Mary Lou Kownacki and brought to me by Fred (Mr.) Rogers, they are, “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve heard their story.”

As much as possible, I let those questions and words shape how I see the world around me, how I think and consume information critically.  They help me to stop and understand “the other side.”

May we stop.  May we think.  May we love.  Let it start anew with me.


Note: Since posting this, I had someone ask me what I was talking about when I mentioned the Slice of Life Story Challenge.  Here’s a link so you can check it out:

Reading the Stories the Land Has to Tell

As the rain slowed to a gentle mist and the last bit of daylight faded from the north Alabama sky, a river otter stood next to a small pool of water just off a tributary of Limestone Creek.  Confident in its apparent solitude, it dropped into the water and quickly swam to the other side, its powerful tail allowing it to cross in just seconds.  Recognizing the easiest path available, it left the water and stepped onto the smooth mud of a beaver slide that was worn between the pool and the nearby creek.

Not quite running, it moved at a quick pace with a sense of self assurance.  It slowed and ducked slightly as it passed beneath a low-lying branch, its right front paw crushing a tiny plant into the soft mud as it did so.  Having cleared that small obstacle, the otter moved quickly once again up the slight incline of the slide before flowing gracefully into the dark, cool waters of the creek.  It disappeared with hardly a ripple as it went on its way, watching for predators as it sought prey of its own.

That’s what the story says, anyway.  The story written in the mud of that particular beaver slide.

I was recently able to spend a morning learning basic tracking skills from Nick Sharp, a friend who’s a wildlife biologist with Alabama’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.  He and I both serve on the Land Trust of North Alabama’s environmental education committee, and we were spending time together preparing for an upcoming children’s workshop.  He’s the expert on tracking, and I’ve got a bit of experience translating adult-level material down for an elementary-aged audience.   

I’ve always enjoyed being outdoors and know a thing or two about temperate hardwood forests, but this was a new and eye-opening experience for me as I’m now able to see things I couldn’t see before.

We started our morning together with Nick quickly walking me through some printed resources he uses with adult learners.  After a short discussion about how they could be used with children, we were off, heading across an open field and into the woods to see what we could see.  

Evidence of animals in the wild falls into two broad categories: tracks and signs.  Tracks are just that–footprints cast into soft dirt, sand, or snow.  Signs, however, can be so much more, and are plentiful in comparison to tracks. As we traversed the countryside, Nick’s words and tutelage helped me read the stories the land had to tell.

When an animal moves through grass and other vegetation, it bends and breaks the plants in the direction of its travel.  This is called flagging.

Flagging was easy to see as we started walking across the field we shared with a small herd of cattle.  I certainly didn’t have the ability to follow the trail of a single animal from the herd, but the experience was akin to reading from a children’s book and gave me the basics that I’d be able to apply later in the morning.  We saw flagging again later, this time apparently caused by deer or armadillos.  It wasn’t nearly as easy to see, but there it was once I knew what to look for.

The way this vegetation is shredded lets you know that deer probably browsed here.  Deer don’t have teeth in the front of their top jaw.  They have a hard palate that they use with the teeth on their lower jaw.  This means they can’t bite cleanly when they eat.

It was neat to think and learn about the ways animals find food and eat.  Larger squirrels like the grey and fox squirrels will chew the shells of different nuts to pieces.  It’s not uncommon to find the shell pieces of harder nuts like black walnuts, while softer nuts like acorns may be shredded. Smaller rodents like flying squirrels, chipmunks, and mice can’t begin to do that kind of damage to a nut, but will chew holes in the sides and eat the nut meat through them.  Deer browse, shredding vegetation as they go, but beavers and other, smaller rodents shear vegetation at a near-45 degree angle.  Squirrels dig small holes the size of a saucer as they bury and dig up hidden nuts, armadillos disrupt the soil and vegetation of an area the size of a dinner table, and wild hogs basically plow areas the size of the whole dining room–and then some.  

What we’re doing is reading the woods…reading the forest.

The story was fascinating as we did just that: read the narrative that was laid out before us.  Whether it was dissecting bird droppings or tracing the oft-traveled trail of an armadillo, the tale of the otherwise unseen was there for us to decode.  Examining the chewed bark of a squirrel stripe on a tulip poplar and spotting hair plucked from the tail of a passing horse by a protruding branch all helped us piece together the recent past as if we had been there to witness it.  Even listening to the warning chirp of a distant chipmunk gave us a sense of the fauna all around us.  

If you get the chance, take a walk and open your eyes in a new way.  You’ll be glad you did.


Note: The ideas expressed in italics are Nick’s, but the paraphrase is mine.  I’m sure the lessons were expressed more clearly when he gave them.



An Old Friend of Sorts

It’s the busy season for teachers, isn’t it?  As May gets underway, we’re preparing for the end-of-the-year everything: Report cards, parties, assessments, lessons, sanity savers…the list goes on.  In the busy-ness of things, it’s nice to have a moment of calm pop up every once in a while.

I oftentimes start my mornings in our school car-rider line, helping direct traffic and keep kids safe.  One of the bright spots of the spring (and there are many) is the first red-winged blackbird of the year.  They usually show up around late March, and I love it when I hear one sing his song to me after the months of absence.  I listened to one just this morning, and it inspired me to bring out this poem to go with my short introduction.

Red-winged Blackbird

It’s like seeing an old friend

Across a crowded room
Across a field at woods’ edge

You know his voice
before you recognize his face
You know his voice
before you see him, just a glance

His carriage, familiar in a subconscious way
His tipped head, bringing a smile to your face

Remembering the walks, the talks, the dialog
Knowing this time you’re only there to listen

A moment shared before good byes
A brief time, ending in a flash

of red. Until next time, old friend

Pajama Shopping

As I’ve mentioned before, “tax season” is the busy time of the year for my wife.  She’s a tax preparer, so April 18th for her was the equivalent of the last day of school for me as a teacher–it’s time to take a deep breath and try to relax just a bit.  The next year is coming, but for now it’s time to slow down and catch up.

Our granddaughters have missed their Nana, who likes to spend the other ten months of the year seeing them considerably more than she has over the last two.  It’s not as if they haven’t seen each other, but it hasn’t been as much as any of them would like.  This year, as things started to draw to a close, my wife announced a treat for the end of the season: We would take the girls pajama shopping!

Now, for me, I didn’t really understand the excitement of going shopping for what in essence is an old pair of gym shorts and a past-its-prime t-shirt.

Okay, despite having never been a two- or three-year-old girl, I guess I did understand.  What was it going to be? Trolls have been popular, and My Little Pony is still high on the list of things that make their hearts beat faster.  Maybe a favorite color: pink for the older and purple for the younger.  Regardless, I knew that gym shorts and an old t-shirt wasn’t what they had in mind.

Tax season saw its last day pass, and it was finally shopping day.  If this was a movie, the day would have dawned clear and crisp with a light breeze to make it more exciting for the butterflies and flowers to dance in the air.  As it turned out, though, an unseasonably cool morning, a wind from the north, and a fine mist is what greeted us as we stepped out of the house.  Not quite one of Pooh’s blustery days, but not a beautiful spring morning, either.  

The shopping experience came and went, and a good time was–for the most part–had by all.  The three-year-old was just excited because somethingwashappeningsomethingwashappening! and the two-year-old turned out to be, well, two.  That’s okay, we had fun and made a memory, if not for them, then for us.  If our plans for next year hold out, we’ll be out there again in the middle of April with two children who are another year older, ready to go through a new selection of pjs in search of the just-perfect pair.  

Me? I’m so much more than happy with what I’ve got, thanks…and my pajamas are okay, too.

“I Love Hiking!”

There is not an audible whoosh when I slip my foot into one of my hiking boots.  I listen for it every time, but haven’t heard it yet.  There is, however, a deeply satisfying piston-like feeling as I grip the tongue of the boot with one hand, the fabric loop on the back with the other, and slide my foot in.  A few loops of the lace around the hooks, a just-tight-enough tug, and a quick knot has me ready to go.  That was part of the routine a few mornings ago as I got ready to hit the trail on one of my most memorable excursions in quite a while.  

Meeting the crew at the trail head half an hour later helped me know just how demanding this trip would be.  As I looked from Aaron, the seasoned Sierra Club hike leader, to Mike, recently transplanted to our area from the land of Colorado’s fourteeners, those 14,000 feet high behemoths of stone, I knew I was out of my league.  Then there was Heather, a veteran naturalist with plenty of her life spent in the wildernesses of our nation, and Erin, whose well-worn hiking boots gave testimony to her time putting one foot in front of the other along the paths of innumerable rocky elevations throughout the southeast United States.  Glancing down at my own boots and recognizing that I could only see their toes beneath my waistline (shrinking, thank you very much, but only slowly) didn’t help matters.  

Finally, there was the crew member who would soon reveal herself to be the true leader of our sojourn, not because of her experience or other bona fides, but simply through the force of her personality.  It was easy to recognize her as an experienced hiker because of her calm, I-belong-here demeanor.  I’m happy to say, though, that my butterflies eased a bit, and I found no small measure of solace as I read the graphic emblazoned across the front of her t-shirt.  It helped me know I’d be able to keep up with this most august group of trekkers.

“Wish, Dream, Sparkle,” with a wand-toting fairy flying alongside the words.

At four years old, this little hiker with the Velcro-fastened shoes was a force that had to be respected. That said, I knew I was going to be okay.

And I was.  We had a wonderful morning, hiking within a tract of land preserved by the local government and maintained by the Land Trust of North Alabama.  This hike was billed as “family friendly,” and it came about as a way to fill the need for activities that are slower and allow for folks to bring their younger children.  (Quick aside: I wasn’t exaggerating when I described the other members of our group–there really are many, many trail miles hiked among them.)

That day we experienced much of what the trail had to offer us during the few hours we spent hiking along it.  The color of the day was apparently purple, which suited our youngest companion just fine.  She quickly stated it was her favorite color, and based on her outfit I had no reason to doubt it.  We counted nearly 10 different flowers that were a shade of that particular hue, the most brilliant being a single crested dwarf iris–the only one we saw on the trail that day (crested, anyway).  Gorgeous.

While my memory and notes bring back plenty of reasons to smile, the single event that sticks out in my mind came as we were hiking up a relatively strenuous incline.  As we moved carefully from one limestone step to another, our youngest member–without prompting–suddenly burst out with a proclamation for the surrounding creation to hear: “I love hiking!”

I do too, young lady, I do too.  Thank you for taking me along.

Balance Rock resized
Balance Rock, one of the natural wonders we saw that day


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