Author Archives: toesinthedirt

About toesinthedirt

Teaching, writing, growing.

Classroom norms: Keep them simple, global, flexible.

It’s my fourth year teaching math and science at my parent partnership (school for homeshoolers). This year, happily, I have cycled back to teaching biology, after a year of chemistry and one of physics. Out go those files into temp storage, in comes my much bigger stock of biology books, props, and readings. Once again this year I teach Algebra 1 and Geometry and this year’s Algebra 2 is a regular course rather than just supporting home study. Friday classes are fun but much simpler, as I only have one class to prep, repeated twice each for groups of 3rd to fifth graders and 8th to eighth graders. This was another gift from my principal, who wants to reduce unnecessary stress for her team of very hard working teachers.She also spread my high school classes across Monday through Thursday rather than having them all on two days with the others being tutoring only.

Of course I start each year with a conversation about norms and expectations. One must lay the groundwork for a good community learning environment. Arising from the evolution of my teaching practice and seeing what is life-giving for student learning, my advice is: keep it simple and frame most of what you “require” students to do in terms of choices they make internally. Secondly, try to get most of the important stuff stored in their mental cupboards rather than on neat laminated posters on the wall..

Here’s what that looks life for me. Keep in mind that I teach mainly high school, but these things work well down to the level of my third graders.

I have classroom rules, values rather, framed in terms of two short phrases, posted in rainbow colors on the wall, “Be kind” and “Do your best.” Lately I’ve been thinking of rephrasing the second one to “Do quality work.” A previous iteration was “Work hard,” but the word “hard” doesn’t really bring out the ideal of work being a desired and enjoyable challenge.

At the beginning of the year, I briefly point out these rules, explaining that if they are wondering whether something is okay to do or say, they should consider the two values and see what fits, and if not sure, I and the rest of the community will help out.

I’ve heard it advised that teachers democratically work out a list or rules for each class, making a list and posting it. The idea is the students will come up with what the teacher wants anyway because we all gravitate to natural law. This has seemed sensible to me in the past, but now I don’t even bother fleshing it all out at the beginning; I just ask that they work it out as we go, except for the non-negotiable management- and safety- related requirements such as signing out to leave the classroom, which is a school rule we have found necessary. I told them it’s in case of emergencies, but mostly it’s to track possible bathroom vaping patterns.

The advantage of this streamlined approach centered around a few global values is that it eliminates the clear, impersonal  boundaries that certain students are naturally inclined to spend precious energy and creativity challenging. Instead they use their intelligence (more in future n believing in your students’ intelligence) to create personal boundaries that flex as needed to maintain values about which there is generally no debate.Then if you need to have further conversation due to students’ naughty or dumb choices (we all know that intelligence doesn’t keep us from being naughty or dumb), it can consist simply of clarifying how best to act more consistently with the two big rules/values.

On the other hand, the disadvantage (some might call it a disadvantage, though personally I call it an adventure) is that interpretations can vary and working things out might require a teacher to let go of a few things. For example, in that initial conversation about what is okay to say to another student might acknowledge that teasing can be okay among friends who build their relationship that way, but not okay with others.

But doesn’t this confuse students if they do not have a clear idea of what is expected of them? Yes. But, I say, give them some practice in that, for heaven’s sake–in life, they’ll need it.

Leave a comment

Posted by on September 15, 2019 in Education, Relationships


Tags: , , ,

Match #2 first date reflections, anticipation of meeting Match #3

I went in with no particular expectations, except that I’d get to meet someone with whom I had very much enjoyed communicating via text, who was light-hearted, intelligent, creative, and had a great sense of humor. I thought he might be glib, too goofy at the expense of being grounded, or optimistic to the point of not being able to handle sad conversations or allow others to process in a different way.  I thought that being eight years older could be a problem. And I thought that I’d be ambivalent at best.

We met at a pub mid-way between our towns on a humid afternoon. As I walked in there was no sign of him. He had warned me that he looked different than his profile, having now with no beard and shorter hair, but I thought I remember his twinkling eyes, and that he’d know me. I recognized one of the bartenders, and he recognized me, seemingly–Bellingham? I said? Oh, he’d worked at the food co-op previously, where I’d been shopping for decades. As I was chatting with him someone appeared in my peripherals, and I turned, and there were the twinkling eyes. He looked delighted and gave me a hug, for which I was barely able to prepare myself. Surprising, but really, perfect, I thought. I must start all my dates this way–after all, all of us a hug-deficient at the very least.

The positive energy and fun sparkled out of him. The “Woohoo!” with which he had ended each text message fit him like a mantra. Not in a shallow, party-party, Pollyanna way, but in a child-like delight in the adventures of life and what one can create in and from what one is given. Of course, everyone has his pain and melancholy, however carried, and it’s important to look into, but this was definitely going to be an enjoyable, non-awkward meeting.

He moved over to my side of the booth, assuring me he wasn’t putting moves on me, but that the ambient sound was making it hard for him to hear my quiet voice. The waitress asked if we were ready–he announced that this was our first date, and it seemed to be going well so far. She was unimpressed. We talked, sipped our drinks, shared our fries, and got a sense of each other. I felt myself opening to the chemistry available between us. The age difference seemed less important. But the planned date with Friday’s man kept this in check, and my heart did not fly off in all directions. A good balance.

I don’t remember what I shared–basics, enthusiasms, a little history, and the intangibles– what I find worthwhile, life giving, humorous, meaningful. All in a preliminary way. It began to pour outside–the pub was steamy, and I’d worn corduroys. I learned that he thrived on his close friendships, had done everything he could to preserve a marriage in which his wife had been steamrolled by health problems, that he was fighting some causes important to him. I learned he could talk freely about anything, and make others comfortable. I learned he had multiple interesting activities in his life and that he was not particularly needy, nor looking to create meaning and focus from a now-empty life. He was gentlemanly, wanting to know me personally and introduce himself to me. Hints and innuendos were minimal and appropriate.

We went for a walk once the rain had ebbed. Here, as with most of the date, our views of one another were side-long. As dusk approached we decided to head our separate ways, gave each other another friendly hug, and he said he’d like to see me again, and to ponder on that. I mentioned I was seeing a new person on Friday, but would keep him in mind. He wished me luck.

I drove home in the new wave of drizzle, smiling–how nice to meet new friends and enjoy good company. How nice to feel interesting and appreciated. And as far as that “going on adventures” thing so often included in online dating profile notes was concerned, this guy was himself the adventure–I could see this in the whole way he approached his life and times with others.

And, I have to admit, how sweet to now fully anticipate Friday’s encounter, for which I had great expectations and fantastic imaginations. Yes, they felt unrealistic, but I was feeling magic, as if I really could make things happen.

I have always considered myself a head-trusting person, as opposed to heart. Emotions as servants, not master. INTP woman, Gemini sun, Pisces moon. And other than some emotional/mental infatuations late in my twenty-four year marriage that I had patiently waited out until they fizzled, I had not “fallen in love” or developed any infatuation that I was allowed to acknowledge to anyone for over a quarter century. So now I plunged in, head sending cautionary whispers, but also, in a way–saying: Go ahead, enjoy–I’ll help you put yourself back together again if you get broke. I remembered the few broken times from similar unrequited loves in the more distant past–all the way back to seventh grade–and thought, that kind of pain is not as damaging as pain from a long period of alienation within a relationship anyway.

All this was having a strange effect physically. I was energetic, but light-headed. Had strength and endurance for more swims, runs, bike rides and even house cleaning than ever, but my legs felt weak and shaky much of the time, and my heart rate would sometimes be elevated for hours at a time, especially after a text , email, or even a profile viewed message by Match #3. Blood pressure elevated too, probably, though normally it’s very low. I wondered if this was good for my health (other than the extra exercise it was leading to). Do hopeful guys go through something similar, or are they able to compartmentalize? Maybe it’s just my personality? Hormones? All of the above?

Friday was to be a hike up a mountain trail to a lake and back, a shared picnic, half way again, though this time that was further afield. He knew all the trails, had all the passes, and we established a meeting place. I would bring currant cider, tomatoes and berries, he something to pair.




Tags: ,

First date and reflections

What happened was that he met me at my car, and I immediately knew that it was not a match. How? Why? Something in my psycho-bio-social criteria that I cannot pin down. Yes, I know that in normal circumstances, attractions develop slowly, when people are throw together often, for example, and such snap judgments could be considered unwise. But that’s not the way it can work in online dating. More than anything, from that point forward, all my efforts went toward making sure he felt comfortable and appreciated and yet not send any flirtatious signals that might make the inevitable let-down more painful, in case he still had hope.

We entered the restaurant, found our table and ordered a drink and appetizers. I felt like I was with a colleague or relative, without of course the familiarity. I regretted wearing the slightly form fitting top. I hoped he was sensitive to my perceived flaws. I wanted to be warm but not too warm interested but not to interested. I decided to up my height parameters a little, in case that was it.

This is not about describing him–that would be a breach of privacy even without identifying information. But I do want to explore the reasons for my immediate and final judgment that there would be no “chemistry” between us. And maybe find a way to make a negative first impression less likely; at least to allow a slow development of impressions; at least to learn to wait until the initial inevitable awkwardness at first meeting could wear off. Is anyone themselves in those moments? Not the self that they will be ever thereafter if allowed to continue the relationship, so how could I somehow arm myself to ignore, surmount, or at least allow the possible transformation of those instinctive feelings?

In this case I found myself unconcerned with whether he felt the same. It was irrelevant, although I would have been uncomfortable had he started to send signals of heightened interest or that he wanted to go deeper. That wasn’t his style, fortunately–I mentioned in the last post that I had appreciated his self restraint in messages; he was also somewhat careful in person. I believe he read something that showed in my eyes at our car side meeting, and that the rest was a formality, a casual conversation, respectful and without romantic potential. We talked about his work, lifestyle, literature, and a little about our former spouses.

As the alcohol in his Margarita and my cider helped us relax, the conversation at least flowed better, we laughed a little, and I can say I enjoyed the meeting of minds. The waitress at first checked in way too often, thinking we would want to order a meal. Neither of us made a move there. We mostly discussed him, but that was okay, and might have been a mutual decision. I didn’t think too much about what additional signal I’d give that this would be our last date, but then it just slipped in and was said as if by magic, and I believe in a gentle enough way. During a pause after some humorous agreement, I said, “I think we’re too alike.” He replied, “Maybe. I don’t know how any of this works.” “Me neither,” I smiled, ruefully. Then we chatted a little longer, eventually signaled the waitress, agreed to split the bill, paid, and left.

He walked me to my car, we thanked each other for being willing to meet, agreed that it had been enjoyable, and parted.

I felt both relief and regret. This is what he’d been talking about when he’d written this was so hard, and a little heartbreaking. Still, it was a good introduction for me: a caution to reign in my fantasies, not let this dating thing impact my lifestyle, and not give up, since trial and miss was part of it. Online dating a good, painful massage for the ego, I think, too. It will take courage to persist, but hope and optimism will spur me on.

I’m glad I was careful in messages not to indicate undue hope or interest, or at least show interest only in what I could actually know–what he chose to express in words, and gratitude for giving this a chance. I made mental note to adjust my dress and grooming to portray my real style but emphasize my countenance, and a little about general fitness, rather than my figure. I would not, as some would advise, wear red.

Tomorrow I have a date with a different fellow; let’s call him Match #2. There are red flags already, though not with his personality, which seems great–it’s just that I forgot about my age and height filters before liking his profile and responding to messages. That helps with keeping my expectation bubble from rising. I’ve suggested happy hour at a pub midway between our towns, again with no expectation of a long dinner or walk afterwards. He’s pretty funny, so I feel it will be comfortable, and hope for the best. My daughter thinks this one is the coolest, but I’m not really feeling it that way. Just as well, I suppose, considering the emotional roller coaster I put myself through last time.

The real challenge is corralling my thoughts about a third first Friday with Match #3, someone whose communications and photos I find more intriguing than any so far, and who has expressed the same about mine. I cancelled on someone to meet him. My main concern, if any, is the geographical distance between us. There’s also the fact that he seems to be a go, go, go extremely active guy. While I like that in the sense that in this new stage I’m wanting to explore the trails and get out biking and paddling more than I have in the past, I also know that I am very grounded in my home and garden in spring through fall, so maybe I’m not as active as this kind of guy would go for. I’m kind of testing myself by doing a lot more physical activity outings solo, and it feels great. So we’ll see.

Another reality I’ve been mulling over is that I think we fifty-somethings have in our minds a younger image of our mates than is realistic. I suspect that’s even more the case with men. We last fell in love with someone much younger. Can a fifties to sixties man accept that a woman in his age category will have crow’s feet, worry and frown lines, sags and tags and eye bags at least to some degree? I have as a caution alluded to these in my texts, but he is nonplussed. Will he be able to focus on what there is of beauty of expression, motion, character, spirit?




Getting ready for the first date in the second half of life: a study in unrealistic expectations

I wanted to give it all, almost–my personal email, my blog URL, a good view of my shapely enough figure. The written exchanges were so… right, so warm and yet appropriate, intelligent with no posturing, appreciative with no flattery. In his reticence, I read alluring self-restraint. In his simple sentences I read deep thought and care about using words in the most frugal and powerful way. An unleashed ability to be passionate. In his serious expression and seeming reluctance to smile in the few photos he posted, I read authenticity–who can criticize someone who has not trained themselves to grin at a camera, who can only manage an “Ah shucks, okay I’ll try half smile? I appreciated his regular, but not too frequent, replies, and how he referenced the content of my messages intelligently and sometimes connected them with his own thoughts and experiences. In his references to heartbreak I read tenderness, a willing to be vulnerable, even be hurt, and I admired his courage to try again. I placed his personal rule of not letting online dating interfere with his lifestyle at the forefront of my mind. And it start to gather dust.

I thrilled at his allusion to having considered mooring his boat in my area, of having applied for positions here in the past. I drew him out. I encouraged him to meet. Yes, I agreed; this was hard, but one had to give it a chance. Yes, one could have one’s expectations disappointed, find that one person felt differently than the other, not sense the necessary chemistry. But what else was there to do? audentis Fortuna iuvat and all that.

He suggested a dockside dive in a half way town, said he had a boat project to work on, nothing too ambitious. I was jittery, excited, excitable. I refrained from frothing over to my kids, who supported me in my online dating venture, but for whom this was too new, and they’d rather not have the play-by-play. But my oldest daughter was patient with my need to bubble over a little, and said she’d help me pick out my outfit. She cautioned against red, and said that a plaid shirt, even a cute one worn with a skirt, looked like dressing down.

I had been checking online several times a day, feeling that rush of dopamine, knowing it was foolish to allow myself to get worked up, but at the same time savoring this long-dormant feeling. And why not? My friend Pink Poet texted, “Do you feel sixteen again?” She let me tell all, said it was welcome alternative drama to the tension of her current marriage situation. I told her that for some reason I was more drawn to this guy that to either of the others with whom I’d arranged meetups–the tall, bearded Hispanic romance writer, or the curly gray-haired designer-sculptor who made me laugh, let loose my wry sense of humor, and ended every message with “Whoo-hoo!”

The day of the early dinner date dawned. I puttered around all morning, avoided digging in the garden to keep my fingernails clean, repainted my toenails, put the laundry through and worried that my sweater wouldn’t be dry in time. I skipped my morning exercise so as to have more energy later, especially since I hadn’t slept well the night before. I picked berries to pull out for a surprise dessert. Distractedly scrolled through the matches of the day online, sent some “currently following some other leads, which is enough for now, but thanks for reaching out, and good luck with your search” messages. I wondered whether I should have purchased a shorter membership after all.

The time to head south drew near. I dressed, tidied my hair, chose a slightly form-fitting black sleeveless top and striped rose colored linen pants one might throw on after a day in the sun. I thought of my daughter’s claim that pants with a pattern made anyone’s butt look good.

My mind continued to spin–images, feelings, imaginings seemingly unstoppable. I cautioned myself, tried to maintain some kind of realism. It was expectations that disappointed, after all, not reality. Though I felt attractive enough, I remembered that my efforts to get a good selfie at times made me think of Silvia Plath’s “hideous fish.” I reminded myself to smile fully, not nervously covering my teeth, an old habit I picked up as a teen when I was insecure about them. I decided on my first few words: “It’s the real person, finally” or something, a hand clasp, like a friend rather than a colleague. I imagined the locking of eyes, the wordless reaching out of hands, a kind of recognition. I packed a travel toothbrush and clean underwear, because who knew? gushed my hormones.

As I pulled out of my driveway, I saw a jar of sweet peas on the roadside stand my son and I had set up. Suddenly my eyes filled with tears. It felt like the beginning of the breaking of my bond with my longtime husband, now gone almost a year.



Tags: ,

Parenting by extension: siblings carry the baton for each other

My grown kids out for Frisbee and coffee, by daughter #1

My oldest kids are old enough to start giving me advice about parenting my youngest son, and to some degree my youngest daughter, though she’s already eighteen and has considered herself an adult for many years and not subject to parenting efforts.

They give pretty good, advice, too. My husband and I seeded some of it, but now it’s filtered through how they experienced it, highlighting any of the wisdom it has borne out in their lives.

For example, my oldest daughter is the most similar in personality to my youngest, is good friends with him, and can offer a new voice, and help me be patient while her younger brother takes his sweet time to learn life’s lessons. She also comes alongside him, mentoring him in her oddball humor way. She’s taken him shopping for clothes, encouraged him on dating (that it’s fine not to in high school–many sensible people don’t), listens, fascinated, to his bubbling over of what he’s learning about history and politics, and helps keep up his spirit when life is stressful. She also backs me up on the issues of nutrition, fitness, and computer games-life balance.

My oldest son confirms the wisdom of just putting in the word consistently but gently and then letting his brother ruminate on its  possible application in his life, until ready. This was illustrated in the surprise turnabout my youngest made on how he’s spend his sophomore and senior education dollars. He was firmly committed to remaining in his high school, with his friends, to go the traditional route. I said that’s fine, but required him to at least attend the information session for Running Start to be sure he was well informed in his decision. He came out with the packet, said it had confirmed him in his decision not to enroll, and I was satisfied.

The next day he announced that he had decided to do Running Start after all. Whatever was holding him back–certainly not any fears about academic readiness, but probably including discomfort at losing contact with his friends–had been processed, and surmounted. His siblings, having experienced Running Start for themselves with positive results, slapped him on the back and affirmed his decision.

He also told me he had decided to rejoin the high school swim team. I showed muted enthusiasm at this, knowing that he had quit a month into the previous season. Probably due to what was going on with his dad’s cancer–that was the first fall after his body succumbed, and this boy had enough to deal with. My son wisely adjusted his course load too, as well as turning down a study abroad and internship opportunity that year. But his confidence has returned, which is very heartening. He sure will miss seeing his dad in the stands–as busy as he was with work, he hardly ever missed a meet. I’ll pretty sure all five of us will be cheering all the harder.

We’re also doing some patient waiting on my younger daughter’s growth. Her sister is her greatest friend, though the younger is less that committed when her age-mates come to call. She prefers to block out advice, then learn lessons the hard way. I just pray that she will remain essentially unharmed as she walks that rough road. For example, she recently had a collision (she says she was not at fault) without auto insurance–without having even activated her title registration after I filled out all the paperwork months ago to sign the car over to her. I’d given her several weeks of warning, told her what could happen without insurance, and then, with trepidation, cut her off my policy, partially honoring her stated wish that I get out of her life, and knowing she had the funds to take care of it if she managed right.

I appreciate the fact that neither older sibling is preaching at her. Her sister vents to me sometimes, especially when hurt in the roller coaster of being a friend to this young woman who burns so through life. The brothers shake their heads, but essentially there is just love and acceptance, reaching out, and patience to see the amazing life this woman will built with her strong spirit, good mind and, beneath it all, tender heart. There was that frequent “Keep your heart soft” mantra embedded in our parenting of all of them, often repeated by their dad, as he worked on his own heart. And, what my husband and I passed on from my own dad, to work on your own issues first.

I’m so glad to have the help. I said to my youngest, about cleaning up after him but with more iunderneath, “I’m just tired of doing this, J____.” Not really fair, and I am still committed to the most important parts of parenting, for the rest of my life, as needed. But it’s a relief to have part of the holy burden shared by these young, energetic travelers.



Tags: , , ,

And she doesn’t type!

I went to a writer’s conference on the weekend, half filled a notebook with useful tips, inspiring and otherwise helpful thoughts and perspectives and resources. Now I’ve started simple typing up everything that could become an essay, part of an essay, quotes, reflections, memories, poetry starts and dreams. All in one rough document, resisting almost all impulses to edit. It feels great–like a skim of my work, eanbling me to see what themes are most important to me, what questions arise again and again, how my thoughts and writing have developed. Already I’m getting a sense of direction, but for now I’m going to keep just being a typist (although I might actually hire someone for some of it, since I don’t type properly or very quickly.

For the last several months I’ve had mostly scorn and criticism for my writing attempts and kept stalling, getting annoyed, “shoulding on myself” even more for writing so little. Asking myself why, I figured that it was because I’d been more in contact with writers, of higher quality and greater accomplishment. As much as that was great for learning and aspiration, for my self esteem as a writer, not so much.

At the conference, I didn’t attend the “Silencing the Inner Critic” session, but I took the title as a reminder to do just that, to just let the words flow again. Like I learned when I was working hard to develop my drawing ability, I have to treat everything I start as just practice, just for me, to express, understand, see what I think. Still, as I copy out my starts, I am getting a sense that there’s some substance in some of my work even at this stage, that certain readers could value this stuff, when refined and possibly almost unrecognizable the offspring of all that early drafting process.

In other news, I joined a dating website. We’ll see how that goes. Fun so far; I’m in a conversation that arose about books and writing, for example. I clearly set out my low key approach, not being out to find a serious match, not feeling needy, just hoping for some enjoyable outings with new acquaintances based on shared interests and valued qualities.

I’m surprised at my level of confidence in my “ignore” versus “like” decisions. I simply decide based on a short blurb plus a few pictures. This surely will lead to some false negatives as well as some false positives, but there really is something in visually discerned potential chemistry, as well as in reading between the lines of the personal essay. I find myself sometimes giving grace, sometimes jumping to conclusions. So what if someone does the same based on my profile? That’s life, and I don’t believe in “the one” or want to put any pressure on myself to either find the one or be the one. It’s fun to court the possibilities, though.



Posted by on June 27, 2019 in Relationships, Writing



A conversation between two deaf men

One guy says to another guy in a coffee shop, a few tables away: “I’m looking for hearing aids from Thailand.”

“What’s that?”

“Hearing aids from Thailand.”


“But they’re all imported from Europe.”


“Europe. And they’re eighty dollars.”

“How much?”

“Eighty dollars. And you have trouble finding parts.”

“Trouble with what?”

“Getting parts.”

Leave a comment

Posted by on June 24, 2019 in Places & Experiences