Go At It Cattywumpus When You’ve Got to Teach Something New and Difficult: More Stories from Classrooms (and Families) That Work.

Cattywumpus is how Poet Laureate Ted Kooser says he gets at deeper understandings. By that he means that he uses metaphor to draw a line between two very dissimilar things.

The teachers I’m watching draw lines between what the kids know and stuff that’s new, different, and difficult. They use metaphor.

Families do this too:

We’d lost track of three-year-old Doug at the county fair.  It was only for a moment, but we’d been terrified.

Afterwards, Jack tells the older siblings, We need to keep better track of Doug. His list of how to keep track includes: Use your peripheral vision. Hold hands. Listen out for his voice. Keep track of what color shirt he’s wearing.

John and Rob, the middle brothers, aren’t getting it.

Sarah, the oldest, sighs, Guys! It’s like avoiding a pick. She turns to Jack, Right, Dad?

Sarah, John, Rob, and Jack played a lot of Two-On-Two. Two guard and the other two either block or attempt to dribble to the basket.  They watch and notice each other and yell Pick! Or Screen!  so the other guard, intent on staying with the dribbler, won’t crash into the blocker.  When one player bounces off a blocker because he has his eye on the dribbler and hasn’t been forewarned by his partner guard, Jack coaches them to look out for each other—to watch and be ready to ward off a block.

Light dawns in the boys’ eyes.

Here’s a list of metaphors I heard teachers use during just one day of my watching in their high-performing, high-poverty classrooms:

Reading the social studies chapter for the first time is like wrestling.

Lining up the numbers in long division with remainders is like stacking blocks.

We have to work together like we do in soccer.

You’ve got to show the setting like a movie would.  

Editing is like weeding the garden.

Graphing lines is like reading a road map.

Getting everyone to line up after recess is like herding cats, so here’s what we need to change…

You’ve got to use a 2-inch voice here.

Radio waves are like ripples of water.

Electricity flows through a wire like water through a pipe.

Kidneys are like your Dad’s gravel sorter.

Communication networks are like that spider web over there.

Let’s leave this behavior behind, just like that snakeskin we found on the rock out in the playground last week.

Writing an essay is like stacking up roof and walls, roof and walls, roof and walls.

Homeostasis is like walking up the down escalator at Macy’s.

Be like “Nate the Great,” look for clues.

Skipping this step in the math problem is like going from first to third.

Our brains are like huge rooms full of filing cabinets. To open them you need to ask yourself questions.

Each time I heard these metaphors and listened to the tiny explanation that went with it I saw light go on in the students’ eyes.

Cattywumpus works. Thanks, Ted.

Patty 11/28/11



“The best thing about Thanksgiving?

Family, friends and pie.



The best thing about the day after Thanksgiving?

Leftovers and The Ig Noble Awards.



The editors of the science humor magazine, Improbable Research, recognize the strange and the weird in the world of science. The journal is satirical, produced by scientists, mostly for scientists. Editor Marc Abrahams says, “It first makes people laugh, then makes them think.”

In America, science has a great day-after-Thanksgiving tradition. Faithful Science Friday listeners tune in for a heaping helping of silliness.



Ira Flatow has a passion for for science.  Plus, he’s a bit of a ham.

Flatow is the host of NPR’s Science Friday. Today he and Marc Abrahams, the Ig Master of Ceremonies, introduced listeners to the winners.  Speeches are brief.  The science is, well, silly.  Studies include, but are not limited to, the jumping abilities of various kinds of fleas, why any pile of string will inevitably tangle itself up into knots, techniques for collecting whale snot, cosmetic options available to neutered pets, and the effects of Viagra on jet-lagged hamsters. Science is a big tent. Seriously.



“Ignitaries”, a handful of real Nobel Laureates, and tons of amused spectators gather at Harvard to honor scientific achievements from the merely bemusing to the downright bizarre.  Along the way, there’s some throwing of paper airplanes, a Win-a-Date-With-A-Nobel-Laureate contest, and the appearance of Miss Sweetie Poo. The 21st Annual Prize Ceremony (this year’s theme is chemistry) features the science of sighs, inquiries into the yawning habits of the red-footed tortoise and songs about the chemistry of coffee.  And airborne wasabi.  Really.  Listen while you eat your leftovers.




Want to see the whole ceremony? It begins with a sword swallower followed by real smart guys singing The Elements. (Remember them from high school chem class?)



Most winners are pleased.  It’s a curious honor ~ it signifies you have done something people chuckle at.  More people hear about it, become curious, think about what you accomplished and, maybe, fall in love with it.



Like the Wasabi Fire Alarm. A taste of the stinging stuff sets off alarm bells on your tongue. A Japanese team took advantage of this for their real but really crazy-sounding invention, The Odor Generation Alarm and Method for Informing Unusual Situation. They waited until their test subjects were deeply asleep, and then filled the room with wasabi gas. Of the 14 test subjects—including four who were deaf—13 woke within 2 minutes. (It turned out that the fourteenth person had a blocked nose).

Wasabi ~ The Premier Waker-Upper.  Just one more thing to be thankful for.

Toni 11/25/11

The NBA and Those High-Achieving, High-Poverty Schools: A Mantra and a Story

The Red Sox disappoint, and so I look ahead to the Celtics which reminds me of a Celtics story that, in turn, reminds me of these high-achieving, high-poverty classrooms that I’m watching.

The teachers at this amazing school have a mantra. I see it on wall posters written in kid-handwriting. I hear it on the lips of the teachers and the kids themselves.

Use what you know to learn this new thing.


Ask yourself «what do I know that I can use to help me figure this out.»

Here’s a story that shows what happens when you don’t do this access-the-prior-knowledge thing:

What a funny license plate!

We were crammed in the car, idling with the rest of the Fleet Center crowd exiting the Celtics game. Jack and the kids rehash the missed shots and fouled plays, while I fixate on the framed-in-green Massachusetts plate of a white Cadillac loaded with men dressed in shiny emerald Celtics jackets. The bumper sticker shouts Celtic Pride!

Jum  Pheye…J..J…um…f-f-f-f…i….jum phee…  I gargle the letters, trying to decipher the license.

The game chatter stops. The backseat leans in to hear what I’m saying. Jack glances sideways at me, his eyebrow arched, a grin forming.

What are you saying, Mom?  Someone nudges my shoulder.  A rolled game program taps my head.

I duck, protesting that I’m onto something weird, pointing out the strange letter combination on the license.

Mom!! Are you kidding? 

You know this, Mom-lady!

I press my face closer to the windshield for a better look.  Searching for the reason why our car is erupting in laughter, wondering why I’m being teased.

I consider the car full of emerald green jackets, the Celtic Pride! bumper sticker, the Fleet Center parking lot, and finally the basketball game itself. I pull up what I know about such.

The letters morph, like magical puzzle pieces, into the words they always were. JUMPHI: JUMP HIGH.  I’m mortified.

Good thinking, Mom. Paroxysms of laughter.  The car rocks.

Conversations about the game resume, the traffic begins to flow, and we’re on our way.

I’m mortified.  Me, a voracious reader–a reading teacher!–completely misread the license plate because I completely ignored the context, completely ignored the meaning cues all around me…completely forgot to use what I know.

 Sometimes remembering to remember what you know is hard. And that’s why it’s part of the formula for teaching and learning in those successful classrooms I’m watching.

 (I wonder if the NBA players are going to remember what they know?)

Patty 11/22/11


I get a kick out of my inbox. There might be a freecycler is looking for an ab lounger ~ I promise not to hang clothes on it.

Or the wisdom of Steve Jobs, courtesy of The Daily Lit (http://www.dailylit.com), breezes in ~ Picasso had a saying. He said, ‘Good artists copy, great artists steal.” And we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas and I think part of what made the Macintosh great was that the people working on it were musicians and poets and artists and zoologists and historians who also happened to be the best computer scientists in the world.

Today, the Container Store promises joy for that certain someone on my list ~ You know that feeling you get when you find the perfect gift? Yeah, we thought so ~ and Panera invites me over (read:undermines my resolve to eat more grains) to enjoy a pick-me-up that involves cream cheese.

Actually, the most gulp-worthy feast I wolf down is from AWAD~ A Word A Day.  http://wordsmith.org/awad/

It delivers a rarified word along with its definition, pronunciation, information and audio clip, etymology, usage example, quotation, and interesting tidbits.

Recently, AWAD dished out this plumbed-and-squared little gem ~ ort. (Oh, did I mention that there’s a theme each week? Thus one was short words like fug, birl,bap and cwn. I told you, AWAD is an emerald among the M&Ms.)

So ~ back to ort.  A word that’s even shorter than short.

An ort is a scrap of food left after a meal. On the table in front of him was a plate, a few orts of supper nosed round by a pair of cats.  (Bill Mesce Jr; Officer of the Court; Bantam Books; 2002.)

But, to a stitcher, orts are the snippets of floss and fiber, the leftover bits and pieces that remain in the needle, pieces too short to be useful and likely to be tossed….or not.

Saved orts need a place to be stored. And so, the ort port was born.

Crafters use orts for texture in handmade paper…

….or as filling for a clear glass Christmas ornament. They mark it with the year and fill it with orts from that year’s projects.

WWWW loves words. We can’t ever have too many, so we save them all. Some people save bird bones or shark teeth, stamps or coins, matchbooks or bottle caps. We all have a passion. What’s yours? Holla back!

I love bonne locutions, punchy tropes, and words with umami.  The AWAD website is full of these inspired sneaky surprises. Ask Art Plotnik. He’s The Master of invigorating vocabulary. (http://www.artplotnik.com). I know he approves of this ‘eyedropper enrichment’. He says, go ahead, get acquainted with seven new words a week, savor them, test them out. And so I do. But, I can’t use them all.

So, here’s my ort port for those leftover AWAD words.  A place where they are corralled, so they don’t stray onto scraps of paper, to be lost forever.

There’s nothing like a prompt to send me off to loot my ort port. (Yes, it’s Day 20 already. As Robert Brewer says, 60% of the way through November? C’est impossible! Even if you’re just now learning about this challenge, it’s not too late to jump in.)

One November Poem-a-Day Challenge is to write an “it’s too late” poem.  http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/poetic-asides/poetry-prompts/2011-november-pad-chapbook-challenge-day-18

Today’s the day to write that poem ~ before it’s you-know-what.

Toni  11/20/11

The only problem with the additional helping teachers found in a high-poverty school is the additional teachers. Here’s a story followed by a solution. (And, no, the solution isn’t to get rid of the funding and the extra teachers!)


The only problem with the additional helping teachers found in a high-poverty school is the additional teachers.

Here’s a story followed by a solution. (And, no, the solution isn’t to get rid of the funding and the extra teachers!)

 So, Eduardo, Mr. L points to his notebook page, Are you getting to the bottom of it? 

Mr. L is teaching exploratory writing. Ideas are like boxes. I can’t always see the bottom of them. When I write to get to the bottom of the page I sometimes get to the bottom of an idea too. Writing helps me figure out what I’m thinking.

Now the lesson is at the Try-It phase, where Mr. L confers with the students as they grapple with what he’s demonstrated.

Eduardo points to the top of his page and, using the exact gesture Mr. L used, zigzags his finger down to the bottom of the page. New Idea, he announces, pointing to the last sentence.

New Idea? echoes Mr. L. You got to the bottom of the page and surprised yourself? You came up with something you hadn’t thought of before?

Eduardo nods and starts to tell Mr. L what he’s discovered.

At this point, Eduardo’s Helping Teacher rushes over.

Like a looming Goliath, she stands behind Eduardo. She makes a time-out gesture and says, as If Eduardo were deaf, Eduardo’s not ready for that yet.

With that pronouncement, Eduardo puts his pencil down and drops his hands to his lap. The light in his eyes switches off; he starts to do that humming thing he’d done when he first came to the class. When his foster mother enrolled him she said he had elected not to speak because of the trauma he’d suffered before coming to her. Now, several months later, although he does not yet volunteer in whole class situations or with his Helping Teacher, he talks freely in small group and with Mr. L.

Until now.

The Helping Teacher hadn’t coordinated with Mr. L., and that’s a huge problem. In order to accelerate progress, every adult working with the students must know the child and have the same goals. Otherwise, another undoes the progress made by the work of one teacher.

How to do this coordinating?

  1. Have all helpers working in the classroom where the main teacher can quickly talk to the helpers and make sure they get it.
  2. If this is not possible, the team working with the child must meet, even if it’s two minutes twice a week, even if it’s through a notebook that the child carries with him in which all the teachers make notes and give updates–something to ensure that everyone is on the same page…in this case literally.
  3. Helpers include: Chapter One and Special Ed teachers, interns, student teachers, the specials teachers, elder tutors, physical therapists, psychologist, etc.
  4. Once the student’s teacher team understands the vital nature of cohesion in instruction, it happens.

And then it’s not about David and Goliath.

Patty 11/14/11