Okay with Being “Just Okay”

The day after sharing “Cozying Up to a Goal of  Comfort,” I was reflecting on the idea of setting a goal of “feeling comfortable while running/exercising” when a new realization hit me. Setting a goal of only feeling comfortable might seem like lowering expectations. If you stop striving to grow, expand, and make more; and focus on maintaining a balanced equilibrium of work and rest, give and take, produce and consume; you might appear stagnant. 

Oh…

This isn’t the case, however. In order to be healthy, one must experience rhythm. The heart pulls in blood as well as pumping it out. We breathe in and breathe out. After our left foot is thrust forward, our right one swings past it. Once a hill is concurred, we can allow gravity to draw us downhill. Calling for a goal of comfort isn’t suggesting that our lives become murky ponds.

The popular American cult of productivity suggests we accumulate as much as possible, do more and more, always be viewed as someone who is growing. It is like a river that is dammed up to form a reservoir. The people responsible for the reservoir view the amount of water captured behind the dam as never being enough. They build the dam ever higher. The water behind the dam begins to cover the mountain tops. This water has ceased to be a helpful reserve, and begins flooding neighboring towns. The dam builders continue building. They now build the dam wider. It must span multiple mountain ranges. When will they be satisfied? 

They ought to have allowed the river to flow over or through the dam. Let the water swell into a reserve to be used, but make sure that it has an outlet.

…Kay

On this particular run I was feeling great! Not only was my breathing steady and controlled, but I was running fast. My first two splits had me trucking at sub 8 min./mile pace! When my phone announced 7 minutes and __ seconds per mile after 5 minutes of running, I was astonished. 

This speed began to taper off, especially as my mind wandered, and I was okay with that. My focus was on how my body and breathing felt. 

Then I rounded a bend in the trail, and I witnessed a gorgeous sunrise. Should I get out my phone and take a picture? I wondered to myself. If I do, my pace will be affected. I decided that it was worth capturing the image, so that I could see it again later. 

As I got out my phone and opened the camera, I realized that I was weighing one goal’s importance over another; run fast or appreciate beauty in nature? Then, as the sun dawned, the idea of deciding to limit one’s goals to a level of comfort would take some resolve. You must discipline yourself to be open to pausing productivity. If you aren’t feeling good on a run, take it easy. 

Remember, the goal is to feel comfortable. There is a degree of pain involved in conditioning one’s body and soul. With waxing and waning emotions, there will be ups and downs. I’m suggesting that we work on being okay with the downs, the ups, and the fact that there will be many times that we are right in the middle. It is okay to feel only okay. Get comfortable with the idea that you are NOT growing. Maintain a moderate life of motion, and your existence can be a healthy river, rather than damaging reservoir.

Cozying Up to a Goal of Comfort

“If you’re not growing you are dying” embodies the American spirit of constantly bettering one’s self (Marrs, 2017). There are many wonderful benefits that stem from a proactive attitude. But, is this ever taken too far? Is it possible to live comfortably without growing?

At my school we set goals of growth. Students should be increasing their reading word count. They should be able to score higher than they did on the last assessment. If your students are not getting better and better scores, you must be a bad teacher; Right?

What’s my goal going to be for this run?

I’ve contemplated giving students less than perfect scores on their report cards, just so that I can give them a higher score on the next report. Many parents question the report card score that did not rise from one marking period to the next. God forbid they go down a number or letter! 

Where does this end? What is the ideal? Should students be able to glance at a text, instantly take in every word on the page with a photographic memory, and remember every detail perfectly? Is it a reasonable goal to expect students to understand every single concept, know the most robust vocabulary words, identify every intricate, deep literary element, and flawlessly figure out every bit of figurative language? Would we be happy then? 

Is there ever a point where it becomes inappropriate to grow more? The weight lifter wants to be able to exercise with heavier and heavier sets. They want to gain more muscle mass. Will they ever be satisfied? How big is big enough? How strong is strong enough?

There are people who make so much money that they won’t be able to spend it all within several lifetimes. When will the numbers be right? When will they have enough money to be satisfied?

Many years ago, I worked for a guy who was obsessed with getting his business to grow in size. Even more than money, he wanted bodies. He constantly measured the success of his business by comparing it to others like his. At first the attitude was exciting; even infectious. Eventually, it lead to unhealthy competition, and low quality products. The employees’ needs were ignored for want of more employees. The business owner didn’t care about how his workers felt, how they lived their lives, or what would happen to them. He just wanted more of them. If he took care of any of them, it was only to prep them to entice more employees to join the business. The workplace turned into a cult. Luckily, I escaped! 

Are our schools cults of progress? This misuse of goals is described in “Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting” (Ordonez et al., 2009). The authors point out pitfalls of goal-setting. A trap my business-owner friend fell into was having too narrow a goal. As Ordonez et al. (2009) suggest will happen, he was blinded to the needs of his employees, because all he focused on was a desire for more. He should have taken care of the ones he had, first.

The other day I went for a run. As I began, I thought to myself, What do I want to get out of this run? What’s my goal? I always use an app on my phone to measure my miles, minutes, and more. What should I aim for today? More miles; Should I try to run farther than before? How about less minutes; Quickening my pace? Every 5 minutes my phone gives me a summary of my run. What should I listen for? 

These would be considered “Stretch Goals,” according to Professor Max Bazerman, one of the authors of “Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting” (Silverthorne, 2009). During an interview, Bazerman explained to Silverthorne that stretch goals can be harmful, even toxic to an organization. Would I seize up and die if I set a goal of running a little farther each day? Maybe not, but how attainable is that goal, really? With each additional mile, I would be spending more time running. This would take time away from other activities, responsibilities, and people. If I didn’t die, something would. I’d have to give up doing other things to make time for my… what could very well turn into an addiction. 

My ultimate goal was to feel comfortable while running, measurable by how calm my breathing and heart rate were.

Rather than leaping into an arbitrary goal, which was tempting, since I was already running, and I wanted to have something to aim at, I looked within myself and evaluated what I wanted to get out of my run. Why do I run? I began this habit of cardio when I learned that good health could help fight Covid19. My goal was to get in shape. When will I have achieved this, and when I do, do I quit? 

How does one measure health? If you have an Apple watch, you could monitor your heartbeat (BPM). Rather than getting all technical, I decided that I wanted to “feel comfortable on my runs.” This is going to be my goal. I’d like to run fast and far, but more than that, I want to breathe comfortably, avoid tremendous pain, and feel like I could go even farther, faster, if only I had more time. Instead of exercise being a chore, I want it to be a hobby. 

I began contemplating this goal as I pounded the pavement. It got me thinking about goals in other areas of life. It wasn’t long before the idea of assessing reading came to mind. My school and district, along with the entire nation are constantly setting goals for their teachers. We have meetings to discuss data, comparing it with scores from other assessments throughout the year, students from other classrooms and around the country, and making projections for future growth. 

This guided reading group was amazed that an artist lowered his heart rate in order to paint better.

Are there any educators who have the goal of helping their students “feel comfortable” reading? Why study vocabulary? Is it to score well on the SATs, or is it so that you can more easily understand advanced texts? I don’t run hills in order to win a race. I do them so that my body is ready for the next hill. Eventually, I hope to jog up inclines, instead of hobbling.  

My aim is for my students, the Polite Pirates, to feel confident and comfortable in their reading skills. I hope they wish that they had even more time to read, and it wasn’t a chore. It’s my wish that they would crave more opportunities to learn and engage with texts, rather than viewing each as an embarrassing obstacle course. 

Additionally, and in conclusion, I hope that this blog has inspired someone else to cozy up to the idea of having a goal of “comfort” over unending, stressful, depressing, seemingly unattainable goals. Perhaps the key is to feel comfortable while growing.

Sources:

Marrs, P. (2017, February 10). If You’re Not Growing You’re Dying. Pierce Marrs. https://piercemarrs.com/2016/08/if-youre-not-growing-youre-dying/

Ordonez, Lisa D. and Schweitzer, Maurice E. and Galinsky, Adam D. and Bazerman, Max H., Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting (January 23, 2009). Harvard Business School NOM Unit Working Paper No. 09-083, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1332071 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1332071

Silverthorne. (2009, March 2). When Goal Setting Goes Bad. HBS Working Knowledge. Retrieved January 26, 2023, from http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/when-goal-setting-goes-bad

To Teach, or To Entertain? What is the Purpose of the Text?

I have been laboring at building the text of my daughter Scarlet’s book, “Scarlet’s Superpower.” This past week I shared the first couple of pages of text with Scarlet… with mixed reviews. 

First of all, she balked at the idea of including details that did not actually happen. I reminded her that this was fiction, albeit realistic. I don’t think she liked the idea of napping in the “infant room” of the daycare. We can change that to suit her feelings and maintain the message of the book.

She also gave me a hard time for making up a name for the director of the daycare. I confessed that I did not remember the exact name, and I explained that it was common to replace actual names with surrogates. 

A criticism that I took more seriously came when Scarlet did not understand part of the text that I had written. There is a part of the story where I (Dad) show up to get Scarlet. It’s the end of the day, and Scarlet is playing outside with her friends. First, I use a vocabulary word from my 3rd grade curriculum to describe the audio of the scene: din. And then, I use some heavy figurative language when I share the experience of calling her to me. Scarlet hated it. 

I was driving when Scarlet was reading the text from my phone. I had written it into a Google doc that morning. As she complained and fumbled with this portion of the story, I was tempted to pull over to explain the meaning. Then I thought to myself, if I need to put on the brakes and pull apart the clauses of this sentence to explain it to the actual main character of the book, it is probably not a good idea to include it

I really liked the ideas from this sentence, though. I thought that there was a lot of teaching potential. If I were presenting this to my Polite Pirates (3rd grade students), I would go to town! We would draw pictures showing the figurative language. The students would be required to make up their own mirror sentences. It would turn into a week-long lesson of metaphor, mixed with alliteration and hyperbole!

“No, Dad,” was the vibe I was getting in my truck on the way home. Scarlet did not have to make a case for omitting the text. Her confusion and the disdain in her voice told me that this was not a battle to be fought and won. The teacher in me, trying to forge educational material, must bow to the author writing an entertaining children’s book. The text will still teach plenty of lessons. The theme alone packs a powerful punch. Why weaken the message by causing readers to stumble over fancy figurative language? 

Another idea/word to omit is “deduce.” What 11 year old would say of their dad, “He deduced…”? What world am I living in? Bring it down, Matt!

And, now I come to the purpose of this blog! Rather than include cumbersome text in “Scarlet’s Superpower,” I can write about what I won’t write, why I wanted to include it, and why it didn’t work. This will save the script from being weighed down with all that superfluous verbiage. 

Okay, so here is the sentence that Scarlet hated: 

His call is a siren telling me safety has arrived, and I better get over to him quickly.

Even if I explained to Scarlet what a “siren” was, it would take additional explanation to communicate the metaphor. By the end of all that cognitive wrestling, the text would be all turned around and the storyline would be lost. A teacher would spend so much time showing students the pretty flowers and important plants in a field that the trail was completely out of sight. “Where is Scarlet, again?” the teacher would have to prompt. “And, what time of day is it?” The teacher would have to field all kinds of wrong answers before honing back in on what is happening in the story! Is that what I want? 

An independent reader might completely gloss over this tricky sentence. But, someone else could think that Dad is a merman, sending supernatural signals to his daughter. Why send readers down a rabbit hole of researching “sirens,” risking losing them from finishing the text at all? This whole idea is similar to what actually happens when I pick up Scarlet. Rather than get her quickly from the playground to my truck to go home, she has to show me things in the daycare, tell me stories, talk with friends, and find lost toys! We NEVER quickly get out and get going! 

What if I could change the experience of picking up my daughter from daycare? What if I could portal us from the play area directly into my truck, with all of her belongings neatly packed in the back seat… including both gloves, and completed homework? Miracle upon miracle, we could not only get home faster, but avoid frustrations of fruitless searching. Better to omit the cumbersome, albeit creative, sentence.   

Even within this blog, I wanted to share too much. As I composed the text, I was tempted to begin writing figuratively about different stories compared to types of journeys; While one book might be a stroll through a park, another is supposed to be a grueling workout. The writer of a mystery sends readers through dense forests with hints around every corner. A thriller might have haunting colors, texture, and sounds seeping out of crevices. The experience of reading will be constructed by a good author, so that a person is different after having read an excellent text. 

“Where the Crawdads Sing” comes to mind. By the end of reading that book, I felt like I had met someone; a person I wished to befriend, but I understood that she didn’t actually want to be my friend. Not in a rude sense. Delia Owens protects her character Kya by having Kya avoid people throughout the text. I have to respect Kya’s privacy. After closing the cover of that book, I felt like my pants were stained up to the knees with marsh mud from trudging through Kya’s world. It was a stain that could not be washed out. Her experience was tattooed onto my mind. 

I would like the roots of “Scarlet’s Superpower” to borrow deep into readers’ minds. I want them to think deeply about the themes of the book. To help facilitate this, I need to ensure the text is unencumbered with mental obstacles that might cause young readers to have to perform comprehension gymnastics. While I don’t want it to be simplistic, the old adage applies; “Keep It Simple, Stupid.” By keeping the prose pointed, the message will be more powerful. 

Wrestling With the Beginning

When preparing to bring the original “Scarlet’s Superpower” from 13 pages to 26, I was thinking of ways to beef-up the story. While I liked the simple story line, the text needed a little more meat to it. Should I develop characters more? Could we include additional ways that her superpower was utilized? My favorite idea was to show ways in which Scarlet’s ability to shut out noise by removing her coils could benefit her. 

One morning, several years ago, I was driving Scarlet to her before school daycare when an idea hit me: What if Scarlet used her superpower to avoid hearing bullies belittling her? We could begin the book with her wanting to take a nap. She could query about sleeping on a mat in the infant room of her daycare, at the end of the first day of school. Older kids; kids Scarlet’s age; could see and hear this, and they would tease, “Look at Scarlet. What a baby.” 

Scarlet would NOT hear this teasing, though. She would have already removed her coils. She can’t hear anything–nothing–when she takes her coils off of her head. So, exhausted Scarlet lies down, innocent and thankful for peace and quiet. 

The teacher, on the other hand, hears these older kids teasing Scarlet. Because the facility has a “Zero Tolerance” (no teasing) policy, the teacher reports the miscreants to the person in charge of the daycare. They get in trouble. 

I’m not sure if Scarlet finds out about the bullying behavior or not, but by the end of the book she helps these kids, using her superpower. They admire both her ability to forgive and the power to NOT hear. 

Here are a couple of the problems with this beginning.

Scarlet’s mom and I looked at tons of daycare facilities to determine which would be best for our only child. In addition to staffing, cleanliness, and the usual concerns, we had to consider how noisy the place was. Luckily, our area had many to choose from.

While I like using more than one setting for the story, having Scarlet attend a daycare could paint her as privileged; Her family is wealthy enough to send her there. 

I could explain that Mommy and Daddy make just barely enough money to have her attend, and need her to, so that they can work the jobs that pay for her attendance, basically breaking even. This circumstance would explain away the idea of private child care being a symbol of wealth; It is a shackle (Fetters, 2020). A surprising 57% of the working population of America pay more than $10,000 a year for child care (30+ Essential US Child Care Statistics [2022]: Availability, Costs, and Trends – Zippia, n.d.). 

Additionally, Scarlet attending a daycare categorizes her as lucky. According to 30+ Essential US Child Care Statistics [2022]: Availability, Costs, and Trends – Zippia, “51% of Americans live in communities classified as child care deserts“ (n.d.). I do not want someone to come across “Scarlet’s Superpower,” and think to themselves, what an entitled, lucky, rich brat

Obviously, I am totally overthinking the situation. Some kids go to daycare. Some don’t. The kids who don’t go to daycare know about others who do. Is the situation relatable? That is the question. Can readers visualize kids making fun of Scarlet for wanting to take a nap? I think so.

Sources:

30+ Essential US Child Care Statistics [2022]: Availability, Costs, And Trends – Zippia. (n.d.). 30+ Essential US Child Care Statistics [2022]: Availability, Costs, and Trends – Zippia. Retrieved January 10, 2023, from https://www.zippia.com/advice/us-child-care-availability-statistics/

Fetters, A. (2020, January 18). The Working-to-Afford-Child-Care Conundrum. Working to Afford Child Care so You Can Work – the Atlantic. Retrieved January 10, 2023, from https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2020/01/working-afford-child-care-so-you-can-work/605206/

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2021). Early Childhood Program Participation: 2019 (NCES 2020-075REV), Table 1.

Coding Teamwork

Yesterday the class experienced a fun activity that afforded me the chance to witness unique forms of teamwork in the classroom. The lesson itself was a blast: I provided a secret message, written in code, that the students had to decipher in order to earn a prize. I hinted that they would learn about a treasure hidden in the classroom by breaking the code. The code was developed in the 1830s by Samuel Morse. It’s known as Morse code, and uses dashes and dots, versus ones and zeros. 

The Social Studies unit is about people migrating across the United States. Setting the scene for the era, the book discusses the development of the telegraph and Morse code. The Polite Pirates lined up for recess right after hearing these words. Then, I raced to the Internet to find a code generator to produce a fun activity. It didn’t take long. Within seconds I was typing a secret message into the text field of MorseCodeWorld.org’s Translator. I took a screenshot of the code that the translator instantly provided, and shared it with the Polite Pirates via their Google classroom.

Additionally, I gave them a screenshot of the alphabet in Morse code so they would have all of the tools necessary to break the code. Upon returning from lunch, I sat everyone down and explained the task. Then, “Go!” 

“Can we work in teams?” could be heard from all corners of the room. 

“Definitely,” came their captain’s reply.

And then, I had the pleasure of witnessing even the typically least motivated pirate tackling a tedious task of looking up each letter of a very long message. As I walked around, watching their work, I felt a little guilty about how many words I’d included. But, my Polite Pirates didn’t complain one bit! Due to the looming prospect of treasure, they furiously raced one another to break the code. 

One pair tackled each letter together. They would whisper the code, “._..” and then hunt through the letters in the alphabet until they found a match. Other teams had scouts wandering around the room to see how other teams were doing and reporting back to their base of operation with news of progress and hints of other code breakers’ breakthroughs. There were teams that designated letters to members. “You look up that letter, you look up that one, and I’ll look up this one,” I overheard. A team or two assigned whole words. Of course, there were the independent kids, who didn’t want to be encumbered with having to communicate with others. 

During the entire experience I played the sound that the MorseCodeWorld.org Translator provides: It produces audio of the code. The Polite Pirates loved hearing the beeping in the background. It seemed to add to the fever of the code-breaking. 

While walking around, looking over pirates’ shoulders, I saw that several were stuck on the word “Incredible.” I had labeled our school positive behavior prize “Incredible Hawk Tickets” in my message. I saw that many had come up with “Increkible.” Apparently, D is similar to K in the code. They were beside themselves with frustration. “This isn’t even a word!” they were complaining. 

Some Polite Pirates worked independently, but near one another for moral support.

“What word is that similar to?” I hinted. 

After a moment, “Incredible?” 

“Is it possible that you had mixed up the letters? What does that word do for the message? What if you just skipped it and moved on?” These prompts got the codebreakers back on track. I also began to see students skipping other letters. One pirate translated F, I, R, and then assumed the word to be “first.” He was correct and saved a good deal of time utilizing this strategy. 

I witnessed pairs where one student seemed to do all the work, while the other looked to literally pirate the glory. This wasn’t completely the case, though. The potential pirate had a job. He was announcing his team’s progress. He was championing the success of his hard-working Polite Pirate partner and making him feel like king of the world. The boy whose nose was centimeters away from his iPad screen and scribbling in his notebook letter after letter was grinning ear to ear as his partner yelled out how many words they had conquered. 

I had given the class a time limit of 5 minutes. When the timer went off and no one had completed the translation, there were groans of disappointment. I offered an extension of time, and the crew cried cheers of joy! We did two additional timers of 2 minutes, each. By the end of the last one, after a total of 9 intense minutes, a pair of girls had deciphered the entire secret message, “The first person to break this code will find the stash of Incredible Hawk tickets taped to the bottom of the fish tank.” 

The whole class cheered when the tickets were recovered from their hiding place. It wasn’t all that many tickets, and only the two winners divvied them up, but everyone gained the treasure of the experience. 

How do you code teamwork?

Morse Code | Invention, History, & Systems. (2023, January 5). Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved January 7, 2023, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Morse-Code

The Pinned Piece is Powerless

It is common for elementary age students to mistakenly capture their opponent’s King in a game of chess. During today’s chess club, I corrected a couple of kids. “You don’t actually capture the King,” I explained. “You win by arranging the board in such a way that the King is under attack and cannot get away. That is Checkmate.” I asked them to show me how this had happened. 

When one of them walked me through the moves, I saw that a pinned piece had been moved, placing the King into check. You can’t do that. I took the opportunity to teach the whole chess club about pinned pieces. 

A Pinned Piece in chess is a piece that is blocking an attack on the King. Moving it would place the King into check, and you aren’t allowed to do that. 

How does this happen? Sometimes, a piece will be used to block an attack. If White has an exposed King (no White pieces in front of it), and Black moves a Rook onto the same file (vertical column on chess board), the White King is in check. A common defense might be to place the White Bishop in front of the White King. This is exactly what happened in today’s game.

At other times, crafty opponents might trap your piece by passive-aggressively attacking the King. They will arrange their pieces so that they would be attacking your King, if you were to move any of your pieces. You look for a way to shift your pieces into a more advantageous position, but they are locked down. Moving them would jeopardize your King. No can do! You begin to feel stuck, smothered, tied in a straight jacket. 

As we were walking down the hallway of my school, heading toward the entrance where parents were waiting to gather their offspring, I closed the lesson on pins by summarizing some of the main points the club had discussed. Without even thinking, I shouted over my shoulder, “Even the most powerful piece can be made powerless with a pin.” That struck me as an important metaphor. 

A highly skilled person with a lot of valuable experience is working a job that is way beneath their ability. Why? Why don’t they leave that job and work somewhere with better pay? If they did, they would lose their health insurance. Perhaps a retirement plan is pinned to their current job, and they must wait out the years, until they can cut the tie, or else jeopardize losing all of that savings. Maybe they have worked hard to climb the corporate ladder, and leaving would mean starting at the beginning! It could be pride, money, safety, or more pinning them to their powerless position. 

Someone is in a relationship with a person who abuses them. How could they not just leave? Perhaps the abusive person has arranged all monetary and material assets in their name. The hurting individual would have to strike out on their own, penniless, not to mention poor in spirit! Maybe, the abusive person was cutting the person down emotionally. You don’t know how low someone can make another feel. Beliefs like, “I can’t do anything without my partner, because I am so dumb… I need her in order to feel good about myself… I am worthless without my family…” infect the heart and create, not cracks, but fissures in the Love Tank. Power pours out of a person squeezed by emotional abuse. They are pinned to their situation, and you can’t see it at all!

Can you think of any other examples of powerful people pinned to positions? If so, mention them in the comments. 

Part of my lesson about Pinned Pieces on the chess board included how to avoid this predicament. “What could White do to get out of the Pin?” I began with. 

A sharp student mentioned moving the White Rook over a space to block the pin. “Then the Bishop would be free (unpinned) to move around on the board. It could even attack the Knight on f5.” 

“But, not before that Knight captured the Rook unpinning the Bishop, after having moved it to d6,” an even sharper student pointed out. “You could move Pawn to c6.”

“How would that solve the Pin Problem?” I inquired.

“The Black Rook would have to move in order to avoid capture.” 

I studied the board. “Could Black simply move the Rook to another square, continuing the Pin?”

“Yes, d5 and d3 are both safe. And, if the White pawn advanced, the Black Rook could simply return to d4,” a collection of students offered. 

A student in the back of the room raised her hand. I had to refresh my memory of her name before listening to her brilliant idea: “Move the King to c8.” Not only does this free the pinned Bishop, “It gives the King more spaces to move to. E7 is being attacked by the Black Knight,” she explained. Amazing thinking! 

Unpin by removing the threat. Our highly skilled worker who would like to look elsewhere for a job might invest in a retirement situation outside of their job. Maybe they could acquire health insurance through a spouse or alternative situation. The abused romantic partner could find support in people or ideas independent of their relationship. They may not be able to “Block” the abuse, but removing the line of attack by getting out of the way could prove both saving and empowering. 

In conclusion, if nothing else, analyzing situations from more than one angle can be a powerful way to govern one’s life. Treat your everyday scenarios like a chess match. They are full of cause and effect that, when analyzed carefully, could be played in powerful ways. This can extend to your life goals, as well. Evaluate your vision for the future. Is it “blocked” by a piece you wish would move out of the way? Are you “pinned” by being stuck where you are? Remove the pin or remove yourself, so that the powerless part of your life is no longer being pinned down. Free yourself. 

Blog of Intent

My daughter Scarlet is in 5th grade. When she was in 1st grade, the two of us worked on a book together. The book, “Scarlet’s Superpower,” is about my daughter’s deafness. Because Scarlet has bilateral cochlear implants, she can “hear” from both “ears.” However, she has the unique ability to remove the magnetically attached head pieces that connect her cochlear implants to a microphone. This instantly renders her completely deaf. The ability to switch from hearing to 100% non-hearing is what Scarlet and I devised as her “superpower.” 

My aim was to preempt any negativity Scarlet may experience, being different. I wanted to meet this head on; “Yes, I’m different, and it is awesome!” was the attitude (mantra) I hoped to instill in my daughter. It was a powerful and cute idea. Together, we came up with some ways that her “power” of NOT being able to hear might be advantageous. 

Scarlet and I were dabbling with the idea of turning our stories into a book, when one day I saw a tweet that ignited the fire that I needed to fuel our project. A principal from California was asking the Twitter community to recommend books about superheroes to share with his school. I told him that my daughter and I were working on a book about her being a superhero! 

By simply sharing this news, my intent was made public and real. I both decided and committed Scarlet and I to doing this. We would share our story via book, one way or another! 

On April 28th, which happens to be National Superhero Day (I didn’t actually know that at the time:), I made “Scarlet’s Superpower” available publicly. That is to say Scarlet and I completed a version of our book that was good enough to be viewed publicly and I figured out a way to get it into a free Apple book version that could be accessed with Apple devices. Within a day or two I would get it onto Amazon, but people would have to pay around $3. 

The book got some positive attention. It seemed like it had potential. People inquired about a physical copy of the book; It was only available in digital format. After looking into some self-publishing companies, I settled on using Lulu. I purchased a package that would provide several hard copies of the book, as well as a website and more. 

While the original book was only 13 pages, Lulu’s publishing package would provide 26 full color pages. This seemed good at the time, but meant that I had several additional pages to fill. This pressure proved paralyzing. I have not worked on the book since. 

It’s time to make it happen. This blog is meant to not only inspire (breathe life into) me, but act as a contract of commitment. It is a “Blog of Intent.” I am binding myself to finishing this publishing project this year. 

Along the way I intend to write blogs, sharing the process of making the book. Part of my problem is that I have too many ideas for an illustrated kids’ book. I will parse some of them here. 

Finally, if ever the book ends up amounting to anything important, this blog will serve as a collection of behind the scenes information. There is a lot that goes into making a book. The writing process involves tons of revising and editing. And then, there’s the marketing. 

There is also a lot that doesn’t make it into a book. This is one of the things that is holding me up right now. I have tons of ideas that I want to use, but I’m struggling to weave it all in. I know that I’ll have to let go of a lot. By writing blogs about my thoughts, I hope to release the fireflies to brighten their own skies, and I can fine-tune the book to be published. 

The word intent is related to the Latin intendere meaning “stretch out, lean toward, strain,” and I feel like I’ll have to do all three of those actions to make it. But, I intend to make this happen. So, with this “Blog of Intent” I contract myself to wrap this up. “Scarlet’s Super Power” will be empowered by getting published.

A. (2019, February 8). Court Holds that a Letter of Intent is a Binding Contract When It Contains All the Material Terms of An Agreement. Freiberger Haber LLP. Retrieved January 3, 2023, from https://fhnylaw.com/court-holds-letter-intent-binding-contract-contains-material-terms-agreement/

intent | Etymology, origin and meaning of intent by etymonline. (2015, December 13). Intent | Etymology, Origin and Meaning of Intent by Etymonline. Retrieved January 3, 2023, from https://www.etymonline.com/word/intent

“Oh Christmas Tree, Oh What’s That Tree?” A Winter Holiday Play

How do you celebrate multiple cultures simultaneously? Is it even appropriate to talk about religious holidays in a public-education classroom?

The Polite Pirates experienced a "cheese & meats from around the world" tasting, following our performance. --Many thanks to Dr. Deb Campbell for the amazing charcuterie.  

One of the ways I taught my students (The Polite Pirates) about various Winter Holidays and customs from around the world was by having them read plays. I’d construct the plays from the text of picture books. I’d have the Polite Pirates practice and perform the plays for their parents right before winter break. One of the plays is about Old Befana. It introduces an Italian tradition of getting stocking stuffers on January 6th (Epiphany) from a “Christmas witch.” There’s one about a family making Latkes to celebrate Hanukkah. Parents loved listening to their children pronounce the fancy French words from Margie Palatini & Richard Egielski’s “Three French Hens” that I turned into a play.

Because plays were read, as opposed to memorized, we call them “reader’s theaters” (2015).

Many of the texts have wonderful themes. One of my all-time favorites is “The Christmas Piñata” by Jack Kent, a story about two pots who have very different uses. The “good pot” is made into a beautiful and useful watering can, while the other comes out of the kiln broken. This broken pot is sad that it can’t be as useful as the “good pot…” until one day it is made into the star of the Los Posadas parade in a Mexican village! This makes for a very powerful play whose theme, even the youngest children can interpret.

The Polite Pirates of 2015 perform “The Christmas Piñata” for parents and peers.

This year I decided to do something different, and it proved totally awesome! Rather than use an already existing book to make a play, I wrote my own. I wanted to have the Polite Pirates travel around the world to experience various cultures. Perhaps their pirate ship could magically become a flying vessel that skips from one continent to another. Then, the idea came to me… I would use my silly pirate captain to lead everyone all over time and space by appropriating the zany television legend, Doctor Who and his TARDIS. Instead of “Doctor Who,” however, it would be “Captain Who”.. and the idea for a time-jumping class of kids was born!

Of course Mr. Weimann has a smoke machine… And, of course we had to use it each time we jumped through time!

Instead of focusing on winter holidays, I decided to research the origins of the Christmas tree. I knew that the symbol of evergreen predated the dominant religion’s appropriation (Schroeder, 1992). I did not know that the use of branches, trees, wreathes, and plants to symbolize immortality stretched back to ancient Egypt and beyond (History.com Editors, 2021). The variety of places, cultures, and uses of evergreen over the face of the Earth and throughout time is staggering.

Open-ended questions helped us get more out of our reading.

Rather than deciding which of the many facts to include in our classroom play all by my lonesome, I decided to include the Polite Pirates in the project. We practiced research by writing down open-ended questions. I wetted their appetites by giving them teasers like, “Did you know that Christmas trees were illegal at one time?” and “Some cultures don’t call them Christmas trees.” Then I had my students read the History.com article (2021) that started me down this rabbit hole.

After learning many interesting facts, the Polite Pirates and I decided on our favorites to include in our play. Each story would be a separate scene for our TARDIS-traveling pirate players to visit. They would explore one of the oldest cultures to use greenery as a symbol of life; ancient Egypt; with its mythology of the sun god becoming ill, and therefore reducing its daily dose of light. The god gets increasingly sick, until the Winter Solstice finds him lying in bed the longest of any day of the year! Egyptians would decorate with palm fronds to encourage Ra to awaken and feel better.

I used the word “sacrilege” to play a round of balderdash with the Polite Pirates. That game will be the topic of an upcoming blog.

We also wanted to share the experience of getting in trouble for having Christmas trees. This happened during the puritan era of early Massachusetts. They believed it sacrilegious to make merriment on or near the day they celebrated Christ’s birth (December 25th).

Image from 1846 London newspaper

How did Christmas trees come to be a favorite holiday decoration? It was a popular monarch who changed everything. And, it wasn’t a king. Queen Victoria was the evergreen tree trend-setter. She had married Prince Albert of Germany, and invited him to share some of his Christmas traditions with her. This little story was a nice way to show the Polite Pirates open-mindedness and acceptance, as well as cause and effect. It was a newspaper illustration that turned tree decorating into a national craze. A picture of the royals standing next to a 4 foot high tree decorated with glass ornaments from Germany and placed on top of a table was published in a local London newspaper in 1846. After that, Christmas trees were the rage in every English-influenced culture.

Finally, it’s always helpful to include something the students are extra fond of. Everyone wanted to know the story behind the German pickle that hides in the tree. Here was an opportunity to learn that research does not always yield neat answers. According to Alexandra Churchill (2021) of Martha Stewart.com, no one knows exactly where this tradition originated.

The Christmas Pickle

I made a scene at the end of our play that has a shop owner speaking with a pickle-eating worker, while a couple of patrons peruse the recently invented and imported German-made glass ornaments. This story encapsulates the way myths are born. In the play I even named the pickle-eater “LEGEND WRITER” to point out that this tradition stems from people simply making up the idea.

By connecting Christmas trees with research, I aim to make the roots of this lesson tap into this time of year. Anytime my Polite Pirates come across an evergreen, I hope they think about not only its symbolism, but the process of digging up the facts that added to their understanding.

In several ways the process of researching mirrors the Scientific Method. After coming up with a question, looking for answers, and carefully observing information, recording what you learned, one must do something with what is found; The crux of it all is to publish your findings. The Polite Pirates are well-versed in writing paragraphs. Why not use what we learned to produce performance art? Of course that was the point all along, but I pointed out that our classroom’s winter holiday celebration play is actually a way of publishing or “making public” the information that we researched.

And so, without further ado, here is our play; the readers’ theater that the Polite Pirates performed for parents visiting the Willow Lane cafeteria on December 21st, which actually is the Winter Solstice! Feel free to use, adapt, and enjoy this play with your class. Perhaps you want to use this process to have your class make its own. Let me know how it goes.

This was the first time I had ever made a “set” for a play. I had the students help decorate the ship and make a Jolly Roger for our ship. Polite Pirates accessed the play via iPads. Everyone followed along as actors read.

SETTING: Behind 2 foot high pirate ship

There are 21 parts for my 21 students.
I numbered the pirates, students, and Egyptians, so that I could assign those parts to corresponding classroom numbers.

PIRATE3: Land, Ho!

PIRATE4: More like “School, ho!”

PIRATE5: This DOES seem like a place of learning. But, what’s that tree, there?

PIRATE6: More like a place for eating to me. What are those called?

PIRATE3: cafe? Trattorie? (Italian for casual restaurant, pronounced “truh*tor*ee”)

PIRATE4: restaurant? Are we in Italy?

PIRATE5: eatery? I thought that this was Pennsylvania. 

PIRATE6: No, no, no…

STUDENT11: (enters, wearing a Santa hat, and seeming to ecco PIRATE6) Ho, ho, ho…!

The day of our play just happened to coincide with “formal day” in our holiday themed week.

STUDENT12: (addressing the hat-wearer) If you want to play Santa in this performance, you’ll have to “Grow, grow, grow…”

STUDENT13: Not necessarily. That all depends on whether you want to portray the original “Saint Nicolas” or the modern, mythological… 

PIRATE3: Students… HO! Never mind labeling the luncheonette! Here are patrons.

PIRATE4: (ignoring everything, and continuing with synonyms for cafeteria…) Not tratorrie. Osteria (Another Italian word, pronounced “oh*stir*eeee*ah”)

PIRATE5: These DO appear to be students. Let’s see if they can help us figure out where we are.

PIRATE6: (triumphant, and ignoring others) Cafeteria! That’s what it’s called. 

(All of the students stumble to the ground in alarm.)

STUDENT11: (first to regain composure) Why hello there. Nice ship. Where do you sail?

PIRATE3: (In an overly loud, boisterous voice) Hello! We are the Polite Pirates, comrades of Captain…

PIRATE4: (Addressing PIRATE3, as much as the students) There is NO need to shout at them. (And then, polite speaking to the students…) 

We, the (throwing the word “polite” over his shoulder, at PIRATE3) Polite Pirates are pleased to make your acquaintance. 

STUDENT12: Yes, well, welcome to the cafeteria of Willow Lane.

STUDENT13: (over-emphasis the “who”) Who is your captain? From whom do you take orders?

PIRATE5: The captain comes and goes. He has invented… or found…

PIRATE6: Captain entered an old fashioned police box the other day, and we haven’t seen him since. 

STUDENT11: (seemingly beginning to get frustrated…) Yes, but…

STUDENT12: Captain…

STUDENT13: WHO! 

(smoke from smoke machine, and blue police box; Doctor Who-style TARDIS appears from behind ship) 

CAPTAIN: Hello everyone! Are these new Polite Pirates? 

ZEUS: (ignoring everyone, and pointing at the tree) Hey! Captain! There’s one here! We have our very own Polite Pirate Christmas tree.

MARY: But, it’s not decorated. How do you know it’s a Christmas tree? Perhaps, it’s only a… 

CAPTAIN: I know you two are excited, but do you think that it is polite to ignore our audience? 

ZEUS: Who? Them? (points to parents watching the play)

MARY: No, no, Zeus. Captain is simply calling our crew and these newcomers an audience because they witnessed our arrival in the TARDIS. 

PIRATE3: Excuse me. The what? 

CAPTAIN: (matter factly) TARDIS; Time And Relative Dimensions In Space… machine, portal, or whatever…

ZEUS: We aren’t completely sure how it works, but it’s loads of fun.

PIRATE4: What does it do?

MARY: I’d say loads of learning…

CAPTAIN: It enables us to travel through various… eras (say that last word with mystery)

STUDENT11: Why do you need a fancy box to travel through air?

ZEUS: “Air-uhs…” E, R, A, S. Eras are specific times and places in history.

MARY: An era will have unique elements that separate it from other times in history. 

STUDENT12: That sounds wild! What sorts of places have you visited?

STUDENT13: Traveling through space and time sounds scary. Are there any slow moving, wanky robots to fear? 

CAPTAIN: There are a few from the 60’s series, but mostly we have been exploring some winter holiday traditions. 

PIRATE5: Winter holiday traditions? Like what?

PIRATE6: Yeah, tell us what you learned. 

CAPTAIN: How about we show you? Come on.

EVERYONE: Yeah! (Everyone enters the TARDIS. More smoke.)

One of our kindergarten teachers, Mrs. Mauro, was sporting a Christmas tree head piece during the Winter concert that morning. It’s hard to imagine NOT being allowed to decorate.

SETTING: A Puritan village in 1649 New England   

(Students and pirates observe the exchange between the police officer and puritan, without getting involved… Students speak amongst themselves over on the side.)

POLICE: (Hands a person a piece of paper) You must pay this fine to the local magistrate by the end of the week, or we will be forced to return and confiscate something of comparable value.

PURITAN: I don’t see what the problem is with hanging a little evergreen around my house. It is MY home.

POLICE: I don’t make the rules. I just enforce them. No decorating on or near December 25th. That’s the law.

STUDENT11: What? People are not allowed to decorate for Christmas?

PURITAN: I bet the baby would have liked the wonderful, lively smell of evergreen. It would have covered up the foul smell of all of those barn animals.

STUDENT12: It sounds like they mostly like the smell. 

POLICE: While I agree that your evergreen clippings DO smell rather pleasant, you know the law: No hanging of decorations on or around December 25th. This is a sacred day. 

How do you teach the holiness of the Puritans without getting religious? Pagan was a new vocabulary word used in the article we read. I defined it as anything outside of the dominant culture. The practices of the Puritans would have seemed pagan to the Native Americans!

PURITAN: Officer, I am NOT (said with attitude) “pagan-izing” my home just by making it smell nice!

POLICE: Are you being obstinate, my puritan friend?

MARY: This must be the puritan era.

ZEUS: Around the 1650s…

STUDENT13: What if the puritan really does just want the place to smell nice? 

STUDENT11: I have a pine freshener that I took from my parents’ car this morning on the way to school. (Tosses the pine tree air freshener to the puritan.)

PURITAN: What’s this? (Holds pine tree to nose and sniffs.) Oooooh, this is wonderful.

POLICE: What do you have there? Where did that come from? What kind of witchcraft is this?

PURITAN: It’s just a thin wafer of wood, scented like an entire forest of evergreen. 

POLICE: Hmmm (smelling pine tree), that does smell rather nice. I’ll have to check on this.

PURITAN: It’s so tiny (whining), can’t I keep it? 

POLICE: (still smelling the tree… over and over, clearly enjoying the fragrance) I’m going to need to keep this… (to himself) I could hang it above my head in the paddy wagon. If only mirrors were invented, I could hang it from a rearview mirror… (wanders off)

PURITAN: Hey! (disappointed and whining) I found it!

(Captain pulls students back into TARDIS. Smoke. Police and puritan disappear.)


CAPTAIN: What are you doing?! You can’t share technology and ideas from the future with people from the past!

MARY: I totally forgot; We might mess up the space-time continuum. 

ZEUS: The whosie-whatsit?

CAPTAIN: If you go back in time and alter something, it could completely change the future; our time! We could cease to exist.

STUDENT11: Oh no! What have I done? Am I fading? I think I can see through my fingers.

STUDENT12: That’s because you have them spread out.

STUDENT11: (closes fingers) Oh, you are right. 

STUDENT13: Where are we now?

ZEUS: And, when are we now… I mean what is “now”? Or, when is “now”?

MARY: We get it, Zeus. Come on, let’s find out. 

(Mary leads group away from TARDIS, toward pyramids.)

I used magnets to hold decorations and the TARDIS up.

SETTING: Yellow pyramids in background. People hold palm fronds and speak to each other. One has a cold and is sneezing.

EGYPTIAN14: (pointing) I think it looks better over there. 

EGYPTIAN15: Yeah, but no one will smell it over there.

EGYPTIAN16: I don’t know how much smell palm fronds have, my Egyptian friend.

(Egyptian15 sneezes several times.)

EGYPTIAN14: We could put the fronds in water, if we arrange them in this vase. They might last longer.

(More sneezing by 15.)

EGYPTIAN16: Oh, for crying out loud! (Talking to 15) Can’t you take something for that? 

EGYPTIAN15: I think I’m allergic to palm trees.

EGYPTIAN14: I don’t think that’s a thing. We live in Egypt. They are everywhere. You probably have a cold.

(Again, the students and pirates remain separate from the people from the past. Just observe the Egyptian conversation.)

PIRATE3: (speaking to the TARDIS travelers) So, we are in Egypt this time.

PIRATE4: Your powers of observation are impressive.

PIRATE5: That doesn’t sound very polite? 

PIRATE4: You’re right. (turning apologetically to pirate3) And, you are right. I wonder what these Egyptians are doing with those palm fronds.

PIRATE6: It appears they are using them as decorations. I wonder if they are celebrating a holiday.

EGYPTIAN16: Why don’t we just get more fronds and put them on both sides of the house?

EGYPTIAN14: I like that. They can symbolize both, Ra rising and Ra setting. 

EGYPTIAN15: (sneezes) Ra has forsaken me!

EGYPTIAN16: No, he has been experiencing the same thing you are.

EGYPTIAN14: Maybe he gave you his cold.

EGYPTIAN15: That would explain why it is so powerful (extra big sneeze)

EGYPTIAN16: But, now we turn the corner.

EGYPTIAN14: After today, Ra will return in strength.

EGYPTIAN15: I can’t wait for my strength to return.

EGYPTIAN16: This will be your darkest day.

CAPTAIN: I bet the Egyptians are celebrating the Winter Solstice.

MARY: The shortest day of the year.

ZEUS: Who is Ra? And, why is he sick.

CAPTAIN: Ra is the Egyptian sun god. They must be talking about his disappearance.

MARY: Because there is less and less daylight.

ZEUS: They think he got sick?

CAPTAIN: That would explain why he hasn’t been around as much.

MARY: And, after today, the daylight will begin to increase.

ZEUS: As in Ra is recovering…

These students begged me to use British accents way before the play had been completed. As it turned out, one of our scenes took place in England. Score! They were fabulous.

SETTING: Palace in England

QUEEN: This is such a magical time of year, my dearest husband.

PRINCE: So true my queen. Might we decorate the palace to celebrate the season?

QUEEN: Tell me, your majesty. What traditions did you practice in your homeland of Germany?

PRINCE: My people erect trees in their homes and decorate them with fruits and nuts.

REPORTER: “Queen Victoria Goes Nuts for Trees!” Get your paper. Hot news for sale.

STUDENT11: What? That doesn’t sound right. Would they be able to print that kind of salacious news?

MARY: I don’t think so.

ZEUS: I’m pretty sure they would lose their head.

CAPTAIN: This is 1846, not the dark ages.

STUDENT12: Yeah, he said Queen Victoria, not the Red Queen.

STUDENT13: Did you think we were in “Alice in Wonderland,” or something?

PEASANT: I’d like to purchase one of those newspapers, please. 

REPORTER: Sure. That’ll be two pence. 

PEASANT: Here you go.

REPORTER: Thanks. Everyone loves Queen Victoria. 

PEASANT: I know. With this illustration of her and Prince Albert standing with their family next to a decorated evergreen tree up on a table, I wouldn’t be surprised to find one in every house tomorrow.

REPORTER: I already got one! Apparently, they are the rage in Germany. The Queen asked the prince about his childhood traditions.

PEASANT: She honored his traditions. How classy.

REPORTER: Right? The people will be happy to decorate. Somber occasions are no fun. 

PEASANT: No fun at all. (Looking closely at newspaper) What do they have hanging on the tree?

PRINCE: My people used to place apples and other fruit and nuts upon the tree to symbolize the harvest. Then they began adding marzipan cookies and more. 

QUEEN: That sounds joyous! I think it would look even better with color. 

PRINCE: In the future people will make strings of popcorn.

QUEEN: They could dye the popcorn with various bright colors. Then they could mix berries in to vary the texture…

PRINCE: In 1847 people began making glass ornaments.

QUEEN: Like these?

PRINCE: Yes, like these.

REPORTER: (announcing to crowd) Queen’s tree full of glass!

PEASANT: Ornaments; glass ornaments.

REPORTER: Just a technicality. 

PEASANT: No, truthfully…

REPORTER: Just trying to sell some papers, my man.

PEASANT: (reading newspaper) It says here that the tree is only 4 feet tall and sits upon a table. Is that true?

REPORTER: How do I know? I can’t read!

PEASANT: Oh, sorry. Well, according to this article, the dime-store magnate, F.W. Woolworth from Pennsylvania will visit Germany in the 1880s, bring some glass ornaments back to America and then make a fortune importing more. This will begin a trend in American Christmas tree decorating that will grow from there.

REPORTER: That article says all of that?

PEASANT: No, but that DOES happen…

STUDENT11: How do they know about Woolworth, when this is only 1847? That doesn’t happen until 1880.

MARY: I don’t know. Perhaps we are messing up the space-time continuum, doing all of this TARDIS traveling.

ZEUS: I don’t know, but I’m getting hungry. Do they have a Christmas pickle? That’s German, isn’t it?

CAPTAIN: I’ve heard the legend of the German Christmas pickle. I think it’s an ornament. Perhaps we could go to Germany next.

SETTING: Inside an old fashioned general store

STUDENT12: Are we in Germany? 

PURITAN: There’s some lovely glass ornaments over here. (PURITAN & POLICE wander around the shop pretending to browse.)

SHOPOWNER: (in a “salesy” voice) Oh, yes! We just got those in from Germany last week. Hot off the furnace. 

LEGENDWRITER: (eating a pickle, says to himself) Those were probably made months ago.

SHOPOWNER: (whispering to the LEGENDWRITER) Shhhh, we want them to think that our German glass ornaments are better than ever. 

STUDENT13: These two seem a little shady.

LEGENDWRITER: Sure. Why don’t you just get ornaments that are unique and special? Something different. (Hold up a pine tree air freshener.) This one’s different…

SHOPOWNER: (scolding) Put that down! That is sacred. And what are you eating?

STUDENT11: Hey, that’s my air freshener!

STUDENT12: I don’t think we’re in Germany. They keep calling these glass ornaments “German.” If we were in Germany, they’d just be “ornaments.” 

POLICE: (sort of complaining) We already have one of all of these.

SHOPOWNER: (complaining to the LEGENDWRITER) As if I have any say over what arrives from Germany. It’s the 1800s. It takes weeks to get a shipment of ornaments that have sailed across the Atlantic. It’s not like they can just fly them on over in the matter of hours. It’ll be another 200 years before Amazon takes every last bit of work out of shopping and shuts me down!  

STUDENT11: That was a lot to unpack. Are we in the 1800s?

STUDENT12: I’m pretty sure we are. 

(LEGENDWRITER is munching on a pickle louder and louder, drawing more and more attention to his actions.)

CAPTAIN: I wonder if the space-time continuum is fracturing.

STUDENT13: How would this shop owner know about Amazon?

ZEUS: Uh oh, we should probably head back to our time.

MARY: What did you say, Zeus? I can’t hear you over this guy munching on… What is that thing?

LEGENDWRITER: (answering everyone, but talking to the SHOPOWNER) This? Oh, it’s a pickle. I was hungry.

SHOPOWNER: Well, put it down! We have customers.

(LEGENDWRITER slyly sticks pickle on a shelf.)

PURITAN: (picking up the pickle) Hey, we don’t have one of these.

POLICE: That looks like a pickle.

SHOPOWNER: That’s not just any old pickle…

LEGENDWRITER: (mumbling to himself) Yeah, it’s my pickle. And, I’m still hungry.

SHOPOWNER: It’s a magical (draw the word out, making it sound mystical) pickle! (elbow the LEGENDWRITER) 

LEGENDWRITER: Sure… It has magical powers (barely buying in to the silly sales pitch).

SHOPOWNER: With this pickle… Whoever finds this pickle (Look to the LEGENDWRITER for inspiration)

LEGENDWRITER: Okay, ok (sighing, and giving in). Look, (in a matter a fact voice; unimpressive) this pickle is to be hidden on the Christmas tree… Every Christmas tree… And, whoever finds it first… You know, when the tree is first revealed, or something, that person gets good luck for the year. Yeah, that’s it. (Clearly, this guy was making up this legend as he went.)

SHOPOWNER: (impressed with the story) Ooooh, that’s good.

PURITAN: What if it’s an adult who finds it every year. The kids would hate it. It’s just a pickle.

LEGENDWRITER: Right. Well, the adult who sees it should leave it where it lies. They’ll just know that they get good luck for the year… see? And, the first kid to find it gets to be the one to begin the gift opening. 

POLICE: That will solve the problem of deciding which tyke begins the present mayhem.

STUDENT11: That’s what we do in my home.

STUDENT12: Is this really how the German Christmas pickle tradition began? I’ve heard that a Civil war hero was saved from starvation eating a pickle. 

STUDENT13: I heard that Saint Nicholas saved two boys by sticking them in a pickle barrel.

SHOPOWNER: You should write down those rules. That was good.

LEGENDWRITER: Sure. Or, we could add to the rules, change them, make up new stories each year, building on the legend. Who knows? Perhaps it will become a tradition.

SHOPOWNER: It’ll help us sell more German glass ornaments, anyway.

CAPTAIN: Come on everyone, let’s return to the present.

ZEUS: Did someone say present.

MARY: Not the kind you open. It’s a homonym…


SETTING: Back on pirate ship, but the entire length of it has pine tree air fresheners all over it.

ZEUS: What is that funky smell?!!

STUDENT11: And, what is all over the pirate ship?

PIRATE: Are those pine trees?

MARY: It feels like my nose is being accosted by an entire evergreen forest!

EGYPTIAN14: What? We are just decorating for the annual pine tree air freshener party.

PEASANT: (slightly correcting the Egyptian) Polite Pirate Pine Tree Air Freshener Party.

REPORTER: When we celebrate the Winter Solstice with the smell of the everlasting…

QUEEN: Forever green…

PRINCE: Symbol of life…

PURITAN: Evergreen.

POLICE: For our hemisphere may be cold and dark, now…

EGYPTIAN15: (small sneeze) With Ra… (sniffle) I mean the sun… hiding himself a large portion of the day…

EGYPTIAN16: But, today we turn the tide… Our day begins to grow… With the smell of these magical trees…

(Everyone turn and gaze at air fresheners, pointing, and “aaaahh-ing”)

ZEUS: Wait a minute, remember, Lea threw the air freshener at the puritan back in the 17th century.

MARY: The police officer took it. 

STUDENT12: He must have kept it. He had mentioned attaching it to a paddy wagon, whatever that is.

STUDENT13: I think it is the equivalent of a 17th century police car. 

PIRATE3: Perhaps, this is where the tradition of hanging air fresheners on rear view mirrors comes from!

PIRATE4: I don’t think that is really a tradition. It happens all year long.

PIRATE6: Yeah, without one, you wouldn’t want to step foot in my family’s car! 

PIRATE5: Could we have altered the past when we left that marvelous feat of modern technology behind?

STUDENT12: (incredulous) A pine tree air freshener?

STUDENT13: Feat of technology? Really?

STUDENT11: They are pretty marvelous… And, sorry;)

CAPTAIN: That must have fractured the…

EVERYONE: Space-time continuum!

The event ended with an “Around-the-World Cheese Tasting.”

Sources:

Churchill, A. (2021, November 3). The Untold Story of the Christmas Pickle Ornament. Martha Stewart. https://www.marthastewart.com/1097532/decorative-past-tradition-christmas-pickle-ornament

History.com Editors. (2021, December 8). History of Christmas Trees. HISTORY. https://www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas-trees

Schroeder, H.W. 1992. The tree of peace: Symbolic and spiritual values of the white pine. In proceedings of the White Pine Symposium (p. 73-83), Sept. 16-18, 1992, Duluth, MN. https://www.nrs.fs.usda.gov/pubs/jrnl/1992/nc_1992_Schroeder_002.pdf

“Talk Like a Pirate… Or Else”

A Readers’ Theater by Mr. Weimann


Introductions:

NARRATOR — Hi, my name is _____(name of reader), and I’m the narrator of this play. While the other characters are reading dialogue, my job is to fill you in on the “behind the scenes” information. Because we aren’t “acting” this out, and do not have a set with decorations and all, you will have to picture some of what I tell you in your heads. This is called “visualizing.” 

MARY — Hi, my name is _____(name of reader), and I’m a Polite Pirate, named Mary, in this play. I’m a Polite Pirate in real life, too. Polite pirates look like regular pirates, but we don’t steal anything. Also, we have extremely good manners. 

ZEUS — Hi, my name is _____(name of reader), and I’m a Polite Pirate in the play, as well. In the play my name is Zeus. The problem is that I think people will not like me if I act like my normal polite self. Wait until you see the silly stuff that I do, to try and look tough!

CAPTAIN — Hi, my name is _____(name of reader), and I’m the Captain of the Polite Pirates in this play. I am very wise.

EVERYONE: So wise!

SAILOR1 — Hi, my name is _____(name of reader), and I play a sailor in this play. I think that Zeus is funny.

SAILOR2 — Hi, my name is _____(name of reader), and I’m also a sailor in the play. I’m sad to say that my sailor friend and I end up making fun of Zeus a little. Find out what happens as you listen to…

EVERYONE: “Talk Like a Pirate… Or Else!”


NARRATOR:  There was once an island that rescued several sailors who had survived a massive storm.  

ZEUS:  Where are we?

CAPTAIN:  We are safe.

ZEUS:  I asked, where we were; not how we were.

MARY:  Are you questioning the captain?

ZEUS:  No, that was a statement.  I do declare, my statement was referring to our whereabouts, rather than our condition.

CAPTAIN:  The storm has taken a toll on us.  We have lost many crew members; We are weary and hungry; We have no shelter; This is a strange and foreign land; But, for the moment, we are safe.

ZEUS:  You are right, Captain.  I apologize for my ungrateful attitude.  

CAPTAIN:  Apology accepted.  Now, lets make a fire and collect some food.

NARRATOR:  These three polite pirates were not the only sailors surviving on the island.  There were people from several different ships marooned on the same piece of land.  And, yes, I did say “Polite” pirates… For this small remaining band of pirates was none other than Captain Iron Knee’s crew of Polite Pirates!

MARY:  Zeus, I have collected this dry wood for a toasty fire.  

ZEUS:  Excellent!  The captain will have to instruct us on how to begin the flame.  He is so wise.

MARY:  So wise.

NARRATOR:  Captain Iron Knee was considered rather wise:)

ZEUS:  Now, let’s gather some food.

NARRATOR:  The fire was started and food was gathered.  As the polite pirates ate, they looked around.  They saw other surviving sailors who did not have a toasty warm fire.  Not too far away were two sailors shivering on a log.

CAPTAIN:  We should share some fire and food with those unfortunate souls.

ZEUS & Mary:  Yes, mmm, definitely.

NARRATOR:  As you can see, these pirates did not behave in the typical piraty way.  However, they did look like other pirates, complete with eye patches, pirate hats, and even an iron knee.  It doesn’t get much more piraty than an iron knee!

CAPTAIN:  Why don’t one of you two go over there and offer some food and fire to our neighbors?

ZEUS:  I will go.

NARRATOR:  Zeus hesitated, though.  He wondered what the neighboring survivors would think if they knew just how polite he and his friends were… Or, was it the fact that they looked like pirates but did not act or talk like pirates.  Either way, rather than going over to the two shivering sailors and saying…

MARY: “Hello, I happened to notice that you have been struggling to begin a fire over here.”

NARRATOR: …He actually said… er, growled…

ZEUS:  Ahoy!!  Shiver me timbers!  Dis be a fancy mess o’ sticks!  Avast: me fire be yours if ye belay that shiverin’, get yerselves off the yardarm and fetch some (far less piraty voice) really really small sticks.  I suggest the fine twigs of spruce trees.  Those work quite well.  (recomposing himself) SHOW A LEG!  Let’s go!  

NARRATOR:  You can well imagine that the shivering sailors were as confused as they were cold after that display.  

SAILOR 1:  What on earth was that?  

SAILOR 2:  I do not know.  (Thinks for a moment; then in a gruff, piraty voice)  Yarr, I be not knowin’ what that be ‘bout! 

(Both Sailors giggle.)

NARRATOR:  Zeus did not walk upright, the way he usually did on his return to Captain Iron Knee and Mary.  He was hunched over, dragged one leg, and swung his arms ferociously.  

CAPTAIN:  Zeus, did you offer those sailors some of our food and fire, as I asked you to?

ZEUS:  I did tell them that they could have some of our fire.

MARY:  How exactly did you communicate that idea?

ZEUS:  (Hems and haws; then mumbles) I talked like a pirate.

CAPTAIN:  That is what I thought.  

ZEUS:  (Making excuses) But, what if they don’t like us?  What if they think we are weak or not scary?  

MARY:  What does being scary have to do with anything?

(Pause and look at sailors who are acting out piraty behavior)

SAILOR 1: Hoist the colors, hearties!  

SAILOR 2: The Jolly Roger be missin’, cap’n!

SAILOR 1: Blimey, land lubbers be scrapin’ off with me hook if-wernt-‘tached-me-arm!

SAILOR 2:  And ye may lay to that!

(Back to the polite pirates)

CAPTAIN:  Now look at what you have done!

MARY:  Were you trying to sound scary, the way pirates typically do?

ZEUS:  (embarrassed) Maybe.

CAPTAIN:  Why would you do that?  That is not a way to make friends.  If we are going to survive on this island peaceably it is important to make friends.  We will need to cooperate.

MARY:  (In an understanding, kind tone) Captain Iron Knee is correct.  We may be pirates, but we are shipwrecked just like every other person on this island.  

NARRATOR:  Zeus thought about this, and felt badly. He walked back over to the sailors still giggling and trying to talk like pirates, themselves.  Only, this time Zeus walked the way he normally would, tall, proud, with shoulders back, straight, and chin up; not swinging his arms, but carrying them like instruments for helping others.

ZEUS:  (To the sailors who have been mocking him and pretending to be pirates)  Excuse me, but earlier I came over here and behaved badly.  I was afraid that you would not like me if I talked to you normally, so I tried talking like a pirate.  The thing is… I am a pirate, but a rather polite one.  I belong to an unusually mannerly group of pirates who share politeness with others.  Actually, that is why I was sent over here, originally.  We have food and fire that we would like to share with you if you are interested.  

NARRATOR:  This left the two sailors rather speechless.  

SAILOR 1: Yarr! (Sailor2 nudges the first)  …Uh, yes, yes, we would greatly appreciate some help with fire and food.  

SAILOR 2: Thank you for coming back over here and explaining your behavior.  We weren’t sure if you were a silly person, weird pirate, or shipwrecked savage.  

ZEUS:  My name is Zeus, and I am the chef on Captain Iron Knee’s ship.

(They get close enough for Mary to hear this.)

MARY:  You were chef of the ship.  Hello, I am Mary.

(Sailors shake hands all around.)

CAPTAIN:  Pleased to make your acquaintance.  

SAILOR 1:  We would be grateful for your help. 

SAILOR 2:  We are freezing over here.

ZEUS:  Rather than give you fire, why don’t the two of you join us.  

MARY:  Yes, we have enough food for all of us.

SAILOR 1:  You really are polite pirates!

SAILOR 2:  How do you become a polite pirate?

NARRATOR:  And with that, the polite pirate crew grew once more.

Once a Polite Pirate, always a Polite Pirate. Here’s a photo of our plays from 2015.

The Farmer and the Bee

Long ago there was a farmer who got nervous around bees.  He had been stung a few times, and it hurt.  He did his best to avoid the yellow and black menaces, until one day…

Photo by Matt Weimann , July 5, 2022

The farmer noticed a bee struggling in a  shallow birdbath.  The birdbath was not deep, and yet the bee would drown if it did not right itself and get to the rim.  Overlooking his nervousness, the farmer placed his finger in the bath near the bee.  The floundering bee found the farmer’s finger and grabbed it.  This surprised the farmer, but he patiently and peacefully held his hand still.  The bee might think his finger was a stick.  It would be silly to sting a stick, thought the farmer.

After pulling itself out of the water and shaking itself off, the bee rested on the farmer’s finger.  It was exhausted.  The farmer remained motionless, as still as a statue.  

This story is inspired by a real event.

The bee was surprisingly tired.  It just sat there for what seemed to the standing statue like a very long time.  Finally, the bee did one last shake and began to walk around on the farmer’s finger.  If this made the farmer uneasy, what happened next really shocked him.  

The bee said, “Thank you very much Mr. Farmer.  You saved my life.  Now, I am going to help you.”

The farmer’s tongue seemed to have swollen inside his mouth.  He could not utter one word.  

“Your crops have been struggling to grow the way I was struggling in that water.  Some years they do okay, but others they seem to drown in the dirt, never producing a fruit.”

The farmer, getting over the initial shock of a bee talking, thought about the bee’s words:  He was right.  There hadn’t been a truly successful yield for a very long time.  

“Here is what I will do for you,” the bee continued.  “I have a large family.  I am going to have my brothers and sisters help you out in repayment for your saving my life.  You may not know this, but your vegetable plants need to pollinate.”  

The farmer looked lost.

“This is when pollen from a flower’s anther is transferred to the stigma.”

The farmer looked at the bee in wonder.  

“Pollination happens many different ways: The wind can blow pollen from the anther of a flower to the stigma.  A falling leaf could rub against the anther and then brush a stigma.  But, the main source of pollination is bugs!”  

This sent shivers up the farmer’s spine.  Bees made him nervous, but the word bugs creeped him out.  How could they pollinate?

“My brothers and sisters can easily fly over your entire field, resting on each and every flower briefly.  We would knock the pollen about and cause it to stick to the stigma, thereby pollinating your whole crop.”

At last, the farmer found his tongue: “You would do that for me?”

“Before you think us completely selfless, you should know that my brothers and sisters would like to collect some of the leftover pollen that is not used to pollinate.”

Without even thinking, “Of course, of course, take as much as you like.  If what you say is true, there ought to be much more than necessary!”

The bee didn’t skip a beat.  “There is, there is!  Nature makes way more pollen than necessary to help flowers pollinate, however, like I said and you have witnessed, without bugs flowers are dependent on the wind or a falling leaf.”

We gave our rescued bee some watermelon.

The farmer thought aloud:  “It can be breezy, but the really windy times of the year are before flowers bloom and after harvest.  Also, with no trees near my crops, there would be no falling leaves or anything else for that matter.  I can see that I definitely do need your help!”

“And my family will be happy to oblige.  We use the pollen in our hive.”

“Excellent!” chimed the happy farmer.  He rescued not only a bee this day, but his entire crop.

That spring the farmer witnessed countless bees, butterflies, and other insects flying, fluttering, and hopping from flower to flower in his field.  There were even times when it seemed like one bee or another would come over to his shoulder and look him in the eyes.  Never did one talk to him again, however.  

That fall the farmer had more vegetables than he knew what to do with.  The other farmers were astounded.  “Where did you get all of this fruit?” each would ask over and over.  

“A little bee helped me,” is all the farmer would reply. 

In the month of November the farmer awoke one morning to find something peculiar on a plate near the window.  It was gray with holes.  There was a gooey substance all over it, glistening in the early morning sunlight.  When the farmer touched it with his finger he found it very sticky.  The taste was extraordinarily sweet.  He had to tell his wife:  “Honey, come take a look at this!”  

I’ve rescued many insects. Here is a cicada. August 4, 2022

 Comprehension Questions:

  1. How were the Bee and Farmer alike?
  2. How were their actions different?
  3. How much did Farmer work to save the Bee?
  4. How much does Bee work to help the Farmer’s field of vegetables?
  5. Is it a fair trade?
  6. Why do you think the farmer does not tell his neighbors all about the whole story?

Background of Story

This story was inspired by the old fable of “The Mouse and the Lion.”  Mouse helps Lion, and in turn is not only saved, but helped by Lion in the future.

What the farmer did at the beginning of the story, I did last summer.  I was walking in the shallow end of my swimming pool, skimming debris off the water’s surface, when I found a great big bumble bee drowning.  I had mixed emotions.  Because I had recently taught my elementary students that bees will only sting if threatened, I knew that the bee probably would not hurt me.  But, the bee could hurt me.  

I put my hand underneath the bee, scooping it out of the water.  When the water filtered through my fingers, the bee came to life.  Slowly at first, the giant bumble bee stirred, then shook.  I watched in amazement as the bee cleaned the excess water from its legs.  It did not talk to me or show any sign of gratitude, but just being able to witness this beautiful babe of nature return from the dead because of my help was reward enough.  

I have lots of flowers all over my property, and bees are everywhere all of the time.  They are always busy, and never bother me or my family.  This was a day when I had to put it to the test.  My curiosity was rewarded and hypothesis proved true.  

Finally, I wanted to share a story of the helpfulness of bees because the honey bee is threatened by farming.  Pesticides harmful to bees are used on crops.  I wanted to introduce the fact that bees are actually helpful, regardless of their potential sting.