Flashback Friday: Repost – Machu Picchu, Day 1, Part 1

It was June 28, 2008 that my husband, son and I visited Machu Picchu as part of a 14-day trip to Peru with the program Overseas Adventure Travel. Machu Picchu was at the top of my “bucket” list for travel destinations. It was an experience I will never forget.

I highly recommend OAT to any adult who is physically fit and has the desire to see their travel destinations a little differently – most days are jam-packed but everything is interesting and worthwhile.

For Flashback Friday this week, I am reposting Machu Picchu Day 1, Part 1.


June 28, 2008 (Continuation of journal, with additions from Internet later)

The great Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, described Machu Picchu this way:

“Machu Picchu es un viaje a la serenidad del alma, a la eterna fusión con el cosmos, allí sentimos nuestra fragilidad. Es una de las maravillas más grandes de Sudamérica. Un reposar de mariposas en el epicentro del gran círculo de la vida. Otro milagro más.”

 (“Machu Picchu is a trip to the serenity of the soul, to eternal fusion with the cosmos, there we feel our own fragility. It is one of the greatest marvels of South America. A resting place of butterflies at the epicenter of the great circle of life. Another miracle.”)

The town of Aguas Calientes, sometimes referred to as the town of Machu Picchu because its existence is totally dependent on and justified by tourism to this “Lost City”, is the end of the line for the train ride.  From there, we were to take a bus up to the ruins. But first we walked to our three-star hotel, Hanaqpacha Machu Picchu Hotel, where we were to check in and leave our overnight bags in our rooms before being served lunch in the hotel dining room.

Picture of our hotel downloaded from Google

Picture of our hotel downloaded from Google

I was feeling weak as we got off the train, so either Dale or Jayme carried my bag for me. I don’t know which one it was but was only grateful for having what seemed like a heavy burden taken from me. I trudged along behind the others as we descended the main street and crossed a bridge over a wide aqueduct. Boris had said the hotel was about a ½ mile walk, but I don’t think it was that long – perhaps ½ a kilometer.

I had already decided that, in order to fortify myself for the trip to the ruins, which I was determined not to miss, I would skip lunch and take a nap. After all, the snack on the train had been substantial enough that I was really not hungry now. Sleep was more important. My cold was now developing into its next phase – sinus congestion. I dug in my toiletries case to search for Advil Cold and Sinus, and took one before lying down for a 45-minute nap in our quiet room, which really helped.

When Dale came up to get me, I got up quickly and readied myself for the bus ride up to the ruins. I had my bag, my walking stick, hat and two water bottles. Finally, I was to see the place I had dreamed of visiting since I first saw pictures of it decades ago!!

We walked to the bus station, where there were lots of buses waiting for tourists to fill them, and of course lots of Peruvians trying to sell us things: “Lady” or “My friend” they would begin, holding out the trinket they were selling, murmuring something of the merits of their wares in broken English and ending with, “only two (or ten or whatever) soles, my friend.”

If I’d harbored any illusions of an exclusive bus for us to take up to the ruins and the possibility of sitting near the front, it soon vanished when we boarded the ¾ full Number 21 bus. Instead of debating which side would be best to sit on to get the best view, I took an empty seat about halfway back next to a young Asian-American tourist who spent the majority of her time snapping pictures out the window with her small digital camera. I resolved not to be disappointed that I couldn’t take pictures on the way up – pictures from moving buses rarely came out well anyway – and was content with just enjoying the view.

I had to admire these bus drivers, deftly negotiating a narrow road that climbed by means of switchbacks up the side of a mountain through a jungle landscape – Machu Picchu is situated in a cloud forest – and knowing when to pull over for passing buses or to be the one passing. I imagined doing this job all day every day. I wondered how many times they actually made the round trip each day. This bus was Number 21, but there were many more than that – passing ours I saw numbers from eleven to thirty-four.

Out the window, the scenery was often a tangle of vines and trees typical of the cloud forest, but there were frequent glimpses both of the Urubamba River and valley below as well as high mountains above. I kept searching for a glimpse of Machu Picchu high above us, and was incredulous of how remote this place actually was – hidden away so completely in these mountains, no wonder it wasn’t “found” for 400 years! Although I knew that there were some local people who did know of its existence during that time, it was abandoned and uninhabited surely due to its isolation. That, it seemed, was the intention when the site was first selected by the Inca ruler, Pachacutec, who allegedly was responsible for orchestrating the building of this place.

Finally I spied the shapes of stone buildings above on a high plateau – my first glimpse of Machu Picchu! I glanced at my watch: it was 1:15 pm on June 28, 2008.

By the time we actually arrived at the Control gate, showed our entrance passes and stamped our passports with the official Machu Picchu stamp (for tourists, they have a stamp you have the option of using in your passport as a memory of your visit), it was close to two o’clock.

This is my first picture from Machu Picchu, taken near the entrance.

This is my first picture from Machu Picchu, taken near the entrance.

This afternoon, we were to have a tour given by Boris to orient us and show us the highlights of this spectacular place, the crown jewel of Inca ruins. Tomorrow morning we would have the opportunity to return to explore on our own with a local guide, Ronaldo, who was introduced to us now. He was to accompany us on our tour today as well, as Boris’s assistant. He was friendly, but mostly stayed in the background during the tour, listening to Boris’s account and chatting casually with members of our group.

Just inside the entrance, as we walked along the path leading to the main ruins, I was awed by breathtaking views all around me. Mountains surrounded us on all sides, their tips covered by a blanket of low clouds. To the east, I could see below us the winding river, its course shaped by and itself shaping the forest-covered peak whose name I don’t know. This mountain hugged by the Urubamba River, and the layers of towering peaks around and beyond it, became to me the most memorable and beautiful landscape at Machu Picchu. To get here, ancient people had to cross these mountains and ford the river, before making the steep climb up to this plateau. Looking at this scene in front of me made me realize the importance and the sanctity of this place to the people who built it. How they must have searched to find just this spot and yet it was intricately connected astronomically to other sites built by the Incas, including Cusco.

The first part of the ancient city reached via the path trod by most tourists who enter through the Control area above the bus stop is the Agricultural Sector. Machu Picchu is divided into two basic sectors, based on their functionality. The Agricultural Sector primarily consists of terraces linked by a stone stairway which runs along a series of storage buildings or granaries. Here the Incas would store their surpluses of crops to distribute among the people living here in time of need. The Inca king would also reserve a portion of it for himself, the common method of tribute among the people conquered by the Incas. These granaries have thatched roofs, a reconstruction done to show what they would have looked like during Machu Picchu’s heyday. Of course, the thatch did not survive the centuries, and the rest of the ruins are not covered. It should be noted, however, that some buildings probably did not have roofs and that the Incas, like their descendents today, spent most of their time outdoors. Thus everyday buildings such as houses and storage buildings tend to be quite small – one small room usually – except for the residences of the royal families.

We descended a portion of the stairway and passed through the storage area to walk along a path which crosses the terraces to the Urban Sector. Boris pointed to a lone building high above us, the Watchman’s hut or guard house, from which you get beautiful, panoramic views of the entire site, and the mountains and valleys surrounding it – if you are willing to climb the steep path to reach it from where we were standing.

I was quite content to take in the view that unfolded in front of me: to the north, the precise stonework of dwellings and temples flanked two plazas, a small one and a much larger one, the Main Plaza.

The most sacred sites were built on hills above the rest, and the imposing and famous mountain, Huayna Picchu (meaning “new peak” in Quechua), marked the far northern end of the site. Machu Picchu (“old peak”) was built on a high plateau, with steep slopes delineating its borders on east and west, on which were constructed more terraces for growing crops. There was so much to explore that to see everything could take a week. I was glad for the slower pace today, as the combination of altitude and my cold would have made it impossible for a vigorous and ambitious exploration of the entire Urban Sector.

Looking west toward sacred hill and the Intihuatana

Looking west toward sacred hill and the Intihuatana

A dry moat separates the Agricultural and Urban sectors. We followed a path leading to the southeast corner, a zone containing the houses of the nobility in which the Incas’ masterful stone masonry can be seen. Entrances are marked by trapezoidal doorways constructed with beveled rectangular stones and single stone lintels above them. There were short sections of wall with openings between them. These sections were topped by the three-tiered construction reminiscent of the Andean cross, representing the lower, middle, and upper worlds. Other walls contained trapezoidal windows or niches, which Boris said were used for placing idols and other items.

3-tiered walls with trapezoidal doorways

3-tiered walls with trapezoidal doorways

The first temple we visited was the Temple of the Condor. This was truly spectacular. Two enormous pieces of natural rock, streaked with shades of black, gray and brown, were carved just enough to be set to resemble open bird wings. Each rose up diagonally above a smaller center section which perhaps was to represent the bird’s tail. On the ground in front of us were laid three pieces of rock, one carved to resemble the condor’s body with its head and beak, and the other two the ruff on its neck. Boris pointed out that the shape of rock forming the condor’s body also resembled the continent of South America.

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“But how would they know this?” I asked. Could the Incas have been aware that their empire occupied only a small portion of a much larger landmass whose contours had not, as far as I knew, ever been completely delineated? Boris thought that they did – the Incas had trading partners all over the continent and probably had received word about other lands and cultures that they never could have had time to discover. Some of the peoples they had subjugated lived along the west coast of South America, while others knew about the east coast.

It’s an interesting theory and the Incas’ knowledge quite astonishing if true, but I remain skeptical. Even if they were aware of these other areas, how could they have figured out how to put it all together? I liked to think, as I looked at the stone, that they really did know the shape of this continent long before white people ever arrived, but it was probably a coincidence.

What really impressed me about the Temple of the Condor was that, looking up at the right wing, there were other structures built right on top of the slant of the wing. It looked like a small chamber of some kind, built with round edged rectangular stones, not the perfectly fitted and beveled stones of sacred sites, purposefully balanced upon the sloped rock.

Later, doing research on Machu Picchu (but I also could have missed or forgotten Boris’s explanation), I found out that this chamber above the condor was a prison or jail, where people may have been tortured or sacrificed. On the web site “Rediscover Machu Picchu” it says the following:

The Temple of the Condor, according to some specialists might actually be a torture chamber. Tourists are told by guides that it’s a “temple”.

Between the “wings of the condor”, there is a chamber with grooves, that’s the place where prisoners were tortured (or could have been tortured), there’s also a pit that was created to drain the blood of the victim.

To the Incas, the condor was a symbol of cruel justice.

It was a bit horrifying to read this, as I thought the Temple of the Condor was one of the most beautiful and spiritual places at Machu Picchu, but I do know that the Incas practiced ritual sacrifice. This, however, does not fit the idea given to us of ritual sacrifice in which it was considered an honor to be sacrificed. Prison and torture are hardly the same thing, and certainly not honorable. I didn’t know, for instance, that prisoners were even a part of Machu Picchu life. I suppose some “whitewashing” of the true nature of some Inca practices is to be expected when you’re given the tourists’ version of all of this, but it has only piqued my curiosity to find out more about what life under Inca rule was really like.

Temple of the Condor seen from above & behind

Temple of the Condor seen from above & behind

However, I still cannot help but admire the artistry and beauty of the Incas’ architecture, and how they fused the natural with man made creation in all constructions, demonstrating their honor and awe for the natural formations of the earth and placing themselves respectfully within that natural world.

Our next stop was a structure within which there are two mortars with water in them, which had a dual purpose. Placed as they were on the ground, they were used as mirrors, but also this site is allegedly a sacred vortex, or a spot in which the forces of natural energy unite. By placing one’s hand above one of the mirrors, a sensitive person can feel the energy emanating from it, which enters and courses through the body. Of course we all tried it, and although I didn’t feel anything unusual, some members of our group claimed they did feel a surge of energy when they did this.

View through a window

View through a window

There was lots more to explore on the eastern side of the citadel, but to hit all the highlights, we followed a path between the small plaza and the main plaza over to the western side, to the zone where many of the temples are located. We passed the quarry, full of rocks with sharp points jutting out of the ground. Some were embedded there in their natural state, where others had obviously already been worked on and were left for later transport to their proper position in a wall, window or doorway. Having this quarry on site must have been a great convenience for the construction of a citadel with the grandeur and magnitude of Machu Picchu, but it seemed impossible that all of the stones used in the surrounding buildings could have come from here.


In the temple zone you can see some of the finest examples of Inca stonework. For the temples, they reserved the most skillful of their techniques, showing their reverence for the gods they worshipped. The Main Temple was where they worshipped their main god, Viracocha, the creator of all things. The walls of this temple are a reddish color, which Boris said was the residue of the original bright red paint the Incas had used. The walls are constructed using beveled rectangular stones which fit together perfectly without mortar. You cannot even insert a fine knife blade between these stones. Boris told us that this type of construction has withstood not only erosion but also earthquakes – when the buildings of the Spanish crumbled during an earthquake, the Inca walls stood strong. We would see more examples of this in Cusco.

However, there was a section of wall of the Main Temple that looked as if it was falling: the stones had separated and were tilted downward on one side. Boris said that this was not due to earthquakes or natural forces. He told us that Hiram Bingham, the Yale professor who discovered Machu Picchu in 1911, employed a lot of native people to accompany him in his exploration and excavation of Machu Picchu. These people were mostly poor farmers who were ambitious and had good knowledge of the area. Bingham was anxious to find as many artifacts as possible, whether for study to understand more about this place or for less altruistic purposes, such as greed and fame, I don’t know – probably both – but anyway, he offered his workers one sol (a substantial sum in 1911) for each artifact they found. The workers scrambled to find bits of gold (they hoped) or shards of pottery to claim their reward, and one of the places they dug was the foundation of the Main Temple, surely a place of many riches. By digging there, they weakened the foundation of the construction, which was what ultimately caused the wall to slip. However, it is now secure and no longer falling, and has been left in its current state.  

 Hiram Bingham, by the way, took all the artifacts he collected back to the United States and gave them to Yale University, where they are now displayed. This has been a bone of contention for Peru, who would like to have these artifacts returned, and I believe justifiably so.

Hiram Bingham in 1911

Hiram Bingham in 1911

Machu Picchu in 1911

Machu Picchu in 1911

 The Temple of the Three Windows is next to the Main Temple. This temple has only three walls and seems to be of less importance than the Main Temple. The construction of these windows using polygonal stonework is quite impressive. Each has a long rectangular shaped lintel on top, while at the base of the middle window there is a stone with ten VISIBLE sides (I’m wracking my brain to figure out the total number of sides or angles of this stone, but have never been particularly mathematically inclined)! Boris pointed out certain features, such as a tall rectangular rock in front, perhaps representing male fertility, and a stone carved with the three tiers representing the lower, middle and upper worlds, a very common theme in Andean art and religion. Off to the side there is a large flat rock, already carved, but which apparently never reached its intended destination.
??????????????????????? ???????????????????????????????Note the massive rock on the left side of this wall – beside the niche carved into it, there are at least 10 visible sides!

It was in transit to the highest and most sacred point of the ruins where the Intihuatana is located that we stopped to admire the western view with its steep slopes and terraces, and someone pointed out some birds soaring, circling over the valley far below. First believing they were falcons, we realized, after watching them for a few moments, that they were condors! This was a special and rare occurrence – most people never have the chance to see a condor here, Boris said with amazement. Those with better telephoto lenses than mine took pictures, including Dale.  We all stood there, awed, watching these majestic birds swoop and soar silently over the western terraces of Machu Picchu. Knowing their importance in Andean religion and worldview made this rare sighting all the more spiritually wondrous.

Dale captured at least one of the condors in flight.

Dale captured at least one of the condors in flight.


When the condors disappeared behind from sight as they honed in on their prey far below, we continued on our way up to the Intihuatana, stopping first to examine a carved rock that Boris was showing us, carved in the shape of the site of Machu Picchu itself – a sort of diorama in rock. It seemed too coincidental to have been an accident: perhaps an Inca stonemason saw this rock and fancied it looked a bit like the place on which he was standing, so he shaped it just enough to show the prominence of Huayna Picchu and the river carving the gorge below with its meandering through the surrounding peaks.

Diorama of Machu Picchu in stone

Diorama of Machu Picchu in stone

View of valley below from the sacred hill

View of valley below from the sacred hill

Flashback Friday

My weekly post “Flashback Friday” took a hiatus during my ABC Countdown posting marathon! However, I’ve now reinstated it, and will continue using previous posts of mine, with occasional additional commentary. Enjoy!writing

Flashback Friday: 2nd Amendment vs the General Welfare (Repost)

For today’s Flashback Friday, in the wake of yet another mass shooting, I have decided to re-post what I originally posted on January 3, 2013 (three weeks after the Sandy Hook massacre). I am also including a section from another previous post, written on March 29, 2013.   Pictures of the most recent mass killing, two days ago, have been inserted, as well as of past shootings, and all were downloaded from Google Images.

Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, where the shooting took place

Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, where the shooting took place

Two days ago, on June 17, 2015, it happened again: nine people were shot dead in

The nine who died

Seven of the nine who died

Charleston, SC, this time in a church by a racist white supremacist. President Obama once again has had to make a speech regarding mass killing, proliferation of guns, and race. Some in the press said he sounded “resigned”. He denied that, although he did say that in the current political climate, nothing is going to be done to curb gun violence. In my opinion, he was frustrated that we cannot have a dialogue about this issue without it being “politicized” and that the high amount of gun violence and mass shootings does not happen in “other advanced” countries.

praying in charleston~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

(3/29/13) The Preamble to the U.S. Constitution outlines the role that the founders thought government should play in the lives of its citizens:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Promote the general Welfarethis is a clause which I often think has been forgotten in the debate about what government should and should not do. …
Promoting the general welfare also means that government should step in to protect the rights of people when these are being infringed, perhaps by an interpretation of other rights. In this case, I am thinking of the first and second amendments to the Constitution. In the Declaration of Independence it declares a “self-evident” truth that all men are created equal and that everyone has the right to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Therefore, the government should seek to protect people’s lives and liberty when these are threatened by a dangerous domestic situation, such as abuse by family members, or

Racist terrorist Dylann Roof

Racist terrorist Dylann Roof

against unreasonable interpretations of another right, including the right to bear arms. Another’s rights end at the tip of my nose: you can swing your arms but you don’t have the right to hit me. Your right to own a gun does not mean you have the right to kill somebody with it, unless it is a clear case of self-defense. The right to own a cache of weapons does not give you or your family members the right to take those weapons and use them to kill innocents.
January 3, 2013
The First Amendment states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise there of; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The 2nd Amendment states:
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

guncontrolvsdrunkdrivingIt is Day One of the 113th Congress, and on the agenda, surely, will be legislation to attempt to limit the purchase and ownership of assault weapons, such as those with high capacity magazines and that can fire multiple bullets in seconds. Guns that are designed and meant to kill people. These weapons are not used in hunting. They are not used for self-defense. They are killing machines, appropriate only in the military for purposes of warfare.

How long will it take this new Congress to take action? To minimize the loss of life of children and other innocents in mass shootings. To minimize the assault weapons in circulation that fall into the hands of drug cartels.

However, already there is an outcry by the NRA leadership. As if the right to own guns – including weapons of mass murder – is more important than the right to life, or the rights guaranteed in the First Amendment.

Consider these facts of the current state of affairs in the U.S.A.:

As it currently stands, background checks are destroyed within 24 hours to “protect the gun owner’s privacy.” Is this not skewed?? What about protecting the possible victim(s) and their families from that gun owner? In fact, there IS NO database kept by the ATF of gun transactions, due to opposition by Congress members who consider it a “threat” to the 2nd amendment. Huh? Where in the Constitution does it indicate that the Second Amendment should protect the rights of gun owners above all other rights and responsibilities?

When the ATF searches for records, about a third of the time, they have to dig through records of companies that have closed, searching by hand through cardboard boxes of computer printouts, handwritten index cards or even water stained pieces of paper! This is a travesty, an embarrassment for a country with the most sophisticated computer software on Earth!

In Florida, a law was passed – essentially a “gag order” – prohibiting doctors from asking

Noah Nicolaisen, of Charleston, S.C., kneels at a makeshift memorial down the street from where a white man opened fire Wednesday night during a prayer meeting inside the Emanuel AME Church.  (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Noah Nicolaisen, of Charleston, S.C., kneels at a makeshift memorial down the street from where a white man opened fire Wednesday night during a prayer meeting inside the Emanuel AME Church. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

their patients about gun ownership. This was done, once again, supposedly to “protect the privacy of the gun owner.” This is ludicrous and again shows the skewed thinking of gun fanatics,who value their “rights” as gun owners over the right to life! It also restricts first amendment rights of freedom of speech and the right to be informed. Doctors have asked such questions in the interest of public health and domestic safety. They discuss this issue with their patients in the interest of protecting their patients from injury or death by guns, particularly in cases of a history of domestic abuse, individuals with anger management issues, alcoholism, and mental illness or instability. This is the duty of physicians – to deal with matters of health, to protect and inform their patients regarding their health. Statistics show that people are much more likely to be killed by a gun in their own home than those in which there are no guns; and that the incidents of self-defense using guns are far exceeded by “accidental deaths” of family members at the hands of guns and by suicides.

Children have the right to grow up to be adults.

Sandy Hook Elementary School, Dec. 14, 2012  - 20 first graders and 6 staff members killed

Families have the right to celebrate Christmas surrounded by loved ones in joy and peace.

Teachers have the right to protect their students and the right NOT to use or learn to use a gun.

Poor kids have the right to be safe in their neighborhoods. They have the right to be able to trayvon-child-500x400go to the store, or to school, or to play outside, without fear of being shot by random bullets exchanged by gang members or those out looking for vengeance, or by those who simply like to kill. Children have the right to be able to do their homework at home in peace without worrying that a bullet is going to shatter a window and kill or injure someone inside. Children have the right to live without fear of violence.

People have the right to go to the movies and expect to have a good time and go home safely afterward.

Charleston Shooting-1People have the right to exercise freedom of religion, to worship in their own way in their own places of worship without fear of being killed by “hate crime.”

Students have the right to go to college, traverse the campus, attend classes, and pursue a profession without fear of being killed by a maniac dressed in black and armed to the teeth.

I could discuss the meaning of the second amendment in the historical context in which it was written, but that is the subject for a future post. The discussion will continue.

I invite comments, compliments, criticisms, anything that will add to this important discussion. Gun owners, veterans, and others with experience using guns should weigh in on this issue – their input is a valuable part of this controversy. The people of the United States of America have had enough, and hopefully this issue will not be forgotten.

113th Congress, President Obama and Vice President Biden, and the Supreme Court, we are waiting for you to provide leadership as we go forward to implement sane gun laws for the protection of all our citizens! handgundeaths



June 11, 2015 I always got excited about the yearbook. When I was in elementary school, we didn’t have a yearbook, but in junior high I began collecting my annual yearbooks. We passed them around and had them signed by friends. Sometimes someone we didn’t like would sign the yearbook, because they were signing everyone else’s yearbook too!

In junior high, I worked on the yearbook staff. In high school, our yearbook was called the “Anbro” – a blending of the Spanish words año and libro. We got to design our own half page when we were seniors!  Again, we passed them around and got autographs from friends, acquaintances and teachers, which I read once again when I come across my Anbros, somewhere in storage.  In my senior year, I was a major contributor to the yearbook, submitting at least 25 photos of students that were included in the Anbro.

When my son was in elementary school, his school issued a yearbook each year – which we ordered and paid for in advance – and when I began teaching, the schools I worked at all had yearbooks.  I began contributing photos again, this time candids of my students at various events of the year.  I always bought the yearbook in the schools where I taught and labeled any pictures of kids I knew with their names so I would always remember. When I was not a classroom teacher, it required more effort to get a yearbook – I didn’t get order forms for my students and so I had to remember when the deadlines were. You have to order in the middle of the year and the books are not delivered until a week or so before school ends.

I was so surprised when a kid in our class last year sought me out in my classroom to get me to sign his yearbook today! I often had to reprimand him in the hallway, at lunch or in the classroom for running, being off-task, or doing other inappropriate things. When I said hi to him this year, he usually looked embarrassed. But I wrote him a nice little note: Good luck in 4th grade! Have a great summer! – and signed my name.

Yearbooks are keepers. I’ll never throw them away!


June 10, 2015

X is for … ?
I looked in a dictionary but found nothing much relevant – what can I say about xylophones or xanthochroids that has anything to do with my teaching career? There are words with x in the middle, like Mexico, or boxes. The symbol for multiplication is often an x. But I don’t have much to say about that either, except as a segue to math…
But I thought, I need to think outside the box. How else is x used?
In our tech-based world, where much of our communication is reduced to abbreviations and acronyms, there are words like Xmas (actually the X here is a symbol representing “Christos” in Greek. When we see this word, we usually say “Christmas” but sometimes we do say “Xmas.”); Xlnt meaning “excellent” and Xtra meaning “extra.”
Students may take an Xam and do an Xlnt job on it, and perhaps they will earn Xtra credit for solving a particularly challenging problem.
Then I came across another meaning for “ex” – former, as in “ex-husband.” So I started thinking how that will apply to me in three days:
As of 2:00 pm on June 12,
My place of employment will become my ex-school –
Teaching will be my ex-career –
I will have ex-students,
ex-supervisors, ex-administrators
ex-work schedule,
ex-lunch duty – which makes me Xtra happy!!
I will miss many of these ex’s, while others I will gladly give up.
It will be Xlnt to have–
ex-lesson plans
ex-alarm at 5:30 am
ex-exhaustion at the end of the day
ex-principals who screwed me in some way!
ex-coworkers who were gossipy and vindictive –
It’ll all ex-gossip to me in three days!
I will be Xcited to welcome back into my life former ex’s:
Ex-free time will be free time anew!
To write, volunteer or try something new!
Ex-relaxation – take it at any time!
Meditating and having breakfast on the deck will be fine.
Ex-social time – have fun and enjoy!
The possibilities are endless when I’m no longer employed!
And this is my ode to my ex-workday world.

W is for (teaching) Writing

June 9, 2015

W is for (teaching) Writing.hand-writing-md

I love to write and find it easy to express myself in writing. However, for most children, writing is neither intuitive nor easy to learn. This is especially true for ESL students. The population I have been dealing with, which is not only an ethnic but also socio-economic category, tends to have difficulty not with learning the social language, but the knowledge and use of experiential vocabulary. If they are reluctant readers, their knowledge of many things and the vocabulary associated with those things will suffer. Even avid readers do not always find it easy to put their thoughts down on paper.
When I started teaching, much of the writing being taught was still stuck in the formulaic 5-paragraph essay that I had seen my school-aged son bring home, and which was emphasized because it was the way to score higher on standardized tests writing assessment. It was mostly non-fiction: for a long time, we scarcely ever had children write creative stories because they had to learn how to write factual essays (expository), descriptive narratives, and persuasive essays.
The introduction to this type of essay introductions includes a “hook” – something to attract the reader’s attention followed by stating one’s topic and 3 main ideas. The conclusion has been basically taught as a restating of the main ideas and ending with a sentence to provoke further thought or stating an original thought based on the main ideas.
The three body paragraphs consist of a main idea and three supporting details. So there were three main ideas and three details for each, very predictable.
In between paragraphs as well as between supporting details, transition words needed to be used: First, second, third; first, next, last; also, in addition, besides…
The writing generated from this formula was often stilted and boring, basically a copy of what the student had written on his graphic organizer with no attempt to make it more interesting – because he hadn’t been taught HOW to do that.
The best writing my students produced was when they were allowed to free write or write about a specific prompt called a “quickwrite”, for example, what they did on a snow day. Very creative writing was generated from this. I published some of these short pieces in the newsletter I sent home to parents every couple of weeks.

Last Friday we had an unexpected surprise – a snow day! Write a short story that tells how you found out about the snow day, how you felt, and what you did that day. Use details to make your story interesting!

We didn’t had a shovel so we used a hammer
By a 5th grader in my ESL class
Last Friday when I went to sleep I heard noises outside hiting my window I woke up I looked through the window and I woke up my little sister, A—.
I told her It was snowing outside we went outside with my dad and measured it
It was 10 inches and got higher. My dad and my sister and me went outside and shovel
while my dad was shoveling I played snowball fight with A—.
My dad said to help him but we didn’t had another shovel so we went to the walgreens and snow shovelbuy.  A— and I went outside a made a snowball and put it in the refrigerator
but then we threw it outside. All my sisters went outside and we were talking.
I threw a snowball at my older sister, L— and An—.
When I went to my Grandpa’s house I helped them shovel but their was one problem.
They didn’t had a shovel we tried and tried to find some thing .
My uncle has this thing I don’t know what it’s called. My aunt got a hammer me and my hammeruncle and aunt started laughing but it wasn’t bad it really took off the ice.
My whole family started playing snowball fight. This is how we had fun last friday.

In Friday it was snow
By a 4th grader in my ESL class
(Note: I rewrote this as a poem, conserving the cadence & word choice, but correcting the spelling. It seemed to fit a poetic structure.)
Last day in Friday it was snow and I felt happy because it was beautiful.
I did in the snow I did snowman and
I did snow ball because snow is fun and the snowblacksnowflakes
felt me happy because I felt that the snow is cold
because when it was snowing I told to my sister
Look snow!
Then I got outside in the snow
I did in the snow
angel because it was soft
and me and my friend we was laughing because it was snow a lot and a lot
and I play with my cousin because I felt happy with her
and I did with my cousin that we did the snow man together a the snow
was white and I felt that the snow was a ice
and when the snow is ice is so hard and is cold
that you even can’t not get it
I did with my sister snow fighting.

Cleaning Cars in the Snow
By an ESL third grader
Last Friday I wake up and it was snowing. I told my mom if we were going to school and she told me to knock on my friend’s door and she said that were not going to school. I went back and told my mom that we were not having school because it was snowing and windy. What I did in Friday was I went outside and play. I made a snowman with my Dad, my sister and my friend not my mom because she was making food for breakfeats. We even cleaned my two cars. One is color Baby Blue and the other one is color Gray. We blue cardid not clean my friend’s car because we cleaned my cars. Then gray carI went inside because we were finished cleaning my two cars.

In education, every couple of years, someone will write a book about teaching reading, vocabulary or writing that becomes the definitive ‘answer’ (for a few years, at least) to the problems teachers have teaching these subjects. So after formulaic writing came:

6 Traits (later updated to 6 + 1 Trails, which added “presentation” as the +1, or 7th trait) of Writing:
The 6+1 Trait® Writing Model of Instruction & Assessment comprises 6+1 key qualities that define quality writing. These are:
• Ideas—the main message
• Organization—the internal structure of the piece
• Voice—the personal tone and flavor of the author’s message
• Word Choice—the vocabulary a writer chooses to convey meaning
• Sentence Fluency—the rhythm and flow of the language
• Conventions—the mechanical correctness
• Presentation—how the writing actually looks on the page
The teacher is expected to focus on one trait at a time, modeling it through literature, teaching techniques for using it, and letting the kids write with that trait in mind. In the workshop model, the teacher conferences with each student individually about their writing and suggests improvements. If a grade is taken for each of these writings, it should only be based on the one trait students were supposed to be practicing.
See web site http://educationnorthwest.org/traits/trait-definitions for further information and descriptions of each trait.
I was excited! I thought the six traits would be a fun and effective way to teach writing!
However, as an ESL teacher, I remained frustrated. I liked the traits, but found that we often got stuck on the first couple and other things got in our way before we got to all of them. But that wasn’t the main problem. There have been many books written, including books of student activities, to help teach each of the traits, but our English learners were still having a lot of trouble. They were still relying heavily on the formula, negating Trait 3 (voice), and struggling with word choice and sentence fluency. Many teachers were still stuck on the 5-paragraph formula also. Their rationale was that students had to learn how to write using a formula first, and later break out into something more creative. I found that often, they themselves didn’t like or know how to write well, or at least they didn’t know how to teach it well. I fell into the latter category.
Many of my students had so many issues with conventions – always the first things we tend to look at, especially with students whose native language is not English – that these were all we had time to work on together. If they exchanged their writing with a partner, whose job it was to read it and suggest improvements, the partner generally focused on matters of convention: capital letters, periods, spelling, indentation of paragraphs, use or lack of use of transitional words – things that were part of the formula that they had learned and could understand.
Developing “sentence fluency” and “voice” were the hardest for ELLs to incorporate intogirl writing-frustrated their writing. They were writing in a foreign language, not the one in which they were most expressive, so how could they find that special “voice” or develop a good sentence rhythm?
Sometimes their writing would be charming with its unnatural constructions and unusual spelling (like the samples above). I saw “voice” in many of their unique ways of expressing themselves in their second language and I even told them to use Spanish words occasionally to add “flavor”. But this was generally when we were doing creative writing, such as fictional stories, personal narratives, or poems.
        Last weekend it was extremely cold weather and it was 0°F. At school we have inside recess a lot of times. When I came home cars were cold, frozen, and could not work. I was watching TV and the TV turned off because the snow was going to the wires. Because of the snow it is freezing cold. I don’t like the cold.
We couldn’t spend too much time on this – it was more important that they learn to write boy writing-unhappyexpository essays to do well on standardized tests.
On the other hand, some students wrote so incoherently that I could barely understand what they were writing about. Even their illustrations might not be particularly enlightening.
Then along came Lucy Calkins – the new writing “guru” for educators.
My first exposure to Lucy Calkins’ methodology and philosophy was when I taught briefly at a dual language school (mentioned in an earlier post – see Peace Place) in Chicago. She starts each of her min-lessons with a dialogue with the students, which can sometimes be lengthy – but it makes sense. Her philosophy is to allow students more freedom to explore their creativity and “voice” while writing, making it pleasurable instead of a boring chore.
She advises teachers to demonstrate each mini-lesson with an excerpt of real writing, something she can get excited about and the students too, especially if they have already read it!
The first kind of writing Calkins suggests is a personal narrative, which is to be expected – it’s the student’s own experience, telling it in her own words. What happens is that many students think back on an experience and then retell it as a very general recounting of their entire day, or entire vacation, something like: “I went with my family, my uncles and aunts, cousins, mom, dad, brother and sisters to the Wisconsin Dells. We went to the water park. We went on the water slides. We had fun.”
So she suggests that to get kids to focus on only one event or incident is to compare it to a watermelon: A “watermelon story” is very big and has few details. It’s usually boring. Watermelons have black seeds scattered throughout and that is how a personal narrative should be – focus in on a “seed story”. Teachers put up posters of watermelons with seeds in them, and students copied this drawing into their writing journals.

watermelon_colour_pencil_drawingThe visual seemed to work well. The students could see how big the watermelon was compared to each individual seed, and although each seed might contain a fascinating story, their job was to pick only one and tell everything they could about it. The watermelon was their vacation to Wisconsin Dells, while the seed was the time when the writer and her cousins went down the water slide and splashed into the water – what was that like? How did you feel? Use descriptive words, your feelings, all your senses if possible. Did something unexpected happened? How did your feelings change?
This model produced some great stories and even the most reluctant and least-confident writers at least were able to come up with a creative idea, even if they had trouble developing it.
One of the best stories that came out of that third grade class was a boy’s description of playing hockey. He was passionate about hockey at the young age of eight, and had

Children aged 6-8 playing hockey

Children aged 6-8 playing hockey

already been playing it for three years! He took the reader onto the ice and inside the head of the author/player by telling play by play what happened – who did what, how he handled each play, etc. It moved along fast with some internal chaos, just as a hockey game would. This kid had never thought of himself as a writer until I praised him to the skies about his hockey narrative!
This is the stuff of good stories and a chance for students to be creative. Maybe some will love writing as I do! Yes, students will probably continue to learn the formulaic 5-paragraph essay, but thanks to Lucy Calkins (and others), that isn’t all there is.



June 8, 2015

V is for Vacation, a teacher’s favorite word! I admit that having summers off was an closedforsummer_colorincentive for me to go into teaching. However, teaching is way too challenging and exhausting for that to be the appeal for long!

Teachers look forward to their vacations as much as their students do. Most schools in the U.S. have three vacation periods a year:  2 weeks for the holidays, 1 week in early spring, and 2 months in summer. Each one of these vacations is a chance to relax and rejuvenate, but summer represents the transition from the old to the new. By this time each year, everyone at school is anticipating the start of vacation. Kids are antsier than normal and teachers tend to have a more relaxed attitude too.

What exactly do we spend our summer vacations doing? Often students are asked to write “What I did on my summer vacation” paragraphs when they first go back to school in the fall. If I as a teacher were writing that, what would I say?

I'm on vacationIn the early years of teaching, we often spend our summers taking classes, perhaps working toward a graduate degree. In my case, I took classes required for ESL and bilingual teaching certification. The first one I took was a survey course, and it was held in Oaxaca, Mexico – a nice way to combine work and pleasure!

Some teachers will teach summer school or tutor students for part of the summer. Some get other part-time jobs to supplement their income. When my husband was teaching at a Chicago high school, these jobs helped boost his “strike fund” – extra money put aside in case there was a strike and thus a period of not being paid.

Some teachers will just stay home and relax, catch up on sleep and do home-based projects that they never could get to during the school year. Maybe do some gardening, painting, cleaning out closets, whatever.

Of course, the vacations I most look forward to were those during which I got to travel!

Here are the trips I took during my vacation periods:
March 2001 (spring break) – Cuba with my mother
DSCN7981Every summer – our cottage in Northern Wisconsin
July 2003 – Oaxaca, Mexico with others taking a graduate course required for ESL/bilingual education
July-Aug. 2004 – 5 weeks study abroad & homestay in Costa Rica, with my son (took Spanish and a Costa Rican culture course).
June, 2005 (5 days) – Arizona for high school reunion, (where my husband met my two Cathedralbest friends from high school), and visit to my aunt & uncle in Mansurs' house in Prescott - 2005 scrapbookPrescott
June 2006 (2 weeks) – another high school reunion and sightseeing in Arizona, followed by a week in Seattle, WA where we had a family reunion of sorts with my husband’s family
Aug. 2007 (5 days) – San Francisco, with my husband, sister & brother-in-law, for an aunt’s memorial
July 2008 – (12 days) Peru – (with a tour company) see elsewhere in this blog for my 978complete journal of that trip.
July 2009 – (10 days) Hawaii, to visit my husband’s sister & Raw00107tour Oahu with a short hop to Maui
July 2010 (4 1/2 weeks) Spain – (study abroad) see elsewhere in this blog for my complete journal of that trip.
DSCN4007June-July 2012 – (road trip) ancestors tour to Ohio and Indiana, visit

Katy standing behind one of the guitars

Springfield, IL
June-July 2013 – road trip to Texas to visit 506a high school  friend, also visited Memphis, TN.
Late March 2014 (1 week) – road trip to South Carolina, Hilton Head, and Savannah, GA. DSCN8635Thus I’ve managed to take some kind of trip almost every year during my teaching career! I plan to continue traveling as often as possible during retirement, but it could be at any time of year – stay tuned!

rainbow & airplaneThis summer will seem like any other summer, except that we have sold our cottage, so next weekend is our last trip up there.  I don’t think I’ll feel “retired” until school starts again in August and I won’t be going back!

For me, the summer of 2015 marks the end of an era.


ABC COUNTDOWN TO RETIREMENT: U is for uniforms (uniformity?)

U is for uniforms.

Most public school students in the United States do not wear uniforms. However, a common topic for teaching persuasive essay writing is, “Should students be required to wear uniforms to school?”  The majority of students I have seen write on this topic have the opinion that no, students shouldn’t be required to wear them. School uniforms may promote school pride and unity, but the idea goes against a basic value in our society: individualism.

I used to be a strong critic of uniforms for public school students, but I am leaning toward being a proponent of some kind of uniform – or at least some uniformity of dress for students.

This graph shows that the number of schools requiring students to wear uniforms has increased, but only slightly.

This graph shows that the number of schools requiring students to wear uniforms has increased, but only slightly. How many of these are public schools?

I understand the arguments against uniforms…they take away individuality, they lack style, you’d need to buy several of them to last through the week and they can’t be replaced by hand-me-downs.

However, one thing I’ve noticed in our culture of informality is that people’s manners tend to match their clothing. If you are dressed up to go to the opera, say, or a night out on the town, you would probably dress nicer than usual. If you are wearing nice clothes, you tend to have better manners while eating so you don’t soil your dress up clothes, and your behavior in the theatre or on a date is also affected.

I went to a private boarding high school in Arizona. There was a lot of dust in the air and it was the late 1960s. Most of the time, we students wore jeans or cut offs, T-shirts, tank tops, sweatshirts, etc. However, the rule then was that we had to dress up for dinner: boys were required to wear a nice shirt and dress pants (no tie or suit jacket necessary) and girls were expected to wear dresses or at the very least, dressy pants.  It may have seemed like an inconvenient rule at the time, but I came to realize that I liked it. It made dinner a little more special because we had to prepare for it by showering and wearing nice clothes. Our manners in the dining room improved, and it was a chance to wear my nicest clothes.

I think the same holds true with students today. If kids come to school with ripped, frayed jeans, or shirts that are soiled or too small, their behavior in some ways will match the clothes. I have worked as a substitute in schools were some kind of uniform dress was required and – maybe it was my imagination – the kids seemed a little better behaved. I’m not a psychologist, but I’m pretty sure studies have been done on this phenomenon.

By “uniforms”, do I mean this:uniformity in uniformsor this:
uniforms-optionsuniforms-diff colors?

I think the latter. Most of the time when I’ve seen uniforms in public schools, there is usually a polo shirt in a choice of colors, and pants (shorts in warm weather) or skirt (or jumper) that are either dark blue or tan. No jeans! Having a uniform policy that is somewhat flexible like this prevents costs going up when a company monopolizes the school uniform market. You can find polo shirts and plain dress pants and skirts just about anywhere. And the shoes?  That’s where I think kids should be able to wear whatever is comfortable and affordable.

Here are some more arguments for and against wearing uniforms at school:


uniforms-stylizeuniforms-pro and con

Hand-me-downs? ALL clothes that are in good shape can be hand-me-downs! Take it from me, the youngest of five children!

uniforms-pro&conIn the last chart, (from http://pixgood.com/school-uniform-cons.html), I disagree with most of the “con” side.  Sure, uniforms cost money but so do all clothes! And with uniformity, there is less peer pressure to get the latest fashion or look “cool”. Polo shirts and plain pants are available at stores like Wal-Mart and Target, where affordable prices are the norm.

Uniforms don’t have to be uncomfortable. Polo shirts are not uncomfortable and if given a choice in style while conforming to the color rules, pants and skirts will be similar to what the child is used to wearing.

In the real world, people don’t all dress the same. “Real world”, meaning “out of school.” In the “real world” you don’t have 25 to 90 children in the same place at the same time. Besides, school is part of the real world. It is the real world that children inhabit on average 5 1/2 hours a day, five days a week, 9 months a year.

What I often see in school are kids wearing inappropriate clothing: skinny tops that don’t cover  little girls’ torsos so their belly buttons show, pants that are ripped, frayed, or too big, which to me denotes a lack of respect for oneself as well as the school. Kids, especially the young ones, may not be the best judges of what is appropriate to wear. That’s the parents’ job. Having a uniformity policy takes away the potential of conflict between parent and child over what to wear.

A school-wide incentive could even be implemented –  “No uniform day” – for a low number of disciplinary cases in the school.

I found an interesting map, showing the states that “allow” districts to make decisions regarding uniforms. This is from the web site http://theproscons.com/pros-cons-of-school-uniforms/.

uniforms-states that allowThis may be curious especially to people in other countries, where uniforms are a given, not a debatable issue!

Uniforms are not going to solve the problems of bullying, peer pressure, and gang activity in school, but they may help alleviate these problems.