Saturday, March 28, 2015

New Book in The Saga!

Newly Published

Silvrin Shards, the next book in The Saga of Magiskeep is now available for Kindle at Amazon.  Epub version is available at Smashwords. Paperback will be available soon.

Epub Version at Smashwords

Kindle Version at Amazon

Silvrin Shards—fractured pieces twisting reality out of the Way of Mirrors. The world is distorted, and the very life of Magic is challenged by the darkness of men's evil ambitions and the hunger of Shadows

Deceptions abound in three new stories of Magiskeep as Jamus’ mastery of both the Keep and  Way is challenged by Shadows, reflections and the foolish ambitions of men.

Darkwing’s Daughter holds the secret of Shadows in her heart as a passage to the Way spills deceit into one of the provinces. 

Dreamchaser offers a dangerous adventure, horse thieves and a young boy whose courage knows no bounds. 

The dangerous Cave of Shadows leads Jamus into a riddle he must solve in order to save Magiskeep from the treachery of Reflections determined to conquer the very heart of Magic. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Testing Muck Just Keeps Getting Deeper

One Revelation After Another

Pearson's overly zealous protection of its tests is a bigger story than many news outlets report.

According to recent information, students were actually encouraged to open social media accounts approved by the schools and testing companies just so they could be spied on to see what they were saying about tests. Talk about entrapment.

Then we have the Global Teacher of the Year advising young people not to go into education because of high stakes testing and the monster Common Core has become.

One thing after another and all because of the "cash cow" education has become. Corporations finally found a source of money they could access, and by heavens they are accessing it.

One after another, school systems are being sold learning programs and grading programs and assessment programs designed by "educational firms."  I use the term loosely because I have seen some of these materials while I was teaching and since I've retired.

I had boxes of brand new textbooks in my classroom storage room that I never opened. The books came with teachers' manuals, cd's, lesson materials, and handouts.  I'm sure they cost thousands of dollars. Supposedly, they set up entire course outlines for each grade level. Over the years I had acquired hundreds of paperbacks with good literature, designed hundreds of worksheets and assignments with related lessons, invented all kinds of projects and activities to teach various language/writing skills, and all the tests and assessments to go with them. Essentially, I had my own textbook/learning unit for each course I taught.  I'd like to think it worked. I was never at a loss for what to teach, how to teach it, and how to figure out if my students had learned anything. I didn't need a prepackaged curriculum created by someone else whose mind operated in a different way than mine did.  I used the textbook materials sparingly. (I know some of the other teachers in my department did the same.)

We had a cache of old books in the school. Texts were not outdated, because literature itself does not become outdated. Nor do grammar, writing, or reading skills become outdated. Some of the older stuff was, frankly, ten times better than the "new" materials provided in the expensive new learning units. And, more importantly, using the variety of materials we had allowed us to teach creatively, adapting to our students' needs, interests, and enthusiasm rather than being stuck with a set course someone else had created.  I was always developing new ideas, new assignments, new lessons depending on what direction my classes wanted or needed to go based on what was happening in the classroom.

But these corporate curriculum materials leave little room for inventiveness. They are like prepackaged dinners--add water, cook for 45 minutes and the need to learn has a full stomach. Who cares if the food tastes good or has all the flavor of "fresh made." It's quick, it's easy, and the teacher certainly doesn't have to think too much about dishing it out.

When I tutored last year, I saw some of the materials from a middle school "learning package." The directions were rather vague but the essence of it was for the student to write an essay about how a disease might become pandemic. There were two articles to chose from. One supposedly was about  epidemic diseases spreading in animal populations, and the other on how diseases spread in human populations.  Fair enough, but when I read both articles, the animal article had absolutely no information whatsoever about how the specific disease spread. It explained the symptoms of the disease and talked about the pathogens involved, but nothing about how it spread from animal to animal, or from animal to human. I read the article three times to be sure.

My tutoree had chosen the animal article while most of the other students in her class had chosen the human one. She wanted to be different, to challenge herself, had written her proposal and submitted it to her teacher. Needless to say the feed back was negative. Only allowed to use the text information presented in the article, she was not able to support an argument about spreading a disease and so, the teacher had noted she was not on topic and needed to rewrite her plan.  Needless to say, after some discussion of the article and the required assignment, both my student and I agreed she needed to change her choice of article and join the rest of the class.

I don't know if the teacher ever reviewed the articles before giving the assignment. I have no idea what the situation in the the classroom was as far as class size or time. I am not condemning the teacher here. I am condemning the so-called corporate "educator" who designed the assignment and then sold it to the school system as the perfect learning tool. Since this was not the first nor the last time I found such flaws in prepackage educational materials, I've learned to be wary.

Just as prepackaged foods are not the best for our health, prepackaged educational materials are not the best for our students' educational health.  Yet school systems play the cash cow and hand over thousands of dollars for them. Perhaps a good checkup would do us all good.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Test Security

The Mickey Mouse Defense

The testing "invasion of privacy" scandal continues in New Jersey and the State Legislature held a hearing with testimony from NJ education officials to see "what's up."

During the course of the hearing, the test developers' "spying" on students' social media accounts was defended on the basis of "protecting intellectual property."  By posting messages with information about the tests they had taken, students were "guilty" of stealing Pearson's tests materials--so goes the claim. That allowed Pearson access to protected information about student identities on social media even though the students were using Internet pseudonyms. In the face of their "crimes," students lost all their rights to privacy on the sites.
Lock It Out Clip Art

Right or wrong?  As I've noted in earlier posts, the whole notion of maintaining test secrecy is educationally unsound. Legally? Apparently not.

All, right, let's accept that for now. I certainly don't want large chunks of my novels published freely about the Internet when I am trying to earn money from my writing. I've tracked down a couple "cyberthiefs" already. But a phrase or two from the books? I've published up chapters on Amazon Kindle and Bookbzz already to attract readers. It's hard to accept that one or two test questions compromised really matters that much. And again, if students are discussing in order to learn, perhaps it's not such a bad thing. Certainly, a book club would be welcome to share the whole plot of my novels if they had truly enjoyed them and wanted to share the experience. The fact is, if they'd all bought the books in the first place, I'd made my fair profit and couldn't really expect more.

Now, it would be different if someone made copies of my book and sold it to a new audience. But the fact is, the PARCC test has already been sold in huge numbers for huge profits, I'm sure. For an author, once all the books are sold and the market saturated, the only solution is to write another book. Maybe some new test questions? Just a thought.

The hearing presented "logical" arguments to justify Pearson's spying. My favorite is the Mickey Mouse defense.  In a nutshell, the presenter argued that if a student had prior knowledge of Mickey Mouse before taking the test, that he/she would have an advantage if given a reading selection or test questions based on Mickey Mouse.  I have no idea where the allusion actually came from but here's my take. (By the way, this would be a great place for a picture of Mickey, but Disney is very protective of its "intellectual property rights" and posting one would be a serious violation.)

Absolutely not.
Country Scene Clip Art
In fact, my third grade experience absolutely proves the theory wrong. I had had years of experience living in the country and visiting the city. (see post from 3/11)  When it came to taking the test, my prior knowledge failed me completely. The test was designed to force me to make my decisions on the correct answer based only on the material/facts presented in the test and nothing more. My previous knowledge and experience actually gave me the wrong answer.

In order to keep tests "neutral" test creators strive to keep the outside world out of at least the objective portions of the test. In the essay sections, perhaps, students may be able to use their externals knowlege and experiences to answer questions, but even then the test will often demand they cite examples from provided text to justify their opinions.

In essence, the test becomes a universe of its own, unrelated to the student's personal or educational life beyond it.

One more nail in the coffin of standardized tests.

What's happening here is that the value of the tests, both economically and educationally has been so overblown, we've all lost track of what we should care about. It's about time to do a little reevaluation of the whole system.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

So How Does the Test Work?

Or Does It?

Walter Stroup, an education professor at the University of Texas, challenged the validity of Pearson's standardized tests in Texas over a year ago. His point was that the tests did not really measure student learning but rather students' test taking skills. There's a lot more to his arguments and if you do a Google search for his name you can find a number of well written articles explaining his testimony before the Texas legislature and the facts behind the story far better than I can.  Walter Stroup Challenges Testing

My experience tends to agree with Professor Stroup.  When I was teaching, and preparing students for the high stakes HSPA test, I began to realize that what students really needed to pass was not an education in English language skills, but rather an education in how to beat the test.
School Set Clip Art
I, myself, had gotten pretty good at it. After that little episode back in elementary school where I learned that what I knew mattered less than what the test writer wanted me to choose as the correct answer, I'd scored high on nearly every standard test I ever took. I won the "Betty Crocker Homemaker" award in high school based on a standardized test, and believe me, I am far from a skilled homemaker. I was always in the upper percentile when standardized test scores were released.

I had a good friend who was even better at tests than I was, and I remember once when we performed an experiment with a standardized test. This was not a high stakes tests, but rather an "occupational choice " test that was supposed to help students decide what job field they should pursue based upon answers to various questions about their preferences. That day, I decided I'l like to spend my time outdoors. After all it was a nice day. At that point in my life, I pretty much had decided I really wanted to be an English teacher, but the"imp of the perverse" was at work.  I answered every question leading to some kind of "back to nature career," even though, more than once, I wasn't really being honest.

My friend decided he was going to take the opposite approach and answer every question absolutely honestly.  Do, in one case he chose violin player over astronaut, and then later chemist over dancer. He just let his wide preferences free and really tried to pick his favorites out of all the choices.

Several weeks later the test results came back. Sure enough, I think I was informed I might want to be a forest ranger. My friend? He'd failed. (Well, you couldn't really fail, but his test results were invalid) He was going to have to take the test again to get the required score.

Now, that test meant nothing in the larger scheme of things except that if proved the point that in the end a standardized test is not always a valid evaluation tool of anything except what the test is designed for.

So, what are tests like PARCC designed for? To evaluate what a student has learned? No. Supposedly to evaluate students' skills. Can they read? Can they answer questions about a piece text? And can they understand exactly what the test writer means by the question and what the test writer has decided is the correct answer.

Usually, it goes like this. For a multiple choice question with four possible answers, two really can be discarded, leaving two possible correct answers. Of those two, one is a trap and the other one is correct.

To pick the correct answer, the student needs to uncover the trap and choose the other answer. Sometimes that's easy. Sometimes it's not. Sometimes, even on the practice tests we had a school to use for classroom training, I, as a teacher who'd scored nearly perfect numbers on my SAT's, would puzzle over the choices and come up with the wrong answer. It didn't happen often, fortunately, and more often I could explain why the "right" answer was the "right" answer, but it was a frustrating experience when it did.

After a while, I developed a pretty steep learning curve of my own and managed to discriminate between answer choices well enough and conquered the secrets of the HSPA.  Ultimately, I developed reading skills not so much to read the text material presented in the test, but rather to read the questions cautiously enough to sort out just what answer the test writer wanted.  In essence, I became a good test taker and that is what I taught my students.

I had great success. Now, mind you, I was teaching the "honors" classes, so my students were pretty skilled to start off with, so that helped a lot. But if my evaluation as a teacher would have been based upon those test scores, I would have hung my head in shame. During those weeks of test preparation, I 'd hardly taught a thing about the beauty of the English language, or the wonders of literature, or the great pleasure of truly creative writing (more on that later). Nope, all I'd done is equipped my students with test taking skills.

And, in the end that's all that mattered for them to succeed.

And, after all, as Professor Stroup suggests, that's all they really needed to succeed.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Testing Scandal

Let's Keep It All a Secret

The lastest scandal regarding the PARCC test in New Jersey relates to how the testing company, Pearson, has apparently been monitoring social media sites to see whether students are discussing the test.  Of course, testing material is highly secret, so for students to share information about the questions and reading selections is against the rules.
Top Secret Folder Clip Art
I am both angered and yet not surprised by this news. But there is a larger issue lurking under the service of this invasion of students' privacy and that relates to the monster of this secrecy.

The only feedback students ever get from the test are their scores. They never find out which specific questions they got wrong or why. Teachers themselves also never get to see anything beyond the scores and perhaps some kind of data sheet that supposedly shows what skills students mastered and what skills they got wrong. Again, they never get to see the questions and answers for any further analysis.

So, did student John get question number ten wrong because he couldn't read, or was it because he thought the country was quiet despite what the reading material suggested? *See my March 11 blog for an explanation of this*  What good is the test as a teaching tool if teacher and student have no idea of where things went wrong or right?

I have to admit, when I was teaching test prep, one of the more interesting aspects was the learning that went on and the insight into student thinking processes as we discussed specific example questions and how students would answer them. The analysis of the questions, the methods of choosing the correct answer, and discovering the various thinking paths we might travel to get the wrong answer was far more important than the answer itself. More than once, as a teacher, I found myself telling a student, "You know, the answer you chose made perfect sense, but it's not the one the test maker wanted. Let's try to figure that out."  Both students and I could often justify a wrong answer with good clear logic as we sorted out the secrets of "beating the test" by deciding just what the test makers wanted us to say instead.

Learning needs feedback. Learning needs discussion. A wrong answer ignored teaching nothing. A wrong answer discussed and analyzed teaches.

But these tests aare kept under lock and key. No one, not even the teachers are supposed to see the questions and materials. No one is ever supposed to discuss the materials either.

Back to question number ten. John got that one wrong. Does he or the teacher ever find out why? Does he learn anything from his mistake? Impossible. Question number ten is a deep, dark secret no one must ever see. Likely John will make the same mistake next time he's confronted with that question again or one just like it. He'll never get the chance to see where he went astray. How much more might he learn if he and his teacher were able to talk it over?

Considering the huge cost of developing these tests, I can understand the desire for security.  Make a test, keep it secret, and use it for years. Don't let anyone know what's on it so you don't have to rewrite or replace any of the materials. Protect your profits.

Despite was anyone might say, these tests do not offer any real learning experiences. Perhaps, at the end of a child's education, pure evaluation without any feedback might be OK, but at the lower grade levels?

We hide the secrets by calling them "assessments." We spend hours of valuable classroom learning time "assessing" and less and less teaching/learning.

It's about time we re-evaluated our whole perspective and decided what's really important. Testing of this kind is not a means to an end, but the end.

All the secrecy does nothing to promote good learning.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

So, What's the Secret?

 Who Grades What? Royalty Free Clipart Image of a Person Writing and Throwing Paper

In his expose book about the grading of essays on standardized tests, Making the Grades, Todd Farley tells of his experiences as an essay grader for one of the largest testing companies. It's a great read and a scary story of just how things can go awry. When you consider how many students take these tests and how many essays and open ended questions they write, it's hard to imagine how they can all be evaluated fairly.

Mr. Farley admits to many faults in the grading systems and, having been an English teacher myself for so many years, I tend to believe his version of what happens rather than the testing company's denials. I might have had as many as 150 students in my class schedule each year and if I assigned esssay/written work to all of them perhaps three times a week (usually it was more) that meant I would have some 450 papers to grade. Actually, it was more, but that's a good benchmark. I wouldn't have to grade all those papers that week, but I always felt my students needed feedback sooner than later.

As a result, for a lot of the work I required I created all kinds of grading streamlines, looking for specific information, writing requirements, or more general elements for each assignment, allowing me to grade quickly and efficiently for much of the less complex work. Some assignments require more attention and time to be fairly scored, of course, but even averaging 4 minutes a paper, that meant some thirty hours of grading papers per week. Now, I didn't spend that much time each week but it probably happened at least ten times a year, maybe more.

Now, picture the test scoring room for standardized tests. From Mr. Farley's description, dozens a paid scorers sit all day--an eight hour workday--reading and scoring tests. They might score more than 250 in a day.  That's less then 3 minutes an essay for some high stakes test scores--scores that might determine whether or not a student will graduate from high school.

Scorers have limited training unless they are already trained teachers. But Mr. Farley tells us many of the scorers hired were not teachers and many even had limited English language skills. They were taught to look for key words, phrases, and basic elements easy to find in a minute or so. This is a form of holistic grading and can work provided the grader has a good grasp of the material being evaluated. It's not true for random topics and scorers not expert in the field.

Essentially, it's not fair. Sorry, but anyone grading hundreds of essays in one sitting is going to get a bit cross-eyed to say nothing of cross after a few hours. It's almost impossible to maintain a fair standard, and do an effective job.

It wouldn't matter too much if the scores meant nothing, but that's not the way of standardized, mandated testing today. In some states, teachers' job performances are evaluated on how well their students do on the tests. Students' ability to graduate might be impacted by test scores. And school funding and overall success can be dependent on the scores.

It's just not fair.

If you want to read Mr. Farley's book--and trust me, if you are at all interested in the standardized testing controversy it's well worth it--you can find it at Amazon. Making the Grades

Also, a Google search will find several interviews with Mr. Farley.  Another expert on the subject, Diane Ravitch is another excellent source of insight into the world of high stakes testing.

If you care, take some time to investigate.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Test Taking Skills: The Basic Lesson

How to Ace a Standardized Test

One of the reasons I so dislike standardized tests is something that happened to me when I was in second or third grade. Even back then there were batteries of tests sold to schools that were supposed to assess student language skills. While some skills can be fairly tested with objective questions--recognizing parts of speech, basic grammar, spelling, and vocabulary--reading comprehension and writing skills can get a bit tricky.

Luckily, I learned the key "way back when" and never forgot the lesson.

I was given one of those standardized tests. Perfectionist that I was about tests, I was upset to find I had gotten one particular question wrong. It went something like this:

John who lived in the city all his life visited his friend Tom in the country. That night, when John went to bed he heard some crickets cry, and owl hoot and a nightbird sing. John had no idea the country could be so:
A. cold   B. dark   C. quiet   D. noisy 

I, having been brought up in the country had traveled to the city many times. The noise of cars, trucks, people, sirens, and dozens of other loud sounds always assaulted my "country" ears. So, with my wide eyed second/third grade wisdom, I selected answer "C. quiet." Obvious to me. Compared to the city, the country was a silent paradise.


Now, most of you saavy test takers know the correct answer is "D. noisy." When you answer basic comprehension questions on a reading selection, you must throw out all your prior knowledge, all your experience, and just use the information provided in the text to choose the right answer. John heard noises when he went to bed. It did not matter that they were mild and even soothing to country folk compared to the raucous hustle and bustle of his city home. The text said he heard noises so, the country was noisy.

I, even at that tender age, argued with my teacher about that answer and it took her a bit of extra work to finally get me to understand where I had gone wrong. I was lucky enough to finally get the idea.

The right answers on a standardized tests really have nothing to do with things you've learned along the way in life. They are the answers the test writer has decided are correct. You must ignore your own creative thinking and get into the writer's head instead.

This particular test writer had tricked me by posing "quiet" as one of the answers. He knew there were kids like me out there who would use their own knowledge of the world instead of the test material to answer the question. Thinking "outside the box" was a poor tactic for the testee to use.

Color inside the lines. Don't be creative. Don't think beyond the words on the page.

And, oh, yes, look for the "trap you" answer. It's usually there somewhere.

It's all part of the standardized test strategy game.

More tips in Part 3.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Standardized Testing in Schools

PARCC and All the Rest (Part 1: The Trend)

There is controversy brewing about the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) testing here in New Jersey and in other states. This is well worth concern for parents, students and educators.

I taught English for over 38 years in a County Vocational School. During that time standardized testing reared its ugly head and became more and more important to classroom teaching. At first, New Jersey had the "Minimum Basic Skills" (MBS) test for students. That test was simply to assess whether or not students had basic knowledge and skills in reading, writing and math. It was mostly used as an evaluation of student level so teachers could figure out what their students needed to learn and how much remediation they might need in certain areas.

Time passed and gradually, these mandated tests became higher stakes in the education "game." The HSPT (High School Proficency Test) appeared and eventually, passing it became a graduation requirement--well sort of. There were all kinds of ways students could succeed in conquering the test including special remedial classes with teacher scored projects to replace the test scores themselves.

More time passed and the HSPA (High School Proficiency Assessment) replaced the HSPT. Along the way, the stakes were raised. It became more difficult for students to evade those test scores, and the added bonus was the "No Child Left Behind" Act which, in NJ, wrapped its claws around test scores. Now, the school's efficiency was also being judged by test scores. School scores were expected to get better each year--schools had to show yearly annual progress--with larger and larger percentages of students passing the tests each year to prove that education was actually taking place. Schools failing to meet those yearly progress goals were deemed as "failing" schools and faced possible takeover by the State. The ultimate goal was that by the end of a set period of time, all students in the school district would pass the test--proof that no child had been left behind in the education process.

Sounds great on paper. After all, test scores are nice numbers you can put on pretty charts and are perfect evaluations of how much a student has learned and what he understands. Right?  Make a neat little graph for each kid if you have time--oh, wait, that was before HSPT, something called T &E, Thorough and Efficient. When I retired, I still had a few of those charts stashed in the back of my file cabinet--and it's easy for everyone to see just how much progress has been made. Even politicians can read a chart like that to see if the graph goes up or down.

But whose fault would it be if the student's happy little graph didn't go up? Why, the teacher, of course. Who cares if the student had been sick all year, had problems at home keeping her from studying, didn't have good food to eat, or simply just wasn't the kind of student who did well on academic tests. (Trust me on this one. I had hundreds of students who were master welders, auto mechanics, hairdressers, carpenters, machine tool experts, electricians, and bakers who were ready to go out to earn healthy livings and have happy lives who never were any good at taking written tests. Vocational education is "a whole 'nother world,") Nope, now it was the teacher's fault if students didn't achieve to test standards. Might as well hold them accountable.

Maybe it was time to withhold salary increases or find some other way to make teachers responsible. How about dozens of different workshops put on by big companies teaching teachers how to teach? We could learn the colors of learning, how to apply all kinds of neat little tricks in the classroom to liven things up and make sure we were reaching out to every kind of learner sitting in the desks before us. We could write twenty page lesson plans with minute details of nearly every word we were going to say in class and make sure our black/white board had goals for the day listed so our students knew what they were supposed to learn that day. Dare we deviate from the scheduled lesson because Janice in the back row asked an interesting question that might lead us all in an entirely different direction? Dare we discover and explore the strange phenomenon of twenty-three birds of prey perched on the roof next door instead of focusing on the objectives on the board?  Well, not if any one of power visited the classroom. Best be working on those lesson plans. After all, the students needed to learn all the stuff they needed to pass the test, and as a teacher, it was all up to you to see that they did.

I retired the year before the edicts hit. Part of the reason I left everyday teaching was because I saw what was coming. Already the HSPA had taken a chunk of joy out of my classroom. I was required to spend several weeks each year preparing my students to take the test.

What did I teach? Nothing about English or literature, exactly. What I taught was "How to Take and Pass a Standardized Test."

More about that in Part 2.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Writer's Block

A Chip Off the Old One

I am, it seems temporarily stuck in a bit of a writing block.

It is not a lack of ideas. I definitely have the story outlined for the fifth novel in The Saga of Magiskeep, and know exactly where the story needs to go.

What I seem to be lacking is motivation to write at the moment. I certainly have time. Living here in New Jersey, the State of Eternal Winter, I'm not doing much of anything besides staying indoors. I've had several substitute teaching jobs, I still sing in the church choir, and I have plenty of snow outside to shovel and plow--I have a tractor with a front end loader.

Snow piles like a writer's block.

There is no real reason not to simply sit down here at the computer and start typing. The words are there. They've been roaming around in my head for days.

What's stopping my fingers from putting them on the page?

It's hard to say, but I actually do think the weather has something to do with it. The tedium of days and days of bitter cold, and the constant sight of white out the window certainly doesn't inspire too much creativity. I think my frustration with the weather has spilled over into the rest of my life.

As most of you know, I am a horseback rider and horse owner. I have three horses right here in the back yard of my house. Watching them cope with the weather is an interesting pastime. They, like me, are caught up in the utter ennui of too many days of monotonous cold, snow covered days.

They are just standing around, not even bothering to do much more than eat the hay I put out for them and to grump at each other. All three are dressed in winter blankets designed to protect them from the cold and wet, although they would do just fine without them. They have plenty of shelter from the weather, and unlike humans, the cold really doesn't bother them too much.

But the lack of something to do is another story. The result has been a pile of ripped blankets. Horses do not play nicely. They chase each other with teeth and hoof as a part of some pretty rough horse games. One of their favorites is grab the blanket and hold on. If the other guy gets away unscathed so be it. But more often than not, the blanket does not escape undamaged.

Right now, two of Tucker's blankets are on the back porch awaiting a stitch or hundred in time.  Chance is wearing a blanket I stitched back together while he was wearing it, and Tucker's third blanket of the season is currently sporting a rather large duct tape bandage. (Yes, duct tape will one day save the world.) I had to buckle Toby's blanket in front in place of the snap clip that was broken off.

The only hope left is that the weather forecasts are right and the cold will break next week. Blankets will come off and teeth proven waterproof sheets will go on instead until Spring really does arrive.

In the meantime, in between blanket swaps, I will do my best to get some words down on the pages as my mind stares out into the blank white expanse of winter.

Writer's block appears to be like one of those piles of snow out along my driveway. Sunshine and thaw should melt it just fine.
Tucker and his "wounded" blanket.