Hanging out with the Shelter Dogs

The Potsdam Humane Society finally opened up its training sessions for volunteers in April. To say I was ready to spend some quality time with the pups would be the understatement of the year. Almost every week since then I’ve spent a few hours hanging out with the dogs. Today I met Angel Joleen.

Angel heading back to get a few more butt rubs.

Angel spent lots of her time just standing next to me while I petted her. I sat on the ground and started at her shoulders and moved my way down. When she figured that was enough she’d turn around so I could do the other side. Occasionally she’d head off to investigate the rest of the enclosure, and she was glad enough to chase a tennis ball a few times, but it was never long before we got back to the real business – a full back massage followed by a butt rub. At six and a half years old, her age might make some people overlook her, but with that beautiful brindle coat and that sweet disposition, I’m hoping someone finds their perfect match when they meet her.

Here’s another girl at the shelter: Belle.

Belle at rest

Belle’s two year and a half years old. I’ve visited with her five or six times. At the beginning of the first session she did a bit of jumping up, but she gave that up when I simply turned my back on her. Two facts to know about Belle: 1) She is a dog that sees one of her missions in life as destroying any toy she can get her teeth into – at the shelter they’ve hung the laundry basket that’s full of balls of all sorts high up on the chain link fence of the outdoor exercise yard.The first time I brought her there, I unhooked her leash and she bolted to the other end of the yard, leapt, and bopped the basket from underneath. Half-inflated basketballs and soccer balls and a couple of tennis balls went flying.

So, how’d I get a photo of Belle sitting calmly when there was a basket of balls to destroy just a few feet away? Fortunately, here’s fact: 2) Belle’s other mission in life is to figure out how to get treats. A food-motivated dog can be a thing of joy, and Belle fits that bill.

When I met her she already knew how to do a perfect “sit.” We’ve been working on adding “wait” to her catalog of commands. The best case scenario of training a dog is frequent, short training sessions – ideally, training would be interspersed throughout the day. But Belle and I don’t have all day – just 20-30 minutes. Given that on the first day she’d sit perfectly and then stand right back up, I’m pretty happy with our progress. Now, after asking for some super short wait times to remind her of the game, I’m able to move up to taking a couple of steps away and returning to her – or calling her to come to me – without her breaking from the sit.

Belle waiting for the release word (come) or for me to return to her.

Today I started working with her on “back up.” I do this simply by stepping close in to her and when she scoots back, giving the command “back up” and giving her the treat while I say “yes.” She caught on to this very quickly, although I’m not sure how I’ll get a good photo of that.

At the end of any visit, I try to create a few moments of calm. After 20 minutes of figuring out how to get treats, Belle’s ready to lay down and hang out. But I can tell she hasn’t forgotten about the treats.

Belle’s pretty sure she knows where those treats are

Our shelter does a great job matching up good dogs with good people, and I know the dog I work with today might not be here the next time I visit. Of course, that’s more than okay – it’s always good news when a dog’s been adopted. So for today, hats off to Angel and Belle: two sweet girls trusting us to find them good homes.

Keeping Up with the NYS Teacher Certification Exams

It’s been a long time since I posted something about the NYSTCE. Not that nothing is going on – this world of test prep, like so much else, has been thrown into a state of chaos by the COIVD-19 pandemic. There are still good links to updates about the exams, and the same easy access for information about test prep for the NYSTCE is still offered. And some of the old rules of good test prep still apply – for a thorough look at my advice for preparing, take a look at my free “A Watson Guide – Intro to Calm and Effective Test Prep.”

But here’s a key difference: the appointment availability game. What was once pretty straightforward – find an appointment at a convenient location, pay for the exam, and register for it – has gotten, for many students, very frustrating. Once upon a time, a search for a seat would show you lots of appointments going forward several months. But in parts of NYS, a recent Friday search turned up NO appointments far into the fall. But by Monday, lots of appointments showed up. (“Lots” by the new measure of lots – we’re nowhere near the numbers of appointments that pre-COVID days offered.)

The take away? Search, then search some more. Many students use this process: a) look for a date –Here’s a LINK for NYS seats b) register for a date even if it’s months after when they’d hoped for c) keep looking, and d) move their appointment up as they find open dates. Students report to me that it is very easy to reschedule exams.

This situation is unfortunate and, given that big jump in available dates over a weekend, it appears to be not entirely unavoidable. Various stakeholders are complaining about the seat availability problems to the NYS Education Department – if you’re having difficulty finding appointments for the exams you need, be sure to contact your Certification Officer to let them know. Every college campus that offers programs that lead to teacher certification in NYS has a Certification Officer. If you are going through your local B.O.C.E.S. office, they’ll have an equivalent person there. In this case, information is power – if you have experienced trouble finding an appointment, let your Certification Office know. Together, we make it better.

On the Path to Learning about Wild Bees

I’ve been interested in insects for a long time. As a kid I worried over the ladybugs in the attic and whether they’d survive the winter up there. I rescued as many bugs as I could from the surface of our swimming pool. I dropped crumbs for ants and watched them investigate and haul away the treasure. But it wasn’t until years later, when I took a photo of a beetle that was stranded at the bottom of an empty water glass, that I began to get hooked on figuring out exactly what I was looking at. I had some insect guides on hand – more because I love guidebooks than because I loved insects, I admit – and took a look.

I discovered that what was circling the bottom of the glass was an America Carrion beetle, Necrophila americana. These beetles actually bury the small carcasses they come across for food for their offspring. When I paired the attractive beetle with its name and its burial and parental skills, I was hooked. I bought more guides and worked along on IDs in an entirely haphazard way. But in 2013, I discovered the Iowa State University site, BugGuide.Net. and posted my first photo to their ID Request page. That first posting of a caterpillar, the Dagger Moth Acronicta americana, looks pretty humble, but it was exciting for me.

The moth I posted later that month, the Tiger Moth, Apantesis parthenice, is a little showier.

I’ve been learning a lot from trying to figure out what things are before I post them, although I’m not nearly good enough to help out with the ID request part of the site. I’ve started binders of the critters I photograph. When I get an ID, I print out information about the critter and add it, with a photo or two, to the binders. I have about 200 critters with at least a partial id, and many are identified at the species level.

Overtime, I realized that my collection of identified photos was building along the lines of True Bugs and Beetles. Although I’ve spent happy hours taking photos of bees as they feed on flowers, I haven’t spent the time to tell one bee from another.

Thistle visitor

For one thing, some of the insects that I thought were bees out in the field turned out to be, when I looked at the photographs, not bees at all, but flies.

Bee? No, Drone Fly

At this point, I have only two bees in my collection of photographs, both of them are Sweat bees: the Augochlora pura (Pure Green-Sweat bee) pictured at the top of the post, and Agapostemon virescens (BiColored Striped Sweat bee).

My bee deficiency is about to change. Yesterday I took part in the first of seven sessions of The Bee Short Course for Community Scientists: Building wild bee conservation skills together. This webinar series has been developed by the Ohio State University Department of Entomology and The Chadwick Arboretum and Learning Gardens. I connected with this effort first through an interest in The U.S. National Native Bee Monitoring Research Coordination Network (RCN). Here’s a link that describes their work: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/07/science/native-bees-census.html

The first session is titled “Bee Botany.” I was surprised that most of the time was devoted to flower anatomy, but I shouldn’t have been. After all, bees and flowers depend on each other for essentials of life: food and reproduction. The presenter, Randy Mitchell of the University of Akron, is an engaging speaker – even in an online session, his delight in studying the relationship between bees and flowers is obvious. He mentioned several sources of information that sounded promising. As I take a look at them, I’ll share them here.

Reuse before you Recycle . . . the Salad Clamshell

How to reuse Salad Green Clamshells
Salad Green Clamshells – ready for the next job!

When the local salad greens disappear for the winter, I resort to salad-in-a-clamshell. The plastic clamshell containers do a great job of transporting fresh greens, but . . . then what? I started saving them in the hope I’d think of some use for them before I tossed them into the recycle bin. And, like so many other odds and ends that have finished one job but seem too useful to toss, these clear boxes found a new use. This time there was more than the usual amount of serendipity involved.

I happened to store my clam stash near the last of my old, plastic seedling trays and the one good dome lid that had survived along with them. In a side-by-side comparison, the similarities between the clam shells and the tray with its dome were clear in more ways than one: the clam shells were obviously meant for a second career as lidded seed trays. It seemed too much to hope that the seed starting cells would be a good fit, but see for yourself –

Two 6-cell packs fit nicely

While I’m waiting for the seeds to germinate, I’m using the deep end of the clamshell as the base but when the seedlings get started, I’ll turn the clamshell upside down so I have a domed lid.

I know I’m pushing the season a little, and I could wind up with leggy tomatoes. That will be okay: I go by the theory that a leggy tomato plant can be “trenched in” by planting the stem at an angle. Prepare a planting hole of the usual depth for the size of the seedling, then make a shallow trench running from the planting hole. Strip the leaves off the part of the long stem that will be buried, place the seedling in the hole and lay that stripped stem down in the trench. Cover with dirt and guide the unburied end to keep its head off the ground. I usually just mound up some dirt to give the top of the stem the general idea, and in a few days the sideways plant starts to head in the right direction. Water as usual. My mom taught me to fill the planting hole with water before placing the transplant in, and that’s the method I still use. The tomato plants I’ve grown using this method set roots all along the buried stem and grow vigorously.

Thanks for this tip to bury part of the tomato seedling stem go posthumously to Anstace and Larry Esmonde-White, authors of Vegetables from a A Country Garden and co-hosts of the long-running and wonderful show From A Country Garden that was sponsored by WPBS out of Watertown, N.Y. The authors transplanted their knowledge of Irish gardens to Canada and a great guide for northern gardens is the happy result.

I loved their show and purchased my copy of the book in 1993 – in their section on tomatoes they recommend setting transplants at a 45 degree angle with 1/2 – 2/3 of the stem underground. If your plants are leggy, as mine will probably be, you can plant 3/4 of the stem underground.

Next project – figure out where I’m going to find enough sun for tomatoes in my wonderfully shady yard!

Welcome to Spring!

Crocuses coming up through the fallen leaves

Last year at this time I was getting in early peas in the vegetable garden behind our rented house. Over the summer, we found a house of our own and moved in at the end of July. From that day on, I’ve gotten to know what late summer, fall, and winter can be like in this new yard: wild grape and Virginia Creeper reaching into the trees in the small stretch of brush and trees along the back of the yard, the mid-sized maple tree shading much of the narrow backyard and then turning a golden hue that seems to be illuminated from within. When that tree rained down its leaves, I set up a temporary leaf bin with the only length of fencing I could find at the hardware store and raked up pile after pile of leaves. Where I didn’t rake, the leaves settled into a thick layer.

Early this week, I got a glimpse of color among those unraked leaves and went to find out what it could be. A lovely line of crocuses had made its way to the open air. I freed the few that hadn’t quite broken through, but resisted the temptation to peel back more leaves and hurry any other spring bulbs along. We’ve had unusually warm weather, but the forecast was calling for nights below freezing. Crocuses are tough, but I’ll leave them insulated from the swings in temperature of a North Country spring for a while longer. The arrival of these few has been a balm to my spirit – I can wait to discover the full extent of the spring flowers that call this new yard “home.”

Is it a Bee or a Fly?

This winged creature appreciated the sunflowers in the garden

In North America, the word “fly” might bring to mind the peskiness of the house fly, the impressive size of the horse fly, or the bite of the deer fly. And to many of us, the answer to the question: Can you distinguish between flies and bees? would be, of course.

But there is an entire family of flies, Syrphidae, who make it their business to mimic bees and wasps. And they are pretty darn good at it. In my early days of photographing insects (not that long ago) I often thought I was taking pictures of a very small bee or wasp. But when I got inside and took a look at the enlarged photos on my laptop, I realized here was something distinctly not a bee or wasp. With the help of bugguide.net, I’ve been making progress in learning about the flies I share my world with. They are a fascinating addition to my life: sometimes comical looking, often quite beautiful.  

Eristalis trasversa – the Transverse Flower Fly, another view

One characteristic of flies is that they have one pair of wings. Bees and wasps have 2 pairs. Also, although we call several insects by the name ‘fly,’ with real flies (Order Diptera), the word ‘fly’ is a separate word. Crane Flies and March Flies are flies, but butterflies and dragonflies are not. Not all flies are called flies – mosquitos and midges are flies, too.

I recently discovered a very good resource with a side-by-side comparison of flies and the bees and wasps they mimic: All About Hoverflies. I’m pretty sure that based on the information on this webpage, I can identify the fly in my photo as a male. Males have bigger eyes that come close together at the top of the head.

When I started taking photos of bugs and insects, I would not have guessed that flies would become a favorite, or that I’d get pretty geeked out about being able to tell the males from the females.

UPDATE: If you’re on your way to getting geeked out about bees, here’s a short lesson in how to spot imitators: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/08/14/science/is-it-a-bee-or-something-else.html

3 Stages of the Beauty of the Giant Leopard Moth

In 2015 I was living 15 miles out of town, on three acres with fields and woods on either side and woods across the street. Many of the photos I’ve posted to Bugguide.net were taken there. When we moved in 2018 to a village rental, I wondered how many insects I’d see. As it turned out, not many. The residential use of pesticides and clearing of any wild shrubby areas had done their work. Even when clover bloomed all over the lawns of the nearby college campus, there were hardly any bees foraging the nectar.

When I discovered the emerging Giant Leopard moth, Hypercompe scribonia, on a plant I’d moved indoors, it was a double pleasure – it is rare enough to witness important moments in an insect’s life, and it would especially rare in my new surroundings.

Here’s what the moth looked like when I first saw it –

Adult emerging
Giant Leopard Moth Adult emerging

Twenty minutes later the transformation was complete. These two photos are now 2 of a set of 3. I took the caterpillar’s photo on October 24, 2015. When the caterpillar is at its full length, it is a handsome black, when it curls into its protective position, the red intersegmental rings are on display.

The Giant Leopard Moth caterpillar
Giant Leopard moth caterpillar

Now we own a home in the village, and I’ll have a chance to try to establish a small oasis for insects here in our yard. In the swirl of human activity that glimmers with foolishness and sorrow, trying to take care of the pollinators and other insects in the face of all that is stacked against them seems a reasonable task. It is one that will remind me over and over that I, too, am an animal; that I have a share in their fate as surely as they have a share in mine.

Managing Stress: The CDC and me. Part 1

Each of us is experiencing this shared crisis not only as one of many, but as an individual who is coping with a unique set of circumstances. For me, those circumstances include trying to figure out how best to support my students in a way that helps them stay on track with their academics while not unduly stressing them out. That’s a tall order. I worry, a lot. I worry about students who ‘disappear,’ I worry that too many students are doing too little writing and their skills are plummeting, and I worry that too often I myself come too close to running on empty.

One day, while I was mindlessly following links about stress as a sort of ‘break’ from real life, I came across this page from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). About a third of the way down the page I found a little section titled, “Ways to Cope with Stress.” For me, the little list of four items offered there was the best thing on the page. It got me thinking – which was a welcome relief from the empty-headed mindset that had set me on the path of clicking for answers. The list, I decided, was a good fit for writers and teachers, and I set myself the task of adapting the advice to the context of building skills as a writer and as a teacher. The result of that work – on the first piece of advice – is below.

The CDC advice –

Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories, including social media. Hearing about the pandemic repeatedly can be upsetting. (CDC)

Here’s my take-away for writers and teachers –

Do Something Else Repeatedly: Write

Checking media can be a habit, and when you want to change a habit the first step is to replace it with another habit. Writing, as a habit, offers great payback:

  • It is therapeutic – you’ll carve out personal time to check in with yourself, think your own thoughts, and come up with ideas you wouldn’t have had – or known you had – otherwise.
  • It will improve your ability to get your thoughts on the page, and therefore your skill as a writer.
  • As a teacher, you have the opportunity to create primary documents that you and your peers can consult and use for lessons on history, health, writing, etc. For example, you can set aside part of your writing time to write a letter to your future students. What is it you’ll tell them about this global experience?

3 Simple Steps to Cultivating Writing as a Habit

  • Gather your basic tools – something to write on and something to write with – so they  are ready for you.
  • At least once a day when you go to check your phone for news or find yourself heading to Facebook to keep tabs on the feed, say to yourself – “First, I’ll write half a page.”
  • Go write. Sometimes you’ll only write a scanty half page, other times you’ll find yourself on a roll – go with it.

Final Advice

Remember, the goal is health. Smile to yourself when you’ve written, and smile when you realize the day is gone and you haven’t written. On those no-writing days (and there will be no-writing days), say to yourself, “Tomorrow, friend; I’ll meet you on the page tomorrow.”

Faster Feedback: A Teacher-Talk Telegram

Working on giving your students feedback on their written work?

Wonder where you’re going to find the time?

If you agree that:

Feedback takes time,  Quicker feedback works better, and Talking is faster than typing –

Try this WORD combo: Comment and Dictate

  1. HIGHLIGHT the text you want to comment on
  2. Go to INSERT
  3. Click on COMMENTS
  4. Go to HOME
  5. Click on blue microphone icon DICTATE (a red dot will appear when it’s ready)
  6. TALK to your student just the way you would if they were sitting there

Practical hint: if you mess up (repeat a word, misspeak, sneeze . . .) just keep going – you can easily edit that out.

Pedagogical hints: 1) When you can, give general guidance, rather than specific information: “There’s a word missing in this sentence” rather than “You’ve left out the verb”  2) For missing words and glitches in meaning, suggest that the student use Read Aloud to have the computer read the sentence to them: they can often hear the error, and they’ll learn a valuable self-editing tool.

7. CLICK on the blue microphone when you’re done

8. PROOFREAD the comment – you’ll see you need to add capitals and punctuation. Fix any errors. I speak more slowly than my usual fast pace when I dictate, but not much more slowly. I find few errors (far fewer, for instance than spellcheck routinely commits on my students’ papers).

Questions, Comments? Let me know.

(I generally use my own images, but the colorful stopwatches are by Gerd Altmann. You can find their work on Pixabay.com)

N95 Masks – Have you checked your garage, shop area, and craft supplies?

I confess I’d never thought to look to see what an N95 mask looked like. I figured it was something specialized, or fancy, or one of the blue masks that surgeons wear. But when I was reading online about whether homemade masks could be effective, I came across this chart from the Centers For Disease Control with an image of a N95 mask: N95 mask from CDC

“Hold on!” I thought, “That mask on the right looks a lot like the masks I buy to combat my allergies while I am cleaning.” Bingo. And, Rats – I wish I could say I had a full carton or two that I could donate to a health facility, but I’m down to a couple. I’ll get them to my niece who is working with COVID-19 patients.

My experience got me to thinking, who else might have a few masks squirreled safely away and not know what they have? It’s worth a look.