Wednesday, September 29, 2010

How to spot-clean carpet

It looks like dog-shedding season and dog-vomit season in our house have intersected. First it was last week, when Doc threw up at 3 a.m. and my killer reflexes caused me to bolt up in bed, groaning and annoyed. Then it was this morning at 5:30, right after Maxwell ate breakfast and threw up not once, not twice, but a solid SIX TIMES in a row. If I didn't know my dogs, I would think there was something terribly wrong with them. But, they occasionally throw up, kind of like cats and babies. Even our vet sees no cause for alarm.

So, I monitor the little guys and what they put in their mouths, and I come up with a plan for cleaning up the mess.

Back in my not-so-green days I would use Spot Shot for cleaning carpet stains. In my experience, it really does work well, and I was happy when, a couple years ago, I could buy some non-toxic Spot Shot (and a double-bonus for the non-aerosol bottle). But then I decided, people have been cleaning carpets way before Spot Shot entered the picture, and Spot Shot doesn't last long and it's pricey (when you have two big, pukey dogs).

I'm happy to announce I've found a solution!

This rag, this measuring cup, and this book have become a bit of an institution in our house.
Here's the procedure (slightly adapted from Cheryl Mendelson's Home Comforts)

1. Mix together a solution of half mild detergent and half lukewarm water. (I used my homemade laundry detergent; the point here is to use a non-bleach detergent.)
2. Blot the stain using the detergent solution and a rag. DO NOT rub the solution farther into the carpet.
3. Mix together a solution of one-third white vinegar and two-thirds water.
4. Blot the stain using the white vinegar solution.
5. If you're still not satisfied after you give the area time to dry, try sponging the area with clean water.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Stay busy to stay productive

Lately I've felt busier than I've ever felt in my life. Maybe it's because of my class schedule this year, or that the longer I teach, the more responsibilities I take on. I have few moments to spare, and when I have those few moments of freedom I really relish the experience.

Even though I am (too) busy these days, I am super productive, and I don't mean productive in a multi-tasking kind of way. (I'm still not quite sure what multi-tasking is because I can only focus on one activity at once, but I know multi-tasking must be bad for you.) In fact, I am more productive in the fall than I am in the summer. Although this seems counter-intuitive -- shouldn't I get more done when I have more time? -- I actually work better under the restrictions of a schedule than I do when given the freedom of flexibility. That flexibility sometimes feels endless or even daunting, and it sometimes causes me to lose that edge that drives me to complete projects in a timely manner.

I think about this as a teacher and try to relate this experience to my students. Many of them get their best grades during the season(s) in which they play a sport. Participating in athletics forces them to prioritize their time. It gives them the structure to stay focused. I know this applies to me.

I'm curious: does this concept hold true for you? Are you most productive when you have the most time commitments on your plate?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Yuck, gross: stink bugs

Forgive the reduced posting this week. In the middle of the week was a little something called Back to School Night, something I affectionately call the worst day of the year, not because I dislike meeting my students' parents -- to the contrary, I enjoy meeting the people who bore the people I interact with every day. Instead, I dislike this day because it means I work from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., and then wake up the next morning by 5:15 so I can begin another day. It's exhausting, and it takes me about a week to get back to my normal schedule (hence today's near-record-breaking sleeping in until 10 a.m.! [On Saturdays I am normally up by 7 a.m.]).

During my absence, a new creature has decided to enter our home: the stink bug. Here's one perched above our bay window in our living room:

Only this morning did I finally identify this creature, thanks to an article from the Washington Post that Matt left opened on our computer while he went for a bike ride. This article came at an appropriate time, because last night when Matt and I returned home from our gender-divided Friday night activities, I asked him if he thought the bug on our door was the adult version of those pesky bagworms that killed our frontyard evergreen.

Thanks, Washington Post, these are in fact stink bugs. And you shouldn't squash them. Or vacuum them up, because we have a bag-less vacuum cleaner. I can't find a place they could be entering from besides our front door, so I'm trying to extra vigilant in batting them away from our house as we enter. For the time being, I'm bagging them up in little Ziplocs until I have a better solution.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Correct me if I'm wrong: cable companies

So, these "free premium channels" that cable companies will throw at you sometimes are never, ever truly free, right? Never free, because they'll make you pay for it one way or another, most likely tacking those charges onto your bill and thinking you won't notice. Chalk this one up to Matt having more faith/trust in others than I do, and therefore agreeing to the "free" channels (that we never watched) in the first place.

Looks like this is another battle we're going to have to fight. Is it just me, or does it always feel like customer service -- particularly at cable companies -- never, ever get it right?

All this complaining is making me think that perhaps I chose the wrong path in life. Perhaps my calling is in consumer protection. Or, maybe I should have come up with the idea for the book Stop Getting Ripped Off. Either way, this just strengthens my determination to cancel cable -- a real money pit, if you ask me. Now I just need my tech-savvy husband to keep investigating our options and maybe prepare to make a switch this holiday season when cable-free contraptions go on sale...

In the meantime, I will continue to hate Verizon.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Open letter to myself: Re-read in November

It seems appropriate that I was inspired to write this open letter to myself on the first day of fall.

Let me explain.

Unlike apparently every blogger in the world, I kind of hate fall. And winter. And the beginning of spring. I live for May, June, July, August and early September. Specifically, though, I hate November.

Something triggers inside my brain every November 1, causing me to dislike my job and generally my life. And this is totally ridiculous. Why? Because I have a pretty kickin' job and life.

So, in the hope that public quasi-humiliation/posting this on the Internets will kick me into shape, I present to you my open letter to myself.

To be re-read on November 1:
Dear Stephanie,

Every year Matt tells you to write a letter to yourself over the summer reminding you not to hate your life come November 1. Well, summer passed, but this first day of fall is beautiful and you're still in good spirits, so now is as good a time as ever to put this in writing.


Don't hate your job. Sure, it doesn't pay that well, but you knew that all along, and you and Matt are doing fine (for now). And yes, you work long hours because you care about your job and you're good at what you do, but at least you're doing a job that matters. You get to be creative and independent every day, another perk not everyone has in their careers.

Sure, your students probably haven't made too much progress yet, because you've only been teaching them for a couple months. Remember how great those concluding lessons were in June, when everyone suddenly got what you were trying to teach them since September? It will happen again this coming June. Just wait.


You hate the dark. November always seems like the darkest month. Try to live with it. This too shall pass. Remember what it's like in June when it's light until 9 p.m.? Only seven more months until you get to experience that again. In the meantime, keep your energy up. Resist the urge to fall asleep on the sofa at 5:30 p.m., eat popcorn for dinner, and then totally fall asleep for real at 8:30 p.m. This is a pathetic life. You're not even 30 yet!


Instead of falling asleep in that dark darkness, go with Matt to walk the dogs. Cook a new recipe. Read your book club book. Find a place in the house to beautify. Start watching a new TV series on Netflix. Go to the gym! Plan a trip. If all else fails, remember: most people's jobs are not as good as yours. Every Monday means there's only four more days until Friday. And you get something few adults can claim: spell it with me, S-U-M-M-E-R V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

HOA meeting follow-up: Victory is mine

On Thursday night's Daily Show, Bill Clinton said, "I got tired of going to meetings and having everybody say intelligent things and nothing ever happened." That mostly expresses my opinion regarding meetings in general and HOA meetings in particular.

Wednesday night Matt and I took an evening stroll to our community club house, where a record number of neighbors joined us for our annual meeting/complaint session. The board member running the meeting spent the first portion of the meeting attempting to postpone the inevitable, but the only reason anyone was there was to issue concerns regarding the latest round of HOA home inspections. Once we actually got down to business, it was reassuring to hear that virtually everyone was in the same boat with violations and had the same attitudes about moving forward. Namely: what's the deal with the gutter cleaning? Why were these inspections done in the late summer? Why are our repairs expected to be complete in a matter of weeks, right before winter sets in? How are we going to avoid this situation in the future?

On the matter of the gutters in particular, it turns out that our gutters cannot simply be power washed. Instead, they must be painted. As a group we talked about how, because nearly every one of the 274 homes in our community was cited for gutter cleaning, if it makes sense to collectively all chip in for one company to come out one week and do the work. Apparently, though, our HOA cannot endorse such a move, supposedly because it would make them liable for any damages that could possibly occur to our homes.

The meeting moved on, and it still was not clear what, if anything, we were going to do about the gutters. So, Matt stood up and said, "Maybe I'm missing something, but it's still not clear to me if we are going to find a company to do this work, or if we're going to petition to have this violation removed, or if we're going every man for himself." Others nodded in agreement, and finally the board member running the meeting said we should all hold off on the gutters for the next month until the HOA reaches some sort of decision with the inspections company.

Sounds like not a whole lot got done? Absolutely. See Clinton quote above.

So, Wednesday night post-meeting I did what I do best: I took matters into my own hands and wrote a strongly worded email.

Here's what I wrote:

Hello,

We are writing in regard to violations at our residence. We have taken care of the violations we received and understood. There are two violations, though, for which we would like greater clarification and detailed photos in reference to our specific property.

First of all, we were told to re-stain our deck. In late July 2009 we power washed and stained our deck a natural wood tone. We conducted this power washing and staining at that time because we were waiting for our HOA to settle the matter of acceptable deck stain colors after several residents raised concerns. We were sure to only use natural wood stain on our deck, as that was the resolution agreed upon by our HOA. We are concerned to see that we just received this violation to re-stain our deck (dated August 5 inspection, received in the mail on September 4). Please send us photos and greater explanation to outline exactly how our property is in violation, given the fact that we had performed this operation almost exactly one year ago. We would like to know how an inspection was performed on our deck, seeing as it is high off the ground, and anyone who actually stands on our deck can see that it is beautifully finished, with water beading on it when it rains. Because it does not appear that an inspector stood on our deck, were photographers stationed on ladders to document this violation?


Second of all, we received a violation to clean/wash our front gutter exterior. The houses in our neighborhood are exceptionally tall, so we are not clear as to exactly what this means. Could you please send us a photograph of our front gutter pointing out exactly what you noticed as our violation in this regard?


Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter. We look forward to hearing your immediate reply.


Thank you,
Matt and Stephanie
Home owners

Saturday morning I received this reply:


After reviewing your inspection photos we have waived the deck and the gutter cleaning violation.  Please disregard.  Sorry for the inconvenience. 

Customer Service

Booyah!

Important point: we never received photos from the inspection company. I would bet money on the fact that they do not have inspection photos, therefore they could not review them, and therefore they had no choice but to waive these supposed violations.

How did I know my plan would work? At the start of the complaints portion of the HOA meeting, a woman in our neighborhood raised her hand, admitted that she is a nerd (which I totally appreciated), and said she has surveillance videos recording the outside of her home 24/7. So, she caught our inspection company on tape, and she quickly discovered that the inspection people were outside her home and the homes nearby for all of two minutes collectively, during which time they were neither taking photos nor writing anything down. Seems suspicious, right? Even more suspicious is the fact that almost everyone received the exact same violations, coupled with the rumor that the inspections company was getting paid per violation they recorded. (Our HOA board would not explain exactly how they were paid.) Smells a little fishy. Either way, no gutter cleaning + no deck re-staining = giant win for Matt and Stephanie!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Dining room wall reveal

In late June, before taking off for our European vacation, I decided I was totally fed up with our dining room wall -- the wall containing giant bolts left over from the previous owners; the wall I refuse to paint right now because we have enough keeping us busy; the wall where the pictures were all horribly spaced apart. Well, it was a slow process, but because of my diligence in looking for deals (and a little birthday gift to boot) I managed to get the project done this weekend on a tiny budget. Here's how it went down.

Step 1: Roughly lay out the frames.
This was actually the second-most-annoying of all the steps. Fortunately, though, I like puzzles, and as a teacher I've developed an impressive level of patience, so it could have been a lot worse.

One rule I set for myself was to purchase as few additional materials as possible for this project. So, I rounded up all the black frames in our house. Then I discovered that my wall would not be complete without the addition of two new frames, so I scurried over to Home Goods and picked up two 8"x10" frames for under $25 total, so I figured that was a decent start.

After a couple hours of rearranging all the puzzle pieces, I went from this...
...to this...

Step 2: Determine which photos to purchase
Still on the lookout for deals, I waited to make my final decisions regarding the photos I'd used to fill the frames until I saw a sale. Two sales emerged within a few days of each other, and I ordered five free 8"x10" photos from Ritz online (well, free, but I still had to pay a $3 handling fee), and then I ordered the seven missing 5"x7" photos from Mpix when they were having a 15% off sale. I'd never ordered from Ritz before, and I am really pleased with the quality of their photos.

It actually worked out that I had to wait until late August for these sales, because it took me a while to decide how many horizontal and vertical photos I'd need along with their dimensions. I was pretty pleased that I needed five 8"x10" photos, and that's exactly how many Ritz was offering for "free." Win!

Although my original grand idea was to take photos of kitchens in Europe, that was clearly idealistic and therefore didn't work out, so instead I went with these photos highlighting some of our favorite moments on our trip:
8"x10"s

5"x7"s

Step 3: Buy/make mats for frames
Starting out, three of my 12 frames had white mats, so I decided I'd use those three and buy nine more. Armed with a $50 gift card to Michael's from my birthday and dimensions for all my frames, I waited until a Friday rolled around (when teachers get an additional 10% off their entire purchase, including sale items). A few of my frames have odd dimensions, so I stood in the mat aisle for a long time, wondering if I could come up with a plan to make this work. Then it dawned on me: I could make my own mats for the weird-dimension frames. So, I bought six normal-dimension mats and then bought two pieces of mat board and an Exacto knife so I could cut my own mats. All in, my purchase rang up at about $43, so I still had some money to spare on my gift card!

When I got home to create my mats, it took me a while to figure out the best system. Because I was working with abnormal frame sizes, I knew these mats would wind up being wider than your typical mat. So, I figured this little inconsistency might add to the charm of the frame collage, and I think it does!

There is no doubt an easier way to make your own mats, and I don't claim to be an expert frame-matter, so I'll send you to another site to find a better system.
Here's one of the big mats I made...
and here it is inside its frame.

Step 4: Level all the frames
Because one of the main goals of this project, besides filling up a big wall, was to cover up the giant bolts, I tried to use the bolts to my advantage in hanging my frames. Then, after stepping back and buying a better level, I made a discovery: the giant bolts are not level. Awesome. These giant bolts are good for nothing.

Remember how I said roughly laying out the frames was maybe the second most annoying part of this project? The most annoying part, by far, was leveling the frames.

At Home Depot, when buying brass polish, I also bought a Ryobi Airgrip Laser Level, the kind that attaches to your wall. Despite the fact that our first purchase clearly did not work -- there was no laser! -- I have to say that the $20 we spent on this gadget was well worth it. We owned a cheap level before -- a cheap level that led me astray by telling me my frames were level when they weren't, as anyone with decent-enough eye sight could tell. Yes, it is kind of hard to see a red laser up against red paint, but that's where my keen 20/10 vision came into play.
Several hours later, when I was about ready to give up, I finally had a level wall, complete with 12 photos chronicling one amazing summer.

Not level...then level! (Watch the changing time by tracking the light from the window...)
Painstaking, but worth it!

Total cost = $51
$25 for frames
$6 for photos
$20 for level
mats -- free, thanks to gift card!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Gas meters: Ask and you shall receive

Remember back in the spring when we got hit by the worst gas bill in history coupled by the worst customer service experience ever? Hyperbole aside, I was pretty annoyed, and because my gas company refused to do much to proactively fix the meter-reading problem to avoid future difficulties, I started reading my own gas meter and double checking the company's numbers.

Fast forward to Saturday, when I come home from a super successful Target clothes shopping experience, only to find this on our door:
That's right, a man from Washington Gas wanted to install a little device on our meter so that our meter could be read electronically (read: accurate every time!). Fortunately, his truck was still parked across the street from our house when I saw the note, so Matt and I went into super stalker mode and tracked him down in the neighborhood and brought him back to our house. He installed this little device:
The slightly-larger-than-before little plastic case around the meter may not be much, but if it means never getting a really expensive bill and hugely inaccurate meter reading again, I will take it!

Also, it was like our lucky week in the world of utilities, because on Monday someone from the power company stopped by and installed this little gray box above our AC unit outside:
Every few months our electricity company sends us a notice telling us we can go green by, you know, paying more every month for our power. You know I love to be green when within reason, but the budget is tight and I can't exactly pay more for roughly the same service. So, when I got a flyer in the mail encouraging me to sign up for a Smart Cooling Rewards program that saves me money and is a green initiative, I was on board. Specifically, this little device will turn off our AC during the peak hours (from roughly 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.) during peak days of service. Seeing as we set our AC to 78 during the day, I figure we won't be missing much since our AC doesn't have to come on often. Additionally, by participating we get refunded $40 every year, and we become part of a system that encourages further green practices. Win, win.

Now, if only we'll have as much success at tonight's HOA meeting! Wish me luck! Details to follow...

Sunday, September 12, 2010

How to de-tarnish brass

This weekend, despite my general rage regarding some of the bogus violations we received from our latest HOA inspection, I decided to tackle what seemed like the smallest and most necessary project: de-tarnish our brass door hardware. Last weekend I successfully de-tarnished our brass outdoor light fixture (imagine it looking almost black, and me nursing it back to health).

For some reason, though, the door hardware tarnish is out of control.

Warning: don't be mistaken; this is not a "small" project. Many hours later, my labor is complete.

I've never de-tarnished brass before, so I looked up some helpful how-to's in Home Comforts, a book my buddy Sam thoughtfully sent me when I started this blog. This book is great, and it has helped me in several areas already, which I'll highlight in later posts.

Home Comforts told me to:

1) mix equal parts white flour and salt (I used table salt) with enough white vinegar to make a paste. (Oh, white vinegar, is there anything you can't do?)

2) Apply the paste to your brass surface and let it sit for an hour.

3) Remove the paste using a rag, and you should notice that the brownish tint has been replaced by a rose tint that can then be polished using standard metal polish.

There unfortunately does not appear to be a good non-chemical metal polish out there. If you know of a home remedy, I'd love to hear about it! So, I purchased 8 ounces of Brasso at Home Depot for $3.49.

Our outdoor light fixture only required one coating of the homemade paste before it was de-tarnished, but this door hardware was especially stubborn and required two applications.

Here's the hardware before
And a close-up for purposes of comparison
Here's how the hardware looks when covered in the paste
Here's the hardware after one application of the paste
And all clean, many, many hours of polishing later
The before-and-after close up
And here's the stupid thing I did: I failed to cover the lock when I was applying the paste the first time. So, the paste hardened inside the lock, and then we couldn't get our keys in the lock. Tired and running out of options and needing to lock our door and needing to get some items at Home Depot anyway, I asked a Home Depot employee what he thought I should do. Get a tiny file? Just buy a new lock? He said, to my surprise, take a hair pin and some WD-40, and that should do the trick. Genius! He was completely right, and I was fairly stupid.

Why didn't I just buy a new light fixture and new door hardware, or spray paint them black, and call it a day? Well, two reasons:

1) to be as green as possible, I generally try to operate under the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality, and in this case both items are fine and fully functioning

and

2) apparently the only acceptable finish for light fixtures and door hardware in our neighborhood is brass, so spray painting was out. Add that to the Draconian list.

The Brasso directions recommend polishing brass once every three months. So that I never have to spend a Sunday afternoon polishing brass again, I am going to get in the habit of maintaining these brass finishes once every three months on the same day I change our air filter.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

HOA violations = bane of my existence

OK, this will be a venting post, but one that many of you homeowners with Home Owners Associations (HOA) can probably relate to. (Non-homeowners, take note, and try to avoid moving into a neighborhood with a crazy HOA if and when you do purchase a home!)

Quick back story...
The beautiful town homes in our neighborhood were built in 2002.

We moved into our beautiful town home in December 2006. When we moved in, our house was in tip-top condition. Since then, we have only made it more beautiful by landscaping the once-rather-bare front yard; adding a glass, modern storm door to the front door; replacing the chandelier visible in the front entryway; power washing and re-staining our deck; adding potted plants and flowers to our deck; growing grass and an herb garden in the backyard; installing a back splash in our kitchen; and painting most of the rooms in our house. Oh, and, we're exceptionally clean in both the inside and outside of our home. No clutter, nothing that should make anyone cringe.

We've lived here almost four years in marital bliss, getting to know our neighbors, picking up neighborhood trash we see on our multiple-times-a-day dogs walks...you know, trying to be good and whatnot.

Suburban bliss. It's all sunshine and rainbows, people.

Let's bring this up to the modern day...
Then last Saturday we received in the mail our list of seven (!) HOA violations. This year our HOA decided to contract out neighborhood maintenance inspection duties to an outside auditor. We've never received any violations, and this year we got seven exceptionally specific citations for things you would likely never notice driving through our neighborhood or visiting our house. I suppose the one point of solace is that everyone else in our neighborhood got at least the same "violations" we got, and in some cases they got something worse.

We were cited for:
  • Front light fixture, tarnished (it's brass...already did this)
  • Front door hardware, tarnished (also brass)
  • Front columns, clean/wash (really? I mean, I already did this, but they were barely dirty....)
  • Front vertical trim, paint (still need to figure out what this is talking about...)
  • Front bay window panels, paint (I see two little specks that could be covered up)
  • Front gutter, clean/wash (these are about 50 feet in the air, so if these need to be cleaned [and I don't even know how you could see that they need cleaning, and there are no trees up there] we will hire a professional with some other neighbors to get a group rate)
  • Back deck, re-stain (we will NOT be doing this because we spent three days one year ago power washing and re-staining our deck using the requirements outlined by our HOA, and no one should be expected to do that every year)

Draconian HOA? You betcha!

So, I have crossed off two items so far this week, and I will not be doing one of them, so that leaves me with four to go, three that I'll do on my own and one that I'll hire someone for, if needed. These "violations" are supposed to be handled by October 16, at which point there will supposedly be another inspection and we'll supposedly be fined if we haven't complied. I say supposedly because:

1) So many people in our neighborhood, ourselves included, have never received violations.

2) Violations have never been enforced.

3) Our annual HOA meeting is next week. Matt and I have never attended, but I think we will, and a bunch of other neighbors will too. Perhaps we can reach some sort of compromise. I believe in democracy!

I will share with you all what I learn along the way as I figure out home maintenance. I've already figured out one thing about de-tarnishing brass, and that will be the subject of an immediate post.

In the meantime, have a happy, productive Saturday! For me, it's off to Home Depot.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Recipe tip: Salted toffee-chocolate squares

Book club girls, get ready. Here is the recipe I'll be sharing at our September book club. In the meantime, this is the dessert I'll also be bringing to our neighbor's house tonight. The divine salted toffee-chocolate squares, courtesy Everyday Food magazine.

1. Preheat oven to 350. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil. Place 13 (specific, I know) graham crackers on the sheet. Inevitably, this means breaking up your final graham cracker into quarters arranged vertically.
2. Cover the graham crackers using 1 package (8 ounces) of toffee bits (found in the baking aisle near the chocolate chips) and 1.5 cups coarsely chopped almonds. (Buy your almonds in bulk so you don't waste any!)
3. In a medium saucepan, bring 2 sticks (!) of butter and 1/2 cup of sugar to boil. Then allow to simmer and stir until mixture becomes syrupy, approximately two minutes. Immediately pour the sugary concoction over your graham crackers covered in toffee and almonds.
4. Place pan in over and bake until syrup is bubbling, almost exactly 12 minutes.

5. When your dish is ready, take it out of the oven and sprinkle on top 3/4 cup of chopped bittersweet chocolate. I prefer to chop up whole blocks of dark chocolate (which I also buy in bulk), but bittersweet chocolate chips work as well. Also sprinkle on 3/4 teaspoon of coarse salt. Wait for chocolate to melt before covering.

6. Cut into squares. I prefer to cut each graham cracker in half for an ideal portion. These treats are amazing and rich!
Happy dinner!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Morning routine: My non-negotiables

Back in the late winter, I wrote about some baby steps you can take if you're feeling overwhelmed and don't know where to begin when it comes to cleaning/organizing your home/life. I'm happy to say that I've been great at sticking to that routine, and I've met my goals of sitting down to eat an actual breakfast each morning as well as establishing and maintaining more of a night time routine.

But it's time to revisit these ideas, because I always feel a little overwhelmed at the start of the school year. Although I would never describe myself as a "morning person," I would say that many mornings I wake up with more energy (and a desire to straighten) than I do when I return home from work in the late afternoon/early evening, ready to wear PJs and eat Cheez-Itz.

It may sound kind of crazy, but I sort of can't start my day off on the right foot if I haven't left my home in some sort of order. So, here's what I do to keep my sanity:

5:10 -- alarm goes off (Matt's goes off earlier, but I manage to never hear it...)
5:20 -- OK, Stephanie, put the Droid down and get out of bed.
5:20-5:35 -- three straightening tasks
5:35-6 -- make coffee, lunch, breakfast and sit down to eat
6 -- must be in the shower!
6:15 -- must be out of the shower!
6:30 -- must be out the door to avoid a huge line of traffic outside my school!

Yes, 6-6:30 contains many exclamation points because the traffic surrounding my school stresses me out so much that I freak out if I'm not in my car by 6:30, even though my commute is 10 minutes and school doesn't start until 7:20.

What are those three straightening tasks I must accomplish each morning?
(Please excuse the slightly blurry photos. I took them at 5:30 this morning. This is real life, people!)
1. Make the bed. The world could possibly end the day I don't make my bed.
2. Put away last night's not-for-the-dishwasher dishes.
3. Hang up or fold any of yesterday's clothing that's still out. (This includes items I pull out from my closet and then decide not to wear.)
Do you have any daily non-negotiables?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

How many plastic sheet protectors can a girl use?

The answer? A heck of a lot!

I know you must think that after I got my amazing label maker that I ascended to label-maker heaven, which explains why I would have been a little more quiet these days. But, as any teacher would know, I have been a little more quiet lately because I have been super swamped, anxiously anticipating the arrival of a fresh crop of students. Well, they arrived today, and about five minutes ago I finished a mondo organizational project that I've been meaning to complete since the last day of school.

That's right, I renewed my vows with plastic sheet protectors.

Now, I know what you might be thinking: plastic sheet protectors = bad for the environment. You're probably right. But when it comes to my teaching materials, I lean toward lamination and plastic rather than making new copies of everything I need year after year. There is no perfect system, but this is about as close as I can get.

And it makes me so happy, in my nerdy, organization-obsessed kind of way.

OK, so here's exactly what I did:

1) Last year, each time I left my classroom to make copies of my materials for my students, I kept a giant file folder for each of my classes. I labeled this folder "Originals" followed by the class name. I made sure the "Originals" stayed in the exact order in which I had distributed them to students. See, I had a plan...

2) I gathered up some free, giant three-ring binders I'd corralled from various sources.

3) I bought two 200-pack non-glare sheet protectors from Office Depot. These retail for about $14.50 in the store (more expensive online), but because I signed up my credit card through a link provided by our school's finance officer, I'm able to get school-system prices for all my Office Depot purchases. This means my $14.50 each sheet protectors came in at a whopping $4.44 each. This, my friends, is my teacher bonus (and you know how much I love teacher discounts!).


4) I tried to consolidate all my physical materials for each of my classes into two binders per class. One binder simply contains my "Originals" in more user-friendly, plastic-sheet-protected format. This is a great way for me -- a totally visual organizer -- to see exactly what I did each day last year, which is totally useful as I figure out this year. I added dividers for each of the four grading periods to remind myself of when I roughly covered each topic, skill or activity.


The second binder per class I've labeled "Supplemental Materials." This is where the plastic sheet protectors really did wonders. See, as an English and journalism teacher, every week I come across several items I gather and file away as "Stuff I Might Use Sometime." OK, that's not a real file name...it's more like that-pile-in-the-corner-of-my-office-that-has-good-stuff-but-I'm-not-quite-sure-what's-in-there. So, this "Supplemental Resources" notebook contains articles, supplemental activities I've made but had to cut out some years, examples of good student work to use as models for new students...you get the idea. This notebook is also divided into the four grading quarters of the school year, with a short table of contents for each quarter so I can quickly glance at my extra materials if I'm looking for ideas.

Obviously, I have electronic files of everything I've ever made as a teacher, and I have a good system for labeling all those electronic files. But, when faced with the daunting challenge of organizing 180 days of teaching three different types of higher-level classes, flipping through my plastic-sheet-ridden notebooks will surely make my life easier.
  
In fact, I would say this could down right revolutionize my teaching experience.