Saturday, December 15, 2012

Too Close, in Too Many Ways

Disclaimer: This post is a selfish attempt at a balm for my spirit.

This morning, I don't want to turn on the television. But I know I will.  I don't want to read or hear the debates around gun control. But I know I will. I don't want to read or hear the laments about the lack of adequate mental health care in this country. But I know I will. I don't want to see the word "loner" or the label "Asperger's Syndrome" attached to this horrific event. But I know I will. And I most definitely don't even want to think about the children and our colleagues and their friends and families in Newtown, Connecticut, which is only minutes away from both where I grew up and where I live now. But I most definitely know I will, over and over and over.

But I will also focus on the sanctity and the safety, both literal and figurative, of the schools to which we send our kids, in which we work. We strive, daily, to make our classrooms and playgrounds and cafeterias and gymnasiums sacred places for our students. We do this in both obvious and subtle ways, and we do it out of pure love and devotion. And when what we create is shattered, we are shattered, too. 

Parents wonder how they can put their kids on buses on Monday and worry about their own schools' safety. In one moment, educators wonder if we'll return home from work on any given day. In another moment, we begin planning how to best support our kids (and their parents) who will have both worried and worrisome questions. In the next, we wonder what more we can do to prevent things like this from happening. We worry about ourselves and our students, and we feel deeply. The loss of twenty children and seven adults (and a very troubled young man who once sat in our classrooms) is a heavy enough grief for this country to bear, and we teachers add to its weight with our feelings of concern, responsibility, and yes, inadequacy. The "how can this happen" question is close to the bone for those of us in education. 

And yet, we will return to our schools and to our work. We will gather each other and our students in our arms and in our hearts and we will march forward together. We must, for to do otherwise would be a surrender to our fears and an abandonment of our ideals. 

For Twenty Eight

The moon
on this 
senseless night
is a slender cradle
for your light
and I'm afraid
the bough
has broken.

But we will 
catch you
- all of you -
in our arms
and hold you
until we are
never full

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Word Choice

Besides the usual swears, the words "pig" (as in "you're a pig") and "hate" (as in "I hate you") were considered profanity by my parents (who, by the way, swore - one frequently, the other only occasionally, thereby producing in me a swearer, too). Of course, I'm talking about nearly fifty years ago, when somehow we were collectively more proper and less culturally sensitive all at the same time. Between now and then, our society has become more word-aware, and while some deride the term "political correctness," I believe in it as movement toward thoughtfulness, compassion, and ultimately, equality. I raised my own children to abhor and refrain from using "retarded" and "gay" to signify anything but their literal meanings, and I do not tolerate anyone else (read: students, colleagues, friends) misusing them, either. 

As teachers, our awareness exceeds words like the aforementioned, though. We pick and choose our words in every moment of our professional lives, especially with two specific groups: students and parents. With students, we know our words can help, hurt, mislead, misinform, sway, or encourage. Whether we're complimenting a student on her work or criticizing another's, we must always be thoughtful. With parents, this thoughtfulness is just as, if not more, important. 

We get a student for a year, maybe, if looping is still done, two. Parents have had that child for six, ten,   fifteen years. Seems obvious, but sometimes we talk as if we know a child better than his parents do. I recently advised a colleague who was struggling with some parents that, like customers, parents are always right. They are, and it behooves us to think in this mindset as we work with them. Do we see things the parent might not? Yes. Are we aware of issues that a parent might be ignoring or denying? Of course. Are we experts in our field who can offer strategies and solutions that parents don't know about? Certainly. But conveying all that we know and believe is a game, just as any kind of communication is a game. And our tactics for winning the game must be thoughtfulness and proper word choice. Our words must always reflect our genuine concern; they must be authentic, supportive, and clear. 

Every so often, a list of "Report Card Comments We Wish We Could Use" or some kind of Teacher Jokes list makes the rounds. In the laughs and pointed comments of some teachers we can see real resentment. Some of us simply chuckle. I wish we all found the material offensive, though, because it is. My colleagues might argue that these jokes are a way to ease frustration and to commiserate. Perhaps. But they're still at the expense of our students and parents. And since they're not anything we'd share with either of those groups, I'd suggest that they're not jokes at all.  

Some will call me overly sensitive or politically correct. I'll take either as a compliment, literally

Saturday, November 3, 2012

A Page from Chip Kelly's Playbook

Watching the Oregon - USC game tonight, I couldn't help but draw some analogies between Coach Chip Kelly's novel approach to the game and what we do as teachers every day.

How many plays do this guy, his staff, and his team employ? Lots. Lots and lots. Kelly tries everything to move the ball, to make the next down, to win a ballgame. We do the same as we alter lesson plans, improve our methodology, increase our use of technology, engage our parents in more and different ways, and employ interventions that assist our students, all in the name of achievement of goals, of student success.

Want to see exciting football? Watch the up-tempo pace of the Ducks; marvel at their no-huddle offense  and see the speed with which they move the ball upfield. And upfield and upfield and into the endzone.   Likewise, we must find new and exciting ways to draw our students in. Old-school doesn't cut it anymore. To keep them engaged, we must be engaged, too, in the ways in which they are learning. Soon enough, we will all be paperless and textbookless. All of our classrooms will be flipped. We need to release our fears of the new and different and embrace the opportunities for these new ways to learn. To refuse to do so is to welcome a swift defeat.

And in Chip Kelly we find a coach who's got it right when it comes to mistakes, too. His "Next Play" philosophy allows his players to not necessarily ignore their missteps, but rather to move beyond them to the next play, the better play, the winning play. And that's exactly what we do with our kids, every period, every day, every week. We offer them ways to recover from their mistakes and to find real success, for it is in the knowing and growing that real success occurs. When we do this part right - no grudges, no expectations of failure, no pre-conceived notions - kids know they have the opportunity to get it right, too.

Chip Kelly and his Ducks are changing the game. Education is changing, too. Let's make it just as much fun to watch as Oregon football.

Why We Do

It's always encouraging to be reminded of how much the work we do matters, and it's even more exciting when those reminders are surprises, or at the very least, unexpected. It's interesting, too, to consider why we teachers don't expect all those positive outcomes from our work with our students and their parents and our colleagues.  Have we gotten that far away from conceptual success that when it happens, really and truly, we are stunned? I'd like to think it's because part of our natures as professionals to know we're doing it right, to worry that it might not make a difference, and to be humble in the discovery that, indeed, it has.

I've been on a run lately. A lucky, meaningful, bring-tears-to-my-eyes run. Parents praise me for my communication initiatives. An administrator shares with me another parent's positive comments, but precedes the sharing of that information with her own appreciation for my insight and support that is somehow making her job "worth it." A union colleague thanks me for always responding to his questions and for my "years of advocacy." Yesterday, a former student, now a dear friend, visits from far away and tells me that if it hadn't been for me, he wouldn't be who he is. Mind you, I deny this. I say, "I only showed you the door, maybe held it open." He replies, "No, you pulled me through it. You were consistent when my parents weren't. You helped me with my college applications. You loved me no matter what. You made me." Okay, I did help him a lot, and I still would do practically anything for this late-20's kid, but really? I'm responsible for his awesomeness? No way!

I know he would read that and say, "Way!!" But still, I cannot help but think that it was simply my job to hold the mirror up for this kid so that he could see his progress, his passion, and his potential. For this one, and for all the others, too. We don't do it for moments like last night's. In fact, we really can't see them happening five, ten, fifteen, twenty years before they do. There's no anticipation, just crossed fingers, I suppose. Perhaps that's what makes the realization so deep and rich. We wanted it, we hoped for it, but we released it, too, somewhere along the way. And then, there it is again: hope realized, in the form of a man whom I am proud to call my friend, in another former student's Saturday morning text that says, "I owe you a lot of praise for inspiring me to teach," and in every child in our classrooms, year in and year out, whether we - or they - recognize it yet or not.

And while that's probably not why we chose teaching, it just may be why we continue teaching.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Best Policy

Exhibit A 

Student fails to submit essay by deadline. When corrected essays are returned, student says, "I didn't get mine back." Teacher replies, "That's because I never received it."
Student: "But I sent it to your email." 
Teacher: "Perhaps you misspelled the address. What's the earliest time at which you can forward me your original email with the attachment?" 
Student: "2:30."
Teacher: "I will give you until 3:00. But remember, in order to receive credit, you must forward me your original email with timestamp." 
Two days pass. Student sends email with essay attached. It's not a forward. Student expects credit (and must assume teacher is a moron).

Exhibit B 

Student meets with teachers and parent after school to discuss academic difficulties. As the team is determining if student struggles with organization and time management, teacher asks student, "Do you use your planner?" 
Student: "Well, I use it one or two days a week for one or two assignments."
Teacher: "So as you were telling us this, what were you thinking about?"
(Teachers and parent expect answer something like "That I need to use my planner all the time.")
Student: "That I wasn't telling the truth."
Group stifles a collective laugh. Student removes glasses and wipes eyes. Teacher thanks student for having integrity. 

While we'd all probably prefer to work with students like the latter, more of them fit the description of the former. But both provide us with moments to teach and to learn. Both offer lessons in veracity and in caring. And we gotta love 'em both. 

Sunday, October 7, 2012

An Open Letter to Bobby McFerrin

Dear Mr. McFerrin -

I know that you do not like to be measured by your 1988 hit "Don't Worry, Be Happy." I know you are so much more than that song; in fact, I have some of your ingenious and Grammy-winning work on my iPod. You are creative, and crafty, and fascinating as all get-out. So I must apologize, then, for bringing it up.

But truly, as trite and over-simplistic as it sounds, as overdone as it was (is?), the sentiment in that song wraps up exactly how I'm feeling so far this school year. Somehow, this is a new approach for me. I've always striven to keep perspective, of course, but now I am just letting things be. This is not to say that I am allowing things to happen to me. I am still making things happen. But I am seeing everything - the five goals, especially - as all they are: things. Things that will get done. Things that will happen. Things that matter, yes, okay, but that matter not so much as to worry about them. I'd much rather "worry" about old friends and colleagues battling much bigger things. I'd much rather "worry" about women's rights, and the environment, and the economy. And I'm not sure that "worry" is even the right word, after all.

Here's the question I've been asking myself lately: "What will I think of this worrisome thing in five hours? Five months? Five years?" At the end of that longitudinal Worry Scale, only loved ones and future generations and the Earth make it to five years and beyond. Not my goals for 2012-13. Not my upcoming observations and evaluations. These things are important, certainly. Maybe even really important, as they will inform my work this year and next. I want to be a better teacher and I want my students to do well - that's a given, right? I'm not sure how worrying fits into that plan. Doing does. Accepting does. Trying does. Learning does. Growing does.

Bobby, I'm taking your rhyme-y words to heart these days: "In every life we have some trouble. When you worry, you make it double." Or quintuple. So I'm putting a smile on my face, as you suggested. I won't be bringing anybody down anytime soon.

Thanks for the reminder, sir.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Importance of Parents

Parents are getting a lot of play in recent news and current sentiment around education reform. More and more, the parents' role in their children's educations is being debated, lamented, or suggested. Not so much praised, though. There isn't much celebration of parental involvement, and that's probably because there's so little of the right kind, and too much of the wrong kind.

A few years ago, growing media criticism of helicopter parents turned a bright spotlight on those parents whose extraordinarily protective and preventative behaviors, experts and laypeople alike thought, were detrimental to kids. For forever, teachers have worried about the other kids, too: those whose parents, let's say, are stealth drones. We don't see them. We don't hear from them. They're invisible. And while the helicopters are over-involved and over-participatory while over-doing it, the stealth drones are there, we know, but absent, and can be just as dangerous. I couldn't pick either as better than the other. Neither is any good.

This is true, too, for another type of parent. Let's call them the bombers. The one who, years ago, upon seeing my Halloween costume (I was dressed as a student who sported a rather unique style: tank-top, overalls, fleece vest, hair in a ponytail on top of her head, chewed up pen cap in mouth), told me that I "did [his daughter] better than she did." Or the one who sneered at parent conferences that I would soon see how less interesting this one was than his other brothers, whom I'd also had as students. Or the one who accosted a colleague in the grocery to complain about her child's poor academic performance, his choice of after-school sport, and even, his weight. These parents worry us just as much...maybe even more. Hovering is bad. Disengaging is bad. But I firmly believe that dogging your child is really, really bad.

Maybe that's because of our roles in these parenting scenarios. With helicopters, we are often on the receiving end of criticism. We defend ourselves, our practices, our colleagues. With stealth drones, when our attempts at engagement are rebuffed, we either redouble our efforts or eventually submit to a sad truth we know all too frequently. But with bombers, we get our backs up on behalf of our students. We counter the bomber's accusations with our advocacy. We defend those defenseless kids. We praise, we support, we suggest, we praise some more.

We believe in the power and potential of every one of our students, every day. We want our students' parents to feel the same way. Our kids deserve that, from all of us.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

It's Never About the Money

Two recent events, one national news (the Chicago teachers' strike) and one a local issue, have got me thinking about money. Besides my normal personal financial worries, I don't usually think about money on a professional level. In some ways, because I believe in fairness, parity, and solidarity, I've felt rather forced into thinking about salaries and benefits and other moneyish things these past few weeks. And I am both bothered and sad.

That's because, in this profession (in nearly every profession, right?), we're not in it for the money. We don't stay in it for the money. Some of us leave it under the pretense of (lack of) money, but most of us are here despite the money. Granted, I work in the state with the highest teachers' average salaries. Still, those salaries don't come close to matching the salaries or potential salaries for other professions with similar degree requirements. So when education critics complain about our high salaries, or when the focus of a walkout turns to what Chicago teachers make, or when anyone questions the teachers' (or in my case, my local union's) motives for demanding a fair deal, two things happen to me: I get my back up, and I get down.

The best way to combat these feelings (for I can only control how I feel; I certainly cannot control anyone else's emotions) is to make a list of why we are here, and what does motivate us:

  • The kids. The ones who struggle and the ones who soar. The ones with the newest technological devices and the ones who come to school in too-tight sneaks and dirty hair. The ones who pay close attention, the ones who can't pay attention, and the ones who refuse to pay attention.  The ones who appreciate us now, and the ones who will only appreciate us later. The athletes, the artists, the talkers, the thinkers. Those on the edges and those firmly grounded in the center. Those with baggage and those who think baggage is what you take on a vacation to Cancun. First, foremost, and always, it's about the kids. 
  • The collegiality. Our work wouldn't be nearly as meaningful if we didn't, or couldn't, share it with our peers. We, veterans and rookies, learn from each other about classroom management, websites and apps, supplemental texts and new studies, and the kids. Again, and again, it's about the kids.
  • The discipline. Not discipline as in self- or how-to, but the subject area that intrigues us and powers our own interests and ambition. Scientists in the lab. Language Arts teachers reading. PE teachers moving in new ways. Library Media Specialists researching. Social workers guiding families to success. And the great thing about our jobs is that we get to do all this, share all this for, with, and because of, the kids. There they are again. Even our chosen areas of study, in the end it's about the kids.
Many of us started our paths to teaching long before college, when we were just young kids setting up classrooms in our basements and quizzing our unsuspecting friends on grammar and math skills. Some of us discovered a love for a subject in high school and decided to parlay that into a teaching career, perhaps because we had a teacher who saw our potential and told us so. Still others came to the profession after unfulfilling first ones elsewhere. Regardless of our myriad journeys to classroom, though, hardly any of us were thinking about how much money we could make. And those very few who did, I'd wager, no longer work among us, or shouldn't. In this profession, if you're not in for the kids, you're not in it. 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

What Was I Afraid Of?

This Saturday morning, as I woke up thinking of a new student I have who struggles with a medical condition that requires some monitoring, my mind immediately went from how I can best help in the classroom, to how good it is to be informed firsthand, to how I now practically expect parents to tell me this stuff, to how grateful I am for email, to how I once was utterly and completely opposed to emailing with parents. While the topics jumped about, so did my emotions upon the final revelation. I was at once a bit embarrassed, then extraordinarily proud of my evolution.

That word, evolution, got a lot of play this year, as some powerful political and religious and civil rights leaders moved their positions on marriage equality. Critics pointed to the election year or social pressures as motivating factors in the changes, but for me, the bottom line was not how or why change occurred, but that it occurred. And I can apply that same philosophy to my own evolution(s), too: it's more important that I change and grow over time, not why I do or how it happens.

Interestingly, though, I realized that for me (and perhaps for many, many others), evolution almost always comes in fits and starts. I deny, refuse, oppose. I worry, fret, and rant. I slowly, slowly consider a theoretical application of the change. I research. I might even refute the validity of the evolution once more. Then, voila: I open the throttle and floor it. I guess you could say I'm a zero-to-sixty kind of evolutionist.

A short list reveals the recent educational changes I've at first debunked, poo-pooed, or just outright sworn I'd never support...and then gotten on the bandwagon about; besides the emailing (it's my preferred method of parental communication now), there's our district's BYOD policy (so far, so good this year), and flipping the classroom (a colleague is trying it this year and I'm a wee bit envious). And when it comes to my life outside of school, well, let's just say Evolution is my middle name (I'm thinking of the waistlines of jeans, child-rearing, and vegetarianism, just to name a very few areas in which I've evolved through the years).

I'm also thinking this morning of a dear friend who, having suffered a devastating loss this summer, is evolving by way of both a sloughing off and a realignment. By honoring her strength and self-preservation, I am also recognizing my own need for continual evolution and moving always forward. Whether educationally or personally, change is not only good, it is necessary. And sometimes, it's just plain fun.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Happy to Be in School Again

Teaching teachers is a most difficult job, and very few people are good at it. Very few. Most people who end up training educators have been, at one time or another, in a classroom, so the rest of us expect that those who choose to work in this part of the industry know what it takes to be good. It shouldn't be rocket science.

Just as we recognize the bad ones - and there are a lot - we recognize the good ones, too. There's nothing like the feeling of being praised by teachers, and I've been lucky to experience that on the receiving end. There's also nothing like the feeling of sitting through a training that's done well; we leave feeling respected, enlightened, energized, knowledgeable, and confident.

In my twenty three years of teaching, few openings have gone as smoothly as this year's. And that's with a not-so-great training on the new evaluation document we are piloting. It was the other two and a half days that made the experience such a positive one for all of us (you know when teachers are pleased because they are even more vocal about the good stuff than they are about the bad). That time included:

  • Collegiality: From the faculty rock band at Convocation to the teachers-led discussion of our summer professional reading, from the group lunches to the staff/administration Q & As, the connections between us and the sharing of critical information in creative ways were inspiring. 
  • Learning: We walked away from every training session knowing what we'd come to learn. Seems simple, but it doesn't happen as frequently as we'd expect. This time, we came, we learned, and we left - brains overflowing, but in a really good way. 
  • Fun: Our administrators had a prize bag for good answers, good questions, good ideas, and good comebacks at our very-long, very-chocked-full building meeting. They knew the content was important, but they respected that we weren't thrilled to sit through it, and they looked to us to choose the topic with which we began, they gave us frequent and ample breaks, and they allowed for meaningful conversational deviations that helped us get our collective heads around some pretty heavy new stuff we're doing. The Super Blow-Pops and the mega-boxes of SweetTarts and Good N Plentys were just sweet, sweet, sweet icing on the cake. 
Walking from our building to another on campus for the final session of our PD days, a student teacher who'd interned with us last year made a comment that resonated, and will resonate for days, for the rest of us. He said, "These new teachers must feel like they hit the lottery." 

I felt like I hit the lottery, too. I want to hold on to that feeling and take it with me through the school year. I want to share that feeling with my new students, who will come to classes on Tuesday wondering just what high school English will be like. I want them to learn together, and really learn, and I want them to have some fun while doing it. I want them to feel the way I did this week: happy to be in school again. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Teach Your Children Well

So there I was, enjoying a relaxing day at the tiny, rustic (super-unpretentious) beach club to which I belong. I was lounging peacefully on the floating trampoline that's positioned between two tethered docks and on the outer reaches of the club's swimming area. Across the pond, a state park began to fill up with Sunday beachgoers, music skimmed across the water in beats and bass notes, canoes and kayaks and paddleboards glided by, neighbors waved hello and commented on the stunning late-summer weather.

An large inflatable rowboat appeared close by, with what seemed to be a family of five aboard: father rowing methodically, mother in a large-brimmed straw hat, three children. As they closed in on one of the club's docks, the oldest child, a son, climbed up the side of the inflatable and propelled himself over the edge into the water. Curious, I sat up to watch what would become a stunning display of audacity, and one that I'm still trying to make sense of.

The boy was followed into the water by a girl, who looked to be the middle child, and the two kids promptly swam to the ladder attached to our dock. Climbing onto the dock, they were immediately grossed out by the seagull droppings (and one dead fish) that had appropriately discouraged anyone from the club from using the raft that day. These two were ready, though; as if they'd anticipated this part of the adventure, they were wearing water shoes, and they clambered onto the dock and proceeded to tiptoe about (avoiding, I supposed, the largest piles of guano) before jumping off the raft. I moved my scowl back and forth between these two cute kids diving and jumping, climbing the ladder and dancing around, and their parents, blithely watching their children, offering encouragement and Olympic-worthy cheers for each dive.

Just when I thought I was completely flummoxed by this family's blatant disregard for what is club property (and I will add here, it is very obvious that the club is "members only"), the mother removed her hat and lowered herself into the water. She swam over to the raft, but refused to climb aboard, probably because she was barefoot. The kids dutifully, and almost as if on cue, jumped one last time into the water. The three began swimming toward the trampoline as the father rowed off with the smallest child. Yep, he rowed away. Now, from years of lifeguarding, my brain and body automatically commit themselves to safety concerns when I sense them. These kids were probably eight and six, tops. They could swim, I knew. But from the dock to the tramp? I wasn't sure. And then what? The dad has rowed back across the water.

As they neared, the mother called out to me, "Would you mind if they jump on the trampoline?" She'd just prepped her kids for what she must have known would be my response by saying, "She doesn't look happy." Maybe she didn't think I heard that part. She began treading water, as did her kids, while she waited for my reply. Suffice it to say, between my consternation, my frustration, and my indignation, I wasn't particularly helpful or welcoming. I admit that. I asked her if she'd like to pay part of my membership fee. She said "Sure!" like I was asking her if she wanted a piece of gum. I next went the liability route (which is absolutely correct and true - as a club it would be financially risky to take on the responsibility of anyone beyond our members and their invited guests). She continued to wait, perhaps for my "real" answer. I finally told her that even if I personally had no problem with them using the club's property (I did, though), I am a member who, in the end, must answer to my fellow members and our Directors, who assume that each of us will uphold the rules and regulations of the club.

She slowly, very slowly, began swimming back across the lake, her kids trailing her, their voices trailing back across the water to me as the son asked, "Does that mean 'no?'" "It means 'no,'" she said disdainfully, and when the boy said, "That lady wasn't very nice," she answered emphatically, "She wasn't nice at all." About three quarters of the way back across the pond, the husband rowed over to them, and while I could not hear the entire conversation, the mother's whiny "That lady over there was rude" floated over to me on the wind. Soon enough, I went back to the beach, where I commiserated with other members who immediately reminded me that I was in the right.

I'm sure that to this family, I appeared unhappy, not nice, and rude. But what's more important is how they appeared to me, and to the other members: bold, audacious, contemptuous, ballsy, insolent, brazen, and just plain nervy. And what's infinitely more important than that are the lessons that these children have been, are being, taught: that rules don't apply to us; that if you don't get your way, it's the other person's fault; that private property is for public use; that your pleasure is more important that what is right or proper.

I firmly believe that most parents would be horrified if their children trespassed on someone else's property or used other people's things. I know that most children, actually, wouldn't dare go someplace that was clearly marked "private." I know plenty of kids who wouldn't dare to ask, even. If these kids were older, and on their own, I could easily understand their willingness to take the risk - it happens a lot at our little club.  But to witness this behavior as typical and established, to sense this family's expectation of entitlement, has caused me much distress.

As a teacher, I will remember this incident for a long time. These children will probably be sitting in our classrooms someday. And it will probably become our job to impart to them some lessons that their parents haven't (I'm reminded here of the former student who did no work, whose mother insisted we stay after with him, but then claimed that because he had a season pass at the local ski mountain and belonged to ski club, he couldn't make it to any of our extra help sessions). In the end, it will be only the kids who matter, and by modeling appropriate behaviors and establishing clear expectations, we just might make some headway. I have to firmly believe that, too.

Friday, August 24, 2012

School Year Resolutions

I've been ruminating about this post for weeks. Many, many years ago, when my now-adult daughters were babies, I wrote a newsletter article for their daycare in which I detailed how for-nearly-ever, I have marked the beginning of the school year as a time to set goals. Then, just yesterday, I received a message from one of my oldest (read: longest-lasting) friends that she, too, has always seen the start of school as filled with freshness, opportunity, and promise.

And so it is. For teachers, parents, students, and anyone who's gone to school, the end of summer and the beginning of school is prime time for resolution making. So here are mine for 2012-2013:

I'm going to...

...let it slide; let it ride. Perhaps these two thoughts are synonymous, but I like the rhyminess of this resolution. Letting things slide, whether the thing is a snide comment, a rude parent, a frustrating policy,  or a difficult task, will be one of my primary goals. Sometimes I spend way too much time on an issue. Sometimes I over-analyze. Sometimes I just can't let go. I almost always use my 24-hour rule, but sometimes even 24 hours are too many.  So "let it slide" will become a question I ask myself (and others, as others can already attest to): "Can I let this slide?" I bet "yes" will be a frequent answer. And letting it ride will hopefully address, among so many other applicable instances, all those student issues in which I often find myself embroiled. This part of the resolution is about battle-picking. And we all know how important that skill is. Hopefully attending to what's important, and releasing what's not, will  become less of a chore and more of a comfortable process for me.

...mind the fine line. Actually, while explaining this resolution to a colleaguefriend last night, I asserted that most "fine lines" are really thick black (permanent) Marks-A-Lot lines. Between here and there lies a vast expanse of ground, and too often we excuse our stepping over the line by calling it "fine." I'm going to pay attention to that line, however fine or however wide: between humor and sarcasm, between inspiration and instigation, between acceptance and judgment, between concern and over-involvement, between intent and impact, between expectation and execution.

...through it all, do it all...tenaciously. It's going to be an interesting, busy, over-packed, stressful year. This I know. The getting ready isn't just for 40 weeks of class. It's for 280 days, give or take a few, in a row. Mondays through Sundays. Early morning to late night. On stage during the school day, behind the scenes for many hours before and after. Prepping, planning, instructing, guiding, facilitating, assessing, data collecting, collaborating, analyzing. Wash, rinse, repeat. Accessing the warrior spirit and approaching every task with tenacity will be key.

I'm ready to roll. The resolutions are developed, the prospect of an upcoming year of change and much growth is exciting, and the potential for increased success is great. Now if I could just drop that bright and shiny Times Square ball from my classroom ceiling....

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Threes and Sevens

For all my math deficiencies, I love numbers. Not adding them, or multiplying them, or measuring them, but looking at them, thinking of them, wondering about them. They're pretty fascinating, after all. And culturally, numbers figure in our daily lives very deeply.

Since middle school, I've been curious about how easily people subscribe to the adage that things happen in threes. Interestingly, while probably almost everything could be counted this way, we tend to focus on the "bad" things in terms of the threes; we begin the count after the second bad thing and wait for the third to show itself.  Then we can say (to ourselves, mostly), "See, three bad things," thus reinforcing the belief system. Three injuries, three funerals, three losses, three failures. Logically, we know these things happen independently of each other and are not connected to each other in any way: there is one bad thing, and there are way more than three bad things. But by ceasing the count at three, we attempt to limit our sadness, our grief, our frustration. And that's not a bad thing.

And then there's the number seven. If Gene Rayburn asked you to match Richard Dawson's answer to this puzzle, "________ Seven," you'd probably guess "Lucky," and probably correctly. Sure, there are those pesky Seven Deadly Sins, but more often than not, we think of seven as a lucky number. In terms of "good" things happening to us or around us, we don't count, though. And if we did add up the positives, it's likely we'd stop long before seven. It'd be hard to remember them all, despite George Miller's assertion that we could. But that's exactly what I propose we do.

I'm going to do an experiment. Over the course of a day, or days perhaps, and ultimately, throughout the school year and beyond, I'm going to count both the threes and the sevens. When I'm confronted with any combination of three bad things (my own complaints, others' problems, union conflicts, personal or professional issues), I will more-than-double that number with seven good things. I'll count out solutions, blessings, answers... the good things. Whether I'm struggling internally, or grappling with something (or someone) at work, or just generally saddened by the state of affairs nationally or globally, I will try to balance (over-balance, really) the bad stuff with some good stuff.

In the end, of course, the only number that really matters is one. And it's that one that I'm looking to preserve, treat well, and keep in balance. By counting my threes and sevens, I hope to remind myself of what's important, to focus on the positives, and to be always moving forward. Join me on the journey.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Dreaming and Scheming

I've been lucky this summer. The month of July seemed to pass, if not slowly, at least not quickly. The good news is that I feel as though I used every day well, and on a good chunk of those days, I spent time refueling, mostly. The "bad" news (but really, how dare I say "bad" when we have this much time away from the classroom) is that now, sufficiently refueled, it is time to put it in overdrive as August speeds by. And it will. This I know. The month is booked already.

I spent yesterday and today organizing. Listing. Emailing. Prioritizing. Phone-calling. Calendar-ing. Anyone who knows me can confirm that the color-coding of calendars and the listing of to-dos and tasks are some of my favorite things. Give me some lined paper and fine-tipped Crayola markers and my multiple calendars (Google, Outlook, wall, and planner) and I am an organizing machine. But I also quite enjoy the more abstract parts of preparing for the school year: dreaming and scheming.

So this is what I'm thinking about and these are the questions I'm asking as August looms, as the school year beckons, as I shift into high gear:

A new advisement component for new teachers in the union
Engaging 14-year-old boys in reading literature
My role as a leader within the parent group at my younger daughter's college
Using Twitter as a resource for students and parents
My professional goal(s) for the year
How do we build capacity within our local Association?
Changes to my classroom expectations and grading policies
Student interventions
Building relationships in Advisory
Parent involvement in the classroom and beyond
Goals and topics for this blog
Collegial outreach
What is exciting about English?
Collaborative work in my gradel level for the first time in 3 years
How can I bring more of the union membership together for service or social events?
Piloting the new state evaluation document
How will our curriculum revisions work?
What do I do well?
What do I need to work on?
What should I stop doing?

These are not simple ideas or easily-answered questions; there's no check-off box for this list. But I hope to address each and every one of these items as I spend August preparing for another school year.

First, though, I think I'll go to the parent-teacher store. I feel a new lesson plan book, bulletin board borders, and desk calendar in my future. Bring on the markers!!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Of Sense and Sensibility

Intuition is a teacher's sixth sense. From the ridiculous to the sublime, we intuit a bazillion things a bazillion times a day, and since intuition is essentially based on history and knowledge, it makes complete sense that we become really, really good at it. There are only so many types or combinations of requests, responses, behaviors, and attitudes that we can experience or witness, and it's highly possible that some of us have seen them all!!

By "seen," I mean with the eyes in the backs of our heads, of course. At the basic level of intuition, we can sense what's happening "behind" us with pretty precise accuracy. We know when a student is reaching into a backpack to get a chip out of a lunchbag, and we needn't hear the backpack unzip or the bag crinkle to know; we can feel the student lean ever-so-unnaturally from his chair, and heck, we might even read his mind before he lowers his torso toward the floor. We know when two students will turn and begin to chat: just as we turn our focus to another task, or answer the classroom telephone, or spend a moment with another student across the room. We know exactly when the quirky couple in the hallway, to whom we've just spoken about PDA, will resume their awkward lip-lock; that's why we turn around and look at them sternly, hopefully before it occurs (saving all of those around them from embarrassment).

And we know, sometimes before he or she even realizes it, when a student is losing focus in the lab or mentally slipping away from our class read-aloud. We can sense a student's lack of sleep from too much gaming or a late night at work when she enters the room. We feel the tension and fall-out from an argument on the playground or in the cafeteria, we recognize what the request to go see the nurse really is, we intuit the response to the handed-back work before it's even handed back.

What our students often don't realize, though, is that we've been there, done that. Many of us are in this because we remember so vividly our own classroom experiences (and either want to duplicate them or improve upon them for our students). We asked the same questions, had the same anxieties, tried the same tactics when we were students. And all it takes is a year or two (sometimes fewer, even) to have run the gamut of experiences in our own classrooms; it's the rare instance when we get a student whose approach is novel, whose reactions we didn't expect, whose requests we couldn't predict.

So while we don't see dead people, we sure do have a sixth sense. We use it to create and maintain classroom peace, to foster learning, and to build relationships. We rely on it to head off trouble before it arrives. And we depend on it to further our understanding of our students. But I bet you already knew that.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Nurturing Warrior

A teacher's job is incredibly multi-faceted. And each year, those myriad facets increase, exponentially it seems, and nearly miraculously - after all, how many sides can one gem have?

We are: guides, dictionaries, accountants, therapists, editors, chemists, encouragers, soothers, challengers, architects, dietitians, collectors, creators, soldiers, encyclopedias, writers, problem-solvers, artists, nurses, advocates, advisors, psychics, cooks, explorers, collaborators, and even at times, parents. 

But no matter what our discipline or grade level, no matter what hats we don on what particular days, we all share one role from which we should never stray. We are, all of us, nurturing warriors

When I began thinking about the distillation of our jobs and the phraseology I wanted to use to convey the pure essence of what we do, I came naturally to that somewhat oxymoronic pairing of words, into whose definitions and interpretations I will delve momentarily. Little did I know (or remember?) that this same phrase was used to describe Presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton by the New York Times in 2007, albeit in a rather tongue-in-check, practically insulting way. 

I specifically chose the phrase "nurturing warrior" not only because it encapsulates exactly what it is we do every day, all day, but also because it includes two words that, alone, are associated with specific genders: the nurturing female versus the male warrior. I chose words with these stereotypical gender assignments so that I could then strip away gender from the phrase in toto and apply both words to teachers without any sense of gender roles or identities. The best teachers, regardless of gender, display the traits of both the nurturer and the warrior.

The nurturer is caring, compassionate, comforting, accepting, and loving. This is the caregiver element in the teacher, the part that wants everything to be okay, oftentimes tries to make everything okay, and laments when things are not okay. The nurturer knows what he can and cannot accomplish, knows his strengths and limitations, and uses this knowledge to be supportive, protective, and always hopeful. 

The warrior, too, is hopeful, but with an eternal confidence and strength of spirit that is unbending. The warrior is aggressive when she needs to be, girded for whatever pitfalls lie ahead and for whatever battles she might have to fight, and uncompromising in her advocacy. The warrior element is one we most often put aside, for we fear that in our strength we will appear inflexible, antagonistic, or even cocky. 

The nurturing warrior uses both these elements not in isolation, nurturing here, being a warrior there, but rather, as a whole. Only when applied in tandem, and in equal parts (over time), can both elements be truly effective. Sure, there are times when one element or the other are dominant, but one without the other is not only dangerous, but wholly ineffective. To access one element requires the recognition of the other; the two are interdependent, valid and valuable.

In all that we do, at the very core of our professional beings (and perhaps at the core of our selves, too), this is what we are: caring and bold, supportive and strong. We are, at the core, nurturing warriors. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

What Lies Beneath

A sure sign of summer is the ubiquitous tip jar, especially the one at the local burger place or ice cream stand - the one that's marked up in joyous colors and boldly claims its mission: Tips for Tuition or Help Pay My Way to College. No guesswork required at these places; they're staffed by college kids who need money for school. Very few of us would balk at putting an extra dollar in this jar since we've sent our own kids, or we know families who are robbing Peter to send Paul to university, or we've, at the very least, followed the recent news about student debt.

But what about tipping elsewhere? What about the jars at sandwich shops where just plain adults work? What about the hair stylist? The cabbie? The moving company wrappers and packers? The tour bus driver or leader?

If it's customary to give tips, or if there's a tip jar somewhere, I tip. Usually, I overtip. And I overtip with intention and purpose. My reasons are threefold. First, I like the idea of someone counting out his tip(s) and thinking, "Wow, my customers are generous." I just think that in some karmic way, great tipping begets great service. On a somewhat less superficial level, I overtip because clearly, the recipient's base salary isn't all that huge, and she depends on tips to make up for it. Most importantly, though, I overtip because I have no idea what's going on in this service worker's life and for all I know, he is dealing with issues - financial or otherwise - that are unfathomable or unconquerable. At this level, it's more about the generosity of spirit that's conveyed through overtipping than it is about the generosity of the wallet.

When we apply this last approach to our students, it becomes far less taxing to accept them as they are: kids with all sorts of stuff happening to them and/or around them. Sometimes that stuff is what we'd deem light and fluffy (but it's still stuff); sometimes it's heavy and burdensome and we cannot imagine how the child is managing. Sometimes we'll be aware in some extra-sensory way (we teachers are extra-special-good at this), sometimes we will find out at a grade level, counselor, or parent meeting, sometimes we will just never know.

When we apply this approach to our students' parents (and our colleagues, and even our administrators), we can access our sympathy, and consequently our acceptance and understanding, much more readily. Lost or difficult jobs, loss of parents or siblings, illness, child-rearing woes, any internal or external struggles - these are all problems with which we can identify, or at the very least, understand. And we needn't know to understand. All we need to remember is that for everyone, always, there's always something, there's always stuff.

My pal calls this generosity of spirit "BOTD": giving someone (read: everyone) the benefit of the doubt. While we'll never know just what another is conflicted by, struggling with, or up against, it's highly likely that there's something there. By nature, teachers work in a world of BOTD; it's a by-product of being extra-special-good at sensing our students' stuff. The transfer from the classroom to beyond is easy, then: tip generously, whether in coins and bills or in peace, love and understanding - or, better yet, in all of the above.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Working on Discipline

Molly on her way to the island

On this morning's walk, we were joined by Molly the dog, who is generally well-behaved, tons of fun, and just a sweet love. Walking on a leash, however, is not one of her strengths. She's a sniffer, a puller, a wanderer, and my pal worked diligently for four miles to teach her to heel, to follow his command of "No pull, Molly."

I couldn't help but draw some parallels to the foundational work we do with students. But first, I thought of my own children, now adults, and the same instructional practices that I used with them, over and over. And over. And over. 

I've always asserted that the most difficult part of parenting, but the absolutely most important part (aside from abundant love, of course), is being consistent. Consistency isn't easy because as they grow, kids challenge us, test us, keep check on us (maybe even more than we keep check on them). They watch us like hawks to see if we'll change course, allow this or that, ignore something this time, or switch an approach or response. I like to believe that my daughters were never surprised by me and that I met their expectations, maybe not their desires, but their expectations of me each and every time I asked something of them or they asked something of me. 

Our students, too, need consistency. While I'll probably never be the easiest teacher, or the nicest (that descriptor goes to my colleague, CCC), or the funniest, I strive to be the fairest, the most straightforward, the most consistent. I work diligently, like my pal did with Molly, all day, every day to both model consistency and expect it from my students. And therein lies the rub, for my students oftentimes are like Molly: wanderers and pullers (and pushers, too). And that's precisely why I must be assiduous in my work, never faltering, always steady. 

And lest my reader worry that I sound as boring as all get-out, let me clarify this way: I am talking solely about classroom expectations, which I believe are the foundation for all good work to happen around content. Without knowing that I do not tolerate disrespect, students cannot take risks and make guesses about what they think and what they read. Without knowing that I will be honest about what I do and don't know, students are less likely to be honest  about what they do and don't know. And without knowing how they will be assessed, with clear rubrics to follow, students cannot do their very best work on essays, projects, and tests.

Working on discipline, for Molly, for our children, for our students, and even for ourselves (think food choices, work habits, exercise and movement), requires much consistency. To practice consistency is to create consistency, and consistency then breeds discipline. Cyclical, certainly, but a cycle worth the practice. No pull!!

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Best Ofs

I'm not particularly the formally competitive type (though I like to be the "winner" in nearly every aspect of my personal and professional lives - more on that later), but I do love a good competition. And summer is always chock-a-block full of the contests, races, rankings, and ratings that I both marvel at and appreciate. From magazine "Best Of" listings to the Olympics, competition seems to be the name of the summer game.

So bring on summer. So far this season, I've had the pleasure of trying Maine's "Best Veggie Burger," the pride of crossing fingers for a former student at the USA swimming and diving trials in Omaha, the wonder of following the two runners who actually tied for third in an Olympic-qualifying race, and Dana Torres, and Oscar Pistorius, the too-infrequent contentment of watching the 2012 Euro Cup, and the sheer joy of placing bets for dinner over the length of time it would take to travel in a loaded moving truck from one state to another with a tire low on air (thanks, Northeast derecho).

Of course, it's these healthy competitions that we want to celebrate. Competition drives us to strive diligently, to create with abandon, to think broadly, and to assess our own capacities in the striving, creating, and thinking arenas. And this last element of competition is the one that I find most important, the one that I believe we must instill in our students and children: the knowing of oneself, the competition within.

When I pass back the first graded work of the school year to my students, inevitably someone will turn to someone else and ask, "What did you get?" It happens in nearly every class, and it's a most teachable moment. I get that we are inclined to measure ourselves against each other, but it's that inclination that I want to eradicate, and the earlier the better. For simply put, the work within a classroom is not developed and delivered so that students are in competition with each other, but rather so that students internalize their successes (or failures) and determine their own courses to improve upon their own performances. So I often cut that question off (or hopefully, address it before it even gets asked), and share with the entire class my stand on the purpose of asking it and the purpose of graded work.

First, I contend, one only asks another what he received for a grade in order to share with him what one's own grade is. It's the rare student who receives a low grade and asks around to see what everyone else earned; typically, the high scorers are quicker to the question. So this, then, becomes an unhealthy competition: tell me what you got, so I can better your grade with my own. That's simply egocentrism, and while this approach is completely appropriate for 14-year-olds, it's a less narcissistic self-focus that I want to encourage. I say, "Compete with yourself, strive for yourself, do well for yourself."

And second, I believe that the whole point of grades is to mark an individual student's progress in relation to her prior performance. In this day of interventions, modifications, adaptations, and accommodations, students should be measured against themselves, not against each other. That is the true purpose of benchmarks, really, despite the relatively contradictory implication of their use. Yes, they establish a point of reference against which we can measure all students, but isn't individual progress way more important?

I'll remind myself of these beliefs as I venture through the summer, too. No hot dog eating contests for me, unless I just want to eat a lot of hot dogs for my own pleasure (highly doubtful). Less complaining about Maine's supposed best lobster roll, which is not at Red's Eats, by the way, but here. And of course, tuning in to the Olympics, where competitors surely race and swim and compete against each other, but only because they've focused on themselves for so very long and with such very successful results.

Cheers to competition!!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Bossa Nova

When summer comes on full blast, I almost long for the days of my youth. Memories of angst and acne aside, summer still means one place, one person to me: Camp Maria Pratt and Bernie Moore. When I try to explain myself to people now, I always mention Bernie, and I always say, "She made me who I am." It's difficult to go beyond that very cliché statement, difficult to put into words, verbal or written, why I have had only one hero in my life, and why I credit that one hero with more of my making than my parents, siblings, or life-long friends.

Bernie was a woman comfortable in her own skin. That, more than anything, is reason enough to call her a hero. For this young girl in the 1970s and into the 80s, an older woman who didn't complain about her figure, fuss with her hair, or need a matching bag and shoes was an unknowing godsend. And add to that someone who could cook an entire meal over a fire, play the panicky victim in a lifesaving drill, bike for miles, and dance the bossa nova. Bernie rocked, we knew it, we adored her, and she adored us. But she also instilled in us a great sense of responsibility and respect: for the environment, for the importance of routine, for equity and justice, for our selves.

As a camper, I remember Bernie in several ways. I remember her cooking fried dough on the porch of the lodge: white apron over green tee shirt and jean shorts, wavy silver hair pushed back from her face, sweat running from every pore. Every now and then she'd take a break, come onto the tarmac where we huddled in small groups, put her arms around all of us (somehow), and make us feel as if we were the most important people she knew. I remember Bernie dancing on that same tarmac, keeping time to the bossa nova with those few bangles around her wrist that she wore at all times, stepping lightly in worn sneakers and somehow getting all of us to join her. I remember her best at candlelight ceremonies, where we'd mark the close of another session in one immense gorgeous candlelit circle. Bernie would recite, "If you stand very still in the heart of the woods…" and no one would move, speak, or giggle, simply because we recognized the beauty of the moment and wanted to hold onto it, forever.

When I was old enough to work at camp, Bernie became so much more than the coolest camp director ever. She became a parent for eight weeks, urging and challenging, scolding and comforting. Bernie's cardinal rule for staff was, "Whatever you do on your free time, you better be able to be at 100% for your job the next day." On more than one occasion, I took advantage of the freedoms allowed me at camp, and a few times, I had to answer to Bernie the following day. You always knew if you'd let her down. She'd approach wearing a serious expression, and you'd know you fouled up again, and that somehow, she knew where you'd been, what you'd done, and with whom. Bernie would talk of your responsibility, then her concern, and finally, the ultimate response, disappointment. All quietly, patiently, and firmly but lovingly, usually with her hand on your arm or her arm around your shoulder. Tears would come, then the hug. Getting in trouble didn't get any better than that.

I couldn't bring myself to visit Bernie in her old age, or even, most days, to ask others about her health once she was ill. I was, thoroughly and completely, in denial. To picture my hero anywhere else but camp, or in her cozy home she made with Harry, was (still is) impossible. And despite the years that have passed since Bernie died, I can't accept that she won't be somewhere this summer, teaching young girls how to paddle, making the perfect campfire dessert, or dancing the bossa nova into the warm night.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Stop Complaining

After a hiatus of nearly two months, I've finally returned to this blog. I use the term "hiatus" pretty loosely, seeing as how my absence hasn't been any kind of a hiatus at all (summer might bring the true hiatus), but instead a steady stream of end-of-school responsibilities in May and June that became practically unmanageable.

But not really. Not really unmanageable. Typical. Usual. To be expected. And I handled them all relatively well: the PPTs, the CPTs, the last essays, the union meetings, the exams - creation, modification, correction, the retirement parties, the elections, the classroom cleaning, the meetings about next year's batch, the graduation... and the housekeeping, the car maintenance, the grocery shopping and meal preparation, the laundry, too....

I made a conscious decision, on a daily basis, to forego writing here. Part of me struggled with the loss of one laptop, the acquisition of a borrowed another, the desktop sitting idly by (but all the way downstairs), and the iPad I was lent. I hemmed and hawed about the device on which I would write, until it was time for bed and I hadn't written a thing (in retrospect, pathetic). Part of me wondered what, if anything, I could still say about teaching, and the rest of me worried about what it meant that the other part of me was wondering about that (in retrospect, even more pathetic). A whole lot of me just knew I couldn't do it all, and so I didn't (in retrospect, totally smart).

When I started this blog I thought big, grandiose even. Although I formally planned to write only on the weekends, internally I wanted to top that and write three or four times a week. That's easier said and done when daylight only lasts until 4:00 p.m., I guess. And I secretly hoped for a readership numbering in the hundreds, with fans the country over. Clearly I ignored the need to market the blog in order to achieve this goal and also forgot that, simply put, teachers. are. busy.

But this week feels like time is once again on my side. And I'm remembering my perspective and bringing forcing into focus my good fortune, my real reasons for writing, and all the good things about teaching and learning that I want to memorialize here.

This morning I drove with a colleague to a meeting about a new evaluation system that our district will be piloting next year. We talked shop on the way over. And on the way back. Shop talk, and lots of it. One week out of school (excluding the three days of summer curriculum work already completed and the one more to get through), and there we were, already talking about next year, making plans to improve how we service our students, sharing best practices, and neither of us minded. Really, we were both pretty darned excited.

And that's why I'm back, really. I'm excited again. Not just going through the paces, but really and truly excited, and it isn't even July yet. Hiatus schmiatus - it's going to be a great summer!!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

May Flowers

In the past few days (literally, three or four days), I have been witness to, from afar, the leaps and bounds of former students and young family members that have been nothing short of amazing. And these kinds of events happen all the time for us teachers - this is a part of the job that is so easy to take, that in fact, keeps us going, inspires us, reminds us of why we do what we do.

A doctorate. A founding role in a creative company that is doing amazing work. An early graduation from college, complete with a record of professional experiences and several job interviews in the field, after a pretty bumpy start. Over ten years in a career, a healthy relationship with a partner, the ability to travel and explore this land, and a strong sense of self. Not only a first-gen college graduate, but the first-in-family-ever college graduate. An ease about life that was not there before, brought on by challenge and discovery. The list, truly, is endless.

I never had any doubts that stability or peace or liberty or success or relief would come to the young people whom I love deeply, those who have shared their lives with me. It is hope and a firm belief in them that I have clung to, continue to espouse, and will always be confident in. It is not luck, it is not some unseen external force; it is the natural way of things that these people have found, are finding, their space and place - no matter when, no matter how. But still, still.... It brings me No. Greater. Joy. than to witness their journeys, to see them here, engaged in this life, to celebrate their most meaningful achievements - whether grand or minute, every one significant.

May is a great month. Let the flowers grow!!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

When a Student Suffers

Having empathy is one of the most difficult parts of the job. I don't mean that acquiring empathy, or accessing empathy, or imparting empathy is difficult. That's pretty easy. I mean that facing whatever makes us access or impart that empathy is hard. Just knowing that we must, or why we must, engage our empathy is hard. And when a student suffers, and we subsequently engage our empathy, we do so freely and willingly. But it's still very, very difficult, because we hurt, too.

Years ago, I stood by a student who had caused an injury, inadvertently, to another student. Everyone - students, parents, teachers - knew the accident was just that, accidental. But, as teenagers can be cruel, the kid was ostracized, ignored, and shunned by his peers (they'd chosen sides, and understandably, they'd chosen the hurt kid's side). Some parents chose sides, too. And too many teachers judged him as reckless, a danger (and I can say this now, with confidence, because even recently, at our faculty room lunch table, teachers were reminiscing about the incident and applying those same descriptors). At school, lunch time was the worst for him, and he sought refuge in my classroom. Every day he'd rush through the lunch line and bring his hot lunch to my room, where he and I would sit across from each other and eat, sometimes in a surprisingly comfortable silence, sometimes deep in conversation about the accident, but most times while chatting about what seemed like the ridiculously mundane: uses for catsup, hiking boots, skateboarding. When the bell rang, he'd dump his tray in my garbage and shuffle out the door. And I'd take a few minutes to gather myself and shift my energy. I had more students to take care of who'd walk into my room within minutes.

I never stopped thinking about that boy, though. My heart broke to see him working through this very tough spot (he did eventually, and successfully, and for the most part, his classmates did, too). Providing him with a place to which to retreat, giving him the conversational space he needed, and confirming my unconditional support was all I could do. That, and to feel so deeply for him.

Sometimes the cause of a student's suffering is more clearly defined, more straightforward, easier to discern. Sometimes it's relatively simple. And they need us then, and the empathy comes, though it still hurts. But when it's a complex pain, they need us more, and our own subsequent hurt might be stronger, deeper. But still we support, we give, we comfort. It is the nature of our teacher-beings; it is who we are.

Empathy is easy, but it never gets easier.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Just as we have those occasional days or weeks filled with bad news, frustrating experiences, lessons-gone-wrong, we have those days or weeks where the next experience outshines the last. And sometimes, those light-bearing moments are on the not-so-ragged edge of our professional lives; sometimes, that's where  they can be the best experiences ever. I've had such a week so far, and it's only Wednesday!!

Monday evening was World Book Night. When I got wind of this project many months ago, I immediately applied to be a book-giver. The excitement I felt in the winter when chosen to give away 20 copies of Jeannette Walls' The Glass Castle increased tenfold when I picked up my books at my local library a few weeks ago. And then, Monday afternoon, it increased one-hundred-fold. It was an overcast afternoon with a cold, brisk wind, but I felt all warm inside (no joke) as my daughter and I distributed the books to people around town. Gratitude - for the shared love of reading, for the getting and the giving of a gift, for the reaching out - can do that, make me feel warm and mushy. Who knew it would continue, with such a force, into Tuesday?

Tuesday afternoon I walked into a 14-person workgroup meeting to find myself sitting down to a chat about teacher evaluation with none other than Charlotte Danielson. Didn't I just mention her a couple days ago in a blog post? I DID!! I think that hour may become one of the seminal moments of the rest of my teaching life. Danielson is intelligent, provocative, self-effacing, insightful, honest, and thoroughly engaging. She "taught" us in just the way she encourages us to teach, which is an incredibly refreshing concept for those of us who have sat through too-many-to-mention workshops-gone-wrong. I found myself scribbling copious notes and scribing complete quotes; she was that brilliant.

I left that meeting and headed to the theatre for the Tuesday night installment of Great Week Gets Greater. I'd been looking forward to seeing Bully since I'd heard about it months ago and followed the print media's coverage of the controversy surrounding its MPAA rating (it's now rated PG-13). This film must be seen. By everyone. Parents. Kids. Teachers. Administrators. Board members. Lawyers. Store clerks. Waitstaff. Truck drivers. CPAs. PAs. The Oakland As. You get it - everyone. It will make you weep, it will make you squirm, and I hope most of all that it makes you take action.

Today hasn't been a letdown, interestingly. I started a Twitter project with a class and had great initial success. Student engagement was high and I'm looking forward to refining what we learned from this first entree into using social media in the classroom.

I'm also looking forward to what Thursday, and Friday, and next week, and next month bring. Maybe I'm on a roll; it sure feels that way and that sure feels good. Might as well go for the super-perfecta!!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

What I Want to Be

I want to be a better teacher.

Charlotte Danielson just may be the closest thing to an educational god. She's a brand, too, I admit. But she's a brand with which I am comfortable because I believe in her product, her framework for teaching. I do not say this lightly; it takes an awful lot for me to sign on to any standardized anything. Danielson's framework, though, doesn't point its finger at me and say, "Do this. Or this." It's not about methodology and rules as much as it is about what good professional practice looks like; it's not about the process of teaching as much as it is about opportunities for engagement and improvement. I like that. 

Our district work around Domain 3, Instruction, and specifically, questioning and discussion techniques, has been a catalyst for more post-PD conversation than I've ever experienced. Colleagues are talking to each other about what we already do, what we could do, what we might try, and, interestingly, how to meet the distinguished levels of performance in this domain. I'm fascinated that we are verbalizing with each other what we each individually know - that we want to be better. We all know it, we all think about it, but now, we are all talking about it. 

Last night at a dinner party, a colleague said, "Don't you think getting students to engage other students in discussion is virtually impossible?" This idea, that students become responsible to each other for ensuring that all (and Danielson means all) voices are heard within the context of rich conversation around a topic, is indeed hard to imagine. But I don't think it's impossible. And I want to prove it. 

I'd like to think I'm already proficient in this component of instruction. I'm really good at using wait time. I vary my questioning techniques so that many voices are heard. I encourage my students to think deeply and to take risks in discussions. I check for understanding, not just for completion of task. Next year, I am going to add a component for classroom discussion to my course expectations. I may create a professional goal around my questioning and discussion techniques. And I've already starting thinking about how to better foster the kind of engagement that Danielson is talking about: less me, more students. After all, I want to be a better teacher. 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Taking a Stand

"Pig" was an offensive word, a swear, when I was a child. My sister, brother, and I weren't allowed to use it, and if we did, as in "You pig!" we were swiftly punished. We also weren't allowed to say, "I hate you," and the first time I heard another kid say this to her mother, while preparing breakfast on a Girl Scout camping weekend, I felt like retching. In fact, I retreated to my tent, wept uncontrollably, and still felt weird even after my mother explained to me that it was said as a joke, and that it was okay in that family. Of course, I turned into a curser-extraordinaire as an adult (but I never use the word "pig"). And I allowed my own children, even in their most vehement moments, to tell me that they hated me, which I never believed they meant.

But I also disallowed certain words as I raised my children (and still in my classroom), words that are used today rather loosely and that I find highly, highly offensive when not used in proper context (as they so rarely are, or, for some, if there even is a proper context). "Retarded" and "gay" come to mind. But there's also "nigger," "slut," "Nazi," "wifebeater," and "bitch," and now, more and more, "rape." Friends "rape" friends' Facebook walls. The Spurs "rape" the Lakers. A classmate who stands too close in the lunch line is admonished, "Don't rape me."

Today, as I was catching up on my teacher-related online reading, I came across this post on Motherlode, and then this subsequent re-visit. The quandary that a parent faces over if/when/how to address inappropriate remarks is one that teachers experience, these days nearly every day. Parents may question whether they should confront their own or other children or other children's parents (it's a no-brainer for me, though: of course), but teachers shouldn't. Teachers have the prerogative, the permission, and most of all, the responsibility to halt the inappropriate use of these words and their implications, all within the context of teachable moments.

I had one myself, just yesterday. I'd witnessed a student sort of subtly laugh in mockery and point his finger at another who, while portraying a character, asked his teacher if the character was gay. My colleague handled the question (and his answer) with finesse and aplomb. Later, I caught up with the student whose inappropriate behavior I'd witnessed. I explained to him what I saw, how it made me feel (offended, uncomfortable, disappointed), and the difference between intent and impact. The student was open to the conversation and appreciative of my insight.

Will that conversation, or any conversations we teachers have with our students about language, make a difference? It might; I can only hope. All I know is that if I hadn't had it, there would be no difference to be made.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

National Poetry Month

Last night, I sat at a restaurant that is an English teacher's dream. One long wall includes a wide magnetic strip upon which are hundreds of Magnetic Poetry word bits. On my left, a family laughed between bites of frites as their children messed around with language and structure. On my right, a bilingual couple spoke in French and created short poems in English from the words on the wall.

April is National Poetry Month. We've all been touched by poetry, many of us teach poetry, and certainly, our lives themselves are poetry. To honor the poetry within us and around us, I give you two of my favorite teacher-y poems.

First, a gem from my favorite accessible poet, Billy Collins. If you don't yet know "Introduction to Poetry," I think you will enjoy it.

And then, the classic "Did I Miss Anything?" from Tom Wayman. It's a great riff on that bothersome student-to-teacher question.

What's your favorite poem? I encourage you, in this month of poetry, to find it, re-read it (or recite it), and let it please you once again.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite

The French had it right when they decided that "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" should be the goals of their Republic. I believe that teachers, also, benefit when we interpret these ideals for ourselves.

I often lament the thing that most frustrates me about my particular job, and that is the inordinate amount of correcting I must do. Before I settled down today to grade quizzes, reader responses, active viewing charts, and unit projects, I weighed my teacher bag. 17.2 pounds. The equivalent of a 6-month-old baby. I should have bulging biceps by now (I don't). But that baby is mine, mine, mine. I chose to have that baby. So I really shouldn't complain too much, right? I really shouldn't so vociferously discourage those in teacher prep programs to avoid my discipline, right? I really should buckle down and just do it, right? Right. Same goes for complaining about my pay (we should get paid what others with our equivalent degrees get paid), or my too-early wake-up time (it's inhuman to rise at 4:45 a.m.), or having to dress professionally (I'd wear jeans and a t-shirt every day if I could). Sometimes it feels good to complain, and sometimes the complaining is necessary. But I also need to remind myself often that I. Chose. This.

Something that's always bothered me about this profession is the odd division between us - between elementary and secondary teachers, between disciplines, or between classroom teachers and specialized personnel. Somehow, we get to thinking that our jobs are the toughest, or someone else's is the the easiest. We assume that PE teachers have an "easy gig," English teachers claim they have the most correcting, elementary teachers "get to play all day," high school teachers "have so much prep time," specials teachers' classes don't count, and the list of (misguided) comparisons goes on. But I know that we all have requirements and standards and burdens and struggles that not only do we all not fully grasp, but that make each of our jobs difficult in different ways (and let's not forget that the rest of us didn't choose those other areas for a reason - most likely because we couldn't hack it there).

Most importantly, though, we are a union, some of us by formal definition and membership, but all of us by the labels of "teacher" and "educator." We are a  fraternity (you'll pardon the gender-specific word choice, I hope). Whether we teach private or public, young or old, struggling or gifted, core or specials, humanities or sciences, rural or urban, our common denominators are our passion, our devotion, our concern, our commitment, and our love for this work. We want to preserve our rights, fulfill our obligations, and do what is right and good for our students, always. There's no argument there. We can debate about reform, we can respectfully disagree about methodology and pedagogy, we can discuss the merits of merit pay. But when we do, we must remember that we are first brothers and sisters in this work.

And so, to all (other than high school English) teachers, I can say only this: I don't know exactly what it is you do, or even how you do it, but I know I could not do it. I do not have the desire, energy, talents, or skill set that is required of your work. I appreciate your dedication and your drive, and I am grateful to labor beside you and amongst you and call you my colleagues.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

I Break for Birthdays (and Other Amazing Stuff)

Today, I pulled a Dove dark chocolate from the bag that the kid-who-has-trouble-coming-to-school-because-of-a-whole-host-of-reasons brought to me for my birthday, and the shiny sentiment inside the red foil wrapping was perfect for me, for all of us, for the concept of this blog, for teachers: "The more you praise and celebrate your life, the more there is in life to celebrate."

I took a week or so off from some of the "other" stuff I do. I wanted to mark the occasion of my fiftieth birthday with whatever extra time I could carve out for myself, and I was successful. But today I was reminded that the "praise and celebration" can't just be about me. That's why I started TeacherBites in the first place.

There's a platterful of blogs out there in which my esteemed (and light-years-brighter-than-me) colleagues delve into the edu-political landscape. Aside from the occasional poking of the snake or wee rant about the climate in my state and in this country, I've tried to stay away from arguing "our side." I believe in teachers' rights, I believe in educational reform based on reason, sensibility, and solid practice, but mostly, I just believe in teachers. I just do.

Teachers are amazing folks. We are sensitive, a trait that is sometimes mistaken for a weakness. I contend, though, that recognizing, embracing, and showing a weakness is truly a strength. Teachers care about our students' needs; that's why we spend our own money on classroom supplies, that's why we donate so freely on dress-down-for-charity Fridays, that's why we come early and stay late, that's why we chaperone, organize, advise, and confer, that's why we so often question ourselves and our practices. We care deeply, and thus, we feel hurt quickly and easily.

Sure, we can be worn down by Board decisions, administrative finger-pointing, misguided parents, surly students, and red tape. We are sensitive. But we cannot, and should not, criticize ourselves for that very quality that makes us so good at what we do. We cannot, and should not, apply more weight to the negative forces than we apply to the positive forces. We must, we always must, acknowledge our gifts, our talents, our strengths. It's a hard thing for us to do; we are way more comfortable shining that light on our students than on ourselves. But we deserve to stand in that light, too. And the more we allow ourselves to stand in that light, the brighter that light becomes. Praise and celebrate. Praise and celebrate!!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Beyond Mastery Kids

With so much emphasis on testing and test scores and how student and teacher performance can be (and should be, according to so many) measured by numbers, I just can't help thinking more and more about the students I've had whose successes cannot be assessed in any standardized way. That's not to say that I disagree with the idea theoretically; in theory, in ideal circumstances, we could sit every child down after they've each arrived at school safely, unthreatened and unharmed, after each has had a healthy breakfast, has slept full eight hours in a bed in a safe home, and hasn't suffered any psyche-damaging experiences at the hands of families or strangers, after each has been raised since birth without poverty or hunger or distress, after each, in theory, has had a childhood that puts him on a level playing field with every other child his age. We could then test each student in his first language, using culturally-appropriate prompts that he understands based on his knowledge and experience. I don't need to explain what does happen, instead.

Those tests, and perhaps even the common assessments we use within our grade levels, departments, schools, and districts, often miss the student that I call the "beyond mastery kid." (This is why, hopefully, we offer several kinds of common assessments, that measure several kinds of learning.) This student is atypical by nature, so that right there reduces the chances of a standardized assessment measuring her achievements accurately. But as we do as students, who remember our favorite teachers not for their prowess in academics or methodology, necessarily, we also remember our beyond mastery kids for so much more than their test scores.

We remember the kid who loved learning about his hometown and produced an oral history that is now housed at the local library. We remember the student who excelled on stage, in the band room, or in the art room who now returns periodically as an artist-in-residence or guest performer. We remember the child whose intense concern for others morphed into her involvement with Special Olympics. The kid who bred new species of fish. The kid who wired his bedroom for internet before internet was available. The kid who achieved in horseback riding, or marksmanship, or boatbuilding.

Like the immeasurable and unmeasurable successes that teachers have in the classroom, our students' beyond-the-test successes are valuable, meaningful, and incredibly valid. I wish we could measure them in some way. But the true measure is in the memory. We'll never forget our beyond mastery kids.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Our First Teachers

During the summer of 2006, which somehow has become a whole six years ago, I was fortunate to travel to Botswana for a Habitat for Humanity build. It was a vacation of a lifetime for me, and while I could not, even if I tried really, really hard, begin to list the ways in which it changed me, I did have several epiphanies there which have become more meaningful over time.

Recently, perhaps because I will be turning 50 next week, or perhaps because my infrequent telephone conversations with my faraway parents are often about health and aging, or perhaps because I have had to draw on those Botswana revelations in my work, I find myself going back more and more often to what I learned from my first teachers, my mother and my father. My recognition of the qualities I've acquired from them crystallized in Africa six years ago, where I had to apply them in isolation and in earnest. They are, of course, a deep part of me, but when they surface, they do so out of need, I believe, and I must once again recognize and honor them.

My mother gave me the gift of service. Mom was the consummate volunteer. When I was a child, I hated to go to events my mom organized or helped with. She was the first to arrive, the last to leave, and always, always, engaged in whatever activities were taking place. Which meant  I was, too. I didn't know what it was like to go to an event at its start time; I'd already been there for an hour. And I yearned to leave an event when it concluded, not after all the visitors had been chatted up, the chairs had been folded, the tables wiped down, the kitchen cleaned, the supplies put away, the floor swept and mopped, and the extra materials packed up and re-packed into the car. What I didn't appreciate then, and so appreciate now, is my mother's dedication to others and the enjoyment she derives from her service. She is the reason I am often the first to arrive at school and sometimes the last to leave. She is the reason I engage in so many extra-curricular activities, especially those that serve my colleagues. And she is the reason I will someday go back to Botswana or some other country on another Habi build.

My father taught me perseverance. Some of my favorite memories of him are of working up in the woods behind our house, cutting wood and hauling it back with the red Gravely tractor (on which he also taught me how to back up with a trailer when I was ten years old). Or of him working on the practically homemade pump and filter systems for the practically homemade pool that took up most of our backyard. Or of him under a car, or in his cellar workshop, some contraption in the vice, the coffee can of loose screws, bolts, and nuts spread out across the workbench as he searched for the right doohickey. In all these memories, Dad is focused, his face serious, his forehead frowning in concentration, his nose often running. When he asked me to work alongside him, if I didn't screw up, I loved to watch him work. He just stuck with the task at hand. No stopping because it was too cold or too hot. No time for fooling around. No giving up. I've had to draw on my own ability to persevere these past few weeks. And I know I will, because my dad taught me how to.

My parents could also relax like nobody's business. And as I head into a week of celebration for my fiftieth, I'm going to practice that, too. Or at least, I'm going to try to.

Cheers to our first teachers.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Teacher's Primer

From the New England Primer, circa 1690

Learn this. There will be a quiz later.
Be this. Oh, right. You already are.

Zany (c'mon, what did you think I would use here?)