Wednesday, July 23, 2008


Oops, I think I may be in trouble. Well, at least I would be if I taught in Lamar County, Mississippi. According to an article entitled "Teacher-Student Web Friendships Restricted by Lamar School Board," teachers will no longer be allowed to have student "friends" on social websites like MySpace and Facebook.

So I guess it's time to fess up. I have accounts on both of those sites. I have all kinds of "friends" on those sites, and it is true - some of my friends are students. First, let's talk about the word "friend." Although social networks refer to online contacts as "friends," it doesn't necessarily mean that I go out to dinner with them. I have a MySpace friend in Oregon that I haven't seen face-to-face for twelve years. So to say that I am "friends" with my students is not the message that I'm trying to send. However, having said that, let me speak to the reasons why I am a member of these social networks and how it works with my students.

I joined MySpace a few years ago because someone had put up a fake page pretending to be my daughter. In order to get on the site and search around, I had to have a page of my own. Well, let's just say I signed up as quickly as I could to get on there and try to find out who was impersonating my child! (And so did a private investigator, a couple of law enforcement agencies, the Attorney General's office, and the National Football League.) Yes, someone was representing herself, on a MySpace page and reportedly during phone conversations, as my daughter who is a professional cheerleader. She had "stolen" pictures from an NFL webpage; her MySpace "friends" were talking to the imposter on the phone but trying to continue their conversations with my puzzled daughter at football games. So you can believe that I understand some of the problems connected to these sites.

However, since I had a page, I figured I may as well have fun with it. So I answered all of the "about me" questions, uploaded some pictures, and basically personalized it. I soon found that I enjoyed playing with it - it's a nice internet hobby and a fun way for me to communicate with my children who don't live at home any more. I also caught up with some of my former colleagues, some relatives I never get to see, and so on.

Soon one of my students found my page and did what's called a "friend request." It was a good student, one who wouldn't use this kind of situation in a negative way, so I clicked "accept." Days became months, and before I knew it, I had "friends" of all ages from all over the country. Students at school would look at me in disbelief - "YOU have a MySpace page?!" they would ask. Suddenly, I was cooler than the Monkees were when I was their age. I even began using MySpace entries while teaching writing as I described in an article I wrote for Teacher Magazine.

In addition, my participation with students on social websites has helped me stay connected to them and their interests, which of course enables me to be a better teacher. I'm afraid that once my own children left home, my finger was removed from the pulse of teenager music, fashion, and activities. Now all I have to do is click on a seventh grader's page, and I'm right back in the game!

I do have some rules for my interaction with students, and there are no exceptions. Here is a list of guidelines that I believe are imperative if teachers are to have a positive social networking experience:

1. I NEVER send out a request for a student to be my "friend." If they see my page, and send me a request, I first click on the student's page. If it doesn't appear to include profanity or anything else inappropriate, I merely click "accept."

2. I NEVER send a message to a student or post a comment that is unsolicited. And I rarely return a comment. If a student sends me, "How's your summer going?" I may write back, "Great! I hope you're having a great summer, too." If that student tries to continue the conversation, I don't reply. Kids are so busy sending messages to everyone; they eventually forget the last message, and the conversation ends. I don't believe it's appropriate to carry on long, drawn out online conversations with my students. A short "hello" is all that's necessary.

3. I WILL talk, in private, to a student if I happen to see something inappropriate on a page. I have had to have a couple of these conversations, and the students have been receptive. At the beginning of the last school year, I read some negative comments by several students about one of our new teachers. I was able to pull these students aside, at different intervals during the year, and talk about their posts. I believe I was able to effectively listen to their concerns while at the same time advocating for the new teacher. Again, I believe the fact that I have a page of my own helps me connect with my students in ways that are positive.

4. I WILL seek higher authority if I see anything illegal or dangerous. I once saw a student's profile picture - he was pointing a gun to his head. After I spoke with him about how horrified I was, I talked to the principal, who had a good relationship with the student. The principal asked him to take down the picture, and he contacted the boy's parents. For me, this rule is the same as the one I have for journal entries in my classroom. I tell students that what they write is entirely confidential unless they write about anything illegal or dangerous to themselves or anyone else. The same goes for anything I see on a webpage.

I do understand that students could get the wrong message if teachers are too "friendly" online. But for that matter, students could get the wrong message if a teacher is too "friendly" at school. This high tech environment is the world that our students are living in. A teacher wouldn't hesitate to sit down and write a handwritten note to a student. Could a handwritten letter contain an inappropriate message to a student? Absolutely. It is up to the individual teacher to be professional and appropriate whether the communication is written on paper or sent via the internet.

Unfortunately, if a teacher has bad intentions, a school board policy is not going to change that.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Expressions for Excellence in Education

I've always felt young, like I just got out of college. It hit me a few years ago when I delivered my daughter to "my" college campus, that it was now "her" college campus, and my days of celebrating basketball championships in the middle of the street there were probably over. And in a school, as the average birth year of the teaching staff begins to dip below the year I began teaching, it becomes apparent that I am what some would call an "experienced teacher." As the years continue, I realize that there are expressions that I use, over and over, when giving advice to beginning teachers. So here, in no particular order, are my "Expressions for Excellence in Education:"

1. Hit the floor running, and breathe when you leave.
I have always been one of the first teachers to pull into the parking lot in the mornings. I believe that getting to work a good twenty to thirty minutes before the "official" start time is necessary for me. First of all, it gives me time to think quietly about my day. Also, it alleviates the problem of standing in line at a copy machine or finding a jammed copy machine that was left blinking wildly by a teacher who didn't attempt to fix it. After the copies are made, the agenda and goals are on the board, and the room is ready, there's time for having nice morning adult conversations (there may not be another opportunity until after school) and time for student relationship building that can happen as students arrive into the building.

Let me say that I do understand that there are sometimes circumstances. The year my son was a senior in high school, I flew into the school parking lot on two wheels every morning just as the second hand on the office clock was announcing that I was late. But if I didn't stay at home until he was safely belted into his car to drive to school, he wouldn't go. Not that he was a rebellious kid; he just kept falling asleep - in the bathtub, on the breakfast table...basically he slept on any flat surface. He just admitted about a month ago, at the age of 24, that during his senior year he was always up half the night practicing his newly acquired skill of Instant Messaging. (Now he tells me!) So I do know that it may be difficult to get to the building early. However, the earlier, the better is my suggestion for starting the day off relaxed and ready.

I feel the same way about the end of the school day. I tell beginning teachers to beware of the 3:30 Club. The 3:30 Club is made up of teachers who walk to the bus parking lot (if they have bus duty) with their purses and bookbags on their shoulders. Here's the warning: if you get between them and the door at 3:30 (or whatever time school is out,) it's over. And for goodness sakes, don't risk your life walking across the faculty parking lot at that time!

I prefer to take my time in the afternoons, grade a few papers, look over some lesson plans, straighten up my classroom from the day's activities, and get it ready for the next day. Again, after school is a great time to catch up with colleagues; I believe we are the happiest in our jobs when we work with our best friends! We have to nurture those relationships. Also, I like to wander around the school in the afternoons to see what my students are up to. There's nothing better than grading a few papers outside on the bleachers on a warm fall day during football season. My students, who should be paying attention to their coaches, always wave wildly when they see me in those stands like they didn't just see me in class thirty minutes before! My goal every day is to leave ready for the morning. Of course, I usually think of something to add to my lesson at night while I'm at home, which is why I also like to arrive early.

The "breathe when you leave" part? That means that teachers need to take care of themselves and relax during their hours out of school. This doesn't mean they can't grade the occasional paper or do schoolwork. For me, it's very relaxing to do my lesson plans on Sunday afternoons. Turn on a little professional football, and plan the week! But this routine may not work for some teachers. I tell new teachers to figure out what works for them, but to make sure they take care of themselves; in other words, BREATHE.

2. Always remember, the show must go on.
I have always said that teaching is a performance. Standing in front of (or facilitating around) a classroom of kids of any age requires energy and enthusiasm. We don't work behind a computer screen at a desk all day so we can't just slump in our seats if we feel like it. There have been many days in my career when I have looked at the clock to see that it was time for my next group to come to me. I can't do it, I would think. But I would take a deep breath, put a smile on my face (it's okay if it's fake at first) and start slapping some fives when those kids entered the room. Pretty soon their energy level would match mine, my smile would be real, and we would go from there. I'm not saying that teachers can't ever be sick; instead, the idea is to prepare ourselves for the "audience" and be the best we can be when we're with them. Our students deserve no less.

3. Put on your cheerleading uniform.
Yes, we have to encourage and inspire. We know that. Some of our students come to us from dismal situations. I often wonder how some of them can even put one foot in front of the other to get to the bus stop. But they do, and while they're with me, I'm going to do what I can to make their school day the best it can be.

But I'm not only talking about students. We need to cheer each other on, too. Schools can be negative, toxic places. The job is stressful, and hopefully we aren't complaining to kids all day. So when teachers get together, there can be some "venting." That's when I put on my metaphorical cheerleading uniform and go at it. Don't worry - I don't act like Little Mary Sunshine. I do understand, and many times agree with, the stresses that are discussed in team rooms and school hallways. But I do try to listen to my colleagues and, hopefully, put a positive spin on things if I can.

Also, I feel strongly that it's important to be cheerleaders for our profession. I am weary from hearing "if you can't do...teach..." and other misrepresentations of what we do every day. We have to market ourselves as the professionals that we are. Some have the idea that teachers are still Charlie Brown's wa-wa-wa-ing lecturers, whacking kids with yard sticks if they misbehave. Instead, we are committed professionals who believe in purposeful instruction and who have our students' best interests at heart. Many of us hold advanced degrees and national certification. And as we speak to others, in the grocery store or by the neighborhood pool, we must embody that professionalism instead of feeding fuel to the negative fire that surrounds many of our neighborhood schools.

4. If you make them the enemy, you will lose.
The rest of this expression goes like this: there are more of them, and they have an audience. As a middle school teacher, this is one saying that I share with teachers often. Teaching cannot be an "us" and "them" situation. In the community of a school, we are all family, and when the students know this (and FEEL this,) they are much more likely to cooperate, be pleasant, and LEARN. If instead they are aware of the animosity a teacher feels toward them, they will push back, and it probably won't be pretty. Being in this thing together is much more productive and much less stressful. A student on your side can be the difference between loving your job and dreading getting up in the morning. Do what needs to be done to ensure they're on your being on theirs.

5. Don't hide your light under a bushel.
I can't take credit for this one. I believe it was mentioned in the Bible in reference to the Sermon on the Mount. Also, it was mentioned by my Mama about once a week as I was growing up. Basically, it means "don't hide your talent." I share this one with new teachers as I encourage them to use their talents, maybe some that aren't always so obvious, to make their teaching experience more enjoyable. For example, I love to write poetry. I'm not a published poet, but I don't need to be. I have a captive audience every day! By sharing my poetry, and bits of my personal life, I'm able to connect to my students in a way that may be difficult otherwise. Other teachers use their athletic talents to inspire students; I've worked with two Ultimate Frisbee playing teachers (in two different schools) who have taught their students these skills while at the same time teaching teamwork and perseverance. One of my dearest teacher friends teaches math and clogging at the same time; if only she had been my math teacher!

Another way I hope new teachers will shine their lights is by marketing themselves as professionals. Each parent who has a child sitting in a classroom should know the credentials that got that teacher there - college degrees, honors and awards received, types of experiences (not necessarily years of experience but types - has the teacher worked with different grade levels before or taught other subjects?) I believe teachers should have a pamphlet ready to hand to classroom visitors that includes all the highlights of the teaching career. And don't forget that all important webpage. In this technological world, we should be marketing ourselves as professional educators for all the world (wide web) to see.

These are the expressions that I find myself saying to teachers over and over. There are others, shorter versions than these, that I throw out every now and again. "He IS the boss of you" is one I use when teachers are complaining about the principal's expectations. But that story is for another day. For now, I'll just continue to look back over the years I've been teaching and wonder when I stopped asking so many questions and somehow got so old that I started answering a few. And I'll continue to rejoice in the fact that my daughter has now graduated from my university. Basketball season is not that far away...

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Circle the Wagons!

I recently had the opportunity to watch a video entitled Inside/Out, a 52 minute documentary that features prison inmates promoting the importance of education in contrast to the consequences of dropping out of school. The message is compelling, and I found myself welling up with tears several times. The educators and community members who made up the audience with me were emotionally moved as well; the documentary is powerful and thought provoking.(

Personally, I have made no secret of the fact that my father was a junior high dropout. Over the years I've heard glamorous stories of him quitting school to support his large family - going to work delivering milk to rural North Carolina porches. However, when I envision my teenaged father, I think that he was probably pretty happy just to be out of school. One of my earliest memories is of the Student Data Sheet that I brought home every year on the first day of school. One of the required fields was always "highest grade completed by parents." Every year my mother would guess at the highest grade my father had attended. He was secretive about that part of his life. But later, as he fought bone marrow cancer, he would periodically be well enough to answer the nurse's intake questions at Duke Hospital. Once I heard the question, "What was the highest grade you completed in school?" And then his answer, "Seventh grade."

I trembled beside his hospital bed. Seventh Grade! I teach seventh grade! And as I stood there and thought about my students and the fact that not one of them is ready to be out on the streets, I realized that my father was most likely not ready either...

Again, the documentary makes an excellent case for staying in school, but I'm afraid the message was preaching to the choir. Those of us who were horrified by the lives of the prisoners on that screen are most likely not the type of people who would ever be incarcerated. The students I have who I consider at-risk for dropping out, however, are desensitized to this type of life. I hear it daily: "I have to go visit my daddy in jail" or "My uncle was put back in lock-up last night." These sidebars are common circumstance during our classroom discussions. This documentary is not going to "scare straight" my students. In fact, some of my kids have more shock value in their day to day lives than was depicted on the video.

A point the video attempted to make, and I'm paraphrasing here, is that those who drop out of school become illiterate citizens. The message seems to be "If you drop out of school you won't be able to read and write." However, I believe the opposite: those who struggle with reading and writing in school are more likely to turn to a lifestyle that puts them at-risk for jail. Clearly, the students I teach who just don't "get" the work are the students who have attendance and/or discipline problems. These same kids are the ones who are weary from the struggle and who eventually give up as soon as they are of legal age.

The documentary didn't mention one variable that I believe is important to dropout prevention. Students must feel that they are part of a community, a school family. The "outsiders," those without a group to share interests; these are the students we lose. Sometimes we lose them to school violence; other times they just leave and drift on the streets. Either way, we've set our communities up for a continuation of the cycle of poverty, a cycle that we must work tirelessly to break.

So will Inside/Out keep our kids in school? I believe that many students who are at-risk to drop out will think "I've heard this all before. What does this have to do with me?" But if this video changes the direction of just one student, it's worth it.

It's more important that we encircle our children with all the resources available. We have to call in tutors, counselors, social workers, mentors, and especially loving teachers who refuse to give up on kids. Circle the wagons around them, folks, and block the exits! Go at it like their lives depend on it...because they do.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Independence Day

Martina McBride has some lyrics that are pretty powerful, and they're on my mind today:

Let freedom ring
Let the white dove sing
Let the whole world know that today is the day of reckoning
Let the weak be strong
Let the right be wrong
Roll the stone away
Let the guilty pay
It's Independence Day

I'm not sure why I keep humming the tune to this particular song, aside from the date and the fact that I'm here at the coast for our "Fourth of July" family observance (aka - vacation.) But it's making me think about our forefathers, the meaning of the word "freedom," our soldiers who are fighting for ours, and various and sundry derivations as my mind jumps tracks every few seconds to take another direction.

However, I have keyed in to one thought - is there some type of freedom I personally would like to celebrate? Is there some part of my life from which I need to be free? Now I'm thinking. Let's see, is it my husband? No, he's cooking my breakfast; better keep him. How about my kids? They sure do cause me a great deal of worry: are they buckled in? Are they driving in a storm? Are they being stalked by psychos? Can they pay their phone bills? Can they use their phones to call their mama?! But, no, I'd like to keep them, too. They, of course, are my "IV to the vein" source for joy. Oh, but the animals! My dog just this morning threw up half a pound of undigested bacon. I didn't even know she snatched it from the counter. But post regurgitation, just look at her, all tail wagging and spotty tongue hanging out. Guess I'll keep the pets, too.

Really when I look at my life as a whole, and I think about all the stresses, I realize there is just one thing that I'd rather live thing that would tempt me to break a city ordinance and shoot off fireworks in my yard. I only want independence from this one thing:

Standardized Testing.

Those two words look rather innocent sitting there, but I can tell you that they are the bane of my existence as a teacher. I can't erase the image of the nineteen eighth graders I tested a few years ago, sitting with number 2 pencils in hand, tears streaming quietly down their cheeks. That one test, on one day, meant the difference between going on to high school with their friends or enduring one more day in middle school as 16 year olds. I remember a kindergartener telling her mother, "School was really quiet today. The big kids were taking the E-I-E-I-O's." (Our state tests are called End of Grade Tests - EOG's) If only those tests were as simple as Old McDonald's song.

Just a few weeks ago, I tested for 13 days straight. There were the original tests, then the makeups, then the "special setting" tests, then the makeups for those, then the makeups for the went on and on. Meanwhile, there were things I could have been telling my students, stories to share that went untold, relationships to build that will have to wait. But each test was given, each score tallied, and now as I sit on the shore of the Atlantic and look at water that brought my distant relatives over from England, my students sit in summer school which will end in yet another attempt to pass a test.

Independence Day for me? An announcement that testing as we know it has changed. A decree that students will be judged by products of work, surveys of dispositions, folders of writing samples, examples of growth over time...instead of one day of bubbling.

In 1778, General George Washington celebrated Indepedence Day with an extra ration of rum for his soldiers. I'd settle for some of our school cafeteria's peach cobbler. And the chance to be the creative, inspiring teacher that I want to be. My students deserve that.

Let freedom ring
Let the white dove sing
Let the world know that today is the day of reckoning...