Monday, December 14, 2009

Teaching Tolerance

This sign, announcing that the weight tolerance for heavy trucks ends here, sits just down the road from my school. I have the urge to mark through it so that it reads "Tolerance Begins Here."

It's happening again. Kristin comes to me to ask if she can change groups. She can't work with Jacob. I ask her what the problem is even though I know: "Jacob stinks," she says.

And although I silently wish that Kristin is speaking metaphorically, I know it's true - Jacob literally smells bad. Despite referrals to the guidance office and the social worker, Jacob carries the distinct odor of poverty - old, hand-me-down clothes; mold and mildew from a house that is rotting where it stands; and second-hand smoke in his hair, which is in constant need of a cut and a bottle of shampoo.

I look to the other side of the room to see Hannah nodding toward Jenny. I can read her lips as she whispers to Caden across the aisle: "Look at her shoes," she says. I walk over and look at Jenny's shoes myself. They aren't a name brand, and Jenny, during what must surely be boredom from always sitting alone, has colored in her once-white shoes with red ink.

Unfortunately, these examples of student behaviors are all too commonplace in our schools. How can I, as a teacher, help my students understand how to be more accepting of others, especially of those who are different socially or academically?

First, we must model acceptance ourselves. When students see teachers, the role models they spend most of their days with, treating each student with the same unconditional understanding and attention, they recognize the importance of treating others equally, the importance of valuing others regardless of where they're from or what they wear.

Also, it is imperative that we have open conversations with our students about how to treat other people. I've noticed that students always pull for the underdog in movies and become angered at how others are treated across the world but will behave just as unfairly to classmates sitting four feet away. I don't hesitate to point this fact out to them, and we have emotional discussions about ways to change our own behaviors.

And last, I use every opportunity I have to point out the amazing talents of the "underdogs" in my classroom. Jacob's artwork, for example, has decorated many book projects and classroom displays. And Jenny's knowledge of books, in particular the Twilight series, is an example for all of my middle school readers.

I don't force students to work in ways that make them uncomfortable. However, I do require that they treat every other student with respect. I make it clear that I will tolerate nothing less. Maybe Jacob can draw me a sign for my classroom - Tolerance Begins Here.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Setting the Record Straight

I love writing, getting my ideas out there...sharing them with somebody, anybody who may find what I have to say interesting. However, I get all prickly when something I have said is taken out of context, or is misinterpreted for the world to see.

It all started innocently enough. A few years ago, I had just begun investigating social networking when I ran across a student's MySpace page. On it, one of my students had written this:

"wut it do i ain't talked 2 u n a minute ever since da last day of skool fo christmas break wut been ^ 2 me nuttin jus sittin @ home ain't gone nuttin 2 do........well i wuz jus stoppin by 2 sho ur page sum luvin get baq @ me when u can"

I was horrified! I was reading this before (B4) I began participating in social networking myself, before I figured out how to text on a teeny keyboard on my phone, before I became cool. So I developed a presentation for my students that eventually found its way around the entire school. I was able to share my ideas on writing with every language arts student in my building that year.

What I did was talk about the history of our language. I went way back to our Greek and Roman roots (pun intended) in language, traveled through old English, middle English, Elizabethan English, and onward to modern times, providing examples along the way. I ended with the MySpace quote, and the students and I had a grand time discussing what effects, if any, this type of abbreviated writing would have on formal writing. I was pretty sure we were doomed. They just laughed at my concern as if they had not a care.

Shortly after, I wrote an article I called "Grammar Interrupted" for Teacher Magazine online. It received lots of "hits" and folks emailed me for awhile, asking questions about my lesson. From there, I was interviewed by Sara Bernard from Edutopia. Her article, "The Zero Thumb Game: How to Tame Texting," came out on May 28, 2008. Ms. Bernard interviewed several teachers and did a great job of summarizing all of our comments. When she mentions my use of the MySpace page for instruction, she says,

"Some English teachers are tapping into their students' own instant messaging style to get their points across. Some, including Cindi Rigsbee, are guiding exercises in text translation: pulling up a MySpace page...and asking students to translate the writing into standard English. Or they ask students to translate passages from classic literature to texting speak to demonstrate their comprehension..."

The key word here is "some." Sara Bernard is not only talking about me. She interviewed several people! She has correctly identified the activity that I did, "pulling up a MySpace page" and thrown in another activity - translating passages from classic literature - which can be attributed to the teachers she refers to as "they." So far so good.

Here's what happened a few weeks ago, a long two years later: I started getting calls and emails from local media as well as from news anchors in New York City. After some investigation I found out that an article had come out in a major newspaper in my state, The Charlotte Observer, naming me in a report about texting. On October 29th, the following was printed in US News and World Report:

"Teachers such as Cindi Rigsbee have asked students to translate passages from classic literature to text-speak..." I didn't!

So when the reporters called me and found out that I didn't actually have students translate from classic literature to text-speak (instead, it was the other way around for me), they weren't interested in interviewing me. That was okay...I had "not a care." Until today...

While searching to see if my upcoming book was listed, I found myself in another book, a book by an author I've never heard of - Why can't U teach me 2 read? by Beth Fertig.

"Cindi Rigsbee, a middle school teacher...asked her students to translate lingo-based websites into standard English and to translate classic literature into text-speak."

Okay, now my feelings are hurt. Not only do I not have students translate from classic literature into text-speak, I know that I never would! Why in the world would I ask students to write incorrectly on purpose? Goodness knows they're practicing enough of that! Meanwhile, who is Beth Fertig, and couldn't she have contacted me before mentioning me (and my alleged activity) in her book?

So there are several problems here. One is that what I actually do has been interpreted across four articles until the original meaning has changed. Another is that our "global" access to information means that anyone can get their hands on what is actually a teacher's intellectual property and use it as they wish, even if it's incorrect.

So here I am setting the record straight. If any of you ever see anything about me in print and want to use it in your book, please just ask me. I may have been misquoted, misinterpreted, or misunderstood.

Jus send an email 2 me or sho my pag sum luv.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Think Before You Speak

Teachers have powerful voices. As we struggle to be heard by policy-makers, the community, and others who can impact our profession on a large scale, we are definitely being heard...maybe not by those groups as often as we'd like, but by another group that is even more important - our children.

Recently I watched a class of third graders read together. It was a Halloween story, spooky and scary, and they loved it! They read together, a chorus of ghouls, and on the scary parts, they got louder and louder! There was an energy in the room as they got more and more excited. They started squirming in their seats, wiggling and looked as if the room would erupt at any second.

And then the teacher said, "Calm down. If you get out of control, we won't be able to do fun things like this any more. Instead, you'll have to read to yourself."

(Insert here the sound of a needle scratching across a record.)


Okay, you know what she literally said. But what those kids heard was that if they didn't behave they would have to read for punishment. Punishment? Reading should be a reward as in... "If you walk nicely to the cafeteria for lunch, I'll let you read silently for the rest of the day...the week...the year...!"

I've heard it too many times to count - "Jacob, you can't work nicely in the group. Get a book and sit over there and read."

And what about writing for punishment? Teachers have been assigning the ever-dreaded "sentences" for years.

I will not talk in class.
I will not talk in class.
I will not talk in class.

And we've all seen these writing prompts: Write one full page explaining why you didn't do your homework.

No wonder our students hate to write stories and poetry and reflections. We may as well assign:

I will never like to write.
I will never like to write.
I will never like to write.

Teachers, let's make a commitment to think before we send the message that literacy's not important.

And while we're at it, let's stop making our athletes run laps when they lose a game or run a drill incorrectly at practice. Exercise - another activity we want our children to choose - but they won't if they "hear" it as punishment.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Mama's Birthday, Part II

This is my mother on the day of her bridal shower in 1956.

My Mama was my first teacher, as most mothers are. But mothers in the fifties were stay-at-home, hands-on, just-wait-til-your-Daddy-gets-home kind of mothers. It was great. My Mama taught me how to tie my shoes and how to shop for bargains, how to bake a cake and how to steam cabbage, how to soothe a screaming newborn and how to get that newborn into a great university. My Mama - my first teacher.

Today is Mama's birthday. She's 82 years young. It's a wonderful day, but there have been times in the past four months when I thought this day may not come. My mother has had a rough go of it for awhile - she's fallen about fifteen times, broken her hip, elbow, and back, had one hospital stay and two trips to the rest home.

But today, her birthday, she's doing better. She's strong, her head is clear, and she's walking better than I can remember in awhile. So in honor of my mother, Clara Agnes Moore Cole, I'm digging up an old post entitled Mama's Birthday. This little piece got me a fourth runner up prize in the Carolina Women's Writing Contest - a gift certificate to an organic market. (My Mama grew organic food on her childhood farm before she knew it was cool.)

Read on, those of you who love your mothers. They continue to teach us every day.

Mama enjoys her birthday cake and coffee.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Teaching Joy

I've been spending much of my time lately in a skilled nursing center - a nice euphemism for "rest home" or "old folks home" - what they were called when I was a child, where my mother would take me while selling AVON. Now my mother is a resident. Up until recently I haven't focused much of my attention on the elderly of our community. That's because I've been busy with the other end of the spectrum - prepubescent cherubs - those middle school students I teach.

But since I've spent numerous hours with octogenarians (and older) in the past few months, I've become aware of their importance in our culture, of their stories and experience. I've been particularly drawn to the line of wheelchairs that greet me just as I punch in the security code and enter the facility every day. My mother is never in that line; instead she keeps to herself in her room, except for meals, because she finally, here at the end of her life, has time to read novel after novel uninterrupted. (Well, she is my mother.)

And one glance at the wheelchairs lined up by the door can give me valuable information as I enter: I can tell time by whether or not the inhabitants are sleeping, for example. Each resident requires a mid-morning and mid-afternoon nap. If the wheelchair line is missing altogether, I've arrived at mealtime and know to head to the dining hall.

The lady who sits on the end of the line, Mrs. Bryant, has always caught my eye. She is the most impeccably dressed - always sporting a beautiful scarf or pin to accent her sweater. Mrs. Bryant has thick glasses - I've often wondered if she even sees me as I walk by - but regardless, I always say hello.

Yesterday I finally had an opportunity to talk to her for awhile. My mother was asleep, novel still in her hand, when I arrived. Not wanting to wake her, I sauntered out into the hallway and headed to the "line." Mrs. Bryant was the only resident awake. After I said hello, the nurse called to me from her desk: "Aren't you a teacher? Mrs. Bryant was a teacher, too!"

Mrs. Bryant lit up like the first day of school and started telling me about her early career in 1927! Now, I know I'm not good at math. But I do know this: my mother was born in 1927, and she's 82 years old! So my next question couldn't wait..."how old are you?"

She laughed quietly, and I wondered if my question were inappropriate. But she was proud to answer. "102," she said.

"102 years old?!" I know I seemed shocked, but Mrs. Bryant must be accustomed to that reaction because she continued on..."There are people who can't believe that I loved it so much," she said. "But it was a joy in my life. I had no children of my own. My students were my children."

I asked her what she taught. "Everything," she said. And she continued, "I taught..." She paused. I waited, but she stared ahead for many painful seconds.

"My mind," she said finally. "Sometimes it just goes away." I laughed and told her that mine does that, too. At that point it was apparent that she was tired and was unable to retrieve the words she needed for the conversation. So I told her we'd talk again soon and left for my visit with my mother.

Later that week, there were days in my school when I was weary. But I would think of Mrs. Bryant and push on.

This job, you see...this opportunity to make a difference in the lives of is the joy of my life, too. Thank you, Mrs. Bryant, for paving the way for those of us who are following in your footsteps. It is an honor to know you.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Teacher Bashing and An Overheard Goat

It’s happening again. There’s another Teacher Basher in the crowd. In an airport this time…probably not the best place to confront a total stranger and begin an argument. I mean, they won’t even let me take my Clinique Dramatically Different Moisturizing Lotion through security; do you think they’ll let me stand up at the gate to a plane and yell my position?

I first picked up on his (exceedingly loud) telephone conversation when he said that “history is nothing but memorizing.” I was ready then to present my counterpoint, that in schools today we don’t teach memorization. We teach thinking. I’m not even a history teacher, but I can just hear my colleagues across the country asking their students, “What if we had lost the Revolutionary War? How would we be different?” And then I hear my students answering, “We would all talk like Harry Potter and drink tea in the afternoons. Cool!”

But just as I was forming my remarks in my mind, the overly loud phone conversationalist said this: “It’s just because the teacher is bad. Face it. It’s a public school. Teachers are bad in public schools. If you’re lucky you’ll come across a couple of good ones. I had a few good ones in school. But most are bad.”

I choked on my airport “you have to check in way too early” breakfast muffin and listened. He continued so long that I considered handing him a thesaurus so that he could look up some alternatives for the word “bad.” Michael Jackson fan, I guess. Or a goat (baaa…aaa…ddd…)

Not a teacher fan.

Interestingly, I’m in this airport because I’m returning home from a teacher conference, a State Teacher of the Year conference, in fact, where I have spent the week exchanging ideas, laughter, and tears with the best and brightest, as well as some of the most inspiring and motivated, teachers across the country.

So here I sit faced with a dilemma. I have things to say about teachers. I have strong opinions about the phrase “bad teachers.” But to stand up and attempt a conversation with this man, this total stranger, when I am alone in this airport, would most likely be futile and would give him more fuel to add to his fire, to add to his negative opinion of teachers.

So I make a vow to myself to work harder at changing the public’s perception of teachers. And although I can make presentations to educator groups, stand in front of thousands, shout from the mountaintops (or at least across the blog-o-sphere), I think the place I can make the most difference is in my very own classroom. I need to make sure that none of my students’ parents ever refer to me in a conversation that echoes across an airport.

That would be…ddd.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

My Constant State of Disequilibrium

I attended a workshop on literacy the other day. The presenter was giving us new strategies to use in the classroom, techniques we had never tried. She warned us: we may feel a little "disequilibrium" when first trying out these new ideas.

I sighed. Not only have I already been living in the state of disequilibrium, I live in the capital of it. I'm the mayor of its largest city. My full name is Dis Equil Ibrium.

First, my personal life has been out of balance recently due to health issues in my family. But that aside, my professional life has been out of whack, too. I returned to school after my year as "Teacher Ambassador" for the state of North Carolina to two jobs, not one. And what was proposed as half time Literacy Coach and half time District Mentor has actually turned into two full time jobs. I told my boss I'm not woman enough to do two jobs as effectively as they should be done. So I constantly struggle with time management issues, conflicting meetings, and craziness in my professional life as well.

But although those duties are tipping the balance of my life from one side to the other at a moment's notice, there is one even bigger reason my life is dis-equal: this English major, published author, poetry loving, reading teaching math.

I just heard the collective gasp from here.

It's not that I don't like numbers. I just like words better. I did like playing with the abacus when I was in first grade, but I don't remember relating that to math. Instead it was a game - pushing pretty little beads around. Years later, I would struggle in geometry, algebra, and trigonometry. I didn't even attempt calculus.

I've spent my adult life figuring out ways to balance a bank statement, estimate totals when grocery shopping, and place furniture in angled corners. And though I can hold my own with those tasks, I wouldn't say I have a relationship with the subject matter.

Which brings us to the present. A few months ago my principal called me in to tell me that he had some ideas about my role as Literacy Coach at my school. He said, "The language arts teachers should know how to integrate reading and writing into their instruction. I need you to work in the math classes." I didn't tell him about the 3 I made on an Algebra II test in 11th grade. A 3. Out of 100.

But since then I have embraced the challenge and have learned a great deal about factoring and least common multiples and patterns and mean, median, and mode while trying to find an opening to talk about vocabulary connections and ways to make math relative out in the world. And the interesting thing is that I see little middle school versions of me sitting in some of those desks struggling with math.

Here's an example - a word problem the teacher assigned went something like this: a girl has agreed to babysit every third day. But she has to go to dance class every seventh day. How many days in a month will she have a conflict? Now...solving this problem, according to the teacher's example, involved finding common multiples. I can't even explain it in words.

But I looked at one student, Jacob, and found a kindred spirit. He grabbed his ruler, drew a huge calendar, numbered the days and began counting. Exactly what I would have done - skipping the math computation altogether. A child after my own heart.

Albert Einstein said, "Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas." Well, everyone knows I love poetry. So maybe this math thing will work out okay. It has to get easier. I'd like to move out of Disequilibrium.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Pond of Violence

We all believe school shootings happen somewhere else. But I believe that kids who grow up and become capable of being school shooters are everywhere, maybe even in our own classes - misfits some call them, those who are bullied or feel out of place. Those who, like Alvaro Rafael Castillo, grow up and want the notoriety of shooting up a school...those who don't realize the impact, like those proverbial ripples in a pond, that their actions have on a community.

It was the fourth day of school on August 30, 2006. We were still learning our students' names and working to get procedures in place on that day. I walked out of the library and immediately noticed that students were running, full speed, down a nearby hallway. One of them yelled, "Run!" Before I had time to react, perhaps reprimand them for their behavior, the intercom alarm sounded and I heard, "This is a lockdown." At first I thought it was a drill. I turned and walked back into the library for the "practice lockdown." But soon the commotion...the administrators' walkie talkies popping back and forth in the halls, the look of controlled panic as they checked classroom doors...told me that this was not a drill.

I got down behind a bookshelf, along with the other teachers in the room, and called my husband on my cell phone. Since he is a former police officer and now works in law enforcement training, I knew he could get information to me, while I waited, shaking and wondering why we were barricaded between those bookshelves. Soon he called back and said two words I've never forgotten: "Shots fired." He told me that the dispatcher thought someone was firing a rifle into the air in the adjacent high school's parking lot, but that there was a great deal of confusion and they were still investigating.

Meanwhile, the 911 calls were flooding in while we continued to wait. Luckily, there were heroes that day. My school's current resource officer and a retired highway patrolman were able to secure the school shooter as his gun malfunctioned. Soon the administrators came in and told us that it was over. But I was hesitant to believe them. I had seen the video footage of Columbine. We all had.

News came in bits and pieces. A former student, 19 years old, had driven a van full of weapons and explosives into the student parking lot, fired a rifle up into the air, and then began firing into the school cafeteria. One student was shot; another was injured by flying glass. No Columbine here, but devastating just the same.

As he was being led away, Alvaro Castillo told our school resource officer, "I sacrificed him." The deputy asked, "Who?" He answered proudly, "My father."

Deputies found Castillo's father at his home, shot five times in the head and once in the shoulder. Days later police would receive a videotape: Castillo's ramblings that he taped and mailed between murdering his father and traveling to the school to attempt to carry out his plan.

That afternoon, as the news traveled like wildfire across the community, parents began rushing to the schools. I can only imagine their alarm when they found the road to the middle and high schools cordoned off with crime scene tape. We were instructed to lead our students to school buses in the back of the school and ride up the road to nearby tennis courts where we were to reunite students with their parents. I'll never forget the terrified children on that bus - "But what if I go to the tennis courts but my mama goes to the school?" I had to reassure children, who had been sixth graders for only four days, that their parents weren't allowed to drive up to the school...that they would be at those courts for sure.

I almost broke down looking out of the school bus windows and seeing the looks of sheer terror on the parents' faces as we approached the tennis courts. Yes, the danger was over. But none of us felt safe...teachers, students, parents...we were all changed by the events of that day. I remember looking over my shoulder into the woods and thinking What if there were more of them? What if he didn't act alone? What if someone starts shooting into this crowd of kids? The "what-ifs" kept me shaking as I continued to match each child to a parent.

Later, as I left the school at dusk, and drove down the road, a road that on the other end was closed to incoming traffic, I saw hundreds of parents waiting in a church parking lot for their children to come out of the high school. I saw adults trying to sneak across the crime scene tape and get to their children. I saw tears, I saw anger and frustration, and I saw police officers trying to keep everything under control. Then I cried all the way home.

The next morning our students wanted to talk. They knew the shooter...or they knew the victim...the shooter's sister went to Tyler's went on and on. Too close. Just too close to home. We wrote Get Well cards for the victim. It helped our students feel as if they were doing something.

On the one year anniversary of the school shooting, a MySpace hoax declared that someone was planning another school shooting "to finish what was started a year ago." My student Brittany said, "I brought snacks and color books and puzzles in my backpack...just in case we go on lockdown...we'll have something to do." I walked around the classroom looking at student work and found Tiffany doodling on her paper: "I don't want to die. I don't want to die..." Students walked the halls, grabbing each other and repeating, "If I die, I love you, if I die I love you..." over and over. I watched four girls, sitting in four different sections of the cafeteria, eat lunch with tears streaming down their faces. Later, Jonathan attempted to barricade the classroom door using a yard stick.

Today I sat in a restaurant at lunch on our teacher workday with many of the teachers who were side-by-side during the lockdown that day. We looked across the street to the courthouse where Alvaro Rafael Castillo's verdict would be decided later in the afternoon, and we looked across the restaurant at Castillo's mother and sister, trying to keep their heads up during what must be a living hell for them. They've lost their husband and father and are about to lose their son and brother to jail for a lifetime. Ripples.

Other ripples include those sixth graders who are now entering high school themselves this month. They remember that fateful day when they lost their innocence, their sense of safety, and their trust of the world.

Alvaro Castillo will spend his life in jail. The rest of us are still out here, hoping to never experience this kind of fear again while at the same time feeling a gradual sense of security as time goes on.

And next week when school starts, three years after that scary day, I wonder if Brittany will pack some snacks in her backpack for high school. I bet she will.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year...

No, not Christmas...Back to School! I borrowed that song lyric from a Back to School commercial. The father is spinning around on a shopping cart, and the kids look like they're walking the Green Mile. But, seriously, why the doldrums?

This IS the most wonderful time of the year!

I've spent the past few weeks hearing others lamenting: "Where did the summer go?" And, granted - teachers' time of reflection and planning for a new year is running out. But just think...soon it will be the proverbial First Day of School, and I can't wait!

Who's gonna miss the sweltering heat, bored and restless children, the vacations that end up being so much work...parents have to go back to work to get some rest?

Here's what I love - shiny, sparkling children in starch white sneakers carrying bookbags full of school supplies.

I also love seeing my dearest friends in the world, those teachers who stand side-by-side at the copier with me, the ones who really get me and know why there are nights I toss and turn because of a child.

I love my principal's mantras - "Once a Grizzly; Always a Grizzly" and "I love each and every one of you" (on the announcements every morning.)

I love the Pledge of Allegiance and the students who walk in a line and the hugs and waves.

And I love that my school sits on land that was full of strawberry and blueberry fields years we can get by with acting fruity around our halls.

I love that my school is a family...from the custodians to the clerical staff to the teachers to the administrators. We celebrate together and mourn together. We present a united front to our students who know that we are in it together, for them.

I love the first day of school when shaky sixth graders open the car door and try to be brave. I yell at them and dance around, "Welcome to the first day of school! Kiss your mama and thank her for all those school supplies! Yes, you! Go ahead! Love you, Mama! Have a great day! Now get in there and feed your hungry mind with knowledge!" And I love that the look of fear eventually turns to shock, then disbelief, then comfort...all because a crazy teacher has gone nuts in the car rider line.

Yea, I can't wait for the first day of school...and the first school lunch...and the first football game...and the first school dance.

I'm gonna soak it up and live in every will be summer.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Marketing Ourselves as Teachers

I attended a conference recently where policymakers and representatives from higher education convened to discuss education policy. A group of teachers were there, too, and I was honored to be among them, hopefully there to advocate for my profession and represent what's going on at the school level in our country while at the same time learning some innovations that I could share with educators in my state.

We weren't there long before we started feeling uncomfortable and fidgeting in our seats. Many speakers who stood before us repeatedly uttered phrases like "bad teachers" and "fix teaching." Soon we felt defensive...and even angry...and wondered what all the "teacher bashing," as one of my colleagues put it, was about.

It didn't take me long to realize that there are very bright folks who don't really know what's going on in our schools. For example, an education professor from an extremely prestigious university in our country compared our schools to those in Australia. He spoke of online lesson plans and assessments that are available there as if they were recent inventions, and I wondered why he didn't know that teachers have been using those for over ten years in my own state. In addition, he said (twice) that we're "failing" as we attempt to teach middle school literacy. As a middle school reading teacher, of course I bristled at hearing those statements.

A congressman who sat in a breakout session with me mentioned the inequities of technology. He said, "I saw a classroom that had only five laptop computers...not very effective, but more effective than a teacher in the room."

Just after that a congresswoman from another state added, "The old teachers don't know about technology and are not comfortable with it." Immediately my mind raced to the list of veteran (not old) teachers who use instructional technology in their classrooms daily, the ones who have class blogs and wikis and who Skype with classrooms across the world.

One presenter said, "There are schools where the principal doesn't do all the leading; the teachers actually work together, and that's the nature of the work." I thought "DUH!" Does the world outside of our school buildings not know that we've been collaborating like that for years?

So after I calmed myself from the range of emotions I felt at this conference I had to ask myself why these seemingly important people were so misinformed. I also wondered why all of the answers seemed to be relative to teachers instead of directed toward other stakeholders in education. Here's what I came up with:

First, all of the research points to the teacher as being the most important factor in whether a child learns or not. It's not the parent, or the school administration, or the football's the teacher. So because so much is focused on there being a quality teacher in every classroom, that's where the finger gets pointed when things go wrong.

And while I do agree that there should be a highly qualified teacher (as No Child Left Behind mandates) in every classroom, I can tell you that I can't deliver quality instruction without the support of the parents, the instructional leadership of my school administration, and the collaboration I have with other important individuals in my students' lives - like the football coach and the band director.

Another reason those who aren't in the school buildings point to "bad teachers" is because we, as a profession, don't market ourselves well. Here's an example: over and over at this conference I heard references to Teach for America. Yes, there are amazing TFA teachers all over the country; I even work with one. TFA takes highly motivated college graduates, provides them with intense, condensed (five weeks) training, and places them in our neediest schools. And although the retention rates are nothing to brag about (TFA reports that retention is difficult to determine, but many articles report that TFA teachers leave after 2-3 years), the marketing that includes billboards, television commercials, and education journal advertising makes TFA look glamorous as well as successful.

So what are classroom teachers doing to market themselves? Well, just today I read this "status update" on a Facebook page - "Another long day at the pool. Being a teacher in the summer is hard work." Last week I read this one - "Summer - the reason I teach."

Although most teachers spend their entire summers "off" at trainings and planning with other teachers (I've seen half the staff at my school this week), those bragging about their leisurely summers are not getting any points with the policymakers who work all year. No wonder they don't want to raise teacher salaries.

In addition, the teacher "venting" that occurs in our communities most likely indicates to others that we are not committed to doing whatever it takes to teach our children. It probably sounds like we're only committed to whining about how difficult our jobs are.

So teachers, it is up to us to change the thinking of legislators, higher ed representatives, and policymakers. It is up to us to market ourselves as professionals who can make a difference in the lives of children, instead of "bad teachers" who are uncomfortable with technology.

The last session I attended at the conference included presenters who were working on a report outlining the qualities of a teacher leader. At the beginning of the presentation, the participants were given a handout listing the members of the committee working on the report. I immediately scanned the list to see how many teachers had been included. I wasn't surprised to see that there were none.

I guess they figured we were all at the pool...

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Remembering Michael

If you haven't heard the name "Michael Jackson" 9 zillion times this week, you haven't been in our stratosphere. All of the cliches are true - the world has lost a pop icon who made an immeasurable impact on the worlds of music and dance. I so wish that school was in session right now, so that I could talk to my students about the life and music of Michael Jackson and about the troubled lives (and tragic deaths) of some of the celebrities that my middle schoolers adore (think Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, Heath Ledger...the list goes on and on....)

There will be time for those discussions in the fall. But first...Michael...

Since I was born one year before the King of Pop, my life and his work have intersected on many occasions. My father's voice, which has been silent for almost five years now, rings in my ears whenever I hear "I'll Be There."

"Daddy," I said during a Sunday drive in 1970, "Don't you like this song?"

"Sounds nice," he answered. "But who's the little girl singing it?"

At thirteen, I thought that was hysterical... that my Daddy couldn't tell that the Jackson Five was a "boy band." I had Tiger Beat pictures of Michael (right beside Donny Osmond) wallpapering my bedroom. And my first slow dances with boys were awkwardly carried out to "just call my name...and I'll be there..."

I choreographed a middle school dance routine to "The Love You Save" and performed it for the neighbors (I charged a nickel) at our talent shows in the 'hood. Years later, Off the Wall would be the soundtrack for my first year teaching - "I Want to Rock with You" could be heard reverberating up and down the halls of that high school.

And it was pure destiny that I owned a dance studio and worked as a dance instructor in the eighties, the Thriller years. Although my classes always warmed up to "Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough" from Off the Wall, so many recital dances came from that Thriller album...including a stage full of ghouls and monsters. I remember studying the videos, particularly the one for "Beat It" as I worked on choreography. I couldn't discern the dance moves by watching Michael Jackson; instead, I watched the backup dancers in an effort to learn the steps so that I could teach them to my students.

In the next decade I would have the opportunity to sit in the audience and watch my nine-year-old daughter perform "I Want You Back" with fourth graders from all over the school district. Eight years later, she and her friends would become The Jackson Five at a Halloween Talent Show. They got some strange looks from other drivers as they drove across town to the talent show wearing their afros.

In this, the next decade, I have become "Nana" and memories of three-year-old Taylor bouncing in her car seat shouting, "Play 'Rockin' Robin', Nana!" are fresh. My iPod repeatedly blasts "Rockin' Robin" and "ABC" for a preschool soloist as we drive down the same "Sunday drive" roads from forty years ago. Little Taylor works hard to snap her fingers while the music of an icon from my childhood makes an impact on hers.

And now...the end. The intersections of my life and Michael Jackson's have come to an abrupt halt...but not before one new memory: I have spent the past month making several trips a day to the retirement home where my mother is recuperating from a fall which resulted in a broken hip and elbow. After the permanent residents are dressed every day, they're lined up in front of a huge television in the lobby. I have to walk right in front of them to get to the elevator from my mother's room. In the past few days many have asked me, "Did you hear about Michael Jackson?" as I pass by. One resident told me, just as the local news reporter was delivering the tragic news, "I dreamed last week that Michael Jackson died." I begged her not to ever dream about me.

A wonderful memory of the music of Michael Jackson I'll always remember - as I was leaving the retirement home tonight, I walked in front of a row of senior citizens, lined up like weary wheelchair soldiers. One after another, they appeared to be in varied stages of consciousness, some sleeping, some slumped over the sides of the chair, some alert. But all...ALL of them were tapping a foot or gently smacking a leg to the music of the video on that television screen - a catchy little tune named "Smooth Criminal."

That's what Michael Jackson was...before the odd behavior, before the Neverland Ranch and the monkey and the hyperbaric chamber....when he was just little Michael singing "ABC," that's what he was....smooth. And, in some ways, he was a teacher. Who hasn't tried to do the moonwalk? Who hasn't held a hairbrush as a would-be microphone and belted out, "Billie Jean is not my lover..."?

Rest in peace, little Michael. I've enjoyed sharing the timeline of my life with you.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Summertime Blues

Last year at this time I had no idea what my summer would be like, having been freshly selected as North Carolina's Teacher of the Year. I knew that I would be working all summer (NC TOYs immediately become 12 month employees - for the rest of their natural lives...) but I wasn't sure what I would be doing. As it turns out last summer wasn't much different from the remainder of my Teacher-of-the-Year-year with lots of speaking engagements, board meetings, presentations, workshops, etc.

This year I have a better idea of my summer plans, and I have some really cool things going on. But I have to tell you, cool things aside, I feel a twinge of envy reading classroom teachers' (and students') Facebook countdowns to the end of school: "four days left!" I remember all too well that excitement (I always encourage the entire faculty to line up and do the can-can as our buses leave the lot on the last day.) And I remember those summers when my own kids were little - we'd be by the pool every day, cheering on the swim the beach...sleeping late...

When schools first began to have computers in the mid 90's, teachers were allowed to "check out" a desktop for the summer. I would load that monstrous machine in the back of my car, along with a printer that fed paper with holes-along-the-side, so that my kids could practice word processing. As it turns out, they mostly practiced the game Oregon Trail. They actually got pretty good at it, while I always got bitten by a rattlesnake or died of malaria.

While thoughts of those fun summers "off" are etched in my memory, this summer I will be accompanying fifteen teachers and the Center for International Understanding on a trip to Denmark. We'll be visiting schools there, studying Denmark's wind-energy, and staying with a Danish family. I'm most excited about visiting Odense, the city of Hans Christian Andersen's birth (he's called H.C. Andersen there.) I have many memories of the story of The Little Matchgirl: my great grandmother, who was a school teacher in a one room school house, used to tell me that story when I was a little girl. I'm also looking forward to visiting the Kronborg Castle in Elsinore - Hamlet's castle! (This English major will probably cry.)

My next big adventure will be to reunite with the State Teachers of the Year in Nashville, Tennessee as we convene at the National Forum on Education. Clayton Christensen, author of Disrupting Class, will be speaking, along with other engaging presenters, but we'll also fit in time for site-seeing in Music City!

And last, again with the State Teachers of the Year, I'll be able to play pretend - and this time I'll be an astronaut! We're going to Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama. I've heard that this is an amazing experience and that we get to float around in zero gravity, among other things.

So...yes, I'll be doing some wonderful things this summer, but even so, I'll miss those lazy, crazy days. Last weekend my granddaughter and I played together on one of the first really warm days, one that ended with a thunderstorm that frightened Taylor. I told her we'd just turn up the music really loud to drown out the thunder.

Then we danced.

Later, after Taylor went home, the following poem found its way to my Writer's Notebook:


an apricot sun
toasting shoulders

a three-year-old
in the backyard

all you heat haters
cooling it
in the air conditioned

come out
and see

a bee
a blue-tailed salamander
a waggy, spotted-tongue

and me

the storms away

("turn up the music, Nana!")

in the summer,
the season
made for children

and grown-ups
who remember.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Sign of the Times

I ventured out recently to purchase a picture frame at a large chain that sells homegoods. I knew exactly what I wanted, and as soon as I made the turn into the frame section, I saw it from a distance. As I got closer, I realized that the frame I wanted, my frame, had several nicks and chips on it.

Not to worry - there were two additional frames, exactly like the first one, underneath a pile. I began moving items and uncovered yet another damaged frame. I was patient, though, knowing that the one at the bottom of the stack would be perfect and ready for purchase, hidden from damage down there at the bottom.

Wrong. The third frame did have less nicks on it, but the box surrounding it was ripped and barely hanging on to the very item it was meant to cover. I decided I could easily camouflage the tiny chipped places with a brown marker so I pushed the box back together in an effort to find the price. I was a bit distressed at the asking price but wasn't too worried: certainly the kind employees would offer a discount for damaged goods. I headed to the register.

Luckily, I was in a line that was being serviced by the store manager; this stroke of luck would eliminate another clerk's need to seek higher authority to approve the discount. I waited for several minutes until it was my turn. I explained my saga to the manager, including the fact that there were two other damaged frames back there on the shelf - surely he would want to remove them in an effort to present only the best for his customers.

He spoke politely, "I have to ask full price for this." I assumed he was kidding - or delirious - surely he didn't want $40.00 for a chipped picture frame in a dysfunctional box. He saw my surprise and continued, "We aren't allowed to offer discounts on damaged merchandise. It's a sign of the times."

After explaining, as nicely as possible, that I couldn't believe his company would want to represent themselves that way, I left with nothing to show for my visit except a wasted thirty minutes.

Later, I thought about the budget cuts that are occurring in school districts across the country. The proposal in my own state currently calls for the elimination of thousands of teaching positions while raising class size and shortening the school year. This is in addition to a salary cut that hit our pay checks last week...which, by the way, I felt okay about at the time. I didn't mind giving up .5% of my salary so that hundreds of teacher jobs could be saved; however, it was just after I came to terms with that news and justified it in my mind that I heard about the thousands of teachers and third grade teacher assistants that we are likely to lose in our state if this budget proposal goes through.

I thought about the "damaged goods" that we'll manufacture in schools - students who will leave us ill-prepared to be successful and with little hope for a bright future. What should I say to those students? Oh, I's a sign of the times.

But unlike that picture frame, I can't put my students back on the shelf. We, as educators, have to remain committed to do the best we can with the resources we have available to us, even if the only resources we have are a passion for children and subject matter expertise. I can do it if I run out of paper and I can do it with more students in my classroom, especially if those of us left to do the work continue on with a purposeful effort to make a difference in the lives of children.

Meanwhile we will continue to be a voice for those children as we write our legislators and make our positions known (I'm happy to report that each representative that I have written has written me back. I do feel that they are listening.) In addition, in my state educators are wearing red on Wednesdays to symbolize that "education is bleeding."

But bleeding or not, we'll teach those children - however many sit in our classrooms - because the alternative is not an option.

It reminds me of an old song from the sixties - "Don't Give Up" by Petula Clark:

Don't give up; don't let it get you down.
Don't give up; don't think of leaving town.

Which, in turn, reminds me of a popular Petula Clark album with a catchy guessed it -

Sign of the Times.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Innovations in Teaching

Mrs. Warnecke, my first grade teacher from forty-five years ago, sent me an old newspaper recently that included an article highlighting her classroom in my elementary school. The date immortalized on my hometown paper is February 28, 1965, and the reporter is eager to disclose one of the newest ideas in teaching, a strategy that exemplifies true innovation in the classroom:

"There's a relatively new activity in educational circles that is guaranteed to delight youngsters, amuse teachers, and horrify parents. Actually, everyone has participated in similar activities, but now it has a name - Show and Tell."

Show and Tell!

I can't believe that this activity was literally born in the sixties. I feel sure that cave-children were acting out the workings of the first wheel or the warmth of the first fire for their cave-teachers. But, no, Barbara W. Short, the "Women's Editor" for the "Women's News" of the Durham Morning Herald, reveals that this new technique is all the rage in schools of the sixties. And her article is chock full of examples.

One student talks about visiting a friend in the hospital and seeing him walk on "crunches." "When he walked, it went 'crunch, crunch, crunch,'" she said.

Another student shares that he hates school because "there ain't no tv."

Interestingly, the Show and Tell conversation turns to history and a heated discussion of Abraham Lincoln and which war occurred during his presidency.

"The first war," says one student. "No," adds another. "It was the second war." A little girl is sure that it was "the thirteenth war."

But the war "made us free" asserted another student.

"I'm not free. I'm six," reported a little blonde. Well, I'm glad we got that straight.

This article made me think about our current innovations in teaching and how we may read about them in forty-four years and think, as we do with Show and Tell, that we've always taught this way.

"There's this board and it looks just like a white board, but you can navigate it like a computer screen. Just touch it! It's amazing..."

"Your class can actually talk to a classroom in another country, just by logging on to your computer."

Will either of these innovations be the Show and Tell of the future? Probably not. It's just difficult to measure up to a classic.

And speaking of classic, the article refers to my teacher as "Mrs. Richard Warnecke." Evidently, back in the sixties, women didn't have their own names.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mothers in the Middle

Today is Mother's Day. Although I am myself a mother of four, I always think of MY mother when I think of Mother's Day. Today I went to her house to deliver the yearly MDP (Mother's Day Plant) and as I left I gave her a big 'ol hug.

My mother is 81. She weighs 100 pounds in her heaviest winter clothes and has difficulty getting around - yesterday she tripped over the cane that is supposed to keep her from falling. So as I stood there and held onto my feeble mother today I was thinking about how much more attention she gets from me now that I'm older than she did back when she was really mothering me, those crazy adolescent years when she was responsible for everything I ate, everything I wore, and all transportation I needed to get me where I needed to go. I didn't appreciate her then like I do now. And now, of course, she's not taking me anywhere. I'm the one running the "elderly shuttle," as she calls it.

As I drove away, I thought of the mothers at the other end of the spectrum, mothers. My stepdaughter came in today with a pricey purse in tow, surely not purchased by my three-year-old granddaughter, Taylor. And think of those young women who have newborns. They surely get gushed over when it's their "First Mother's Day."

But there's another group of mothers out there. Those Mothers in the Middle are suffering, and I see their pain. One reason I know so much about middle school motherhood is because I watched my own children turn from precious mommy lovers to evil mouth clicking demons when they went to middle school. Not only did I not know anything when my kids were teenagers, their friends' parents were awesome! I would hear, "But everybody's parents let them do more than you let me do!" And I would answer, "Well, I guess I just love my children more than other parents love theirs."

The real reason I know that middle school mothers are suffering is because I see it when they come to talk to me about their children. I hear it every year:

"He always made straight A's until middle school."

"She's never cared about boys until now, and I can't get her off the phone."

"He must be hanging around with bad kids. He's never used that language before." (I've always wondered who the bad kid's parents blame the behavior on.)

Some mothers come in for a conference and spend the entire time frantically explaining the child's behavior at home, detail-by-detail. I feel like they just need to be heard; surely they don't expect me to come home with them and start handing out expectations and rewards in an effort to turn around the behavior.

Some mothers argue and place blame on the teacher while others lament "I don't know what to do with him either. He's going to give me a nervous breakdown."

On this Mother's Day I'd like to tell all of you Mothers in the Middle - it will be okay. My children turned themselves around just as they began to experience a little freedom. A driver's license and a car can really boost a negative attitude (mainly because they want to keep those car keys.) And somewhere along the time my daughter went to college she called to tell me she sure missed all the things I used to do for her. (It was especially helpful that three of my children didn't have air conditioned dorm rooms. August in the South can sure make a kid homesick.)

Middle school is a tough time for kids - those are some very difficult years developmentally. If you don't believe it, think back on your own adolescent years.

Oops. I think I better go back and give my poor little mother another hug. And another MDP, too.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Are US Children Well-behaved?

I've met with some world travelers recently who say that children in other countries are undisciplined. I heard a story yesterday about children running around willy-nilly in Europe with no parent in sight to reprimand them. Some native Europeans recently told me that American children are perceived as very compliant and well-behaved to natives of other countries. They believe our children behave nicely, in school and at home.

I find this line of thinking difficult to understand, especially in light of how our children are depicted in the media. For example, several years ago, I would often see a popular fast food commercial where a child at dinner is about to dig into a bucket of chicken.

"Mom. I don't DO fried!" the child announced as the mother explained that this particular chicken was dipped in batter with secret ingredients and was therefore the best chicken ever fried.

I sat there watching that commerical and thought about what would have happened to me if I had made such an announcement to my own mother. I would have been dipped and fried myself.

Currently, another commercial has hit our air waves that makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. I've watched numerous times in the past couple of weeks as an adorable little girl gets sassy with her mother for serving her "minced fish."

She says, "What is this, minced? You feed me minced? You ever catch a minced fish?!" Her mother sweetly serves her the name brand of fish, saying, "Here you go, Honey," and the little girl snidely announces, "That's more like it!"

Are you kidding me? Are we allowing our children to talk to us like this in America? And if the answer is yes, then what are teachers supposed to do with those sassy children when they come to school? Answer to their every whim? Look the other way when they are blatently disrespectful?

Let's just say that parents aren't allowing this disrespect, and the media is misrepresenting the behavior of our children. Why are we supporting a media that puts those types of behaviors on television for our children to emulate? Teachers already deal with enough bad press as we are often depicted on movies and television shows as buffoons (think Ferris Bueller's Day Off.) Are we going to continue to let our children and grandchildren be influenced by such negative advertising?

I, for one, am not. I once wrote a letter to People magazine and then to a pharmaceutical company that sold medication for ADHD. The magazine ran an advertisement in 1998 that had a picture of a middle school aged boy with the word FREAK stamped on his forehead in inch high letters. In small print under the picture were the words "Why would anybody say that?" in tiny letters, certainly tiny enough to be considered "fine print."

I immediately wrote the company and explained that while I understood the concept behind the ad, I wondered how I would explain to my middle school son, who had been taking medication for ADHD since kindergarten, why a company would insinuate that someone would consider him a "freak." I certainly had never treated him like he was different. We had an issue to deal with, and we did. Plain and simple.

Thank goodness the editors of People magazine agreed with me and pulled the ad from the next issue. I received apologies from them and from the pharmaceutical company - the President wrote to tell me that "someone lost a job over this."

I now am on a mission to help folks in the media understand that they are encouraging our kids to think that being nasty is cool. And I'm starting with the fish folks. You can, too.

Write to:

Mrs. Paul's Consumer Affairs
P.O. BOX 91000
Allentown, PA
I, for one, will not be eating fish out of a box any time soon. Minced or otherwise.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Speaking Out for Teaching...

In my current job I travel the state and talk to people about teaching. My official title is "Teacher Ambassador." Occasionally, I have to arrive at my point of presentation the night before, usually because it's too far away for driving in the morning and then speaking to a group and pretending I have any brain cells firing. Such was the case this week when I drove toward a college campus three hours from my house. Knowing I had to be there at 8 AM, and knowing I didn't want to get up at 4 AM to do it, I drove there the afternoon before and had the pleasure of eating in a local restaurant near the campus.

Well, I guess I could call it pleasurable. I always feel a little odd, eating alone. On this night, I felt the need to tell the hostess, "Table for one. I'm traveling." Lord knows, she didn't give one hoot. But I felt I had to explain lest she consider me a loser. This particular restaurant was one of the Southern down home cooking variety, and I ordered beef stew, mashed potatoes, fried okra, and biscuits. By the time my sweet tea and biscuits came, I didn't give one hoot that I was sitting alone either. I settled in for the feast.

And then it happened. Just as I pierced the first hot, just-fried piece of okra with my fork, I witnessed this exchange between two women sitting at tables across the restaurant from each other:

"Hey, Louise! How ya doin'? How's Bobbie Lou?"

"Hey, Edna! I'm good! Bobbie Lou's a sophomore in college now. She's going into teaching. I tried to talk her out of it, but she feels drawn to it."

I don't know what happened just then, but when I came to my senses that piece of okra was on the floor two tables up the aisle. The lady at the table beside me looked at me like I was crazy, but all I had to offer was "oops."

Okay, so here I am, a Teacher of the Year for a state that has almost 100,000 teachers, and I feel that it's my responsibility to set Louise straight. I must stand up and make a speech, I thought. At the very least I need to pull up a chair, sidle up beside her, and explain THINGS.

But I was frozen. I was playing out the scenario in my head. I would just walk over, say "may we talk a minute?" and then sit down with a complete stranger. That seemed, well, weird. Would I introduce myself? Would I say "I'm the Teacher of the Year in this state" and then she would say, "So what?"

I kept telling myself that these people came out for a nice dinner and probably didn't anticipate sharing it with a complete stranger. But that didn't help. I still felt the urge to go do my teacher-ly duty...I was just about to push my chair back...and then I stopped in my tracks. What stopped me was that I was dressed for traveling, and I was looking pretty grungy. I didn't want to represent my state's teachers that way. I was afraid I'd give her ammunition - "Well, honey, you can't even afford good clothes." Hmmm... So Louise never found out why it's a good thing Bobbie Lou is going to be a teacher. But now she'll know...if only she'll read these words:

Five Reasons Bobbie Lou Will Be Happy As A Teacher

1. Okay, let's talk about the money. I'm pretty sure that was your first line of fire when it came to encouraging Bobbie Lou to pursue another profession. And I get it. Of course, teachers should be paid more. And so should law enforcement officers, and firefighters, and soldiers. And as long as celebrities and professional athletes are being paid obscene salaries, and CEO's are getting bonuses that are more than I'll make in a lifetime, I will argue that our society has things a little mixed up. But the point, Louise, is that Bobbie Lou will be fine. Don't forget in order to even compare a teacher's salary to the rest of the world you need to add two extra months - most salaries you hear about are based on a ten month salary schedule. And there are opportunities for more money in the summer - there's summer school and consultant work available for teachers who may tutor or present workshops. Oh, I do get it, Louise. But I can tell you that I've survived fine on my salary. I even did okay as a single parent for nine years. I don't own a yacht and I don't travel to fancy destinations. But I do okay. And all the money in the world can't give me what I get back (see #2).

2. I know it's cliche to even talk about "making a difference." But are there any other professionals who shape the future of the world like teachers do? Is there any other profession with such a hold on the social inequities and injustices we see in our communities? And besides your parents, who in fact made you who you are today, Louise? I suspect it was a teacher. Wouldn't it be amazing if Bobbie Lou could be that person for someone? Or for many someone's?

3. Being a teacher means working in buildings full of laughter. Not only is the soundtrack of a teacher's life full of childlike laughter but also includes the sounds of chorus concerts and football game cheers...all the things you loved in school yourself, Louise. Bobbie Lou will be able to participate in the real-life version of High School Musical and The Cat in the Hat. She'll witness first love and first heartbreak and children trying to determine who they are and who they will be. Her life will be full of stories that will entertain her entire family, including you, for generations to come.

4. Bobbie Lou will work side by side with friends for life. Being elbow to elbow in the trenches with committed educators who feel the same way about kids is a job satisfaction that many can never experience. If you're skeptical, just go visit a faculty meeting in a school. You'll feel the air of "we did it - we made it through one more day together for these kids." You'll want to be a part of it yourself. I always tell teachers that one of the best parts of teaching is working with our best friends. Something about planning lessons together, hanging out around a copy machine and working through the stresses of teaching together, and listening to each other's teacher stories makes a group bond. You'll be glad Bobbie Lou has such a strong support system at work.

5. And last, Bobbie Lou will pull from many areas of expertise to teach her students. But she also will pull from the lessons that she learned from her first teacher - you. She will model all of the morals and values that you taught her, from kindness to empathy to love for other human beings. In a way, Louise, that makes you a teacher, too.

Louise, I hope you'll reconsider and support Bobbie Lou's decision to be a teacher. There is, of course, no finer profession.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Age is Just a Number...

My daughter is 28 today. This is exciting because she's in the prime of her life, working hard on her doctorate while interning at a local hospital with kids who have cancer. On a brighter note, she's a dancer for an NFL football team, and she works at a dance studio with little girls who would like to dance professionally someday, too. She just returned from a cruise to the Bahamas and lives happily in a metropolitan city with her nervous dog, Chance, and crazy cat, Lil Mama. She lives a charmed life.


Lil Mama looks cute here, but she's a WILDcat!

But our discussion yesterday about her upcoming birthday led me to some troubling thoughts - Am I actually old enough to have a 28 year old child? How did this happen? I can't be much older than 25 myself. And goodness knows, she was just born. I've just caught up on my sleep after the all-nighters I had to pull with that child! And I'm still worn out from the dance rehearsals and recitals - all those auditoriums where I sat and graded papers, while she danced in her little tutus, are fresh in my memory. My daughter's high school graduation, and college one, for that matter, were mere days ago. So celebrating her 28th birthday seems anachronistic, out of order in our usual chronological life.

But it's okay because I'm certainly not old enough to have an adult child. Numerous times recently, while out shopping with my three-year-old granddaughter (my stepdaughter's beautiful child), someone will say something like "Tell Mommy to buy you this candy" or "You must look like your daddy with your blonde hair and blue eyes because you don't look like Mommy." Sometimes I correct them - "I am Nana" - and sometimes I don't. Maybe it's okay that they think I'm in my twenties.

As a teacher, it's routine for my students to think I'm much older than I am. I remember thinking all of my elementary school teachers were in their 60's. And when I had the opportunity to be reunited with my first grade teacher Mrs. Warnecke after 45 years, my first thought when I saw her was "she's my age now." She had only been 23 years old when she taught me. So the years have squeezed together a little, and we're closer to the same age now than we were then.

The ultimate compliment came yesterday, though. I was working at my school, which I do every two weeks while I'm out of the classroom serving as a Teacher Ambassador for my state. Every time I'm there, it's difficult to get down the hall because of seventh and eighth graders hugging me, yelling my name, and trying to quickly catch me up on their lives. The sixth graders don't really know me, though. I've tried to talk to them as much as I can on my brief visits, but the truth is that I'm a stranger to them. And that hurts.

At least it did until yesterday. I was standing in the hallway talking to some teachers and my principal. We were laughing and sharing stories when my principal said something really funny. The three of us teachers were laughing until we were crying as we noticed Ms. Walton's class coming down the hall on their way back from lunch. I looked at her and said, "Our principal is stupid!" and continued laughing. Of course I meant "stupid" in only an endearing and figurative way. We wiped our tears and went on about our business.

Well, tonight my friend Ms. Walton called me to tell me what transpired after that chance meeting in the hallway. She said that after the class walked into the room and got settled, a student raised his hand and said to her, "Ms. Walton, that eighth grader is going to get in trouble for calling the principal stupid."

Eighth grader. I'm an eighth grader! Yee Haw!

Now it's clear. It's impossible for me to have a 28-year-old child.

Thank you, sixth grader. I hope I teach you next year when I return to my school. You will definitely be my favorite student.

And happy birthday to my impossibly grown-up daughter. It's been an amazing, albeit too quick, 28 years!

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Numbers Game

I was a good math student when I was in elementary school. I had no problem with addition and subtraction, and I made straight A's in multiplication; old Mrs. Kelly who kept losing her glasses (we were too scared to tell her they were on top of her head) made us memorize the times tables. It wasn't until I got to junior high that math became a problem.

In seventh grade, Mrs. Sigmon could never say my name correctly so I slid down in my seat, trying to be invisible, so she wouldn't call on me. In eighth grade I had an algebra teacher who was married to a member of a local motorcycle gang. Mrs. Lawson came to school bruised and bleeding on many days; there were rumors about her husband's abusive behavior. And although she was sweet and really tried to help me, I could only concentrate on the bruises on her hands when she'd point to my paper.

Before long sporting events and boys received more of my attention than math, and I found myself slipping in that subject area. Luckily, I was an avid reader and writer so I didn't give up on school altogether. I just gave up on anything related to numbers. As an adult, I struggle still. I can't remember a phone number from the phone book to the phone unless I repeat it...555-1234, 555-1234, 555-1234...

That's why I'm having a hard time wrapping myself around the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act signed into law by President Obama last month. Every article I read sounds like this to me: "a gazillion million dollars will go to this, but of that gazillion million, a trillion billion must be set aside for that, and two dollars will be charged to every homeowner who has a dog with a spotted tongue, but homeowners with cats that have more than eight whiskers will be paid a stipend of one dollar per whisker over the allotted eight."

Seriously. I wake up in the morning, and it's on the news - numbers, numbers, numbers. Every email I open continues the counting. Here's what I read this morning:

Already $2 billion in the red, the state faces a $3 billion shortfall next fiscal year.

And this afternoon:

The Governor may finally be thinking about raising new revenue to address next year's $4 billion shortfall.

Wait. How did the "shortfall" gain a billion dollars from this morning until this afternoon? Did we spend a billion dollars during the day today? Or is it only one billion? I mean do we take the $3 billion mentioned first and add the "already $2 billion?" But doesn't that make $5 billion and not $4 billion? I'm so confused.

Here's what I'm not confused about: we are in the middle of a critical economic crisis, and of course it's affecting our schools. I'm saddened to hear stories about after-school programs ending and teacher assistants losing their jobs. But I do know this: teachers will rise above any budget shortfalls, economic downturns, or billion dollar deficits thrown at them and continue to educate our nation's children every single day until the "recovery" is here.

I sincerely believe that I can take my students outside and teach them using a blade of grass if I have to...and that's free. I've heard it over and over the past few months - "with crisis comes opportunity." I believe teachers will grasp the opportunity to educate children with the same sense of urgency we've always had. Teachers are innovative and creative, and it's going to take more than a shortfall of a gazillion million dollars to knock us down.

Why? Because the alternative is not an option. We cannot refuse to educate the children of America while the adults of this country try to straighten things out. Also, it's those very children who will grow up and be the adults who make sure this doesn't happen again. And because of that, we must work to teach them what they need to know to be able to grow up and do their jobs effectively.

Most likely our students are going to need a great deal of instruction on numbers.

Maybe I can sit in on a class...

Friday, February 20, 2009

A Shout Out to Preschool Teachers Everywhere!

Last week I gave a speech to beginning teachers and mentors in a large school district in my state. I always begin my presentations by trying to get to know my audience, much like the way I get to know the students in my classroom on the first day of school. So I begin by playing a little game I call "That's Me!" I say a statement like "I am a high school teacher" and all the high school teachers jump up and shout, "That's Me!" It's just loads of fun. So on this day I named everything I could think of from beginning teachers to mentors to elementary, middle, and high school teachers to administrators to people who wandered in off the street because they heard there was food.

When I finished I asked, "Did I forget anyone?" All of a sudden a gang of teachers jumped up and yelled, "Preschool teachers!" Preschool teachers...oh my gosh! How could I have forgotten about them? I acknowledged them and apologized for the oversight. I then took a minute to tell them about my experience with my granddaughter Taylor as she started preschool last August. It had been a defining moment.

So as I was driving home, I had a little time (three hours, to be exact) to think about the role of the preschool teacher. I was thinking about how cute those little kiddies are and how they never curse at the teacher or forget their supplies or homework. I had some nice little daydreams about becoming a preschool teacher, just another idea in a long list of potential opportunities that I've thought about recently. I must be having a career identity crisis.

Today I had the chance to test my skills. I had Taylor over so I thought we'd have some school time after nap. We started a little shaky, though. I first became aware that Taylor was awake when I heard her shrieking, "It's a HEART ATTACK! It's a HEART ATTACK!" from the bed. Apparently, the dog was excited to hear Taylor rustling in the covers and jumped on her as a friendly doggie greeting. Taylor was not quite as excited.

After a nice snack of cheese nips and apple juice (see...I know what they eat), I gathered the materials and started "school." First I wrote Taylor's name in big letters with my marker and asked her to copy them with hers. She did really well with "T." She did pretty well with "A." Then she took the marker and wrote on my sleeve. Realizing that the first green mark was not nearly big enough, she made another one, this time longer and thicker, and running the length of my arm. Before I could reprimand her, she began writing on her own hand.

"Taylor," I said. "What's Mommy going to say when she sees marker on your hand?"

She continued working on her body art creation. "She will say she LUB me."

Hmmm. I then used my best refocus tools to get her back on track. Cookies.

She attempted the other letters but was obviously losing interest so I decided to try something I had heard preschool teachers talk about: a part of their curriculum called "dramatic play." Taylor loves to play "pretend" so I thought this activity would be very educational.

We walked over to the toy box, and I grabbed some play cups, plates, and a little set of utensils - a spoon, a little strainer, and a measuring cup. Taylor immediately grabbed the strainer and came at me like a race horse out of a gate. Before I knew what was happening she announced, "Let's flush out your nose" and jammed the cute little strainer halfway up my face. I was horrified, not to mention in pain, so I tried to find a diversion. I reached for a ball, but she was on me again, this time explaining, "We have to get all that gooky out!"

Finally I had the ball in my clutches.

"Here, Taylor. Catch." Taylor obediently caught the ball...then she promptly beaned me in the just flushed nose.

"We're playing foot-fall," she squealed.

Then I got another idea. Preschool teachers surely take their students outside to learn about nature. Taylor and I filled her Disney Princess pitcher with water and braced ourselves against the winter elements to water some flowers. She did great for .2 seconds. Then she "watered" my car. It's okay. The ice will melt in the spring.

It was about that time I realized that I may not ever be a good preschool teacher. So I decided to conduct a little research.

"Taylor," I asked. "What do you learn at school?"

"My A's and B's" she answered.

"What else?"

"I learn to be nice. No biting. No pushing."

I'm nose flushing?

But it's okay, Taylor. We can play school like that anytime you want....because I LUB you. And thank you for helping me understand that there is no preschool classroom in my future. Not for all the cheese nips and apple juice in the world.