Thursday, August 11, 2016

What I did (learned) during my summer vacation

Just like the kids, I want to share what I did (learned) during my summer vacation.  New adventures, scary events, and some down-time all rounded out the summer of 2016.

In June Craig and I were able to take a trip of a lifetime.  We took our first cruise to Alaska, and I'm hoping it isn't our last one.  Just a few highlights from the trip: a visit to the Space Needle, zip lining through a rain forest (who know Alaska had a rain forest), whale watching (beyond cool), hiking, trying foods I never thought I'd eat (reindeer stew is scrumptious), and practicing my hobby of photography.  It was truly an amazing trip.

What did I learn from our Alaskan Adventure?  Look for the adventure.  Granted we took a trip that many might not ever experience, but adventure is always around the corner.  My mom used to wake us up on a Saturday morning, and she would ask, "Which direction do you want to go today?"  We would pick one and end up at an orchard, an old Indian fort, fishing with our grandparents, visiting DeSmet, South Dakota - all adventures right in our own backyard.  When I was in Alaska, I tried to experience it all.  I need to do that every day.  What adventure will this school year bring?  What direction do I want to go?  How can I instill that sense of adventure in my students?

I also learned to appreciate the incredible beauty of God's Earth.  Every time I snapped a picture of something breathtaking, I'd turn around and see something just as inspiring.  But you know what - I can do that here in George.  There are countless times I'm walking the trail and see a sunset that simply takes my breath away. Or kids playing on the playground and their laughter makes me smile and laugh right along with them.  I don't need to travel to Alaska to see God's magnificence, it's all around me.

In July the lessons were a little harder to swallow.  My husband Craig became very ill.  In fact, this will be a challenge to face throughout this upcoming school year.  He was diagnosed with a rare kidney disease that will require immune suppression therapy.  In a word chemo.  Lessons from this - value your health.  Take care of your body.  Nothing Craig did caused this disease - it's just a rare occurrence, however, we are watching what we eat, the amount of exercise we're getting, the hours we need to sleep.  All these are lessons we've learned before, but now we need to master them.

And time.  Time is precious.  Take the time to visit with loved ones, play cards, laugh - a lot.  Time is the most precious of commodities.  A lesson I needed to be reminded of, but I truly wish I didn't have to learn it this way.

At the end of July the Speech, Drama, and Music Departments traveled to Washington, DC and New York.  Ask us what we did and our response will be - all of it.  We saw the monuments, Mount Vernon, Arlington National Cemetery, the Holocaust Museum, two Broadway shows (orchestra seats!), the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Carlos Bakery, and the list goes on and on.

What lessons did I learn?  First it was hot.  It didn't help to complain.  So lesson #1 - suck it up.  I also learned a valuable lesson about watching my tone of voice.  I said something that wasn't meant to be disrespectful, but because of my tone it was taken that way.  Lessons like tone of voice, even old people like me need to be reminded.

I learned that a simple gesture can mean a lot to people.  Our visit to Arlington involved laying flowers on the graves of people with connections to our home communities.  This was meaningful for all - the students, the adults, our guide - and maybe more importantly - the people back home.

So it's August 11th.  Supposedly there are a few more weeks of summer vacation.  Every teacher in America knows that when the calendar switches to August, summer is over.  Planning is in full swing.  So what lessons can I learn from the "end of summer"?

I still love what I do.  I know that it can be disheartening to be sitting at my desk already looking at Pinterest, reading blogs (and writing them), when all I would like to do is read my novel and curl up on the couch.  Then again, I'm excited.  What can I do this year that I've never done before?  What exciting things will happen in Room 111?

Twenty-five years at George, twenty-nine total.  This is my life, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Appreciate your life's choices.  I was meant to be a teacher, I know that.  Sometimes I doubt it, but sitting at my desk looking at my new bulletin boards, planning some new units, and getting ready for an amazing new year - I definitely am right where I'm supposed to be.  A great lesson learned!

Thursday, May 26, 2016

End of the Year Reflection

Twenty-seven years.  Twenty-seven years?  Heavens, where did 27 years go?  How many students is that?  I know I don't want to do that probably involves an "x" and a variable and an exponent.

As the year comes to a close, what observations can I make about 2015-2016?

* It was a creative one.  I used several strategies I discovered in a book entitled Teach Like a Pirate.  My Literature 9 class had a dinner party investigating the information found in the short story "The Sniper".  The government class had several round table discussions on current events, developed vs. underdeveloped countries, and budgetary decisions.  English 10 used StoryCorps to record some valuable conversations with the important people in their lives.  And Law...well we solved a crime - actually it was an accident that looked like a crime.

* This year was an exhaustive one.  During the month of January I believe I was at school until 2:00 AM several nights.  That's not even counting the numerous late nights in February.  The Drama Department produced The Music Man, we had over 19 groups out for Large Group, we won a state title with Television News, we hosted a District Speech Contest, we had two qualify for individual events.  And that's just the extra-curriculars.  I think I need a nap!

* 2015-2016 was an informative year.  Each classroom made huge strides in learning to become life-long learners.  I focused on vocabulary development, reading strategies, and some higher order thinking with some questioning strategies.  It was my goal this year to increase the rigor and relevancy, and looking back, I feel that we did.

So looking forward to next year, what does 2016-2017 look like?  Yes, most teachers are already looking ahead to next year.  We spend our summers scouring through blogs, reading professional development books, searching through Pinterest and Teachers Pay Teachers.  No we're no martyrs - we do take time out to be with our families, go on those much needed vacations (where we look for things we can use in our classrooms), and sit on our patios soaking up the sun we'll never see after September.  However, a good teacher is always on the prowl for another classroom idea, another unit of study, something that can make our classroom "POP"!

Next year I will be a model teacher.  I asked the administration, what does that mean?  They simply turned it around and said, "What does that mean to you?"  (By the way, I hate it when people do that to me.  I do it to others, but I hate it when it's done to me!)  What does it mean to me?

First I think it means that my classroom has now become a laboratory.  I hated science, but now my classroom will be the place where I will experiment with various strategies.  And I'm excited! I've always liked to try new things, and now I have the thumbs up to experiment, and if it works, share it.  I hope to "visually showcase teaching strategies, tools, and decisions." (New York City Department of Education definition of a model teacher).  That excites me.

I also see my position next year as one who will learn from you, my colleagues.  You all do such amazing things in your classroom, and I want to bring that back to my courses.  I know that as a model teacher, I'm not expected to travel to other classrooms, but I hope we can set up a dialogue where we're sharing ideas, resources, and even co-teach.

I hope everyone will feel welcome to come to my classroom and observe.  Sometimes there will be an invitation sent out formally, but the doors always open.  Just pop in, sit a spell (I'm sounding like the Clampet's), and together we can "make a dent in the universe".

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Where is my desk?

The play is over (and what a success!), the quarter grades are filed, and I'm moving onto the next few projects (prom, speech, etc.)  You'd think in this lull I would be able to find the top of my desk!  I know it's under there somewhere.  Let's start sorting.

Here are those articles on vocabulary development that I wanted to read, but a student who was struggling with reading his nonfiction book needed me to read to him instead.  O.K. I'll put them back in the upper right-hand corner of my desk for perusal next week.

Why is this first aid kit on my desk?  Oh yes, paper cut during freshmen literature.  I'll just put that back on the shelf, but I know I should keep it handy.

There has to be over twenty post-it notes stuck to various parts of my desk.  This one is for the possible speech topic for my senior speech student.  Oh I can throw this one reminding me of the last week's haircut (which I never made it to).  Here's one reminding me to call that parent about the wonderful job their sophomore is doing in speech class.  Whew! I did that!  I have no idea what these numbers mean, so I better keep this one.  And so the sorting goes.

It seems that every teacher starts the school year with the lofty idea that he/she will keep up with the daily demands of education.  I know that I planned to get those papers corrected within one to two days of the students turning them in.  But then the year gets into full swing - the meetings begin, the play rehearsals take over, the students need help, and the to-do list gets longer and longer.  And I feel like a failure.  Why can't I get ahead?  Why does my to-do list carry over from day to day, week to week?  When am I going to get caught up!!! UGH!!!

I believe that's when educators need to say STOP! Take a moment, heck - take a breath - have a cup of coffee, watch a movie on Netflex, and relax.  Then tackle that desk - throw away that post-it-note that you have no idea what the numbers mean, keep those vocabulary articles handy, you'll get to them (while you're standing in the hallway monitoring passing time), and remember it's not about the clean desk, it's about EVERY student EVERY DAY.

Look at what you have accomplished so far this year.  You had a really good lesson on text structure in Literature 9.  You connected with a student that last year wouldn't even turn in his English homework.  You've had a student smile because you put a sticker on the top of his American Literature paper.  You got that shy kid to speak up in class (and maybe even go out for the play.)  It's been a good year so far.  Enjoy it.  You deserve to take a few minutes and relish where you are. You'll find the top of your might be May, but you'll find it again.

Has anyone seen my favorite pen?  I bet it's on my desk...never mind.

Sunday, August 23, 2015


Recently our principal challenged us to create a one word goal as a form of a "new year's resolution."  Growing up in a household where my father preached the importance of goal setting, this immediately appealed to me.

Along with the one word goal, the idea was to incorporate it into an acronym.  As an English teacher, this added aspect further inspired me.  Who doesn't love to work with letters and meaning?

So after some reflection and "wordsmithing", my goal and acronym is E-V-E-R-Y.

E - Every student

V - inVested

E - Every lesson

R - Reach

Y - Yearlong

I'm really looking forward to the 2015-2016 school year.  So much is ahead of us - the fall musical, the district speech tournament in February, a trip to DC/NYC and of course - most importantly - learning to become better students better citizens.  

I know, like any "New Year" that the excitement can wear off.  I hope that I can hold onto the excitement that I feel today, and channel it throughout the year.

Happy New Year EVERY-one!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

An Old Dog CAN learn a few new tricks

As I prepared for a new semester, I realized that I'm not as stuck in my ways as I thought.  I just survived my first "Genius Week" here at George-Little Rock.  What is Genius Week?  It's a week where students choose a project that they work on for a week and at the end present their findings to a panel of teachers or community members.  Students worked on original music, original movies (which were posted to YouTube), started their own businesses, invented some really amazing products (a few that I would personally invest in), etc.  It was truly an amazing week of learning and facilitating.  When given a problem (one that they are passionate about), these kids will do amazing things.

I've always said that I hated change, but that's not true.  In the past fifteen years I've survived SMART boards, one-to-one classrooms, Moodle, Google Classroom, and now Genius Week.  Survival implies that these changes were out to destroy me...and upon reflection that is the furthest thing from the truth.  These changes have made me a better teacher - and a better person.  I find myself more flexible than I was twenty years ago.  

Now don't get me wrong - I still stress out if I don't think I'll get through my curriculum, and I hate seeing kids out of the classroom because of meetings, leaving early for athletic events, and generally missing class.  However, Genius week wasn't missing curriculum, it was giving control to the kids.  Something I need to do more often.

I realized that I struggled with facilitating.  I wanted to solve the problem or at least get in my two cents worth.  That was a valuable lesson for me.  Genius Week also made me think of how I could bring some of that energy to my regular course work.  What "problems" could I create in literature, government, or law that these kids could solve?  

Regardless of what people think of the 'old guard,' there are a lot of us well-seasoned teachers willing to look at new innovations in education and embrace them.  We can bring some of that seasoning into new philosophies and provide kids with some wonderful experiences.  

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The "End of My Time Off"

Tonight as I sit and work on grades, I realize that Christmas break has quickly come to an end.  Just like summer and any other breaks, the time flew by.  It was full of laughter, food, and time with family.  It was also a time full of speech practices, prepping for upcoming courses, and correcting papers.  I know that I chose to be at school for most of the break, but now that it's over, I would give anything for one more day to sit in my PJ's reading a novel.  

Most teachers use their "time off" for prepping for upcoming courses, grading papers, and recharging.  It always amazing that at least once during a break someone makes a sarcastic comment about a teacher's easy schedule.  I also know that this has been a sore point for a lot of teachers.  We somehow feel we have to defend our Christmas break or our summers off.  For 2015, I'm done.  I'm not going to justify the calendar any longer.  I know the schedule I have.  I know what kind of hours my colleagues log and the time coaches spend with their students outside of the school day.

According to the Washington Post, an average teacher works 53 hours a week. The article went on to say that if the teacher is also a coach of extra-curricular to add on eleven to twelve hours to that total. I once asked a previous superintendent if I could change my contract to be paid by the hour.  He simply chuckled and said no school district could afford to pay teachers by the hour.

If we truly stop to think about the disparity between the hours worked and the salary paid, is it any wonder that young people choose other professions rather than education?  I have a daughter that recently earned her teaching degree, and she is anticipating her first job.  I've repeatedly asked her if she was sure about her professional choice.  And I believe she's given me a great answer.

She didn't choose education for the hours or the money.  (None of which will play out in her favor.) She's getting into education for the look on a student's face when they understand a concept or when a sixth grade class thinks it funny when she sings a parody to "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?" She's getting into education because a seventh grader said that he actually likes math because of her.
She's getting into education for the same reason I did 24 years ago - it's all about the kids.

So I'll sit in my PJ's tonight, watch the "Twilight" marathon, and continue to grade Literature 9 papers. All that because I'm excited to see the kids tomorrow!

Monday, December 8, 2014

A Scary Conversation

Today I was teaching one of my favorite short stories of all time - "Cask of the Amontillado" by Edgar Allan Poe.  If you're not familiar with it, here is a brief synopsis.  Montressor (who is only referred to in the first person) is insulted by a man named Fortunato.  Obviously Fortunato has been blessed with wealth, health, respect, etc.  The insult was so slight that Fortunato was oblivious to the impact his words had on the narrator.  During Carnival Season, Montressor and Fortunato meet, and Montressor tells Fortunato he has a cask of this rare wine "Amontillado".  Fortunato is thrilled and almost gallops down into the catacombs for a taste.  Several times Montressor hints that the's going to kill Fortunato, but Fortunato is clearly in the dark about his fate.  Eventually Montressor chains Fortunato to a wall, and literally "walls" him in.  Fortunato's body remains in the catacombs for fifty years until Montressor confesses (because he felt others should know about his perfect crime.)

The conversation today was something along this line.  Was Fortunato partly responsible for his death?  After all, his obsession with amontillado led him to the creepy catacombs where he was eventually killed.  I honestly believed that my students would say the victim is not responsible for a murderer's behavior, and we would move on.  Nope, instead about half the class said, "yes".  I have to admit I was shocked.

So I tried to create a parallel example, "I'm walking through Central Park, and a mugger jumps me, stabs me, and I die. Am I partly responsible because I'm walking through Central Park?"

"Yes, if you're stupid enough to walk through a scary park, then yes, it's partly your fault."

I can't begin to explain how this disturbs me.  The lack of empathy for a victim and on top of that blaming them for their own demise just overwhelmed me.  And to be honest, I was a little crabby the rest of the class period.

I tried to again get them to see that a victim is not responsible for the crime committed against them (and granted by now I'm talking directly to only three students as the rest have bowed out), so I brought up Ferguson, MO.  Were the store owners that had their businesses burned due to looting responsible because they should have had some kind of security?  Response - What happened in Ferguson?  It was at that point I threw up my hands and moved on.

I think what I find so discouraging is the idea that several of these students believed someone could be responsible for a crime committed against him/her.  Some of them refused to see things from an alternative point of view because they enjoyed arguing with a teacher.  I get that.  And unfortunately there was a little name calling, which I tried to immediately squelch, but the lack of empathy really bothered (bothers) me, and I hope the entire conversation gets the kids thinking outside of class.  I know it did me.