I am (not really, but kinda) Julia Roberts’ Erin Brockovich

It’s time to get those grades in – end of third quarter. I got the email reminder last week. Two grades per week are mandated, and I know of teachers who have met that mandate with word searches and documenting breathing. I’m sorry, but that has nothing to do with how well our students are developing their skills and how much they are learning.

So it’s “time’s up” for the students to which I was giving a little more time to catch up after being absent or after deciding that they really did have to do work in my classes even though I don’t appear to be a hard-ass. It’s “time’s up” for those who were still working to make that blog post or opinion article from a couple weeks ago better while still trying to work on the current assignment. It’s “time’s up” for the teacher to actually do something with that blue folder she keeps taking home from school, then back to school, then home from school – the one with all the rubrics and lists of who’s doing what project what for which class.

But I have assessed their work

The thing is, it’s not like I haven’t looked at their work. By the time I post a grade, I’ve seen each assignment an average of 2-3 times and provided feedback so the student could revise and develop skills. Why would I post a grade from an early, rough draft when I know that with a little work, it’s going to get better? And with the work invested in that piece, the work the student does on the next piece has a pretty good chance of starting out much better than the first one started out.

So while it may look like I only have seven or eight grades in the online grade book at the 9-week mark, you can pretty much multiply that by two or three. That’s how much I’ve really assessed work.

Document, oh, document

So, OK, all that assessment isn’t in the online grade book – it’s not documented. How’s a principal or parent supposed to be able to check on a student?

How about ask me? How about ask the student? We’re all developing all of the time. The idea of twice weekly labeling every kid, “Today you are B.” or “Today you are C.” or, whoops, you were absent and didn’t get caught up on time? Or you really, really don’t get slope? “Today you are F.” I’m sorry, folks, but that sucks.

As I was pondering whether I should continue to keep my bottom glued to the dining room chair on this Sunday afternoon, after being gone all day yesterday because I took four journalism students to an all-day workshop where we all learned stuff, OR, whether I should shower, dress and get ready to go to the cookout I was invited to, a thought occurred to me.

Erin Brockovich

Or, maybe it was just how Julia Roberts portrayed her in the 2000 movie.

Sure, everything may not be documented, but ask me. Ask me who is caught up and who is behind. Ask me who has natural writing skills and who struggles to understand point of view – or remembering to capitalize I. Ask me who can focus amid a busy journalism room and who is distracted by the wheels on the rolling chair he sits on. Ask me who pretends she’s not hungry because she doesn’t have money to eat on. Ask me who’s close to their mom and who feels like a mom. Ask me who’s grown to like the feedback method and learns more than in other classes because they’re actually doing stuff. Ask me who’s proud of stepping outside their comfort zone to interview others or present to the class. Ask me who takes on additional yearbook or newspaper work because someone else didn’t pull their weight this month. Ask me who’s proud of that and who resents it just a little.

Students are not one size fits all. Mandated grades per week does nothing to increase or even measure learning. Even if grades could measure learning, mandating grades when there isn’t real, additional work to assess only skews the data.

Back to the dining room chair I go.

Spark a little mid-break motivation



image via Pixabay CC0 Public Domain

Motivation would be so dope. And, apparently, motivation can be derived by increasing your dopamine levels.

Smack in the middle of winter break, we’ve just finished the highlight of it for most of us: Christmas. That highlight comes at a cost sometimes. The buildup starts before Halloween, and for some it’s positive and merry-making, but for some it’s depressing and anxiety-producing for a variety of reasons.

For myself, it’s a mix. I am blessed beyond measure regarding my loved ones, but I am genetically predisposed to worry and overthink everything. With the main festivities out of the way and no expectation to go back to work for a week, I’ve allowed myself to wallow on the sofa a bit the past couple of days. One could say I deserve it, being a teacher and publications adviser who works crazy hours during the school year and never really stops thinking about deadlines and details. But on the other hand, wallowing begets wallowing. I see others online, too, who just need a lift.

So to the internet I went, in search of ways to raise dopamine levels, and I found this article from Endless Entertainment on the first shot. Glenn Santos writes of 10 Ways to Increase Dopamine to Boost Productivity. Just what I was looking for.

  1. Discover new things, Santos tells us. Well, I can vouch for that. Just searching for and finding the article gave me motivation to share this info. What does he mean by discovering new things, though? Santos suggests taking to the internet and exploring via Amazon or Pinterest, a couple of my personal favorites. He does warn against the addictive nature of those sites. But I’ve discovered such things as rock painting, bullet journaling, lettering, Zentangle and new authors and books, all of which I’ve at least tried, if not fallen in love with.
  2. List your small tasks. The logic here is that completing something, indeed, the act of marking the item off the list as complete, gives you that dopamine pump. So why list one item: “clean the kitchen”, which you may not be able to mark off for a couple hours, when you could list: empty dishwasher, load dishwasher, clean out fridge, wipe down counters & cabinets, sweep floor, mop floor … each swipe of the pencil (or check in a box) gives you a separate dopamine trigger. So if you really want to get the biggest advantage of this trick, do what I’ve always advised: the first thing on your list should always be: “make a list”. Done? Check.
  3. Listen to music. No brainer. What pumps you up? At what volume? Do it for you. It’s medicinal.
  4. Increase your tyrosine, a protein found in common foods.
    Green Tea
    Almond milk mocha latte with your scrambled eggs, avacado and banana breakfast? Or, heck, just a piece of chocolate about 3 p.m. That’s how I roll.
  5. Reduce your lipopolysaccharides. Your what? Well, if you’re increasing the good stuff, it makes sense to reduce the bad stuff. And don’t kid yourself. You know what the bad stuff is: fatty and sugary foods. They are toxins.
    One way to combat those, according to Santos, is a probiotic diet. He suggests yogurt, which I am familiar with, and kefir and kimchi, which I am not.
    I will, however, put in a shameless plug for Herbalife, and a supplement I can personally attest to: Florafiber. A caplet or two a day gives you fiber, calcium and lactobacillus acidophilus. Message me for details if you are interested.
  6. Exercise often. I hated typing that one. I have an ongoing battle with myself and my personal trainer son about exercise. Intellectually, I know that exercise does good things for me. I know that it not only releases dopamine, but serotonin as well. But, man, I find it hard to convince myself to exercise. This is something I need to work on.
  7. Establish a streak. Santos suggests keeping track of something so you can see progress. Under “new things” I mentioned bullet journaling, something I started last January (Look at me! Did something consistently for a whole year!). I love bullet journaling. It’s a planner, a journal, a sketchbook. It’s any combination in any way you want it to be. Yes, there are original guidelines on which the system is based, but the beauty is that the system is endlessly customizable. Some of the popular features most folks put in their bujos are trackers, graphic elements intended to track behaviors. Bujoers track water intake, exercise, weight loss, moods, housekeeping chores, making their beds and brushing their teeth. They track savings, paying off debt, social media analytics, days without soda or overspending. What would you like to track? Just tracking that I updated my bujo, that I had my Herbalife shakes and tabs, and those evenings I didn’t spend with TV helped me improve in those areas. Unfortunately, it hasn’t yet helped me increase my blog posts or water intake. Always room for improvement. Check Pinterest, YouTube or Facebook for bullet journaling practitioners and get some ideas.
  8. Take dopamine enhancing supplements.
    Curcumin is found in turmeric, a spice used in curry dishes. But there are dozens of recipes on Pinterest using turmeric. I’ve tried it as a hot drink with cinnamon and honey in almond milk (meh.) and I actually loved it sprinkled on sweet potatoes, then roasted.
    Ginko Biloba is available over the counter.
    L-theanine is apparently available in great quantities in green tea.
  9. Make stuff. Love this one. Anyone with an artsy hobby can probably attest. If you’re doing something you love and you get in the zone, time flies by. Is it drawing? Painting? Photography? Crochet? Rebuilding motors? How about just coloring? Coloring has been found to reduce anxiety and lower blood pressure in some people. It’s a soothing, repetitive task that produces a colorfully pleasing result.
  10. Meditate. Look into the proper way to meditate or just take an afternoon for ceiling time, as I put it. Uninterrupted time to just stare at the ceiling and let your mind wander, work things out, feel some feelings and work through why you’re feeling that way can be helpful. In addition, you can set goals and plan tasks to get there or visualize positive situations. I sometimes make up scenes for fiction I’m working on, work out plot details or flesh out character traits.

So is it meditating or is it wallowing? What is it I’ve been doing the past couple of days? The fact that I’m being productive means that it doesn’t matter what I call it.

What can you do to increase your dopamine levels? What can you do for you so that you can be more productive?

Whichever you choose, do it. You deserve to be happy and productive.

Protect yourself against bias posing as news

I’ve been hearing a lot about a little story in the news lately …

Regarding the story of Pence attending the “Hamilton” production and President Elect Trump’s reprimand Tweets: I’ve seen several versions of the story floating about and arguments on both sides and I’m wondering why there are sides at all. It’s because we have become so incredibly divided, and we seem to like it that way, that’s why. And social media has tapped into what we like just like they always do. You mention Snickers in a post and I’ll bet you, you’ll begin to see something about Snickers in advertising or in your feed pretty soon.

Put up your dukes. And help the instigators get rich.

So – we like fighting; we like opposition, and we like talking trash on the “other side.” Facebook says, “That’s cool. We’d like to help.” Not only that, entrepreneurs who think of themselves as journalists see a market to tap into as well and they begin to write up stories to help divide and infuriate. They take advantage of the fact that the majority of Americans are on Facebook AND THEY ARE NOT MEDIA LITERATE. They believe anything that looks like news. These sites are set up to pay them in advertising revenue based on “clicks” so the more clicks they can get, the more money they make off of readers’ media illiteracy and desire for a fight.

Enter a juicy piece like Pence attending “Hamilton” and Trump shaking the parental finger in the cast’s face via Twitter.

So what really happened at the theater?

There is a lot of context to the fact that the man Pence attended the production “Hamilton”. I leave that to individuals to read about and come to their own conclusions. However, at the end of the production, actor Brandon Victor Dixon, with the rest of the cast supporting him, read a brief, prepared message, directed politely to Pence, asking that the new White House uphold American values and rights for all Americans, and referenced the diversity in the production.

(It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that the Trump/Pence campaign ridiculed Mexicans, African Americans, Muslims, women, the disabled and other minority groups, and that the party platform is against marriage equality). Reports say that Pence had been on his way out, but that he waited in the hallway outside to hear what was being said. Later, Trump tweeted out a reprimand about harassment and demanded an apology. That is out of the general character of a president, what with the First Amendment and all.

What’s real and what’s not?

When newsworthy events happen, readers are dependent on journalists for reports, if they truly want to know. In this instance, NYT’s version differs greatly from TMZ’s version, which seemed built to anger conservatives, using inflammatory words like “shots fired”. What I saw and heard was not “shots fired.” It was a request to hear a position. TMZ called Dixon “Fake Aaron Burr”, which is technically correct, considering he was an actor playing the part of Aaron Burr, but “fake” has a definite negative connotation. In my introduction to journalism classes we call this “editorializing”. Writers add their opinion, their bias, with words that imply opinion or judgment, and since journalism is supposed to be as non-biased as possible, we work to keep that stuff out of our stories.

What can I do to prevent foolishness in my newsfeed?

Be aware that you are always reading a version of the story, often one that is slanted with the writer’s point of view. Note any inflammatory language, the adjectives and adverbs, absolutes, exclamation points. True journalism does not use these devices. Be aware of other versions and parts left out, points of view not addressed, lack of credible sources, balance not achieved. Be an educated consumer of news.

TMZ and other biased sites are telling you what to think. Social media is taking advantage of its audience by appealing to emotions. Don’t let those who are continually trying to divide us win. Either ignore the shock stories or research for the truth, but try not to base your opinion of “the other side” on this kind of non-journalism. 

My opinion on credible news sources is just that: my opinion. Since the biased ones are too many to list, I’d say New York Times, Washington Post, NPR, CNN are credible, though someone may see it differently. I know Trump does. But then, I’m not sure he likes the media at all. Or the First Amendment. Watch out, folks.

How to make a deadline

“Early is on-time,” they tell me. “On-time is late.”

I have a lot of band students on my yearbook and news staffs, and I think it’s time to take a page from the band director’s doctrine.

The band students know his theory is, “If you’re not early, you’re late.”

True to form, band, as a class, starts 30 minutes before first hour for the rest of the school. As teachers and students pull into the parking lot to begin the day, band is already practicing their marching program, and they’ve been doing so since 7:15 a.m. They didn’t arrive at 7:15. They started marching at 7:15.

I tell you that to tell you this:

We need to be early to be on-time with our yearbook and news deadlines. The simple reason is that there are always unexpected obstacles – always.


This year, we are switching from a fall delivery yearbook to a spring delivery yearbook. Previous staffs have all preferred to have the entire year in the book so we’ve worked two or three (or more) weeks into the summer to create one complete book delivered in the fall. This year, we’re trying a spring book, but the last deadline is just before spring activities. We’ll create a summer supplement to cover those.

Spring books mean earlier deadlines with more pages, and they have to be met or we won’t get the book in time to deliver before graduation.

Yesterday was the first day of our Fall Break, which extends through Tuesday. Our first deadline is Monday. That meant we showed up yesterday to finish pages for the first submission. I was thinking this qualified for “early”.

Granted, this first few weeks has been full of learning how to yearbook. And there have been dozens of decisions to make – big and small – regarding design. Deciding the theme itself was a big one, but few realize the number of tiny decisions that have to be made and then implemented throughout for consistency. Will the number for the caption AND the lead-in be demi-bold? Will we use a period after the photo credit? Are non-staff members “Photo by …” or “Courtesy of …” and how do we credit news staff when it’s their photo? So. Many. Decisions.

So a little more than half the staff was able to make it to workday yesterday, and while many were finishing spreads, many were editing for all that tiny stuff.

One obstacle after another got in our way.

The morning started right off with a corrupted InDesign spread that wouldn’t open.

We spent half an hour or so trying to troubleshoot that one. I used Mac’s Time Machine option, going back to an earlier, saved version, but it still wouldn’t open. I called Herff Jones’s tech support, and the specialist had me email the file to her. She couldn’t open it either. Just when it looked like the staffer was going to have to design from scratch (I actually felt tears welling up behind my eyes), I tried Time Machine again, going back an hour earlier in the previous day’s files, and we got a version that would open – minus a couple of steps that hadn’t saved.

That was the big one, but we had photos that wouldn’t place for mysterious reasons, links that went missing for mysterious reasons, and the regular stuff that comes by learning. Photos needed lightening because they print darker than the screen shows. Stories had been placed without being edited because it was someone’s first time. Captions needed more information. Name spellings hadn’t been double-checked. We had to make a decision to add periods after photo credits that didn’t have them or remove the ones that did have them.

You just have to plan to need more time.

You have to plan for the people you need to interview to be unavailable.

You have to plan for photos to need to be retaken sometimes.

You have to plan for InDesign to crash.

You have to plan for a photo to not be where you thought it was.

You have to plan for links to be broken.

You have to plan for people in photos to defy being identified.

You have to plan for a power outage and the fact that you hadn’t saved since you created that last mod.

You have to plan to finish early or you’ll be late.

We’re meeting again Sunday afternoon to finish, and we’ll meet that Monday deadline. Then we’ll celebrate being awesome.

Adopting good ideas

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, and it’s not that I have nothing to post about – it’s that there has been so much, so fast this year, that it’s been tough to focus on one idea and develop it into something worth reading. It’s been overwhelming. I think that’s the way many students have been feeling, especially the new members of our student news staff. I did something this week that, I hope, makes a difference.

Earlier in the semester, my news magazine editor (both online news and news magazine are produced by one staff, but separate editors) suggested that some of our returning members mentor, or “buddy”, our four new members. Two of these four had intro to journalism last year, but the other two had only good qualifications and impressive drive. The “buddy system” was working somewhat. The editor, herself, took her buddy with her to interview the principal. They both got interviews for two different stories. However, I still saw the newbs (term of endearment) working but still seeming like they weren’t quite sure how to approach a task or maybe even what to ask or whom to ask it of. In short, I didn’t see enough connection between all the staff members.

In a brief staff meeting on Monday, I went down a list of stuff they needed to know for the week and included specific “Jane will adopt Jill as a buddy”, pairing up all the new members with established staffers. THEN, I jokingly said I’d even considered designing adoption certificates and bringing cake, but I’d run out of time. At the mention of food, they all got excited. We decided to make Friday our adoption celebration.

So there I sat, at my dining room table Friday morning, just out of the shower with my cup of coffee, realizing, “Oh, dear Lord. I didn’t make the certificates.” This was largely brought on by the GroupMe texts I noticed from the night before as the kids checked in with each other about what they were bringing. So I pulled InDesign up on my laptop screen and quickly designed adoption certificates. At the last minute, I scootched everything up a tad and added nine signature lines at the bottom. I made a certificate for the adopter and one for the adoptee. I got them printed off as they were coming into class.

Someone made the suggestion that I use the large, wooden T-square left behind by last year’s editor. I think they wanted me to knight them (as he did when he promoted them to editors), but I chose to use it as a gavel. I’m telling you, this was all quite impromptu. I have no guide but my hyperactive mind and a certain flexibility that allows me to leave the script.

I called them to order by rapping the T-square on a desk. With my certificates stacked in front of me on a group of desk tables that also held sugar cookies, home-baked chocolate chip cookies, some pumpkin sandwich cookies, a pumpkin-cream cheese roll and two bags of potato chips, I asked the adopters to stand. All on my left, they did so. I asked my adoptees to stand and as they did, I noted that they were all on my right. (I’m hoping the mingling will begin soon.)

In wedding vow fashion and off the top of my head, I asked the adopters if they promised to guide and direct and check regularly on their adopted members. They agreed. I asked the adoptees if they promised to ask questions, look to their adopters for guidance and help when they needed it. They agreed.

Then a teacher walked in to give me some softball information I’d asked for an hour earlier. I told her we were in the middle of an adoption ceremony, I’d be right with her. She laughed a little.

Then I told them I was also borrowing from my Methodist background and the baptism ritual – assured them no water was involved – and asked the entire staff to accept these new members into the family and promise to also help guide and direct and be good friends. They agreed. I may have rapped my gavel again.

I ran around giving each person their certificates and directed their attention to the signature lines on which the rest of the staff should sign. They began signing all the lines on all the certificates and eating stuff and going off to interview people and writing their stories, and I hope it makes a difference.

That’s really all there was to it.

I’ve been known to do similar goofy things, some with planning and forethought, like the adoption ceremony for the yearbook in 2013, from which I took most of what we did this week. I went much more in depth for it, though, so check it out if you want more.

Then sometimes, like this week, it’s pretty much on a whim, like the time we had a funeral for a corrupted memory card. His name was Peter.


This was way back in 2009 or 2010, but as I recall, they couldn’t get the pics from the card and we determined it was corrupted. They asked me, “so we just throw it away?” I probably responded with something snarky, like, “unless you want to have a funeral or something.” And the fun began.

Someone pulled a Little Jug juice container from the trash can and proceeded to cut it length-wise on all but one long side, creating a casket for Peter (we name all our equipment and cards for checkout purposes). She filled the casket with tissue, lacking satin. Someone googled images of candles and flowers for us to print and hold at the service. Peter’s casket was placed on some stacked books with another tissue creating a sort of carpet beneath.

Someone mentioned Peter’s wife, and before I knew it, a smaller SD card (we’d just gotten our first camera that used SD instead of CF cards) was propped below the steps, holding her own tissue. We gathered round, someone said a few words, while someone else was smart enough to capture the moment. That was the dominant photo on the yearbook spread that year.

Ya gotta have a little fun or the work becomes drudgery. Amiright?

To find good, expect good


This is what I remember from time to time:

One Sunday, it was Youth Sunday, and the MYF (Methodist Youth Fellowship) were in charge of the service, one of the leaders gave the message. Like the many message-givers before her, she began with a story. The story was about a person in a village who was welcoming a newcomer.

“How are the people here?” the newcomer asked.

“What were the people like where you came from?” the villager asked in return.

“Hateful bunch,” he replied. “I didn’t like any of them. Someone was always in somebody else’s business or starting something. That’s why I left.”

“That’s what you’ll find here,” the villager told him.

Why did the villager tell the newcomer that? The wise villager knew that people tend to see what they expect to see, and that newcomer would be comparing the people in this village to those he had left. You see, he was always seeing the negative, and that’s what he would be looking for.

That message stuck with me more than most messages I’ve heard from adult professionals. People find what they are looking for.


This is what I keep seeing in my Facebook feed:

“Why are people so awful!”

“Republicans are just dumb.”

Something about “… effing libtards …”

“My family is the worst … (something about backstabbers).”

“The world is full of sorry people.”

These are paraphrases or compilations of things I’ve seen in recent days. I want to reach out and tell them, “You will find what you are looking for, so go look for good, look for peace. Better still, do good and create peace.”

Is it that hard to look for things to feel gratitude for throughout the day? Or do they not realize they are responsible for their own happiness? Just like anything else, we are not entitled to happiness without working for it. However, this kind of work can bring joy.

I started keeping a bullet journal in January, and within a month or two, I added a couple pages each month for daily gratitudes. And I tell ya, some days I have three or four things to record and try to write concisely so I don’t use up all the space before the month is over, and SOME DAYS, I can think of nothing. I think I may have written, “I got up today.” once, or something to that effect. But I keep recording that stuff.


This is what a friend shared on his timeline yesterday, and one of the reasons I don’t give up on social media and the great deal of negativity – there is still gold out there.

Thank you, Mike Peercy:

I saw grace today…
(the last several days really)
…in a team believing in their leader even when he’s not his best
…in lunch with no agenda but brotherhood
…in a family working as a team to simply encourage their neighbors
…in honest talk when polite conversation would have been easier
…in wisdom gained from life and loss shared over a lunch long overdue
…in a gentle rain experienced on the porch with a good friend and a great cup of coffee
…in the faithfulness of a friend to make sure all is well
“And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”

However you want to practice looking for good, start now. Find a way to record it. Doing so makes it more solid, more memorable, more real and fixed.

  • Put it in the form of a poem, like Mike did.
  • Write it down and post it on a mirror, so you can see it.
  • Draw a representation of it in a sketchbook.
  • Keep a journal.
  • Note gratitudes on your calendar, digital or analog.
  • Record it with an app. Heck, create a podcast.
  • Make a construction paper chain with gratitudes on each link. How quickly might it grow as looking for good becomes a habit?
  • Write a weekly blog post about things that make you happy, like another friend of mine does.
  • Tell the person in whom you found the good.
  • Tell others you found good.
  • Post the good stuff on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram.
  • Leave notes for others with real compliments or thank yous.

The list is really endless. Go find the good in people, in your community, in your family and loved ones. Ain’t none of us perfect, but we all are worthy.

Saying Goodbye to a Teacher, Mentor, Friend


I attended a memorial service yesterday for a friend who demanded that it not be a sad occasion. She told her family she didn’t want a funeral, but a memorial service during which people shared happy thoughts and memories. That’s what she got.

As I sat in the pew – close to the front because I knew she’d disapprove of our sitting in the back – I was suddenly 17, instead of 53. You see, when I was a little kid, church was a special thing, an event reserved for when my folks felt it was time to get back into church, so it was sporadic to say the least. I never felt I belonged in one, particularly.

So this boyfriend I had in high school kept pestering me to go to something called MYF with him. It seemed important, a regular part of his week. It happened on Sunday evenings in his little Methodist church. In fact, the M and the Y and the F stood for Methodist Youth Fellowship. I finally went, and, at first, I felt out of place as I usually did. To tell the truth, I don’t remember much about those first visits or when I tentatively began attending regular church services with the BF and his family, but most of my early memories of attending MYF and church include a lady named Betty.

Betty made everyone feel like they belonged. Betty made everyone feel special. That was her gift. When Betty was the MYF Leader, we always had food to munch on, we always had a lesson that devolved into discussion that may or may not have had to do with the lesson, but Betty recognized the importance of whatever it was we needed to talk about, and she helped us get something from it.

One of my favorite things about having Betty as a youth leader was that at Christmastime, her gift to each of us was to let us come into her ceramic shop – she ran classes out of a shop in her big garage – and choose two items to make as gifts to give. We created, we had fun, we ate, we talked and in the end, we gave.

Betty was often in charge of things that involved the children, whether it was the children’s Christmas program, MYF Sunday where we led the service, Sunday school for all ages that weren’t adult, or Vacation Bible School. And she wasn’t a micro-manager at all! She let us imagine and create and do and she supported us in all of it.

During the service this afternoon, someone mentioned that structure was not her thing, and that’s true. The table in her Sunday School classroom was usually strewn with paints, glue, markers, craft sticks, chenille stems and Twizzlers, maybe a package of cookies. But I know that was a plus because she let kids create out of the chaos. Nothing was off limits; no idea was a bad one. The beauty in that was that we all got to work things out for ourselves and learn through experience.

I say we, but later on, I experienced all of this through my sons. Our sons – I married that boyfriend. And his church, if you haven’t figured it out by now, became my church. Our boys were the students in her class, the actors in the play, the responsive readers during service, the ushers during MYF Sunday. At this point, I was appreciating it from a parent’s point of view.

But she didn’t let me stop at being just a parent. Before I knew it, I was helping with Vacation Bible School. Her diabolical plan had worked. A short time later, I was in charge of Vacation Bible School and on a church committee or two, and it was she helping me with whatever I needed from her.

I carried these things I learned from Betty (I don’t know if she ever studied Maslow, but she knew she had to fill a belly before a kid could hear a lesson) into the next stage of my life as a teacher. I know I have to meet basic needs before a student can process what I have to teach. I know I gain trust by looking a child or teen in the eye and listening. I know that if I respect those kids and what they know and have experienced, I will likely be respected back.

As I started the process of college classes as an adult with a family, then as I became a teacher with all the demands of time and energy, I drifted away from attending church; I drifted away from those people who had been our family and support for so long. But I carried the lessons and the love I received with me.

Yesterday I said goodbye to a teacher, a mentor and a friend, and I regret that she may never have known how much I learned from her and how much she meant to me.

This is Where I Leave You, A book review

This is Where I Leave You

I spent the last few evenings and most of today sitting shiva with a family in mourning. I’ve never done this shiva thing before, nor had I been a part of this family before. But after the past few days – about four for me, but the standard seven for the Foxman family – I feel all their losses and yet somehow encouraged to take life on again, with all its twists and ironies and downright injustices. I just finished This is Where I Leave You, by Jonathan Tropper.

Judd Foxman’s marriage is falling apart just as he receives word from his sister that their father is dead. The family is being called together for the funeral and – surprise, surprise – this non-practicing Jewish father decided on his deathbed that he wanted his family to observe the seven-day mourning ritual that consists of sitting in low chairs all day long and having guests call on them to express sympathy. The family will be living together, taking meals together, sitting together, greeting visitors together. For seven days. All together. In one house.

Meet the Foxmans: Judd’s only sister, Wendy, is married, with children. Their older brother Paul is married – to Alice – without children, regrettably. The youngest sibling, in and out of situations the others find preventable, is Phillip, still trying to get his life together. Mother, the newly widowed Hillary Foxman, is somewhat of a celebrity therapist, having written a book of some acclaim on child-rearing. With a professional on child development raising the children, everyone should be strong, settled and emotionally intact, right? Of course not. What kind of novel would it be if we couldn’t all relate to the miscommunications, the bad judgment calls, the words and actions we can’t take back?

Tropper tells his story well. He gets his characters, especially the main ones, into your head realistically. I kept mentally comparing this family and their tribulations to my latest Netflix binge: Parenthood, only this is better. His use of language makes me stop and admire his analogies, his metaphors. They’re not high-brow; they don’t make you feel you need to be preparing for discussion or writing an English essay translating the symbolism, but it’s there, nonetheless, so that you can nod your head knowingly at the little ironies, the little analogies that life presents so truthfully. At least in well-written fiction.

I did what I do when I discover a new writer I like. I checked for more books. And yes, he’s written others, so off I go in search of Everything Changes.

Disclaimer: Until I went searching for an image of the cover to go with the review, I had no idea this novel had been made into a movie. I don’t get out much. I actually had envisioned Jane Fonda as Hillary to some degree in that way that when you read a book the characters can morph a bit but are based on someone you can pull up in your mind’s eye. However, I had Dax Shepard as Judd in my mind, and, as it turns out, he plays Wade. I knew I felt a Parenthood connection. I just connected it wrong. Kinda gotta see the movie now …

It’s been a great four years

A milestone graduation that takes a while to sink in

It wasn’t the first day of school this year when they walked into the newsroom, some of them 3rd hour, some of them 7th hour (some of them multiple times during the day) and declared, “This is my last first day of high school.” That elicited a chuckle, sure, and it signaled things to come.

It wasn’t second semester even when I sometimes noticed scholarship applications were being worked on instead of yearbook spreads and news stories. It wasn’t when that activity gradually transitioned to prom dresses and getting measured for tuxedos. At least they were also covering promposals.

It wasn’t even the day the grad caps and gowns came in and we decided to get a photo of them trying them on to use on a page in the yearbook. Well, OK, the feeling started creeping in then, just a little. These guys are about to graduate.

But really, even this last week, in all its busyness and semi-chaos, it didn’t hit me. Finding out graduation was to be indoors instead of at the stadium because of a soggy football field and impending storms (which never impended) was disappointing, but it still didn’t feel like the end of the year. The on again and off again of “field day” plans, the sadness, in a broken-hearted, last-straw kind of way that they couldn’t wear pins in memory of lost classmates because it would take away from the National Honor Society honor cords – those things still didn’t give me that feeling of finality, that this year was over and this group of kids was moving on.

After all, this is my ninth rodeo. But – and this is a rather big BUT – I’ve had most of these seniors in class for four years. Most of them were enrolled, victims of, my first introduction to journalism class. My prototypes.

When the instructions for indoor graduation were emailed out, I scanned the list. In the previous five or so years, this would be the third time to have it indoors, and I’d had the same post for the last two, guarding a door on the north end of the auditorium so guests didn’t go in or out that way. Easy job, good view, cooler than sitting closely together in the seats. But I wasn’t on the list. With limited seating, you can’t go unless a senior gives you one of his or her coveted five tickets or you have a job. I needed that job.

I emailed the senior sponsor in charge and explained my plight. You see, I AM a senior parent. I have 12 seniors graduating and lots of others I’ve grown very close to. It was a mixup, and another teacher had been put on the list twice. I got my spot back.

But you know, I still didn’t tear up at my kids walking in to Pom and Circumstance, nor when they walked across the stage to receive their empty folder and shake the principal’s hand. It was tough to get through the playing of the commissioned piece in honor of the four students who should have been graduating with them that night, but that’s four other stories, one of which I’ve written about previously.

Even when they tossed their hats in the air, I was only happy for them. Even when searching for them outside, and finding only five of 12 to hug, no tears, no choking up.

No, that started happening this morning, two days later. Grades are in, the yearbook still has to be finished so I’ll still be meeting up with my yearbook seniors, but here on Saturday morning with my coffee, as I scroll lazily through Facebook and see the pictures from Thursday night, I read through the comments. It’s the moms and the way they share each other’s pride in their children’s accomplishments. That’s what sends me over.

I don’t think I have to say anything else.

Alphabetically so you don’t argue about whom I love best, I will miss you tremendously: Tate, Taylor, Tyson, Alexandra, Natascha, Lizzie, Megan, Tommy, Hayden, Haley, Bridget and Hailey. As Tate said, it’s been a great four years.

DigiComm Wrap-up

So many blog posts started taking shape in my mind the past couple months. Lack of time – or mental capacity when I had time – kept me from bringing any to completion. But I still want to share some successes we had this semester in Digital Communications class. Therefore, I’ll share the high points in a few brief summaries as a sort of wrap-up for this sixth semester of a class I kind of made up and got approved. It’s a combination of communication skills and digital skills with a sampling of situations and apps where they intersect.

Apping Manifestos

I explained what a manifesto is and provided examples such as The Declaration of Independence, Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream Speech or Apple’s advertisement, Here’s to the Crazy Ones. We looked at the Holstee Manifesto and the different forms it’s presented in: a poster, a video with animated words and a video with happy people on bicycles. Then I challenged them to write their own manifestos. They could use Pinterest to see some other examples and play around with point of view, parallelism and other such things.

After coming up with their words and sharing through Google Docs for feedback from classmates and myself, they used a presentation app, HaikuDeck being the popular choice, and created a slide presentation for their manifesto. They needed to select photos, from creative commons to go with their words and decide how many lines to go on each slide for the right effect. One young lady used PhotoPeach instead and was able to put music to her presentation.

The fun part (not really, they hate presenting) was presenting to the class. I just asked them to present the slides and tell us a little about why they made the choices they did. This seemed an easy way to introduce presentation skills to a fairly small class so they could do something more complex later.

I was quite impressed with what they came up with and the fact that several seemed to enjoy the project. Now they have another presentation resource in their bag of tricks, a little more practice writing for and presenting to an audience.

Creating with Canva

During a week with lots of interruptions for testing, I chose an easy app to learn that has lots of possibilities for use. It was almost as much fun as coloring. Canva is very user-friendly and allows you to create graphic designs to use as profile or cover images for social media accounts, book or magazine covers, invitations, advertisements, images to use for blogs or Pinterest posts, menus, just all sorts of things you’d need to design an image for. The app has just about any dimensions for any task you can think of. I showed off the new Twitter header image I’d made the night before.

I asked that they play around with it, consider creating a presentation cover slide for their Passion Project or something else specifically for their project or just anything they wanted, but they had to write a blog post telling about it. Easy-breezy and relaxing and low-stress. Perfect for testing season.

Passion Project Presentations

The big finale for the semester is the presentations for the Passion Projects. Each student chose, about five weeks into the semester, a topic he or she was interested in and developed a project. Twenty percent of the week for the remainder of the semester was to be dedicated to researching, learning, creating for the project. It was tough getting them to figure out what they were passionate about and then getting them to think of a project that they’d like to do. No one asks them to do what they’d like to do at school, so it required quite a mind shift. Some good ideas came out of it all, some of which worked and some had to be changed up somewhat. But even that provides experiential learning, which is one of the goals.

Most of the projects were about what I’d expected, since I’d been kind of keeping tabs on each student and their progress, but a couple of them really blew me away. I hadn’t realized how much they’d been working on them outside of class.

Truly, I was proud of all of them, even a couple who didn’t really get presentations ready. For those, I had them go ahead and tell what they could about their projects and then field questions from me. Then the class, who’d already seen the other presentations and had caught on to the pattern of questioning and learning more, began asking questions, too. We were able to demonstrate to those two that even though they hadn’t gotten presentation slides done, they really had done research or work on the topic and had learned something. No one did nothing.

Three explored food, but each in different ways. One researched and experimented with gluten-free baking for health reasons. One explored the artistic side of food preparation and presentations and took photos. Another focused on baking desserts that involved candies. She concluded that baked desserts with additional candy were too sweet.

One student made an interactive book for children; one practiced a particular type of cartooning. One artist was invited to paint a wall mural but upped the ante by learning how to video and edit that video to upload to YouTube. It turned out to be quite impressive. Another learned how to use a DSLR camera and took photos of what he considered to be forgotten places on the outskirts of our city. His mentor was one of our yearbook students. A former classmate of mine who is a published poet was mentor to one of these students who worked on his poetry. His original idea of mixing lines from older poems to form something new turned out to be harder than he’d anticipated, though the idea itself was interesting. However, he did get good advice and feedback and wrote and shared an original poem of his own.

Three students did different versions of creating fantasy teams, one football and two soccer. For these projects, they researched real athletes, either college or professional, and chose from them to create a team, decided on a team name, colors, mascot and more.

One of the surprises was a quiet student who always has nice fingernails. She’d told us she was going to try some different nail techniques, but in her presentation, I first thought she was showing us examples of what she wanted to try. No. These were her own nails. She’d done them so many different ways, and they looked every bit as professional as those you see scrolling through Pinterest. When she detected our interest, she told us more of what she had learned about keeping nails healthy, the pros and cons of what nail salons do.

Another student who had really had a hard time deciding on something to do, but knew he liked sports and he liked games, created a new sports game. He wanted something competitive but that could be played at any age. He combined a couple other familiar sports to create a new one and tweaked the instructions a bit. Though it seemed simple on first description, once again, as we began to ask questions and show some interest, he got more interested in sharing with us. He told us that reading up on rules and figuring out what would work and what wouldn’t for his idea was a bit more complex than he’d figured it would be.

All in all, this was a very successful round of Passion Projects. They all wrote blog posts about the experience. I’ve tried to link a few throughout here. One, who found a mentor to teach her to crochet, told her audience how much she got from being allowed to choose her own project, set up her own goals and then present about it. She said everyone should get to do Passion Projects.

Reflection and Self-Assessment via Google Form

I have shared before that I am not using points or percentages this year. With my principal’s blessing, I am providing feedback instead of grades, hoping students will worry less about “how much is this worth?” and more about learning and gaining skills. There have been ups and downs, but all in all, I’d say it was more positive than not.

The real world still requires grades, however, so for each class (I have five preps) I prepared a Google form that asks specific questions about the work done in that class, how much of it they did, how often they accepted feedback, improved the work and resubmitted, what they got out of lessons, and more. One of the recurring themes in the Digital Communications class was that several got more comfortable with presenting in front of people. They realized they could do it, that they could get out of their comfort zone and be OK. One even specified about learning to look audience members in the eye and not lean on anything.

One of the best things I’ve done all year long, and I wish I’d done it sooner, was having them reflect and assess on a Google form. I’d asked them to write something before, giving them guidelines, but they mostly felt lost and didn’t know what I wanted. The result was a huge variety of responses, very few of which really addressed what I was after at the depth I wanted. They told me they liked the Google form, so it’s here to stay.
In the coming week, we’ll be finishing everything, establishing final grades and celebrating seniors with graduation ceremonies. It will be hard to focus on getting done what really needs to be done, because my mind, for weeks now, has already been looking forward to next year, to things I can do better.