Birthday reflections


Happy birthday to me – No. 52, to be precise.

My first gift was an early waking – around 4 a.m., not being very precise. That much more of the day to enjoy, I suppose. At this point, the whole day lies before me with so many options, so much promise.

Will I be productive and do a little cleaning and clearing of clutter, which, in the end will be like an additional gift? Or will I finish my first semester grading and maybe balance the checkbook – pure drudgery on both counts, but a serious load lifted from my shoulders, which also qualifies as a gift given to myself? Or will I be indulgent as I’ve said I’d be and curl up in a blanket, reading all day and maybe take a break to watch a movie? Seems like the thing to do, but probably wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying as the other options. However I spend the bulk of the day, it will end with family preparing dinner for me, always my favorite part.

Having my birthday so near the end of the year is a great set up for reflecting, and a year doesn’t go by that there isn’t a lot worth reflecting on. High points definitely had to do with family.

Family, so much to be thankful for

No. 1 son graduated from college last December and began his teaching career as a long-term substitute in our district’s middle school. Growing up, I never knew I was going to be a teacher (didn’t start this gig until mid-40s), but being a teacher and having my son teach in the same system and hearing such good things about him just makes me so very proud of him. When he got his science certification and got the real job in the fall, it was just validation that he is in the right place.

No. 2 son graduated in May, along with his lovely fiancée. They had both powered through their programs to finish on time and in that last semester had been planning a wedding and applying for grad programs, looking for one school that would be perfect for both their needs – a tough set of criteria for one establishment. Three weeks after graduation they had the best wedding I’ve ever been to, and on their college campus, the place that had been their home for the previous four years. Yeah, maybe I’m partial, but it was wonderful, and we all got married up. And, yes, after some soul searching and serious decision making tactics, they decided on school in south Texas, and though they’ve got a good gig going on there, the distance is a real downer.

Just after the wedding, my husband and I took a vacation. That may seem like a normal thing for most folks, but it isn’t normal for us. Years of three sons in baseball and never feeling like we could afford more than camping out at the lake kept us from real vacations for the most part. The last family vaca we had was in 2001, when we loaded up the Suburban and drove to California to visit family. That was an excellent vacation and lasted us until this year. The hubby and I rented a cabin in Colorado and planned each day as it came. We visited nearby small towns with casinos and little eccentric shops and traveled old mine trails on steep mountains, taking pictures and panning for gold. We drove up Pike’s Peak and picnicked. We hung around the cabin and cooked and read and watched movies. It was delightful, and I want to keep doing the vacation thing. Didn’t realize what I’d been missing.

While No. 3 son didn’t graduate or get married, he has continued to grow in his awesomeness and give us reasons to be proud of him. Though his school is two hours away, he comes home nearly every other week and helps his dad with outside chores like fencing in the property, and he likes cooking for us, too. He is such a caretaker and helpful, hopeful, encouraging person.

I don’t know what I have done to be so blessed times three. I remember many years ago, when we decided we needed to have three kids, telling people that I needed three in case anything went wrong. I’d seen too many instances of kids dying young, getting into trouble with drugs or the law or any number of other problems that descend on families, even when the families are doing all the right things. That’s a pretty morbid method for family planning, but seriously, that’s what I was thinking. And here we are, with three of the best kids in the world. How’d we get so lucky?

To top off this year, that No. 1 son just proposed to his girlfriend (our girlfriend?) of two? three? years. I dunno, she already feels like such a part of the family, we’ve been counting her for a while, and now wedding plans are in the works.

Work at doing something you love, and it will never seem like work – mostly

I can’t post a reflection on the year without talking about my work. My Twitter bio says that I’ve always been a teacher. Forced little brother to play school when we were kids. Taught my sons to be people. Went professional in 2007. All that’s true. Before 2007, I worked at a loan office, at Halliburton (like everyone else in Duncan, and like many, I was laid off), in a dress shop; I worked in a bank, in a middle school as attendance clerk, then I started a home day care business when my kids were small so I could stay home with them. Played a little teacher there, too. When I started feeling a little burnout in that profession, that’s when I decided to go to college. Working on the college newspaper while studying English and journalism, I found that I enjoyed teaching upcoming staff members. That’s really when the idea of teaching professionally first really took hold. After graduation and a nearly one-year stint at the local paper, I got my dream job teaching journalism at my own high school.

Never having had “teaching courses”, I can’t talk curriculum development, test design, or interpreting data to better inform lesson design, but I’m willing to bet that those who fling those and other hoity-toity educational terms of the moment around like they know what they are talking about, seldom look their students in the eye, and rarely pull back from the computer where they are trying to get grades put in, so they can listen to a student talk about parent problems or bully problems or the like. I don’t just teach Google Drive or complete sentences or subject/verb agreement or headline hierarchy, I teach kids how to talk to other people, how to speak up for themselves, how to talk in front of the class, how to respect each other (when sometimes the other person hasn’t deserved it yet). I try to teach them that what they have to offer the world is important and valuable and that learning more is even better – not for the grade (grades are stupid), but for the learning itself. And you know what? They respond to that stuff. I’ve had so many high points in that area. I’ve watched kids this year work on improving their writing BECAUSE I hadn’t put a grade on it yet. I’ve had kids THANK me for making comments on their work so they could improve it. I’ve had great conversations with students in person and on social media, and I love being a part of their lives. I regret when, occasionally, I realize I’ve said the wrong thing or not responded when I probably should have, and I hope I correct those situations as soon as I can, because they count so much sometimes.

The job got a little tougher, and many of my students showed me their devotion toward the end of the semester when it became clear that, no matter how deeply I’d stuck my head in the sand, we were going to have to change classrooms. It’s another complete post (or two) to talk about that classroom and how much it means to me – to us, and how difficult it has been mentally and physically to move, but trust me: It’s been difficult. Several members of yearbook and newspaper staffs, though, have helped with tossing stuff and packing the rest and preparing for the move. And as of yesterday, they have also helped with unpacking and arranging our new space. Some of that help included a grad from 2011. One of my favorite things about my work is that I stay in contact with several newsies and yearbookers long after they have moved on into adulthood, to the degree that they come back to visit and even help me move. And bring me Christmas presents (Thanks, Hayden).

What’s next?

My husband and No. 1 and No. 3 sons have also helped out in my moving process. I love that my family knows how important my work is to me. Balancing family and work has always been a struggle. As I began putting my new, tiny, room together yesterday, I vowed to put photographs of family where I can see them. I feel I need a reminder that I should put my family first more often than I have in the past. I’m not much for New Year’s resolutions, but if there is an area of my life that I’d work to improve on (and, really, there are many), I want to simplify my work life so it’s not so overwhelming, and make family more of a priority.

But first, I really need to unpack some more boxes.

I need to do something to make the new room feel more homey, like the old room was.

Should I repaint that bookshelf before I fill it?

What to toss and what to keep? There isn’t enough room for all of it.

I need to write up a purchase order request for some containers for all this stuff.

Oh, my – I need lesson plans for the first week.

Don’t we have a deadline coming up?

I’ll be home soon, honey. I just need to get these files in some kind of order first.

Are you starting dinner?


Support growing for suspended history teacher

In a little city a few miles north of me, a school district has made moves to embarrass itself.

Those moves are causing trouble for a school employee, a well-loved and respected history teacher doing his job, and by all accounts, doing it well for over 38 years.

Last week the Marlow School District in southwest Oklahoma suspended Steve Alcorn with pay, but without much information. The suspension is regarding a drawing by a former student of a cat and alongside, a Benjamin Franklin quote, “In the dark, all cats are gray,” which, to those who know something of Franklin history, comes from a piece he wrote that refers to choosing a mistress. The fact is, not all of history is nice and neat.

Alcorn was given little information at the time of his suspension, and as time progressed, he has still been given little information. During an interview with a local T.V. station that aired yesterday, Alcorn said he has still not received anything in writing from his employer. At an executive school board meeting last night, the decision was made to have a termination hearing Jan. 20.

Family and friends have started a Facebook page for supporters, and it is filling fast with messages of support from all over, including current friends, current and former students and people who don’t even know Alcorn but have heard the news in their own necks of the woods.

Folks are posting how far Alcorn’s story is traveling, from our own local newspapers and news stations in Chicago, the UK, and even China.

Help us get the word out that this school district is going too far in restricting which parts of history are appropriate for teaching, as well as how loosely the district seems to be following procedures for reprimanding an employee, even if they have a justifiable reason.

Destination: Innovation

Like many of the positive people in my PLN (Personal Learning Network), I am becoming excited about transforming many of my teaching and assessment methods. When I cruise my Twitter feed and click on teachers’ blog posts to read about methods of gaining student engagement, or ways of incorporating technology and choice into lessons, I mentally connect to my own students and curriculum and see that, yes, I can do that, with a few adjustments.

In the last week I read a couple of blog posts from teachers reminiscing about their start in teaching and their journey to this new place where constant innovation is not fixing something that is broken, but constantly learning and improving their system. Why are their systems good? Because they recognize the value of being a constant learner and modeling that for students.

This place of innovation that many teachers have come to, like any destination, is reached from many starting points. Many teachers will be familiar with Garnet Hillman’s description of the beginning teacher, fresh from a school of education, with a well-taught protocol ready to take on her job as outlined in her education classes. And she did so with great success for several years, but felt something missing. That is when she began to innovate.

I, myself, came to my teaching job from a different approach. I am alternatively certified. Having gone to college as an adult (husband, household and three active sons), I earned an English degree with a journalism minor, but not in education. Like many English majors, I wanted to write. But along the way, I got involved in the campus newspaper and as I moved up in rank, found myself teaching new staffers. So it was at the end of my schooling that I decided I wanted to teach, took an introduction class that included 10 hours of observation, and that was all I had in the classroom before I was in one of my own.

When I got my dream job, advising the newspaper and yearbook at my own alma mater, I was ecstatic – and scared to death. The position included teaching English. I was given a copy of freshman English lesson plans, the teacher edition of the texts and an awesome mentor who I abused weekly with questions. I learned about bell ringers from the margins of the teacher text. I loved teaching literature, reading aloud and discussing the stories, but as for the grammar, I had to stay a lesson or two ahead of them. I finally learned what participles were because I had to teach them. I’m not even kidding. I have always felt like an impostor, like I needed to get this gig figured out. Every summer I have tried to reinvent myself as a teacher.

The thing is, most of the advice I see being offered by knowledgeable educators of my PLN, I seem to have stumbled into naturally.

Get to know them. It was on the lesson plans I was given. Write an ‘introduce yourself’ paper. The exercise was about assessing their writing strengths and getting to know them. I was amazed at what these kids would tell me about themselves, about their families. This gave me the insight I needed to help assess skills, to get to know who they were, what they needed.

Let them see you make mistakes. Well, that was easy enough. I made mistakes and couldn’t really hide the fact. They corrected me if I misspelled something on the board. I thanked them. They corrected me if I mispronounced a word in reading aloud or got characters’ names reversed. We laughed it off, and I told them everyone makes mistakes. They became more comfortable in making mistakes.

Model what you want them to do. One of the first things I did was write a grant for a projector I could connect to my laptop. My favorite professor taught us to write news stories by this method, and I found it so helpful. He typed what we offered as he explained what should come next. We watched the process on the screen. When I want them to write something newish, we do it together on the first run as I explain the reasoning and the options.

There were many things I did that did not work well. I blame not having gone through an education program, although most teachers I confess this to tell me you don’t really learn anything there. You learn it by being in the classroom. Chief among those is that all students are different and have to be reached and assessed in different ways. While I knew this in a surface kind of way, the meaning of it is more apparent every year. The early experiences of another teacher in my PLN, Starr Sackstein, rang true for me as well. Students differ, not only within your classroom, but from district to district as well.

When I was young, I begged my brother to play school with me. He would relent for the small price of my playing Army men with him later. To me, playing school was worksheets I made up, my telling him what to do and him doing it. That was my own learning experience, therefore that was how it was done. Sure, as an adult, I knew there was more to it, but even the simple act of creating a test proved to be a bit tricky when students interpreted a question in a way I did not intend or foresee.

I’ve come to almost despise tests, in part because students see them as the end product. I want the learning, the knowledge or the project that demonstrates knowledge to be the end product. There is more excitement, more joy in that, and there should be joy in learning.

The proof of this is seen in comparing my production classes to my English classes.

Production class end product: a newspaper or a yearbook. Joy level: 9 or 10. In an end of year reflection assignment, one staffer told me, “this is the only class I actually do work in.”

English class end product: a semester cumulative final. Joy level: 3 or 4. Most didn’t study, didn’t do all that well. Of two classes, only two or three students took the returned papers and binders home with them. There was nothing to be proud of.

It’s not that I didn’t introduce projects to my English classes – I did. But I need to examine the differences, see what makes one work and the other not so much.

I reflect so much over the summer, some days only over the things that didn’t work, that need fixing. But occasionally, I find myself dwelling on the reason I can’t get grading done right after school: because several students come in to hang out before their rides show up. Or that one student whose mom demanded a note from me that her daughter had caught up on her missing assignments. I wrote the note and added what a fantastic writer she was and how it didn’t take much time at all for her to catch up because she’d been paying such close attention to the novel. The girl gave me a huge hug the next day. There are the students who graduated two, three, even four years ago who still stop by and visit, hit me up on Facebook to share their accomplishments. These accomplishments often have to do with what they learned in my classes. I know I’m getting some things right.

As I work on reinventing myself yet again, I need to keep in mind that I’m not so much fixing something that is broken as I am improving on a good system.

On soapboxes and tirades

One would think I was a soap distributer for all the metaphorical soapboxes I’ve been perched upon this past week.

Most memorable was the one about testing. My pronouncement from it was unexpected and I remember waving my arms quite madly to make the point.

But let me back up a smidge. My intro to journalism classes were learning about writing the staff editorial, so I broke them up into groups about the size of an editorial staff. Their mission was to generate a topic on which they could voice an opinion of the critical, commendatory, persuasive, explanatory, or commemoratory type.

One group chose testing, and they weren’t even referring to standardized testing. They were simply frustrated by the ways in which teachers got them ready for regular tests over units of study. The more they discussed their topic, however, the more I realized they weren’t talking about reviewing for a test the day before; they were talking about learning the material throughout the unit, but they considered it preparation for the test.

I asked them why they thought they were learning that material in the first place.

“So we can pass the test.”

I let my frustration show. Gave ‘em the speech about learning for learning’s sake, learning for knowledge, learning how to learn so you can learn other stuff. They stared wide-eyed. Of course, that could have had to do more with the crazed look in my eye than the novelty of the idea of learning to know something.

I hope I planted a new perspective on that topic.

I finally stepped down from the soapbox, and the bell rang.

In the days since that exchange, I’ve thought about how often I test – not that often. I’ve thought about how I refer to tests. In that intro class, rarely. In my newspaper and yearbook classes, only at midterm, when I’m required to have some sort of final grade, so I usually tie a final grade to a story or project they do for that purpose or one they’ve already done.

In my English classes, it’s a different story, but I’m still not a test-Nazi. I do hear myself saying, “You might jot this down. It could show up on a test.” Of course it will. There will be a unit test. But more and more, I try to make my tests about how to use the knowledge rather than recall the information.

How we teach, how students learn – or don’t, how we assess the whole education system and who does that assessing – it’s a HUGE soapbox of an odd shape, one I’ve been jumping around on a lot lately. I might as well sand it down, make some comfortable spots, throw on some pillows and personalize the darn thing, because I’m going to be spending some time on it.

Combating change; it’s all progress

No apologies for 10 months with no posts. Life happens.

Someone told me this week they liked my writing. Inspiration comes from all over. So here I am again.

Another school year – number 6 for me – is 9 weeks underway, but with so many changes, I feel like a newbie again. Making the change from PASS skills to Common Core Standards and going from block scheduling to 7-period days has had me changing up everything. Plus, I added a class I’ve wanted since my first year – introduction to journalism. Every weekend is built around revamping English lessons to fit CCSS and shorter time periods while adhering to an overall schedule that agrees with what my peers are doing in their English I classes, inventing lessons for the intro class and trying to make sure my newspaper class and yearbook class are getting a chance to get done what they need to in their reduced time periods.

Upon waking on a Saturday or Sunday morning, I immediately begin thinking about what I have to accomplish in order to be prepared on Monday or even feeling guilty if I am behind. BEHIND – on a weekend, which is supposed to be a time of regeneration. There is very little regeneration.

It’s so hard to prioritize when everything seems to be a priority.

But it’s not all bad. The more I get to know this year’s students, the more attached to them I become. I’m learning what works for some and what works for others, when to push, when to leave them be for a bit. I’m beginning to see growth in many of the younger ones, more focus on what they need to be doing.

My intro kids are researching journalists and, for the most part, seem to really be into what they are learning. They share tidbits of what they are learning, from what Ida B. Wells’ childhood was like to “Hemingway was a jerk.” Yes, he had some rather jerkish qualities. It’s stuff they won’t forget. They are in charge of what they are learning. That makes me smile. I’m going to enjoy their presentations. I should find something similar for my English freshmen to do. It’s empowering.

The newspaper and yearbook kids know this empowerment well. It’s sometimes squashed by deadlines and stress, but that comes with the territory. I really love what I do, and every day I think about ways to make it all easier or better.

Just like the kids, I’m a work in progress.

New milestones

That attitude thing worked out well for me. The first week back was a good one in spite of a few things. The news staff is running on its remaining cylinders plus one volunteer this month. I’m seeing some renewed vigor.

My new English class seems to be filled with likable kids. I think we’ll have a good run, and I feel like my performances are good  and well received (who says these are not performances?).

The yearbookers came back knowing they were behind on the first deadline, but had the next one coming up nonetheless. They’re working it, and I’m proud of them.

The really interesting thing this week is a phenomenon similar to what I experienced last year – my fourth year. The students who were freshmen when I began teaching  were seniors last year and I knew they’d be graduating and leaving. I spent a good part of last year living in the moment because I had grown so attached to so many of those kids, and they were going on – without me.

So I should have been prepared for something similar, but it took me a bit by surprise. In the space of a week, I heard from three different former students who were juniors or seniors when I started five years ago. Let’s see . . . that would make them about, yes, grown up now.

They’re getting married.

One posted on facebook that she was engaged. She was a junior when I became adviser in 2007.  She began as a contributing writer, which we really needed because the former adviser of one year had run off most of the staff, and I began with only four members. The next year she joined officially. Her younger brother is our web editor now and a good writer/editor in his own right.

Then, in the mail early in the week, I received a Save the Date card from an ’09 senior who, though she wasn’t on staff, she had been in the very bad previous year, and she came in and helped us out some. She was friends with those still in the newsroom, and what’s more, she and her fiancé know my own sons. Loved the card they had made as well. We’re all baseball fanatics. My boys have always played. My oldest is coaching now, as is this young lady’s beau. They wore MLB jerseys, held bats, and in their gloves were baseballs with the date of their wedding marked on them. Cute idea. The date is etched in my mind.

Both bad and good things come in threes – if you look hard enough. I didn’t have to look hard for this one, though. There was certainly an element of irony. That first year, when I began with a staff of four, we had a most awesome leader. He was the best kind: well-liked, respected, had a sense of humor, could break out in song when necessary (“Renegade,” anyone?), but knew how to get people to work, too. “Think independently, Chris.” Anyway (easy to digress when I think of good times, good kids), this week we’d pulled out some older papers to see how we’d done some things, and the issue with a photo of Jason’s car on the front was sitting on my desk. One of my staffers who knew him recognized the car and a conversation about Jason ensued.  Then I heard my phone. It was a text. From Jason. Who I haven’t heard from in over a year. He wanted my address for a wedding invitation.

My babies are growing up.

Where does the time go?

I added a cup of coffee to my usual singles bag of kettle corn at 4 p.m. today as I dug into a mountain of grammar and spelling worksheets and random makeup work. It helped. I got really focused and managed to not only mark the incorrect reconstructions of inversed subject/predicate sentences, but I took the time to show ‘em how it should have been. Just telling them they got it wrong isn’t enough – at least for the ones who really want to understand. So I feel that the two and a half hours I put into that stack of grading was worthwhile. Of course, I’m not quite caught up, probably because I ‘took the extra time,’ but I did bring it home and have been staring at it as I’ve eaten dinner, browsed Facebook and played some Words With Friends (been beaten with words by friends).
We get a plan period, but it seems to vanish before I can do what I had planned to do every day.
Let’s see … what did I do with it today? My news staff left me with a pile of drafts to read – a good thing, actually, since tomorrow is the actual due date. It’s that many I’ll be ahead of schedule on. So I read those in the silence I finally had once they’d all moved on to second period.
Then, I had to address an issue one of my staffers was having that could reflect badly on that person, the rest of the staff and the paper itself. After speaking with the individual during class, further conferencing was necessary, which took a bit more of my plan period. Then there was the copying and preparing for English class and suddenly my Encore kids had arrived. Each needed something different and needed it first. Also had a couple yearbookers come in to catch up and a couple newsies come in to touch base on some things. I really need to be cloned. In that 25 minutes, I could have been three people and still not satisfied everyone.
I have learned, after four years, to take lunch, no matter what.
When yearbook rolled around, I found myself making promises I had no business making. Knowing full well that I’ll never in this lifetime catch up on grading, I heard myself uttering words that promised I’d have the masterbook ready next week so that they could actually start designing real pages.
What was I thinking, and where will I get the time?