Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Monsters of Humanity

Two hundred adults were challenged yesterday to contribute to removing hate from our society. Author Leslea Newman delivered a moving and simple message: play a small part. But play a part.

Among her suggestions was putting up a sticker in our classrooms.

A specific sticker.

A pink triangle surrounded by a green circle.

Derived from Nazi hatred, the pink triangle was the symbol assigned to homosexuals. The green circle has evolved to add the symbolism of acceptance, and that this space is a safe zone.

That little act announces that we recognize that some young people are struggling with their identities and, at the very least, your space is a space that welcomes everyone and invites the conversation.

We received this message on the coattails of learning about Mathew Shepard, a teen beaten to death in an anti-gay hate crime in 1998. His brain stem was crushed. He was tied to fence and left for dead in the middle of a Wyoming night. Thirty degree temperatures. They took his shoes and the twenty dollars in his wallet.


Our individual acts may not erase hatred, but we might position our classroom environments to promote friendship, open-mindedness, and acceptance.

Twenty years ago, a fourteen year-old boy in one of my classes researched Allen Ginsberg. His choice. Fascinated by hippies and the fifties he read about people called the Beat poets. So, he picked Ginsberg.

Mom took her son to the library.

A few days later I was called to the guidance office because an irate parent strongly objected that her son learned that Ginsberg was gay, and wrote profanity, took nude photographs of himself, and she wanted to know why didn't I stop it.

I reflected then. I asked myself if I should have stopped the fourteen year-old boy from researching a group of poets which he stumbled into because he liked that period of history. I second guessed myself. Should I have stopped him because he might stumble across the gay word?

Of course, it is every parent's right to monitor what their kids read and learn. Alternatives are always available, and in this case a few were offered.

But it was the savage nature of how furious she was with me that startled me.

We were on a conference call and her voice boomed through the speaker, "Why couldn't you have directed him to a more classical poet like Walt Whitman? Where's your sense?"

I didn't have the stones to break the news to her about Whitman. But the guidance counselor did.

I will carry that experience with me because it symbolizes the reality of American public education. 

Objections litter public education almost daily.

I'd like to believe that no one would object if I simply put a sticker up in my classroom. I'd like to believe that no one would object that we have some books in our school or classroom libraries that have LGBT characters in them.

I'd like to believe that a group from Kansas didn't travel to Matthew Shepard's funeral to celebrate his death.

What would it mean if I put up one of those stickers? What would it mean if I bought some of those books for our libraries?

I'd like to believe that it meant that we were embracing our humanity.

And teaching kids to embrace it as well.

And not hate.

Because that hatred.

It breeds monsters.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Summer of 1983

Narrow sidewalks. On one side, two and three story brick row homes. On the other, a row of tightly parked cars. A narrow asphalt street. Another row of parked cars. Sidewalk. Brick row homes.

Overhead of each sidewalk, dozens of telephone and electric wires ran with the flow of the street. Some heaved old sneakers to entangle them in the wires like street ornaments. 

Every twenty yards a wooden telephone pole stood firm in the cement. Rough hewn and mottled with decades of heavy duty staples, they held postings for parish carnivals or candidates names for upcoming elections. When the sun set, their bulbs illuminated with distinctive click and hum. Slowly, the bulb glowed blue and then white.

And then it was night. And the sound of adolescence carried.

Windows and doors were always sealed shut, to keep us out. Basement windows were covered with iron security bars. We could hear a doors slam from over fifty yards away whenever we were loud and laughing and no one, I mean no one, could ever find a place to park in front of their house.

So grumpy working people parked blocks away from their houses and passed us doing nothing.

We did nothing but we were always walking.

From one neighborhood to the next. From one crowd of nothing to another crowd of nothing.

And then we went home. Sleeping past our parents heading to work. By late morning, we were out again. Never calling each other. 

Just walking, knocking on doors, or standing outside someone's house and yelling their name. And we did it in pairs and threes and continued all day until all of our boys were there and we could do nothing again together.

On hot days, we draped our t-shirts over our shoulders. We were bare chested, tan, and young. White socks pulled up to our knees, sometimes bulging with a pack of cigarettes.

You could hear the voices of parents and grandparents screaming from one end of the block to another--calling their children home to eat lunch or dinner. After eating, adults sat outside on the front step, sometimes in aluminum folding chairs--the kind with the crosshatched straps for a seat and back support.

Early mornings, cars vanished and long berths of empty spaces appeared. By late afternoon, many cars returned and parked. Sometimes people held empty spaces by placing folding chairs in them. This was frowned upon though. At night, cars circled the block. Again and again. Until an empty space opened. Somewhere. While we just watched, doing nothing.

We had no grass. Just cement, asphalt, and broken glass. 

We horsed around in the morning, in the afternoon, in the night. We shoved each other and punched each other. Sometimes we fought, but it never lingered past the black eye or swollen lip. When we fell, we didn't scuff our knees. We tore them open. Seeping circles of red staring out at everyone. Flabby pale skin dangling. Crusted with grime.

We walked to water ice stands squeezed waxy paper cups until the slushy ice plopped into our mouths, our heads tilted back. We ordered lemon every time because it had real chunks of lemon in it. And it didn't stain your lips.

We lit firecrackers. And used stolen wrenches to open fire hydrants--the water gushing and flooding intersections so kids could run and splash until eggshell blue police cars pulled up and waited until we ran away. And then the officers would close the hydrant. Never chasing us.

We played catch in narrow spaces. 

Photograph: Bruce Davidson
We ran to catch footballs when the traffic ebbed. We juked our friends and reached out between parked cars for imaginary touchdowns. We swung broom sticks with cigarettes behind our ears as bats and hit hollow rubber balls, split in half, against our row homes. Sometimes the hollow half of a ball plunked harmlessly against a plate glass window. Sometimes it struck aluminum awnings with such a crash that old ladies shooed us away from cracked open screen doors.

They glared spells at us until we moved down to another small space between parked cars to play.

We tried nailing milk crates into telephone poles so that we could play basketball. It lasted a shot or two, as the first miss caused the plastic crate to clatter from the pole. The lone nail ping-ping-pinging from cement to asphalt.

We played a version of freeze tag with a belt. One kid hid the belt while others searched for it by responding to clues of "hot" or "cold" from the one who hid it. Popular places to hide were the insides of the fenders of parked cars or draped atop a tire.

Once a belt was found, the kid brandishing it would sprint for the closest kids and beat them senseless with the belt. We sadistically relished the belts with fat, silver buckles. It was such a dare because if you were caught, the brutal beating continued until everyone, screaming and shrieking, could reach home base safely--usually the front step of a specific house. The only rule was you couldn't hit in the face. Otherwise, it was completely barbaric. We wore the red stripes across our forearms, neck, and across the backs of our bare thighs. We'd peel our shirts up to show off the throbbing stripes across our stomaches.

When the day was long and we were walked and played out, we sat on steps of silent houses of strangers, or stood on corners, or leaned against metal posts and parked cars. And talked. Told jokes about the other guy's mother. Chipped dollars into a pile for quarts of beer. Planned for the next day. 

And never our futures.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Directions to their world

How recently have you looked at the directions of a video game?

I mean really looked at them. Break them down. What is taught, demonstrated, mentored. Where is the step by step process I am used to from childhood?

Very little game instruction is in the booklet. I find myself still reaching for the booklet and then dealing with my confusion because the booklets are useless.

They don't tell you how to play the game. They show you all of the possibilities that could happen if you tap-tap the controller correctly. But have you seen the spread of buttons on a controller?

Who has fingers for all of this?

And I'm still working on my Rubik's Cube, by the way.

Growing up, I was taught to read the instructions because they told you the process of playing a game. All games had them. Everything had them.

Today, however, kids don't need to read the booklet that comes with the game.

Games engage kids immediately. Playing the game is how they learn how it is played. Some games set up tutorials, or practice runs. You get a chance to run the character around the game world and the game will pause and instructions with appear, glowing, with tips and arrows pointing out what to do next.

It is an efficient way to teach. It breaks a complex task down into parts. I learned to coach that way: part, part, whole.

Think out how complex a handheld controller is. We used to talk about hand-eye coordination back in the 80s, but the coordination happening today is on another level. Kids are learning a complex set of directions on top of having to manipulate a complex series of buttons. Imagine the processing happening inside their heads. Just look at kids when they play the games. None are dropping the controller, shaking their heads exasperated, looking back at the adults for help.

The kids never exclaim, "Who the hell created this game? I can't figure it out!"

It is the adults who say that.

And back in school, we have discussions about how kids can't or won't read directions. It blows my mind that this is true. Kids struggle reading the directions on our assignments or tests--they miss major components all the time. They even miss it when I say it and point it out in the text on the printed page. They even miss them when the directions/expectations are the same over and over again. That is crazy. As adults, we can't figure out a video game controller or stay with the ongoing saga of the directions of a video game (while our kids can manage those things) yet, at the same time, kids struggle with a couple of lines of directions on a printed page.

But maybe they aren't struggling.

Maybe they aren't even looking at the directions. Or if they look, maybe something in their brains (that we don't understand) is filtering them out.


maybe we are no longer writing directions that make sense in their world.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

What Is Packed into Twelve or Thirteen

Do we truly know how much homework we give?

When I assign five chapters from a novel, how much work have I assigned? If I estimate by the reading rates of my students, I assigned a wide range of homework expectations. For some kids, my expectation might be like being put through a meat grinder. For others, it might not.
Reading Rate Formula 
Read a text for ten minutes.
Multiply the number of pages read by 6.
Double it.
The total is how many pages that person should be able to read in two hours.
Since reading rates change from student to student and since reading rates are different for every text, do I really know how much homework I've assigned?

Is it fair for me to say I've assigned an average of twenty minutes per night for every kid? Is it a reliable guess-timate?

Yes and no. Kids can read for twenty minutes per night, but they won't reach the same page. And they may not have the same questions, observations, or experiences. This is why assigning a packet of arbitrary questions about a novel compounds the homework question. Similarly, assigning a series of tasks for each chapter read extends the time spent on the task by the students.

How can we say how long reading and responding will take, or reading and note taking?

Furthermore, why do it?

Credit: Andre Netto, Time Series 16
Have you read for twenty minutes recently? As an adult, it isn't an awfully long time. Twenty minutes of reading and I am just getting into a zone of visualizing and absorbing the text--and I can't recall a single novel where I needed to stop every twenty minutes to record my thoughts or notes on conflict. Truthfully, the state of homework today is due to the expectations of standardized testing.

Consider math. Surely reading rate applies to reading math--a very specific skill.

Consider science. Surely reading rate applies to science texts--a very specific skill.

Consider social studies. Surely reading rate applies to these nonfiction texts--a very specific skill.

It just strikes me as really difficult to ascertain how much homework we are assigning as individual teachers, let alone among a group of (disconnected?) teachers across any one student's schedule.

All of our kids leave school with different homework experiences packed into them. There is no other way to see it.

For an added twist, consider what education leader Alfie Kohn writes, "If we're making 12 year-olds, much less five year-olds, do homework, it's either because we're misinformed about what the evidence says or because we think kids ought to have to do homework despite what the evidence says."

So, are we disconnected from each other AND disconnected from the research?

Would you be surprised to that researcher Adam Maltese, using data from the National Education Longitudinal Study and the Education Longitudinal Study found "no substantive difference in grades between students who complete homework and those who do not."

Maybe we ought to be looking at the research.

Whether we believe middle school kids need homework and can just be whiners, or they procrastinate and create their own problems, or sincerely work on schedule and handle it beautifully, I am beginning to doubt--or at the very least question--that middle school kids take home the same amounts work per night.

And "taking home" has nothing to do with what is packed in their backpacks, but what is packed into being twelve and thirteen.

How much homework are we assigning to middle school kids?

Maybe we ought to be talking about it.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Stories Like Mine

Our middle school held its talent show last night and I missed it.

When I was in 7th grade, I participated in the talent show as the fictional Father Guido Sarducci, the the chain-smoking, comic priest created by comedian Don Novello, who I came to know through Saturday Night Live. He became an obsession for me. Staying up late to watch SNL on the little black and white television in my room led me to his stand-up album. 

Obsessed with him, I played the album over and over and over until I knew every line.

“We got-a some Italian-a people, they got-a forty, fifty, sixty miracles to their name. They can't-a get in just cause they say there's already too many Italian saints, and this woman, this a-Saint Ann Seton, comes along with-a three lousy miracles. And I understand that-a two of them was-a card tricks.“

After imitating Father Guido Sarducci to my mother during breakfast, lunch, and dinner,  I did it for my friends, and I did it during family gatherings.  I would stand up in front of anyone who would listen, and I would recite the jokes of Father Guido Sarducci.  

We didn't have a school play and I failed miserably at playing the guitar. My closest friends were in a band and had been rehearsing Blue Suede Shoes for the show. I felt left out and grasped for something for me to do too.

My family cobbled together an outfit. An 80 year old cousin made me a black and red satin cape, my mom gathered the black face make-up for a mustache, sunglasses, and Father Guido Sarducci’s hat--the button on the whole ensemble. 

By the spring of 8th grade, which was 1982, the band had broken up but everyone was still friends. The dads of two of our group friends were just as into the idea of everyone doing something as we were. And they reinvented us as the Village People.

One dad, a Philly policeman, and the other, an auto mechanic, choreographed a group of 14 year-old boys to lip sync YMCA. We rehearsed at night and on weekends. The dads rotated a couple of us as the lead since the kid they cast at the policeman was pretty shy and stiff and wanted nothing to do with the front. So I went up front.

I barely remember the performances, but I do remember that I tried something and that we just had fun. In retrospect, those two dads were pretty good guys for spending that kind of time with us.

It makes me wonder--how many kids last night were just giving it a whirl? how many kids were just having fun? how many kids went home relieved and inspired by the experience? how many left, having not performed, swearing to themselves that they will next time?

And how many have stories like mine--where a couple of dads rally around a bunch of boys after working all day, or where extended family (cousin, aunt, mom) pools their resources together so their son and nephew can have a costume so that he can take a shot and have some fun?

Friday, March 21, 2014

Why does he want to lick him?

Image credit: Retronaut
Found myself next to an old-timer today. Skinny, grey, gaunt face. He still had a clear, resonant tone to his voice and sat with pointy elbows on the bar, and hunched shoulders over his beer like the wings of vulture.

He caught my attention when he announced aloud to no one specific, "One of the demarcations of old age: I heard Stairway to Heaven today in an elevator."

Not long after, and I have no idea how he got to this point, he said, "They still made snuff when I was a kid. I remember it. You could buy it.  Been years since you could buy it. Bahhh, somebody probably sued."

I'll draw the curtain on that scene. I included it because mentioning snuff helps us date the man.

The vocabulary of seniors catches my ear. Both the charm of a sometimes antiquated word choice, and the clarity of word choice, emerges only from people who lived through many decades.

And people who read.

Armed only with their auditory senses, readers can spot other readers. Vocabulary is certainly one clue. Enunciation is another. And this guy had both--the age of experience and the time put in over great books.

This week, some of my students started The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and some are stumbling through the language, most often asking with complete sincerity, "What does 'licked' mean?" or "Why does he want to lick him?"

In the novel, Tom finds himself in a scrape with another boy:
Tom drew a line in the dust with his big toe, and said: 
"I dare you to step over that, and I'll lick you till you can't stand up. Anybody that'll take a dare will steal sheep."
So many wonderful terms emerge in Twain's text. Of course "steal sheep" from above, but students asked about "clod" and "cuffed" and so many words that it gave me pause between classes. My gosh, there are so many great words in Tom Sawyer (like sagacity, adamantine, skylarking, alacrity, and evanescent (to name a few)) that we will cover but where do I end it?

I despise the idea of stopping and starting a story to write answers to questions or to write definitions to words. I refuse to give my kids a thick study guide so that can answer arbitrary questions. I try to distance myself from any lessons that might drive them to hate an experience which is already challenging.

And, quite honestly, I hope to teach them to love reading and the skills of great readers. What do great readers do when they encounter language or situations that they don't know? Look for context clues? Sure. Open a dictionary? Yes. Talk with others about it, or ask? For sure.

Stop reading at the end of the chapter and write notes and summarize and extract important quotes and start reading again only to stop at the end of the chapter to write notes and summarize...start, stop, start, stop. (No.)

Maybe that works for some, but...

I read someplace, imagine being asked to stop skiing to reflect on it after every five feet downhill.

The answer, of course, is balance. Finding the time to build mini-lessons that frames some of the vocabulary, or the themes, or the setting, or any issue the kids wish to discuss.

It is so important to take care to not drive kids away from reading because it is, hands down, the greatest builder of vocabulary, imagination, writing skills, knowledge, values, sense of self, and reasoning.

As a matter of fact, someday, these kids are going to be the old-timer sitting in a bar next to some (not-so-young anymore) hot shot and they will be talking about hearing Justin Timberlake in an elevator.

And when that happens, I hope they have read enough good books to develop the vocabulary to tell colorful stories that inspire that hot-shot sitting next to him to write about it in his blog.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Kids are Alright

A couple of 8th graders have been voluntarily helping me throughout the year. Some ask if there is anything they can do for me at the end of the day, and some help me put away the iPads and Chromebooks, while others collect all of the name cards I lay out whenever I assign seating.

And in the crazy way that life works, these acts have begun to trigger associations within me. Whenever one of these kids offers their help I remember something a little bit different...

I remember when several teachers would help me paint the set for the middle school play. It would be on weekends and very early in the morning.

I remember when I was in the hospital for a minor surgery and a friend cleaned my house, did my laundry, and stocked my cabinets with food.

I remember when friends helped put my house back together after a rather destructive burglary several years ago.

I remember a neighbor who volunteered to chop up a tree with me that was struck by lightning.

I remember when a dozen high school students would come back to help direct the middle school play, and it allowed us to keep everyone and hold rehearsals everyday. Over a 100 kids rotating in groups of ten through various acting stations: breathing exercises, improv and clown, dance, scene study, etc. We did it for three years in a row. It was pretty awesome.

I remember when friends volunteered to take kids to Wyoming with me for Spring Break. We set up a week of study in the theater and dance department at the U as well as various outdoor activities on a ranch: fly fishing, snow shoeing, and horseback riding.

I remember how receptive one of the professors was at Wyoming. I'd emailed dozens of theater and dance programs to see if anyone would be interested in allowing a small group of high school and middle school students survey some of their classes--kids who are interested in the arts. My gosh, I remember everything Leigh, the professor, set up for our kids: dance class, sword fighting class, combat class, acting for television, set design, vocal instruction, among others.That too was awesome.

I remember my parents bailing me out time after time after time.

And no, I don't mean jail.

I remember a friend, John, who has always helped me from the first day I met him at work.

Actually, I can remember family member after family member who helped me in someway...Michael's support during my PBS internship; his parents, my uncle and aunt, allowing me to live with them for a couple of weeks at the beach until I found a place of my own; I remember my Uncle Danny who grabbed a boy by the collar and yanked him off me after he jumped me and made me eat fists as I collapsed into the ground.

With family, it could just go on and on...

But I also remember an 8th grade teacher, Sister St. Christopher, who helped me find my first job at fourteen--a delivery boy for a drug store. (Which is rather incredible when you think about it).

And I remember another teacher, Mr. Smith, helped me avoid failing math (miserably) during my senior year of high school. He gave me a little job keeping statistics for the high school girls' basketball team.

I remember the girls trying to help me with math in Mr. Smith's class, but I don't remember the math at all.

I remember friends, dropping their families, who gave me rides or who rushed over to my house to help hunt for runaway dogs or who unpacked moving vans or who helped me through a tough period with a card, a note, a little hug.

Yeah, I remember all the help I've ever received, at least I like to think I do; and, at the same time, it is nice to be reminded by these kids through their sincere kindness.

Because more than what it reminds me of from my own life, it demonstrates something even more important.

The kids are alright.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Potty Passes

Going back about fifteen years ago, I wrote a pass for a student that said something like "Taylor's pass to wander the wherevers, whenevers, whatevers, and whoevers of the world." It was just a silly pass for no other reason than that kind of behavior sometimes happens when you teach middle school. The kids get in your blood. Part tongue-in-cheek and part Poohean, Taylor took the pass (after we had a good chuckle over it) and went to her locker or visited a teacher or whatever she had to do.

And she came back, by the way. The pass system worked once again. We haven't lost one child yet by writing passes.

Near Taylor's high school graduation, I received a nice card from her, reminding me of that pass written when she was in 8th grade. She kept it.

I got thinking about that pass (and passes in general) today as I wrote pass after pass after pass during our end of the day study hall period.  On a whim, to break up the monotony, a boy asked for a pass for the bathroom, so I wrote "potty" instead of bathroom. He got a big laugh out of it.

I don't know why I did it. Part of it, as I reflect now, is that the pass system fascinates me...and part of it is that I kind of think it is just silly in some situations.

It has been years since I have used a standard pass--a common plastic item, etc. In other words, I don't want that same thing visiting the bathroom 50 times a day.

And I love when I write a paper pass to the bathroom and the kid wants to hand it back to me when he's done.

Would you like to inject me with the plague, too?

Over the years, I've seen teachers use blocks of wood, football helmets, along with any number of odd objects as their hall pass. Some teachers bought plastic, color-coded passes that kids can wear like an ID badge. And by the way, how hygienic is it to send the same pass off to the bathroom a few dozen times a day--anyone disinfecting their bathroom passes out there?

All in the name of student management, I guess.

My fascination is not in the code of ethics or a debate on student safety, but in the trust we all cultivate in something as innocuous as a pass. Somehow that little slip of paper or plastic sleeve serves as an effective dog collar and leash. It's amazing, quite honestly.

Even for something as incredibly necessary as going to the bathroom, kids still raise their hand to ask for permission to the bathroom. I forget what that feels like. I mean, at what point in the process does the inner radar go off? Because you have to account for how long the teacher might take to get to you, and then there is the writing of the pass, and then the walk to the bathroom which could be a bit of a hike.

Look, I get it, I get the whole pass system is the glue keeping the kids from running loose all over the building (again, that is incredible when you sit back and think about it).  But, back to the bathroom, our kids don't ask the waitresses for permission to go to the bathroom at Appleby' a matter of fact, I can't think of any one place on earth where one has to ask permission to go to the bathroom. I'd love to see a world where we could have this unspoken agreement about the potty with teenagers. If you have to go (I know you won't abuse the freedom) just go...well, get up, leave the room, and then find the bathroom, but you get it. You don't have to ask permission or wait for me...I trust you! I get it.  Go! You're coming back, I believe you, I know, because some things even teenagers just don't mess with.

Nature isn't waiting for any of us or our passes.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Writer in Johnny Cash

A passage in Robert Hilburn's biography, Johnny Cash: The Life, illustrates a common view of writing in education. The sense that something is written in one or two sittings or within the confinement of an assignment tagged with the full-disclosure of a rubric.

Associating a written piece with a specific date makes sense only to people who are not writing.

So, it puzzles me that Hilburn would write, "Cash always said he wrote 'Folsom Prison Blues' after seeing [the film 'Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison']. In truth, he would write it long after seeing the film."

Cash was writing that song in his imagination. He was thinking about the film. Maybe he was talking with friends about its impact on him. All of that counts.

Writers keep notebooks and think about ideas throughout the day. Some wake up in the middle of the night to scratch an idea into a notebook. Others jot something down while waiting in the carpool lane as they pick up their children from elementary school. Often, these threads of thought are kneaded within the imagination as much as they are drafted on paper and set aside.

All of those moments are as much a part of writing as is the final draft. Perhaps Hilburn meant Cash would polish his song long after seeing the film--that it took many years of drafting and revision, thinking and exposure to other texts, before he finally felt satisfied with his piece.

Hilburn even notes on the same page (40), "...John jotted down musical ideas in a spiral notebook..." That evidence exists. We also have evidence that Cash thought about songs and ideas for years, using music that he had been exposed to as mentor texts to guide and inspire his writing.

Associating writing with every other subject in school, students tend to think of writing as a one shot deal, an assignment that begins at the rubric and ends at the rubric.  Many of us don't ask students to keep a writer's notebook with the expectation that they could write in and about any class in addition to English.

For instance, given a math concept, students practice with fixed problems until they master it enough to use it in mastering the next concept, and so on. A teacher models the formula, the steps, the pitfalls, and pushes students forward. Find the answer. How did you find the answer? Try it again, etc. Math seems very much centered on one moment of thinking--I have these numbers in this situation--how do I handle them?

What opportunities we miss by not having students write, ask why, or even reflect on themselves in the same notebook that they use in their English class. Too often, students do not see writing in subjects other than English as writing.

They just see it as (sigh) work.

Labs in science seem to relate similarly to math. Learn the concept, examine it--when you know it, explore the next concept.

Again, where is the opportunity to write about what they want? Where are the opportunities to write casually and informally as much as we ask them to write formally? Are those pieces written in the journal they keep for English? Or in a common place for all of their writing and sketching?

Social Studies, like math and science, hones in on a specific, fixed, piece of information. Students might work on connections and dig into cause and effect, but once the conversation ends, it is on to the next decade.

Do students come back to ideas they maybe could have scribbled in their writer's notebook three units ago?

Unfortunately, writing finds itself pulled into the gravitational field of convergent thinking. Students come to think of writing in one, similar way, often asking: what is my topic, how long should it be, and where is my rubric? Writing becomes an assignment with a born on date and expiration date.

They have been trained that there is one way to do it, and that one way will lead me to an A.
And when it is done--when students have satisfied the assignment--it ends and they expect the next assignment to come churning along.

Real world writing doesn't happen that way.

I don't care if you are an author, journalist, musician, research technician, chemist, or detective. Writing is recursive. Writers come back to old notes, scribblings, sketches and writers revise in their brain as much as on paper. We sit at red lights or drive along empty country roads and think about the idea we are trying to frame, solve, or share.

Writing takes place over time, in bits and pieces. All writing is a product of our experiences, no matter how fictional or fantastical, informative or argumentative. All writing in all subjects can be creative because of the decisions we make, and all writing has ephemeral elements to it. Ideas slip from our brain all the time--hence, keeping a journal, coming back to a shaving of a thought or an experience. It is ok to go back to something you thought about three months and tease that thought out.

We don't work on that much in public education. We are very much in the moment, aren't we? Preparing the students to write to the prompt on a test, a prompt they see for the very first time in the heat of the moment. Yes, we teach them to brainstorm and outline and draft and then do their best to write a coherent essay as the minutes trickle away.

But is that writing? Is that what people do once they escape public education? I think people believe that it is writing; otherwise, Hilburn would catch his mistake in suggesting that Cash didn't really write his song in the moment he was moved by a film.

If we want to develop people who write or teachers who engage in writing across the curriculum then we need to help each other rethink what writing is.

It isn't a report. Or a rubric driven assignment. Or something you do while someone holds a stopwatch over your head.

Writing is power. Cash felt moved by that film, and he knew he needed to express himself by writing...but he had to do a hell of a lot of drafting first, and sometimes drafting looks like talking, daydreaming, looks like a lot of things other than writing coherent phrases and clauses on paper. It took him years to do it.

That is real writing.

Over time, writing can show us how our kids are thinking, because students who write clearly, think clearly. But it doesn't happen in one day just because we give an assignment. That is no more likely than Johnny Cash writing "Folsom Prison Blues" on any one day.

The lyrics to that song can show you what Cash had been thinking about for a very long time...not just over a weekend:
When I was just a baby, my Momma told me, Son,
Always be a good boy, don't ever play with guns.
But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.
When I hear that whistle blowing, I hang my head and cry.
As a matter of fact, Cash used one of the great tools of writers, a mentor text. Look at how his lyrics match Crescent City Blues, written by Gordon Jenkins:
When I was just a baby, my Momma told me, Sue,
When you're grown up, I want that you should go and see and do.
But I'm stuck in Crescent City just watching life mosey by
When I hear that whistle blowing, I hang my head and cry.
Imagine being able to talk to the writer in Johnny Cash, and ask him to tell you about where the idea for 'Folsom Prison Blue's came from, and then explain the effect 'Crescent City Blues' had on him, or the film 'Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison'...

Tell me about why it matters to you, John? Dig deeper, why is it important to your reader/listener?

Writing allows our kids to explore topics and formats of interests, it opens the door to mini-conversations with students, and it invites opportunities to share, and grow, and learn.

If we create nothing original, we have little to share that has any meaning to us.

And we know that collaboration and sharing is one of the most powerful tools in helping people learn and improve their work--especially when the teacher writes and shares...and struggles. Because when you struggle, when your writing takes time and is stretched out over days or weeks, you discover that you begin thinking about your writing in your car, or while washing the dishes, or walking the dog. And you understand the struggle of the writer...and the struggle of your students.

When we have those experiences, we learn to understand why computers can't score our writing, and why we can't hand essays to a third-party to assess--especially if that person is not conferencing with the young writers. Scoring writing without conversation misses enormous opportunities for growth because writing should not be about the score.

It should be about taking the time to read it and then talk about it. Hear from the writer. Let the writers talk with each other. And guide them as you listen and share your own work.

And we do have time. You do have time. Actually, we all have the same amount of time in a day.

It is just how you choose to use it.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Veruca Salt: Gatekeeper of Public Education

Inspired by a column by Valerie Strauss in today's Washington Post, Ten Clueless Things People Say to Teachers and Comebacks Teachers Can Throw Back at Them, I posted the following question on my Facebook page:

"In retrospect, was your SAT score the ultimate predictor of your growth, potential and success?"

In terms of full disclosure the sole scientific claim of the SAT is its capacity to predict first year grades. That's it.
Image Credit:

Talk about a focused business model. ETS and the College Board (the overindulged, wealthy, and manipulative gatekeepers of education) wipe their hands clean of anything other than predicting the first year of college success. 

The checks dry up once the initial tests are taken. When there are no more checks to gobble up like golden tickets and chocolate bars, the gatekeepers of education are awfully ambivalent.

Quite honestly, I can't recall my specific SAT score. Mostly, I can't remember it because I can remember wanting to forget it. I remember feeling awful about it. 

That and I'm 45 and it was one score on one test almost 30 years ago.

Claude Steele, professor of social psychology at Stanford University, writes, [the] "SAT is not going to get you very far with predicting who's going to do well in college. And certainly not far with regards to who is going to do well in society or contribute to society. It's just not that good a tool and that's the first thing to realize about it."

Yet, America remains the most hyper-focused nation regarding standardized tests. No other country elevates the value of standardized tests as much as this one--even moving so far as to use standardized scores to measure my growth, potential, and success as a teacher.

We face just how ill education has become--don't teach a lifelong learner. Teach someone just so they can get to a first year of college.

Beyond that, my hands are clean?

This is the system we are embracing.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Teachers Desks: the new dinosaur?

Credit: Edutopia
A colleague and I had a laugh over an image on Edutopia. The article was wonderful--focusing on designing units of instruction. The photograph was a unicorn.

That image is not real. She is a cyborg. A figment of the imagination of undergraduates in education schools.

For starters, she is at ease, focused, and not distracted. No one is clamoring for her attention.

And she has a red pen. Really.

Who uses a red pen anymore?

For a few years, our school has been working under the guidelines that no one sends an all-staff email unless it is approved by the office. This has really helped streamline our inboxes. It also allows me to illustrate the importance of being a connected educator.

Just this week, I received 103 email messages requiring that I know the information and/or reply.
Broken down by day, you can see the heaviest hit of emails came early in the week: Monday, 26; Tuesday:, 25; Wednesday, 17; Thursday, 23; and Friday, 12.

Some weeks it is more, rarely is it less.

Every planning or team period this week was filled with either parent conferences or planning for group activities next week. Additionally, I had three double-sided forms to fill out, with anecdotal evidence, for three students. I had to print and distribute four grade update forms and then turn around and collect them two days later.

We have concussion forms to observe and special education forms to keep updated.

And this was a light week because everyone in education has a form. And they are all necessary. And they all deserve our time and attention.

Everyone and every form is important.

Consider I am still working through a pile a papers, and a pile of tests, and trying to plan well enough to stay one step ahead of my kids and their current projects.

This is by no means a complaint or a woe-is-me moment. It is a decent slice of life of the surface issues of a teacher's week.

Just the surface.

It doesn't account for the dozens of conversations with kids and colleagues. It doesn't address the instantaneous needs of students and colleagues. One can't fully appreciate the moment when an adolescent comes to you about something bothering them unless you've been in the position to drop every expectation and form from everyone around you just so can help that kid in that moment.

Because no matter what, if that kid is coming to you, they need you.

And we handle it. And if we can't, we direct him/her to someone who might be able to. And then we try to pick up the abandoned cords of our day, to pull what is tied on the ends of these loose strands closer to us.

Closer to us so we can manage more than one task at a time--which is the trick in education. How do you manage all of your tasks without keeping people waiting and without insulting someone else who is watching you answer an email in the middle of a meeting?

I cant imagine the world of education where one task at a time dominated the day. I would like to go back to it. It would be great for everyone. But whether I have a device in my possession or not, the reality is my brain is racing to the next meeting, next class, next coverage, the next thing--and how I am going to get it done.

And using our laptops or devices while a meeting is occurring might come across as rude or disrespectful to some. I get it, and we have to pick our spots for sure. But time is an incredibly precious commodity in education, and teachers are becoming more resourceful with it out of necessity.

For me, one of my life lines are handheld devices--iPhone and iPad. And thank God that we use laptops. I can't imagine being anchored to a desk.

Why do we even still have desks anymore? Seriously--aren't they the dinosaurs of education considering how mobile we can become?

Dump the desk. Get up. And embrace the mobile device.

My point is, I can not imagine not having constant access to everything so that I can stay on top of every email, form, request, change... rolling out to us through the day.

The days in education where teachers are sitting along in a room, planning in silence, are over.

The days in education where teachers have blocks of time to spend freely, casually reading emails over a hot cup of tea, are over.

Our devices are our tools. Mine helps me do my job better than if I did not have it. Not to mention that kids need to see adults modeling positive behaviors with devices--and burying it in our desks isn't modeling anything.

I don't know about you, but I am reading, listening, planning, collaborating, and teaching on the fly.  And if I'm not, I'm missing things.

And I'd bet others are too.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Coffee for Tony

Part of my morning routine is grabbing a cup of coffee at Dunkin' Donuts.

Without any warning, a good angel appeared on my shoulder and helped me make a decision. I paid for the cup of coffee of the man in line after me.

Clearly retired, and clearly a regular, he shuffled in with a silent wave to a section of tables where other local, retired men huddled over coffee. Each was, at one time, hale and hard-handed. They wore the clothes of farmers and men who moved earth for decades with their hands and back.

Evidently, these guys receive table side service.

Actually, I can remember being ten years old in 1978 and Dunkin' Donuts having counters and diner-esque waitresses more so than the coffee slingers of our area today. I remember sitting on a shiny, art deco, backless stool while eating a powdered donut over a little plate. 

Fluffy sugar snowing across my shirt and jeans. That still happens to me 35 years later.

When I paid for his coffee, I leaned forward to whisper to the server what I wanted to do, paid, and then hustled out of the store.

The young server walked it over to him and told him, I suppose. Because before I could make my clean Good Samaritan getaway, the old man had pressed himself against the plate glass window and pounded on it with his fists.

He looked like Benjamin Braddock pounding on the glass in the church.

But he was only trying to thank me. I waved to him as I backed out of the space, and I could see him squinting, trying to figure out if he knew me. I drove away, feeling pretty good about myself.

The story gets better, I promise.

The next morning an already paid for coffee is waiting for me. He returned the favor? Yes and no. In only the charming way that age can color our experiences, the Dunkin' Donuts servers shared that he paced back and forth to their counter all morning, confused and irritated, saying, "What the hell is going on? Why the hell did he buy me coffee?" All morning they said he was completely off. Couldn't sit still with his friends. Kept thinking of questions to ask about me: who is he? what's his name? where'd he go?

When they repeatedly explained that all I had intended was performing the idea of a stranger doing a nice thing for another, he said, "Next time he's here, make sure I meet him."

They've forgotten, or have been distracted, or busy, and so, it has taken a few weeks for one of the servers to remember in time to ask me to wait--"Tony comes in the same time every day."

Actually the male server said, "Could you please wait, no matter how long it takes, he's been breaking our balls for weeks now and we keep forgetting."

Sure enough, in walks Tony. Introductions are made. I thank him for the coffee while he is gnawing on his breath, eyeballing me. His eyes, squished closed as if he doesn't trust me or like me, wobble as his imagination combs through his memories--hunting for my face.

And then he says, "Goddamnit, for seventy-six years, strangers are strangers. When they hell did strangers become nice guys? That's why you're all, you're all goddamn strangers for a reason. You're confusing everything. Now, I gotta shake your hand, and you gotta say hello to me when you see me from now on, got it? We're not strangers anymore. We goddamn can't be. I'm too old to be goddamn confused like that in the morning. Now get the hell to, what's your name?"

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Heard of Vaping? You need to.

Using NPR podcasts from Youth Radio as mentor texts, we listened to one today about e-cigarettes and middle school students: Candy Flavors Put Put E-Cigarettes Back on Kids' Menu.

I listened to it for all five of my classes today and broiled worse the more I heard it and then thought about this unconscionable act.

First, you have to know a term. The smoking of an electronic cigarette is called vaping.

The speaker in the podcast explains what kids do, "The kids were smoking an electronic cigarette, sometimes called a vape pen. It's a hand-held, battery-powered device that vaporizes a liquid, which is often infused with nicotine. You inhale the vapor through a mouthpiece, and exhale what looks like smoke, which can smell like candy."

Which can smell like candy.

Yeah. Can't get much more transparent than that.

None of these products are currently regulated by the FDA.

Second, you have to know one of the major players behind this movement. The owner of Tasty Vapor (nice, predatory name), Geoff Braithwaiter, receives my most despicable human being award after stating, "Our target customer base is those people who felt doomed to a life of smoking. But there's going to be that novelty around it, it's a brand new thing, it's an electronic device. That kind of stuff is always going to appeal to kids. It would have appealed to me."

See, Tasty Vapor scents its smoke (which contains nicotine) with flavors and aromas appealing to kids such as gummy bear and cotton candy. While kids can set and adjust the amount of nicotine with the right equipment, Braithwaiter speaks out of both sides of his mouth and suggests his product helps people "doomed to a life of smoking" and casually notes that, sure, kids might find it intriguing too.

While purposely marketing it towards kids who I am sure he hopes become condemned target customers doomed to a life of smoking.

Believing that his product can help addicted adult smokers is one thing, but nothing good comes out of his marketing and preying on adolescents.

Braithwaiter, you are the predatory Joe Camel incarnate. You are targeting kids, kids who don't smoke.

And you are turning them into smokers.

Many of my students claimed not to know much about it; some showed a curiosity. We saw that they are for sale on eBay and various websites. I took a peak at the Instagram hashtag mentioned in the podcast (#vapelife) and saw hundreds of images of young people vaping in addition to images of the paraphernalia.

So, after decades of teaching and coaxing kids off of cigarettes, the world has spawned another unconscionable opportunist.

The best way to fight it, as always, is to educate yourself and educate your kids. Because if you don't explain it to them then they will either make up their own answers or end up duped by predatory companies like Tasty Vapor.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Let them eat cake!

We ate cake (again) today at work.

One of our custodians is retiring and the social committee honored him with a little cake and an acknowledgement from the faculty.

I became fixated on the cake because birthdays, retirement, a baby, all seem to stir up another cake at work. There is always a cake someplace in our building.

A Seinfeld episode once lampooned the 20th century indulgence of cake within the workplace. Two separate men named Walter celebrated a birthday and a retirement on the same day. Before two pieces of cake are piled onto Elaine's paper plate, she bristles, "you know there are 200 people who work in this office. Every day is somebody's special day." In the background, half of colleagues sing "For he's a jolly good fellow" for the retiring Walter at the same time that the other half sing "Happy Birthday to the other Walter."

As it turns out, cake isn't just a product of the glut of modern American.

Cake is old. And so is the ritual of using cake for celebrations.

Geoffrey Chaucer wrote about cake being served at special occasions, and evidence exists that the Egyptians created cake-like treats covered in honey, fruit, and nuts. It seems that we can thank the English for the placement of trinkets and candles and wish-making, and the Romans for unearthing cheese cake.

Some cakes were shaped round on purpose--to honor the moon or the sun. In other cultures, ingredients were so rare that combining them into a cake made celebrating the momentous event even more special.

And, with that, cakes carried a symbolism with them through the ages and that symbolism still stands today. When we share in a piece of cake at work, we're continuing the traditions of symbolically showing someone that they are special and that they mean something to us.

So, the next time...tomorrow?...a cake is paraded out into a faculty meeting, grab a piece! You wouldn't want to upend thousands of years ancient traditions?

Sunday, March 9, 2014

What if students refused to be tested?

What if students refused to be tested?
Like a civil rights sit-in, imagine students politely watching teachers distribute tests in a math class or English class. And then they would quietly refuse to pick up a pencil. The bell would ring and the students would leave. The teacher would collect blank tests.

Then what? How would we assess what they learned? How would we know? Or would we shrug our shoulders and start typing in zeroes into an online grade book?

What if families stopped writing checks to The College Board?
Like a civil rights refusal to ride public transportation, SAT days would eventually be cancelled if no one showed up. Tractor trailers full of blank SAT tests and test preparation materials would gather dust in warehouses.

Is it really as simple as refusing to take tests? And if it were, to what end?
We used to do things differently in America. Women couldn't vote. We segregated our schools as much as we segregated our lunch counters. We used to grow our own food. We used to spend more time together as extended families.

We used to do things differently because that is just what you did.

But change is inevitable and paradigms shift by the momentum of things. And some paradigms are shattered.

Would people really be willing to encourage their children to refuse to take tests?
On a weekly basis, I encounter Tweets or articles about families opting out of standardized testing for their children:

Nothing is perfect yet. There is pushback. Some parents regret their decision. Others do not. But a movement is percolating.

What if the movement was larger?

What would a massive refusal of submitting to any test by students require of us?

  • Would we find another way and mentor children into becoming creators and explorers
  • Would we offer feedback on a child's growth and not rank him against another? 
  • Would we have to become more innovative and hands-on as teachers? 
  • Would we have to better engage in how the world is today and become more digitally literate so young people can become curators in the world that is waiting for them, and not in the world that we passed through?
  • Would we have to get up from behind our desks and engage with kids?
  • Would we have to talk to each other as professionals to share ideas that no longer come in standardized, pre-packaged, workbooks?

Would the whole system have to shift to the degree that higher ed would also have to speak to young people in order to decide if they are admitted to their college?
Initially, admittance to a school like Harvard had nothing to do with test scores. There were no test scores. If your family's financial portfolio could afford a Harvard education, off you went. Soon, professors complained about the writing weaknesses of their students. And so they created their own convenient rubric and set out to judging. The seeds of the standardized testing were planted. That rubric grew into a intelligence test for the military. And that intelligence test morphed in the SAT.

It is the way things are done.

We've seen this theme before, haven't we?

What if there was inspired change that wasn't about lining someone's pockets?

  • What if education in America was really about teaching children to develop a portfolio of skills? 
  • What if through twelve years of education, young people could show you how they have grown because they built things, reflected, owned their mistakes, and learned resiliency, accountability, and the importance of creativity, daydreaming, imagination, asking 'what if' and trying, trying, trying, without fear of the Scarlet Letter of Failure?
  • What if failure wasn't a grade and a judgment, but a natural course of life?
  • What if we taught children how to take their failures and turn them into opportunities?
  • Would what is considered good teaching and a good school district have to be rethought
  • Would colleges have to hire enormous teams of individuals to sit down with thousands of applicants to listen to them tell them about their life?
    • What they have created.
    • What they dream of becoming.
    • What obstacles they have overcome.
  • Would compulsory schooling shift to a system of mentoring young people to become builders, creators, and divergent thinkers? 
  • Would what students are good at and what students love doing finally meet?
Does standardized testing or testing in general really contribute to the problems I imply, or do they interfere with any of my (admittedly) idealized visions of education?

If you support smashing the factory-based, assembly-line paradigm of public education and strive to create a system that encourages divergent thinkers, we would say yes and our kids would hand back blank tests.

Because if no one took them, then what?

Saturday, March 8, 2014

21 Thought Salute to Classroom Libraries

21 thought salute to reading, after finishing the remarkable March: Book One by Congressman John Lewis:

  1. I had never known the history or the person in that book, but reading corrected that
  2. everyday, reading reveals gaps in my education
  3. everyday, reading plugs gaps in my education
  4. graphic novels tell as powerful a story as any genre
  5. sometimes I can't imagine a story told any other way except through the graphic novel
  6. my students haven't been picking up graphic novels anymore than text-only novels
  7. actually, I wish more students would try graphic novels
  8. one way I can assist tis o provide the access and continue to build my classroom library
  9. how would kids come to good books if we didn't provide the access
  10. some schools don't have any libraries--the funding was cut
  11. in most schools, classroom libraries are left to teachers to build--our family funding is cut
  12. often, only English teachers build those libraries or create those book floods
  13. I wish all classrooms provided access to good books
  14. providing access often means spending our personal money
  15. books often disappear from my classroom library
  16. disappearing books are often the most-loved books
  17. disappearing books might mean a kid loved it so much he/she couldn't let it go
  18. disappearing books might mean they lost it, forgot about it, or loaned it to another
  19. I've had several students who shared books they've loved with their parents to read
  20. I will keep building my classroom library with good books 
  21. all of the above will continue

Friday, March 7, 2014

So much more

A piece of writing wriggled under their skin today.

I introduced the podcast, Episode 59 (Harriet Quimby) from The Memory Palace by Nate DiMaio, as a mentor text--this is how you might use narrative to persuade your reader, your listener, of something important.

As the final lines passed, the class was silent as stone:

Let’s just remember. 
Let’s remember the life she led there after as a traveling daredevil. A woman among men becoming the first woman to fly at night, to fly across the English Channel, the first person to fly the length of Mexico City--someone had to be. 
Let’s note her death: just two years later, 1912; a crash; Squantum, Massachusetts. She was flung from the cockpit simply because they hadn’t thought to put seat belts in planes yet. 
Let’s note the fall, and note the fear. 
But let’s remember her flying. 
Let’s just remember her flying.
Projected on the classroom screen, an outline of the podcast served as a visual. It listed the writer's purpose (to convince the reader/listener that taking risks, chasing your passion, makes for a full life) and it revealed a series of details and writer's tools present in the audio text. 

Their eyes followed what their ears absorbed as the writer, speaking in a soothing tone, walked us through the remarkable life of someone none of us had ever heard of, Harriet Quimby.

After the 3 minute and 45 second narrative concluded, I asked my students what they noticed--not so much in the narrative, but in the structure, the bones, of the narrative...and in the construction of the audio text. 

One noticed the power of the music. Another, drew much from the tone of speaker's voice. They noticed the use of repetition--"almost like poetry"--for stress and emphasis. One student shared that they enjoyed podcasts and suggested one to the class.

And as the final seconds of the class period clicked away, I thought that I left them with a good thought for the weekend--consider how you might share one of your drafts. Maybe you would like to follow this format, or maybe you would like to pursue something that sounds more like a reporter, more like an NPR production.

Instead, the bell rang, many wished me a good weekend so many often do, and one left me with a great thought for the weekend.

This one student broke away from the stream leading to the hallway. One student veered towards me and asked if they had to use one of their existing drafts for the podcast, could they write something new, "something deeper, better." 

I said yes, of course. And they continued, cutting off my response.

"After listening to that, some of us were just saying we want to do so much more with our writing."

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Old School, Middle School

Just as it is true of any profession or vocation, you have to work at the kind of teacher you want to be just as you have to work at the kind of person you want to be.

Sometimes we forget. At least I do.

After twenty years in education, I am finding that two of the most valuable commodities in any school building are teachers who are a) receptive to collaboration and b) willing to make the school experience pleasant for kids.

I am so mad at myself for forgetting that sometimes. I have not been that collaborative and willing guy every day of every year.

How lucky I feel to work closely with a few people who are so good at the positive energy and the reminders to do good things for kids! Just this week, I walked into a team meeting and one handed me a postcard and said, "Start off the meeting writing a positive note to a kid and their family." Another conscious effort we made this year...but again, I had forgotten to do one since Christmas. How lucky I am to have colleagues constantly working at raising all of us up too--not just the kids.

It becomes too easy to plug myself in behind my desk and fuss over "my" curriculum--I don't have time to collaborate. Too many papers to grade. Too much to plan.

And it becomes too easy to hide behind the mantras of discipline, accountability, and preparing kids for their future! Hey kids, do that worksheet, write that essay, get it done, get it done, get it done--I'm only preparing you for next year.

When I look back at myself in that chosen role, I ask myself, could I have been a student in my class? Can't I choose to be another way in the classroom?

I had gotten away from planning for enjoyment, planning for the kids' enjoyment, planning for aspects of a young person's development other than what their SAT scores might be in three or four years.

I had gotten away from making the conscious effort to be a mentor and not a judge. I think I have that one corrected...or at least better in recent years.

I am relearning that if we, the educators, do not take a step back and plan for the whole child, we end up being contributors to a lot of stress, anxiety, and out-of-joint relationships.

Well, the team of teachers I work with took an hour and planned today for a fun St. Patrick's Day:

  1. We agreed to dress the part (green hats, shamrocks, etc.)
  2. We agreed to create an ongoing challenge for the kids (count the shamrocks you find throughout your day; keep your eyes opened for gold chocolate coins throughout your classrooms, etc.)
  3. Each classroom teacher will build in a little St. Patrick's Day activity into whatever it is they would be doing in class anyway. Maybe the word problems are leprechaun-themed, maybe the poem I open class with is by an Irish poet...something...)
  4. Our culminating activity at the end of the day is to gather the kids by homerooms in the gym. Once there, the homerooms will participate in two activities:
    • a relay race running spoonfuls of the cereal across the gym and fill up the container
    • put together a puzzle of their homeroom teacher dressed as a leprechaun
We used an app called "Leprechaun Me" and transformed ourselves. Then we plugged those pictures into an online program  which turned our faces into puzzle pieces. 

We took screen shots of the puzzle pieces and the plan is to produce them on a large, color printer. Next week, we'll be cutting them out and preparing everything whenever we can steal some time in our work day or at home.

In the end, we know some kids will remember the experience more than the Irish poem I may share in class. When we went to great lengths to create an "Amazing Race" activity before the holidays, kids wrote and told us how much fun they had and how much more they enjoyed it than sitting and watching a movie (which we've done before the holidays or big field trips for years).

A colleague, who has been around much longer than me, pointed out how "old school" that Amazing Race activity was--that that was how much fun middle school used to be, and how much kids crave those kinds of experiences mixed into their educational experience. We used to take the kids camping overnight, and we would transform the middle school into a haunted house. We had sleepovers at the school with movies projected on large screens. 

We used to go way more out of our way to do fun things for kids. 

And I know my colleague loves this upcoming activity--that this is going to be great for so many kids.

But, these types of days and experiences don't just happen. They take a lot of work. And they require two major components which I will repeat: a) teachers who are receptive to (active) collaboration and b) teachers who are willing to make the school experience pleasant for kids. 

We all have it in us.

We just forget sometimes.