Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Thank You, Tony Hillerman Writers Conference!

     I spent last Friday and Saturday at the Tony Hillerman Writers Conference in Santa Fe. This is the second year I have attended. Since I went last year, my book Angels in MyClassroom: How Second Graders Saved My Life has been published and I’m now learning how to become a marketing maven. I frequently wonder how to balance it all. I could not wait to go back this year to discover what would help me be a better writer and hone the business end of being an author.

      This is a remarkable event. While I am not a mystery or thriller writer like many of the other authors there, I am not the only nonfiction writer either. I learned something of value at each session. I have come to realize that not only Tony Hillerman was a master of his craft but he actively and willingly shared his expertise and his understanding of the profession with new writers. Those qualities are at the core of the conference.

      My favorite event this year was a panel discussion on blogging with award winning author and educator, Dawn Wink, thriller writer Joe Badal (honestly, if you haven’t heard of him, you need to Google him), and Susan Tweit, an award winning blogger. Badal gave us a list of rules on blogging. Some were the light and funny such as “No food” unless you write books about cooking. Some were meatier. “Give an insight of who you are and what you write about.”  Susan Tweit followed him with a photo of food. Then she justified why she breaks most of the rules Joe created. I came away with a new energy to blog. I’m filled with new ideas and a fresh perspective.

      The presenters are available. I shared my photo of my grandson’s Tardis (built by my 
 amazing daughter-in-law) and his Dr. Who costume with a science fiction screenwriter for television shows such as Star Trek. The seasoned professionals talk to new writers. They share tidbits of insight. They also nearly always inquire what you are working on. I had conversations about some of my favorite series with at least two series authors. They recommended books they loved. It reminded me that to be a good writer you also need to be an avid reader.

     The snapshot of this year that I won’t forget sums up the beauty of the conference. I had just arrived early since I was participating in the New Books Breakfast. I was lugging a box of my books. I ran into someone I remembered from last year.

     Johnny: How was your year?

     Me: Phenomenal! How was yours?

     Johnny: Mine was phenomenal, too?

     Me: So what made your year so phenomenal?

     Johnny: My book was number 1 on Amazon on October 27. I also have books coming out next year.

     This was a Put-Down-the-Box-of-Books-and-High-Five moment.

     Johnny Worthen’s Young Adult book Eleanor won much acclaim this year. Like me, this is his first book published. How could we, all of us writers, not cheer him? We joyfully laughed at his “I’m in year three of my ten year plan to be an overnight success?” statement.  That celebration of being a writer, published, unpublished, famous, or beginner, is what makes this conference something deliciously special.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Rahm Before Breakfast

          One of the joys of working on my own is going out to breakfast. About once a week, I take my notebook, the book I’m reading, a pen and my wallet to the restaurant next door to my condo. I’m a regular and most of the wait staff knows me. We’ve even become friends over the last year. It’s like the song from “Cheers.”
          As I walked out my front door this morning and crossed the plaza to the CafĂ© Sel Marie, I had my mind on an article I am writing about neighborhood schools. Chicago serves up beautiful autumn mornings and the presentation today was exceptionally lovely. I decided I would eat on the patio.
          Just I went to walk through the front door, one of the outside patrons stood to talk to a passerby. They stood chatting over the patio fence. This patron was short, skinny, silver-haired and impeccably dressed. My mind was full of a mental checklist of what else I wanted to write in my article. I wasn’t paying attention.
          In my own defense, I’m not functional until I eat breakfast. My husband used to say I have P.B.S.: Pre-breakfast Syndrome. For some people it’s coffee, for me it is food.
          Two of my favorite servers were working the early shift and they started laughing when I came through the door. Allision had my tea ready and told me with she had already put my order in. Kathryn, grinning like a fool, said, “Are you going to sit outside?”
          Allision, with impish glee then asked, “Are you going to talk to Rahm?”
          I looked quickly outside at the man standing at the fence. Egads! It was Rahm Emanuel. Nausea swept over me. I was in psychic-sensory overload. Rahm before breakfast!
          “Where’s he sitting?” I asked. As I went through the door, he had his back towards me. Since I had forsworn my trusty dagger, and since there was a very large, albeit well-dressed in a custom suit, bodyguard standing there, I decided to not stab the mayor in the back. I quietly slipped by to the furthest possible table.
          I was agitated. I so wanted to give him my two cents but my mind simply wouldn’t fire. I loath him but the way to talk to someone like him is to have you head screwed on right and schmoosh (to use the political phrase.) I’m generally a great schmoosher but never – before - food.
           I thought about going and barfing on him. Being barfed on is a form of teacher initiation. You never are really a veteran teacher until you have been sprayed with vomit although boogers sometimes can be used instead. Also, barfing did not really require a mental process which is what I was lacking.
          I tried to write a few notes about my neighborhood school article in my notebook. Suddenly, Rahm shouted, “Great dog!” as a jogger trotted by with a big, furry sheepdog. It was as if he was one of those spoiled little boys who have to make sure everyone notices him. The jogger stopped and told the mayor what a great job he was doing. Barfing might have worked at that very moment. I certainly wasn’t getting much written.
          My food arrived. Allision and Kathryn stopped by to chat, looking very amused by my disgust. Much of that disgust was with me but most of it was with the Chicago Public neighborhood schools-hating twinkie sitting a few tables away. Why wouldn’t my mind work?
          Any student I ever had will tell you that my biggest pet peeve is to be touched while I eat. I’m like a dog. Everyone knows the way to get bitten is to touch a dog while it eats. I’m a well trained dog. I don’t bite but I do growl.
          Food was what I needed. Just as I put a bite of scone in my mouth, Rahm Emanuel, like the polished politician he is, comes sauntering towards me on the way to the bathroom. As he passed my table, he said cheerfully, “How’s it going?” And then he TOUCHED my shoulder and walked away. I was eating and he TOUCHED me.
          I flinched. I nearly spat my food at him. I also nearly choked. I wanted to take a shower. Still there was nothing I could say with a cinnamon-chip scone gagging me. Aaaagggghhhhhh!
          Allision was suddenly behind me. “Breathe,” she whispered. I did. I hadn’t realized I was holding my breath. My blood pressure must have been 2,000,000/6547.
          A minute or two later, the mayor climbed into the back seat of a black minivan. He even popped back out of the vehicle a couple times to smile and wave at people. By the time my mind was awake, he was long gone.
          I am still not sure what I would have said. There is a long list of things. I’m going to write it down and put it in my wallet. That way the next time I encounter Rahm before breakfast, I’ll be prepared.
rahm, education, chicago neighborhood school, chicago public schools, nightmare, cps

Monday, September 2, 2013

Labor Day: Thank You, Molly!

          When I was nine, my dad left his eminently cool job as an investigator of the Lake County, Indiana Prosecutor’s Office. He liked his work which he felt was important. He liked the smart and savvy people he worked with. He was a neatnik and enjoyed wearing a tie everyday. He took pride in his role of justice. He was 34 years old and baby number six was on the way.
          So, off he went to Inland Steel. It was a much longer commute but the pay was twice what he made at the Prosecutor’s Office. He traded his tie for thermal long-underwear. He didn’t complain because his new job was in the mill’s train roundhouse. He thought that was a pretty awesome place to work. He became a union member. He eventually was promoted to a diesel train engineer. He loved it.
          The first ten years at the mill were great. Things eventually became pretty tough, especially in the rail yard. The underlying cause for most of it was due to the failing U.S. steel industry. My dad died at the age of 54. My mom received a small pension and fantastic medical insurance. It didn’t seem to be enough for her, in my opinion.
          I didn’t think much of or about unions for a while. My husband, one of the true original computer geeks, worked for a big bank that gave him an excellent salary and a generous benefits package. Unions didn’t seem relevant to our lives.
          Enter a little bitty woman – and with me being only 4’ 11”, that’s saying a lot. She had a terrible speech impediment where she dropped all her beginning consonants. She walked with a cane due to a failed spinal surgery when she was young and lived with chronic pain. Yet she had more energy and drive than nearly anyone I’ve ever met. That dynamo was Molly Piontowski.
          Molly was born in Russia. She came to the U.S. after fleeing the Russian programs as a little girl. She witnessed her father and brother being killed by the Cossacks as her family hid in the fields. She eventually ended up in California where she became a union organizer.
          I have a picture of Molly hanging on my “rouges’ gallery” bulletin board. She is wearing a “We can do it!” sweatshirt with a drawing of a WWII woman flexing her muscle. In the picture Molly is talking intently to my then ten year old son. It is a priceless image for me. She taught my church community and my family to think about the entitlements given to us simply by birth, race, health, and the hard, driven work of those before us who laid a foundation of safe, warm, and clean workplaces.
          I have clear memory of Molly shaking her cane at us when we let the kids use the disability ramp in the sanctuary as a slide. If it was slippery enough for them to do that then we needed traction strips so it could serve its real purpose! It was not intended to be a cute plaything for privileged children! (Whom she loved very much.) I still smile when I think of this. It was one of many rants by Molly but each one always stopped me in my tracks and made me think about how I lived my life.
          Molly became a dear friend and decidedly one of the most influential people in my life. She died shortly after my husband did, ten years ago. In my last conversation with her after Mark died, she complained that the workers at the nursing home where she lived were grossly underpaid and had terrible hours. She was encouraging them to unionize.  She was still focused on fairness to the very end.
          I try to channel a little bit of Molly when I see injustice. I think of the benefits she and other organizers brought to my life: from my dad’s union job, Mark’s work benefits, to last year’s Chicago Teachers Union strike that took the mayor by such surprise. We need to stand for poor working environments and fair pay. I’d happily pay an extra dollar for a fast food meal if it went into larger paychecks for the employees. Wouldn’t you?         
          I know by Molly’s high standards, I’m not doing enough but her righteous memory keeps me speaking my mind. For that I will forever be thankful.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Joy of Back to School Supplies


          The lines in Target weren’t long yesterday but they were slow. Each queue had at least one shopping cart with thirty spiral notebooks, three packages of pencils, a half dozen packs of notebook paper, a stack of solid colored folders, and boxes of crayons, pens, and markers. I am intimately familiar with these items. They are the tools of my trade.
          Upon the receipt of a credit card, the supplies were loaded into huge plastic bags with a red bull’s eye printed in the center. The children accompanying the shopping carts and lumpy sacks of supplies chattered about going back to school. They were excited and nervous in varying degrees. Some were ready to go back to see their friends. The Hermoine Grangers were ready for the challenge of the next year’s learning. Some didn’t want summer to end. Their mothers, however, all looked ready for summer to end.
          In a few days, those huge awkward bags will be transported to school. I have seen mothers carry babies while pushing a stroller filled with school supplies down the hall toward my classroom.  The bags were dragged up a tall flight of stairs to my room. A big sharpie sat next to the door to mark each sack with the owner’s name and then put in the coat closet to be sorted. In an ideal world, I had a student teacher to begin that process. Most years were ideal, in that regard. The sorting of twenty-some piles of individual materials into some sense of order for storing is rather like dropping huge jars of buttons and dividing them by color, size, and number of holes.
          First, out came the pencil box which was labeled with the owner’s name via permanent marker. Into each box was added one box of crayons. The owner then placed the box into her now no longer empty desk. After that our room became a communist strong hold. The remainder of the supplies was joined with everyone else’s.  Bins were filled with paper towels, Lysol wipes, tissues, and what we in Room 203 called “hanatizer.” Some of these were left out on a set of child height shelves so I would not have to stop what I was doing to get a new box of tissues on a particularly snotty day. This is much better than being interrupted by child holding his hand over his nose telling you the obvious, that he needed a Kleenex. Stat!
          Spiral notebooks and folders were sorted by color and stored on a shelf. Yellow folders then would have “Bingo’s (or fill in any name you like) Parents Folder written across the front. These would have graded work and newsletters sent home each Friday. There were green homework folders. Names were written on Red Reading Notebooks. In February, the pretty pink and purple notebooks brought in each fall by seven year old girls became poetry books for both genders.
          Skinny brushes were pulled out of paint boxes and put on the “free” table set up in the hall for some enterprising individual who would put to a good use what was useless to me. They never stayed on the table more than a day. Later in the year, thick water-loaded brushes would create batik-like crayon resist paintings of whales, desserts, and the solar system.
          A forest’s worth of notebook paper was divided between the Writing Center and a shelf where it was readily accessible to everyone for whatever purpose.  Markers were stored higher and were saved for posters and special projects. I am partial to crayons are they lend themselves to more creativity. In my opinion, markers are on the same level as stick figures. They serve a purpose, they come in handy, but they lack subtlety.
          The good quality pencils were stored in front of the cheap pencils that are sold for one cent as a loss leader in the drug stores. Here’s my rant: Cheap pencils aren’t worth the penny you spend on them! I have wasted hours and hours of my life sharpening those things only to have to throw them away because the leads are not centered and you can’t write with them. Or the lead is so loose, it breaks on the first letter. Or even worse, there are dozens each year without lead at all. They – make - me - NUTS!
          Even the empty sacks were put into a bag o’ bags to be pulled out as an emergency backpack, to carry home the prize winning pumpkin from the Halloween estimation station, or a raincoat for a walk home after school in the pouring rain. They were inevitably used up before the year was half over.
          But before the sacks were stuffed into my closet, they were given a good hard shake to get at what was hiding in the bottom. What poured out with that shake were the hopes, often secret, of each child and their parent for the school year: the wish for a best, best, best friend, hopes for a teacher who really likes you (yes, the parents want the teacher to like them, too), fun, and such exciting things to learn that your eyes bug out just waiting for the lesson.  Sometimes the wishes were just there, unnamed, the desire for something good that causes eager anticipation. The room filled with it as it wrapped itself around everyone there, even the nervous Nelly and shy Stanley. It made us all giddy with anticipation. Ah!

          My wish for you is that your school year be as grand, or better yet, even grander than your dreams.

Friday, August 2, 2013

You Make Me Feel Like Dancing

          I watched a wonderful video by The Killers this morning. It is filled with images of dancers that simply lifted my soul. It reminded me of one of the joys of my second grade classroom -- dancing.
          I never officially taught my students to dance. I had a huge collection of cd’s; classical for math and writing, lullabies for wound up days, The Beatles, Irish music, Raffi's Bananaphone for lunches that included bananas, and good old-fashioned early rock. Music came on while we ate lunch, at parties, cleaned our desks or wrote. My favorite form of evil punishment was during silent lunch. I’d turn off the lights, put on early Beatles music and dance. Usually a student teacher would join in. The students weren’t allowed to talk. Laughter was allowed, though. They settled down from a rowdy morning (hence the silent lunch.) I recharged my batteries. A wonderfully productive afternoon would follow. They never complained about it. Well, a few did because they didn’t get to dance with me.
          A favorite reward picked by the kids for completing a task was having me spin and dip them, which was danced with beaming smiles on the child’s face as well as mine. . We conga-lined around the room during parties. I’ve seen anxious children let go and be free while we took some much need down time. I have a clear image of a group of boys laughing, singing, and dancing to Lolllipop at a Valentines Day celebration. They played that song fourteen times until I dreamt of lollipops in my sleep that night.
          I taught them to do the twist while we scrubbed out our desks before parent conferences. It was a little like Karate Kid methodology and an important task. No one wants their mother to clean out their desk- EVER! “What is in this folder? Yuck! Is this dirty tissue yours? How come all these scraps are in here? What is this moldy thing?” You get the picture. With the accompanying bubble gum music and the twisting motion the task took only a few minutes.
          We didn’t dance all day, every day. There were days were we didn’t dance at all. For the life of me, I don’t know why. And Michelle Rhee, if you think I played too much and my class didn’t learn anything, you need to get your head out of your hiney, shake it around, and live a little. Why do you suppose all those high tech, innovative companies have basketball courts, game rooms, and …. juke boxes?  That is because physical movement encourages thinking! In fact, brain studies show boys need to move to process information. Man, oh man, my boys loved to dance.
          There were guidelines for dancing whether it was for a morning meeting activity or a class party. No jumping on other people. You had to keep your eyes open. You had to have fun. No one could force you to dance. And of course, no making fun but my students didn’t need to be reminded of that rule. I ran a safe classroom where risk taking was encouraged whether it was for reading, doing a report, answering questions, and, most importantly, letting your personality shine out through your actions. Those actions most certainly included dancing.
          One highlight of all my years teaching was at a year-end party. An autistic boy I had was dancing by himself on the rug. He was doing a move he had seen at the talent show that morning. A line of boys had put their hands on top of each other and made waves with their arms. He was standing on the rug with his arms extended mimicking the dance move.  Two girls stood watching him.  Finally, one sidled up and asked, “Hey, can we do that with you?”  He stopped and looked down.  I watched breathlessly.  I realized he was smiling.
          “Yeah!” he said in his raspy voice as he extended his arms.  They lay their hands on his and began to dance together, faces beaming.  I was smiling too, but my eyes had filled with tears.  A school year made successful because he could let someone touch him while he danced. 
          You can’t dance all day in school.  We had much to get done. I firmly believe learning requires hard work but that does not disallow fun. Joyous laughter rang out and was a reward for something accomplished. It is the relief of mastering something difficult. It is the fist pumping “Yes!” of finding a solution. It reflects love, surprise, pride, excitement, and wonder. Happy dances were well received when an onerous job was finished successfully. Why not? Life is too short not to dance.

Here's the link to "All the Thing's That I've Done" by The Killer's. Enjoy!

michelle rhee, dancing with children, dance, second grade, teaching

Saturday, July 27, 2013

July's Purpose

          July stopped me in my tracks. At first, I couldn’t understand it. I had been busy writing, submitting, and planning then, suddenly - POOF!- I didn’t seem able to do another thing. I felt done. That was ridiculous. Of course, I wasn’t done. I may never be completely done. I, however, couldn’t care less about the work that sat in front of me.
          Then it occurred to me. For over a dozen years, I had crashed into July and relaxed. In Chicago, school ends in late June. There was the full speed rush to finish grades and records, and pack your room in the stifling heat. The room had to be in a state that the custodians could empty it easily to redo the floors. If it wasn’t, you were likely to come back to your things jumbled in the middle of the room which meant hours of work and under-the-breath swearing in the stifling heat putting it back together before school started.
          This push towards the finish was after 10 months of working six days a week and, usually, 60 hour weeks. Teaching was intellectually, physically, and emotionally draining for me. Every year, regardless of the group I had just sent to third grade, I was ready for a break.
          So, I steadfastly took July OFF. The only exceptions were for mandated training. I needed that month to refuel, to process those events of the last year, to read novels, and maybe, hopefully, dance. I didn’t do anything “teacher related” until August steamed in. Then I’d start planning for the next year, write curriculum, go to my classroom and start unpacking, changing boards, sort the library, and gear up for my next adventure of second grade.
          This year after not teaching, I was surprised to find myself in July mode. I tried to fight it but it was stronger than my resolve. So, I let it take me outside of my day-to-day routine. I took my mom to lunch, bought a treat at the bakery where my niece works, stopped and visited my sister at work. I travelled to Michigan twice, floating in the armchair on sunny afternoon, or figuring out how to kayak alone in our two man kayak.
          I loaded my car with birthday presents for my beautiful 25 year old Elena, drove six hours, and took a half-hour ferry ride to Washington Island, Wisconsin which is now her home. I slept in an inn overlooking Green Bay. The water there switches from bright blue to teally green to steel gray depending on the light. Huge flocks of pelicans float on the water. The trees are the rustling leaves and deep aromas of birch and cedar. I walked the shore, had cookouts, and ate breakfast each morning in a restaurant.
          While driving to the island dunes with my sister’s family, a passing truck shouted and asked if we were looking for a cow. This caused my brother-in-law to stop and back up to them. The couple in the truck explained that sixteen head of Angus had wandered away. If we saw them we were instructed to “just call it in.” Off the truck wandered to search for the cattle leaving us to wonder who we would call if we spotted a cow at the dunes. My sister, Nora, joked all day about seeing “Cow, cow, moo-cow, cowwy, moo cow.” This chant seems to be destined to be a new family anthem.
          One early morning, I rode the “car wash” ferry to the back to the peninsula with Elena and her boss. A car wash ferry means the waves were so high they splashed over the side of the ferry and drenched the vehicles. The sun was so bright, rainbows played in each wave. We sat huddled in jackets and sunglasses and discussed the Beatles, Searching for Sugarman, and concerts we’ve been to.  Once back on land, we rode down the highway through coastal towns, windows open, singing.  I sat and watched my daughter sell bread and tasty scones, and mini brownie-mocha cheesecakes at the farmers’ market on the peninsula (a.k.a. Door County).
          On the drive back to Chicago stopped for a walk at the Chicago Botanic Gardens. It was 4:30 p.m. and I was avoiding "rush hours," a period much longer than an hour. I was exhausted after nearly six hours on the road, so I wandered from garden to garden finding benches in beautiful gardens to perch on and recharge my body’s batteries. I repeated the process in conifer gardens, formal gardens, and finally a remarkable, enclosed garden filled with chartreuse foliage and eggplant purple flowers.
          A teenage boy in a wheelchair reached out to take my hand as I exited that spirit-lifting enclosure. His face split into a white smile as he introduced himself as Jordan. He shook my hand over and over until his mom reminded him to let go. It made us all laugh in delight. I told him I’d been driving all day and offered him the opportunity to finish the drive for me. He readily accepted but his mother said it was just too scary of a thought. I shrugged and held up my hand for a high five. Jordan shakily smacked my hand and we said our good-byes. I was destined to finish the trip without my driver.
          When I was at home, I did work a couple of days. I revamped my to-do-list, or more officially, my flowchart. I half-heartedly completed a couple of tasks on the list. I had lunches and dinners with friends. Sometimes I had both on the same day. They were full of laughter which was a nourishing as the meal.
          There was a week of family which included a large party, and a night of nine guests, five adults and four kids, sleeping over at my condo. There were two nights where my four year old grandson insisted he sleep with me in my bed. (He takes his half of the bed out of the middle.) He and I explored the Field Museum of Natural History to see dinosaurs with fresh eyes. His souvenir was a dinosaur grabber who munched pretzels into crumbs on the drive back to Iowa. I could only laugh at the ingenuity of it.  What a bad dinosaur!
          I sat on the deck of my son’s home in Small Town, Iowa and ate my breakfast of zucchini bread and a fresh Michigan peach selected by my grandson at my neighborhood farmers’ market. A swallow swooped overhead in a large, lazy C then flapped rapidly behind the honey locusts. Bees and cabbage white butterflies worked the garden of cosmos and zinnias. They were unaware that July is for soul work only. Perhaps for them, it is soul work.
          I’m home now for the last few days of July. My car is full of beach towels to return to Michigan and the dinosaur’s pretzel crumbs. My soul is full of friends and family, newly minted memories and joy. It’s almost August and it’s time to get back to work. I’m ready.

What did you do to rejuvenate yourself this summer?. 

July  summer break, vacation, Washington Island vacation  summer break teaching teacher second gread 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Mr. Emanuel, Please Don't Squeeze Out the Charmin!

          For years, there has been talk of no toilet paper in Chicago Public Schools. It is a reality now. Of all the insulting, inhuman things a teacher can to do to a child is to pass out a piece or two of t.p. as they toddle into the bathroom. This really happens. How embarrassing! I’d rather not go to the bathroom. And frankly, do you know how much toilet paper you need until you are in there sitting on the pot? What about those poor girls on their period? Do they come swinging their tampons and toss them into the trash? Gross, right? I think we should give Rahm his two allocated squares of t.p. in the hall before he goes in the john to take a dump. 
          My heart sang and I shouted a loud "Hoorah!" when I saw the online version of the Tuesday, July 02, 2013, Chicago Sun Times. A picture shows the chair of the Local School Council from the school where I taught for thirteen years talking at a meeting of LSCs from over thirty schools. The LSCs in this group, named Common Sense, are refusing to accept the budgets given to their schools by CPS. Murphy School’s budget went from $5.2 million to $4.4million, a 20% decrease. That is a typical decrease given to many schools. Teaching positions are being cut. Class sizes are increasing. Materials will not be purchased. After school programs and interventions for struggling students will disappear. I will not make crappy comments about the loss of basic supplies such as toilet paper.
          There is a joke that teachers are the only people who steal supplies from home for work. Every trip to the store, I was buying something for the room: staples, nice paper, wires and beads for mothers’ day gifts, stickers, yoga bands for kick bands for my ADHD students, special teaching materials for kids who needed an extra push, and books, books, and more books. Really, the list was endless. Now, what will be added to teachers’ shopping carts? There will be no extras purchased by the schools. Will there even be money for the consumable text books used for math or the materials for the science units? Do they expect teachers to reuse the balloons used in science experiments? “It’s okay, Little Suzy. Seymour didn’t get his slobber on that balloon. No, no. Those are boogers, dear,not slobber.”
          Will there be money for substitute teachers next year? Will classrooms be “covered” by teacher’s aids or the art or gym teacher? In the case of the teacher’s aids, it is not legal. There has been a cut in the money to allow for substitutes. So, the security guard could be covering a classroom. To me, this sounds like a lawsuit waiting to happen. Then, probably, the principal will be blamed, not the administration that made appropriate coverage financially impossible.
          I visited “my” school twice in the last week of the school year. I was stunned at how dejected the teachers were. Every year by June, teachers are exhausted. That’s normal. There’s a lot of work to do and the kids are maniacs. This was more than simply exhausted. This was a sample of “the beatings will continue until morale improves.” A teacher friend told me that she loves her job but hates her employer. Teachers are now being evaluated on how students perform but all the things to help enhance performance, or even teach basics, are being taken away.  It felt like Mudville after Casey struck out.
          Teaching can be a wildly fulfilling job. To see the light bulb flash over a struggling student, hands popcorning around the room in enthusiasm to answer a question, or the need to find harder material for someone who suddenly “gets it” is what gives us joy. We are creative in ways to keep children engaged. We search to find ways to motivate even the most reluctant child. The hours are long, the pay isn’t in line with the amount of education we have, and there are days that are emotionally taxing because we truly care about our kids. Right now, however, we are the moles in the whack-a-mole game.
          DISCLAIMER: This is not meant to be a pity party for teachers. We are a pretty tough bunch and it takes a lot of whacking to get to us. What this is meant to be is a warning to parents. This constant barrage at schools is hurting your children. It diminishes the resources your child needs to become an educated person. It encourages your child’s teacher to teach to a test and not take the time to be the best they can be. In fact, a poor environment for teachers is an even worse environment for children.
          After I got home from visiting school, I talked to a young parent I know. I told him to move out of the city. I said to go to the suburbs, or better yet, leave the abyss of Illinois and go to a state that funds education. I felt tremendously sad to be saying this. People who have known me for years would be stunned to hear me say it. I stunned myself. I chose to raise my kids in Chicago and to send them to a neighborhood school. They received a great education that isn’t possible to achieve in today’s situation. I am proud of having been a public school teacher.  The system, however, is fighting all of us, parent, child, and teacher every step of the way. It is such a shitty experience, in fact, that I will need to take the whole roll of t.p. with me to do my business.
          So, HOORAH for the parents and Local School Councils who are fighting to save their schools. After all, the best way for a child to learn is for teachers and parents to work together. You are showing your child education matters when you are willing to stand up for it. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

          Now, anyone want to go with me to t.p. the mayor’s house?

For a little levity, here are a couple wonderful toilet paper advertisements.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

School's Out!

          “Four more days!”

          Teachers are counting down, too.  Some teachers have had grades done a while ago; especially the benchmark grades when a student’s passing or failing “the test” determines if she goes to the next grade.  The rest of us are scrambling to get everything into the computer. The rooms have to be packed up.  Files on students have to be ready to pass to the next grade’s teachers. 
          The schedules are full of talent shows, field days, and parties.  If you are in an unairconditioned room then your lights are off and you are just trying to stay cool.  Rooms are being cleaned.  Letters are being written by each student to the next year’s unknown teacher. 
          The kids are tightly wound rubber bands just waiting to let loose.  As a teacher, you are trying to ease the tightness or stop it when it starts spinning out of control.  Neither is an easy feat.  I gave a lot of surprise sight word spelling tests or subtraction fact quizzes to stop the spin.  Those artsy-crafty projects requiring costumes, shoe or cereal boxes, family photos, or whatever are to ease the tightness. Distractions work.
          Those crazy kids seem to have forgotten everything you taught them.  They suddenly put the eraser end of pencils into the electric pencil sharpener. They stop putting homework on their desks in the morning.  Normally organized areas turn into piles of paper and pencil shavings. Pencil shavings!? Probably, that is because I still haven’t unplugged the electric sharpener and used a paperclip to get the eraser out of it for the umpteenth time.
          Sometimes, I would have to give in and just try to control the spin. I would put on bubble-gum music and we’d clean our desks, bookshelves, and general classroom stuff. I rarely let my second-graders pack for me for fear that I’d never find things the next fall. The over zealous eight year olds usually got carried away and start throwing things into whichever bin their friend was working at.
          The room alternates from the complete chaos of cleaning, to the passionate creation of a shoebox diorama about a duck’s birthday party or a olive tree in Greece, to the silence of a pop quiz on the phases of the moon.  It’s about keeping everyone engaged and out of trouble.
          Part of the craziness is due to the upcoming freedom of sleeping in and the dream of no structure. Much of it is due to the anxiety of the year ending, leaving a structure a child understands, and the uncertainty of what the next school year will bring. Which friends will be in my class? Who will be my teacher? What about “the test” next year? (A huge concern for the almost third graders in Chicago.) Will I be able to do the work? And the ultimate: Will my teacher like me?
          I would always get a lot of sneaky, looking-over-their-shoulder kind of conversations at this time of year.  “Ms. Meredith, what if I can’t do a math problem on the test? Will I flunk third grade?”  This is usually asked by a smarty pants math whiz.  I try to reassure him by letting him talk to a third grade smarty pants math whiz who has already breezed through the test.
          “Ms. Meredith, what if the work is too hard?” I remind these children that a year ago the work we are doing right now was too hard for them. They will be ready when it is time for them to learn the next thing.
          “Ms. Meredith, will my best friend be in my class?” I’m not really allowed to answer this directly.  So, I tell them I’m not sure yet but they will still have recess together.
          One of my favorites was Clementine who asked, “Ms. Mewedif, who is the weally, weally, weally, weally, weally nicest teacher at Moofy School?”
          I put a stunned look on my face and reply, “Why, me, of course!”
          She put her hands on her hips and studied me for a few long moments.  Then, she shook her head. “No, Ms. Mewedif. Yo the funny one.”
          It worked for me. 
          Each year, I was sad to see my class leave.  I knew I would miss them.            And each year, as we walked out of the school for our final second grade dismissal, I sang, “School’s out. School’s out. Teacher let the monkeys out.”
          Have I mentioned how much I love monkeys?


Monday, June 10, 2013

What Happened to Corduroy?

          “Can I take him to the bathroom and wash his ears?”
          I turned to stare at the practicum student teacher who had just asked the question. Maybe it was my ears that needed to be washed.  “I beg your pardon?”
          “His ears are filthy. Just filthy! Actually, he’s filthy in general, but his ears…” She shuddered.  She was not an early twenties student teacher but a woman in her forties.  She had come to do a short-term teaching practicum in our classroom three weeks before the school year was over.
          “No. You may not wash his ears. That would be embarrassing to him.  His family is quite poor.  I’m not even sure if they have hot water--or water period--in their apartment.”
          Her jaw dropped.  Honestly, where do these people think they’re teaching? Kenilworth?  In fact, while the vast majority of my students were from low income families, they were mostly neat and clean.  Only three types or kids were ever dirty: the “Pigpens,” those children who were magnets for dirt, food, and any other spot-making substance; the poorest of poor; or the neglected.  Unfortunately, the little seven year old with dirty ears was both poor and a dirt magnet. 
          “Oh, that’s why his backpack is broken.  I can bring him a new one.”  She was so very eager, just very eager in the wrong way. 
          “It’s June! Everyone has a broken backpack.  No one’s mom is going to replace it until they go on sale in July. What you can do is help him find a book he can read and work with him.  The books in the blue bin should be at his level.”
          “But what about his ears?” 
          Sheesh!  “Okay.  After lunch, you can tell him he has food on his face, because he will.  You can send him to the bathroom to wash his face.  You can even remind him to use soap. Maybe some will splash into his ears.  Otherwise, forget them.  Don’t look at them.” 
          This boy was a wonderful spirit.  He was always happy and ready to please.  The odds of academic success were stacked against him.  His mom was at home with a newborn baby.  The stepdad had never been very helpful, and he’d left before the baby was born.  There were no books at home.  I’m not sure what they ate at home. Very little, I guessed.  Another teacher told me she had heard there were rats in their apartment.  His mom told me she didn’t want to move because our school was so wonderful with her children.  She was right. We were. 
          Last week, there was a new study released that discussed the direct correlation between poverty and lack of academic success.  It seems so “Well, duh?” to me.  I read several articles about it with interest.  One thing that really caught my eye was a study done in 1966, The Coleman Report, that said one third of academic success were in-school factors.  The remaining influences were family characteristics.  There have been several studies since then, most recently Class and Schools, 2004 which reaffirm the Coleman Report. 
          In my grandiosity, I'd like to think I had more than a 33% impact on a child's academic success.  Regardless, it is apparent what happens at home is very important to a child's learning.
          Hmmm!  All the rhetoric over the last few years has been about teacher performance.  I don’t know about you but it made me feel like Superman with a bunch of kryptonite scattered around the classroom.  I was supposed to be able to do wonderful things and did do many. Somehow, the superhuman part of me just never could override a child’s home life.
          My experience was that kids who had educated and/or involved parents were always among my top students.  There were, of course, exceptions but those were the exception not the rule.
          I think of a beautiful Latina who came to the US during first grade.  She had no school experience before her arrival.  After a few weeks of school, I met with her mother.  I explained my concern about how far behind she was in reading.  Her mother told me, with a very determined look, that she would fix it.  After the meeting, the little girl and her mom walked to the library, got a library card, and checked out a stack of books.  They read them all that night.  Each day, after school, they’d drag their huge bag of books back to the library and check out new ones.  You know where this is going.  Her reading took off and there was no looking back.  Her mom had added hours of reading instruction to the few hours she got in the classroom.
          I also remember another mother, who got the same concerns from me about her daughter. She just shrugged her shoulders and said with finality, “We don’t read much at home.”  Guess the outcome of that one. She made gains but not what I would have liked.
          The kids who do better often have more life experience.  They were often raised in homes where they were read aloud to.  They traveled places.  The had family meals where they discussed life.  All these factors contribute to larger vocabularies.  Vocabulary is a key component to academic success.
          I’m not judging parents.  I’ve had bad parenting moments myself.  I don’t even want to discuss my parenting after my husband died.  Life is not always easy.  Teachers don’t have magic wands to make up for fights at home, loud partying, the death of a loved one, or financial instability.  All these stressors affect children.  Poor diet, anxiety, and lack of sleep affect all of us.  If a child fell asleep at his desk, I let him sleep. Did he learn much? Hardly, but if he was that tired then he wasn’t going to learn anything anyway. You just had to be ready with a tissue to quickly hand him when he woke.  He would need it to wipe away the drool. 
          A friend of mine taught second grade on Chicago’s west side. One day he read Corduroy to his class.  After reading about Corduroy’s lost button, he asked that proverbial higher level thinking question, “What do you think happened next?”  He called on a boy who was excitedly waving his hand. 
          “He was offed!” Certainly, nothing in the book would lead you to believe Corduroy would be murdered.  It seemed logical to a child in a neighborhood where people routinely and randomly die.
          Please, don’t tell me family dynamics and socio-economic factors don’t strongly impact learning.  It is the kryptonite of the classroom.

Here are some articles I found interesting on this topic:
Schools poverty teaching cps Chicago teaching teachers

Thursday, May 30, 2013

What's Rahm with This Picture: 49 Schools?

          I could complain and kvetch all day about Rahm Emanuel.  I try to avoid this as I don’t think it is good for my well-being.  The latest closing of almost 50 schools while making a multi-million dollar deal to build a stadium for DePaul, a private Catholic university, really has me twitching.  (The last I read, it is a $173 million dollars.)  I start ranting then say “Cancel” to myself.  Usually this ends my tirades.  This issue, however, keeps resurfacing in my psyche so maybe if I vent it will become a simmer rather than a full-boil.  
          I studied the list of school closings.  I’m not sure if it is the “official” list or something the Chicago Tribune compiled.  I hope it was the “official” list.  If the Tribune created it, they should be slapped.  It is difficult to follow as both the closing schools and the receiving schools are on it.  In typical CPS fashion, schools are referred to by their last name but listed alphabetically by the first name.  An example I picked randomly is Ignance Paderewski Elementary Learning Academy.  That is how it is listed alphabetically in the “school” column but referred to as Paderewski everywhere else.    
          Question one:  Who the h-e-double hockey sticks taught these people to alphabetize?  Consistency matters!  Any librarian worth her salt would be having a seizure with this list.  I’m having a seizure with this list and I’m not even a librarian. 
          I know nothing about Paderewski school.  I looked it up on the map and I found it on Lawndale and Cermak.  From the list, it is a Level 3 school which is the lowest of three levels.  Paderewski was on probation and about 62% of its children meet or exceed the Illinois Standardized Achievement Test (ISAT) scores.  That is worrisome, of course. 
          So, I dig further.  Almost 80% of the students are African American.  The remainder of children are Hispanic.  93% received free or reduced price lunches.  There are 172 children at this school and there is room, by the idiotic CPS standards of 30 children in a classroom, for 570.  (CPS determines capacity by multiplying the number of classrooms by 30.  This includes Libraries, Special Education classrooms, Art rooms, or anything big enough to be called a classroom as a classroom although it is used for the whole school.)  Even if you say 22 kids in a class, which is what I call “The Lee-Ann Standard,” an amount I believe is reasonable, the school would only be half full.  It must be echoing from the emptiness.  I have to believe the neighborhood has changed tremendously in the last 50 years for it to have become so under populated.
          Questions two and three:  How many of these kids have families who are supportive to their lives?  How many have moved in the last year?  I ask these questions sincerely.  I’m not making assumptions.  I know better.  I do know that some schools have huge turnover.  I do know that an unstable home life affects learning and, consequentially test scores. 
          The list goes on to say the students will be sent to Cardenas and Castellanos schools.  I am mentally slapping the chart maker again while I search for the first names of these schools.  Lazaro Cardenas School, where some of the students are going, is 98% Latino.  The school, by CPS standard is 84% at capacity.  By the Lee-Ann Standard, it is bursting at the seams.  But get this, Cardenas has a Level 1 performance ranking but only 65% meet or exceed the test. 
          Question five:  How can only 65% of your kids be meeting or exceeding the “test” and you have a Level 1 rating?  How does that work?    (I know  those are really two questions but rhetorical questions don’t count.)
          “Castellanos” is Rosario Castellanos Elementary School.  It is at 91% CPS capacity which is way crowded by the Lee-Ann Standard.  Again, it is nearly all Latino students.  Get this though:  64% of its students meet or exceed standards which make it …..get ready for it …. a Level 2 school.  Huh?
          Confused?  Me, too!  I wonder how they figure out the levels.  I looked on the CPS website and was baffled by how it is determined. 
          On a map, these three schools are pretty close together.  That doesn’t mean much in a large city.  Gang lines are gang lines.  After living in Chicago for over 35 years, I have watched neighborhoods become gang war zones.  I suspect, although I’m not positive, this may be a factor with these schools.
          And that is just one of 49 schools being closed.    
          What worries me most is we are cramming the students from Paderewski into schools that are pretty full.  The schools and teachers will be measured by how successful they are at, shall we say, teaching to the test.  So if we go by the new numbers in these schools class size will be about 32 or 33 kids per classroom.
          I have heard from many baby boomers about the size of the classes we had when we were kids.  Yes, they were huge.  My first grade class had 52 kids.  We had three reading groups, the Jesus, the Mary and the Joseph groups.  (That’s a different story.)  I’m not sure how we learned to read.  The goal in those days was for us to finish high school, and maybe go to college if you were so inclined. 
          Today’s teachers have a different world.  We are judged on our students’ AYP, or in non-educator speak, annual yearly progress.  Your students test scores should rise by one grade level each year.  Less actual learning occurs and more teaching to the test takes place.  In fact, one year CPS was saying 34 students in a classroom was okay.  Vent alert:  34 in high school, 34 in fifth grade, 34 in first grade.  First grade! When they are learning to read!  Cancel!
          Children who are suspected of having learning differences have to be elaborately monitored.  One year,  I had twelve, count them, twelve children being monitoring for learning problems.  This means that they were at risk of failing due to the inability to do second grade level work.  Oh, the person who did the monitoring was none other than me, the classroom teacher.  Monitoring requires weekly individual diagnostic testing.  It also meant I had to give them daily small group attention completing scientifically proven activities to increase their learning.  It means making a graph with little dots showing their progress.  What it mostly means is time away from the rest of the class who I have given brief instructions on how to complete valuable and authentic work on their own without my help.  Oops! I’m venting again.  Cancel!
          I loved all my students and wanted everyone to get the help they deserved, but with a group that requires that much over-the-top monitoring, I felt my secure students never got the attention they needed and deserved.  We spend hours documenting learning and behavior issues.  I doubt Sister Hugo, my first grade teacher, ever had to do this for one or two of her 52 students. 
          The point here is:  to be successful in a classroom today takes more than teaching from a text book with children sitting in rows.  It takes creativity, knowledge of your community, and diligence.  There is no way around it.  To make children want to learn, there needs to be more than test practice.  The more children in a classroom, the thinner the teacher’s time is spread.  Three or four children do make a difference.  Maybe 22 children in a class is pie in the sky but as an average class size, I think it makes higher test scores and genuine learning attainable.
          How will the former Paderewski students fare in their new schools?
I wonder where the support structures are for a group of children moving from one learning community into another.  I don’t see these built into this school closings transition.  What is built in is the promise of air conditioning (which I would have happily killed for on a hot June day.)  There is the promise of a plan to help children move across gang dividing lines on the way to school.  There is a promise of iPads for each student.  I wish I felt better about CPS promises. 
          Questions six, seven and eight:  Who supports the child’s well being during this transition?  What supports are the teachers getting to help these children not only academically succeed but help become part of the school community?  What about moving children into a school in another gang’s school?  (Shudder, I can’t even phantom the problems this could cause in a classroom in seventh or eighth grade.)
          I don’t envy the people who had to look at these problems and make decisions about it.  Obviously, some changes needed to be made.  Some of the physical plants of these schools have been neglected for decades and community populations have moved on to new neighborhoods.  Abrupt change to the schools, however, doesn’t seem to be the best route.  A gradual change would have been better in my mind.  Obviously, the city has resources it is spending on DePaul’s stadium. Obviously, the unanimous vote by Rahm’s appointed school board to close 48 schools in one vote was not well researched. Perhaps it was the alphabetizing issue that confused them. 
          Questions nine and ten:  Why did all the closings have to be at once and this year?  Was each school researched by the board half as much as what I did?
          My heart goes out to the teachers, parents and most especially to the children who have to make this move.  The children are the true victims of this.  Change happens in life and not all change is bad.  Change without choice often needs support and I don’t see a promise or even a plan for that.  It seems a change that is doomed to failure.

rahm emanuel school closing c cps