Friday, June 8, 2018

What do you wish?

It's 4:57 pm on the OFFICIAL last day of school.  Today I had the honor of hosting five students -- three of whom graduated on Wednesday, but can't seem to really leave our hallowed halls -- who were invited by the District Office Administration to lead three separate 45 minute Professional Development Sessions for the secondary level teachers in our district.  

Yes, we have administrators who recognize that two days of snow turned our regularly-scheduled PD days into Snow Makeup Days, and added those days to the end of the year, after the caps and gowns were donned, and textbooks were packed away were going to be particularly brutal with a traditional format for In-service Training.   These last two days were the most refreshing and enlightening teacher training experiences -- and every single teacher seemed to echo that thought as they headed into summer at the end of today.   (Don't believe me?  Search #DSDJune78).  (Other sessions included Breakout,Edu, Team Building - with water balloons???, and other experiences that engaged and excited even the most grumpy and critical PD attenders.)

Armed with a single question, and packs of Post it Notes, my team of students went in search of an answer to a single question:

What do you wish teachers knew about you?

They queried junior high and high school students in the last ten days of school.  They the answers, looked for common themes, giggled over answers like "I have six toes," and "No matter what you say, I will always be eating in class," and sobbed over "My father is an alcoholic,"  and "I try harder than it looks like I am."

My role was to sit in the room and be the responsible adult.  (Sometimes this is harder than it looks, especially for me.)

I've been on the teaching end of PD, and it's not easy.  Especially with secondary level teachers, who all have at least six other places where they wish they could be to be doing something of greater importance than the perceived required session.  The teachers were engaged.  They listened intently.  They mind-mapped.  They scrutinized the Post it Notes with great focus, synthesized their learning into great questions, and asked questions of the student panel for the remaining 30 minutes.  Each session contained administrators, both building level and district office level, in addition to the teachers, including the Superintendent in the second session. 

Three of them gave up senior exemption days, when they could have slept in to prepare for this day, and returned, two days after graduation, to present. One gave up his "last day of summer" (keeping in mind that YESTERDAY was his FIRST day of summer), because he's going to be working every single day for the rest of the summer as a Scout Leader in an overnight camp.  

They were compensated in pizza at lunch, and Rita's Water Ice on the way out the door.

I am blessed beyond measure to work with students who are not only passionate about their own learning, but care enough to give of themselves to share their passions with a bunch of teachers who would have been watching the clock and waiting for the end of the day, had they not been so engaging in their thoughts.

I came home to thank you notes from two students - one of whom was part of today's experience.  Indulge me when I share a line from each: 

"I promise to passionately pursue life and share with others selflessly every day."   

"You taught me to find a career that you love, that way work never feels like a job."

Thanks to these kids, and the teaching position I have been gifted, I have the opportunity to fulfill these goals every single day.  I am confident that the three graduates are going off to change the world -- because they've already proven to me that they have the power and strength -- and I am lured back to school in August to work with the remaining two, and many of their classmates.  Because thanks to my district and my students, I don't ever have a JOB.

Happy Rejuvenation, Happy Summer!

Thursday, September 28, 2017

"Synesthesia" and the Gifted -- Exogenous influencing the Endogenous.

Seven years ago, in a conversation with former students who were revisiting “the good old days at Donegal” , one shared an unusual confession.  She had learned absolutely nothing from her 8th Grade Physical Sciences class.  It wasn’t that the class or the teacher was uninteresting.  It wasn’t that she already knew all the material.  Nor was it that she was intentionally lying low to keep from having her intelligence tapped or recognized.  No.  The reason that she felt this mental block which inhibited her learning for an entire year was entirely the VOLUME control on the television in the classroom.  It wasn’t too loud, it wasn’t too soft.  No.  The problem was that the Physical Sciences teacher set the volume control using the remote precisely to the numeral 27 on the neon bar.  TWENTY SEVEN.  An entire year wasted, all because of a seemingly random number on a volume control bar on a television in a science classroom.  Soon, others at the table began to agree.  In fact, in an ongoing conversation on facebook over the summer, nearly eighteen of twenty students interviewed identified a connection between volume settings and comprehension.

I posted this narrative in a long note on Facebook, and heard from many about their particular distractions in the classroom and the world.  Here I am, seven years later, and I spent the day talking about synesthesia, distractions, and learning, with a whole new class of students.
In 2010, I started to wonder why this large population of gifted students possessed this unique form of what I could only identify as some sort of synethesia. (Synesthesia, from the folks that ask questions like "can you taste a rainbow?" is the mixing of two or more senses, involuntarily).  It wasn’t as simple as an aversion to a particular typeface or an association of color with a number or letter.  It seemed to be a seemingly random exogenous influence triggering an intrinsically personal response that generated such emotion as to entirely stifle the learning experience for the day.   These students were all over the age of 18, and they distinctly remember the volume control setting from a class taken more than six to ten years ago.  I inquired further about this frustration. Most of the students have found their own ways to adapt, but it’s taken years to do so.  “ I've tried setting the volume with my eyes closed before. But not knowing at all what number it's on is almost worse than knowing it's not on an increment of 5. I love TVs that don't have numbers on the volume,”  commented one student.  
“The volume HAS to be a multiple of 5. if it's not, i won't be able to concentrate on what's happening, because it'll just bother me too much that the volume isn't right.  When I bought my own tv when I went to college, I chose one with a solid bar and without numbers, “ commented another.
The group generally accepted the minor differences in each other, as if they were all trying to settle on a mutually acceptable number.  Overwhelmingly, multiples of five and even numbers were the most embraced.  Several were willing to accept twelve, even if they were fans of fives.  The most confusing respondent went so far as to suggest that if one were to opt for a digitless volume control, the bar itself would need to be placed in an increment of one third, one half or three quarters to be pleasing and acceptable.
While my observations into this phenomenon are relatively new, and confined to a relatively small study group, those that shared in the discussion seemed to take comfort in the fact that there are others like them, and this apparent OCD tendency is not something shameful.    The most significant part of the entire ordeal for me is that each and every one of these students chose to conceal this condition, rather than attempt to resolve the issue or create an environment more conducive to learning, choosing instead to cover the material in the class independently via study guides and the textbook provided.  Certainly, these students chose to embrace one of the societal expectations for gifted students either perfectionism (which may have been a contributing internal factor) or avoidance of risk-taking.

All these years later, I have no definitive answers, yet I know that synesthesia is real, and much more prevalent in the population of gifted and talented people than the 4% of the population figure identified by the gurus studying and producing data.

If you have nothing to discuss over dinner this weekend, ask your family about colors and numbers, or sounds and seasons, or 3D circular calendars that glow yellow in September.  It sounds whacky and amazing, and I'm just a teeny bit jealous that I don't have this condition in a more prevalent state than when I verbally confirm an 11 am meeting for NOVEMBER -- aka the 11th month.

So, synesthetes, UNITE!  Share your stories, and help those of us who are mere mortals to understand the beauty that is your mis-wired world.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Teachers are People, too!

Picture this:  Fifty Donegalites board a plane in Philadelphia.  The last advice given is to "Get as much sleep on the plane as you possibly can.  Tomorrow is going to be a looooong day!"

We were assigned to board the plane in GROUP 8.  Translate that to be, the plane was already full, the overhead compartments were stuffed, and I was assigned to row 34 of a 36 row plane, two seats, next to the window, greeted me.  Apparently, the tickets were issued in alphabetical order in our group, placing me next to Liam Hershey, with whom until today, I had never had a conversation.  His goal was a window seat, and my goal was to not fall asleep and drool all over his shoulder while rocketing across the Atlantic.  I offered the window seat on my ticket to him, which he readily accepted.  And then I said,

"So, what's your story?"  

It seemed like I should have at least SOME knowledge of this guy before the inevitable snoring slumber commenced.  Suffice it to say that it was a short and awkward conversation, but was enough to break the ice. Ironically, it would be two lonely suitcases that would prove to be our bonding moment.

We sat on the runway for much longer than expected, and noticed two suitcases sitting, unattended, on the tarmac.  We watched as airport employees and various flashing-light-adorned vehicles seemed unconcerned about their presence, while silently wondering whether someone in our group was currently wearing THE single outfit that they'd be wearing for the duration of the trip, sans luggage.

Despite a couple of guys in a white truck, nobody ever moved the luggage and the suitcases were still there, as we taxied out onto the runway.

For the record, Liam and I came full circle, sitting next to each other again on the trip home -- but in middle seats, with no window view.  After fourteen days, we had more in common than we had on the ground in Philadelphia, despite our initial evening together.  And, for all we know, there may still be suitcases sitting on the tarmac in Philadelphia, awaiting final transfer to points unknown.

No phones at dinner!
Fourteen days is a long time.  It is even longer, when trying to make small talk with kids who basically interact with teachers in a fairly structured manner, seeking information to complete a task.  Over fourteen days, teachers depended on students as much as students depended on teachers, as we explored new sights, braided hair, shared personal stories,  commiserated over blisters and lost wallets, and explored Europe with unadorned wonder on all of our faces.  The number of kind offers by students I barely knew to lift my 48 pound suitcase, carry luggage upstairs, and basically checking on my daily well-being are too numerous to mention, yet I hold the kindness of these kids in my heart.

If you are wondering about the future of the world, I am here to attest that there are at least forty four kids ready to change it, for the better.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Planes, Trains...

Heathrow Airport
Planes, trains and automobiles... subways, undergrounds, boats, (including a ferry that rivaled a cruise ship!), moving airport sidewalks,  the London Eye, an occasional slide on the 360 degree wheel rolling luggage, a fleet of taxis in Berlin, and the feet.  (OHHH the feet!) The Donegal Indians' invasion of Europe, through EF Tours, tracing the historical locations of World War II from London to Normandy to Caen  to Paris to Versailles to Bastongne to Malmedy to Berlin to Munich to Salzburg and back to Munich and home was a whirlwind.  We all functioned on very little sleep and very many giggles as we navigated through both the continent and the various modes of transport, with 51 of us in tow.

Some wonder what teachers do with their summers, and teachers get pretty attacked this time of year as they stock up on bonbons and romance novels for the beach of the pool.  (NOT!). I know that 10% of the Donegal High School teachers spent the last two weeks traipsing around Europe, becoming better friends, and connecting with groups of students in a non-traditional setting.  Up to this point in my teaching career, my most adventurous field trips included overnight leadership conferences in State College at the Ramada Inn, and once, in an insane moment, the "Overnight at the Museum" experience in the Franklin Institute, where we slept in the shadow of the giant beating heart.

London Underground
  No professional development can ever prepare one for the challenges of navigating nearly daily reports of terrorism in Europe.  We intentionally tightened up our schedule, and the amount of free time the students had in public places, knowing that westerners -- particularly Americans -- were targets.    Dave sent email updates every night, and the early part of the trip's content seemed to always include "there was an incident in ...., and we're aware of it and fine."   Flexibility proved to be our greatest ally, as our tour guide navigated delays, closed roads - who could have predicted we'd be in Paris the very night they were trying to impress the Olympic Committee in their quest to be awarded the 2024 Olympics?  There was certainly no forecasting that the bus picking us up at the train station in Berlin would go to the wrong station, the driver never answering his cellphone.  Approximately eighteen taxis later, we were all safely at the most beautiful - and largest - hotel in Germany.

It's tough for high school kids to understand the mental exhaustion that comes with no sleep and constantly locating 8 heads in a crowd of 44 that are assigned to the chaperones who are constantly reassuring oneself that all are present, while reminding all of them that they are hyper vulnerable to gypsies, pickpockets, and other unsavory characters.  Within a few days, we'd organically developed hand signals for each of the six groups of seven or eight students assigned to each chaperone, and the kids could sort themselves within seconds.  The kids were troopers -- watching out for each other, protecting their backpacks, and the backs of their fellow travellers.

My friends who know me well are aware of my intense fear of being responsible for tickets to shows, or important paperwork that must be delivered.  I get sidetracked, I put things in those very precious"safe spaces", never to be located again in a timely manner. In addition to the eight students assigned to me on this trip, I was also personally responsible for 9 passports, including my own.  Nerve wracking, to say the least.

Two bus drivers are worthy of mention - Hedo, the amazing dude who drove the bus to our hotel in Paris down the smallest street I have ever seen, necessitating members of our group EXIT the VEHICLE, and move to motorcycles parked on the side of the road in the path of the bus.  It was all for naught, as the end of the road was not conducive to the 13 meter bus's need to turn the corner.  Hedo backed that bus up like the pro that he obviously is!

Dennis having words with the toll machine
Dennis, ah, Dennis.  He loved his pet goose, owns 40 birds that he sleeps with, was born in Turkey but lives in Frankfurt, and has an intense hatred of German veterinarians.   (One, who apparently killed his beloved goose, Martin, was at the top of his list.). He scolded me for killing a bug on the bus.  Apparently I am as guilty as Martin's vet.  He argued with toll machines, as if they could respond, told jokes like a professional comedian, and genuinely seemed to enjoy his job.  (Which was not the case for all of our bus drivers!) 

After receiving doctor's orders to stay out of the sun in Bastogne, Tim and I spent nearly an entire day sitting on the bus with Dennis while the rest of the group toured significant locations of the Battle of the Bulge, listening to his commentary about all that is wrong with Germany - in his humble opinion.  Parents in Germany should spend time with their kids, co-sleep with them, and have more of them.  ("The Germans, they need to do more 'Hee Haw, He Haw,', you know?" he said with an impish grin.  "All de Germans are moving to the U.S. and they will all be gone soon!")  Suffice it to say that Youtube has had a powerful impact on Dennis -- that's where he learned that UFOs are real.  Somewhere, there's a selfie with Tim and Dennis, and I'm certain that we'll never forget his name!

Yes, journeys begin with a single step.  Fortunately for us, we had some trained professionals operating vehicles and making decisions to safely get us to every destination, and home, safely.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Truth, Love, and Honor

"Truth, love, and honor, making our lives complete.."

The Donegal High School Alma Mater echoed, loudly, from inside the yellow school bus as it passed the Milanof Schock Library, less than a mile from the high school.  This busload of girls represented half of the group of 44 students and six adults who had spent the last 14 days chasing the history of World War II through five countries, and was following the "Boys' Bus" to our final destination as a group, where their parents were anxiously awaiting their return.

The fact that these girls -- whose bodies thought it was one in the morning, and had been up since six am, packing and dragging luggage and souvenirs through customs in two international airports -- had the desire, energy, and fortitude to salute the unity of this group as students of Donegal High School serves as a testimony to the entire European tour.  

And made me shed a tear both for having had the privilege to have been part of the adventure, and wishing that I could somehow capture the magic of the last two weeks for all students seeking knowledge.

Our tour guide for all but the last three days, Lisa Richardson, posted on Facebook, reaffirming what I was thinking:

This group was incredible! Never would I have thought that taking a group of American teenagers around Europe would be fun (I always assumed it would be the opposite)! I witnessed with this group something I have never seen before. The child like wonder and un prompted emotion in which these young adults viewed Europe was incomparable to anything else. Parents if you can read this - be very proud! They were the most well mannered and polite group of individuals anyone could of asked for! Dave Dunsavage, Susan Heydt, Gretchen Michelle, Heidi Witmer, Chris and Justin - what can I say! I have left with 6 new amazing friends. Thank you for all you have taught me and making me feel so welcomed in your group. Your love for these kids is an inspiration and I feel so honored to of been part of this adventure that you took them on. I know for sure we will cross paths again - a trip to Amish country has never sounded more fun!

This morning, I awoke after only five hours of sleep, with more blog inspiration from the last two weeks than I've had all year.  (Maybe my body has adjusted to surviving on five hours, or less, of sleep these past two weeks.)  It's easy to be inspired by the enthusiasm and wonder of students facing realities of the world on the very soil on which history has happened.  We've stood, as a group, on the beach at Normandy and in the Alps at the Eagle's Nest in Austria,  we've hugged each other, standing in the center of Dachau, and looked closely at the often-overlooked tributes to the Holocaust on the streets of Berlin. There are 27,000 such stones in the city, in front of the homes once occupied by victims of the Holocaust.

My head is still processing, yet my heart knows that allowing and encouraging students of today to face the possibilities of tomorrow is best taught by looking backwards, to the realities of history.  The Facing History School in New York does just that, encouraging and inspiring students to question, connecting ideas through interdisciplinary exploration.  My world this morning is once again suggesting that perspective changes every lesson, and every experience.  Viewing the Alps with Chris Talbert, who majored in Geology in college, was vastly different than with literature-loving English teacher, Heidi, who was envisioning a personal experience twirling on a mountaintop.  

So on this holiday weekend, I celebrate the goodness that is this country, the privilege of knowing these students, and the incredible relationships enhanced by these two weeks of discovery, as I upload photos and sort through ephemera stuffed in my suitcase during the trip.

And smiling, remembering the sounds of a group of kids who stepped out for two weeks, in truth, love and honor -- making my life complete.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Essential Question.

I watch television.  A lot.  The reality is, if I'm at home, chances are pretty good that something - usually CNN these days -- is on in the background.  But, aside from The Big Bang Theory and Antiques Roadshow, there are very few shows that I actually sit DOWN to watch.  So when the opportunity to actually take my stuff and have it appraised on the Roadshow, I eagerly submitted my email address, hoping to "win" two free tickets, knowing that luck is not usually on my side when it comes to random drawings.

This time, I actually won.

Mr. Peanut was actually a woman!

Each attendee was invited to bring two precious items for appraisal.  Bruce and I spent many days mulling over what we would choose to take.  As those who know us well know, we do a lot of antiquing, and sometimes we even buy something.  Bruce focuses on militaria, and I, well, am inspired by whatever amuses me or makes me wonder.  In my defense, it's also how I teach my students -- amusing them first, and then making them think about the bigger picture.  

In education, teachers today are encouraged to teach, by first asking an "essential question."  For everyone in line yesterday, at least one of their essential questions was "What is this _________ worth?" , as each of us hoped to discover that we possessed the holy grail of  antiques.  Bruce chose to take a Revolutionary War sword and an inscribed powder horn.  I chose a textile - a sort of banner, designed to celebrate the centennial of George Washington's inauguration that I had purchased several months ago at The Mad Hatter in Adamstown for less than $20 -- and a pen and ink/watercolor whimsical piece I had purchased in Connecticut about five years ago.

As we headed off to this adventure, I knew virtually nothing about either piece, despite many hours of research and googling.  My family has never batted an eye at the textile, choosing to spend most of their time humiliated by my ownership of, as we call it at home, "The Wang."

The Wang

Have you ever seen something that you were attracted to, and overlooked something else that, later, became painfully evident?  In my world, The Wang is the epitome of the overlooked, yet hyper-obvious.  I discovered it in the 50% off section of the Mansfield General Store and Antiques, in Mansfield, CT, while at UCONN.  I like watercolors, and I love whimsy.  I was amused by the piece, I was homesick, so I bought it -- for $37.50.    I am sure that my family considers this to be a truly ridiculous investment, yet it has brought me considerable joy and entertainment in the few short years that I have owned it.  Fortunately for me, when I returned home with it, they were too happy to see me to criticize my newly-acquired original Wang to my face, assuming I new the entire content of the painting.  I didn't discover the obvious until more than a year later.

The Roadshow experience was fantastically exhausting. My Fitbit clearly lies about my physical activity yesterday, because I know I walked - and stood on the cement floor of the Farm Show Arena - more than 4534 steps.    We arrived shortly before 2:30 pm, and left almost five hours later.  

The Washington textile, roughly an $18 investment, is worth between six and eight HUNDRED dollars.  Bruce discovered the sword, which he had thought might be fake is actually authentic, and was surprised to learn that the powderhorn was not what it seemed.  The last appraisal of the day was The Wang.

Kathleen Haywood, a prim and proper woman from Massachusetts, was the appraiser to whom I was directed.  If you examine the close up of Wang's signature on my piece, directly above the signature is what can only be described as a pileup of whimsical animals.  (And if you think differently, get your mind out of the gutter.   They're fun, and they make me smile.) Prior to unveiling my item, when prompted by Kathleen with her inquiry "What did you bring me today?", I stammered through my rehearsed answer:  

"I've always loved watercolors, and whimsical drawings.  I found this in Connecticut.  It wasn't until a year later that I discovered the pornographic detail on the man."

Okay, so maybe that wasn't my best activating strategy, when introducing this new topic to this Puritan woman from New England.  Her immediate response:

"Did you NOT NOTICE the animals copulating on the side?"  

Why yes, yes, I had.  In fact, I hold them personally responsible for my inability to notice the aforementioned genitalia on the character at the bottom of the pile of humans for almost a year.

Fortunately for me, Kathleen had a bit of a whimsy attitude herself, which was evident when she put on her hot pink round spectacles, and scanned The Wang under her Ott Light, shared it with the appraiser next to her with a bit of a giggle, and began actively searching her databases.  

After all of her searching and evaluation, she came to the same conclusion that I had -- The Wang is priceless.

Okay, so maybe not priceless, but was not something she could identify.  She referred me to the Illustration House in NYC, suggesting that they might know more about Wang than she.

I'm confident that this most-recent obsession of mine will become a topic of witty comments and sarcastic criticism from many of my friends.  In fact, I'll be a bit disappointed if it isn't.  It should be known that I was able to actually activate my filter, and chose not to enter the Feedback Booth at the end of the day.  We met a lot of fun folks in line, including my line-mate, Bob, from Berks County, who suggested that I  enter the Feedback Booth and say, 

"I came to the Antiques Roadshow today to find an expert on mid-century pornographic whimsical watercolors, and am severely disappointed!"

After all, doing so might embarrass my family, and they have so few coping skills in dealing with my eclectic collecting habits.

Friday, June 2, 2017

It's a Wrap!

I awoke just after 4 am, as I often do, but the list in my head prevented me from going back to sleep.  I checked my email for three papers that are overdue, and entirely too important to me, because their very existence will determine whether their authors pass or fail my class. By 4:13, I was writing a letter to one student, requested by a parent more weeks ago than I care to mention.  I'm living in denial, as I do every year, because today is the last day of school. The Class of 2017 will graduate this evening and tears will be shed as I watch another group of humans leave the hallowed halls of Donegal to go forth and make the world a better place.  

Summertime, and the Living is Easy...

Effective today, I can eat lunch, taking time to both talk and chew, rather than inhaling sustenance in 18 minutes while wondering about the ingredients in the 2, 3, 4 Bean Salad.  I can choose what to eat based upon what I would LIKE to eat, rather than which line in the food court has the fewest members.  I can be present in my discussion at lunch with colleagues, rather than having half of my mind rewriting the lesson that I'm teaching after lunch to be more effective or meaningful.  Today and Monday are reserved for end of the year "professional development," coveted days where teachers get to choose where to eat, and with whom they'd like to dine.  Coveted time.

Effective next week, I can read a book of my choice.  In reality, the choice will probably be something to prep for next year, and not the beach novel that requires the anonymity of an e reader to protect my reputation, lest someone catch me reading something that is nothing more than a guilty pleasure.

In a few hours, the annual senior parade will circle the high school, with the seniors showing their individuality, creativity, and togetherness simultaneously for one of the last times.  They'll pelt candy at our heads, and blow kazoos and air horns and bells with the intensity of the Whos Down in Whoville when the Grinch returns the gifts.

And while this is all happening, we teachers will be simultaneously sorting the contents of our desk, tossing and organizing, and planning for next year.  We'll be setting aside the books that we dragged to school but never read  to take HOME, hoping to find time this summer.  We'll be finding the "evidence" of our effectiveness for Domains 1 and 4 to scan and present to our administrators for our end of year evaluations.

And, at least this teacher, will be gathering a stack of senior photos, notes, and memories to take home for that scrapbook that I might take time to add to this summer, celebrating an extraordinary group of students leaving the nest for the last time. 

Congratulations, Class of 2017!