Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Is Ketchup a Jelly or a Jam?

Today, the students in my two afternoon classes asked 3700 questions, almost simultaneously.  

While this may seem a tad confusing, and a lot deafening, it might help to clarify that they were writing the questions in their Whitebooks, and not actually shouting -- or even whispering -- them aloud.  I spent the time giving the class some space, and then quietly circulated and chatted with some individually.

"Is ketchup a jelly or a jam?"

Honestly, not a question I had ever considered, and almost dismissed the thought, until the questioner chatted a bit about the confusion the world has over whether tomatoes are fruits or vegetables.

Now the goal of this exercise is to randomly write, freeing your mind, and generate 100 questions.  In past years, we encouraged this by creating dice with WHO-WHAT-WHEN-WHERE-WHY-HOW, helping to keep the questions flowing.  That proved to be more of a distraction -- especially when 20 kids were simultaneously tossing wooden dice on a table.  Not exactly conducive to free-thinking creativity.

I encourage you to try this activity for yourself.  Ask 100 questions, but think about none of them.  Just write them down in a list, all in one sitting.  (If you want to play along, STOP reading this blog now, and go do it. ) 

This semester's topic in Themes in Literature is "Think Like da Vinci," and loosely based on Michael Gelb's book by the same name.  The first exploration is a focus on "Curiosita," (with an accent over the "a" that I have no idea how to insert in this platform), or a study of how curious one might be.  The most difficult part of teaching this class -- and there really is very little that is difficult once the "teacher of the gifted" succumbs to the idea that he/she will NEVER be the smartest person in the classroom, so "sit back and enjoy the ride...", is wanting to chat and explore fascinating scenarios about condiments, and the like.  

I am proud to say that NO ONE in my class was entertained by my knowledge of the difference between jelly and jam today.  (You, however, may not be as fortunate.  One has chunks of fruit, while the other is strained before canning.)  I simply moved on to the next student, leaving the questions on fruits vs. vegetables percolating in the head of the questioner.

For those of you playing along:  Choose eight colored markers, and sort your 100 questions through the following lenses:


What causes you to think the hardest?  Are you a philosopher or a sociologist?  A scientist or a politician?  Just like da Vinci, these kids are all over the map, subconsciously, and consciously, asking questions through nearly every lens.  Next week, we'll examine the areas of fascination, and collectively consider, just like da Vinci, a little bit more about how we think.  The Environmentalists will go head to head with the Economists.  The Futuristic folks may just clash with the Historians.

While I can definitively defend my position that ketchup is neither a jam or a jelly, there is little else that is that black and white in Themes in Lit.

And that's exactly the way it should be.  Every day should leave them wondering, asking questions, and wondering why everything that they knew is no longer black or white, but actually a confusing gray -- scratching their grey matter for a greater quest, and another da Vinci exploration day.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Was Day ONE fun?

I grew up in a time where family dinner was a ritual.  Nothing pleased my father more than the beginning of the school year, and quizzing me, and my younger sister, in rhyme.

"Was day one FUN?"

It's been nearly two decades since my father passed away, and I still hear his voice. 

Especially during the first week of school.

Today was no exception. 

And while today was ANOTHER first day, it was different.  Amazingly different.  This school year has been bathed in positivity and encouragement.  The message is clear and simple, and resonates from many corners, creating a ripple of enthusiasm and peace that I didn't know I needed, until it happened.  It's deliberate.  It's intentional.  And, for me, it's working.

A year ago, I cried every single day for two weeks.  It was an emotional start, and I struggled to figure out how to make things better. I can't even really explain why last year was so tough -- and I've stopped trying to figure it out.  This year, I'll be as attached to this senior class as I was to last year's.  I'll threaten them to stop telling me countdown events like "This is my last..... first day, math class, concert.... fill in the blank.  Because every new beginning is another new beginning's end.  I'll laugh with them, and do my best to teach them to raise the bar on their lives, to challenge themselves, and take risks.  I'll force them to collaborate, even when they don't think that they can ever function in a collaborative group.  We'll think critically and creatively, and we'll connect things, and people, in ways never considered before.

Today, the last words at our all-school assembly were,

"Don't count the days, make the days count."  

I didn't cry.  I smiled.  Because I can, we will, and that's the way Donegal is rolling this year.  (If you want to join in the fun, follow us on Facebook to get a glimpse of each day!)  The day flew by, with an ever-growing To-Do list.  Tomorrow, the voice will ask, "How was day TWOS, Suz?"  My dad was less about grammar rules and more about the joke and the rhyme during the first week of school.  Sometimes the rules don't matter, when you're busy making the day count.

Oh, and, "Yes, Dad.  Day One was fun!"

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

First Day x 20. In Search of Lollipops

Today was my first day of work.  Never mind that my first day of work  with the district was actually in August, 1999.  My hope is that the next 189 first days of work this year are as wonderful as today.
You see, teachers have a rare opportunity to reset the clock at the beginning of every new school year.  The annual cleaning and polishing of the classrooms and hallways requires teachers to pack up their desks and clean off their surfaces before departing for the summer -- yet also allows/requires that we consider each item as we unpack and design our spaces for the new school year.  (This also allows us the luxury of unpacking our summer haul of new school supplies, which is a serious addiction for many teachers that might, some day, require a 12 Step program.)    So while every other profession has calendars that begin with a month named JANUARY, teachers have calendars that spread over two calendar years, and teachers make New Year's Resolutions in August.
Here's the thing about today's first day:  It was entirely different than any previous year.  Those who are anti-existential will argue that this is an observation that is painfully obvious, while those who are mindful and have listened to the fading of the tiny cymbal in the Mindfulness Professional Development session this summer, will know exactly where I am coming from.  After a series of very stressful starts in recent years, today was a day unlike any in recent memory.  The focus was on people instead of data. The discussion and activities encouraged wonderment, raw honesty, and reflection about our teaching.  Nothing seemed rushed, and everything seemed nurturing.
It was magical.
Right before lunch, we watched Drew Dudley's TedX talk, "Leading with Lollipops. "  (Click on the link  -- it's worth the 6 minutes!).  I instantly flashed back on my person.
Almost 25 years ago, I was shopping at Stauffer's of Kissel Hill, with a four year old in the cart.  I was pregnant with Kristin, and Scott was in school. Now Stauffer's was, and still is, a great place to wander and shop - especially at lunchtime.  There are MANY samples to be had, and if you don't leave with a full belly, along with a full cart, there were still 50 cent hotdogs to be grabbed on the way out the door.  I was doing my usual mom thing, chattering to the kid in the cart, when a total stranger touched me lightly on the arm and said, "YOU are an awesome mom! I love listening to you talk to your little boy today!  You made my day!"
I found myself today-- a quarter of a century later -- (and many times in between when I thought I was less than adequate as a parent) flashing back on what I now know was a I lollipop moment of a total stranger affirming me. I wish I had been more grateful, and less like the freak who stared at her in total amazement. I don't remember saying much more than muttering a "thank you."  
I have never had a professional development day that resulted in serious flashbacks of personal affirmation of value and worth as today's experience.  "All the feels," as my 30 something friends say on Facebook, and yes, today, that's a great definition.
It made me want to recommit to the blog.
So here I am, watching TedX talks after my first day of work.  and now some Canadian guy in a hat is my new inspiration.  On Monday, I'll be diving off sand cliffs with some guy named Mustafa. (watch the video and stop singing the Lion King in your head -- it's not a typo!) Tomorrow is Day 1 again, without the feeling of Bill Murray or Groundhog Day, driving right into year 20, still feeling like it's my very first day of school.

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.