Thursday, March 23, 2017

It's a Matter of Trust - Tending the Garden

photo courtesy
Anyone who has seen the landscaping around my house will instantly realize that gardening is not a passion of mine.  I certainly have an inner desire for a lovely English garden-like pathway of beautiful color up my front walk, and I annually purchase way too many flowers from the annual Spring Thing plant sale - that benefits the music programs at school -- to satisfy my vision, but I quickly lose interest in the battle against the weeds, and feel frustrated with my imperfect attempts, let alone ever consider volunteering my home to be on the Garden Tour.

Last week was Spring Break for many colleges, and the hallways at school became alive with the maturing faces of alumni who stopped in to say hello.  As a teacher, it's always great to see former students who are excited about learning and thriving in their new environments. To me, these visits are akin to my desire for success in my garden, with much better results. They may have graduated, and transplanted themselves elsewhere, yet they are growing and thriving, and stopping back to share their excitement and beauty.

One such student stopped by to chat about TDO. If you're a regular reader, and I realize that this has been a relatively irregular year in terms of the number of posts, you may recall that TDO stands for Talent Development Opportunity - 80 minutes a cycle to work on becoming more proficient at something of interest.  Bryce was interested in revisiting the TDO concept, this time as a future educator researching the concept for a college project.  Bryce's visit got me thinking - and reflecting - on the way TDO is running this year, and challenged me, once again, to consider the good that comes out of this process, even when I don't feel so good about it at all.

Wait.  I know what you're thinking. "What did she say?"

Yes, there are times when I question TDO.  There is a definite population of students who are completely engaged, focused and productive. Then there are others who think that I don't know that they have multiple tabs open on their computers, and that they are scamming me into believing that they are on task and learning.  Still others have signed out of my room to be working in specialized areas of the school - with other trusted colleagues checking in on them - while they use music practice rooms, STEM computers, art studios or the wood lab, allegedly completing the work they've challenged themselves to do this semester.

Nothing hurts my teacher heart more than having to confront students who are clearly jeopardizing the TDO process for others, demonstrating less-than-appropriate behavior while allegedly "working" on their projects.  When I become aware of students who are not living up to their end of the respect bargain, it is especially tough.

The words posted on social media -- accompanied by a photo of a clearly off-task kid -- are devastating:

"Teachers:  you're so exceptional student .... a great kid.... such a hard worker..."

"Me: 'Supposed to be doing work.' "

It's interesting that this event is timed so closely to Bryce's visit.  It also has prompted me to resurrect this blog at 4 am, as I process the value of TDO, and all the good that can come from working independently on something that is a source of pride to the students.

With regard to that Instagram post, yes, these kids are exceptional students and great kids.  While I certainly have dialed back on my opinion of the issues of responsibility and whether they are "hard workers," I believe that together we can redesign the TDO goals for this semester to be projects with significantly more direct supervision in my room, as I tend this garden with a little more finesse than the flowers up my walkway at home.  For while those annuals at home can be replaced at the end of the season, in the TDO garden I am nurturing life-long learners - who are responsible, exceptional students, hard workers and great kids --

also known as perennials.  

 My goal is that they take root, and spread like the weeds that will, no doubt, overtake my garden this spring, and are able to have learned something from this obvious stray from my garden path.

(I may be a gardener after all.  I just hate getting my hands dirty.)



Saturday, January 14, 2017

Zip-lining with Monkeys

In celebration of my dear mother's 80th birthday, I've chosen to allocate my three precious district-provided personal days, and escape January in America for St. Maarten.  It's a beautiful place that is nothing like the beautiful farmland that surrounds my home in Lancaster County -- yet "change is good," (that's what some people say.) **

Indeed, St. Maarten is an island paradise, with all of the things that my husband detests - sun, sand, water, and starfish and anchors on clothing - so this girls-only adventure provided an opportunity to visit somewhere not on our joint bucket list.  In addition to the three of us, we also have the females of the next generation with us; my daughter, Kristin, and nieces Abby and Juliette.

On our first full day of the trip, we made our way to Loterie Farm on the French side of the island in Pic Pardis, at the highest point. It seemed to make sense that we'd tour the single main road that loops the entire island, and venture to this high-point to take in the sights. The view is spectacular, and the documented history of the land goes back to 1721.  The fact that the land has been turned into a retreat sanctuary adds to its beauty, because those venturing there have a genuine interest in maintaining the past -- oh, and flying through the trees with monkeys.  

It's no secret that I am 55 years old, and have more metal in my body than some small hardware stores.  Those who know me don't consider me to be the most graceful person on the planet, and some of those who love me actually own a t shirt that says "Never Trust Banana Pudding"since it took me out of commission for half a semester after a concussion.  

Yet somehow, zip-lining with monkeys seemed like something I needed to do.

As an educator reflecting back on this experience, I can't help but point out the educational parallels between zip-lining through a high-ropes obstacle course, and teaching.  The guides for this experience were fabulous educators.  They strapped us into the harnesses, and clearly demonstrated how to transfer clips from the harnesses onto the cables mounted in the trees.  We learned that one glove was good enough for Michael Jackson's Thriller, and was certainly adequate for our adventure as well.  After this brief Activating Strategy, which included the euphoric tales of those who just completed the adventure returning in front of us and stripping themselves out of harnesses, we were off.

The ladder of no-turning-back....
 The vertical climb to the first platform seemed pretty daunting, but I had paid the money, and we had waited quite a while to be invited to start - and my daughter was already climbing, and clipping, and climbing, and clipping, in front of me.  It truly was a "now or never" experience.  


That ladder led to a platform to the first tightwire, which was probably ten feet off the ground.  My sainted mother was sitting on a bench below us, looking relatively terrified.  (After all, she's spent the last 55 years dragging me to emergency rooms for injuries sustained in far less dramatic fashion than this.) 

Without a complete blow-by-blow of each and every obstacle, be aware that each platform took us higher into the trees, with increasing intensity and difficulty, with less and less scaffolding provided.  (Just like the progression of new learning in the classroom.)

Rope bridge
The rope walk was among the most difficult challenges for my 5'2" daughter and I to do, as we struggled to reach the guide wire above, while still keeping our feet on the net. (This picture has two guide-wires, while we had one wire overhead.)  The educator in me was screaming for an additional wire to differentiate for the vertically challenged among us.

Nine times throughout the course, we attached our apparatus and glided on a zip line to the next stop.  These were welcome, and thrilling, rest opportunities -- not unlike the points in the semester when I get to sit back and watch students presentations, while someone else does the teaching. 

Balance beam

 There were rounded logs, and swinging balance beams.  There were rope bridges that looked like something from the Road Runner, with random spacing between the planks.  And suddenly I heard a voice from behind me - Anna, the Ecology major from Wisconsin who knew enough about me to identify my body for the medics if I fell, yell "MONKEYS!"

The front of a monkey (I can identify the back)
My goal was to zip line with monkeys.  To face my fears, to finish the obstacle.  I saw a furry butt, and a long tail.  I was 30 feet in the air on a crazy-spaced plank bridge that required focus on the complicated footwork.  I couldn't back up and gaze at monkeys, and I had no camera to capture their images.  I called to Kristin, with a Go Pro mounted to her head, hoping she'd catch a glimpse.  (We later found out that the Go Pro was actually a Stop Pro during this entire adventure, and captured nothing!)

We conquered the last bridge, and encountered a tree -- with no platform.  We had been warned about this final exam:  Use the tree to get around to the other side, clip and slide down the line, climb another giant ladder, and head down the final line to where my  family was waiting.  The designers of this course had thought of everything, as they scaffolded this adventure for their learners.  There were guides on the platforms in the beginning, to reassure, demonstrate, and double-check for understanding.   When we got to the tree with no platform or net, there was a quiet observer on the ground, wearing the identifying blue polo indicating he was an employee, calling us "Beautiful," and encouraging us -- not telling us -- how to succeed.

Feeling Confident

Landing on the last platform and being offered rum punch provided adequate time for our summarizing activity, as we swapped stories with the rest of Anna's group from Wisconsin, along with some others who had risen to the occasion and triumphed.

Tomorrow, I'm headed home, and back to my classroom next week.  The end of the semester is upon us, and there's a platform covered in padding waiting for each student to glide home.
And lined up on the deck above, is a whole new class list of students, waiting to search for monkeys in places they've never dreamed they could reach.

**(Editorial comment:  When my sister, mother, and I get together, there are certain phrases that become part of the vernacular for the trip, and the aforementioned parenthetical comment is one such example.)

Friday, December 23, 2016

11:23 pm

I went to bed a little later than usual, yet I was sound asleep at 11:23 pm when the house phone rang.  Yes, we do still have a house phone - it's primary job is that it provides a place for telemarketers to call and us to completely ignore, simultaneously feeling victory and disgust over the annoyance of the ring.  But telemarketers don't call after 9 pm, and every sleeping parent knows that a ringing phone at 11:23 pm is not a good thing.

It was a former student, now a freshman in college, sobbing and screaming so uncontrollably that it took me a very short time to be truly awake and a very long time to grasp what had happened.  Social media was ablaze with posts about a young man who had allegedly chosen to end his life. (Update:  This has not been confirmed, and the death is being investigated.)  My caller was desperately seeking answers, replaying in her mind how she might have changed this terrible course, repeatedly and despondently asking me how she could have made a difference that would have alternately affected the outcome.  

Teachers are grown ups.  And the one lesson that we probably should teach a little more explicitly is that grown ups don't have all the answers, especially when trying to understand or explain the behaviors and choices of teenagers.  The statistics are horrifying:  suicide is the 11th leading cause of death in the United States, yet that number rises significantly for young people.  Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for our young people in high school and college.  To someone who had turned the lights off on the Christmas tree a little more than an hour ago, the idea that someone had chosen to end his life at this particular time of year was especially gut-wrenching.  I was devastated, and I don't know this young man, except as a bright eyed kid with an infectious smile in the hallway with his friends.

Today is the last day of school before break, and is usually a day
full of laughter, good cheer, and the sharing and witnessing of the amazing skills of many students at the annual Talent Show. While the show will still go on, I assume, there will definitely be tears and confusion over what could have been done to change a very personal decision made by one young man.  My heart aches for his mother, and I already dread the meeting before school this morning with the faculty where I will see his teachers asking themselves the same questions that Brittany asked me last night, as they choke back tears of grief.

I also know that today will be a day of caring, support, and love for each other, because that's what Donegal does.  I know that this Talent Show, regardless of what the acts are, or who is performing, or whether there are flaws in the performances,  will be viewed by an audience that traditionally demonstrates superhuman skills in compassion - cheering wildly for the successes of the individuals on stage.   The annual Talent Show is always a place of support and acceptance, and I tear up every year that I am able to work at such a unique place in a world that often seems to lack kindness

Before midnight last night, the Student Council was already talking about ways to remember their lost classmate, and celebrate his short life. In January, the attendance at the Aevaidum Club will probably increase dramatically, as the realization that everyone needs someone to "have their back" has hit uncomfortably close to home.

I have tremendous hope in the kids who are asking "why" today, and know that from this horrible tragedy will come conversations, consolations, and an even greater compassion for each other, and the strength to move forward, together, in a world that sometimes seems like more than one can bear.  
The whisper of "You are not alone" will become a louder voice in my world.  Please call someone if you need to talk.  They'll have your back.
Even if it is 11:23 pm.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Mondays have a bad reputation.

Mondays have a bad reputation.  Long before Karen Carpenter sang about the dismal, mood-altering properties of the first day of the work-week, there existed a certain dread for the proverbial return-to-the-grindstone of the traditional work week. 

Weird thing, though, not everybody feels that way.  I am one of those people who views Monday as the fresh start.  It doesn't have quite the same feel as a new notebook, or turning the page on the calendar, but it does allow me to shake my arms and legs out a bit, like Usain Bolt about to go into the blocks before a big race.  

Because, face it, from about 7:35 on Monday until 3 pm on Friday, that's pretty much how a teacher's work week seems to fly.  It's a race, even if it does seem like a marathon at times.

21 Days of Happiness.

More than 3 weeks ago, I committed to returning to daily blogging as my own version of the 21 Days of Happiness project that my students were doing.  Today, two classes shared the results of their projects, and the general consensus was that journaling and random acts of kindness seemed to have the greatest impact on personal happiness, with gratitude as a close third.  Conversely, meditation was not a success.  

One of the most interesting reports came from the recipient of kindness, rather than the RAK=giver herself.  This student had taken it upon herself to write notes of encouragement with facts about Mondays.  

"I know today is Monday and you assume it's going to suck, but according to statistics, there will be over 5,000 weddings, 10,000 childbirths, and 42 million hugs occurring today throughout the United States.... There will be 600 dogs adopted, ........ because according to statistics, it should actually be a really nice day....."

We all know that there is no sense in arguing statistics.  And yes, it was Monday, and yes, one single letter passed out to some friends made an impact that started a comment, which generated a discussion, which created a blog topic, which made me wonder what wonderful statistics exist for Tuesday.

Have a great week! 

Sunday, November 13, 2016

This teacher is a teacher, inside and out.

In a post for my grad class today, I commented about how I am the same person in the classroom as I am outside of the classroom.  I don't have a "teacher voice" and I rarely pull the "teacher" card, choosing to foster mutual respect for the space and each other, instead of a dictatorship run by someone who once slipped on banana pudding and missed almost half of a semester as a result.  After all, how much confidence would you have in that role model?

The interesting thing about the classroom relationships and my social media relationships is that they are very similar.  It is rare for me to be unhappy in a classroom, and I am conscious of my level of negativity on social media as well.  

Given the negativity that has existed over the past several months, coupled with the fact that we've been studying Happiness in Themes in Literature, there have been opportunities where I've spoken on this blog about assignments for my students that I've also posted for social media friends.  The idea of the TDO - the Talent Development Opportunity project - was tossed out to adults to see what they could do if they had the equivalent amount of one period per cycle to work on something new to them.  Just 80 Minutes became the mantra in its own group on Facebook.

Today, in a blog of one of the participants was this:

In nine weeks, I have gone from inept to confident as a paper piecer! Granted, I spent more than 80 minutes each week; most weeks, it was probably double that. But it was the discipline, the setting aside of the minimum of 80 minutes and working on learning a new skill, that paid off.

Other people explored and cooked healthier recipes, organized specific spaces with an intentional time dedicated each week, tried geocaching, and posted results.

Just for the record - I have clearly seen the benefits of focused effort over the past few weeks and I am grateful to this group for helping rediscover the concept. However, I do not plan to continue creating an accountability blog and/or FB post every Monday. I want to use those minutes (and a few more) to actually read the many books I've gathered (part of my larger plan to limit the amount of time I spend at the computer). Best wishes to all!  

The 21 Day Happiness assignment resulted in the creation of another group - 21 Days to Happiness.  Again, my friends supported the project with their own reports, as they meditated, exercised, expressed kindness, journaled or showed gratitude:

What brings you lasting happiness? For me gratitude is the essential key to happiness. Not things, not people, but being honestly thankful for everything. Even in my worst times the shear act of gratitude will totally change my experience into a peaceful experience.
Just putting that out there


So far I have shared my gratitude with 3 individuals. Not only has it reminded me of all that I am grateful for, especially during a hard time in my life, but it has brought joy to the folks I have shared with. Can't wait to spread some more happiness!


Soon it became evident that we started noticing kindness and happiness all around us...

I am sitting at Masonic Homes catching my breath for a moment and just witnessed the sweetest thing. This woman obviously wanted to see the foliage and flowers in the garden. So this man helped her out of the car (and caught her going both ways when she nearly fell) and then stood and talked with her until she had her fill 

This week, I am challenging myself to be more authentic and caring in this crazy world.  It's getting busy -- the holidays are coming, the semester is ending with my grad class, there are gifts to be made, purchased, and wrapped.  There is a presentation to be had at the annual state Gifted Conference this week in Harrisburg, with late nights and many connections with colleagues from various parts of the tri-state area, and lesson plans to write for a substitute who will cover in my absence.    

The world will continue to turn, and next weekend will provide a celebrated relief and proof that I survived this very busy week.  What will you have to show for your efforts?  Join me in taking some time to be grateful, drop a note to someone who won't expect it, hold a door, share an umbrella.   

Make a difference.  Even if it is small.  We all have time, no matter how busy we are.


Saturday, November 12, 2016

Valuing Values

The other night, my husband and I were watching American Pickers "On Demand," and a political commercial came on slamming Hillary Clinton.  Within five minutes, another followed, this time slamming Donald Trump.  I was suitably outraged, because it was THURSDAY, and the election was over, and, well, I was truly looking forward to no more mudslinging for the foreseeable future! Bruce talked me off the ledge, explaining that the show was essentially, prerecorded.

This political season has been marked by one thing:  news media AND candidates who spent less time talking about long-range plans for the country, and more time focused on the values, or lack thereof, of the opponents. The best that they seemed to be able to do was to point out exactly how deficient the opponent was when it came to basic societal decency.

 Values Education

A common theme in many schools these days is one of "Positive Behavior," rewarding good, rather than criticizing students for infractions.  While there are folks on both sides of the actual effectiveness of this model,  it does seem to appear that there are many students in classes who choose to act one way at school, and entirely differently in the presence of their parents.  This works both positively and negatively.  Some parents are shocked to find that their rambunctious offspring are perfect angels in school, while others discover, with great horror, the exact opposite.  There is definitely a trend, however, for values or character education in our schools these days.

We're trying to engage our students in being better people.  As I drove this morning, it occurred to me that society is encouraging and expecting schools to "fix" this generation of kids.  Make them appreciate the little things, be respectful, be kind, be accepting of each other, not bully others.  The anti-Clinton commercials and the anti-Trump commercials angered everyone, and further divided an already divided nation, yet they shared a common theme:  VALUES.  Neither side liked the values displayed by the other.

A comment left on my aunt's blog resonated with me.  The quote is attributed to Joe Piscopo, although I haven't been able to verify it:

 "A president doesn’t make America. We do. America is awesome because of Americans. The better we are, the better America is." Volunteer. Donate to causes you care about. Help out your neighbor. Love each other. Pray. DO whatever it is you think our country needs on whatever level you can. It starts with you, and your actions matter.
That is what is most important - what we the people do.
So maybe, just maybe, this election is more about the common theme, and that we, as Americans, can step up and help the parents, teachers, and, heck the whole world, by figuring out what we value, and move towards instilling those values in the world.  

Even if we don't need to do it because it will look good on a college or job application. Even if nobody has asked or expects us to do something kind.  We need to DO whatever it is that we think our country needs, on whatever level we can.  And yes, actions matter.  We can move this nation to one of character, rather than a bunch of hyped up characters.

Value values.  Pass it on.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Eleven Eleven @ Eleven

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
John McCrae, 1915 

It's 11 - 11.  The annual Veteran's Day assembly culminated, as it does each year, with nearly 900 students filing silently out of the auditorium at 11 am, honoring the memory, sacrifice, and service of so many.  

I am proud to teach at Donegal, yet I am especially proud on Veteran's Day.  While the news and social media is filled with less than desirable tales of cruelty in schools, today at Donegal was filled with kindness.  the choir sang, the band played, The Voice of Democracy winner presented her winning paper, and sitting front and center, the veterans of our community, who were honored in a roll call by branch of service.  Sitting amidst them was Harold Billow -- the only living survivor of the Malmedy Massacre.    

This man is a genuine inspiration to our small community.  So much so, that more people called him "Pap" today, than by his given name. He was escorted by a graduate of Donegal, who worked on a National History Day project several years ago with Mr. Billow, who now regularly visits him, because of the deep bond they formed over that project.  There he was, in his original uniform, smiling broadly, adding an extra sparkle to a sense of national pride.

Yes, pride.  While each year there are more than a few tears shed and wiped away, Veteran's Day is celebrated, recognized, and immortalized for a generation of students who realize the responsibilities bestowed upon them, as they stand on the shoulders of giants who have served before.

One of whom is a slight man, who still fits in a uniform that he wore more than 60 years ago.