Sunday, September 7, 2014

Monumental Influence....

This fall I returned to school and felt, well, off.  I couldn't quite put my finger on it.    On the third day of school, I realized I was missing someone of monumental influence.  Liz.

Liz retired in January.  I suppose I survived the second semester last year "without" her because she was really still there, mentoring her National History Day students straight through until May after every single one of them advanced from the regional level to state competition.   It took all of us in "A Lunch" in the faculty room a few weeks to adjust to Liz's absence from the lunch table, as she offered the best banter, and made the "30 Minute Duty Free Lunch" seem like Comedy Hour.

I was really, really, really missing Liz. 

Liz is the person that sits in faculty meetings and makes eye contact when grammar is under attack.  She can make me laugh, either out loud, or internally, in such a way that the most arduous in-service day suddenly becomes bearable.  She gets me.  And she gets to me.  And suddenly, I was facing a new school year, and three days of interminable in-service training, without her.

Liz and I taught together since the turn of the century.  And while that sounds like something someone who is friends with a history teacher would say, it is as historically accurate as it can be.  We met in 1999, and I was drawn to the creative teaching methods she and her Language Arts colleague were using in their conjoined classrooms.  

Today's Te@chthought blog prompt was about the easiest on the list to answer:

Sepember 7

Who was, or is, your most inspirational colleague, and why?

Several years ago I answered a similar prompt for a grad class I was taking while working on my master's at UCONN.  What follows is the response I gave to that "Module 3" assignment, which includes an observation I did in Liz's classroom, complete with educational practice analysis.  For some reading this blog it will be educationally significant.  For others it may be a walk down memory lane.  Still others may want to scroll entirely through the italics below to get on with the story....

            Liz Lewis has been teaching Social Studies for more than twenty years.  She has been honored for her excellence by PBS, National History Day, and National Geographic, has served on the Pennsylvania Department of Education Committee for developing Social Studies Standards, and serves as the Secondary Social Studies Department Chair.  Liz has a masters in history, and teaches a high-ability class as part of the high school offerings through the local community college that allows gifted and talented students to complete college credit while satisfying high school history requirements.  I observed Liz in this class as they studied the Lattimer Massacre.

            Liz created an environment of learning through a routine she has established for her classes. The Essential Question (EQ - Learning Focused Schools) was projected onto the smartboard, along with instructions for the students to secure a laptop from the cart. Liz is a Classrooms for the Future (CFF) teacher, teaching and encouraging students to take notes on the computer, rather than in a traditional notebook, fostering a habit which encourages students to see their notes in outline format with the EQ prominently displayed at the top of the page, focusing their note-taking. (Encouraged Students to Organize Information.)

Liz began with a brief lecture, opening by inviting the students to consider the EQ, and  proceeded through her lesson aided by a powerpoint presentation containing many primary sources including photographs, quotes from newspapers of the time, and a video clip from a PBS special featuring audio clips of the voice of activist Mother Jones.  Although there were no direct student responses, Liz Encouraged Students to Gather Information through strong analytical questions guiding students to consider the images in the photos, the words in the newspaper articles, and other quotations provided by parties involved in both the labor movement and those from whom union rights were sought. Visual Clues for Developing Cognitive Strategies included the use of color text within quotations  to highlight vocabulary and other key words, as well as foreshadowing information that students will see again.  (Clarence Darrow was mentioned, highlighted, and students were told that he would appear later in the year when they studied the Scopes Trial.)  The students were not told to use primary source documents; they witnessed the strength in supporting their own presentations with such sources. “As you read, remember I want your presentation to focus on immigration and industry.”  Liz ended the formal part of the lesson by asking the students to refer back to the original EQ, and consider the human and environmental costs of the mining that occurred in this point in history.  Liz Encouraged Students to Ask Questions, Encouraged Transfer of Cognitive Skills to Everyday Life,  and Promoted Silent Reflection of Ideas, many times during the lesson.  While studying the picture of a young “brake boy”, stressing the responsibilities of 6 year old mine workers, as compared to the responsibilities of the students in her class at the same age.   She also tied the implications of strip mining at the turn of the 20th century to  to the Marcellus Shale drilling debate currently raging in Pennsylvania by asking, “What can we learn from history that we can apply to today?”  There was no discussion at this point.  The comment was left as an extended thinking challenge.

Liz’s presentation was a little more than 30 minutes, and the remaining 45 was available for the students to work in pairs on their own photostory or other presentation projects which were to be presented the next day.  Her work clearly modeled her expectations of the quality of the sources the students should use, as well as stressing that their projects should assist in answering the EQ relating the importance of the Lattimer Massacre to the industrialization of modern America.  During that time, she circulated among the groups, Encouraging Student Interaction and Cooperation and Fostering a Climate of Openness by asking questions about photo choices, congratulating students who had discovered sources she had not previously found, and encouraging them to think more deeply about the wording of their presentations as well as the best possible order to streamline their work.  She located empty classrooms nearby where students could use microphones to do voice-over recording for photostories, assisting them with that technology as necessary.

Liz is a phenomenal teacher who commands excellence of her students and herself.  Every time I am a witness to her teaching, I am moved to identify or adopt a tip or trick that I can utilize to improve my own teaching.   It is evident that she spends a tremendous amount of time planning her lessons to reach the highest levels of thinking, and works to engage “all the minds all the time” in her classroom.  Her seamless transition from greeting the students to dismissal clearly demonstrates the reason for her many public awards as well as the reputation she has among students who are dedicated to learning rather than simply “making the grade.”  Liz teaches with an attitude of respect for her students, which commands a respect from them towards Liz, as well as others, valuing the ideas shared in her classroom.  Students frequently seek to take elective classes offered by Liz, respecting the value of her expertise.  Her National History Day group actually has a waiting list of students seeking that experience.  Her organizational strategies fostered the creation of phenomenal independent NHD projects since her coordination efforts began two years ago, with students excelling to the state level in multiple categories both years, and one student competed at nationals this past summer -- as a freshman!  Students respect the high expectations of her classroom, seek her out for letters of recommendation, and return to visit her long after graduation.  To say she is a teacher with lasting impact still seems to be an understatement.

Classrooms for the Future:  A Commonwealth of Pennsylvania initiative to encourage the transition of PA classrooms from Learning Activities to Learning Environments, fostering higher level thinking, authentic projects, and learning how to learn.

Learning Focused Schools:

National History Day:

Liz also surprises me.  A LOT.  After one shopping trip to Harrisburg, she asked if I’d like to go to one of her favorite restaurants for lunch.  “Sure,” I said, expecting someplace fabulous – because that’s what Liz does.  Imagine my surprise when she pulled into a pothole-laden parking lot of what can only be described as a 50’s diner that serves everything under the sun, claiming it has the best pizza.  The booths, and the waitresses, hadn’t been updated for decades.  “Whattlyouze have?” Questioned the waitress.  Liz didn’t bat an eye.  It was right then that I knew the pizza was going to be VERY good, as she looked beyond the obvious attack on her beloved grammar.

On another occasion, I had been to Liz’s for dinner.  Jack was out with a friend, and Liz and I talked long past dark.  Liz walked me out, expecting the motion sensor light to turn on in the driveway.  To say she was incensed that said light didn’t turn on is an understatement.  Liz began leaping into the air, ple-aying across the driveway attempting to trigger the light.  I was so amused by this feat of Pixanne-like behavior, that I walked point blank into the 4 foot pile of mulch in her driveway, rolling down the pile laughing hysterically.

So yes, the beginning of the school year for me was rough.  The good news is that Liz is continuing to "volunteer" as a mentor and coach for some of the NHD students this year, so I occasionally catch a glimpse of her in the building.  Liz is the only person to have retired from our district and still have her name displayed on a door.  You see, when she retired, someone -- and I truly don't know who -- moved her nameplate from her classroom to the conference room in the Social Studies wing.  It is in that room that the NHD magic happens, for what I hope will be a very long time.

My life and my teaching will be richly blessed if I am able to continue to peer into the window that is Liz Lewis' view of excellence as I adapt to my new relationship with her.  Although we may no longer officially be colleagues, I'm pleased to still be her friend.

And I pray she keeps a good strong light on that mulch pile.


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