Thursday, April 30, 2015

Uncertainty.

Two weeks ago, I created tables in Word with two columns; the left hand column contained the remaining dates the classes would meet, and the right hand column loosely laid out the plans for those classes, as well as remaining assignments between now and the end of the year.

For some reason, I seem to be the only one panicking about the ever-increasing speed of this school year.  I am starting to wake up in the middle of the night, strategizing about alternative ways to motivate those who owe me papers to complete the assignments.  (This primarily applies to my freshmen in Information Literacy.)

Today was the reality check day for Themes in Lit as well.  The next phase of the 101 characters project begins on Monday, so the expectation of 101 annotated cards looms majestically over the heads of that group as well.

It's not that this hasn't happened before, and I certainly expect to repeat this cycle again in January at the end of first semester next year, so I was particularly drawn to the meme and photo.  I'm trying hard to breathe, and realize that the proverbial horse and water scenario is exactly where I am.  Of course, most teachers dislike uncertainty, and the end of every school year is the most uncertain time of all.

 


Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Stop Blinking.

Today was the second day for visitation at the primary school library.  A beautiful walk on a spring day, that seemed very similar to yesterday, wound up being perfectly wonderful, with a different spin.

Today's class did their own walks down memory lane, while many students explored books that weren't even in existence when they were in primary school.  A dramatic studying of The Boy and the Airplane  generated more than a few shed tears in the room -- even though the book contains no words.  Once composure was restored, there was a dramatic reading of The Book with No Pictures.  It was a great class, which included a brief visit with two gifted first graders, who demonstrated their own passions for reading by sharing their favorite fictional characters with people who were much taller and older than they.    A couple of boys visited the sports shelf with a first grader who now has these three football books "on reserve," waiting for him to finish the book he has checked out before he can take these home for perusal.

It was amazing to listen to the high schoolers on the way back to their building, wondering whether they were as confident and articulate when they were in first grade.

Stop Blinking. 

May is less than 36 hours away.  HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?   Today I sent home the official documents necessary to inform the parents of gifted seniors that "Gifted Services will cease upon graduation."  I'm not really sure why this is necessary, aside from the fact that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania requires it, as I doubt that anyone would be demanding services for a student no longer enrolled in the district.  But we do what we have to do, right?
Scholarship applications are crossing my desk in abundance, and the arrival of the lady from Balfour with the graduation announcements and cards in the cafeteria today proclaimed the impending doom that is about to befall those of us who aren't yet ready to admit that the ride is nearly over.

The first day of school this year was prior to Labor Day.  September 1st was my first day in cyberspace, with goals and dreams for my year.   So while the school year isn't over, it was interesting to go back and visit my goals for this year from last September:

1.  Intentionally infuse the Habits of Mind in my teaching.  CHECK!
2.  Be more positive!  CHECK!  
3. Leave school chores at school.  (almost always) CHECK!

Honestly, this has been my best year of teaching ever, and I totally attribute that assessment on my daily blogging.  My professional learning network reaches around the globe, and the number of blogs and twitter feeds I follow have offered me more ideas and resources than I could ever have imagined.

The folks at Te@chthought have issued a challenge to reflect upon this past year before August.  (Because any teacher knows that the summer is when we rejuvenate and plan to revamp the entire way we do everything, and suddenly it's August and we can't believe how much we haven't processed...)  So if you're a teacher, even if you think you are way too busy, try a month of reflection.  You won't regret it, and you'll have a heck of an artifact to share for Domain 4.

Stop laughing.  (And start blogging!)

 


Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A Family of Learners.

It's spring. The grass is green, the sun was shining, and my Themes in Literature class was finally able to take the "field trip" to the library of the primary school next door to visit the books of their childhood, and discover, or rediscover, some characters of influence for their 101 Fictional Characters who influenced their lives.

It was a great visit, and I get to do it all again tomorrow with the first period section.

On the way back to the high school, I captured the picture above.  I have to tell you, I was a bit emotional thinking that I only have a little more than a month left with these learners -- and very, very, proud of who they are and who they have become as a group.
   

 A Family of Learners.

Themes in Lit. is an unusual high school class for a variety of reasons.  One of the most notable is the multi-grade levels represented.  The focus of the class is actually on metacognitive processes through a filter of a single topic of "theme" each semester.  Over the course of a four year cycle, various strategies are explored.  (In theory, allowing every student the opportunity to learn and practice cognitive strategies that could be transferred to other learning environments.)  The upperclassmen "get it" early in the semester, because they've been challenged to think and justify their thinking before.  They know that I rarely give specific parameters for projects or rubrics defining expectations -- and they get used to assignments that are presented with the "show your comprehensive understanding" or "demonstrate that you've chased the rabbit as far as you can" kinds of descriptions.    The upperclassmen support the underclassmen in modeling this rebel behavior, and something unusual happens.
   
The class bonds.  There is a gelling that happens where independent projects spark conversation between students.  Someone walks into class and casually mentions "I saw this, and it seemed like you need it for your project," tossing some reading material or other resource to support a classmate's project.  The voices in the classroom seek to include everyone in conversation during Socratic discussions, seeking others' opinions.

Today I realized how lucky I am, as I followed my class back to the high school.  They are friends, they are supportive of each other, and it is genuine.  Given a wide open field, they chose to walk side by side, sharing, inspiring and supporting each other.

Today my world is a beautiful place, because I am trusted with these amazing learners who teach me more about the world than I could possibly teach them.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Fresh Coffee?

I have written what I believe to be the last letter of recommendation for this school year.  Given that May 1st is Friday, and I'm assuming that my charges never wait until the last minute, I'm feeling certain that the April 30th and May 1st deadlines for scholarship applications have all been met.

Oh, wait.  I just fell off my unicorn and struck my head.  I'm obviously delusional.



The Daily Grind.

The weather is awful.  It's cold and gray, and testing continues.  People are grumpy -- and by people, I mean everyone.  It's hard to be upbeat when everyone around you is also grumpy, so we stay focused on sunny days to come.  I searched for something uplifting and found this:

Building A Curriculum Based On People 

Suddenly, I'm excited again.  It's all Terry Heick's doing.  In her piece for Te@chthought, she suggests switching from a "curriculum of insecurity to a curriculum of wisdom."

We're doing it wrong, here in the 21st century.  We're opening their mouths and drowning them in facts, figures, formulas and rules for them to regurgitate.  (Sorry for that visual image, but it truly is what is happening.)  What would happen if we stopped teaching TO the standards, and started teaching the skills necessary to understand the concepts?  How many times can we lie to our students when they ask "When will I EVER need to know THIS?"

A few weeks ago, I was inspired by Te@chthought to create three signs for my room:  

WHAT?                       SO WHAT?                   NOW WHAT?

I've asked my learners to evaluate their projects using this new filter.  The results were pretty amazing, as they were forced to consider not only what they had done, but why it was important and what the next step would be.  I tried it myself on some curriculum I was writing, and trashed about two days' worth of work when I couldn't answer the "So What" question for myself.  

Somehow, some way, we are responsible for making learning relevant -- so that it truly sticks.  Even if it means we have to climb back on our unicorns to get the attention of our audiences.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Think.

Students often provide inspiration for me.  I guess it makes sense that I'm a bit more cutting edge with social media than the average 54 year old, because I spend the bulk of my waking hours with high school students who share the joys and frustrations of Vine, Yik Yak, Yelp, Twitter, and other apps that I frantically scramble to analyze and determine whether they are "friend" or "foe" in my book.  So while I hadn't been able to make sense of having both cable tv AND Netflix, I'd been pretty good at not caring about having just another time-wasting video service.  (Besides, I already had AmazonPrime, and could download what I wanted when I wanted it.  The thing was, I didn't really know what I wanted, so it was relatively easy to keep the cost per month fairly low.)

I argued that I couldn't make sense out of it, and then discovered that my own mother has had a subscription since the mail-order days.  Feigning ignorance was no longer an option.

One thing led to another, and now I have Netflix.

Bert says, "Think."

It's been a struggle around here with Comcast, recently, so Netflix on my tablet has actually proven to be a very nice thing.  Portable and prop-able, allowing some multi-tasking while binge-watching Raising Hope.  While I haven't finished season one -- which may actually happen tonight -- I'm quite addicted to the implausible stories that it tells, that I wish were true by the end of each episode.  Kristin asked me recently which character is my favorite, which is a tossup at this point, but there is definitely an endearingly educational value to Bert.

Especially when Virginia glares at him during a crisis and says "THINK!"  

How often do I do that as a teacher?  Does the pressure I put behind that demand cause the same reaction in my students that poor Bert experiences?  Do they suddenly see flying balloon letters spelling out the word THINK, comic book style, racing down hills, exploding on chandeliers, and taking over the world, offering no actual room in their brains for thoughts other than THINK?

Is it possible to force active thought onto a student (or group of students) simply by ordering them to do so?

Honestly, I don't have the answer, and the actual question is starting to make my head hurt just a bit more than I'd like on a Sunday afternoon.  After all, the entire process of learning has many questions that become the basis for discussions.  What is rigor?  What is focus?  How valuable is homework?  Is motivation something that is innate?

The musings are in my head, and, occasionally, in a lively discussion with a colleague or two.  

Does this count as reflection?  I sure hope so.  I'd hate to think that this is actually entertainment that doesn't cost me $7.99 a month with streaming back to back episodes.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Just Create.

I'm fairly certain that Nathan Sawaya would challenge my creative interpretation of his famous quote, hanging in the LEGO exhibit at the Franklin Institute -- particularly since it blocked his first name.    It's aptly stated, however blurry the photo itself is, when you consider the importance of creativity in our world, and its relevance to problem-solving, in addition to the sheer beauty that comes as a result of the creative process.  

Time to create.

Fifteen, or so, years ago,  I inherited boxes of books from the previous Teacher of the Gifted that had lost their way and been stuck in a closet in another school building.  Contained in one of those boxes was a book by Edward De Bono.  According to his website, he is widely accepted as the person who first considered the human brain to be a self-organizing system, which he presented in his development of the "Six Thinking Hats" creativity process.

Elementary schools all have an Ellison Die Cut Machine, and I immediately went in search of a die of a hat.  (Okay, I did that after the school nurse forbade me from bringing in six colored hats for the kids to wear/share.  Given subsequent experiences with lice, I now appreciate that call, but was more than mildly annoyed at the time...)  I dug through my inherited construction paper, pulling black, white, yellow, green, red, and blue, and punching several sets of colorful top hats, and headed to the laminating machine.

The thinking hats allowed me to teach a streamlined process for creative problem-solving.  They also allowed me to selectively assign hats to students based upon their strengths and needs when collaborating.  That kid that criticizes everyone?  YELLOW HAT, baby!  Now ye may only compliment those around ye.  The fast thinker had to slow down and wear the WHITE HAT, summarizing the facts, just the facts.  And the kid who has creative ideas, but is afraid to share them is wearing the GREEN, with everyone in the group listening to their ideas, because, well, that's his purpose in the group.  We problem-solved, collectively wearing the same hat, we did exercises where everyone wore different hats, working collaboratively to work to explore the entire scenario with grand scrutiny.

And then one of the kids went home, and dropped De Bono's name at the dinner table with grand disdain.  

It seems that the student's father worked at M and M Mars, and had actually used the Six Thinking Hats at work.  He was excited, she was less than excited, hoping that De Bono was a once-and-done experience in my room.    Her father called, volunteering his services,  came and chatted with the kids about real world application to skills they were learning in school. 

He handed them candy bars, and told them that without the thinking hats, that brand wouldn't exist.

Just create.  Choose colors, use colors, SCAMPER through the colors, and make the world a better place.  De Bono thinks so, Sawaya thinks so, and Heydt and Sturgis do as well.


Friday, April 24, 2015

CheezIts and Carwash Cows.

It is rare for me to be wishing for the bell on  Friday afternoon.  Today was a rare day.  This week has been exhausting, and trying to identify the specific why involves a list of ridiculousness that would only delay my return to vim and vigor if I were to begin to attempt to list the compounding reasons.

It's okay.  It happens to all of us.  It's tough, however, when such emotions hit a collective group of friends or coworkers.  I left soon after the bell, and ran errands, looking forward to coming home to working internet, and a Comcast-conversation-free evening.

Bruce greeted me at the door with the phone in his hand.  You guessed it - NO DIAL TONE.

In only 95 minutes, we were able to navigate the intricacies of Comcast's service.  My new guilty pleasure when they ask if I'd like to take a short customer service survey at the end of my interaction is to give them their own phone number to call.  I hope they have the same quality service experience that I do every time I call.

I admit, my choices for dealing with absurdities are varied.  Today, it's simply choosing to be amused by anything more absurd than my present situation.  Given that you've read this rambling this far, I thought I'd share two:


 Why, yes, that is a large Turkey Hill cow in a car wash.  Mooooove it along.




















And this doozy that appeared in my twitter feed.  I only wish that I could identify the origin.  I suspect I will forever wonder what happened on November 14th.

(And wonder about the fate of Cheesenips and Goldfish crackers in the cafeteria...)



Monday is coming, and I'll face it head on.  Meanwhile, I'll  realize that weird stuff happens everywhere, and that understanding is not a skill every day -- or every week.

Happy Weekend!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Gap - Don't FALL.

Consider these three little letters:

G    A    P

When I was a kid, the clothing store known as the GAP had a commercial that suggested in song that we all "Fall into the GAP."  It didn't sound safe, but we all were drawn, inexplicably, to the mall, and took our turn fake-tripping over the threshold into the store while singing the jingle, ending the last word on the lowest note we could hit without choking ourselves.    The GAP was a big deal when I was a kid, and their clothing was something that we begged for as gifts from parents who couldn't really see the difference between GAP and Lemon Frog from Sears.

 Mind the Gap, Consider the Gap, Gap, Gap, Gap....


I've been thinking a bit about gaps today -- first when I worked with my first graders, who collectively are missing so many teeth that we should all celebrate the far-off timing for the arrival of corn on the cob, and later when I came home to the blog entry by my friend Beth Leidolf.   Beth references one of my favorite phrases from our friends across the pond, "Mind the Gap", as she muses on the importance of identifying gaps in student learning through reflection, observation, and assessment, and then filling them in an appropriate time frame, rather than waiting until it may be too late to make sense of the learning.  (Beth, by the way, is one of the Te@chthought gurus who sucked me into this world of blogging.  Take the time to read her thoughts!)

one of my favorite British Tube warning signs.
In addition to the potential of gaps in learning, I'd like to humbly suggest the importance of minding the gaps within the course of a day.  Sometimes those gaps are teachable moments that are totally off the grid of the original lesson plan, yet lead to a place of wonder.  Sometimes those gaps are actually signaling everyone about the importance of some down time that can be used for the all-important process of incubation, allowing students, (and sometimes their teachers), a breathing space to process, refine, and revise their thinking before moving forward.

It's a tough thing to do these days -- to intentionally slow or stop the train of curriculum flying down the track -- to make better sense of the process and enjoy the journey.  These are they days they'll remember, if we let them take the time to think about what they're learning.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Visitors.

A friend posted a status on Facebook that read "It's the kind of day when I count my blessings on one hand.... feeling discouraged."

We've all been there.  For teachers, April is a tough month -- especially late April.  Sure, there are the interruptions for standardized testing, followed by AP Simulations, AP exams, and field trips that cause altered schedules as large chunks of classes are away with another teacher, leaving those behind wondering what we should teach to a class missing 70% of the students.  

Add to that, the panicked "we only have fourteen more classes left!" mentality that makes the ever-so-far-away-summer seeming like a locomotive threatening our untimely demise.

Surprise!

I've been working to put my proverbial ducks in a row earlier this year, staying on top of the grading, trying to display the surface of my desk more purposefully, and actually setting dates on my Outlook Calendar for NEXT year to make sure that things (allegedly) will be easier, and that I can learn from my current mistakes.  I'm gathering data to share with my administrator in my end of year evaluation, and thinking and working smarter -- not harder -- (again, allegedly.)

About ten minutes before the end of second period today, a colleague magically appeared in my room.  Now, Dave is not the type of guy who enters -- or departs -- any room unnoticed, so it was fairly amazing how he blended in and sat down, joining in the student-led conversation on the effects of historical and societal events on the evolution of fictional teenage characters.

Edutopia posted an interesting prompt today:  The #1 thing that inspires me as an educator is:_____________.

It seems easy to say "MY STUDENTS!", yet we all know that there are days when the inspiration by students is less than, well, inspirational.  

So my answer is:

The #1 thing that inspires me as an educator is fascinating, unscripted, enlightening, conversation where teachers and students are equals in the discussion.

Thanks, Dave, for stopping by, and inspiring me today.  I hope to reciprocate sometime soon!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

That's not funny.

Yesterday I received an email from an old friend, who teaches in another district.  I don't often hear from Jean, but when I do, I know that the email will be filled with fun, or something thought-provoking.  This week's email did not disappoint.

A simple email message:

We asked the kids to create a painting based on a concern/message of their own. Be sure to check out the eyes!
It made me laugh!

This child is a third grader named Helen.  Check out the perspective she used on the desk and the testing paper.  Notice the eyes -- and the stressed out wrinkles.  I shared the picture with my high school students, and every single one of them admired Helen's message.


Humorology.


Do you think it is possible to teach people to locate and appreciate the humor in their world?  In the high schools across the nation, the final push is on in anticipation of Advanced Placement Exams in about two weeks, as teachers try to finish the required content, along with preparing their students for the actual exams through a series of practice writing assignments or simulation exams.  Kids are invested in this process because success on the AP exams translates, potentially, to college credits or higher-level placements.  (And the fact that their parents have shelled out $90 per exam is also a motivator...)

In Pennsylvania, Keystone exams in Biology, Literature, and Algebra are looming for 9th and 10th graders.  PSSAs are in full swing for grades 3 - 8.  The message?  Take these tests seriously, as your future depends upon success.

The future of their district, their teachers, and the curriculum as it exists now is also under scrutiny, depending on the success, or lack thereof, making it very difficult for anyone to relax and giggle a bit.

There is a value to Positive Psychology, and I believe humorology falls under that, with a bit of a twisted look at that which makes us smile.  Martin Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania has quite a lot of research to support the value of positive thinking, and Sean Achor formerly from Harvard  and now CEO of GoodThink, never fails to inspire me with his talk of baby unicorns.  

Teaching humor, or positive thought, isn't enough.  It requires application and practice.
Maybe after all this testing, we'll have some time to practice it enough to make it real.


Monday, April 20, 2015

Birthday Carolers, Google, and Post it Notes.

In all of my fifty-four years on this earth, I have never been the recipient of a visit from Birthday Carolers.

Until today.

While standing on my front lawn with a potential landscaping dude, my friends from up the street wandered down -- all three generations of them -- and stood at the bottom of my driveway serenading me with a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday.  The landscaping dude seemed a bit perplexed, but indulged them in their celebratory gesture.

So why is it that traditions from one season, like caroling, don't transcend into other seasons?  And why don't we celebrate the ingenuity and creativity of those who choose to break the mold, think outside the box, and test the outer limits of normal?

Today, I did just that.

Happy Birthday, Adolph.

When I logged on to Google today, I was greeted with a montage of cartooned birthday cakes and cupcakes spelling out GOOGLE.  I hovered the mouse, and was greeted with a "Happy Birthday, Susan!" message.  While this greeting was unexpected, it left me wondering about its origins, and feeling a bit stalked by the proverbial big brother at Google.  (I clicked on the link and it took me to my own Google + page, so I traced the connection...)  

April 20th is one of those sort of infamous birthdays.  Columbine, the attacks in Waco, Oklahoma City bombings, National Pot Day, and the birthday of Adolph Hitler all share my day.  Working in a high school, there are more than a few passing references to the last two -- including a flurry of Post it notes that were stuck to my computer screen when I returned to my room after my morning water bottle filling in the faculty room wishing me, and, "to a lesser extent, Adolph" a Happy Birthday.  

My department cohort presented me with a very colorful unicorn, and a grammatically correct card signed by most.  (The grammatical corrections were provided by my English Department friends and not the fine folks at Hallmark.)

And social media once again stepped up to provide the prompt to literally hundreds of friends who commented in the hallways, on my wall, or through texts.

I'm fairly certain Adolph wasn't treated quite as grandly on this, his 126th birthday.
Which is more than appropriate, since he is both dead, and not worthy of birthday celebrations, what with his lack of friends with whom to celebrate, given his atrocious behavior.

So today I celebrate the big FIVE FOUR, and am glad that I am surrounded by students who don't compare me to Hitler, colleagues who understand the value of grammar, and family and friends from near and far who took a moment to reach out with wishes of goodness for another year.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Talkin' bout my generation.

Captain's Log, Stardate April 19, 2015.  We continue to venture where no one has gone before, in our attempt to discover the inner-workings of Comcast and their wireless offerings.  I am still unable to connect to wifi, leaving me the options of crouching on top of my washer while ethernet-connected to the modem OR, and more desirably, highjacking Bruce's laptop to access the outside world when I need to type more than I can hunt or peck on my ipad.

If you want to feel dumber than a doornail, simply try to talk to anyone a generation above or below yours.  Each day without internet access, which is clearly isolated only to my computer, makes less sense, and makes me more convinced that I'm turning into one of those crazy old people who just doesn't "get" technology.

Generation Gap.

Working in a public high school offers a lot of opportunities to stay somewhat current in my understanding of technology.  My district offered lessons in Skype right around the same time that Oprah started using it on her show. My students later convinced me to try ooVoo, as it was less glitchy, and offered a more broad-based opportunity to add multiple participants, with much better graphics, and fewer dropped connections.  

Admittedly, my students are lightyears ahead of me in their ability to pick up a device and navigate their way through the intricacies of the screens, using whatever is new in a matter of moments, as if they'd lived with that program, app, or device for their entire lives.

I had a discussion with my mother today, and she commented on the value of friendships with multi-aged individuals.  Yes, I believe I have friends in their twenties - former students who share genuine interests with me.  I also have friends in their thirties, forties, sixties, and seventies, and a couple in their eighties, who all offer unique perspectives.  She, too, shares friends across decades, and values the knowledge they bring from their point in their lives and corner of the world, which help her shape her own understanding with greater perspective.

I still don't understand why my computer doesn't work.  Given that there have been more than seven people, from a variety of levels of expertise and age, working on this for more than I week, I feel a tad vindicated for my ability to at least articulate what isn't working, even if I have no clear reason to explain why.  (The fact that none of them can explain it either helps a lot!)

The fun in life comes from the journey.  Along that journey, weird stuff happens, often defying explanation, and challenging us to ask more questions, find more answers, and realize that the answers we sought all along weren't really the goal of our journey in the first place.  It's the people we discover along the way that offer us the stories that become legen-(wait for it) dary.  

Sometimes we think we need the whole picture before we truly understand the whole process, when the process was what we needed to experience in the first place.

I still don't have internet.  I have a lot of friends.  My interconnectedness exists in the span of my friendships across generations.  (Awwww!)  And tomorrow, I will conquer Comcast and begin my 55th year on this planet with a whole new connection.  Come hell, aka Comcast, or high water.  (Rain is expected.)


Saturday, April 18, 2015

Go register your face.


Today I attended the bridal shower of a former student.  Many of the attendants are also former students, and several of the others in attendance are people that I've worked with in various capacities in a variety of schools in the district, so it was a very enjoyable -- and informative -- time.

Add to that, the beautiful day, and the panoramic windows overlooking an outdoor wedding at the Cameron Estate next door, and it was easy to get in the wedding spirit.

With one exception.

It was accidentally revealed to me that one former student, who had contributed a great deal of balloon art decorations, has repeatedly violated the law.  Accusations flew, and, well, I was forced to face a fear not to far from my fear of flying monkeys.

Fear of Faint (ing)

*Full disclosure:  Clowns terrify me.  For this reason, there are NO PICTURES of clowns contained in this entry.  Nor will one appear in this blog, ever.

Matthew Faint has a unique job.  He is the curator and archivist of the clown face egg registry.   Now, I've been to London three separate times, and have managed to successfully avoid knowledge of, and direct contact with, The Clown Egg Registry.   The collection is kept in two places because of its size.  Some are held at the clowns’ church, Holy Trinity in Dalston, East London, the rest at Gerry Cottle’s Clown Museum in Wookey Hole, Somerset. 

Clearly, avoiding a Clown Museum is easy, but a clown church?

Getting back to the offending former student.  Her balloon twisting skills are legendary, and apparently she's done some clowning on the side as costumed balloon-twisting performer, since she graduated from high school.

With an UNREGISTERED face.  

This is frowned upon (go ahead, picture the sad clown, {shudder, shudder, shudder} and continue trying to sleep in the dark.)  Clowns must, apparently, never, steal the makeup, likeness, or name of another, and should protect their identities for -- apparently -- both personal stage reasons AND, as was suggested at the table, to provide appropriate alibis in case of false accusations of crimes.  (Because we KNOW the clown is always the one who did it!)

The randomness of the conversation at the table made me feel like these kids were hanging out in high school sharing obscure facts, with each one more bizarre than the last, causing me to wonder which fact was a total lie in attempt to pull one over on me.

I learned a lot, had a wonderful afternoon, was part of the winning "design a wedding dress out of toilet paper" competition, and left with prizes and favors.  

The biggest takeaway of all, that I will continue to pay close attention to the conversation of members of generations other than my own to stay abreast of current topics and trends.

And I will avoid East London, at all costs, in February,  when scores of clowns gather at Holy Trinity Church in Dalston, the official church of the British clown community,   to honor the memory of Joseph Grimaldi, the popular 19th-century London-born entertainer who is acknowledged as the father of modern clowning. 

Friday, April 17, 2015

Grey Matter.

Midway through the afternoon, my cellphone chimed with a text message.  I rarely have the phone even in my classroom, as the reception is sketchy and the battery drains very quickly as it searches for signals, but somehow this message caught my attention.  It was a message from a former student with a link and a message reading "I remember the book we read in gifted about Einstein's brain so I thought you might like this.  :)

That student graduated three years ago.  

I love that the weird stuff that we discover in Giftedland stays with my people long into their future lives, and that they sometimes reach back to make connections!

Grey Matter.

Sure, the book told the odd story of Einstein's brain being returned to family members, after a cross country ride in the trunk of a Buick.  Obviously it's an odd enough premise to warrant some brain cells connecting to the past when the link above was discovered years later.  

As often happens when seemingly random things happen in my classroom or life -- and it seems like much of my life functions in a random fashion until I take a giant step back and see the connections -- I happened to come across this text and link while sitting with a student headed to college next year, and interested in neurosurgery.   While I doubt that she has ever considered the scientific value or possibility of Einstein's brain, she indulged me as I read the article to her.

Kids like to think.  I'm hoping they like to think a bit more metacognitively this year after all the reflecting on thinking that we've done.  I also know that they are more than willing to think about each other.  This week, the annual nominations for the "Grey Scholarship" started rolling in.  The scholarship, awarded to a graduating senior who "assisted in creating a positive learning environment, fostered the most advanced abstract thinking in classmates, and served to challenge those around him or her to explore new and different paths to understanding," is awarded based solely on the nominations of his or her peers.

I know the future is in good hands, as I read nominations with comments such as these:
  • "...she is always thinking outside the box, whether it's during discussion or solving a problem she always has something new and thought-provoking to say."
  • "...he always listens to other people and their points of view.  He never forces his opinion on them."
  • "... she is a very kind and accepting of every individual.  She radiates positivity in everything she does."
  • "He may read the weirdest books, but I think he learns from them.  ... he provides both an enlightened and sometimes demented perspective that makes me question what I know or what I think I know..."
  • "... inspires me to be the most peaceful person I can be.  She makes me think more creatively and positively in everything I do..." 
  • "...can definitely make people think.  He has a creative imagination and can easily influence anyone... he brings people out of their shells and easily gets the day going."
  • "...I like how he challenges other people's opinions and makes me reconsider things..."
  • "...he consistently fosters new and creative conversation and thoughts in those around him.  When he introduces a new idea, he makes sure that his view on the topic is not known so as to not influence his peers' opinions so he can value opposing opinions and considers them and in this way grows his own knowledge..."
I don't imagine that any brain will be dissected and shipped to expert scientists for study in the same way that Einstein's was, and I daresay that's okay.  Certainly the unscientific way in which the Einstein brain was studied was both flawed, and less than honorable for someone who contributed so much to our world.  

I am happy, however, that the brains entrusted to me are stopping to spend some time to recognize the brains around them that have made a difference in our little corner of the world.  And I hope that three years from now a voice from the past reaches back to make me think.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The calming value of avocados.

"I'm taking a break.... I'm looking at avocados."

I'm not kidding.  A student actually said the above quote today in my classroom.  She had been working, diligently, on a project, and had stopped -- apparently intentionally -- to view images of avocados.  

Another student, upon hearing the above comment, simply got up, walked to the back whiteboard, and wrote down the quote.  (It wasn't the first random quote to grace the back board -- just the newest one.  Last week, a student randomly raised his hand and offered to sell me a burial plot near Philadelphia.)

Seriously?  I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried.

Stress Relievers

 Given that this is PSSA week at the junior high, I queried the bleary-eyed eighth graders who wandered in my room for Information Literacy coaching during Tribe Time.  As they worked, they were more than a bit punchy, after a day of PSSA Language Arts testing.  We took a short break, and I asked them if they'd ever considered avocados to be particularly calming.

Giggles, then instant quiet, as they surreptitiously googled pictures.

In an informal survey, the following additions were made to the list of stress relievers:

  • popping bubble wrap
  • sliding scissors through lamination
  • pictures of baby armadillos
  • zen garden raking
  • zentangling
  • and one particular student became obsessed about the calming influences of blueberries AND avocados, while commenting that bananas and strawberries provided the opposite effect.

An unscientific study, to be sure.  

During weeks like this, it's this sort of banter that creates relationships, inside jokes, and the fodder for yearbook inscriptions years down the road.  They may never remember the prompt on the PSSA that was particularly paralyzing, but I'm hoping that they smile when they see guacamole.

According to the folks at Q'doba, Guacamole is Freedom. 

Let's hope their advertising campaign applies to freedom from the stress of standardized testing.
 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Distinguished has no zipcode.


It's officially the first week of PSSAs.  If you're not from Pennsylvania, substitute your own state's acronym for whatever proficiency exams have been deemed worthy of testing the heck out of your students to the point of tears, and you'll easily recognize the stress that has befallen the hallowed halls. 


You know it's a big deal when the front page of the local paper carries color photographs of children in school hallways under banners encouraging their "distinguished performance" alongside quotes from small children about the value of the tests, or the disruptions they feel in their lives as a result.   The comments ranged from frustration over the cutting of time to study history and science in favor of prepping for math and reading tests, to how difficult it is for a student to be prepared for a big test given so early in the morning.

Oh, and PSSAs are now only administered to kids in grades 3 - 8.  High Schoolers will be facing Keystone Exams in Algebra, Biology, and Literature the same weeks that the upperclassmen will be taking AP exams.

So, basically, there is not a whole lot of teaching going on, as students are pulled for testing for a variety of reasons.

Distinguished has no Zipcode.

To say that kids are stressed about the tests is an understatement.  "Get a good night's sleep."  "Eat a GOOD breakfast." Kids can chew gum, drink water, and engage in all sorts of stretching and stimulating activities reserved for special occasions, like big tests, apparently.

Teachers are stressed as well.  Kids score as Advanced, Proficient, Basic, or Below Basic, with the latter two being undesirable.  Such ratings are one factor in the calculation of the number known as the SPP (School Performance Profile) which is calculated into each and every teacher's year end evaluation.  

It is then that teachers know whether they are deemed effective or ineffective.

I don't teach a tested subject, yet my job performance evaluation weighs heavily on the success of my little cherubs at the junior high, and, surprisingly, at the intermediate school.  (Where I have no students at all, but the intermediate school's score counts toward the SPP of the Primary School, where I do teach 2 hours a week.)

An administrator in our district has muttered the phrase, "Nobody lives in Distinguished," more than once.  In fact, it's a sort of battle cry for many of us.

Teachers will be evaluated as Distinguished, Satisfactory, Needs Improvement, or Unsatisfactory, based upon their own performance, and the students in a variety of places in their district who might factor into a related SPP.

And yes, there are teachers in this country who could be Teacher of the Year in the eyes of some, and receive a failing grade.

Distinguished sounds nice.  Sort of like a well-tailored and well-groomed gentleman who takes a walk with a closed umbrella at the ready.

And we all know how often that is seen on the streets these days!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Life is a Treadmill, I'm gonna ride it....

We all hope for a world where everything that goes wrong can be resolved like our fictional friends on television.  Imagine having a bad day, with accompanying melodramatic music at the height of your frustration, followed by a few commercials -- and, apparently, a magic wand spell or two -- that allows the perfect resolution to your distress.  All followed by a wonderful "lesson learned" message for everyone around you.

As I mentioned earlier this week, I've gone several rounds with out internet provider, who conveniently advises me to "log on to their website to report my connectivity issues."  This, along with Apple advising me that "all Genius Bar appointments must be made on line" leaves me scratching my head as to how we ever got along without the interweb, let alone how one REPORTS difficulty accessing it when it can't be accessed.

Yes, it's a treadmill kind of day.

Nowhere fast.

The bulk of the steps recorded on my fitbit this evening were related to the troubleshooting prompts of a guy named, I'm not kidding, Adonis, at Comcast.  "Check your router," "Try to log on," back to the router, watch the lights, report the blinking, and rebooting.  Seventeen trips up and down the stairs.  Oh, and still no connectivity.  A trip to the mall, assurances that my computer is working fine, and back to Comcast, who assured me it is the computer that is at fault.

How often does this same cycle happen in the heads of our students?  As teachers, we've all seen the glazed-over faces that are silently screaming "DOES  -  NOT -- COMPUTE", as we attempt to connect new information to existing or past knowledge.  Today's frustrations have me ready to crawl into bed with a coloring book, abandoning the technological world in the hope that it will magically cure itself and all make sense tomorrow.

Alice in Wonderland once commented, "It would be so nice if something would make sense for a change."

Oh, Alice, I do so agree!

The next few weeks are dedicated to testing.  It makes little sense to teachers, and even less sense to the learners.  We all know it's important, but why it is so important, well, just - does - not - compute.  We try to connect.  We try to understand.  And the treadmill continues to take us on a journey of inches while we cover miles.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Gone too soon.

Investing in students is our job as teachers.  If we're very fortunate, we connect with some of them on a level that creates long-time mentoring relationships, in which we become part of their extended community for a very long time. Sometimes we, as former teachers, are still a presence in lives and are invited to weddings and baby showers.  Those sorts of warm fuzzy accomplishments, and the associated invitations, create a sense of accomplishment for teachers, as we celebrate the next step in the successful futures of learners who we've followed from our past.

I teach in a rural community.  The township where I live has the most preserved farmland in the state, and farming is a way of life for many.  Yesterday, our lives were interrupted with the news of the untimely passing of a student who graduated last May.  His family are pillars in our community, and their children and extended family are interwoven in our district.

So every homeroom was read a formal statement, announcing the death of Jed.  Counselors were available for struggling students and faculty.  Social media blew up with prayers and memories last evening, and will continue for a while as those close to Jed, and his family, try to define the new normal.

Oh, and the farm?  Well, the farmers in the area were coming up the driveway before sunset last evening, with many hands to lighten the burden of the ongoing life on the farm.  Cows were milked, pigs were slopped, and, well, any of those other farmy things that escape my understanding.

Brave Faces.

 I didn't know this young man personally, but know many of his extended family.  When that is the case, it's a bit easier to be more objective, and to be available to support those who were intertwined with him.  He was a wrestler, and a thrower on the spring track team.  Kids who are involved in these two sports, in particular, develop a bond with their teammates and coaches that transcends understanding for many people.

Today was about checking on each other, volunteering to step into a classroom so someone could step out and breathe, and attempting to do "business as usual" when the day was so unusual.  We've been through this before, and we will, undoubtedly, be faced with it again, no matter how unfair it all seems.

The cows will still need to be milked, and the tests will still need to be administered.  For the next few days, we'll be a little more mindful of what we have, and what we've lost.

And take a few minutes to appreciate the sun on the farmland in this place we all call home.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Customer Service??

I consider myself to be a semi-intelligent individual who can troubleshoot technology and follow simple instructions.  My father raised me to be one of those problem-solving individuals who gives it a shot, and, if all else fails, go back and read the directions.

Suffice it to say, I am a trial and error trouble-shooter.

I also worked as a Customer Service Representative, settling insurance claims for Reliance Insurance Company right out of college, so I feel for the poor suckers who are working on a beautiful spring afternoon for Comcast, and I mentally try to psych myself into believing that they are only capable of doing what their pre-scripted prompt sheets tell them to say.

I'm sure you see where this is going.

At approximately 2:30 today, my computer failed to connect to the internet.  Multiple attempts, followed by restarts and alternative devices confirmed that the issue was owned by Comcast.  I called, and had the system send a new signal to try to get things back online.  Did I mention that our phone is also Comcast?  So yes, the signal was sent, disconnecting the call.  With no resolution to the problem, I resorted to calling on my cellphone, each time refusing the electronic offer to "complete a short customer service survey" after the problem is resolved.

When satisfaction was not achieved, and I called for the FIFTH time, I agreed to have customer service call me, within 30 minutes, to give my customer service feedback.  (And knowing that such feedback would, at least, give me some sense of revenge on the system--even if it were just talking to their electronic voice.)

My computer is still not working, but my husband's is, hence this blog entry.  The wonderful advice from customer service, and I quote, "Next time you have trouble with your service, LOG ON TO THE INTERNET and we can talk you through the steps to resolve your issue."

Honestly, Bruce and I were laughing so hard at this advice that I failed to hang up with customer service, and he and I mocked the conversation for the better part of five minutes, before I heard the dude patiently asking if there was anything else he could do to assist me. 

Apparently customer service can't disconnect a call until the caller does.

So how does this relate to education?

An excellent question.  I am doing my best not to insult my friends, some of whom actually WORK at Comcast, and comment that I might use a lifetime career of script-reading as the result of not doing homework.  I totally get that the nice young man on the phone was doing everything within his power to assist me, according to the rules established by his employer.  Even he understood the absurdity of suggesting that the next time I had trouble with internet service, I should log on to the internet to solve my problem.

There are certainly times when teachers offer the same sort of double-speak.  We explain something or give an assignment which seems unclear or incomprehensible to students, who ask for clarification.  Our answers usually fall on deaf, or confused, ears.  We get to a point that we don't, or can't, find alternate words or paths to explain the situation or assignment in a way that is understandable, leaving kids as frustrated as I am right now trying to make my confused mind peaceful again.

Unlike the voice on the phone, kids looking for clarification are usually looking us straight in the eye.  And answering, honestly, that we just don't know, but will work to find answers that will work for everyone.

Fortunately, we live in an age where the answers are on the internet, with reliable sites like Kahn Academy and databases with trusted sources.

As long as we can find the connectivity key on the bottom of our routers, type them in accurately, and stay online long enough to find them.