Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Teachers, Believe in each other, plz!

I woke up before my alarm this morning (thanks to flappy dachshund ears). Instead of working out I decided to catch up on my dvr'd Oprah. I watched the Life Class she co-hosted with Iyanla Vanzant. The topic was "Terrible Things Women Do to Each Other" - a fantastic episode that was way too short, in my opinion.

It stirred up a brief series of tweets this morning as I thought about the ways in which teachers tear each other down. 

The four main ways in which women treat each other badly as outlined by Iyanla are:

  1. Lying
  2. Betrayal
  3. Gossip
  4. Competition
Any bells ringing for anyone already? They were for me. Working in a school with mostly other women it is easy to fall into these behaviors. It is not as easy to avoid them. Specifically gossip. 

How Iyanla Defines Gossip:

Gossip is when you have a malice of intent or mindless, third-party conversation to someone about someone, something you haven't said to that someone. 

As a fourth/fifth grade teacher for 12 of my 14 years I've had plenty of opportunities to gossip about the teachers before me with regards to my students' struggles. It's easy to make blanket statements about what we perceive is going on in other classrooms. Usually something along the lines of...."Well, you know they don't do diddly-squat in x grade EVER" or "They're fine in x grade, but then when they get to so-and-so's class nothing happens". I've made those statements. Did I attend classes with those struggling students?? No. Did I bother to talk to "last year's" teacher?? No.

Last year I had the amazing luck to teach 1st grade. At first I didn't see how this was lucky because I've always told people "there is NO WAY I'd teach any grade below 3rd!". The one year I spent in 1st grade completely changed my perspective on what goes on in those primary grade classrooms. 

First of all, 1st grade teachers do NOT sit down. Ever. From the moment the first student walks in in the morning until you walk them to their buses in the afternoon you are on. the. move. (A corollary to this law is that 1st grade teachers also do not check their e-mails during the day.)

Second, in my experience at a predominantly Hispanic Title I school, the performance levels of the students are VASTLY different. In upper elementary I had students that ranged from 2nd grade reading level all the way to 8th+, but they could all at least READ a little. It's different when you're faced with students who don't know their letters, numbers, or colors lumped in with students who were already reading and ready to move on to short chapter books. 

I felt guilty all last year because of my inexperience with 1st graders. I'm seasoned enough to know that I wasn't getting it 'quite right', but I persisted. My teammates were a huge support and willingly shared everything they had. And yet...most of the year I felt like a failure. 

And then, this year, I got bumped back to the Land of the Familiar. Fifth grade. Oh how I love this age group. I know them. I have loads of experience with them. I'm in my groove. 

But still, I see those kids I had last year. Every day. I think of them. I think of what I couldn't do for them...despite everything that I DID do for them. I've begged forgiveness of the second grade teachers. I'm sorry they don't have giant, thick folders of documented interventions and monitoring because they should. Honest to goodness I worked with those kids. 

It finally hit me as to why I didn't have those gloriously thick folders with beautiful paperwork. My Tier I instruction included just about every intervention that I could imagine to provide. Whole class. Small groups. One-on-one. Extended time. Extra everything. Floods of books on their levels. Physical breaks. Music. Preferential seating. Elkonin boxes. Phonics. Experiential learning. Pencil and paper. Art. Movement. Manipulatives. Flash cards. 

No wonder I was exhausted all the time. 

My point is...I hope that my peers won't tear me down. I hope that they understand that the lack of a paper trail does not equate a lack of interventions and work. I hope they show me the kind of understanding that I have failed to show my peers in the past.

The reality is that they will...or someone will...eventually question what I did all year. I've been that teacher. I've been the 4th grade teacher sifting through a file and tsk-ing over how previous teachers "didn't do anything to help this kid!". 

But now I know better. Thanks to my first graders. I know that sometimes teachers do everything they can to help. I know that teachers eat, sleep, and breathe for their students even if they don't write it down. Now I know why gossip is so horrible in the school building...I don't want to be the target of the maliciousness. 

As teachers we need to stand up for one another. Believe in each other and know that we're doing the best we can...even if there isn't a paper trail.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Unstuck Poem Inspired by Whitman

I am excited to participate in Teachers Write virtual writing camp hosted by author Kate Messner. If you haven't heard about it, check it out! Join in!

Today's Quick Write is an exercise in getting unstuck. Out of the two options, I chose to grab a book to thumb through and let it spark a little writing. I'm still not sold on using an e-reader for everything, but I grabbed mine for this exercise. One of the first books I downloaded is Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. I opened it and went directly to my favorite part, a section that we dissected in our college American Literature class. 

Lines that stick with me...

  • 'And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.'
  • 'Growing among black folks as among white, Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.'
  • 'Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice.'
  • 'I loafe and invite my soul, I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.'
My 'Unstuck' Poem Inspired by Whitman's Leaves of Grass

'The hum of your valved voice' Whitman once wrote, 
'I loafe and invite my soul'...

And I do.

My head rests on your chest. 
I loaf.
I listen to your heart, your breathing, your deep voice.

I invite your soul. 
'I witness and wait'. 

Breathing in time with one another. 
Loafing and laying and waiting for the other
to make a move, 
to get up and start the day,
to begin the busy-ness of life,
but we don't. 

Enjoying the company of another, 
just being
not one, not the other, but both all at once.

'Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems.'

Enjoying nothingness which is everything.
Inviting the soul
'For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.'

Thursday, June 28, 2012

'Controversial' topic - breastfeeding!

I have no idea why this is at all controversial actually. Humans are animals. Animals have babies. Babies must be fed. Conveniently, animals are well-equipped for such endeavors.

With my first pregnancy I expected to breastfeed my son for a few months at most. I didn't have a firm cut-off date, but I never imagined being one of 'those'  moms who nursed a toddler. 17 months later...I decided the time had come to wean my son. Yes, he had teeth. Yes, he was eating real foods and drinking water. Yes, he could walk up and raise my shirt when he wanted to nurse. Whatever - it worked for us. 

When I returned to work after Baby 1 it was January and I  had a few months of teaching left so I pumped daily. He was never given formula except for a couple days after birth when the hospital convinced us he needed more because he'd lost a few ounces. Once I threw out the nursing schedule and keeping track of which side and for how many minutes he plumped right up. 

Me nursing Maggie shortly after coming home
from the hospital. See? No boobage!
My son nursed all. the. time. There were days when I thought I might as well just lay on the couch with my boob out. The boy never took a pacifier - I was the paci. He spit up a lot too! No wonder - he would nurse forever and be completely full, hence projectile spit up! We didn't put him on drugs for reflux, it never occurred to us. 

For Baby 2, I knew I'd nurse for however long she wanted. However, we got off to a very rocky start. With my son, it seemed that he just knew how to nurse and got down to business. For my daughter, it was difficult. I remember vividly sitting up in bed with her latched on and crying because she was hurting me so badly. My nipples cracked and bled. My breasts would get so full that letdown was forceful and would spray the poor girl in her face. Thankfully, I had a great resource in my doula and her tips guided me towards successful, painless nursing. (My daughter didn't latch on properly - I had to coach her to get her mouth opened wide enough to get a painless latch.) 

If I had not already successfully nursed my son for son long, I would have given up on my daughter. The pain is indescribable. I had her in August so I had months of pumping at work ahead of me, but I did it for her. I weaned her at 19 months. Again, she had teeth, could actually speak, and was eating regular foods. She would have continued longer I'm certain (so would my son), but for me it was time to call it quits. 

Best advice I can give new mothers and even 2nd and 3rd time around moms? Get help! Find someone who will support you. If the hospital cannot help you do not despair! The nurses and lactation consultants were useless when it came to breastfeeding at both hospitals I delivered at. My doula/birthing educator was my life-saver. Also I found a great La Leche League group nearby that was a huge support - it was the first place I ventured to after Baby 1. There isn't much that could be more supportive than nursing your baby among other women who are also nursing. 

Hubby Lee raking leaves
with Baby Maggie in the sling!
Having a sling for baby-wearing was also a life-saver. I nursed both of my kids everywhere - including while grocery shopping and eating out at restaurants. I rarely used a blanket to cover up because it was hot and I couldn't see what baby was doing. Also, as I learned at a La Leche League meeting, if you unbutton your shirt from the bottom up it makes a natural 'shield'. Frankly, I hated the idea of people being able to see my lovehandles, the baby always blocked the view of my breasts. 

Another thing to consider that many people (including me) immediately poo-poo is to allow your babies to sleep with you. When mothers and fathers complain about not getting any sleep when their kids were babies I feel sorry for them. Because both our babies slept with us, no one had to get up in the middle of the night to fetch a hungry/wet baby. Because I nursed, no one had to get up and make bottles in the middle of the night. It was so easy

We did get a co-sleeper bed that attached to the side of our bed when our second child was born, but she was within easy arm's reach. Also, our first-born slept on a crib mattress on our bedroom floor when baby 2 came along so we never had both kids in bed routinely. Ultimately we got a king sized bed and got rid of the co-sleeper. When I weaned our daughter we moved both kids into their own queen sized bed in their own room. They are 5 and 8 years old now and still choose to sleep together although they have their own rooms and beds. 

Did we have sleepless nights when the kids were babies? Sure...there were a few. But the vast majority of our nights were peaceful and uninterrupted. Generally if a baby wasn't sleeping well it was because they were teething or sick - which was thankfully rare. Did babies spit-up, poop, pee in our bed? Yep. But we quickly learned to keep a waterproof pad under where the baby slept. 

Overall you have to make decisions based on your needs and the needs of everyone in your family. Do what makes sense to you. Sometimes the easy choice is the best choice. Find someone you trust and ask questions. It isn't always easy, but this too shall pass. 

I make no bones about being open about my 'granola girl' choices - I'm happy to answer questions and talk about birth and breastfeeding. Good luck to all my preggo friends! I'm here for you!!

See my post from 6/23/11 on VBACs for Maggie's birth story.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Ron Clark Academy - my visit!

I can't believe I haven't taken the time to write about my experiences during my day at The Ron Clark Academy. Yesterday's Teachers Write topic has me stalled so I'll work on something I know!

I spent a day in March at RCA. I was so nervous...I knew it was going to be a transformative experience. In fact, it had to be. I felt that if this visit didn't spark something in my teaching I was headed for a dead-end in my career. I was not disappointed. 

Our group started in the library with a welcome from Kim Bearden, who had removed her amazing heels to jump on the trampoline situated in the middle of the room. We were invited to cross over into the main building where the doors were wide open with dancing, smiling kids pouring out. As we headed across the small driveway individual students grabbed individual adults and escorted us in to the main foyer/lobby area.

Kool and the Gang was blaring and kids were dancing and singing and grabbing random adult visitors to dance with. It was electric. I could feel the tears welling up as my throat clenched. I thought to myself...this is how it's supposed to be.

The music faded out as the last of the visitors entered and Ron Clark himself made an appearance to welcome us all to RCA.

THE Slide w/ Essential 55 on wall behind.
Imagine Willy Wonka's chocolate factory as a school and you have RCA. Amazing and unexpected things around every corner. Of course the first thing people notice is the giant blue slide in the middle of the foyer. 

We were broken down into smaller groups and whisked away to different parts of the building. My first stop was a beautiful lounge, er...classroom, complete with plump sofas, chandeliers, and a wall decorated with dozens of record albums. The students performed mini-plays that they'd developed based on popular African folktales. They'd performed all of their plays at a nearby preschool. I was fortunate to sit in on a couple different groups.

I've never spoken to more poised students. They were engaging, bright-eyed, and well-spoken. Although these were 8th graders, the 5th graders I would speak to later in the day were the exact same way.

Following language arts, we were taken to a civics class downstairs in a classroom painted to look like a scene from Arabian Nights. Students were working at tables in silence as we entered. They were reading articles and soon were asked by the teacher to share out. Students stood as they spoke. They made eye contact with one another. They built upon what others said and gave credit to those people. 

Ron leading the tour, stopped to explain pics.
Ron pointed out that there is no student work posted in the hallways. Instead there are giant, beautiful photographs of the students. Everywhere you look there are happy kids on the walls. Also mixed in are framed photographs of famous guests and speakers who have visited RCA. As mentioned in his book The End of Molasses Classes the upstairs girls' restroom is covered in pictures of cute boys...Edward and Jake, Zach, Justin....such a fantastic idea!

A favorite quote from my day at RCA: "Your kids have to LOVE something in your school, and it just might be YOU." Ron pointed out that when he started he couldn't afford real Djembe drums - he used Home Depot orange buckets instead. Kim explained how to create a variety of scenarios from an operating room to ancient Greece using white bed sheets. The Academy is a showplace of course, but it had humble beginnings in regular public ed classrooms like yours and mine.

Other favorite parts of the building...

Dr. Jones's video game themed room
In Dr. Jones's room students were surrounded by what they games! Mario took up one wall, but there was also art from Angry Birds, Tetris, and Timez Attack. The boxes mounted on the wall were covered with paper underneath so that students could punch them (like in Mario!!) and sometimes be rewarded with a treat. How cool is that??
Kim Bearden's room - Hulk Smash!

Kim Bearden's room was amazing too! There was a giant Hulk fist poking through the floor in the front along with a VW Beetle lined with fur and pillows. There was also a telephone booth, a newstand, and an awesome catwalk/stage area. 
Wall at end of hall open to reveal Ron's classroom.

As we approached a cozy book corner complete with a roaring fireplace (fake, of course!) Ron disappeared into a side door. Moments later the walls parted at the end of the hall to reveal his classroom. Magical! 

Writing on the desks in Mr. Dovico's classroom!
Honestly, by the time I reached Mr. Dovico's classroom I was so overwhelmed by all I had already seen I barely remember the theme of his room...I think it was an airplane?? Yes...that's it...there were airplane seats and Delta references around the room. Another reason for not paying attention to the decor in his room was that the students were doing amazing things with Legos. They were building vehicles that demonstrated some totally mind-blowing concepts that I can't even spell. They worked in groups constructively and quietly - not that they weren't talking, but they were just being so polite! Even when there were disagreements, the students spoke in calm, considerate voices with their peers.

Lunch was catered by Sonny's barbecue. I'm telling you this place ran like clockwork! Usually workshop lunch breaks are chaotic and irritating because of long lines. Not at RCA. We got our plates and headed into Ron's room where we were joined by the 5th graders. They sought out visitors and joined us at the tables. Can you think of anywhere you've ever been where students didn't automatically clump together?? Of course, these students have been trained to do this, but they didn't act like it was a chore. The young lady who joined my table was a gem. She answered my questions and those of my table mates. She told us how she had applied to RCA and was so glad to have been accepted because she had been in trouble at her old school. It was great to have unstructured time to speak to students. 

Following lunch we had more time with Ron, this time without students present. He was honest and gracious and above all a hoot to listen to! I imagine that he collapses every night from sheer exhaustion! 

Finally it was Slide Time! Music was playing, kids were cheering and the adults queued up in the long upstairs hallway. As we waited, students worked the line chatting up the visitors. I had a lovely conversation with a young man about our favorite chapter books. Again, he made eye contact, shook my hand, and spoke eloquently about his favorite books - it was a real conversation. As we approached the slide, the students collected our belongings for us and took them downstairs so we could slide unfettered. I plunged down that slide with abandon. It was the perfect conclusion to the day. Having read Ron's latest book, I knew the slide was coming, but I wore a skirt anyways. No sweat, but it was denim...anything flimsier and I can imagine embarrassment at the bottom of the slide! 

Screen displaying current point totals for the different houses.
 (Sorry for the bad pic!)
I visited on a Friday so I had the privilege of seeing the students perform their end of the week routines. They spend about 30 minutes each week working cooperatively to perform a 'cheer' representing their house. After each performance ALL of the students cheered for one another. After all four houses  performed, Ron talked to them straight about what he liked and didn't like about each cheer. Students listened attentively and Ron declared a winner for the week. 

For the grand finale, the students sang Stereo Hearts (with alternative school-themed lyrics) for the guests. Every guest was sung directly to by a student. They held our hands and danced and sang. Another amazing moment among so many during the day. Teachers started filtering out of the building at the end of the song, but several of us lingered to by t-shirts and talk to students. 

Several parents entered at this point and Ron invited a handful of students and their parents to come to his room. He also invited any of us educators still hanging around to join them. 

I sat at the back of his classroom while he gathered the eight chosen students near his Promethean board. He spoke to each one explaining how they had demonstrated excellence and/or effort in various classes so that when he was approached with an opportunity to take some students on a trip he chose them. He built up the reveal masterfully and finally displayed a picture of the Great Wall of China as students hugged and cried and cheered. I had to work to hold myself together. How amazing must it feel to tell a group of students they're going to China??? 
Coins from around the world embedded in stairs.

As I headed back down the coin encrusted stairs, Ron joined me. I shook his hand and all I could choke out was a meek, "Thank you." Seriously, this was a life-changing day. I saw the school I want to work at and the people I want to work with. No....not that exact school and not those exact people, but I want that for our school. There's not a single reason that I can think of for not being able to recreate the energy and enthusiasm that fills the halls and classrooms at RCA. 

I visited in March and made immediate changes in my first grade classroom. First of all, I put the desks in rows facing the front of the room. This seems completely counter-intuitive, but if you want students to focus on the front they need to be facing that way. (We moved around the room lots during the day for cooperative groups and centers, so very little of our class time was actually spent sitting in desks.)

I bought a Home Depot bucket and began choosing different students every day to play the 'drum'. Some were much better than others at this, but no one ever complained about it.

We began taking lots of music and dance breaks...with real music that the kids loved, not just kiddie stuff. One of their favorites was "Never Say Never" by Justin Bieber. (My husband raised his eyebrow at the iTunes statement when the Bieber songs started coming through.) I put the lyrics to the rap in the song on the big screen and we all learned them! I can't think of a better way to practice fluency than rapping a high interest song!

Another favorite break was to do the Cha-Cha Slide. What better way to practice following oral directions?!

I began playing the Mission Impossible theme when students worked in their workbooks. They didn't know the song, but it imparts a sense of urgency that cannot be created by a teacher barking at them from the front of the classroom. As they worked I circulated like a hawk, correcting & commending. We'd then check our work together using the Hover cam. The kids literally begged me to let them do more math workbook pages! (Honestly, I'm not a workbook person, but that's what our county dictates so we'd do what we had to do and get back to games and manipulatives.)

I think the biggest shift in my teaching was that I began teaching to my high kids. I'd heard this idea many times before and given lip-service to the fact I had high expectations for all, but to see it in action and see the progress the RCA students were making sold me on it completely. Every morning I came to my classroom thinking about my highest kids and what I wanted to challenge them with. The other kids absolutely rose to the challenges I presented. I witnessed a 5th grade math lesson taught by Ron. Those kids did stunningly difficult math work - Ron was relentless in his questioning of students. I did not realize it was a fifth grade class until someone asked at the end of the lesson! Ron starts by teaching 7th grade curriculum to entering 5th graders!! 

Another huge shift in my teaching was that I didn't give up on kids. Of course, no one would admit to actually giving up on students, but we do...all the time. When we let any student off the hook and move to another to get the answer we have abandoned the first student. I trained my first graders to 'show some love' to anyone who was struggling to get an answer. We would cheer for that student as he or she mentally chewed on an answer. Without fail the student would come up with an answer. Sure, I had to poke and prod occasionally, but I NEVER let another student off the hook for the remainder of the year. 

One final major shift was that I truly began making eye-contact with my students. Not just glancing their way to catch them being bad or good, but locking eyes with individuals. I began asking after lessons if there was anyone I had not looked at and they were honest about saying yes. If anyone admitted to feeling overlooked I made darn sure to get them in the next lesson and make certain that I connected with that student. 

If you're not sold already, I highly recommend spending a day at RCA. Yes, it's expensive, but the rewards are priceless. I paid for it myself, but my principal approved it as a professional leave day so at least I didn't have to spend a personal day. Save your money, beg relatives, ask for them to give it to you as a present, sell Krispy Kremes on the corner!! We are fortunate to have this opportunity within easy driving distance. I'd go again in a heartbeat. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

I'll Be Here...Tuesday Quick Write

I am excited to participate in Teachers Write virtual writing camp hosted by author Kate Messner. If you haven't heard about it, check it out! Join in! 

Today's assignment: Flesh out a character. 

The character I chose is a person who works at a store I frequent. I often wonder about this person...

Name (made up of course!): Janice Flounder
Hometown: Flowery Branch, GA
Physical characteristics: Average everything...maybe a little on the heavy side, but nothing a little diet and exercise couldn't take care of. Unremarkable brown curly hair that is worn shoulder length and with lots of product to keep the curls under control. Freckles, she hates them, but no make-up - ever! Also no boobs, those are kept safely tucked away under double sports bras. When she moved from middle school to high school she insisted people call her J instead of girly 'Janice'. It's not so much that she's a lesbian or wants to be a boy. She just wants to be...neutral.
External song: World Falls by the Indigo Girls
Internal song: Patience by Guns N' Roses

My earliest memories are of riding along in my older cousin's Trans Am. He listened to GNR nonstop one summer. Most of it was okay, but the song I liked best was Patience. Something about the line "take it slow, it'll work itself out right"....spoke to me. 

I knew if I could just make it through middle school and then finish high school I could get on with my life. It wasn't that I didn't like school. It was okay. Mostly what I didn't like was having to fit into people's expectations of what I should be like.

Throughout elementary school I was just a kid. People said I was a tomboy. I guess I liked boyish things. I certainly didn't want anything to do with my older sister's dolls. I liked playing outside and had a tendency to disappear for hours at a time. I had secret spots where I could sit and think, or rather, not think. I could just hang out without anyone thinking I was being boyish or girlish. 

I realized late in elementary school that my name didn't quite fit. I didn't feel like a "Janice". Really, only teachers and my parents ever called me by my given name anyways. My friends have called me "J" since I can remember. I think my parents were a little surprised when a friend called the house and asked if he could speak to "J", but they didn't flinch. They've kind of been the textbook supportive parents through my whole "finding myself" period. 

My middle and high school years were fairly uneventful for someone like me. It wasn't like the the Lifetime movies with a family in crisis or anything. I just was who I was. Despite growing up in a small town, people seemed to ignore me and my 'issues'. Maybe if I'd grown up in one of those Christian families that went to church every Sunday or if my mom had been into girly-girl things like fluffy dresses and shiny shoes it would have been different. 

I've never kissed a guy or a girl for that matter. Now that I'm an adult I think that's probably a little weird. The opportunity has just never presented itself and honestly I've never been motivated to make it happen. I've read about celibate monks...maybe that's what I am, except I'm not into the Jesus-y thing. I've thought about looking up Buddhism, but it doesn't occur to me in the evenings when I have a little time to do such things. 

My days are pretty much the same. I have my own place and a job that pays the bills. Although I work among the public all day I'm able to remain pretty much invisible. Working with canned goods and boxes of cereal gives me plenty of time to think and be with myself. I know the store like the back of my hand. I may not go out of my way to speak to the customers, but if asked, I will show the way to whatever they've asked for. 

I don't 'see' my future like other people seem to. It's not that I don't have ambitions. I just sort of live life day by day. I get the feeling sometimes that I'm being prepared for something big. I don't know how stocking grocery shelves is preparing me for whatever it is, but something nags at the back of my brain. Something is coming. I know it like people know that they're going to be teachers or doctors or social workers. 

I'll be here when it's time. 

PS - I have a real life friend named Janice that is absolutely unrelated to this character! Thanks for letting me borrow your name! :)

Monday, June 25, 2012

But, what else is going on?

I am excited to participate in Teachers Write virtual writing camp hosted by author Kate Messner. If you haven't heard about it, check it out! Join in! 

Today's Monday morning warm-up from Jo Knowles was a challenge indeed. Imagine a scene from another character's point of view. Consider what else is involved in the situation. Jo pointed out that there's is always something else going on beyond the obvious. (This is soooo true about her book See You at Harry's which I finished this weekend while traveling. Grab a box of tissues and go read it if you haven't already.)

This post is about a character from a book about the relationship among a group of teachers in a school where standardized testing and a crazy principal are about to push everyone over the edge. I balked at the assignment at first, not knowing where to begin. As I finished, however, I had a much better understanding of  how the 'back story' of characters can really enrich the overall story. I never would've thought to include a side story like this! 

Thanks to Kate Messner  & Jo Knowles for this project!! I get more excited every week at the thought of sharing my writing experiences this summer with my 5th graders this fall!


Installing a padlock on my youngest son's bedroom was the best idea I've had in a while. For a time it prevented his older brother and older brother's random friends from stealing things. 

"Jaaaaaaaaaaaaaaake!!!" There was a guttural quality to the yell that rattled me out of the dream I was having. 

I awoke to the sounds that only wrestling boys can make and half-tumbled out of bed and down the hall towards the source of the grunts and thuds. Apparently while younger was at a friend's last night, Jake and company decided they needed to get into younger's room. I touched the splintered wood and pushed the bent metal across the carpet towards the wall with my bare foot. Honestly, there's not much real wood in door frames built for today's homes. 

To a kid who keeps his shoes neatly organized by purpose and color, a small discrepancy in their order would have been a big deal. This was well beyond 'Big Deal' level. I stared for a moment into the ransacked bedroom until more grunts and thuds pulled me towards the den.

"Ahem." My voice wasn't awake yet. More tumbling. I moved behind them towards the breakfast bar.

"Boys, please." I tested out my nice mom voice. The boys were a mass of entwined arms and legs pushing as the fight continued. They didn't notice as I circled around them once and headed towards the kitchen doorway.

"HEY! STOP IT!" An almost imperceptible pause in the action as my voice penetrated their primal brains. Jake continued to push against his younger brother who was now sitting across his chest trying to pin Jake's arms to the floor.

Two more steps and I grabbed the closest pan out of the sink and slammed it down on the Formica countertop. (Great...another battle wound in my once proud kitchen.)

The noise seemed to shock the boys back into the real world of our damaged home. Damaged from countless fights like these. Damaged from slamming doors, failed improvement projects, and unauthorized house guests ('strays' as I called them). 

I didn't have time to go through the steps that we'd practiced at our recent family therapy sessions. It was me and a skillet and two sweaty almost men still laying on the floor where they'd been stunned back to reality by more than just the sound of the pan. Stunned by my anger. 

These 'episodes' with the boys were getting worse. Someone was bound to be seriously injured sooner or later. Nevermind the broken noses and hands....those could be repaired with tape and time, but the intensity of the fights were starting to interfere with my sanity and therefore my job. 

There was no time to sort out what had happened in younger's room. Frankly, it didn't matter. His privacy and property had been utterly destroyed over the last few months. 

Jake rolled out from under younger and made his way to the door. I didn't know where he stayed from night to night. My home had become something of a rest area for him and his friends. They'd appear for a day or two and refuel on sugary drinks and junk food and then disappear just as quickly. 

I motioned for younger to lead the way down the hall so that we could get ready for school. "I'll drive you this morning." It was the least I could do since I could no longer protect him from his lost older brother.

I silently prayed on the way to school...please give me guidance....please help me figure out these me to keep younger safe and me to fix our home...please please please don't let today be my day for a classroom observation. 

I just wanted to make it to school where I could slip into my classroom, close the door and be with my students. I could focus on these young people who were so much more 'fixable' than the mess I left at home this morning.

Just as I had settled into my writing mini-lesson the door swung slowly open and she came in carrying The Clipboard. I glanced nervously at the clock. Crap. I'm supposed to be already doing calendar by now. Crap. Crap. Crap. And now the all-too-familiar internal struggle. Do I abruptly move on to calendar or stay the course? I mentally tried out my excuses for being off schedule for the follow-up meeting in her office. Not worth it. I instruct the students to return their blank journals to their desks and prepare for calendar.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Neighbors...who wants 'em?

I am excited to participate in Teachers Write virtual writing camp hosted by author Kate Messner. If you haven't heard about it, check it out! Join in! 

Random word generator gave me the word: neighbor

What a loaded word for me. What is a neighbor? The official Merriam-Webster definition: one living or located near another. Well there's my problem. I always thought the definition included something about kindness, common sense, and friendship. 

Observe. To our right is the widow who forcibly removed the family that was involved in the lease-purchase of her home. Wouldn't have really mattered to us except for that family contained our son's best friend. Plus this lady is known to bring lawsuits against anyone who crosses her (I should probably delete this paragraph). We steer clear of her and her 2 yappy dogs (one of which bit me once). 

To our left is basically a vacant home. A couple years ago the owner had to leave for 9 months to work in Afganistan (non-military...I'm not bashing a noble and brave serviceman here). He left his 21 year old son and 19 year old daughter in charge of the home. Suddenly it was as if we were living next door to a nightclub. We frequently called the police due to the noise coming from that house at all hours of the night. When the father finally returned he ended up kicking out his son and the daughter ran off and got married, so now when daddy goes overseas the house is empty. And quiet, thank goodness. 

A few doors down is the home we refer to as "The Orphanage" because there are several children living there with minimal, competent adult supervision. The older ones can sometimes be seen sunbathing on the roof. They raise mastiffs which occasionally escape the cramped back deck where they live and crap and bark. They also enjoy four-wheelers and ride them without helmets or worry through the protected creek that runs behind our neighborhood. 

Across the street is the house that our good friends lived in. After living here almost 5 years I finally got the nerve to take our kids across the street to play with their kids. Soon we were spending Saturdays together, sharing dinners & drinks, and having a fantastic time. Work took them to Texas and they leased their home to another family that I'm sure is lovely, however...

New family across the street began allowing their dachshunds to wander around the neighborhood and use other yards as they saw fit. Of course our lawsuit-happy neighbor marched right over and warned them that she would call animal control. What's worse is that these people have five or six drivers living under one roof and they all have cars that they park. in. the. street. If you're a city-dweller where people always park in the street that's cool, but this is a big ol' neighborhood where everyone has a 2 car garage and nice, long drive way. We also have rules that clearly state 'vehicles shall not be parked on the street overnight'. But whatev....rules schmules.

Sure, there are nice, decent people living on the street. They mow their lawns, go to church, roll out their garbage containers, and go to bed at job-holding hours. But what about neighbors who are also friends? Growing up my parents never had neighbors who were also close friends. Neither did my husband's family. So maybe hubby and I are just not skilled in developing those relationships. 

Now that I've had a taste of it, I want it back. I want to live near people who have children close in age to our children. People who hang out in their yards, grill out on weekends, and enjoy a good adult beverage. People who you can count on to check and make sure you're garage is closed and water your houseplants. 

Or maybe we need to move to a place where we don't have any neighbors at all. I'd prefer no neighbors to bad ones. 

My reflection on this post: This was difficult to write and left me feeling cranky and completely worn out. The writing is passable, but in hammering these feelings out I realized how sad I am about the state of our neighborhood and how trapped we are in this situation. If only we could wave a magic wand and be in the house of our dreams surrounded by friends and family. 

Friday, June 15, 2012

I Creeped Myself Out

I am excited to participate in Teachers Write virtual writing camp hosted by author Kate Messner. If you haven't heard about it, check it out! Join in! 

I am tardy with yesterday's assignment. Clearly I didn't do the work the first week to make a plan to squeeze writing time into my daily summer schedule. 

I've included my one minute list of phrases that describe where I live now as well as the beginning of a story that could be a book. There are many directions this one could go! I love how the final idea popped into my head - it took me by complete surprise. Me? Science fiction? Why not?!!

1 minute Quick Write:

Green grass, lots of trees, blue-blue skies, views of the North Georgia mountains from various spots in town, plenty of fast food restaurants, but also some good local restaurants including our favorite Mexican and pizza places, generally peaceful neighborhood with the occasional redneck escapades, pool with lots of families, lots of grocery stores nearby, racetracks - 2 of them within 10 minutes, nestled between 2 interstates for easy access to Atlanta and points beyond, decent local high schools.

What changes would make this place uninhabitable for me....

At first it was subtle, our class sizes were one or two kids smaller than previous years. Frankly, I thought class shrinkage was limited to the schools that had larger numbers of Hispanic students. In talking to my friends at other less-Hispanic schools, they were indeed losing students as well. In a county our size, losing 1 or 2 students per class was HUGE. Every year a few more teachers were let go. Every year a few more classrooms were used as storage rooms for the extra desks and chairs and tables.

We'd been under watering restrictions for so long no one remembered what it was like to run the hose outside. Hoses dry rotted on their racks beside spigots. Sprinklers collected cob webs in the garage. Some of the younger children had never been in a swimming pool. Hearty, drought-tolerant weeds overtook whole golf courses, never mind what our yards looked like.  

Since we didn't own a boat, we'd never been on the lake frequently. And since we rarely left our end of the county, we didn't frequent bridges to get a really good look at the water level. If we had we would have seen that the lake was nearly gone. We'd heard on the news that the lake was low, but they'd been squawking about it for literally years. 

In the beginning, the people who moved away were just peripheral 'friends'. You know, the kind who you enjoy seeing day to day, but never really get past the 'Good Morning' phase. Over the last month though I'd lost two close acquaintances to sudden moves. First there were three houses for sale on our street, then 5, and next thing you know we were the last ones on a street of 20 houses. It began to creep me out to see those dark windows watching us. 

Our favorite Mexican restaurant closed, followed shortly after by the best pizza place. Panic would well up in the back of my throat when I took time to think about what was happening, but I managed to squash it back down until the day my son showed me the place on his arm.

He was almost 10 years old by this time so I hadn't seen him naked in the bathtub for many years. He quietly called to me from the bathroom. I could tell by his sheepish tone of voice he was struggling. I approached the closed door and tapped lightly with just my fingertips. The boy before me was no longer a little boy, but an almost-teenager, wrapped tightly in his towel. His eyes flashed panic as he pulled his towel back to reveal the backside of his upper arm and what looked to be scales. Honest to goodness, reptilian scales. Growing with his skin. As a part of his own flesh. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

She's Quite a Character, Interview

I am excited to participate in Teachers Write virtual writing camp hosted by author Kate Messner. If you haven't heard about it, check it out! Join in! 

Today's 'Quick Write' was not at all quick for me! I've got a book on the back burner in my brain so I used today's prompt to get to know one of my characters a little better. I found the exercise difficult, yet interesting as I thought about what my character would say in response to the questions I asked. I continually asked myself, "Would she really say this?"...especially concerning vocal mannerisms such as 'you know?' and 'I'm going to be honest with you'. Those are quirks that gives a character a real-sounding voice I think. More work is needed here, but I appreciate the prompt for giving my character a little more substance in my mind. 

Meet Tabitha, elementary school principal, in her first published interview:

Q: What gets you out of bed in the morning? What are your thoughts as you prepare for your day?
A: I live for my school. When my feet hit the floor in the morning I can't wait to pull up to my special parking spot and go into the building. I feel like it's my own little factory. When I get there the building is already awake with teachers bustling around and my office ladies have the coffee brewing. I love the busy-ness of the building in the morning. After I settle into my office, I can check my schedule for the day and get ready for the morning announcements. My goal is to get through the day with minimal disruption to the daily schedule. I run a tight ship when it comes to instruction so, for example, if math is supposed to be at 10:15, then I expect to see math when I walk in at 10:15. I find that structure and routine keep things on track for the students and teachers as well. 

Q: When did you know you wanted to be a principal? Has it always been a goal of yours? 
A: When I first started teaching I enjoyed being in the classroom with the students, but around my 8th or 9th year, I started thinking about moving up. Originally I wanted to be an instructional coach, but also decided to work on my doctorate which I thought would be wasted on just being a coach. So it hasn't really always been a goal; I taught a couple more years while working on my Specialist degree and then I was given an assistant principalship for two years before getting my own school.

Q: You said you wanted to be an instructional coach, but changed your mind. Talk more about that.
A: Knowing myself as I do, I knew I could handle a whole building. I didn't just want to work with teachers as instructional coaches do. That can be so frustrating, you know? They don't trust you to tell them what to do. I like the feeling that I am steering this giant ship and not only do I control the course, but I run the dining room and the finances and the extra curricular activities. Coaches work very hard, but get little support and even fewer strokes. They're the ones who are supposed to tell the teachers they're doing a good job, so who tells them [the coaches] 'good job'? I've always aimed high. I always earned top grades and to settle for just being a coach wasn't something I wanted to do.

Q: How do you keep a finger on the pulse of your building?
A: I'm going to be honest with you...and this is something I struggle with in my building...teachers are working so hard, but there is always more to do. It is difficult to balance letting them know that they're doing a good job, but also keep them on their toes. I walk the building every day and try to see into every classroom for at least a moment or two. I think teachers like knowing that I'm available. I want them to know I'm involved in what they're doing. It's important for a principal to know what's going on in every classroom. We're not going to improve test scores by showing videos every day or relying on the basal reading books. I know that I can honestly answer any question about my building and my teachers because I see what's going on.

Q: What advice would you give to principals who are just starting out?
A: First of all, you have to stand firm in your decisions. You can ask for your staff's opinions, but when it comes down to it, you are responsible for making the big decisions. I always ask the opinion of my teachers. I want them to feel like they're involved in the process, but in the end it's up to me. You also cannot change your mind about something just because a teacher or two are upset. Stand firm, apologize later if needed. Second, get into those classrooms. It's vitally important for the teachers to know that you're involved and always around. Lastly, keep your personal life personal. I've had family and personal health issues, but I lay those aside when I walk in the door. Certainly the students shouldn't see any chinks in the armor of their principal, but also your teachers will not respect you if you unload all your personal problems on them. 

Q: If you could sum up your philosophy of education in one sentence, what would it be?
A: That's a tough question. I thought about this a lot when I was working on my doctorate. Students come to us ready to be shaped and molded into their best selves. It is up to educators to direct students towards that goal in whatever way we see fit. Wait, I think that was two sentences! (laughs)

Monday, June 11, 2012

Let it go....

I am excited to participate in Teachers Write virtual writing camp hosted by author Kate Messner. If you haven't heard about it, check it out! Join in! 

Check out Jo Knowles's site for today's mini-lesson.

I've taught for 13 years at 5 different schools and have worked with many amazing teachers, but there are a handful who I remember for reasons other than their happy, helpful attitudes. 

I chose to publish this because I'd bet most of us have worked with this teacher at some point in our careers. Completely frustrating! I've never wanted to 'tattle' on a co-worker, but daggone it if there weren't days when I just wanted to run like a first grader to the principal and unload. 

It is frustrating to work so hard, investing time and energy and thought and money only to have a teammate who seems to just be punching in and out every day without a care in the world. 

So here's my list poem. Many years have passed since working with this person. I'd like to believe that I'm older and wiser now and should I run across a teammate like this in the future I can let the behaviors go rather than taking them to heart as I once did.

At first sight, you might be inclined to think recovering addict,
Unpressed chinos, sometimes stained, sometimes dirty
XL shirt (also unpressed) swallowing a shortish-L frame
Unshaven always.

I can get past looks, I can forgive poor clothing choices, I can understand a budget that doesn't afford super nice threads,
but what I cannot forgive 
Lackadaisical attitude regarding job duties
Roll in whenever, roll out whenever
The frequent question from students, "Where is Mr. So&So??"
"Wait. You mean he's not in his room??"

Why write plans when the Internet has plans ready and waiting?
Why write sub-plans when your teammates will do it for you?
Teach the Standards? Why bother?
Why bother with any paperwork at all?

And yet, what gets under my skin the most
is that
They didn't mind that the nicknames he gave them were downright insulting.
"Chicken-neck" "Lawn mower head" 
They didn't mind that they weren't learning what other students were learning.
They didn't mind that he never took notes in meetings and frequently dropped the ball on assigned duties.
They didn't mind that the classroom walls were bare.

They didn't know any better.
But I did.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Get a Stinkin' Book

I am excited to participate in Teachers Write virtual writing camp hosted by author Kate Messner. If you haven't heard about it, check it out! Join in! 

"Library's closed!" barked the media specialist from inside her dimly lit office. 

"B.b...but my teacher said I have to pick out a book," he hoped to garner a little sympathy. After all his teacher had been hounding him every stinkin' day to find out what he was reading. The media specialist half-heard him and waved him on by, anxious to get back to her phone call.

Truth is he wasn't reading anything. Sure, he carried around a couple different Goosebumps books, but those were just so Teacher would see that he was reading. He'd dutifully open up to a place a little farther into the book every day and then spend the next 30 minutes daydreaming about whatever....sports mostly...and sometimes girls. 

But then his act was revealed. That Teacher carried around her notebook in class and would talk to kids, asking them what they were reading and what page they were on and what they thought about what they were reading. Whatever. So now he had to find a book besides the well-worn, unread Goosebumps books that had been his daydream companions.

He slunk on into the library despite the warning from the media specialist. She was such a dog. All those times the class had visited and he'd only laid eyes on her a couple times and that was to fix the scanner thingy that some kid had accidentally knocked over while trying to check in books.

He got the impression that Teacher was not happy with the barky media specialist either. He'd seen her roll her eyes when the media specialist screeched about using shelf markers or checking out too many books in one week. 

And yet, here he was...alone in the library. How was he supposed to find a stupid book in here? He'd thought there was a system or something he'd heard Teacher mention about finding stuff. She would wander around the library with the students and pick up books here and there to hand to kids. Those nerdy girls were always at her elbow asking nerdy girl questions. It was easy to avoid Teacher in the library. 

Teacher talked about lots of books in class. Sometimes she'd show us the covers and go on and on about how a book was so amazing. She always said, "Read what you LOVE." There was one she talked about a week or so ago that she'd just read. It was about a dog or some dogs in Alaska. The memory was fuzzy, but he tried to recall the details. Seems like the book was about a dog, but the title had another animal in it...wolf? Fox? Yeah...that was it...Something Fox. He'd search for that. It was a thin book which he liked and it was about dogs. Could be worse.

Now, where would Something Fox be in this library? It wasn't a huge library, but it was big enough that he could search unnoticed by Barky in her office. If only she'd actually help him. He knew she'd know. Shoot, maybe she wouldn't. He wasn't sure if she actually read any of those books she protected so fiercely. He'd never heard HER talk about books like she loved them.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

You can do it! Hang in there baby! And all that jazz.

I am excited to participate in Teachers Write virtual writing camp hosted by author Kate Messner. If you haven't heard about it, check it out! Join in! 

When do you write? This week's focus for Teachers Write is to really commit to finding time to write for yourself. 

I struggle with this. Reading today's Q & A post on Kate's site reminded me of why it's so difficult to find time. For me I constantly worry if what I'm writing is good enough. Kate pointed out that she plows through her first draft without trying to edit or reread it. The idea is to get it on paper. Even she questions if her work is good enough and she's a published author! So how does this relate to having time?? 

In my mind, if I knew I was writing the next Hunger Games trilogy I suppose that would be motivation to get myself out of bed and pound a few chapters out every morning. Of course I know that's one of my "inner vampires" as Michelle Ward would say. (I have to put a plug in for her every chance I get!) No one knows they're writing the next big thing...well, maybe some do, but J.K. Rowling didn't and Stephanie Meyer didn't and neither did E.L. James. 

I know this in my head and yet I drag. my. feet.

You're gonna eat lightnin' and you're gonna crap thunder!!
So here's my pep talk to myself:

Dear Jennifer,
     You have doubts about your writing. That's okay. The point is to write. Just get up and do it. You won't know what you really have until it's actually on paper. So stop judging yourself and get moving. It's time to do this thing. 
     The last three days you've been excited about writing and managed to crank out nearly an hour a day. Grab that momentum and hang on to it. 
     Remember how you wrote with your first graders this year?? In seven minutes a day you managed to fill 2 notebooks and you didn't even start until January. That's all...SEVEN MINUTES A DAY. Think of what you could do in 15 or 30 or...gasp! 60???
     Do it. It doesn't matter what time of day it is, but you know how you love that early morning quiet in the house?! That's probably the best time for you. Over the next few weeks there will be more alone time because the kids will be at camps. Use that time wisely. This summer is going to be your Summer of Writing. 
     Once school kicks back in you're going to have to grab that morning time or write when your students write. What could be better than for your students to see you struggling and celebrating right along with them?
     You can do it. Stick with it. Hang in there baby and all that jazz. 
Your Butt-Kicking Inner Voice