Sunday, August 25, 2013

A Fierce Battle Cry!

Every year I struggle with the same battle. I know it's coming, I even brace myself for it, but every year it gets the best of me...for a little while.

When I was in my senior year of college, I had a professor ask me an important question one day: What do you think is going to be the most difficult part of being a teacher? I didn't hesitate in my answer because I already knew. I told him the most difficult part for me would be the changing policies and the "red-tape" of public education. I knew that some things would change according to who was in control of my country, my state, and my school district. You know, the ones making the "rules" by which I teach and decide what I teach to my students...but don't walk in my shoes, teach in a classroom every day, and understand the individual needs of each student.

I was correct in my answer.

I am now several years into my heart's desire to be a teacher, and I can honestly say there is nothing I would rather do than teach children. I can also say that every year before school starts, I feel the same pressure build up in me that has nothing to do with the children I teach or the resources I need to teach them. It has nothing to do with the people I work with or the amount of money I have to spend in order for my classroom to have the things it needs. It also has nothing to do with the children, no matter who they are or where they come from or how great their educational need may be.

It has everything to do with how much "the rules of the game" change...constantly.

The problem is...teaching children isn't a game. It's a battle. Not a battle WITH the children, a battle FOR the children. It is a battle to be heard, as a classroom teacher, among all the "experts" of every new learning technique, new curriculum, new sequences of learning, and new trend of the day. It is a beat-down to hear how we've been "doing it wrong" and now need to "do it right" according to who is in charge now.

Please don't get me wrong. I am all for changing for the better. I am not a teacher who is married to whatever textbook or novel or grade-level lesson I teach in my classroom. I can teach anything. In fact, I am a lifelong learner who enjoys new things and new ideas. The problem I have is that, as a college-educated professional in the field of education, shouldn't I be somewhat trusted to do my job and know what is in the best interest of my students? Isn't that what I went to college for? Isn't that why I continue to take professional development classes over my summers and during the school year?

I get all tangled up every year in all the expectations put before me in my week of inservice before school starts. I pay attention to every change I need to make, every bit of data I need to look at, and get copies of all the new policies and procedures. I listen to all the presenters, take notes, get copies of power points, and... I do as I am told. You see, I'm a good student, I learn well, and I obey the rules. It is my nature, always has been. I try to do it all with a smile on my face, but almost breaks me.

Then, a wonderful thing happens...

Just when I am beat-down the most and think they may have finally pressed the last breath of joy out of my chest, just when my spirit feels bruised and battered and defeated - I find myself on the eve of...

The First Day of School.

I know, on this most holy of holy educational days, I will be greeting precious new faces who will look to me to teach them, guide them, and be a good example to them every school day. It will matter what I wear and how I present myself to those children. Every word that comes out of my mouth, for the next nine months or so, matters in the life of a child - of many children. They watch me, they listen, and they learn. I also watch them, listen to them, and learn from them.

This is what is important. My students are what is important. Not the policy-makers, not who is in charge, not the state I live in. The children who look to me are all that matters. Will I do all the other things that are expected of me by my administrators, my school district, my state, and my country? Absolutely. I will do them to the best of my ability, but I can't ever let all those other "things" beat me down to the point that I forget what I'm really fighting for on the front lines every single day! I'm fighting the good fight to ensure that my students receive a great education to give them a better, brighter future!

So, tomorrow morning when you hear my loud, fierce, battle cry, let it serve as a reminder to send up prayers and good thoughts to our nation's teachers who are fighting on the front lines every school day for our country's children.

"God bless us, every one!"

Sunday, August 18, 2013

What's In A Name?

Whether you like the name your parents gave you or not, it is a source of identification for you. When someone calls out your name, you answer to it. Your name is important. When you own something and you want others to know it's yours, you put your name on it. Think about it.

It starts out when you're little. Your parents write your name on everything - sometimes, they even hang it up in your room. As you grow, you learn to write your name. You begin labeling the world around you so others know which stuff is your stuff. You put your name on toys, lunch boxes, notebooks, library cards, homework assignments, school gym clothes, athletic equipment, and so on.

It doesn't stop when you get older. Heck, no. The stuff you have to put your name on just gets bigger and more expensive. If you own a house, there is a deed that has your name on it. If you own a car, your name is on the registration. If you lease an apartment or a car, there is still paperwork that shows you are the temporary owner. 

Like I said, your name is important.

Where am I going with this? I'll tell you. I'm going to share a lesson I learned about names this summer. Now is the perfect time to blog about it because school is about to start again. For some of you, it may have already started. Yes, now is a good time to talk about names. 

If you are a student, you will be meeting new teachers and making new friends,...and you'll need to learn their names. If you are a teacher, like I am, you will meet new students and welcome them to the learning environment of a classroom you will share with them over the school year. In case you didn't know, a school year is a long time to share a classroom with students, which is why we're going to talk about names.

I took an educational workshop this summer which was great! The instructor was excellent, the ideas he shared were wonderful, and he gave us all some valuable tools for improving our teaching. Funny thing is, though, one of the most important things I learned was taught first thing, the first morning and the lesson was carried throughout the week. I'm still asking myself if the instructor taught it with intent or by accident. 

First morning of our class, the instructor had us pair up (in a class of 24) and briefly interview each other. This was an out-of-district workshop, so we were from all different school districts. We didn't know each other. He gave us basic questions to ask and added a couple of minutes for additional questions.

After our interviews, he had us volunteer to stand up and introduce our partner to the class and tell something about them we'd learned. Our partner would then introduce us to the class. To encourage people to volunteer quickly, and not drag the exercise out too long, he said that when you stand to introduce your partner, you must FIRST say the names and re-introduce the people who were introduced before you. In other words, the first ones to volunteer would have less names to remember than the last ones. The last pair would have to introduce the first 22 before introducing each other.

Now, if you're already saying, "Ugh!" because you don't think you're very good with names and would hate this exercise, please allow me to explain two things: 

1) The instructor did not do this to test our memory skills. He did it to help us get to know each other and give us a sense of community. It's an important thing to do when you've thrown 24 adult teachers together in the middle of their summer vacation, and you only have a week to give them something worthwhile. 

2) The instructor never said we couldn't take notes or use something to accommodate our learning. (Accommodating a student's learning is something all teachers should know how to do. It's when you give a student extra tools to help them learn something. The student learns the same thing, just in a different way - in their own learning style. We don't all learn the same, you know.)

Before I go any further, I want to say that I wish I could have videotaped what happened next. I don't think any words I use will truly do justice to the lesson, but I will try. You see, the same thing happened with a group of college educated adults as happens with a group of sixth graders (or any grade level you'd like to insert). Yes, I know it shouldn't happen that way,...but it does. As Mark Twain said, "Truth is stranger than fiction."

The introductions started off easy enough. The first ones to go had the easiest time, of course, before some started to panic and tried to raise their hands the fastest to try to get it over with. I decided to let my partner choose when she was ready for us to volunteer. I was ready at any time, but she was rather shy and quiet. I gave her the lead. 

As we sat and watched others introduced, I saw many different types of "students" in the teachers. There were a few adults who did as the instructor asked and used notes they'd made to make sure they got the introductions correct. Some had drawn blocks for seats and inserted names. Others had used numbers on the seats to remember who was who. They used their notes when they introduced, but looked up from the notes and acknowledged the others. Out of 24 adult teachers, there were 6 who did this. 

As for the rest of the class, it was...a circus of excuses. One guy stood and said he just didn't do it. He pointed to his partner and said, "She can do it. I didn't see the point." Another teacher pointed to her partner and said, "Yeah, what she said," then chuckled and went on with introducing her partner. One teacher actually said, "I'm a Special Ed teacher, so I don't HAVE to do it." There were several who had written down the names on a list, without knowing who was who, and stood to quickly read their list - never acknowledging who the person was - it was just a name on a piece of paper.

Now, if you're wondering where I fit in to this scheme, I'll tell you. First of all, I had an unfair advantage over most of these people. You see, I already knew the importance of someone's name. I love words, after all, and names are words...and - as I've already stated to make sure you get my point - names are important. My first priority, as a teacher, is to learn my students' names (and know them well) as quickly as possible. I know how I learn best, so I used the same method for the instructor's exercise as I do in my classroom.

When people began introducing each other, I wrote down their names on a piece of paper. I looked at the written name and looked at the person. I didn't glance at them, I really looked at them and paid attention to who they were and how their partner described them. I then looked at the name again - seeing it written has always helped me. I am also a spatial learner, so I paid attention to where that person was located in the room from where I was seated. As each person stood and introduced the rest of the class, I practiced in my head remembering who was who.

When my partner decided she was ready to volunteer, most of the class had already been introduced. While she was ready for us to do our introductions, she was still nervous and asked me to go first. I had to introduce the 20 people in the class that went before me. I didn't use my notes because, by then, I knew who they were. I had been practicing in my own head. I knew their faces, knew their expressions, and...knew more about their personalities than they would have guessed. ;)

I took a deep breath and began my introductions at the back of the room. I went in order of their seats and introduced each person. I made eye contact with them when I said their names. I smiled at them, with my mouth and with my eyes, and let them know I knew who they were. I took my time, I didn't rush. Everyone responded well to my introductions, they all smiled back. They also seemed to silently cheer, as the introduction list got longer, that I would make it to the end without a mistake. I saw encouraging looks and the sparkle of anticipation in the next person's eyes I met - hoping I would get their name correct...and a look of relief and happiness when I did.

I have to point out that the "toughest case" in the room was a teacher who'd been teaching many years and was older than me. She was one of the ones who'd read the names off quickly from a list and never made eye contact with anyone. She sat on the second back row and had already shown pride in her sharp tongue that morning. She had a lovely name and, when I spoke it and smiled at her, it was evident I liked the pleasant sound of it coming from my lips. 

What did she do?

She beamed at me like a kindergarten student on the first day of school when they hear the teacher call their name! She loved being acknowledged, knowing I knew who she was, and that I had said her name correctly and in a loving manner. Still grinning at me, she even gave me a nod of approval at the end. Of all the "naming" moments, I will never forget that one. I will never forget that teacher's name or what she taught me.

No matter who you are or what walk of life you come from, you want someone to know your name. If you spend any length of time with them (say, daily class time?), you expect them to know your name. You want it pronounced correctly. You want to be acknowledged. We all do. When someone knows your name, it means they notice you. It means you are important enough that they took the time and effort to learn one simple truth about you - your name.

I would also like to point out how our instructor, like any great teacher, played the introduction game with us - taking his turn at re-introducing people a few times during the process. He modeled his expectations. He would even add something extra he'd noticed from an introduction, too, like "This is Caren with a C, who loves Twizzlers!" At the end of all the introductions, he went back and re-introduced each person in a quick, fun, casual way. He was learning as we were learning. Throughout the workshop, he always addressed us by our names.

Cynthia and her kindergarten teacher
What's in a name?
Recognition. Respect. Relationship.

If you're a teacher, it's imperative you recognize your students and know their names. There is a level of respect you are showing a child, the same respect you'd like from them, when you know their name and say it correctly.  You need to have a good relationship with your students in order to maximize their ability to learn from you.

What's in a name?
Recognition. Respect. Relationship.

It's all of us.

One final note:

While I chose to use my 19-year-old daughter's kindergarten photos to illustrate this blog, I want to be sure and state I am a middle school teacher. I have had up to 140 students in a school year and, yes, I always learn their names (first and last), know how to spell them, and how to pronounce them. If it is a difficult name for me to pronounce, I practice and let the student know I'm trying and to be a little patient with me until I get it exactly right. I use all the things I mentioned to help me learn. I find that writing the name down in a seating chart gives me both a visual of the name and a spatial reference to the student. I also do what our instructor did, saying the name of a student every chance I get. By the end of the first week of school, I usually know most of my students' names. Why? You should have guessed by now - because it's important to my students, which means it is important to me.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Time For A Change

I decided to change the template on my blog today. I just...needed something new. You know how that is, right? There was nothing "wrong" with the old one. I'd had it for awhile. I thought it was cheery, and it made me smile when I saw the blue sky, the dandelion, and the green grass. It shouted, "Summer!" I liked that. I liked it a lot. :) 

Now that it's time for school to start back, though, I thought I'd start moving into some fall colors,...even though we're a long way off from autumn in Texas. Truth be told, there isn't "autumn" where I live. We go from heat to winter,...but just for a couple of months. I need to get my autumn colors from other sources, just so I don't forget the rest of the world has that season. ;)

Along with the look of this site, I've also decided it's time to change a few more things in my life. Nothing earth-shattering, mind you, but substantial for me. It won't be anything people see on the outside, not at first. The changes are taking place inside of me. After all, the greatest changes you can make in your life are within your own mind. It's time to do a little cleaning and reorganizing in there. Sweep out some cobwebs and set some new goals! Time to stir things up a bit around here!

Thank you for sharing in this first momentous "change" to get me started. Taa-daa! A new look for the blog!

See? Change isn't so hard, now, it? ;)

Monday, August 12, 2013

Faerie Tale, Fiction, and Fact

I am often asked how I choose a book. This one attracted me because of the title and the picture on the cover, which...haunted me. I bought it, along with several other books, from Half-Price Books (second-hand books). I didn't read it right away, but I never put it on my bookshelf. I left it laying out where I could see it. I just knew I needed to read it...when I felt my heart was ready.

I began reading The True Story of Hansel and Gretel: A Novel of War and Survival by Louise Murphy a couple of weeks ago and finished it when I was on a plane to Italy last week. After I finished it, I had no desire to begin my next book right away. I wanted to think about the characters in the novel and what I'd learned from them. It was one of those books where I wanted to hold it in my hand and just marinate in the story. I knew my heart had to be ready for this journey into war, and I was right. 

I always find it difficult to suggest a book that talks about the horrors of war. It isn't an easy subject to read about, but I believe it's important to know about. We don't want history to repeat itself. I appreciate that, while the author had to write about a difficult topic, the scenes of horror were not overly done and too detailed. While the book refers to the story of Hansel and Gretel, this book is no faerie tale. However, like any life - no matter how difficult - it still has miraculous and magical moments.

The story is set in Poland during World War II. It begins when a Jewish family is running from the Nazis. The little brother and sister are sent into the forest alone by their father and stepmother in order to save the children's lives. The children are told they must forget their Jewish names to save themselves. No one must know they are Jewish. As they are told to run, the children panic and begin to worry what names they should use. The stepmother remembers an old faerie tale and the only "non-Jewish" names she can think of are Hansel and Gretel.

Once the parents send the children off into the woods, they go in the opposite direction - hoping to lure the Nazis away from Hansel and Gretel. This is where the children's journey begins and their journey is both difficult and wonderous. Even in the worst situations of war, children hope for the best and look for magic. They are, after all, children.

It is amazing how the author weaves the faerie tale of Hansel and Gretel into a historical fiction tale of war and survival. Murphy draws an amazing parallel between the fantasy story and the realities of war. I am so glad I read this book, even though it sometimes broke my heart. I wondered why I had never heard of it and no one had ever suggested it to me.

I read an interview with the author after reading the book. Murphy talks about the research she did into the Holocaust and how difficult a subject it was for her to write about. She stated that, while she is glad she wrote it - the story deserved to be told, she said she would never write about this topic again. It was just too difficult.

This novel is powerful and moving and, yes,...magical. How could it not be? After all, the love one human being has for another is a special kind of magic we can't see, but we know it's there when we see the sacrifices they make for each other - and the reality of how strong and resilient the human spirit can be, in the most difficult of times, is one of the most magical things in life.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Long Time No Blog...or...Viva Italia!

I'm sorry I haven't blogged in awhile, but...I unexpectedly decided to take a trip to Italy to visit a friend of mine. Now, I don't usually just pack up and take off like that, but...I had spent a week in a teacher training class and had one week left until the "gearing up for school" time started. Taking one last fun trip before the academic year started up sounded like a good idea,...and it ended up being a GREAT idea!

I've never been to Italy, and I really enjoyed staying with my friend, Dianne, and her family. Everything I saw was lovely, and everything I ate and drank was delicious! I made some new friends, enjoyed the great outdoors, and tried to learn a little Italian. I visited a cathedral, a castle, an all day spa, and Milan! 

Not only did Dianne "give" me Italy, she also treated me to a trip to Switzerland one day! We took a ferryboat and went up Lago Maggiore to Locarno, Switzerland. The boat ride was really wonderful and a great way to see other small lakeside towns, as we headed up the lake. Once we were in Switzerland, we did a little shopping and enjoyed a delightful lunch overlooking the harbor. We also toured the sanctuary of Madonna del Sasso and, of course, bought a good bit of  Swiss chocolate. :)

It would be hard to say which adventure was my favorite. I can honestly say I enjoyed it all! I must admit, though, that I have a special place in my heart for Lago Maggiore. I marveled at its beauty every time I saw it. The water was blue and clear and sparkling. Every time I swam in it, I was in awe of the mountains surrounding me. I pinched myself, literally, to make sure I wasn't dreaming when I swam with swans, as I looked up at the castle across the lake. 


Best of all, the fun was shared with my friend, Dianne, who made me laugh and made me feel right at home. She was also kind enough to share her friends with me. I've never met such a fun group of women who accepted me so readily. Dianne said it is the culture of the "ex-pats" - people who know what it's like to be in another country that isn't their own - to easily accept others and make them feel welcome. Or, as one of Dianne's friends humorously put it when she first met me, "You'll find this is a really nice group of ladies. Not a bitch in the bunch." :)

Now, it's almost time for me to prepare for the new school year. We have 'camp' one day this week to meet our new sixth graders, and next week will begin the teachers' week of inservice. Things will start getting back into a routine soon enough. 


In the meantime, I'm going to treat myself to long mornings with lots of coffee, extra reading time, and lovely afternoon naps. 

Life is good...