Saturday, December 15, 2012

Placing Blame…

Yesterday was one of those days that will live on throughout our life, as we will never forget where we were when we heard the awful news. There have been several in my life of almost 60 years. I can tell you where I was when I heard that President Kennedy had been assassinated, the Challenger exploded, and the planes hit the twin towers, Columbine, and now Sandy Hook Elementary. Each of us has our own reaction to tragedy. Mine yesterday was overwhelming grief. I work in a classroom of precious small children each day and the events in Newtown were the nightmare of every teacher.

There seems to be a need to place blame when something like this happens. We lose sight of the fact that a single mentally ill person committed the unthinkable and that there was little any of us could have done to prevent it. Sadly, the blamed are often family, coworkers, and first responders who ultimately bear the greatest grief and guilt. I hope that as this latest horrific act of violence settles, we as people, start to consider how society itself, is perhaps the problem.

When I was a young child, most television shows were about cowboys and animals. They evolved into weekly programs about “Leave it to Beaver” type family life. As I grew older, there were many about doctors and hospitals. Turn on the TV now and you will find shows about violence and crime every night of the week. I call them “murder” shows. Admittedly, they captured my interest for a time, as it was interesting to learn how crimes were solved and to watch the investigators figure out the “criminal mind”. I no longer can watch them. There have been too many stories in the news that read like a script from one of those shows. The recent murder of a little girl in the Denver area was one such story. A young person murdered her and I couldn’t help but think that he might have learned his crime from watching “murder” shows on television. But we, in fact, are becoming desensitized to violence as a society. I cringe every time a six or seven year old in my class enthusiastically describes a violent video game or movie, telling of shooting enemies and bad guys.

When random acts of violence take place in our nation, we seem to crave news about them. The television is taken over by live reports, interviews with anyone who will speak, and the reflections of an unending number of experts. The nonstop reporting and constant visual reminders compound our grief. It is hard to escape that from a distance, and I can’t imagine how that would feel if you were an actual victim or family member. We have a family tie to Columbine and I can tell you personally that the media keeps that pain alive for him constantly. There was footage from Columbine shown yesterday during the Sandy Hook Elementary reporting! I think the worst moment came when they began interviewing young children. I heard a reporter ask a child, “How many shots did you hear?” I wanted to reach through the screen and grab the reporter by the collar! We need to know… we need to understand… we need a way to help those who are victims. We do not need to have our lives taken over by a steady flow of details and sensationalized sadness.

Rather than spending time trying to place blame or becoming depressed by the reports on television over the next days and weeks, we all need to hug our children, bake cookies, read them stories, and preserve their innocence. Teach them about goodness and kindness. Find a way to do something kind for someone else. Turn off your television.

May God bless the grieving people in Newtown, Connecticut. We are all so sorry….

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Time Is Now

I have just awakened from a dream. In the dream, I entered a castle and walked up the red carpet to the fanfare of trumpeters surrounded by extraordinary people from around the world dressed in their finest garments, greeting one another, celebrating, and enjoying the festive atmosphere as well as music, drink, and food served by elegant servers. The castle hall was magnificent in its splendor, decorated with gold and crystal, statues and mirrors. Everywhere I turned I found a friend, a comrade in passion and purpose. It would be a night to remember long after the dream ended. Amazingly, although I am still pinching myself, it was not a dream after all, but something that really happened to me, a life changing experience I will not soon forget. There are two kinds of experiences in life: the ordinary and the extraordinary. The castle was but one part of an extraordinary experience in which I recently participated. I am a teacher. Not a profession commonly celebrated in castles! Teaching can be one of the most isolated professions. Day after day working in classrooms surrounded by students, there is little time for contact with other teachers. Collaboration time within a school is a wonderful gift, but imagine having the opportunity to collaborate, not only with the other teachers with whom we work or even other teachers from nearby schools, but with teachers from all over the globe! Even better, imagine that group of global educators being some of the most innovative teachers in the world. That is exactly the extraordinary situation created by Microsoft at their annual Partners in Learning Global Forum. I have just returned from the 2012 event which was held in Prague, Czech Republic. The Prague Castle was the setting of the unforgettable closing gala. To be part of the event is a unique opportunity to connect with an international group of innovative teachers, sharing, learning, and celebrating. It is also a time to reflect on education and the work we undertake each day in our own schools. As I traveled home, I felt uplifted, inspired, and energized with thoughts and ideas. I left the forum richer for the experience, in awe of the amazing things happening in classrooms around the world, and with a greater understanding of the transformation of education. Forum speakers delivered thought-provoking sessions pointing out that for over ten years educators have been talking about transforming classrooms to meet the needs of the 21st century. We have been talking about the need to prepare students for jobs that do not yet exist. The truth is that we are now 12 years into the 21st century. It is time to quit talking and to take action. Jobs are already changing and jobs that did not exist 10 years ago are already part of our world. The time is now. A teacher from Norway told me of his project in which students were inspired to take risks they had not previously been willing to take. He so accurately compared teachers to those students. To make change involves taking risks. It is uncomfortable to do things differently when we have been doing them the same way for so many years. Technology is advancing so quickly in our world that it is difficult to imagine what will come next. Just in communication, it has become so simple to stay in contact with one another that I had met and engaged in collaboration with teachers at the forum even prior to traveling to Europe. The classroom projects presented at the forum were as diverse and inspiring as the people presenting them. They were extraordinary. Now I am back in my classroom trying to make sense of all that I witnessed and experienced. How do we turn the extraordinary into the ordinary? One lesson at a time, one teacher at a time, one classroom at a time... the time is now. Microsoft Corp. has reaffirmed its commitment to education with a US$250 million, five-year renewal of Microsoft Partners in Learning, bringing Microsoft's total investment in the program to US$750 million over 15 years. Microsoft aims to grow the Partners in Learning community to 20 million of the 75 million teachers worldwide by 2018 with the renewal and to continue preparing students for the changing global workforce.
Microsoft plans to expand Partners in Learning beyond the 119 countries that currently participate with a continued emphasis on driving community, developing networks, and allowing educators to share innovations and learn from each other. I am so fortunate to have been part of the Microsoft education effort!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

I AM Better Off Today Than I Was Four Years Ago

On Thursday, I met President Barack Obama in person. Not just a handshake in a crowd, I was personally introduced, shook hands, received a hug, and exchanged a few words with the president of the United States. It was a moment I will never forget.

I feel like it is time to change the title of my blog from "Sorting It All Out" to "A Series of Fortunate Events".  Yesterday I tried to blog about the experience but kept hitting a wall, unable to explain the impact on my life. I was trying to be political in my statements, but that is not me. I am not a political person. I vote. I educate myself about the issues. I am supportive of the candidates I believe in. But I am not passionate about politics. How then did this meeting with the leader of our nation come to be?

To answer that I have to answer another question that is on everyone's mind these days. Am I better off today than I was four years ago? You bet I am and that fact has nothing to do with who was president or the economy. Four years ago, the fall of 2008, I was a teacher doing my best at my job. By the summer of 2009, when I began this blog, I was a teacher with questions. From that moment until the moment I met President Obama, I lived my life in a way that opened doors, created opportunities, and filled me with joy and fulfillment unlike any I have ever experienced before. You see, it is not up to our government to make us happy or create our success. That ability lies within each of us. There is more to life than material comforts and conveniences. Money and power cannot actually buy what we all need at our core.

I found the explanation for my personal success in a book written by another inspirational person I have had the pleasure of meeting, as a direct result of the same series of events that led me to the president. Educational leader, Angela Maiers, has a new book Classroom Habitudes, explaining seven habits and attitudes that are critical to learning and success. They are written for the classroom, but apply to life in general. As I read the book, I realized that each has played a role in creating the success and opportunity that has played out in my life over the past four years: imagination, curiosity, self-awareness, perseverance, courage, adaptability, and, perhaps most importantly, passion.

As a teacher of small children, I love the message President Obama delivers to students in his annual back to school speeches. He tells them that they are in charge of their own destiny. He urges them to work hard. He tells them to respect and celebrate diversity and to take charge of their future by doing their best even when it is not something they want to do. He celebrates education and the role it plays in hope and the future.

I had the rare opportunity to meet face to face with both presidential candidates over the past few months. My views are based on my personal beliefs and attitudes, but there is no comparison in my mind. Education is one of my passions. One of the candidates is openly working against teachers and public education. (See my blog in the Huffington Post) The other, my choice, President Obama supports both teachers and public education.

I hope that each of you reading this blog will have the curiosity to read, if you have not already done so, the two party platforms on education (or the portion that matters most to you), the courage to speak about what you find, the perseverance to vote based on what you believe, and the passion to create your own series of fortunate events for the future, regardless of who wins the election. Our country will be a better place when we all take charge of our own destiny and be the best we can be in spite of adversity. Stop blaming the government and be the change you want to see. From the words of the wisest: You Matter! Make a difference in your own life today.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Romney in Small Town America: Coal vs. Kids

Yesterday was an historic day in the rural Northwestern community of Craig, Colorado. With a population of less than 10,000 people, it was an unlikely campaign stop for Mitt Romney. But thanks to the hard work and passion of some local residents, to Craig he came, ready to discuss coal and energy concerns. The event was everything a small town could ask for. I could not begin to sum it up better than local newspaper columnist, Janet Sheridan, in her beautiful post Americana in Craig.

I was honored to be asked to participate in a small round table discussion with Governor Romney prior to the community event. The small gathering included local businessmen and representatives from the local energy industry. I would represent education concerns. The opportunity was an honor to me and I put a great deal of effort into researching Romney's education position prior to attending. I also spent a great deal of time carefully selecting the words I would use in the few moments I would have to actually speak to someone who may become the leader of our country. I wanted to make the words count and to reflect what I considered to be the most important issue standing in the way of education in the United States.

I should have realized when his first question was asking which of us was the teacher, that I may not be seen as an ally equal to the energy people in the room, but that did not occur to me until I began my turn to speak. My message was simple:

"Our community has the obvious concerns about funding needs in education. That goes without saying. Class size does matter, especially in the primary grades. But more important to me is the need for our country to change from an emphasis on creating a nation of successful test-takers to building an educational system that inspires problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity.

An overemphasis on standardized testing performance is crippling education and stifling innovation.

I have teacher friends in countries around the world. Our educational system is seen as the test-and-punish system.

Educators, parents, and community groups are working hard in Craig to transform our district from the industrial age model to meet the 21st century learning needs of our young people. Perhaps less top down government regulation and more support for grass roots efforts are worth a try."

I did not actually get to state all of that before he began to respond negatively, telling me that without standardized testing there would be no way to know which were the bad schools. He told me we need to teach the basics of reading, writing, and math and that teaching to the test was not a bad thing because it represented teaching the basics. As I tried to continue to make my points, he offered charter schools as a solution and put down the teacher's union. His exact words at the community rally: "I love great teachers, I love great parents, and I love great kids. I'm going to put our kids first. I want to make sure we have a president that cares more about kids than he does about the teacher's union."

I am not a member of the teacher's union. That is not because I don't value and support its work, but due to the fact that I have not received a cost of living raise for several years, have had my insurance costs increased, and can not afford the high monthly union dues. I do teach reading, writing, and math in my first grade classroom. Those are the very basis of all 21st century skills. In fact, my students' work has been recognized by both the Smithsonian and Microsoft in the past few years. I consider myself to be a great teacher and children are my life. Anyone who knows me, knows I go above and beyond to advocate for my students and their needs.

In the end, I was left speechless, resentful, and plan to cast my vote for anyone other than Mitt Romney. By the way, just before he boarded the bus in downtown Craig, he stopped and shook my hand again and asked which grade I taught. I told him first and second and he said his second grade teacher was the one he remembered most. 

This morning as I took a walk, when I do my best thinking, I reflected on the experience and the role point of view played in the day. I had listened to other people at the round table tell of hardships created by too much government regulation. They told of lost jobs and lost income. He sympathized and asked clarifying questions. They put down Obama and cast him as the cause of all the misery. Romney agreed and said he would be different. When it was my turn, I expected the same respect for my cause, but it did not happen because my cause did not provide an opportunity to sway votes or attack the existing president. No Child Left Behind was created by President Bush. Governor Romney's plan, A Chance For Every Child, is not a new plan. It is more of the same. 

We live in a country where we are blessed to be able to choose our leader and state our opinions freely. I was blessed to have the opportunity to state mine to a powerful person yesterday. I will always be grateful. I can only hope that perhaps Governor Romney has moments of solitude to reflect on the things people say to him. I hope that in one of those moments he realizes that my words were, in fact, in support of great teachers and great kids. Just the fact that I am a teacher does not make me the enemy. Our educational system is burdened by too much government regulation and, as a result, people are losing their jobs, just as they are in the energy industry. Watch the video about coal and imagine it talking about our schools. The issues are very much the same. It is time for politicians to advocate for what is right and what they believe in, not just what will get them elected.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Of Butterflies and Interventions...

The most amazing thing happened recently in our classroom! In the fall we studied the life cycle of butterflies by observing the actual transformation from monarch caterpillar to butterfly. Excited students brought in other caterpillars they found and we watched them change as well. One swallowtail caterpillar, captured on an apple tree, made a chrysalis, but did not emerge as expected within the usual 10 - 14 day period. Assuming it had died, we left it in the container and placed it on a windowsill along with various moth cocoons that we knew would remain until spring.

Imagine our surprise when five months later the most beautiful butterfly we had ever seen appeared in the container! Our surprise quickly turned to concern as we realized that February in Colorado is not a time to release a butterfly outside. We prepared a suitable cage and equipped it with fresh flowers and sliced oranges, trying to make a habitat that would support the survival of our beautiful new friend.

As expected, the butterfly lived only a little more than a week. Its passing was a sad moment for the students, but a real lesson about life for all. I learned another lesson as I reflected on the experience.

Children, like butterflies, come in all shapes and sizes. Most develop as expected, "emerging" from their chrysalises at expected ages and stages of their lives. Some do not. The butterfly that appeared five months late in our classroom was no less magnificent than if it had made its entrance to life in September. It was, in fact, even more special because it surprised us by achieving its potential when we had lost all hope. There was nothing wrong with our butterfly, it only needed more time than others like it. Children are like that sometimes. Each individual child will develop in his or her own time. We must not give up on a child that seems to fall behind.

In this time of high stakes testing, the need to make sure all students achieve within the expected timeframe can cause us to push a bit too hard at times as well. Awhile back, a friend of mine in another city posted a video on Facebook of a butterfly pupa that had not hatched as expected in her classroom. She dissected the pupa for her students, only to discover, much to her surprise, that it was still alive and not fully formed. Although the "teachable moment" was amusing to watch, it was also a bit horrifying and tragic as the tiny creature was pushed into the next stage of life way too soon. It did not survive. Perhaps our students can be pushed too quickly as well. That is not to say we should not provide extra support to help them on their developmental journey, but we need, as educators, to also respect their unique and individual timelines and allow them to develop. To push too hard for results they are not ready to achieve may result in failures they cannot overcome.

One of the most difficult decisions concerning our recent butterfly was whether it would be better to release it outside on a warm afternoon for a few hours of freedom, knowing it would die that night, or to create a safe place where it had the opportunity to live longer in captivity. I don't know which was the correct choice as I have never been a butterfly, but we chose what we thought was best for our tiny friend.

So it is with students at times. We have to make choices about how we will guide their lives at school. Hopefully, we make choices that provide them with opportunities to flourish and grow. As a teacher, the most joyous moments are those in which a struggling student makes a surprise appearance from his or her chrysalis, to achieve something previously thought too difficult. That is why I teach.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Let's Go to Disneyland!

As my first grade students left for their holiday break, I told one of the children to have a wonderful vacation. He sadly looked at me and said, "I'm not going on vacation. I am just staying home." I explained to him that by vacation I meant not coming to school. His reaction made me think about how many students never get to travel and experience the joy of visiting popular vacation destinations. It seems, however, that the answer to that problem was sitting in my room waiting to be unwrapped!

I had recently been given a copy of Kinect Disneyland Adventure. I took it home for my grandchildren to play while visiting for Christmas. The game is an authentic trip to the Magic Kingdom. Players enter Main Street USA, collect autographs from Disney characters in an autograph book, and use a map to select the lands to visit in the park. Pirates of the Caribbean, It's A Small World, and all of the other favorite rides from the actual park are part of the game. It is as close as you can come to an actual visit without traveling there.

My teacher mind kicked into high gear and I am planning a unit around the game for my students! As I looked through the common core standards, I found that there are plenty of language arts, math, and geography skills we can work on as the class takes on the task of vacation planning! Working in small groups, the students will use the internet, brochures, and local travel agents to research the many aspects of going on a vacation to Disneyland:
  • which park to visit
  • transportation options and costs
  • time of year considerations
  • lodging options and costs
  • food expenses
  • admissions
  • what to pack
  • how long to stay
  • what to do while they are there
The students will have the opportunity to research, develop a plan, and collaborate with their peers as they learn to read informational text, evaluate information, and make informed decisions.

Geography and map reading skills will grow as they discover that Disney has parks around the world to chose from. In addition, they will need to read the park map as they plan their days and select attractions to experience.

Math and personal financial literacy skills will grow as the kids learn to use calculators to work with large numbers and realize that vacations require long term goal setting and saving.

When all the plans have been made we will take a field trip to the local airport to check out one transportation option first hand. Then our vacation will be underway as we travel virtually, thanks to Kinect, to Disneyland. Of course, there will be time spent waiting for a turn, not unlike the lines at the actual park! The game will give the kids a chance to experience the joy of a vacation as they move their bodies through the engaging activities and attractions. Of course, the learning will continue as they each keep a diary describing the people, places, and events with relevant details, expressing their ideas and feelings clearly :) Using technology they will create postcards to mail to friends at home.

There are many possibilities for learning from such a project. The Kinect game will be the amazing reward for all of the required hard work for which I will be asking. I have no doubt that the students will be motivated, engaged, and learning! I can't wait to get started!