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Monday, December 8, 2014

How Not to Be A Grinch During The Holiday Season

As we enter the Yuletide season of joy and giving, let's be honest. Every last nerve in our body is about to tested. Our students are on the verge of eating excessive amounts of sugar for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They will be bombarded with ads for the newest, coolest toys on the internet and at their neighborhood Walmart.

Their eyes will glaze over during class with visions of robot toys that shoot lasers at annoying little sisters, or video games that blow up evil empires while simultaneously chatting with an opponent in the UK.

As engaging as we try to make our lessons, they will not be able to compete with the big man in the fat red suit sporting a white beard who owns flying reindeer.  Yes. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are all at risk of becoming a Grinch.

Before it's too late, I've pulled together five safeguards to protect our students, parents, and ourselves.

Safe Guard #1. Expand your heart.

During this holiday season, two types of students tend to emerge. The Cindy Loo Who's who are innately kind, loving, and will complete homework and projects in a timely manner. You will love these students. "Who" wouldn't?

But what about the non-Cindy Loo Who's who will fail to complete assignments, push your last button, and then go home and tell their parent that you hate them. Take a deep breath. A mentor of mine once said, "Fake it until you feel it." Act like you love The Cindy Loo Who's and the Non-Cindy Loo Who's and you'll be surprised when your heart catches up!

"And what happened then? Well, in Whoville they say that the Grinch's small heart grew three sizes that day." The Grinch Who Stole Christmas

Safeguard #2. Collaborate don't isolate.

It is easy to feel like you are the only teacher on the planet who is considering early retirement (and
it's your first year) but know that you are not alone! Teachers all across the U.S. and Canada are feeling the effects, as well.

Just as you would never attempt Black Friday or Brown Thursday alone, you should not take on the days and weeks leading up to winter break alone. Go to your team and express how you are feeling. Chocolate also helps!

Safeguard #3. Be realistic. 

As excited as you are about completing an ice sculpture of the Great Wall of China in your World Geography class, this is not the time or the place.Variables like shorter attention spans, additional carbs to induce sleeping, and inevitable interruptions by your former students coming by to remind you why you love to teach, are very, very real.

Ask yourself. What assignments can wait until these variable diminish? Separate the need to do's from the I want to's and you will become far less frustrated. Taking on too much can make you feel like you are a horrible teacher, which of course, you aren't.
Safeguard #4. Be kind.

Even if you have failed miserably at Safeguards #1-#3, it is never too late to change your behavior. Before sending out the mass email and a bcc: to your principal about the teacher whose students are climbing the walls. Stop!

Before posting or emailing anything ask yourself: Is it biased? Could it be taken out of context? Is it hurtful? If you can answer one or more of these questions with a yes, you need step away from your computer, Ipad, or Iphone and take a deep breath.

This is the perfect moment to engage in a random act of kindness!

Safeguard #5. Be thankful.

Hands-down one of the best Grinch repellents is a spirit of thankfulness. Begin making a list of reasons to be thankful. Warning: While you may exude thankfulness on a normal basis, you may struggle. This isn't to say you aren't a grateful person...because you are! Remembering the reasons you are thankful is more about reminding you of the person you truly are. You are NOT a don't act like one!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A Thanksgiving Tribute to Charles Schultz

charles schulzEvery year before Thanksgiving break I give a mini lesson to my creative writing class on the Peanuts cartoon creator, Charles Schultz. I begin with something like, "Long before there were blogs, Twitter, Instagram, or the internet for that matter, there was a form of communication made entirely of paper."

I pause for dramatic effect and with all the enthusiasm I can muster up I say. "It was called a newspaper!"

At this point, eyes roll and I get the usual "Mrs. Dollar we know what a newspaper is!" Next, I stream a vintage Peanuts cartoon strip onto a screen in front of the class.

"But wait!" I say excitedly. "What you may not know is that Sunday was my favorite day because cartoons were....are you ready...they were printed in color!" 

I confess it gets harder every year to get a middle school audience excited about the Peanuts creator. If it weren't for holiday specials and parade inflatable floats, Charlie Brown, would most likely be forgotten as have many vintage cartoon characters like Lil' Abner or Blondie. But I press on because cartoonist like Charles Schultz have so much to teach us.

There is something raw and honest about his cartoons.

Charles Schultz admitted that Charlie Brown was his alter ego. I found a clip that shows the artist sketching Charlie. He says,"Charlie Brown is I think a little bit like everyone. We all need reassurance to know that someone likes us."

As my family prepares for our holiday meal, we have A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving on the television. Once again, Charlie Brown feels like he's ruined everything. I think we all have felt this way at one time or another. I know I have.And once again we are reminded of the true reason we celebrate:

 Charlie Brown: I don't feel bad for myself, I just feel bad because I've ruined everyone's Thanksgiving.

Marcie Brown: But Thanksgiving is more than eating, Chuck. You heard what Linus was saying out there. Those early Pilgrims were thankful for what had happened to them, and we should be thankful, too. We should just be thankful for being together. I think that's what they mean by 'Thanksgiving,' Charlie Brown.

Charles Schultz once wrote a brief quiz that went something like this:

Name three Nobel prize winners.
Name the three wealthiest people in the world.
Name this year's Heisman trophy finalists.

Then he asked three more questions:

Name three teachers who affected your life.
Name three friends who stood by you.
Name three people you like to be around.

Charles Shultz believed that celebrities don't make the biggest impact on our lives. The people close to us do. The people we live and work with and those who care about us are the ones who matter most.

And to this I say, "You're a good man, Charles Schultz!"

To learn more about this incredible man check out HuffPost's 20 Things You Didn't Know About Charles Schultz

Sunday, October 12, 2014

5 Things Bad Teachers Do Very, Very Well!

1. Mr. Ima N. Kuntroll: Ultimate Disciplinarian
Bad Teachers run their classrooms with military precision. Desks are in neat rows. You can hear a pin drop. Not only are their classes in perfect order, the Bad Teacher will be quick to point out to the principal (or even a School Board Member or two) how the new, unruly teacher across the hall has let his/her class run amuck.

The Bad Teacher has no tolerance for students talking, moving around, using technology without the constant supervision of the all seeing eye. Past performance records reflect their "well-run" classroom. Mr. N. Kuntroll prides himself on being the Captain of his Ship!
2. Ms. Claire Itty: The Lecturer

The Bad Teacher is able to teach with their eyes closed. Their voice is most often monotone and assume their students understand every word they're saying.

Strategies like introducing academic vocabulary before a unit or providing background knowledge are meaningless endeavors, especially since these tidbits of instruction were part of a prior grades' curriculum.

The Bad Teacher readily accepts the responsibility of teaching the grade-level curriculum. No more. No less. Ms. Claire Itty will be the first to tell you, "It is the student's job to ask questions when they do not understand."

3. Mr. Wunsize Fitzall: The Lesson Designer

The Bad Teacher is indubitably gifted in the art of lesson design. He is able to take state standards and seamlessly design a lesson to fit all students regardless of age or ability level.  Special Needs? Gifted and Talented? English Language Learner?

Response to Intervention? No problem! Each of these students will be expected to master the learning material without scaffolding or differentiation.

Mr. Wunsize Fitzall will be the first to tell you, "Our job is to prepare students for the real world. Adults don't get a scaffolded tax return."

. Ms. Fave Ortism: The Affirmer
The Bad Teacher is able to recognize the brilliance in her students, in spite, of what other students tell her. She wears the proverbial rose colored glasses. Be rest assured, when end of year award
nominations come out, it will be the student who is: studious, quiet in class, courteous, and is able to sit for extended lengths of time without the slightest shift in his/her desk.

On the flip side, The Bad Teacher will be ready, at the drop of a hat, to give zeros in the grade book and points off in an effort to shape the unacceptable behavior of distracted and talkative students. Ms. Fave Ortism recalls with fond memory, "I am able to spot the class pet within the first week of school. It is a pleasure to read and grade every assignment. I never tire of giving this student an A+ +  +."

5. Mr. Smartie: The Know-it-All!

 Anyone? Anyone? clip from Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

Bad Teachers are experts in their subject area. Their students are merely empty containers in need of the teacher's vast expertise to fill their empty minds. Regardless of advancements in technology, the Bad Teacher knows more.

How is this possible? Why, they have had more life experience and most likely have a Master's in their field of study. This is in no way to trivialize continued education! However, the Bad Teacher will forever remain the smartest person in the room. Mr. Smartie is quick to raise the point: What will happen when computers break?

Confession Reflection:
1.  Why is it important for teachers like Mr. Smartie to engage in continued professional development, especially in the genre of digital literacy?
2. How do administrators and instructional coaches support teachers like Mr. Wunsize Fitzall to design lessons that help level the playing field for struggling learners?
3. What are ways administrator's can protect new teachers from teachers like Mr. N. Kuntroll, who are mean spirited, and try to discredit them?

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Christmas in the Great Outdoors!

It wasn't my idea to have a Christmas in July party, but it happened. Imagine. Red house lights  blinking in the heat of the summer. Jingle Bells blaring from the stereo. A lamp post adorned with mistletoe and topped with a giant bow. Yes, and even a Christmas tree, tinsel and all, sitting in my driveway. Oh, and did I mention the reindeer? I'll get to that later.

I'm not exactly the social butterfly when it comes to neighborhood stuff. While I appreciate the occasional Bunko game or Tupperware party, I'm not one to initiate festivities. If you asked me to rate myself on the social spectrum, I may rate "plays well with others" but not much past that. Outside of my church and weekly Saturday morning coffee clutch with a few girlfriends, my social life has much to be desired.
When our church Care Group brought up the idea to have a Christmas in July party to get a jump start to support a local charity, I wanted to crawl under my chair. Since I was a group leader, I felt obligated to smile and say, "What a great idea!" Inwardly, I was thinking, How will our neighbors know that this is really going to a charity? What if they think we are con artists hording gifts for our own children?

I bounced the idea off of one of my best friends and told her my worries. Instead of affirming my fears, I heard, "Tamra, I think your overreacting."

Okay. I admit it. I have an overreacting problem. Like the time I was getting ready for a college sorority party and set the iron too hot and seared a hole in my favorite purple silk blouse. What did I do? I threw the singed iron away and swore to never iron again. I kept my favorite blouse with the triangular shaped hole hanging in my closet for weeks hoping I'd wake up and it would all have been a terrible dream. As for ironing, I've kept my promise.

And so we booked our children's pastor, Kelly Welhelmi, to put on a puppet show dressed in her outrageous character, Rudette, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer's sister. We printed off over 100 flyers and posted to every house on our cul-de-sac and surrounding blocks asking neighbors to bring an unwrapped gift. At the bottom of the flyer in bold face type was: All gifts will be distributed through our churches' children's outreach.

Well, a Texas heat wave had hit and my family and our church small group were sweating bullets the night of the party. We had fans blowing and chilled lemonade and enough watermelon to feed an army. A few members from our church small group mingled waiting to be swarmed by neighborhood children. My front yard was a sight to see with a Christmas tree in the driveway, house lights, and even mistletoe over the doorway entrance.

We waited. And waited. And waited some more. Where were my neighbors? I was embarrassed and was secretly hoping we'd printed the wrong date on the flyer. After forty-five minutes, my next-door-neighbor walked his nine-year-old daughter over to get a better look at the lady wearing a brown suit, antlers that dangled tinsel, and a glittery red nose. She placed an unwrapped My Little Pony toy and planted herself on our lawn. How could it be that only one child showed up?

And so I succumbed to my weakness. I overreacted.

I gave marching orders and sent my three children who at the time were, 5, 7, and 10 years, to knock on their friend's doors. I no longer cared about the gifts, I cared about saving face.

And that's when it hit me! Suddenly, I felt a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach and wished I could undo the moment I'd agree to the party. I'd cared more about collecting gifts for children I didn't know...without taking the time to build relationships with the people on my own street.

As it turned out, my kids were able to round up their friends...and neighbors slowly began to show up. I'm pleased to say by the end of the evening we ended up with around thirty people.

Looking back, something far more important than collecting gifts happened. I got to know my neighbors. The man whose dog barks all night. The lady who is pregnant with her fifth child. The kids who cut through our yard on their way to school, carrying their skateboards. The young couple who recently adopted a two-year-old from Korea. And we learned their names.
Long after the watermelon had been eaten, and Rudette had gone to wherever Reindeer go in the summer, our band of neighbors were talking, laughing, and sharing stories. Without asking, a collection was taken and we raised enough money to buy gifts. By all accounts, my Christmas in July party was a success. Our party had a write up in the neighborhood section of our local newspaper and my Christmas in July story was published in our church's monthly newsletter.

This year as I make last minute touches on my classroom, I am reminded that at the end of the day learning and teaching are about relationships. By nature teachers are task-oriented and standards-driven and sometimes lose focus. I recently watched this Ted Talk video by Rita Peirson and was reminded of the importance of valuing relationships: with our learners, parents, co-workers, and our community. Teaching is not only about content. It's about loving people.

Rita Peirson on building relationships with out learners:

Confession Reflection:

1. Why is it important to begin the school year focusing on relationship building?
2. What are some ways educators can nurture relationships outside of the classroom? In the community?
3. How do educators build a classroom community that is emotionally safe and encourages learners to explore and take risks?

Monday, August 4, 2014

Creating a New Structure to Grow 21st Century Learners

I confess that I don't have a green thumb. Maybe it is karma. My first memory of planting anything was as a five-year-old in my Sunday School class. We planted popcorn seeds in quart-size milk cartons that had been cut in half and filled with soil. It was a Bible lesson based on the Parable of the Sower and the Seed and how we have to protect God's word (the seed) when it is planted in our hearts (the soil). I remember the sheer joy I felt when the green stem broke through the soil. I was careful not to overwater. I had done everything right.

The problem was that I thought I was growing "popcorn." No one told me otherwise. And so I waited patiently over the course of what seemed like an eternity waiting for popcorn to bud. 

My granddad was a farmer and when he planted watermelon seeds, he got watermelons. When he planted cotton seeds, he got cotton. I fully expected popcorn.

I remember Mrs. Dazzlebright (not her real name) proudly handing our little plants back to us to take home. (I'm convinced to this day she switched some of the plants up. There was a kid whose plant never seemed to take off; however, on the final day of our lesson he suddenly had a green plant. I'm sure she had a few spares growing in her home just in case). I remember thinking, It's too early. It can't be ready to go home. There isn't any popcorn!

To my dismay, I was told that our lesson was over and we could take our plants home to continue to watch them grow. Best case scenario my plant might grow into a stalk one day, and produce corn. Those chances were slim to none. Suddenly, I realized my plant was doomed. I would not see popcorn explode from its leaves.

And so I did a horrible thing.

I was sitting on the front row next to my mom. As my dad reached the pivotal point in his Sunday sermon, my foot began an involuntary swinging motion. With one fatal swoop of my foot,  I kicked the plant. It wasn't a tap. It was a hard kick like when you're playing kickball. The container, dirt, my helpless plant flew across the linoleum and landed in front of the pulpit. My dad stopped momentarily and bent down and picked up the now empty carton in his hand and held it up. Tears streamed down my cheeks. Shame engulfed me.

Without missing a beat, he picked up the tiny plant that was now free of the container. He gently held the plant in his palm. In one hand he held the empty carton and the other he cradled the plant. I don't remember his exact words but this is how my adult mind remembers it, This plant is helpless without the safety of its holder. It will not be able to grow without the soil. It needs a second chance.

A movement called Genius Hour is sweeping the country. Based on Google's 20% philosophy, kids are given time within the school day to investigate what they are passionate about, design their own learning, and share with the world. Instead of teacher led tasks, kids innovate. Create. And grow. Genius Hour: Where Passion Comes to Life!

I was able to witness Genius Hour first hand on an elementary campus in my district, Cottonwood Creek Elementary. There was a group of English Language Learners writing a song and playing instruments in the hall. I saw fifth grade students supporting first graders to build a Lego castle. I saw a group of boys outside filming a "how-to-play football" video. I saw children creating a video game and learning to code. Technology was everywhere!

Kids were social. Talking. Learning.

Where were the teachers? They were visibly in the background. Watching. Supporting. Encouraging. But the children were clearly in charge of their learning. The principal was in the halls asking questions and calling each child by their name.

And that's when it hit me!

I had bought into the theory that children are suppose to grow "popcorn." We teach the curriculum, practice, reteach, nurture and love. We do everything "right." But what if we've been doing it all wrong? What if we need to turn our education system on its head? What if 21st century learning happens in a different container, using different tools, and the outcome is something we have yet to imagine?

Sir Ken Robinson says, "The current system was designed and conceived for a different age. We alienate millions of kids who don't produce in the old system. They don't produce in an academic system." In other words, they don't grow "popcorn" and are kicked out into the world without proper knowledge and tools to function in a 21st century world. They need a new container. They need a second chance.

Changing Education Paradigms Ted Talk

Confession Reflection:

1. What are some examples of "popcorn" or academic expectations that have been placed on our learners? i.e. high stakes testing scores, being "book smart"
2. How do we treat learners who don't produce the results we expect? i.e. Special programs, medication, more work
3. What are some barriers to changing our current system? How can these be overcome?
4. Why is it important to nurture and grow today's learners using a new paradigm or container? What are the dangers if we don't?




Sunday, June 1, 2014

Paint By Number and Run!

The map unfolded before me. Vast oceans filled with sunken treasures. Lands where Jesus himself had walked. Hills and valleys where the Shepherd boy, David, guarded his flocks until he grew up to take the throne as King of Israel. The Holy of Holy Land mapped out on a table in front of me with unopened paints in neat rows beside never-been-used brushes. Yes, the world was my oyster and at the ripe age of four-and-a-half, I was there to claim it...


My dad was the pastor of a small, Southern Baptist church in Renton, Washington. The church was called, Trinity Baptist, and was all about loving people of every walk of life and serving one another. I learned at an early age the importance of embracing people in spite of their imperfections, regardless of how much money they made, their political affiliations, or the color of their skin. Being a part of God's family, meant loving others, warts and all.

Sunday mornings meant cold cereal, sleeping in sponge rollers so I would have curls for the day, a Sunday School lesson, church, warm hugs, and more kisses than I wanted from a handful of adopted grandmothers. Since my own grandparents lived thousands of miles away in Texas, the elderly women from the "Naomi Class" seemed to fill this void. 

As our little church grew, we began running out of Sunday School class space and so it was decided that our basement would hold the weekly widow's Sunday School class. Our home, also called the parsonage, was a hop, skip, and a jump from the church and so it made for an easy trek to and from church.

One perk was that our basement was light and airy. The tip of the basement had a high window that let in sunlight from the front of the house, but in the back there was a full size sliding glass door that made the room full of natural light.

Since the members of the Naomi Class were planning a trip to the Holy Land, our basement was an ideal place to begin their nine month, in-depth study of the Holy Land.

A paint-by-number kit of the Holy Land, purchased with Sunday School funds, was set to chronicle their studies as these precious women prepared their hearts and minds for this once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage.

Yes, the world was my oyster that summer day. The paints, the map, the clean, unused brushes begged to be brought to life with all the color and splendor it so deserved. One angel's voice whispered, "Paint just a corner of the ocean blue and no one will notice." The other angel warned, "Remember what your mom and dad told you? Run away...before it's too late!"

I decided that I liked the first angel's advice better and so I picked up a small vial of paint, took the lid off, dabbed a brush into the paint, and selected the number 14. The map evolved into what can only be described as a patchwork, calico-style painting interrupted with glimpses of splatter paint that resembled something more from outer space over any landform on earth.

Not the actual map (for display only)
Somewhere along the way, I had lost track of painting numbers and began to imagine real people I had learned about in my Sunday School class. The stories of David and Goliath, Samson, the boy with the five loaves and two fishes, the Battle of Jericho, had come to life amidst starbursts of vibrant color matched to random numbers.

Unfortunately, my artistic inspiration, fueled by unbridled passion, left paint on my shorts, shirt, elbows, cheeks, the floor, the table, and every square inch of the paint-by-number map.

It took several weeks to raise enough money doing extra chores and some money my parents pitched in to order a new Holy Land map from the Moody Bible Institute out of Chicago.

I also claimed that my brother, Brad, was as guilty as I was because he clapped and laughed when he saw me with paint on my hands and face (and that was after two baths and scrubbing with soap until my skin was red). However, he was pardoned given the fact that he had no paint on himself and my parents claimed was "too young to be an accomplice."

I'm pleased to say the widows of Naomi's class trip to the Holy Land went off without a hitch. The second map was far more boring than mine, but who am I to judge? The women returned beaming as if they'd seen heaven, itself. And I think they felt so sad for me since I was crying and visibly shaken when I had to tell them about their map and what I had done.

As a token of their love for me, they returned with a tiny gift. It was a necklace containing a vial with a mustard seed inside of it. I wasn't too impressed until they told me that if my faith was as big as that little seed (which is a little bigger than the size of a period at the end of a sentence), I could move mountains.

Seven months after receiving my mustard seed necklace, my brother, Brad, passed away unexpectedly. He had gone to the doctor for a well baby check-up and shots, and caught an aggressive form of meningitis from an unsterilized needle that had been used on an infected child in the next room. Brad was placed in the hospital and died in the wee hours of the night. The belief that I will see him again someday, has kept my faith strong.

My confession is that it's taken years to figure out how a tiny mustard seed can represent faith. But then it came to me that it isn't about the size. The power of faith is in the potential of the seed. It's the explosive, living power of hope and belief in what can't be seen and believing that it is. Faith isn't believing in superstition or old wives' tales. It is standing on the promises of God.

Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you." Matthew 17:20

Got faith? Check out this link! Do you have mustard seed faith?

Confession Reflection:

1. What does faith mean to you? Describe a time in your life you've had to lean on your faith.
2. Why is it important to have faith? Why do you think faith is compared to a mustard seed?
3. Is there a mountain in your life that you need to move? What is it?
4. Research shows that "hope" is a predictor of learner success. Do you agree or disagree with this finding? Give your reasoning.


Sunday, May 11, 2014

Who Moved My Cheese?

With the 2016-2017 school year peeking around the corner, job fairs are popping up everywhere baiting hopeful applicants to believe they will soon land their dream job.

Right away you spot your dream job in your dream school district. And you think to yourself, if only Human Resources could see what my best friend, favorite Auntie, life coach and favorite college professor have seen all along: Any school district would be lucky to have such a gifted, brilliant, passionate educator on board!

And then the dreaded words, You're not the right fit or We went with a someone else hit you square between the eyes and send you in a tailspin.

Well, if this has happened to's time to put on your running shoes because someone has...MOVED YOUR  CHEESE!!

Back story:

It was 1998 when a little book titled, Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal With Change in Your Work and in Your life, by Spencer Johnson, became the David in a Goliath book market.

The same year my principal, Mr. Stuckman (not his real name),  made it a school wide expectation for each grade level team to complete Who Moved My Cheese? as a book study. He was also on the brink of retirement. Looking back I can see how this book was not so much about shifts in our educational system, but was as much about his own life and goals.

In case you've never heard of Who Moved My Cheese? it's a parable about four characters: two little men named, Hem and Haw, and two little mice named, Sniff and Scurry, who live in a large maze with cheese hidden in certain "stations."

Cheese is a metaphor for what a person (or mouse) wants to get out of life.

While Sniff and Scurry aren't the brightest in the bunch, they wake up early every morning, put on their running shoes, and race to find the cheese. They run into walls (a little too often) but aren't afraid to take risks and to explore new pathways. Trial and error get them from point A to point B.

Hem and Haw, on the other hand, are sophisticated little men; highly intelligent, thoughtful, but tend to overthink situations and are resistant to change.

Eventually, all four characters discover what they were looking for...a seemingly endless supply of cheese in Cheese Station C.

The little men feel they can finally be happy in life because cheese meant a big house, powerful position in the company, and a large paycheck.

For Sniff and Scurry, cheese meant food for the day because their happiness was not dependent upon the cheese itself.

For this reason, the wise little mice continue to wake up early every morning, put on their running shoes, and race to find new cheese and new paths.

Hem and Haw, on the other hand, grow lazy and wake late because they assume the cheese will always be waiting for them. Unfortunately, Hem and Haw do not read the "handwriting on the wall."

For this reason, I have referred back to the lessons in this little book when change happens in my own life. Here are some life lessons and insights I continue to take away from this little book:

1. The more important cheese is to me, the more I want to hang on to it!
2. I can't keep doing the same thing over and over and expect things to change!
3. Anticipate change. Smell the cheese often so I  know when it is getting old!
4. It's imperative that I let go of the past and adapt to the future!

Change happens. Period. The question is: Am I ready?

Confession Reflection:
  • What would you do if you weren't afraid? How would your thoughts and actions change?
  • Why is it important to "smell the cheese often?" Explain.
  • Have you ever had someone "move your cheese?" How did you respond?
  • What does cheese represent to you? Give examples.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

How to Keep Your Sanity and Teach Kids Simultaneoulsy

It's the final weeks until schools all across the United States and Canada are about to be let out for summer vacation.

Tensions rise. Claws come out. Betrayals happen. Fear of contracts not being renewed can spark nasty rumors. It's easy to get caught up and forget who we are as educators and why we do what we do.

Here are 5 survival tips from the movie Top Gun to help educators make it to the last day of school in one piece!

1. Stay focused!

One of the easiest things to do is to be swept away by needless distractions.
Rumors and gossip can spread like a wildfire sparking fear in your staff and/or the teachers you work with everyday.

Anytime a conversation starts with, "Have you heard....?" or "Did you hear about....?" That's a sign to disengage in the conversation. Keep your focus on our most valuable commodity: our learners! Don't let distractions shortchange our kids.

2. Stay connected!

Don't be fooled into thinking that you can coast through the end of the year alone. This is especially difficult for educators or administrators who have felt betrayed or have been let down by a team member. This isn't to say you have to go into relationships with blind trust. It's okay to have your guard up, but it is foolish to think you can finish strong if you choose not to work collaboratively with your professional learning community (PLC) and administration.

3. Gear check!

Ask: Do I have what I need to finish out the year? Are my discipline procedures in place? Do I have the supplies I need? Don't wait until next year. Go ahead and put in a help ticket to technology department if a computer decides to have a mind of its own.

 Keep fresh supplies in your room. Learners can sense when their teacher has checked out for summer vacation and this may directly effect their behavior (in a negative way)! Also, don't forget to BREATHE normally and smile. This will give the illusion that you are calm and self-assured even if you're a nervous wreck!

4. Honor those in authority over you!

This can be a tough one especially if you feel like an administrator is out to get you. In reality, the opposite is true! Our administration is there to support and help their staff be successful. Think about it: their success as a Superintendent, Curriculum Director, Principal, or Assistant Principal is dependent on the performance of the staff they oversee.

 It's easy to feel singled out, especially if your end-of -year evaluation doesn't portray you as the shiny penny you believe you are. Keep your head up. Show respect. It's okay to self-advocate but do so respectfully!

5. Be professional...always!

I recently read a statement: You can never be too overdressed or over-prepared. I'm not sure how applicable that is...but there is a hidden gem in this wise saying. How we dress, our tone of voice, the way we interact with co-workers, parents, and learners should stay professional.

Let's be honest. Our learners are going to be going bonkers the closer to the last day school. Award ceremonies, field trips, year book signing parties, are all going to add to the adrenaline rush. Keep your composure and keep doing what's best for kids!

Confession Reflection:
  • What are ways educators can mentally prepare for the weeks prior to summer vacation?
  • Why is it important to maintain positive interactions with staff, parents, and learners?
  • How can educators veer away from negative conversations without hurting feelings or isolating themselves? Why is it important to avoid fueling hurtful rumors?

Sunday, March 2, 2014

A Colt Named Carl

I spotted him across the aisles of baskets of ferns and Christmas garland. There was something distinct about this colt. Maybe it was the crayon scribbles across his saddle or the way he leaned precariously to one side or the missing strands of yarn from his mane.

All the same, I left my local Goodwill with a Clue game and a Star Wars puzzle (which I discovered later was missing an edge and two pieces from the Death Star), justifiably for my classroom, but not with the lopsided horse.

Maybe it was predestined, but I left my wallet on the counter and a spunky, auburn-haired girl wearing a badge named Nan was waving it in the air just as I re-entered the store.

I thanked Nan and then the words every bargain shopper this side of the Mississippi can't resist blared over the intercom, "For the next hour all orange tagged items are half off."

There was no turning back. I grabbed my wallet and was caught up in a stampede of other bargain shoppers in the direction of "orange tagged" items. It didn't matter if the orange tagged item was a set of golf clubs, ubiquitous painting of snow-covered mountains, mismatched set of holiday dishes, or a personalized cookie jar, for that matter.

The sheer rush of adrenaline that coursed thru my veins created a borderline hoarder mentality which is the reason seasoned thrift shoppers like myself must be careful and ask, "Do I really need this item? or Do I want it because it has an orange tag and I don't want anyone else to have it?"

Which is exactly why I ended up carrying an over-sized, over-stuffed, pony which  I purchased for a whopping $3.50. I didn't need it and I didn't want the lady wearing the gray sweater to have it.

As with most teachers, our car's interior holds numerous ungraded papers, at least two umbrellas, a crumpled fast food wrapper or two, stapled notes from last summer's professional development we swear we are going to file or scan (depending upon our technology comfort level), and at least 45 cents (most likely made up of dimes, nickels, and pennies) just out of reach between the driver's seat and console.

A few crumpled wrappers I could live with but not a stuffed animal the size you might win at a carnival. And so it was that a Colt named Carl made its way into my literacy classroom. What happened in my classroom in the years that followed, is undeniable.

Since finding his way into my classroom, I've witnessed a reluctant 8th grader who would rather play Call of Duty than eat or breathe, choose Carl as a reading backrest and lose himself in a book. I've seen a stressed out eleven-year-old whose parents were going thru a divorce, relax while fidgeting with the yarn on his mane. I've even heard kids called "dibs" on him; which is the highest honor when it comes to pre-teens' territorial nature.

And so I've developed a theory about comfort objects like stuffed animals and middle schoolers. I believe there is still a child-heart in these learners in spite of how cool and worldly they try to act. Eleven and twelve year olds are in an awkward phase of life. They're too old to play with dolls and robots, build blanket forts at birthday parties, or wear capes and pretend to be Spiderman. On the flip side, they have a whole life ahead of them to lose sleep over whether or not a Senate house bill will pass or the collapse of civilization as we know it.

I believe that the middle school years should be a right of passage, if you will. It's the period when kids can secretly believe that Santa climbed down their chimney in the wee hours of the night and that there is still a chance they will one day be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. It's a window of time when they can hold on to the magic of their childhood while building skills to survive high school.

Carl has taught me the importance of designing a learning environment that feels safe and taking risks are encouraged. As the years go by, I have had high school learners come back to say "hi" to Carl. I've even heard of kids posting "selfies" on Instagram with none other than Carl himself.

I don't pretend to understand how or why this odd purchase made such a difference in the culture of my classroom. Sometimes magic just happens.

(Author's note: Carl received his official name and became known as my class mascot before I was aware this had happened. Word just spread somehow. This group of 6th graders in my Flex class actually threw him a birthday party. Obviously, I was the only one who didn't know it was his birthday).

Click here to learn more! How important is building a positive learning environment?'

Confession Reflection:

  • What are some characteristics of a positive learning environment?
  • Research shows that optimum learning happens in a safe environment. What does this mean?
  • How can teacher entitlement (my room, my rules) be a barrier to building a culture of learning?
  • Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Learners should have a voice in designing their learning space.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Butterfly Effect

I confess that it's sometimes hard to see the big picture. It's easy to lose sight when things go awry, especially on days when everything seems to go wrong.  So it was on Tuesday, April 13th, near the end of my 6th period class.

It started in an unnamed teacher's room. Because she had left a box of Cheezits half-open over the
weekend, a mommy mouse had discovered the box and had decided it was the perfect place to build a cozy nest for her babies. When the unnamed teacher walked in on Monday morning, you could hear her screams reverberate in every nick and cranny of our two story building.

Within minutes the assistant principal who oversees school safety procedures had procured animal control to capture the potentially disease stricken rodent(s).

Of course, mommy mouse, sensing danger, had found an escape route for herself and her babies, and was now somewhere between a bookcase and unforeseen hole hidden behind a file cabinet along the back wall. Traps were set Monday evening in several rooms in hopes of capturing the family of mice.

Although they "say" the mice had been disposed of, rumors of a school-wide cover-up spread like wildfire that the mice had, indeed, not been captured and there were likely breeding as we spoke. A nervous undercurrent could be felt throughout the campus. Where there was one mouse, there were many, many more. However, the staff was advised to not discuss the "incident" and if the subject arose, we were told to say the mice had been caught.

Which brings me back to my story.

Tuesday, during 6th period Social Skills class, Jason, (not his real name), seized the opportunity to say that he felt certain we were going to all get the Black Plague. It was mean, but not unexpected from a student who had ED (emotional disturbance). Katy, (not her real name), had been identified as a student with ASD (autism spectrum disorder). Upon hearing Jason's comments, took him at face-value, and began to freak out. Of course, the more she yelled and told him to shut up the more dramatic he became.

As with any special education teacher, we have to prioritize when pandemonium threatens to break out. Before sending Jason to the office, I had to calm Katy down by assuring her the mouse had been disposed of which made her even more hysterical. (Unbeknownst to me, Katy had become an animal right's advocate over the weekend to the point of turning Vegan).

Katy screamed bloody murder and threw a box of Kleenex across the room. The corner of the Kleenex box hit Sheldon, (not his real name), directly on a scar on the back of his head from brain surgery and now required immediate attention and a call home from the school nurse to document. Sheldon now topped the list of priorities.

While distracting Katy and trying to get Sheldon to the nurse, I kept telling John, (not his real name), he had to wait even though he said he had to go "really bad!"

Coppell ISD Curriculum Writing Team
Seventh period I got a call from Coach Roberts, (not his real name), saying that he needed help ASAP as John had decided to drop his pants while running track to relieve himself on the grass. When asked why on earth he didn't ask the coach to go to the boy's restroom he said, in a matter-of-fact tone, that his dad had told him at a recent camping trip if you have to go and can't hold it, "it's okay to pee outside."
The events of that horrible day, have resulted in an unexpected path which I am certain I wouldn't have taken if it hadn't been for the box of Cheezits and a pregnant mouse.

You see, after that incident, I applied to become a curriculum writer and coach for 8th graders for a pilot program to help middle school students transition to the high school. Since all students involved in the mouse incident were 8th graders, I wanted to be part of a team to help prepare and ensure that my students were ready for much bigger events like understanding social language and how to make new friends.
As a result of working the Summer Academy, I decided to get a masters in educational leadership. As a result of getting a masters, I became an instructional literacy coach. As an instructional literacy coach, I am able to follow my passion of encouraging educators and to help them find innovative ways to integrate literacy into all content areas. It's what I believe. It's what I love.

Check out this link!
The Butterfly Effect  by Andy Andrews
Confession Reflection:
  • Have you ever experienced the Butterfly Effect? How did it shape who you are today?
  • How can we create butterfly flutters in the students and staff we lead? How can we help open doors of opportunity to inspire and help them grow to their potential?
  • Why is it important to live a life of positivity and think beyond ourselves?
  • How can the decisions we make today bring positive changes in the future?