Friday, December 26, 2008

Time to Reflect and Recharge

Before I became a teacher I thought that Christmas break was all about the students getting a break. Now I know that teachers need the time as much if not more than students do.

Friday the 19th was my last day in the classroom until January 6th. We have professional development off site January 5th. I will use this break to recharge, I am honestly bone tired, and I have not felt this way in the first semester before. Recharging is great but I will also use the time for serious reflection as I plan for the rest of the school year. My students and I have a lot of ground to cover before they take the AP World History exam in May.

Reflecting is so important to being a good teacher and I think most of us do not spend enough time reflecting in a deeper way. We reflect on how did a specific lesson go or how could I re-teach a given lesson that the students did not understand. That is all good and I know that is what most of my reflection looks like so starting with this vacation I am setting a new goal for myself as a teacher. Not only will I reflect on the actual lesson and how my students responded but I will also reflect on how my actions impacted not only my students but the school climate as a whole. Is what I am doing a positive influence not only for my classroom but for other classrooms as well?

The high school I am employed at is an inner-city, low-income school. Most of my students are on free and reduced lunch. Many of them only have consistency when they are at school. We are also considered low performing. Those are the labels we have been given. But those labels do not have to define us: they only define us if we allow them to define us. Our staff and students have been given the challenge to change our low performing status and I believe this is where the deeper reflection comes in.

One of the complaints I have is that our students come to us without critical thinking skills and their writing is formulated so that they will pass the writing portion of the required standardized test. I work with my students as I question them so that they learn to analyze and not just summarize. This takes me most of the year but as LCT I have been working with my ninth grade teachers encouraging them to challenge their students in this area. I believe once our students are successful with analysis they will become more comfortable with deeper thinking. This will translate into improved scores not only on the state standardized test but also higher AP scores. If our students can earn college credit in high school they might see college success as something that is in their future.

When we return in January my goal is to work cooperatively with the English teachers so that our students understand that there are multiple ways to write effectively. They have been programmed to ask “how long does it need to be?” I tell them there is no set length; you have to answer the question completely.

Something small that everyone can do to make the school climate better is to say “good morning” with a smile to co-workers; yes even to the co-worker that makes you crazy. I also try really hard to leave my problems in my car but when I cannot I am honest with my students. A good example of this is when I was driving to school and I received a call that a dear friend had passed away that morning. She lost her battle to breast cancer. I knew my students would see that I had been crying so it was easier to tell them the truth. If I had told them nothing they would have known I was lying.

I also think it is important to reflect on past successes; therefore I will share a story about one of my former students. I had this student in my AP World History class last year. She came to me having always received high 90s in both her history and English classes. My class of course would be different she made a 70 the first six weeks of the year. She wanted out of my class desperately because she wanted those high 90s again. I refused to let her out of the class and I pushed her and worked with her when something was not working I changed how I explained it until we found a way that worked for her. I encouraged her to work with a classmate that was making 90s. She continued to struggle through the first semester but she stuck with it and by the end of the year she was making 80s in my class. What was more important than that was I watched her self-confidence increase and when the time came to sign up for her junior year classes she stayed in the AP program.

So in the end what does reflection do for a teacher? For this teacher it shows me what I have done right, what I need to continue to do and what I need to work on.


December 26th is my grandmother's birthday so I wanted to take a minute and pay tribute to her memory with pictures and words.

Raymond and Jennie Phillips
This is a picture of my maternal grandparents. My grandfather died when I was little so I do not really remember him but my grandmother left an imprint on my heart and influenced my life.

August 11, 1984 the day I married Doohickie. My Grandmother is between us. She gave us a gift that I still have. She gave us a large album filled with recipes that I still use to this day. My grandmother could cook and you always knew there would be something good to eat in her kitchen. I loved her homemade donuts and her pickles. I have never been able to get mine to taste like hers.

I am not really putting the photos in a specific order anymore. The photos are really a way to pay tribute to this wonderful women. In the picture with my grandmother is her daughter, son-in-law and their two sons. She gave me my love of sewing and quilting. She also encouraged people when they were down or frustrated and to this day I still hear her voice and it usually comes when I need it most. I know it is her because no one else calls me "girly". My grandmother had grit but she was also as my father would put it a "true lady". She was not as Doohickie puts it "a priss" but she did not have a problem with my being one.

Like my sister this photo is one I really love. It is of my Mom, my Grandmother, my oldest son and me. It was taken when son number 1 was four months old.

This picture was taken at the same time and my sister is in this picture. I am not sure why my Mom did not stay in the picture.

The one type of picture I do not have but would love is one of my grandmother when she was younger. One thing she did as she got older was to travel with the senior citizens group. She took many bus trips and she had great stories to share and she never failed to tell us about the food. I know this picture does not show any of that. It is just one of the memories that I have of her. She also had a charm braclet that I imagine was very heavy. It had charms of grandchildren, and charms from places she had been. Her children may have had charms as well I do not remember it that clearly.

Gram celebrating a birthday.

My mom with my sister's daughter and Gram. I'm not really sure when this picture was taken. What I do know is that my Grandmother loved her great-grandchildren and she was always happy to see them.

My grandmother with most of her children. As usual someone was cutting up. It was probably one of the brothers because both of their faces are hiding.

This is at one of the many gatherings that occured and continue to occur with extended family. My grandmother was the oldest sibling and even here she reigns supreme. Her brothers, sister-in-laws, daugher and great-neice gather round.

I believe this was my grandmother's 80th birthday party. My aunt, brother and cousin are in the picture as well. She touched so many lives and we lost her a few short years later to breast cancer. So on this day I took a few minutes to remember a women that brought great joy to many lives. Gram had a knack for making everyone feel special and important. There are so many more stories I could share and who knows as I find more pictures I may post them and share more stories but for now I will close with this final thought. Happy Birthday Gram you are still loved and missed.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Memories

I started with Halloween and then I wrote about Thanksgiving so now it is time for Christmas memories. Some may not be direct Christmas some might just be winter memories. What is really odd or maybe it is not; most of my memories are about other people.

Two of my favorite memories of Christmas past are from my childhood and they both involve my sister. I am almost 6 years older than my sister and when we were young we shared a bedroom. Sharing a bedroom had its ups and downs but on Christmas Eve we had a ritual. My sister was one of those kids that could not sleep so she would ask if she could sleep in my bed and of course I told her “no just close your eyes and sleep in our own bed”. Then the game would start. She would try to sneak out of bed and try to climb into my bed. Part of the reason I did not want to share my bed with her is because she was a wiggle worm and she also took the covers but after awhile I would give in and let her sleep in my bed because I figured some sleep was better than no sleep. She would also wake me up in the morning to let me know that Santa had arrived. My second memory comes from a time when she wanted lots of gifts under the tree so I obliged her by wrapping up each of her presents separately so that she would have lots of presents under the tree. I reminded her of this several years ago when she asked for a sewing basket for Christmas. I not only wrapped the basket I also separately wrapped each of the notions that I had placed in the basket. Even though I was not home that Christmas as I was wrapping her gift and talking to her on the phone after she opened it I felt closer to home.

Gram and Uncle Herb would often come down to visit us Christmas Day and I would often receive the type of gift I still love to get; a book. I love to read and Christmas would not be Christmas without a new book to read on Christmas day.

I remember the year I thought I knew what I was getting for Christmas. We lived in the country so our mailbox was across the road from the Wigner place and as we were driving home my Mom stopped to get the mail and there hanging from our mailbox flag was a Dawn Stage. It was the number one gift on my wish list I was so excited and then my Mom busted my bubble. My mother said “This is not yours I’m going to call the other Penny Candy relatives I’m sure they ordered it for their daughter.” I was crushed my parents did not love me enough to get me the one thing I wanted and sure enough when my mother made the phone call the gift had been delivered to the wrong house and my Dad took it to the relatives. What I did not know at the time was my Dad delivered it to his work shop and hid it where I would not find it so when I opened my Dawn Stage on Christmas morning from Santa I was thrilled to pieces. I later overheard my Mom telling a friend of hers how my Christmas gift was almost ruined because the catalog company did not wrap the package in brown paper. After all what company in the 70s did not wrap their boxes in brown paper.

Fast forward to the 1980s and it is the first year Doohickie and I were married we traveled to Arizona from California to visit family that lived there. Doohickie surprised me with a sewing machine. Most people might think what an awful gift it is like giving a vacuum cleaner as a Mother’s Day gift. I wanted a sewing machine but had not asked for one because we did not have a lot of money. I still have that sewing machine and I use it from time to time when my hands are having a good day. A few years later I was so sick with morning sickness all day long that I had not done any shopping and we could not travel to Arizona so I was very depressed thinking that we would not have a Christmas. My wonderful husband surprised me with presents under the tree he had gotten out of work early and done all of the shopping without saying a word to me so Santa truly visited my house that year.

Our oldest child has never been a morning person to the point that we had to wake him up on Christmas morning. He was four years old and still asleep at 10:30 in the morning. Watching both boys try to guess which type of Hess truck Grandma and Grandpa sent them each year was always fun. They both loved getting Legos and once presents were opened they started to build their new creations. Or the year our oldest received a “grownup” camera and his reaction was “Sweet Monkeys”.

Our youngest child was thrilled the year he walked into the living room to see a drum set ready and waiting for him. He also went through a dinosaur phase and he loved getting dinosaurs in his stocking and under the tree. He received some that “hatched” and he kept those for a very long time. Our youngest child is sick this year so he did not get to play the drums at the Christmas Eve service last night and he opened his gifts this morning with just a bit of a smile on his face. He has spent most of the day sleeping on the couch.

A tradition that we have started as a family that I hope our sons will keep as they move into their own lives is the ornament tradition. Every year each boy picks out a new ornament that is theirs. Most of the time we pick them up while we are vacationing but some years we do not travel so they are chosen from a local store. The boys will sometimes put their names on them before it goes on the tree. Our tree does not have a theme, a color and there is no rhyme or reason. What it does have is memories. Almost every ornament was given to us, made by one of us or was chosen for a reason.

Christmas comes but once a year but the memories created in one day last a lifetime. Merry Christmas one and all.

Monday, December 1, 2008

If I Were the Secretary Of Education

So if Barak Obama called me Monday morning and asked me to be his Secretary of Education of course I would say yes. I would be on the next flight to Chicago to meet my new boss so we could brainstorm how to improve the public education system here in the United States.

The first thing I would do with the arrival of January 20, 2009 is throw out NCLB and start over. So now that I am starting over what would school look like. First I would assemble teachers, principals, and parents to meet with me and my staff for input.

I will not pretend to have the best ideas for elementary or middle school but I do have some that I think would be beneficial and then the experts would fill in the rest. Half-day preschool would be available for everyone starting at the age of four and your income would not figure into the equation. If you wanted your children to attend a private preschool they could but the expense would be yours. Kindergarten would be full day and all elementary classes would be limited in size to fifteen students. I would also suggest the restructuring of schools. Elementary would run from Pre-K through fourth grade. Fifth and sixth grade would be in a separate building as an intermediate school. Seventh and eighth would be middle school. Ninth grade could either be a separate campus, part of the middle school or in a separate wing of a high school building. Grading and testing needs to change for elementary and middle school while at the same time students need to reach academic success. Testing and grading for students from pre-k to eighth grade would then be turned over to people with experience in those grades. I envision a portfolio being utilized in some way.

High Schools would see a radical change under my direction. There would be a two tiered graduation system put into place. Not everyone would be forced into the college track mode. If a student was not interested in the college prep route or has disabilities that keeps them from progressing down that road they would still take academic course but they would also have the opportunity to receive vocational training in a variety of areas so that upon graduation from high school they would be prepared for work in a given area. This would look different from the vocational training of the 1980s because industry has changed and more doors would be open because of that. Of course there would be the standard cosmetology, auto mechanics and licensed vocation/practical nurse. But computer technician, CATIA design, hazardous waste handler, travel agent, auto detailing, restaurant management are just a few that would be made available. The disabled students could be placed in life skills classes if that is what there IEP determines is necessary. The academic classes that they take would have end-of-course-exams to be used as a gage to determine that they had mastered the subject. The vocational training would have licensing or exams at the end of the program as well and with those two things combined the student will have earned a high school diploma.

For those students that are college bound the rigor would be extensive with AP, IB and duel credit classes offered at every high school. These exams along with the ACT and SAT would be what are used to determine that a student is entitled to a high school diploma.

Classroom sizes would be small, no more than twenty-five students in a class. Science labs would be smaller. The school year would be extended to two hundred days in an academic year.

I would take a radical approach with parent involvement; instead of punishing the parents/guardians that have children that do not what they are supposed to I would instead reward the parents/guardians that have their children do what they are supposed to. This could be in the form of a tax credit or tax rebate it could also be in the form of monetary aid if the child decides to go to college. The parents/guardians could elect which option they would like to take.

High School staff would be assigned 10 children each that they would mentor and advise throughout their high school careers. This model allows for a relationship to develop between an adult and a student so that the adult can give advice about classes, work options, college options and any other advice that the student might need. The counselor’s job would be to counsel with regards to more serious issues.

A few things that I would not allow or I would regulate. Vouchers would not exist if someone wants their child to attend a private school they foot the bill themselves completely. Home schooling and charter schools would be closely monitored and if students were not making progress from year to year steps would be taken to shut down the charter school and the home schooled student would have to return to public school.

President-elect Obama is sure to pick someone with more experience than I have as his S of E but I can dream. If you have any educational dreams you would like to share please feel free to do so.