Remembering just how fortunate I am…

I talk to friends who don’t teach and always hear about them complaining about those they work with and I realize that I really am fortunate to work with some great people — people who are dedicated to not only helping others, but to becoming better at what they do at the same time.

Oh, and they’re funny. Really funny.

Exhibit A? If you have read my blog, then you know about my little rant about Mr. Ashton Kutcher telling us how important it is to learn to code. Well today, after getting some flak from the person who was responsible for putting said posters up, I later found this staring at me after closing my door for the day:

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Now, I will freely admit that I cracked up when I saw this. She got me – and she got me good. But, what I also noticed, since it was outside my door and I had a little more time to examine it, was what else it said:

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And now it makes total sense. Unless it really was just his good looks that got him to where he is. Hmm – come to think of it, I’m not sure that I’ve ever thought his acting to be all that good…

Good one, JoAnne!!!

I think I’ve said this before…

…but just in case, the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) initiative drives me up an absolute wall. It’s not because I don’t think those subjects are critically important, because I do. It’s simply because there’s one little letter that’s missing: an A. Change that to STEAM and we’re all good. Show people that the Arts are just as important as those other subjects and I wouldn’t be blogging about it.

What, you may wonder, is the big deal? Well, if you don’t work in the field of Education, I can understand that question, partly because I’ve had discussions about the topic with friends who aren’t involved and have a differing perspective. I get it. It doesn’t seem like a big deal to you – it makes sense to you – but as a teacher, let me tell you why it doesn’t make sense to me.

You see, in my opinion, NONE of those other subjects exist without a piece of the Arts attached to them – and vice versa as well. I joke with my students about me not using Math on a daily basis, but it’s a joke. Do I need Calculus or Algebra? Well, no. But that doesn’t mean I don’t value them – I just joke about them.*** In addition, I’m working in a pretty specialized field which doesn’t require it. (And that brings me to one of my all time favorite shirts…)

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Make no mistake about it, though, we need to make sure our students – both male and female – are exposed to ALL subjects, not just the STEM subjects (and not just the Arts for that matter).

And that brings me to what even brought this up. In our high school we currently have a bunch of posters that were put up concerning the need to learn how to code. I have no issues with the need to push this – heck, if you can’t see that this is a necessary skill for many – especially our young ladies – then you might not be able to foretell anything in our society. But seeing this poster made me a little stabby, so to speak…

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First, I have a hard time taking Kutcher seriously – even though he gave a great speech at the 2013 Teen Choice Awards Show. I just don’t see him as a master of coding. Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps he’s at home in his free time learning how to do it, and if that’s the case, then I apologize. But we see celebrities pitching ideas all the time (I’m supposed to believe that Tiger Woods drives a Buick?), so that’s not even the biggest thing that bugs me about this.

Again, we see the Arts being shrifted – and in this case, by someone who’s made his living as a result of them. “…right next to biology, chemistry, or algebra.” – UGH! How about right next to Drama or English or Pottery or Digital Communications or Choir or Band or Creative Writing thrown in there alongside the others? And again, the last thing I want to do is de-stress the importance of biology, chemistry, or algebra, but c’mon!

Okay, rant over, I’ll keep this relatively short, besides, I’m probably just overreacting…

 

*** There’s something else I tell my students about those who are strong in the math and sciences, and that’s that they typically make a whole lot of money…

#onelittleword

New Year’s Resolutions. I’m sure we’ve all made them at some point, and I doubt that most of us have ever true maintained one for an entire year (I think the longest I ever went was a month – but man, I was in shape that month!)

But during this year’s holiday season, while trying to figure out what I wanted to resolve, I came across a tweet from Lisa Dabbs (@teachingwithsoul) which led me to her blog post entitled Ditch the Resolutions and Do the Word! (Careful readers will also notice that Lisa was influenced by Ali Edwards, who blogged about her #onelittleword for 2014 — just trying to give proper credit!)

Immediately, I was drawn to Lisa’s post due to this photo:

thrive

I mean, c’mon now, how cool is that??? I was hooked – and immediately started to think about what my word needed to be for 2015. It was about a nanosecond after this that I started thinking about how I could use this with my students. I started twisting it all around and then finally realized (because I’m smart like that…) that there was no need to twist anything around. That’s the beauty of the whole thing – students don’t need different instructions to do this – the project is strong enough on its own that it lends itself to success by everyone, regardless of age.

So yesterday, our first day back after Winter Break, I introduced the project to them. We spoke of past failed resolutions. We laughed at how we all thought we’d do this or do that. And then I showed that thrive graphic and explained the project: Rather than a resolution, choose one word to keep you centered throughout the year. But choose wisely, because that’s your word for the whole year. While there were some puzzled faces, there were many more faces filled with excitement. They were hooked.

All students were required to do three things after choosing their word: tweet out their photo using the hashtag #onelittleword, email a copy of the photo so that I could show them off on this blog, and print out a copy so that I could show them off on our one little word wall.

I was actually amazed that there were only a few words that repeated (although you might see that somebody wasn’t quite sure how to spell perseverance!

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collage12

collage1

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collage15

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So, a little bit about the process. I envisioned the students using PhotoShop or another similar program to do this. For my Yearbook students, they didn’t have an option and had to use it (their projects are below). They use PhotoShop on a daily basis, so it wasn’t much of a stretch for them to do this. For my other students (Mass Media and English), I was simply expecting them to write their word on a piece of paper, maybe decorate it, have a friend take a photo and voila. What I love is that it took all of about a nanosecond for the students to realize that they could easily do this using SnapChat – great problem solving on their part!

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So there you have it. I really like what they’ve come up with and truly hope that it helps to guide them through their year – whether that be as a freshman / sophomore or a senior who’s closing in on graduation.

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Oh yeah, there’s that whole little thing about my word. I really spent some time on this and finally decided that this is the word that I’m focusing on the most this year. There are so many things that I want to do, so many places that I want to see – and that’s going to start in earnest, this year…

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Mandated testing…

(note: I just saw that I didn’t post this after I created it last year – ugh – gotta love it! – well, here it is – can’t say as my opinions have changed whatsoever!)

The simple fact of the matter is that, unless you’re a classroom teacher, a guidance counselor, an administrator, a custodian in the building or a teacher’s aide, you have no true concept of what state/federal mandated testing does to a high school. NONE. Please don’t even attempt to say that you do.

We are taking the Keystones in Algebra I, Literature and Biology over the next seven days. These have been mandated by the state of Pennsylvania in order to not only demonstrate what a student “knows,” but also how effective a teacher has been. Um, yeah.

Let’s take  a look at this realistically. Did you take your standardized tests seriously when you were in school? If you did, I’m going out on a limb and saying that you truly didn’t need them to demonstrate your knowledge. If you didn’t, I’m going to say you are very much like the vast majority of students everywhere who flat out don’t care about them. I find it to be interesting that the same people who profess the teachings of Dan Pink — you know, the guy who diffuses the carrot and stick method of motivation — do exactly what he says not to do by conducting these tests.

Now, please don’t get me wrong — I believe in accountability for all of those involved — but especially for the students and teachers. However, we are going about this in all the wrong ways, making sure that test taking companies and politicians get rich in the process. (Incidentally, depending on which source you believe, the industry is worth anywhere between $400 million and $1.7 billion a year — and I’m pretty sure that if you’re reading this, you aren’t naive enough to believe that those big bucks aren’t a driving force behind this being done.)

Starting next year, the way that I’m evaluated in Pennsylvania will change. If it had been up to Governor Corbett, I would be evaluated 100% based upon how the students in my school perform on the Keystones. Let that sink in for a minute. My job would depend not upon my performance in the classroom, but rather on how students in my school whom I DON’T EVEN TEACH OR WORK WITH IN ANY WAY perform on a standardized test that they don’t really care about anyway.

Oh, I know what you’re thinking. Maybe if you motivated them to take the test more seriously they would do better. Yeah, good luck with that.

You want to know what the students are truly worried about concerning this test? The fact that we, as proctors, are forced to take their cell phones away from them for the duration of the test. Seriously. I will have to literally ask for each student’s cell phone, have them turn it off then put it in a ziploc bag which then goes in a big rubbermaid container. If you have any clue whatsoever of what a phone means to a 15 year old right now, then you’ll understand the fiasco that ensues. And then we want them to demonstrate their understanding of Algebra, Literature and Biology? Yeah, good luck with that.

Just an incredible day…

There are times that you sit back and just think about how great of a day you had – and yesterday was one of those days (ps, it wasn’t because I proctored the SAT in the am…). A good friend and colleague of mine, Dave Vuick, and I have had the fortune to get to know Baron Batch and Sean Beauford, both part of the creative team at Studio AM, and we had the opportunity to take some of our students to visit their studio in Homestead.

Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect – would we be there for 15 minutes or an hour? Would the kids appreciate the opportunity they were getting or just not quite get it? Would Baron and Sean just be (understandably)  exhausted and unable to make it after their opening night at The Union Hall at Bar Marco the night before? And even more honestly, it couldn’t have gone better.

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Sean and Baron talking about the process of working as an artist.

Baron and Sean were unbelievably giving of their time and our students were filled with questions. It’s not every day that you have the chance to visit an artist’s studio – in fact not every artist even has one. Our kids learned about process and motivation, mediums used, trying and failing (and starting over), looking for improvement, how to brand yourself and your work, the need to be an artist and not a hobbyist, and so much more. I truly felt like I was auditing the coolest college marketing class ever. The real talk was just awesome.

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One of the coolest parts of Studio AM’s space is this room, which fosters conversation amongst all. I couldn’t help but be inspired by everything all over the place…

I watched as three students from very different backgrounds just took it all in. I witnessed true learning as they were validated in their questioning and respected by two pros. I saw three kids light up when Baron offered them pieces of his art and offered to collaborate with them on a future show – and I can’t wait to see these three work together to create an awesome show. There’s not a doubt in my mind that they will do this after they were challenged to do so.

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Who’s that watching over you???

If only you could have seen the joy on Kat after Baron offered her this shield. It's not something that I will quickly forget...

If only you could have seen the joy on Kat after Baron offered her this shield. It’s not something that I will quickly forget…

So thank you, Baron and Sean – you made the days of three great kids and two teachers at the same time. You gave a couple hours of your time to make things better around you and that’s not going to be forgotten…

Baron creating on a skateboard deck...

Baron creating on a skateboard deck…

Sean and Baron with GS students...

Sean and Baron with GS students…

And let me tell you what made it all so worth it – hearing these three on the way home just absolutely geeked about their day and being so appreciative of the opportunity to learn and meet new people – that’s what makes it all so awesome.

Helping to chaperone a trip to France…

I had the opportunity to participate in an exchange with French students in February of 1988. At the time, I just remember it being a horrible experience – everything was just awful to me. Quite frankly, I wasted the trip and, most importantly, the opportunity.

Looking back on it now, I have no idea why Mrs. Leshock even allowed me to go on that trip – to say that she was taking a chance on me would be an understatement. I was a jerk and didn’t speak French very well; not the kind of kid you want to oversee in a foreign land. Yet she did let me go – and while it took me many, many years afterwards to realize it, this trip really laid the foundation for my future.

Flash forward to 2005: I was now a teacher at my alma mater, working alongside Mrs. Leshock, a woman I had always liked, but now had grown to truly respect and admire. I once again had the opportunity to visit France, this time as a chaperone with Mrs. Leshock for an exchange. The tables were turning, to say the least. And man, my eyes were opened in so many ways. I now saw just how much it took to put on a trip like this, from a teacher’s point of view. I also truly saw the beauty of Paris and France in general.

Memories of my earlier trip kept coming back to me – and I realized that I didn’t have a successful trip when I was in High School because I didn’t make the most of it. It wasn’t because the opportunities weren’t there – it wasn’t because I wasn’t treated well – it wasn’t because it wasn’t beautiful. It was simply because of my own attitude.

We had a really strong group in 2005 and I’ve kept in touch with many of the students who participated in that trip – it’s an experience that really bonds you, and that’s truly a great thing. Quietly I hoped for yet another opportunity to do this yet again.

I get to climb the Arc de Triomphe to see things like this??? Sign me up!

I get to climb the Arc de Triomphe to see things like this??? Sign me up!

Mrs. Leshock has since retired, but our “new” teacher (she’s been at GS for six or seven years now), Mrs. Grace, has continued our school’s exchange with Lycee Jean Monnet, and I once again had the opportunity to help to chaperone a trip this summer. Understand that in this time, the way that world languages are being taught has seen a radical shift. Gone are the days of rote memorization of vocabulary and the conjugation of verbs – the way that I was taught. Instead, students are immersed in the language from the moment they walk in the door – and I had the chance to witness the application of this style of teaching first hand.

Now, the absolute last thing that I want to do is make it out like Mrs. Leshock wasn’t a good teacher – this couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s been 25 years since I’ve had French, yet I can still recognize much of what people are saying and can read it pretty well – and that’s a tribute to her, without a doubt. But I have a tremendous difficulty in speaking French.

From the moment our plane landed two weeks ago, I personally had the opportunity to witness just how incredibly talented our French students are in speaking the language. Quite honestly, I was shocked at just how well they were able to communicate with their hosts. I vividly remember being scared beyond all belief as I sat at the dinner table with my host family for the first time, searching for anything I could possibly say in French that made sense – the words just wouldn’t come to me. And here were these current students just hitting the ground running, speaking entirely in French and just blowing me away. To say that I was impressed would be a tremendous understatement. I’ll put our French students who are studying under Mrs. Stephanie Grace up against any from across this land – and I have no qualms in saying that.

So now I’ve had the chance to chaperone with two different women, both of whom were so incredibly impressive in this process. Being in charge of the safety of 17 students in a foreign land is a tremendous responsibility – and both took this very seriously. Planning a trip to a land that has so much to see is daunting, to say the least, and both pulled this off with seeming ease (I say seeming because I know first hand the stresses that come with this, but also saw both make it appear so easy).

It might seem crazy, but one of the ways that you judge a trip to be successful is by the tears that are shed by the students and their hosts as they say goodbye. The tears show us pretty clearly that bonds were formed and lasting friendships forged. And we saw plenty. Yet I’m also sure that some don’t think they had that tremendous experience that others had – and I completely understand that – I just hope, for their sake, that it doesn’t take them as long to come to the realization that they just experienced a tremendous, life-altering opportunity as it did me.

Finally, beyond once again thanking both Mrs. Leshock and Mrs. Grace, know that this experience would never be possible without willing parents and families who so warmly open their doors to students from both sides of the Atlantic. And it also wouldn’t be possible without the commitment from the teachers at Lycee Jean Monnet who have so willingly done the same on their side!

Okay, I lied – finally, I will leave you with a link to my photography site, which has more photos which highlight this incredible trip. Simply click here to check them out.

Thank you so much Steph!

Thank you so much, Steph!

The most ridiculous thing you’ve ever heard about the Common Core Standards…

I know, that headline is promising big things. And they’re coming. I’m going to do my best to keep this short and sweet.

I have struggled with my thoughts on the Common Core. On one hand, I do believe that national standards can benefit many, many people. Overwhelmingly, however, I keep coming to their assessment, and I just can’t get past the ways in which these standards are being assessed with high stakes tests that negatively affect both students and teachers alike. (I know, those are just two of the issues at hand, there are many, many more!)

And then I had the pleasure of reading this headline today:

“Florida lawmaker is sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but Common Core standards will make your kids “as homosexual as they possibly can.”

I mean, really? This has to be false, right? Nobody could possibly be that idiotic. And then my mind took me to one of my all time favorite quotes as said by Mark Twain: “It’s better to appear stupid than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

Seriously, Mr. Van Zant (and I use that Mr. loosely), you are an absolute idiot. The people of Florida should be completely ashamed that you represent them. I cannot possibly imagine anyone ever agreeing with something this idiotic (although I have a feeling that there are many who do and that this will undoubtedly become a talking point.

I mean, how could the following NOT become a talking point?

“Bizarrely, the Republican lawmaker seems convinced that officials who support the Common Core have an “LGBT agenda,” which includes “attract[ing] every one of your children to become as homosexual as they possibly can.” Though surely in some cases, these kids won’t be capable of becoming very homosexual at all.” 

Read on for yourself, please. Please watch the video. Please share this idiocy. And please keep in mind that this man was elected by the people of Florida.

The Common Core will turn students gay.

 

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

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When you get to the last 100 pages or so of a book and realize how much you don’t want it to end, you know you’ve found a good one. When you find yourself realizing that an author has just nailed a time and place — and you find yourself magically taken back to that time and place — well, that’s just incredible. And Carol Rifka Brunt has done just that in her debut novel Tell the Wolves I’m Home

Had this book not been chosen for this month’s selection for our Book Club, I’m not very sure that I’d have ever picked it up. Well, that’s not entirely true — the cover art is intriguing enough in itself — I just might have pulled it off a shelf. And I liked it from the start — it was obvious that Brunt knows the 80s — she wasn’t just writing about them, she had experienced them. While Jerry Maguire may have had Dorothy Boyd (yes, I had to look up Zelwegger’s character’s name…) at hello, Brunt had me at “I ran up to my room. It had never seemed so small. So shrunk down. I looked around at my stupid fake candles and my big dumb collection of Choose Your Own Adventure books, my gaudy red comforter with the fake tapestry print on it” (20).  I mean, c’mon – a Choose Your Own Adventure reference early on? Yeah, I’m in…

And she kept me on the hook as she walked me back down the memories of what it was like to grow up in the 80s during the AIDS Crisis. I’ve often tried to explain to the kids I work with what it was like to grow up during this time period in which I truly believed Ronald Reagan hovered over some type of red plunger-type button, waiting to start World War III (“Wargames” anyone?), and that if I even had a gay person look at me, I would become infected with AIDS. My students look at me like I’ve got a second head on my shoulders when I tell them that. They truly think that I’m making it up; after all, how could either of those scenarios possibly be true?

And yet, they both were. And I was as homophobic as the next guy. I certainly wasn’t raised that way, but I bought in to the mass produced hysteria we were sold. Brunt nailed the description of  the original news reports that always seemed to have B-Roll of some seedy gay nightclub, guys dancing around in leather chaps and leather hats. Evidently, the guys from the Village People were at every gay club in the US. I look back on those days and seriously cringe at the thought.

So, against this backdrop, I understand June and Greta Elbus. While I didn’t have an uncle with AIDS, because Brunt painted such a vivid picture of these siblings, I was able to see my brother Jantson and I going through a situation such as this. In short, the relationship between these sisters also forced me to take a look at my own rocky relationship with my brother. While reading, I was able to not only see myself as that older sibling (Greta), but also as that younger one (June), fighting through the feelings of being alone with nobody understanding you whatsoever. I could see how much they loved each other while hating each other at the same time, and it forced me to take a look at it from the younger sibling’s perspective.

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And while all of that points to a strong, personal experience with this read, it truly didn’t click for me until I had one of those “a-ha” moments and realized that this wasn’t the story of the uncle with AIDS, but rather the uncle’s partner with AIDS. I can absolutely be thick in the head at times and it took me awhile to come to this realization, but man, once it hit me, it hit me. It almost became a completely different book to me, and I mean that in the best possible way.

So there I was last night, with about 100 pages to go, right up against our Book Club’s “deadline,” and I just flat out didn’t want this book to end. I didn’t want the ending I knew had to come. I didn’t want to stop reading about the Elbus family. I didn’t want to no longer have Brunt’s similar take on growing up in the 80s. I just didn’t…

I don’t write in the books I’m reading (unless for a “teacher’s edition” of a book I’m teaching), and I used to take notes in a notebook — but now, with Twitter, I’ve been simply tweeting lines/sentences that stand out to me and using a hashtag to help me organize this for further reference (#ttwih).  I found myself doing this more and more as the book came to a close. Was this because Brunt’s writing became more profound? I’m not so sure about that. I think there is a part of me that was just trying to stall, to prolong the ending…

**  “I need to work out how to keep things flying back to me instead of always flying away” (350)

**  “I was a stealer of minutes” (349)

**  “Because maybe I don’t want to leave the planet invisible. Maybe I need at least one person to remember something about me (341)

I dread the inevitable big movie production of this, which I am certain is in the works — I dread them ruining my vision of these characters. I dread them thinking they can possibly do justice to Brunt’s words — it’s just not going to happen.

Make no mistake about it: this is an absolutely important book to read. There’s a scene toward the end where Brunt describes a visit to a hospital; it might be the saddest scene I’ve ever read. I spent a good 10 minutes re-reading that scene’s first paragraph, fighting back, then letting the tears go. We treated these people so poorly because of our ignorance, and I feel that Brunt said this without actually saying it. There’s a subtext throughout that she just absolutely nails.

And what I came to realize is that this isn’t the story of a family’s reaction to a member dying of AIDS — it is simply the story of a family.

So here I am this morning, still trying to organize my thoughts and ideas and my reactions. I’m still trying to fathom just how Carol Rifka Brunt — in her first novel, nonetheless — was able, so perfectly, to nail this.  I hope that you, also, try to figure this all out for yourself…

When you see yourself/your life in somebody else’s words…

When working with my English classes, I try very hard to make sure that we examine each author’s style – whether we are studying Shakespeare or Harper Lee or Etheridge Knight. One of the ways that I try to get the students to connect with the author is by asking them to think about which sentences or passages they wish they had written. In addition, I have kind of c0-opted, if you will, Dan Pink’s idea of What is Your Sentence? while taking a look at sections we have read. (If you’re a twitter person, you can take a look at some student choices from To Kill a Mockingbird here and here and here).

Another idea that we will examine is when we feel as though something was written with just us in mind — when we associate with something so strongly that we feel as though the author had to have had us in mind when creating it. This can take the form of a piece of writing or a movie, but I find that most students (and myself, I freely admit) find this most often in the form of music. For me, it’s in pieces like David Gray’s “Please Forgive Me,” Bruce Springsteen’s  “Brilliant Disguise” or U2’s “One” or “So Cruel” or Sheryl Crow’s “The Difficult Kind.”

I will freely admit that this hasn’t happened to me that often with movies — with a few exceptions (“Kramer vs. Kramer,” with Cameron in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and also with “Jack the Bear”) immediately come to mind for this “category.” I mean, I absolutely love “Seven,” and could watch it over and over and over, but I’m glad I don’t typically associate with serial killers.

And then I saw “August: Osage County” this afternoon and was just dumbfounded. For the life of me, I can’t figure out how playwright Tracy Letts knew about my life as I was growing up with my Mom in Albuquerque in the 70s and early 80s.

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Beyond Letts’ absolutely incredible writing – and make no mistake about it, it was absolutely incredible – the acting was just top notch. Julia Roberts was very good and Chris Cooper was his usual solid self. Sam Shepard — who I’ve always liked since seeing him play Chuck Yeager in “The Right Stuff,” was just… Sam Shepard, if that makes sense to you.

But Meryl Streep – just wow. For the longest time I’ve heard people talk about how masterful an actor she is. And I don’t want to make it out like I think she’s not a great actor, but I just wouldn’t really see that. I mean, I love her in “Kramer vs. Kramer,” but I can’t say as I ever thought she was the only actor who could have played that role. Honestly, I can’t say as I have ever felt that way about her roles until seeing her portray Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady.”

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Even though Letts originally wrote the story for the stage, you’d think he had Streep in mind to play the matriarch of the Weston family. She just let everything go and let it all out and truly became Violet Weston, warts and wigs and F-bomb dropping and drug addicted and all.

And she reminded me so much of my mother that I couldn’t help but sit and stare at the black screen after the credits had ended, trying to compose myself while also wondering just how it was that Letts knew. I’m not sure how he knew of the conversations — make that yelling matches — we had when I was 11. I’m not sure how he knew about the fights we had and me literally tackling her to try to get the cocaine away from her. And I’m definitely not sure how he knew the ways she would so bitingly yell at me, telling me time and time again that I’d amount to nothing.

You see, I said that I try to find things I can associate with or wish I’d written or feel like had been written just for me. Unfortunately, I didn’t say they had to be great things…