A Breakfast Waitress, Trump, and Another School Shooting

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                “November Eyes on Main Street” photograph by Jacob Bond Hessler

It was the second morning after yet another school shooting. It’s also a year after a deranged white supremacist sympathizer won the Oval Office. It’s three months after I decided to leave the teaching profession. To say that my mind is spinning would be an  understatement. Along with millions of others across our country and planet.

A friend, a father of a young teacher, wrote about hiring armed men to patrol our schools. Memes appear daily with phrases supporting the notion of arming teachers. This is how we, as a traumatized nation, is trying to make sense of the senseless.

Yesterday I went to breakfast with a friend and coworker. We go every Friday. It is something we look forward to. We discuss all the stuff we deal with all week long. Some of it school stuff, some of it family stuff, some of it political. But yesterday was different. Yesterday was two days after yet another day where children died because of our lax gun laws and the power we have turned over to the National Rifle Association. We cried a bit. We laughed a bit. And we listened to the waitress we’ve become friends with cry for us.

“Please, promise me you won’t be heroes,” she said. That plea resonated with me all day long. Two days later and I’m still hearing her, seeing her and her struggles, and imagining similar looks on the faces of parents across our country who’s children are in our schools either as students or as employees. She told us that her life growing up “wasn’t so good”. That “school was my safe place”. And “oh the poor children today who don’t have that safe place like I did”.  I pictured the faces of children who are in my classroom and I know witness violence in their homes.  I picture those of years past who have experienced the same thing and probably still do. I think about them as they would hug me and say they didn’t want a school vacation that was approaching and my feelings of absolute powerlessness. Sure we can call Human Services. I’ve done it many, many times. I almost always get the same response, “I’ll add this to our file.”

Schools need to be safe places, yet they are not. We worry about violence “out there” coming into our schools. But we also worry about violence that is already in our schools and loudly acted out by children so damaged that they can’t do anything but share their pain with our building and all who are in it.

Many in power are saying school shootings and the killing of children and their teachers is a mental health crisis not a gun crisis. Yet they are the same ones who vote for and enact the present situation in which mental health services for children are extremely difficult to get. There are not enough counselors or social workers in our schools. Not enough teachers or ed techs/para professionals. There is a gross lack of access to counseling for the vulnerable because Medicaid has been cut beyond recognition. These are the same folks who say it’s a mental health issue and not a gun issue. Their actions prove their deceit.

All weekend long I’ve been glued to the news, blogs, Facebook, reading as people try to come to terms with this, as I try to come to terms with this. Like many across the country, I’ve cried a lot this weekend. I keep telling my two grown children not to lose hope. I tell my classroom full of kids the same thing. Yet here I sit, trying desperately to hold onto it. I wonder, if my kids were young, would I send them back to school when our country, addicted to its guns and the power that comes with that, does nothing to make our schools and our children in them safe. I don’t know. Parents work. What options do they have? Give an extra hug and an extra “I love you” before heading out the door each morning? This is the Make America Great Again that we hear and see everywhere?

I have no answers. I’m deeply confused and conflicted. But this morning I read a poem by a man who resonates with me for many reasons. His poem appears in a book about boundaries, Boundaries. Boundaries are something many of us lack when dealing with others. I see it at my work all the time. Not just among children but among adults as well. It’s a tough thing to muster up the correct notion of boundaries. They are also something our government seems hell bent on putting around people to keep America white and privileged. I hope it’s ok with him that I post his beautiful poem here. It helped me today knowing that I am not alone, and I hope it maybe helps you a little bit too.

This poem, November Eyes on Main Street, was written as Richard Blanco, the author, drove down the streets of a favorite town of mine, Belfast, Maine, on the morning after the election of Trump:

November Eyes on Main Street

“I question everything, even

the sun today

as I drive east down Main

Street – radio off-

to Amy’s diner. She bob-

by-pins her hair, smiles

her usual good morning’ but

her eyes askew say

something like: You believe

this? as she wipes

the counter, tosses aside the

Journal Times,

the election headlines as

bitter as my cofffee

that she pours without a

blink.

Richard Blanco

I look forward to tomorrow afternoon when a few fellow coworkers and I will spend time in his presence at a poetry workshop designed for teachers. I’m hoping he can help give me  the hope I’m desperately trying to hold on to.

Mary

 

 

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The Gift of Time and Reflection

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The Magic of Looking Into the Eyes and Heart of a Child

In our district we have something very special. We have a literacy coach who understands kids and teachers. She provides us with uplifting and reinvigorating professional development opportunities. The one I am honored to be a part of this year is called, “Veteran Teachers Work Group”. It’s designed for us teachers who’ve been in the classroom long enough to know what we’re doing but still benefit immensely from new ideas, fresh readings, writing reflections, and sharing a day with each other. It is a day we all look forward to because it’s a day that fills our souls and energizes us to return to the classroom for another month of trying new ideas and with new outlooks. Certainly one goal is to infuse dynamic literacy strategies into our teaching and classroom. But it does so much more than that.

Not only are we lucky enough to read new books that inspire our conversations and direct our decisions of new strategies to try in our classrooms, it also guides our own writers’ workshop. Yes, we veteran teachers have our own mini writers’ workshop, complete with author’s chair sharing. We do this because our gifted literacy coach knows the benefits of empowering teachers to write.

I’m sharing my writing  because I need to, for me. Like many who write, I write when I need to understand confused or conflicted feelings. Writing helps me sort through them. It’s cathartic. So often we use writing as a way to share or communicate information with others. But for me it’s often how I take in and process information. So here’s what I was reflecting on today at our Veteran Teachers writers’ workshop:

As retirement approaches, or should I say “looms” over me, my feelings are a humble mixture of relief, fear, and sadness. As I sit here and reflect on these feelings I am reminded of something that happened yesterday as I watched a child melt down in front of me. A very articulate child was unable to sum up what he was thinking and feeling as he acted out in ways I had not observed before. As I struggled to maintain patience I was struck by an old and familiar feeling. It was like looking into a mirror of so long ago. Thankfully that image quickly vanished as I worked with him to make sense of his feelings. We both struggled to tease out what was getting in his way of feeling content, safe, happy.  As we worked through this I realized that it was a kind patience that helped him breathe, relax, share, and thus recognize and name his worries.

As the months of this last year in teaching fly by, I find myself wondering if I can muster the same patience I had for that child yesterday. Can I take the time needed to name and uncover the mixture of feelings I’m experiencing as this time of transition takes center stage in my life.  Again I reflect on yesterday’s interaction and what looked like a childish lack of self control but was actually astute observations about a loved one mixed with a child’s inability to process those observations and feelings. I realized how his strength and bravery, even though a bit misguided at that moment, inspired me to be brave and acknowledge feelings I’ve been trying desperately to deny. I saw in him, at that moment, the importance of the work ahead of me if I am going to gracefully move into this next phase whole and intact. Yet again I am reminded and amazed by the lessons our kids can teach us if we are open and able to hear them and see them. Maybe that’s the loss I realize I will feel the most. The guiding stars that they often are to me in my own personal journey onward. But then I think about sleeping in late, having an extra cup of coffee in the morning, morning walks with my best friend, and it all feels a little better.

May you give yourself the gift of time and take that time to be patient and gentle with yourself.

Mary

 

 

The Melancholy of Reading a Book for the Last Time

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“It started with a pooper-scooper.” This is the opening line from, The PS Brothers, by Maribeth Boelts. Hopefully it will get my kids’ attention. This year I have a class with many kids who do not read. I watch them pretending. I read their journal entries which are often about the first paragraph of each reading section. I listen as they can’t discuss anything of substance from their book. Yet these kids are “on grade level”. I seriously do not know how they pull that off on their tests because while I love them, and all their quirkiness, they are not 5th grade learners, …yet.

As I’m reading this book, which is part of our LLI (Leveled Literacy Intervention) series I’m reminded how great this series is for my kids. LLI was introduced to us a few years ago. At first I wasn’t a fan of this, reading from a kit idea. But almost immediately I saw the power of it. The word work, the simple writing guides, the vocabulary work, the topics. They were all exactly what my kids needed. The chapter books that are sprinkled throughout are always perfect choices and this book is no different. The PS Brothers is about friendship, bullying, loss of parents (one to death and one to jail), overcoming fears, and some other serious grown up issues that my kids talk about a lot. These are common issues we deal with in our classroom and I would guess most classrooms across the country do too.

As I sit here reading through the book, anticipating the excitement that the reading and discussions will hopefully incite, I am reminded that I am winding down a 30 year teaching career. And the feeling is definite melancholy. While I look forward to beginning the next phase, I am sad this one is ending. I’ve loved my 30 years of teaching. I love the people I work with and the kids who have been a large part of my life for so many years. I shouldn’t be surprised by such feelings, but I am. They stop me dead in my tracks when I least expect it.

So enjoy your kids and the time you have with them. Cliche I know, but always amazed at the power of this reminder when the obvious is in front of me.

Mary

Musings of a Life in Education

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Warning – This post wanders as I  reflect on  35+ years of teaching and my upcoming retirement.

Over the years I’ve listened to many a great writer extol the virtues of writers’ notebooks.  So I’ve tried them. They didn’t work…for me…yet. I’ve kept them. I’ve referred back to them. They didn’t inspire me to write…yet. Maybe I’m not a “real” writer after all. But still I write. I write when the spirit moves me.

In school I hated writing for several reasons. I was given prompts or topics that meant nothing to me, so I didn’t write. I had horrible handwriting, so I didn’t write. Then computers showed up and prompts ended and I began to write. About things that moved me at that moment. Here I find myself in a moment needing to write, or should I say, release from my soul the thoughts and feelings inside me.

A few months ago I was standing in my 5th grade literacy classroom and it hit me, I’m done. I no longer am enjoying my work. I knew this because I no longer loved jumping out of bed in the morning to go to “work”.  For 35+ years I have thought of my work with children as fun, inspiring, creative, meaningful, unpredictable…. I’ve loved it. But something changed. It didn’t feel fun or inspiring or creative. It became incredibly predictable. I promised myself 30 years ago that when I felt this way I would stop.

I told a fellow coworker/supervisor. She seemed sad. I was surprised by that. I thought it was obvious I was done because my spark was gone and I thought for sure that showed. She said it hadn’t. I thought some more about it. The decision did not change and so I gave my written notice, shared with a few close friends and coworkers, and then posted on Facebook. Some understand. Some saw it coming. Some were surprised. Some, more than I wish, were envious.

Now I sit here on a icy, rainy Maine morning and realize I need to empty my soul yet again and so I write. I’m confused about where this will go and it frightens me. My husband’s health care depends on my ability to provide our health insurance. Am I letting him down? He says no. His eyes say no. But I know that in his heart resides the same fear I struggle with.  But I move on because, “I know”.

So I reflect on my years of working with kids. My first experience as a young adult in college  was working with severely autistic adolescents. I fell in love with those kids and all their quirky behaviors. Their raw emotions sparked something deep inside of me. I continued working with deeply troubled kids. Those were some of the most rewarding years of my life. They also burnt me out very fast. When I had my first child, my husband and I both decided I would stay home with our children. It was what I wanted more than anything. That decision led to years of borderline poverty. While my husband worked two jobs I stayed home and ran a home daycare. We had one car, lived in a very cheap home, and I took care of other peoples’ kids. Yet we were an incredibly happy family.

Years later, with the invent of computer, I realized that I embraced something called Waldorf education. I had no idea that our poverty living supported an idea already out there. No matter what our financial situation was we served real food much of it food  we grew. I chose not to get certified by the state of New Hampshire because they would not approve of the food I served. Tofu…no way! Cheese from a local farm…dream on. But they would approve of hot dogs and Kraft Mac and Cheese. In other words, foodlike crap filled with harmful ingredients. This unfortunately is still the rules behind much of the food we serve our kids in our schools and daycare centers. Parents loved the food I served and often dropped off items they knew I would enjoy preparing for their children. Our days included making bread, creating our meals together, outdoor play, and crafts. Waldorf education says no to plastic. Well that’s all that was available at the local Salvation Army so plastic toys we had. But we also found items from the outdoors to bring into our play. I thought that was just poverty living. I had no idea that “rich” folks actually bought that stuff. We had a seasonal table long before I ever heard of such a thing. We had that because we brought in and played with whatever was outside at the time. No paints? No problem, just make them out of plants from the outdoors. To this day I embrace Waldorf education (not the man who made it popular).

So why am I “done”?  I’ll be honest and admit that I have struggled to stick to our prescribed curriculum. This year I found that I had abandoned all my usual arts/sciences/nature fun that has always been a central theme of my classroom. One recent day I was discussing with a coworker my inability to get my kids engaged. We, she, came up with a behavior plan that included earning a variety of things including “free time” choices. As we discussed this free time I became happy, something I hadn’t felt all year. She presented our class with art supplies. I felt happy. I pulled out our weaving kits, knitting, and needle felting. I felt happy. Yesterday these supplies were introduced to my kids. The excitement was obvious. We “played” for an hour with the supplies. I was happy. I felt a spark ignite deep inside. I was reminded of the power of  feeling happy, excited, inspired, creative as an educator. Or at least on this educator. It, I realize, is vital.

I wonder if this woman, who has worked closely with me for 9 years, saw my emptiness and respectfully knew exactly how to address it. Are these “earned free time” activities designed as much for me as they are my kids? I don’t know but that is how it’s playing out. Something I do know is that this highlights the power for humans to create, use their hands, relax, and have fun if we are to learn while in school.

Many wonder  how new teachers will make it. How they will navigate the incredible demands put upon them, the overwhelming responsibility of educating children who will grow up to someday carry on the work of adults. My advice to them is to bring whatever ignites their creativity into their classroom. If the teacher isn’t happy, the kids won’t be happy. And if the kids aren’t happy, they won’t learn. We know that. We know that the lifeline of education is the teacher and so more focus needs to be on the needs of creating an environment where the teacher feels happy, safe, embraced. The teacher needs permission to be creative.

I have been blessed. I know this. I watch as many young adults struggle to figure out what they want to do with their lives. I always knew. I also know that to be an effective teacher we need to be happy, feel supported, and have some power in the decisions on how we spend our days in our classrooms.

So here, as I reflect, I pass on advice on what has kept me happy in the classroom for so long: Be creative. Embrace nature. Grow plants with your kids. Cook with them. Move. Practice mindfulness. Dance. Sing. Tell jokes. Read. Write. And Laugh, a lot.

Peace, love, and rock on with your kids,

Mary

When Kids Teach

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When kids lead their learning amazing things happen. How is it that after 25 years of teaching I can lose sight of that? While I hate to put the blame on others, because the ultimate blame is all mine, I blame our educational system.

At the close of last year I wrote about how I lost my way.  After working through the beginning of this school year which has been like no other I have experienced, I have come to realize that I did not lose my way. We, as an educational system, have lost our way.

This year began with my promise to myself that I would follow our curriculum tooth and nail. Nothing was going to get in the way of us staying on task per our curriculum calendar. There’s only one problem with this grand idea, the kids can get lost in the shuffle. When we follow the guiding belief that no matter what, we stay on target with our calendar, our kids lose something precious. An example of what they lose will become clear with this story.

The stresses this created both in my kids and myself can’t be underestimated or unexamined. For the first time in all my teaching career I put the blame on my class. “They aren’t coming together as a community. They don’t seem to care about each other or their work. They don’t demonstrate inner motivation to learn. They lack any semblance of self control.” The list of all this class “can’t do” goes on and on. But then something unexpected happened. The kids finally earned some free time. They chose to watch a movie and work on some posters they were makin. It was Friday, I was tired and I too needed some down time. What I didn’t realize was how much they needed it too. I worried that they would fall apart with the change in routine. So far every single little change in routine this year has caused them to fall apart. The lack of self control with this group is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Sure, some kids each year struggle with it, but a whole class?

Not wanting to fall behind, I had planned to weave the movie between reading, writing, and math. I was greeted with many sincere,”That’s not what we want to do,” comments. Sensing a mutiny, I asked one boy, who is respectful, hard working, and who demonstrates enough self control for the entire class, what he would like. “We just want to have some fun. We don’t want to work today. Can’t we just do fun stuff like you said we would?” I found myself listening to his genuine plea. “Sure,” was all I could come up with. So I erased our daily schedule and let them help me build our day. Part of the day would be one young boy teaching his classmates how to make origami paper cranes. This boy is bright and curious but has demonstrated a total lack of self control all year. He has been one of my most challenging kids this year.

That’s when the magic started.  As others got what they wanted on their desks for the movie, a black and white original Helen Keller movie, (Yes, you read that right! That’s the movie they wanted. And they LOVED it. Go figure.) this young boy set up his origami station. I watched as he demonstrated a focus like I have not witnessed this year. He cleared off the entire table, putting its contents exactly where they needed to go to be put away properly. He got the spray and wiped down the table. He got the origami paper, the name sticks, and a piece of paper and pencil. As his classmates watched the movie and worked on finishing up some posters they started the day before, he called them back to his table one at a time and successfully taught each one to a make a paper crane. He did that for over an hour, nonstop. He was kind. He was patient. He was encouraging. He smiled often. He taught kids who can barely write legibly to fold sophisticated paper cranes. Then when he was done he said he wanted to donate the cranes he made along side each child to the cause we are making them for. He said if he did this then each of them could keep their first crane. He felt that was important.

I nearly cried at the beauty of what I witnessed and then nearly cried again as I realized all that I had taken from them this year by focusing on a rigid timeline and expectations. The problem was that I fell into the dreaded trap of teaching content and not teaching kids. How could I let myself fall into that? Fear. Fear of not having kids “perform” well enough on tests. Yes, I allowed myself to fall into that fear. Even with all my experience and conviction to never to do that, I did just that.

It is vital that we stop sometimes and allow our kids opportunities to shine in ways they want to shine. To give them opportunities to stop and get to know each other on levels that are different than through traditional academics. I have no doubts that the lack of community in my classroom falls squarely on my shoulders, not theirs. We will continue to find time for opportunities that encourage joy and creative expression.  I will meet them where they are instead of insisting they jump to where I want them to be and slowly we will cross that gap together so each and every one of them remains spiritually intact.

As we approach our shortest day of the year and the many wonderful winter holidays, may you remember that teaching the whole child includes their soul. Break away from some of the strict demands our educational system puts on all of us at all levels of education and have some fun with your kids. Sew things, create things, sing, make cards for the less fortunate, laugh, show love, and drink some hot chocolate together.

Mary

To/From Japan With Love

 

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All throughout human history we have had periods when the world feels a mess. I don’t think it’s surprising to acknowledge that this is one of those periods. When we look back and study history we also notice that small acts of kindness by ordinary people are what get us through those dark times. This project was inspired by that simple thought.

For a year many, many of us teachers and the families we serve have watched in fearful awe the direction our country is going. We feel like those who need the most are being left out and worse. They are targeted for the years of repressed fear, hatred, and racism our country continues to deal with. Educators all across the country share stories of the hardships our families endure because of the policies that are put in place. They are also noticing stories of hope. Here is one more story of hope. Hope was our word of the week when a package arrived in my mailbox. It contained the items shown above as well as a few more.

The art and haiku poems were inspired by our school wide Writers’ Day. The entire school writes and posts their writing in the hallways. Our hallways were lined with our students’ writing. Visitors were encouraged to use stickies to write positive comments to stick to each piece of writing. It’s quite nice to see especially once the stickies begin to show up.

A young friend of mine, Myra, moved to a city in Japan to work with school children there. We’ve kept in touch, discussing the differences and similarities of our educational systems. This sharing of work came from that exchange.

When I decided to have the kids write haiku poems for our wall hangings, it was for a rather simple reason. They struggled with syllables. As a student who struggled with spelling, syllables saved me. They were my first check point to self assess if I was on the right track. I thought this strategy might help my kids too. It does. As we were exploring haiku we decided to visit to our school garden with our FoodCorps service member, Emily. She directed the kids to notice the small, often unnoticed parts of our garden. Their talk was all about the bees, the flowers, the colors, the carrots, the tastes. Perfect haiku inspirations. We collected words on stickies and brought them inside. We started playing with words and syllables…5,7,5. We went back outside, clipboards in hand, and started observing again with the 5,7,5 haiku beat guiding us. Back inside they shared their writings and started helping each other with words, beats, and creating feelings or visions. It was much harder than I thought it would be. It was clear many still thought of a word as a syllable. A few more sessions of arm tapping and chin counting (techniques which help isolate syllables) and our haiku poems were complete. It was time to hang them up in the hallway. The problem was they looked so plain. Knowing that presentation is everything, we pulled out watercolors and painted colors to enhance the feelings of our haiku poems. The results were lovely. Lovely words. Lovely art. Lovely, happy, proud children.

Haiku poems originated in Japan. They are usually about nature. Three lines. Five syllables first line; seven syllables second line, five syllables third line. Rhyming is not a must but lyrical flow is a goal. When we began studying the origin of haiku I thought again of my friend, Myra, and reached out to her to see if she’d like to partner up. Her supervising teachers thought it was a good idea and an authentic way for her students to play with the English language, so we proceeded forward. My kids made a Google Drive class slide show of their haiku poems and paintings; one slide per kid. We shared with Myra. Several weeks later I got an envelop with the following contents in the mail:

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My friend had printed out our slide show and shared them with her students who are learning to speak and write English, a task she says is not easy. When her students read our haiku poems they replied in English and Japanese. She photocopied them all and sent them back to us. Tomorrow I am going to give them to my students and hang them with these Japanese comments back up in our hallway. The Japanese/United States connection will be clear. The similarities of our students will be visible. The love and hope will be shared.

Communicating with students from other countries is one simple act we can do to encourage breaking stereotypes and knocking down the doors of ignorance. I know my kids will be filled with warm feelings when they read these comments from the other side of our small world. The kindness of these comments and the kindness that these students and their teacher took to write them will  not go unnoticed. My kids will notice. And they will feel the love that was shared. This small act of kindness was not only educational and fun but it filled our hearts with hope and love. Not so small after all.

May you and your students engage in simple acts of kindness to spread hope, peace, and love.

Mary

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Ghost by Jason Reynolds

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We all have that child in class. The one who can’t find the “just right” book. This may be the book for that child I have in my class this year. After reading a little about this story on Twitter, I ordered the book. I read it in one sitting. I loved it.

Several reasons I can’t wait to get this into the hands of my kids. First of all, it’s real. Its characters are real and so is its plot. In a very engaging way it deals with many emotions that kids growing up experience. From insecurities, to fears, to pride, and to love. It’s also about a good kid who is rough around the edges because of the lousy cards life has handed him. But when a coach steps in we see the power a positive male mentor can have on a lost boy. And finally, it’s about running track, sprinters to be exact. As a high school sprinter this book brought back many fond memories for me. The camaraderie, the goals, the hard practices, and the freedom that running brings. It reminded me of the power that sports can have on a kid who feels lost. I loved this book and I hope my kids do too. I hope it might even turn a few kids onto the notion of running track next year.

However you decide to go through life may you at one time or another run like the wind and feel the wind in your hair and the bounce in your feet.

Mary