Monday, December 6, 2010

Great Teachers Who Aren't Teachers #3

Over the years I have learned a tremendous amount of information from people who aren't teachers. The third one I want to write about is a former boss.

When I graduated from college there were no teaching jobs immediately available. I worked as a cashier at a discount store for about a month, but I was not cut out for that line of work. After a trip to Job Service, I was given an interview at a publishing company. This company had several components, but my interview was in the radio department. After taking a test and surviving a lengthy questioning, I landed the job.

Now this job was about as far from my college major as could be. I had a degree in high school mathematics education. For this job I was writing blank radio advertisement. The department put out 3 publications every month. The first was for Continuity Directors and consisted of about 50 or more pages of radio ads organized by topic from Automobiles to Mortuary to Women's Wear. The second publication was Program Directors. It contained "Thot Starters" (one liners that could be used to write an ad) and tons of trivia. The third was for Station Managers. It provided summaries of promotions and contests with which other radio stations had had success.

The first day of the new job, my boss showed me to my desk, gave me the list of pages I was to write for the month, and a brief explanation of the kind of writing I was to do. Using samples from previous publications, and after asking someone how to turn on an electric typewriter, I started on my first page. I was able to write about six 30-second spots plus a few "thot starters." I turned it in and started on my next page. It wasn't long before my boss called me to her desk, offered me a chair, and together we went over every ad spot I had written. We talked about creativity, getting the customer's attention, word choice, punctuation, and numerous other techniques for excellent radio ad writing.

I took the page back to my desk and rewrote it. Once again she called me to her desk. Once again I rewrote the page. I did this three times before she approved it. I think I had the ads memorized by this time, but I must admit, the ads were pretty good...much better than those I had written on my own.

My boss did this with every page I wrote for several days. She was well-informed and intelligent, but most of all she was patient. She was an excellent teacher. The greatest accomplishment of that training period was when I wrote the first page that she approved without a rewrite. From then on, the job was a joy. I eventually worked up to writing about 15 pages per month for the Continuity Directors publication, three or four pages for Program Directors, and was put in charge of the Station Managers booklet.

The Station Managers publication furthered my education even more. I scoured newspapers for radio promotions and contests, requested information from the radio stations, put it all together, and even did the layouts for printing.

Not only did I learn about writing and advertising, but I also learned a tremendous amount of information about the topics that we researched to put in the advertisements. All in all, the two years I worked there were amazingly rewarding. I think I learned more in those two years than in all my years in college. I actually looked forward to Monday's and that's not something too many people can say.

But the most important part of all this was my boss. She was one of the best teachers I ever had.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Great Teachers Who Aren't Teachers #2

Yesterday I wrote about my father as being a great teacher in my life. I also wrote about how important parents are as their children's first teachers. In that same vein, I'd like to write about my mother, another one of my great teachers.

My mother grew up during the depression. Even though her father did have a job throughout that time, he was an alcoholic and drank away most of the money he made. She dropped out of school her junior year and got married when she was 17 to my father. I was born three years later.

She was basically a "tomboy" when she was young and hadn't learned a lot of the things she needed to know to be a wife and mother. And yet, somehow she managed pretty well. She did eventually go back to school and even took some college classes, but most of her education was experience-based. I always admired her for that.

She did two things that made her one of my great teachers. The first one is that she taught me through her mistakes. I was constantly reminded how important education is. I was constantly told that I would finish college and then I could get married. I can't say that she said these things out-loud, but these ideas, along with others, were always implied.

The second thing she did was instill a love of books in me. When I was in the hospital a few times as a child, she would buy me new books to read. When there were things she thought I needed to know, she would check out books from the library. These were things that were important for me to know, but she felt she didn't have enough information herself or she just didn't want to discuss them with me. She and my father also purchased a set of encyclopedias when I was about eight or nine years old. I knew they couldn't afford them, but it was a sacrifice they made because they knew that education was the key to any kind of success.

At this point, I just want to say that I love them, admire them, and thank them for all they did.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Great Teachers Who Aren't Teachers #1

There are so many people I've met over the years who have taught me so many things. Most of them were not teachers, but from whom I've learned so much.

The first one is my father. In the few years I was able to be with him, he played a major role in the formation of my personality, my knowledge base, and my desire to learn.

When I was young, probably three or four years of age, he worked on televisions. These were the old televisions...the kind with tubes. He carried a case that was filled with all different kinds of tubes. And I was his tube-getter. He would take me along on these repair jobs. While he was stuck behind the broken TV, pulling out burned-out tubes, he would tell me the numbers on the tubes, and I would get the ones he needed and take them to him.

I don't know if his actual purpose was to teach me, but teach me he did. I learned how to read numbers, I learned how to memorize, I learned to be responsible, I learned how good it feels to do a job that pleases someone, and I developed an ability to fix things.

The second way he taught me was through conversation. Every Sunday we would eat dinner at my grandmother's house. Dinner would be over in 20 minutes, but the conversation would go on for one, two, or even three hours after dinner. Everything was discussed and everyone, even the kids, were part of that conversation. I learned a tremendous amount of information during those long talks every Sunday. I'm sure those were the major contributors to my views on education, politics, religion, and lots of other topics.

My father was not a teacher. He had been a city bus driver, an electrician, and maintenance worker. He grew up on a farm and only had an 8th grade education. But I learned more from him than all my certified teachers combined.

I think that parents need to remember that they are their children's first teachers. The influence of parents in those early years of child's life determines everything that child will be in the future. Too many parents leave their children to be taught by the child's friends, the television, computers, and computer games, rather than spending time with the child themselves.

I don't care how busy you are...spend quality time with your children. They really will appreciate it because you are important to them!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Too Old for Halloween

Halloween iconImage via WikipediaWhen I was twelve, three of my friends and I were trying to make up our minds whether to go trick-or-treating for Halloween. We decided that we would go, but in our hearts we knew it was probably the last year we would.

We went all out on our costumes, although for the life of me, I can't remember what mine was. We started knocking on doors and eventually our bags were filling up.

After about half an hour, we knocked on a door. A man and woman, dressed in costume, answered the door. They invited us in and gave us our candy. Just as we were getting ready to leave, the woman asked if we were about done with our trick-or-treating for the evening. We said that we were planning to go to a few more places and why did she want to know. She told us that they needed a baby-sitter. She and her husband had wanted to go to a Halloween party, but didn't have anyone to watch their kids. She wanted to know if we would want the job.

Two of the girls didn't want to, they were intent on continuing their candy-gathering. I and my best friend decided that money out-weighed candy, so we said yes. The couple let us call our parents to make sure it was okay. Our parents said yes and the couple went to their party.

After a little while, my friend and I started talking about how strange this all was. We hadn't even seen any children. So we sneaked into the bedrooms to check and sure enough, there were two sleeping children all cuddled in their beds. They were too young to trick-or-treat, so I guess their parents had put them to bed early.

The night was uneventful. The children slept. My friend and I watched television. After a few hours the parents returned home, paid us, and we were on our way home. All in all, it was a good evening. We got some candy in our bags and even made a little money.

There has been a lot of discussion this week in the news about "how old is too old" to trick-or-treat. I don't think anyone has an answer to that. I think it's different for every person. For me, it was that night. When people start asking you to work for them, it's probably time to quit.

Now that I'm older, I don't like it when teenagers beg for candy. I would prefer they stick to Halloween parties. It just seems to be an activity better suited for little kids accompanied by their parents. In fact, as a high school teacher, I was always surprised by the number of students who came to school in costume. I was even more surprised by the number of teachers who dressed for the occasion.

So how old is too old for Halloween? I guess I just don't have a good answer for that.

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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Father of Fractals

Boundary of the dragon curve fractal (16th ite...Image via WikipediaBenoit Mandelbrot died on October 14, 2010 at age 85. I didn't read anything about it in the newspaper. I saw nothing on television news. I only found out by reading a blog on the Scientific American website. His wife said he died of pancreatic cancer. I should have thought the passing of such a great mind would have been more newsworthy, but it only seems to have appeared in numerous blogs. Perhaps his family preferred it that way.

Mandelbrot, known as the father of fractal geometry, was a mathematician who was able to combine mathematics, science, art, and nature. His formulas were genius; his fractals were used to describe mountains, coastlines, snow flakes, lightening, blood vessels, clusters of galaxies, and even cauliflower. Fractals have contributed to chaos theory, geology, medicine, cosmology, engineering, and were even featured in novels such as Jurassic Park.

If you would like to make a simple fractal (the kind found in Jurassic Park), simply take a strip of paper and fold it in half (the first iteration). Fold it in half again (the second iteration). Keep folding it in half. If you could keep doing this, you would eventually end up with the dragon fractal (the 16th iteration is pictured above). You can learn much more about this and other fractals at . The site includes notes for teachers, printable versions, and directions for making a variety of fractals.
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Monday, October 18, 2010

Intelligent Voice of Reason #1

Well, I haven't written anything for a while. I could make numerous excuses, but it won't change the fact that I haven't written anything for a while.

I've been watching a lot of television, politics, and education (Education Nation on the channels of NBC). I've been looking for some intelligent voices of reason. There are a few.

One of them is Steven Pinker, a psychology professor at Harvard. Earlier this month, he appeared on Countdown with Keith Olbermann, and was asked why it is so important to teach evolution. Here is his intelligent response:
"There are some practical reasons. Some of the greatest technological advances of the next few decades are going to be in the biological sciences. And you can't do biology unless you understand evolution. There's going to be a race between us and the superbugs, the viruses that are going to attack us. Their big weapon is that they can evolve fast. If we don't have a generation of science students and scientists who understand evolution, we're not going to be able to understand our worst enemies. Also, great advances in diseases like cancer and Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease are often going to come from research on other animals because you obviously can't give cancer or give Parkinson's disease to a human. You can to a mouse. We have to understand what the relationship is between a mouse and a human in order to interpret that science.

But also, what could be more fundamental than knowing where we came from? The theory of evolution is one of the most magnificent intellectual accomplishments of our civilization. It's a tragedy to deny children of the evidence, the line of argumentation, that led to this magnificent achievement in this essential bit of knowledge to understanding who we are and where we came from."

When American children are scoring in the bottom third in science when compared to other nations, we know there is a great need for good science education. Of course, this is made more difficult by number of adults who deny accepted scientific theories including, but not limited to, evolution, climate change, and the age of the earth. It appears scientific knowledge is also lacking in the adult population.

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Monday, September 20, 2010

Critical Thinking is Critical

A few years ago I was selected for jury duty. As the lawyers were interviewing potential jurors, details of the trial were somewhat revealed. We learned, among other things, there would be DNA evidence and that the trial would probably take several days.

When the lawyers finally got to me, they asked me if I watched television shows like "CSI" and "Law and Order." When I said "yes," they asked me if I thought all evidence could be collected, analyzed, and conclusions drawn in a one hour show. If I remember correctly, I said that I knew television shows had to condense story lines for their viewers and that the actual processes took weeks or maybe even months. The interviewing lawyers called it the "CSI Effect" and said that many people think that all evidence, investigations, arrests, and trials should only take short amounts of time. They also made clear that the science and technologies on television dramas, while possible, were usually far more advanced than what anyone would find in real life.

At the time I thought how sad it was that the lawyers had to take time to tell prospective jurors that television shows are not real; they are television shows; they are stories. Obviously, the lawyers had learned that many people called to jury duty do not have the critical thinking skills to realize that television, while based on real-life stories, is not real life. That's kind of sad.

This is one reason why critical thinking skills are so stressed in schools. It also happens to be one of the areas in which students have trouble. The skills include observing, interpreting data, analyzing, making inferences, evaluating, explaining, and coming to accurate judgments. It involves open-minded thinking processes that lead to intelligent conclusions.

It's understandable that students will have some trouble with this kind of thinking because they are still learning to think critically. It is hoped that by the time students leave high school, they will be proficient in these skills. Unfortunately, that is not happening as evidenced by the number of adults who lack these skills. When lawyers have to interview prospective jurors about their critical thinking skills, it's obvious that many adults still need help in this area.

Schools definitely need to do a better job. My first day of high school chemistry, my teacher lit a candle and told us to watch it. We watched it and watched it until it was gone. At the time I thought it was just about the most stupid thing I had ever had to do in school. But then he asked us about our observations. As he wrote them on the chalkboard, we started interpreting what we had seen, we started analyzing and evaluating, we started to explain why the candle burned. This led to a discussion of the chemical processes involved in burning, a discussion of plasma, and how important it is to just observe.

As it turned out, this one activity of watching a candle, led the class into the world of science and critical thinking. Teaching these skills can really be just this simple, but must be done over and over in all subjects. Give students a math problem and let them come up with different ways of solving it. Let them write a story in Language Arts class about an observation they've made, perhaps something they saw on the way to school that morning. Analyze a current event for a Social Studies class and have students come to intelligent judgments of that event. With just a little imagination, the opportunities for teaching critical thinking skills are limitless.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

10 Educational Responsibilities of Teachers

As a teacher, I found that all teachers know they must teach, but there are many other aspects of teaching of which a responsible teacher should be aware. Here are ten that I think are important.
  1. A teacher's first responsibility should be to take care of himself or herself. Teachers are no good to anyone if they don't feel good or are not healthy. This means getting enough sleep, eating properly, exercising daily, and finding time for family, friends, personal interests, and hobbies.
  2. Teachers must learn and practice patience. Many aspects of teaching can be exasperating. It's easy to answer a question the first time it's asked during the day. But at the end of the day, when it's the fiftieth time you've answered the same question, it's easy to lose patience. Remember, it's the fiftieth time for you, but it's the first time for the student.
  3. Be on time. It sets a poor example if the teacher is always late getting to school or getting to class. It also becomes difficult to justify disciplinary action to students who are late.
  4. Write out classroom rules and grading procedures. Give copies to students and parents.
  5. Decorate your classroom and keep it clean, organized, and clutter-free.
  6. Have lesson plans. In most cases, they don't have to be elaborate (unless the principal or school system requires this), but they should be complete and well-written. Any substitute coming to your class should be able to completely take over.
  7. Teachers should keep up on legal issues affecting education. Many of these impact the classroom, the curriculum, the teaching, and the operations of the school. Don't rely on department chairs, principals, or school district administrators to keep you informed of all these.
  8. Teachers should keep up on their teaching. There are new teaching methods, new technologies, new materials, new philosophies, new resources, and new research. While you may not incorporate all these, you may find something that really works for you.
  9. Teachers should get papers and tests back to students as soon as possible. Students may act like they don't care, but they really do want to see their scores. It does take time to check papers properly and that may need to be explained to students and their parents.
  10. Teachers should be friendly to students but not become their friends. It's good to attend student activities, but there is a line that is not to be crossed. Some students need friends and will want to be close to their teachers. They may be clingy or even develop crushes, but the teacher is the adult and must keep the relationship professional.

Friday, September 10, 2010

10 Educational Responsibilities of Students

A few days ago I posted 10 responsibilities of parents. Today I have 10 responsibilities of students. These are the tasks that I believe every student needs to do to be successful.
  1. Students need to make education their #1 priority. They must have the will and determination needed to succeed.
  2. Students must get enough sleep.
  3. Students must eat properly.
  4. Students need to read each day.
  5. Students must do homework. Even if there is nothing assigned, students should review their notes, read their textbooks, and work through example and sample problems.
  6. Students need to follow school rules. The rules exist so that the school runs in an orderly and safe manner.
  7. Students should be involved in extracurricular activities and community service, but not so much that it interferes with their school work.
  8. Students must make every effort to learn their subjects. If there's something that's difficult or not understood, the student should try to figure it out on their own. Only when that doesn't work, should they ask their teachers for extra help. At this point it is their responsibility to ask their teachers for help. Teachers often do not know a student is having a problem unless the student asks.
  9. Students must attend class everyday and be on time for those classes.
  10. The only exception to rule #8 is if the student has an illness, especially illnesses that could spread to other students. In this case it is the student's responsibility to meet with every teacher to find out what they missed while gone and to get that work done as quickly as possible.
If students meet these responsibilities, they will find they enjoy their school years, will do well in school, and will be prepared for whatever comes next in their lives.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

10 Educational Responsibilities of Parents

When it comes to a child's education, the parents, children, and teachers all have responsibilities. You would think each would know what those responsibilities are, but sometimes they get forgotten. The following are the ones I believe belong to the parents. These are the things children need in order to be successful in school.
  1. Parents should make sure their children have all needed school supplies.
  2. Parents should make sure their children are allowed to get enough sleep.
  3. Parents should make sure their children get proper and adequate nutrition.
  4. Parents should make sure their children are properly clothed for school.
  5. Parents should make sure that education is the number one priority for their children and should make sure the children know how important it is.
  6. Parents need to give their children reasonable daily chores and make sure the children do them.
  7. Parents need to give their children unconditional love and make sure the children know they are loved unconditionally.
  8. Parents need to make sure their children meet their responsibilities especially concerning homework. Parents should not do their children's homework for them.
  9. Parents should never make excuses for their children's bad behavior.
  10. Parents must discipline effectively without abuse.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Who's to Blame?

Last week I was talking to my neighbor. She is an elementary school reading teacher and had only been back to school for a couple of days. I asked her how everything was going. That was probably a bad question because she started telling about all the testing she would be required to do, all the programs and initiatives she was expected to implement, all in an effort to meet standards.

She said that while teachers were expected to do all this, the students coming in are less ready than ever before. She said that children are coming to kindergarten having never held a book; not even knowing how to hold one. She said that many come to school hungry, not dressed properly, and some are not even toilet trained. The big problem here is that their parents are simply not taking the time to be with their children and prepare them for school.

I thought about these children all week and about the problems they will have throughout their school years. While a few will be able to overcome these disadvantages, most will not. They will continue to be behind and at some point, a teacher or school will be blamed for not educating these children. Teachers can lose their jobs if these children do not meet achievement levels.

I would be the first to admit that there are some bad teachers, but in my experience here in Iowa, they are few and far between. And in my opinion, I don't think good teachers should lose their jobs because parents aren't doing theirs.

Yes, I know. Teachers blame parents. Parents blame teachers. Actually, everybody blames teachers. But the truth is, there are thousands of factors that influence a student's achievement, only some of which can be attributed to the teacher. When a child starts kindergarten and is already two years behind, that is not the teachers' fault. And if this child continues to be two years behind, the teacher should not be blamed.

At some point these parents have to take responsibility if their children are not performing well. Unfortunately, there's not much that can be done about them. It's just easier to fire teachers.

But what could be done? There are people who see these children before they get to school. There are relatives, neighbors, and pediatricians who could refer these parents and their children for help. Children could be enrolled in early preschools or Head Start programs. Parents could be required to attend parenting classes. While some of this currently exists, it obviously is not getting around to all the parents and children who need help.

I know there are costs for these programs that the parents probably cannot pay. This means that, once again, taxpayers will be left to foot the bill. While that may not set well with many, I think that helping these parents and children, while the children are young, will actually save the taxpayers money in the long-run (reduced special education costs for schools, fewer families in the court system, and fewer children entering the prison system when they grow up). It's certainly something to consider.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Good Health

"To keep the body in good health is a duty... otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear." ~Buddha
Today is my sister-in-law's birthday. My husband called her early early this morning to wish her a happy birthday and hoping to wake her up. But of course, she was already up and out and had run her 4 miles (something she does every day).

She makes me feel guilty. I'm lucky to get my one measly mile completed on the treadmill and that takes me all day. You can guess which one of us is thin and which of us is fat.

I've been trying to account for the difference between us, but basically we are just two completely different people, interested in completely different things.

I do think, however, that some of the difference can be traced to high school. She went to a small high school with about 30 in her graduating class. Her school had an active girls' sports program. She was the track star. Some of her records still stand.

I went to a large high school with almost 500 in my class. We had an active sports program, also, but it was all for the boys. There were absolutely no girls' activities unless you qualified for the cheerleading squad. We had P.E. classes every other day, but no other sports. Since I never made the cheer team, I was always in the bleachers destined to be a spectator.

Unfortunately, that has followed me through life. When it comes to sports and physical activity, I have continued to be a spectator. Is that because of my high school's attitude towards girl's sports and activities? I can't blame them completely, but I do think that may be part of it.

A while ago I read an article about a school that was having to make budget cuts. Of course, sports programs were on the chopping block. Speaking from experience, I can tell you that this will have life-long consequences for students. Sports programs need to exist and every child should be encouraged to participate. Schools need to find a way to fund these programs. I wish they had funded them for girls when I was in school.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Tale of Two Schools

There has been a lot of talk the past few days about the new $578 million school in Los Angeles. It is the most expensive school ever! Housing 4200 students, the cost per student is about $137,600. However, if the school is used for 100 years, then the price per student over that amount of time is $1,376.

So how outrageous are those numbers compared to other schools in the country? For comparison, let's use the new Aldo Leopold Middle School that just opened in Burlington, Iowa. Current registration there is about 460 students. The building cost $16.5 million. That means the price per student is about $35,869 for the first year. Again, if the building is used for 100 years, then the price drops to about $358. That's a little over one-fourth the cost of the Los Angeles school. That seem pretty outrageous to me.

Of course, the cost of living in Los Angeles (141%) is quite a bit more than in Burlington (81%). Does this account for the seemingly high cost of the school? When I looked at the median price of a home for the two cities, the Los Angeles home costs about 5 times that in Burlington ($404,400 compared to $81,600). The school's price was about 35 times greater. However, when looking at the price per student over a 100-year time period, the Los Angeles school's price is only about 4 times greater, which is actually a little less than that for houses. (

So, yes, at $578 million, the Los Angeles school is the costliest in the nation. But when taken out over a period of time, and considering the cost of living, it may not be all that pricey after all.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

National Inventors' Month

I just learned that August is National Inventors' Month. Here are a few ways you can incorporate this into your lesson plans.

1. History: Have students study a few of the great inventions like the television or telephone or clock, but also consider the history of lesser, but no less important, inventions such as tissues or crayons or paper clips.

2. Language Arts: Students can research a great inventor or invention. Then write a paper or create a video presentation based on their research.

3. Science: Study the science behind an invention. For instance, what physics are involved in radio signals? What chemistry is involved in LCD, CRT, LED and plasma screens?

4. Math: Study the invention of calculators and the algorithms involved in their programming.

5. Business: Study the marketing strategies of a current inventor such as Ron Popeil.

6. Art: Design a poster featuring a great invention or inventor.

7. Music: Study great inventions in the area of music such as the electric guitar, music therapy, or how music enhances great inventions such as radio, ipods, and film.

8. Foreign Language: Study the great inventors from the countries that use the language of the course. For example, in Spanish class students could study Guillermo Gonzales Camarena (from Mexico) who invented an early color television system. In French class, they could study Louis Braille, the inventor of the braille system of printing.

9. School-wide: How neat it would be if one entire school day could be devoted to inventions and inventors. Students could concentrate on this topic in each of their classes and hopefully understand how important all their classes are to the development of new ideas and technologies. In addition, they may gain a better appreciation of the inter-connectedness of all their courses.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

First Day of School

The first day of school is so exciting. Everyone is excited...students, parents, and teachers. But it's a little difficult to talk about the first day of school because everyone is starting at different times. Around here, some schools started at the beginning of August and some won't begin until after Labor Day. So, to start with, I just want to wish everyone an exciting, productive, and safe school year.

I also want to tell a story. Last week I was talking to the father of one of my former students. He was telling me that his son, I'll call him John, had graduated from college a couple of years ago with a degree in elementary education. He hadn't found a teaching job and so had taken a few odd jobs. The father said that John could have found a job if he had been willing to move, but John had fallen in love and wanted to stay in the area. (What we don't do for love!?)

John had just taken a job in a office supply store when he got a call from the personnel director of a school system that needed a new kindergarten teacher. At the end of last school year, one of the kindergarten teachers had retired and the student numbers indicated that the teacher would not need to be replaced. However, after this year's registration, they found that the numbers of incoming students had actually increased. Fortunately, John had his application on file, received the call, and took the job.

So last week on Monday, John started his new job. He walked into his new classroom and discovered it was filled with the former teacher's supplies, books, and papers from the last 30 years. Nothing had been cleaned. Being the trooper that he is, he called his mother. Together, they began clearing out old papers. They sorted through books. They organized supplies. Mom went shopping for containers and notebooks and folders and all the things that a new teacher might need.

They worked until midnight and then started in again bright and early Tuesday morning. Throughout all this, John was having to attend new-teacher orientation and in-service meetings. And then he was told that open house would start at 5 p.m. on Tuesday. SURPRISE!

As John's father was telling this story, John was experiencing his first open house. Dad then told me that he had a new-found appreciation for teachers. He said that never knew all that a teacher was expected to do. He didn't realize that teaching was such a small part of a teacher's job. He also didn't realize how much of a teacher's salary goes right back into the classroom. (Most sources put this number at somewhere between $200 and $1000, but many spend much more than this.)

Needless to say, John has been thrown into the lion's den of teaching. John will soon discover that every day of teaching will be frustrating. Every day of teaching will have chaos. Every day of teaching will have some new experience that could never be taught in a college course. Every day John will work harder than he ever has. At some point every day, John will wonder why he decided to become a teacher.

But, every day will also have joy. Every day some student will amaze him. Every day some student will make him laugh. And hopefully, every day, something will happen that helps John remember why he decided to become a teacher and that he'll be happy he made that decision.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Good Teacher

The following quote is from an episode of "The Office."
Jim: Sure. Michael's a good teacher. A teacher is someone who stands right next to you your whole life and never lets you do anything. That's what a teacher is, right?
I have seen a few teachers and a lot of parents fall into this trap. As the new school year starts, make sure students are doing their own work. Guide them, but make sure they read the material in their books and study their notes. Make them work through the examples in math. Students should do their own research, work their own math problems, write their own papers, and read their own novels.

The better quote is:
A teacher is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary. ~Thomas Carruthers
Remember, you can watch hundreds of guitar players, but until you practice the instrument yourself, you'll never be able to play the guitar. You can watch dozens of tennis matches, but until you learn to serve the ball yourself, you'll never be a tennis player.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

It's Okay to Be Smart

It is okay to be smart. It is okay to be well-educated.

Lately it seems that the smart and well-educated have been put down and ridiculed. It seems that the "dumb and dumber" have become the news-makers and role-models. It seems that to be uneducated makes you a "common man;" someone to be admired. It seems that to be uninformed makes you seem "down-to-earth." To be ignorant makes you a champion of the people.

Please, please, stop this! Your children are watching you!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

My Worst Student Ever!

A while back, I overheard two teachers talking about their "worst" students. I started thinking about who I would consider my "worst." As it turns out, there are quite a few students I could consider the "worst," but one that stands out above all the rest.

It was my first year of teaching. I had replaced the regular teacher who had taken maternity leave. The regular teacher had been gone for several weeks and the students had been through at least half a dozen substitute teachers. I think they thought they could get rid of me, too, but I was there for the long haul.

Darla (not her real name) was a 6th grader and she was full of attitude. I didn't know much about her, but quickly learned that she was going to defy me in everything. If I gave her an assignment, she would complain that it was too many problems or that she didn't understand what she was supposed to do. I don't know why she complained because she never did any of the work I assigned anyway.

No matter what I said or did, she found fault. And it wasn't just with me, but with her classmates as well. She argued about everything and she didn't hesitate to use the colorful language of a drunken sailor (no offense to sailors). Giving her detention was pointless because she would never serve it. Sending her to the office was a waste of time because she enjoyed the time out of the classroom. She lied; she argued and fought; she had no self-control, self-discipline, or self-esteem. She didn't care much about herself or anyone or anything else.

I learned that if I tried anything, I would get attacked verbally. I couldn't motivate her; I could barely talk to her without being the target of a barrage of swear words. As a first year teacher I had very few skills to deal with her and her behavior. I was at a loss and found that ignoring her seemed to be the best strategy. If I just left her alone, she would stay quiet. She would sit and draw pictures, but at least she wasn't yelling or picking fights. Of course, she wasn't doing her school work either.

Needless to say, I was not too surprised that at the end of 6th grade, at the age of 13, Darla was pregnant. The only surprising thing to me was that anyone was able to get that close to her. She was like a wild animal who kept everyone at a distance. Obviously, my opinion was not completely accurate.

During that summer, I lost track of her. Imagine my surprise later that year when she moved in next door to me. Darla had married her boyfriend (she was 14 now) and, with the help of his parents, the happy couple had purchased the house next door to me. I was speechless and avoided them as much as possible. I kept wondering how, of all the people in the world, she was now my next door neighbor.

Darla had a baby girl. I was still keeping a low profile and don't think she had yet realized who her neighbor was. Then one day Darla saw me. She was outside with her baby and came running to me to show me her daughter. She was so excited about her baby girl. She was smiling and laughing and so happy. Not one swear word came from her lips. It was almost as if the Darla I knew had been replaced by the Stepford model.

Darla and her husband lived next to me for about 7 or 8 years. Darla had 3 children, all girls, by the time she was 20. She never went back to school, but did get her GED. The oldest daughter had severe asthma and Darla had a dangerous heart condition by the time she was 25, both linked to the early age of her first pregnancy. But Darla was a changed person. She was a wonderful wife and a terrific mother. Her children grew up loved and well-cared for. She was nothing like the Darla I first met in that classroom my first year of teaching.

Yes, I would consider Darla one of my worst students. But she taught me several great lessons and I'm so glad I learned them my first year of teaching. I learned that teachers need to be careful how they treat their students because those students may end up being your next door neighbor or your accountant or your doctor. I learned that students you consider "lost causes" may not be as "lost" as you think. Some just need to find their way in this world. Darla found her way through her husband, her husband's parents, and her children. And I learned that your worst student may not actually be a bad person. Darla hated school and everything associated with it, but I found that she was really a good person and I'm so happy she found her way.

Over the years I have lost track of her, but if I ever see her again, I will thank her for making me a better teacher.

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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Teachers and Test Scores

I always have such mixed feelings when I hear about a mass firing of teachers.

Yesterday, 241 teachers in Washington, D.C. lost their jobs. It's hard for me to imagine that many teachers being let go since the town in which I worked only had a few more than that in the entire district. It's also hard for me to believe that that many teachers are doing such a poor job that they deserve to be fired.

If the teachers are truly incompetent, then letting them go probably benefits everyone, including the teachers. What I want to know is how that many incompetent teachers got hired in the first place. That certainly isn't the fault of the teachers, but of the personnel director (or whoever does the hiring). Doesn't anyone check on the applicant's competency levels at the time of hiring?

I also think that being fired because of the student's test scores is terribly unfair. Yes, I know that the only way we have to judge what the students are learning is through standardized testing, but I also know how students take these tests. Too many of them don't read the questions. Many simply make designs on their answer sheets. I actually had students who tried to get a low score so that no one would expect anything of them. Some mark wrong answers just to be defiant. One student I had was upset that his mother had recently married a man that he didn't like. In an effort to hurt her, he did nothing in school or on standardized tests.

I also know that in some schools the courses are not divided evenly. In other words, some teachers may get all the top classes with the best students, while others get assigned remedial classes with the lowest performing students. It's obvious which teachers will appear to be doing the best job. The fact of the matter is that just because students are performing badly on tests doesn't mean the teachers are doing a bad job. It might mean that, but it might not.

I think I've said before that when I started teaching I taught remedial classes all day long. Teachers who had been there longer always got the higher level classes. My students showed improvement. Often I was able to raise their scores from a 3rd grade level to a 6th grade level. Sound's good, doesn't it? Unfortunately, these were 9th grade students who were still performing three levels below their grade. Does that mean I would have been fired because my students were still getting low test scores? Possibly.

I guess I just want to watch and see what happens. Can 241 competent teachers be hired in the next few weeks? And in a year, if the test scores are still low (which I imagine they will be), will another 241 teachers lose their jobs and another 241 be hired? I wonder how many times that will have to happen before someone realizes that it's not just the teachers' fault. It's probably time some started looking at other causes and other solutions.
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Thursday, July 22, 2010

5 Lessons Learned at the Grocery Store

First let me say that I hate grocery shopping, but because I love to eat, I shop. And while I was at the store a few days ago, I had several revelations. Okay, maybe the word "revelations" is a little strong, but I did learn a few things.

1. Parents are ready for school to start. I'm not sure why anyone would bring 5 or more small children to the grocery store, but they way the parents were yelling at them, I'm pretty sure they would prefer they were in school.

2. Teachers are not ready for school to start. I ran into two different teachers and both felt that they just have not had enough time to recuperate from last year. Because of snow days, school did not get out until June 9 and the teachers have to go back August 16. Most have barely had enough time to get in their summer coursework, let alone time for rejuvenation.

3. Children are bored, but probably not ready to go back to school yet. Of course, parents should probably find better summer activities for their children than going to the grocery store. If the parents were making the shopping trip an educational experience, that would be a different story. Unfortunately, I didn't see any of that. All I saw were unhappy children and unhappier parents.

4. Store owners love it when parents bring children to the store. I noticed a lot of kid-friendly items have been placed at eye-level (eye-level of the kids, that is). Unfortunately, that contributes to the unhappiness of the parents when children ask for items. It also contributes to the unhappiness of the children when parents say "no."

5. I learned that I need to find a different day and time to do my grocery shopping.

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Sally Said That You Said That ...

Shirley Sherrod, the USDA's director of Rural Development in Georgia, was asked to resign because of remarks she made. Unfortunately, these remarks were taken out of context, and when you listen to her entire speech, instead of the edited video clip, you realize that she did nothing wrong.

The people at fault were the ones who edited the clip to make it appear to be something it wasn't and the people who reacted without knowing all the facts.

This type of thing happens in schools all the time. One student will say something about another, parts of which may be based in fact (or not). The other student or his or her friends believe what was said (or not), and the next thing you know you have students in the hallway screaming at each other, threatening each other, and sometimes actually coming to blows.

I don't know how many times a student would tell a friend that so-and-so had said something about them. The friend would confront the person who had supposedly made the statement. Often a fight would start. But when taken to the office, and made to confront each other in a civilized manner, it was usually discovered that the person really hadn't said anything or what they had said hand been distorted or taken out of context.

One of the things teachers, counselors, and administration have to do is get students to learn to question things and get the facts before taking action. It is also their responsibility (and their parents' responsibility) to teach them that fighting is not the appropriate action to take. Most students learn this by the time they leave high school.

Obviously, some adults, as evidenced by the actions taken against Shirley Sherrod, have not learned the lessons that most students learn in school.

The reporter and news channel who put out the edited video are no better than the student who tattles to his or her friend. The people asking Ms. Sherrod to resign are no better than the student who wants to start a fight because of what was said or what they think was said.

Only when the entire story comes out can people judge for themselves. I personally think apologies are due all around. That's what happens to the students. And if the adults are going to act this immature, then they should be treated the same.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


"Refudiate," "misunderestimate," "wee-wee'd up." English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!

The above comment is a tweet posted by Sarah Palin on July 18, 2010.

Did she apologize for using a word that doesn't exist? No. Instead she compared herself to Shakespeare.

This really bothers me. Yes, it's true that English is a living language, but it evolves naturally or purposely, not because someone makes a mistake. When you use a word incorrectly, and do not realize it until someone points it out, I don't believe you are advancing the English language. Obviously, I'm not the only one as #Shakespalin has been a popular hashtag topic on Twitter.

However, if you intentionally make up new words, as Shakespeare did, then you are innovative, original, and intelligent.

In the 1980s, comedian Rich Hall on an HBO show called Not Necessarily the News, invented new words all the time. He called them Sniglets. These were not accidents or mistakes, but thoughtful, funny, non-existent words that made people laugh (and think):

Here are a few Sniglets from the website Sniglets:
  • Bozone (n.): The substance surrounding stupid people that stops bright ideas from penetrating. The bozone layer, unfortunately, shows little sign of breaking down in the near future.
  • Dopeler effect: The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly.
  • Nerb n. a noun used as a verb. For example: They didn't language the proclamation very well. nerb, nerbing, nerbed v. the act of using nouns as verbs in a sentence.
  • Sarchasm: The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn't get it.
Actually, when used properly, new words can have great educational value: In a 1990 interview, Rich Hall was asked if the "Sniglets books [were] completely for comic value?" This is his reply:

Yeah. Well, no. I wouldn't say they're completely for comic value. I mean, I get letters from schools all the time saying how they've incorporated a sniglet book into their reading program. You can look at a lot of the words and sort of break them down into their etymological origins. And you can learn a lot about how and where words derive from. When you assign this frailty of human nature a word, then the word has to work. It has to either be a hybrid of several other words, or have a Latin origin, or something.
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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

"Let's Move" Website

I've been looking around the website Let's Move. If you haven't been there, I highly recommend you do.

The website is promoted by First Lady Michelle Obama and has tons of healthy information for parents, students, and schools.

There are articles and videos on fitness, exercise, healthy eating, recipes, nutrition, obesity, and much more. I could go on, but I think you just need to go to the website yourself.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Another Reason for Foreign Language

On a television news article just a few minutes ago, they said that a court ruling in New Jersey now states that police must read a person's rights to them in a language they understand. If a drunk driver is pulled over, and his or her native language is Spanish, those rights must be told to the driver in Spanish.

They said that the police are brushing up on their languages. In New Jersey, there are over 150 languages spoken.

Currently, it's not known if this ruling will hold up, but it certainly gives another indication of the importance of studying foreign languages.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Time for School Supplies

Last week I went to Walmart. As I walked into the store, just past the cash registers, I noticed about five aisles of school supplies.

Yesterday's newspaper ads included a "back-to-school" sale flyer from Staples.

In this morning's local newspaper there was an article about the Salvation Army's drive for school supplies.

Our local schools have supply lists ready for download on their website.

It appears it is that time of year already. I know it seems as if school just let out, but here, it starts again August 16 for teachers and August 19 for students. That's not too many days away.

So, start thinking about getting ready. The first day of school will be here before you know it.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

No Regrets

Today I learned that my brother will be taking a new job in a different state, over 400 miles away. After living in the same town with him for over 50 years, I have mixed feelings.

I am so happy for him and for the great opportunity he has. Yet, I know I will miss him. Even though I haven't see him as often as I could or should, I have always known he's around. Thank goodness for Facebook, Twitter, cell phones, texting, and the US postal service, we'll still be able to keep in touch. I imagine we'll probably keep in touch even more than when he was here.

He's taking the new job because he says that he doesn't want to look back in a couple of years and regret not having tried it.

It's funny because this is the same thing I used to tell my students. "You don't want to look back on your high school years and regret not having done your best." It's important to try new things, to do your best, to jump at opportunities when they are offered to you. You never know how it will all work out unless you try.

Friday, July 9, 2010

8 Things Teachers Can Learn From Lady Gaga

Lady GaGa during her The Fame Ball Tour perfor...Image via Wikipedia

I'm sitting here this Friday morning watching The Today Show. Lady Gaga will soon perform on their outdoor stage. Her fans started showing up for the concert two days ago and so far 20,000 people are estimated to be in Rockefeller Plaza. She has almost 12 million fans on Facebook.

So as teachers, what can we learn from this?

Let's take them one at a time.

1. She loves her fans and has an amazing relationship with them. She sent pizza and water to fans who were waiting in line overnight.

As teachers we must have a love of our students. If you don't like children, why would you become a teacher in the first place? Students can tell if you truly like them or if you're just going through the motions.

2. She is fascinating to watch. She knows how to put on a show.

Teachers put on a show every day in class. It should capture the student's attention. I had a chemistry teacher who illustrated each day's lesson with a magic trick. No one ever skipped his class. We always wanted to see what he would do that day.

3. She is extremely talented. She knows her stuff.

Teachers must be talented in their subjects. Students immediately know if a teacher does not have an adequate knowledge of the material they're teaching.

4. She is cutting-edge. You never quite know what to expect from her.

Teachers need to surprise their students from time to time. The lessons learned when teachers break from the normal routine are the one students remember best. I still remember the math lesson when the teacher took us outside to use trigonometry to measure trees. I still remember when the Spanish teacher had us perform skits in Spanish on stage.

5. She has a knack for knowing what her fans want to hear and see.

Teachers need to keep up on what students are interested in and try to incorporate that into the classroom. I went to school during the Beatles era and remember how I loved it when we were able to play Beatles songs in band class.

6. She has an appeal for all ages. She calls her fans "little monsters," but I saw a lot of older people in the crowd.

Teachers need to appeal to their students. My favorite teachers were the ones who were down to earth and could communicate at their student's level. I had some who acted like it was imposition that there were students in their classes. There were others who knew their subject matter, but talked so far above their student's heads that the students learned little. And of course there were those who talked down to us, treated us as if we were morons.

7. She thanked her fans for making her dreams come true.

Teachers are definitely over-worked and underpaid. Perhaps if we were making the kind of money that Lady Gaga makes, we would be more appreciative. But the fact of the matter is that, if your job is teaching, then it is paying for all you own, do, eat, and enjoy. Your students are making your dreams come true, perhaps not all of your dreams, but in time, you will get most of the things you want. If your dreams are too big, then a teaching career is probably not for you.

8. She supports education.

“Don’t ever make the mistake that you’re a dumb blonde or a pushover,” she told Britain’s Mail on Sunday. "I was a grade-A student and I went to a really top school in New York where the children of middle-class parents are expected to achieve at everything.

“I started piano at the age of four and I passed every grade with top marks. I wanted to be smart because I wanted to be able to control things. My career isn’t about other people’s ideas and decisions. It’s about my decisions, my vision, my inspirations. I listen to other people, but I’m smart enough to know what to take notice of. Never underestimate the importance of education.”

I hope that every teacher supports education and encourages every student to be their best. It is so easy to give up on some of them, but they're the ones who most need their education.

I do have just word of warning. As a performer, Lady Gaga can get by with things that teachers can't. Teachers must remember to keep their attire and language appropriate for the classroom. You can be cool and keep it clean at the same time.

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Sunday, July 4, 2010

Saturday, July 3, 2010

What Can a Compliment Do?

I took a 4-day class last week. This week I worked on two papers for the class that needed to be emailed to the instructor by July 4. I finally sent them off at about 10:00 pm tonight.

In less than half an hour, the instructor had emailed back that he had received the papers. He gave me an extremely nice compliment about one of them. I can't tell you how good that made me feel. I had worked hard on those papers and it was nice to feel the work was appreciated.

You know, if a simple compliment can make me feel this good, imagine what it can do for students. I mean, I've taken a lot of classes, I've written a lot of papers, I've lived a lot of years, and yet I still love to hear a word or two of praise.

How nice it would be if everyone could receive a compliment each day. That could happen if everyone would give a compliment each day. And while you're at it, try giving two.

Friday, July 2, 2010


How did it get to be July already? Some stores have already started displaying school supply lists for the coming fall. Teachers are taking classes in preparation for the new school year. Some are busy writing lesson plans. A nice website for those teachers, and for students and parents, is

For teachers there are lesson plans, student interactives, standards alignment, and professional development.

For students there are after school activities, games, and literacy themes.

Parents will find activities and suggestions for helping their children succeed in school.

There really is so much on this website that it is difficult to even start listing it all. The best thing to do is go there and click around. See what you can find.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Prevent Summer Learning Loss ~ Tip #30 ~ Teaching

Teach someone something. If you ask any teacher, he or she will almost always tell you they learned more after they started teaching than in all their years of teacher training and education.

Why is this?

When you teach something, you have to understand it. You have to know it forward and backward. You have to do research. You have to practice. Once you're the expert, then you can present it to someone else.

So try teaching your little brother how to spell a new word.

Try teaching your mom how to do an algebra problem.

Teach your best friend about the scientific method.

Teach your dad about the battle at Gettysburg.

It's amazing what you'll learn in the process.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Prevent Summer Learning Loss ~ Tip #29 ~ Language Arts

Play games. Some of the best for keeping up learning skills include Scrabble, crosswords, anagrams, Sudoku, cryptograms, and many others. They are amazing for helping your vocabulary, spelling, grammar, and thinking skills.

Even better, they're fun!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Prevent Summer Learning Loss ~ Tip #28 ~ Health

Keep your body healthy by eating properly and exercising each day. During the school year, this is fairly easy because you're on a regular schedule. Unfortunately, that schedule gets disrupted during the summer.

That means you have to make a conscious effort to eat properly each day and at regular times. It also means that you have to get in that daily exercise. It's so easy to lay on the couch and watch TV, but there are so many fun things to do during the summer from bike rides to swimming pools. Whatever activity you decide on, try to do it for an hour each day.

When the school year comes, you'll be healthy, active, and ready for whatever the new year brings.