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Now’s the time to start thinking about what costume you’ll wear on October 31, which happens to be a Monday this year. It’s a lot of fuss and bother, but the kids love it if you do.   Love it!

I found that if I rely on an identity heavy on makeup, it comes out pretty well. Here’s one of the best:

 

edward

Student Laura K. did the makeup and provided the scissorhands.

I tried once being Audrey Hepburn from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but I blush to disclose that I don’t have the A. H. cred. Just don’t have it. Black dress? Check. Gloves? Check. Jewelry, hairdo, coffee, and pastry? Check. World-renowned, drop-dead looks? Sigh. Also not so elegantly gaunt.

Another failure was Charlie Chaplin. Many students thought I was trying to be Hitler. In a tail-coat? Really?

I’m hard at work with my costume for this year and there’s no knowing how it will turn out. I hope it’s the best yet. I’m up to my knees in purple tulle. Can you guess? All will be revealed Oct. 31.

 

flotsam-and-j

I like giving the kids a treat.  How ’bout you?

 

Well this is a pretty big topic, not easily addressed.  Colleagues come in so many forms, from people you see at lunch to those you must work closely with, as in co-teaching or team teaching.  I heard the advice that you should just avoid the teacher’s lunchroom altogether and do your own thing, insulating yourself from others at your school.  That is wise if a culture of negativity and complaint has taken root, but kind of depressing and limiting even then.

Basic rule: you should want your colleagues to think well of you and cheer you on.  Especially in your first few years, they can provide a lot of help you didn’t know you needed and shield you from some real problems.  Even as you depend upon them, try to take good care of them.  Make some funny jokes.  Cut out the odd cartoon and post it.  Offer a good article (assuming you’ve had any time to read and find a good article).  Maybe bring in coffee or treats or flowers one day.  See Blondie Brownie Recipe below.

In my first year, they voted me team leader, which was absurd– a way for those who knew the ropes to dodge some responsibility.  I was so naive I thought it was a compliment and a chance for me to show my merit.  I did all right with it, but they shouldn’t have done it.  It was dumping.

But one good thing I did do:
Our 8th grade team had a difficult kid named Peter whose mother had been angry with us.  She said she felt we had thrown him to the wolves, and we were the wolves.  How it was that we threw him to ourselves she did not explain.  We listened and soothed as best we could.  Not too long after that, I invited my team to a little party during our usual meeting.  I gave out invitations with wolves on them, stipulating a howling good time.  They arrived and I had “Peter and the Wolf” on my boombox as I poured soda and gave out cookies.  We cohered as a team over sugary snacks.

wolf-pack-many-wolves-animals

My first team.

There are a number of lessons here:

  1.  Folks might dump on you, even if they know better.
  2.  Don’t let them.
  3.  If they do and you can’t get out of it, be gracious.
  4.  When you make people laugh, they will like you even if they don’t want to.
  5.  Cookies, soda, snacks, etc. aren’t expensive and they win people to you.  But don’t overdo it.  They should be on your side whether you feed them or not.

Another team I taught with was wonderful: every one of them a crack teacher.  One day someone wandered into our meeting with a bewildered look, holding a piece of paper.  One of my teammates asked if they could help her.  She just handed the paper over.  My teammate said, “That’s okay.  It doesn’t apply to you.”  “Oh, okay,” she said, and left.  Someone else said, “Didn’t that come out a month ago?”  The reply:  “Yes, but she’s new.”  Oh, they all said.  Right.

Basic rule there:
Any team worth its salt knows that when you are new, you have more than you can handle.  So they take it easy on you.  If they don’t, speak up and tell them that you’re willing to do what you can do to help them plan the field trip or assembly today and tomorrow and after that, you’ll be buried in grading.  Be clear that you want to help.  Be equally clear that you can’t wait till the last minute.

But the most important basic rule:
No matter what anybody says or legislates, teaching with someone is as intimate and personal as any other deeply felt human interaction.  If they put you with a co-teacher or team you don’t respect and love, the chemistry won’t happen and that’s nobody’s fault.  There is nothing more helpful than a soulmate at work.  There is also no way to force it.

Once or twice I have co-taught or just taught alongside someone I loved and respected, a true friend.  Those are good days. If you have that, treasure it.  It’s rare.  If you don’t have it, don’t despair.  You can go it alone– it’s just lonelier, is all.

And no matter what you do, take good care of the administrative assistants.  Those ladies (they’re always ladies, so far in my career) make the school run and can spare you a world of pain.  They get yelled at and they don’t like it any more than anybody else does.  Look after them.  They may just look after you.

And now, if you’d like to cook something to bring in, here is the easiest treat I know:

Blondie Brownies

¼ c melted butter
1 c sugar
1 egg
1 tsp. vanilla
¾ c flour
1 tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
1 c chocolate chips
(optional) ½ c nuts

Pour the sugar into the melted butter and stir.  Beat the egg lightly and stir into the butter/sugar mixture.  Add the vanilla and mix.  Add the flour, baking powder, and salt.  Stir until mixed.  Stir in the choc chips and optional nuts.
Pour the mixture into a buttered 9×9 pan.  Bake them at 325 degrees for about 25 minutes or until a knife comes out clean from the center.  Cool well before cutting into squares.  Yummy!  Easy!  Almost unbelievably sweet!

blondies5

When buying friendship, this is the coin of the realm.

 

Okay, so you’ve got yourself all set up to start a mindfulness mediation practice. You have your bench or cushion in a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed, you’ve got a time of day where you’ve built it in, and you’ve got a timer so you don’t have to watch a clock.

So exactly what is mindfulness? Paying attention, on purpose and without judgment, to what is happening now.

 There is an awful lot in that sentence and it will become richer and richer the more you experience it, but you can start by committing that to memory.

Okay, so, let’s get started. Take your place in your spot, set your timer, and then breathe. Watching the breath as it enters the body, watching the breath as it leaves the body. You need not try to control your thoughts and feelings. They will arise on their own. You’re just allowing them to arise and float on past, like clouds in a blue sky. Relaxing, not tensing, and resting attention on the breath. Over and over and over. Before too long you’ll notice that you aren’t seeing the breath anymore: you’re thinking, planning, ruminating, going to the past or the future. Not to worry. Just gently and without judging, escort the attention back to the breath. Think of your attention like a curious puppy. It keeps wandering, but you are teaching it to stay. “Puppy, stay,” you say gently, every time it scoots off. You don’t keep score, you don’t get angry, and you don’t give up. Coming back to the breath.

 

clouds

Just let them come and blow on through.  Don’t try to get on them and ride them around.

That’s it. When the timer dings and you’re done, you can say a little prayer, if that’s your thing, or you can do a little metta—metta is a practice of wishing well to ourselves and others. It goes like this:

May I be safe and protected.

May I be healthy and strong.

May I be peaceful and happy.

May I know ease of well-being and accept all the conditions of this world.

You say it first about yourself. Then you say it about your loved ones. Then you say it about people you feel neutral about. Then you say it about your enemies and those who make you crazy or fearful. Then you say it about all sentient beings.

Those are the basics and there is an awful lot more to say. My favorite book on this subject is:

 

mindfulness-plain-english

Brilliant.  Invaluable.

I found several PDF’s of it online!  Here is the table of contents:

Contents
1 Meditation: Why Bother?
2 What Meditation Isn’t
3 What Meditation Is
4 Attitude
5 The Practice
6 What to Do with Your Body
7 What to Do with Your Mind
8 Structuring Your Meditation
9 Set-up Exercises
10 Dealing with Problems
11 Dealing with Distractions I
12 Dealing with Distractions II
13 Mindfulness (Sati)
14 Mindfulness versus Concentration
15 Meditation in Everyday Life
16 What’s in It for You
Afterword: The Power of Loving Friendliness
Appendix: The Context of the Tradition
I love this book and go back to it over and over again.
bhante-g

Super advice for teachers.

What a great way to spend your 27th birthday.

What a great way to spend your 27th birthday.

I had the pleasure the other day of helping out with one of our many clubs at school, the Cooking For the Homeless club.  My friend and colleague is the faculty advisor and she meets with students twice a month in the Home Ec kitchens to prepare and freeze a dish to donate to our local food kitchen.  Wednesday was vegetable soup day.

About twenty kids in small groups commandeered five kitchens and commenced slicing carrots and celery, opening cartons of stock, measuring alphabet noodles, and laughing, chattering, updating one another on their daily doings.  All sorts of good cheer, bustle, and bonhomie.  My friend didn’t have to do too much other than oversee and figure out how we were going to put the hot soup into ziplock bags without melting the plastic (solution: refrigerate the pots of soup overnight and load the bags next day).  It was the kids’ show.

And apart from the ubiquity of cell phones and the blind necessity of texting friends who aren’t present, they sounded just about the way I remember my friends sounding to my ears when I was in high school and we had met to make posters or draft speeches for forum or get ready for a dance: giggles, wise cracks, concerned questions in undertones, complaints, hopes, worries, basic good health and youth galore.

I think one good measure of a high school is how many clubs meet regularly and what percentage of the students are actively involved in a club.  It’s certainly a delightful thing for a teacher to see this side of kids, when you aren’t trying to persuade them to take an interest (in history, algebra, or Shakespeare) and instead can stand back and observe their forging ahead.

Plus the homeless will get some soup out of it (I believe they heat it up at the food pantry).

celery

Teachers have no voice in the debates over public schools.  Billionaires who have zero experience in the classroom can sway national decisions, but those of us who have spent our lives teaching kids are shut out.

Sometimes those powerful people consult superintendents or principals, but never teachers.  They feel badly enough about this to lie a little (see the Common Core creation story), but not enough to actually ask a teacher a question.

And administrators’ ears are often closed to teachers’ input.  The problem stems from a division of labor between administrators (most of whom are former teachers) and current teachers.  Some administrators retain respect and admiration for what we do.  Some do not.  There can arise a culture in administrative circles of disdain and condescension for teachers.  Some administrators come to see teachers as lazy, good-for-nothing whiners.  They can no longer see that when we plead for time between marking periods or smaller classes that those things allow us to do a better job.  We ask for them so we can be more effective.  They can come to believe that teachers only seek their own benefit, not their students’– when in fact what is good for teachers is typically good for kids.

Also, administrators frequently complain that teachers have a limited view of the challenges and issues facing a school district.  Teachers, they believe, want what they want without respect to the larger concerns of the system as a whole.

So: what if teachers and administrators were the same people?  What if all administrators taught at least one class per year, and if teachers could be selected (by vote? by a faculty senate?) to teach fewer classes and take on some administrative roles?  What if we had one, unified, group of experienced educators who saw to the needs of the whole school?  Who understood the entire system?

No overlords.  No peons.  Full communication across the district among all roles.  And when a billionaire wanted to know the score, we could tell him the whole, informed truth.  What a concept!

(and isn’t it funny that when billionaires want to play Lady Bountiful and circumvent the democratic process, we have to hope that they at least consult all parties, which they don’t feel a need to do?)

Adminiteachers arise!

Adminiteachers arise!

As I see it, what is going on in education is a debate about what education even is: what does it mean to educate someone?  And by extension, what is a teacher?

Some folks see education in its ideal form as a standardized process of instilling knowledge into empty vessels.  We need to instill more knowledge, faster, and test, test, test to be sure that knowledge has landed hard into those vessels.  Anything less than that cheats kids out of their proper equipment to live and thrive in this world.

According to this view, a teacher is a delivery system.  Teachers don’t need to think up what kids need to know– that’s all handled by Common Core– and they don’t need to connect with kids or find out much about them, because the kids are empty vessels.  The teachers just need to keep pounding that knowledge down, down, down into the vessels.

Teachers hard at work, overseen by Bill Gates and Arne Duncan in their fancy new hats.

Teachers hard at work, overseen by Bill Gates and Arne Duncan in their fancy new hats.

My friend told me that at her old district, administrators used to say to the teachers regularly, “Your kind is a dime a dozen.”  Your kind!

Or, as John Kasich recently said:

If I were not president, but if I were king in America, I would abolish all teachers’ lounges, where they sit together and worry about, oh woe is us.

What we actually worry about is if we can get all the grading done in time for the end of the marking period and why our colleague who is a new mother is being denied unpaid leave and why we don’t have exam days anymore when we could get caught up on our work.  It’s not so much woe is us as woe is what you’re making of my otherwise really interesting, rewarding, important, and labor-intensive job.

District administrators and school board members appear to believe that we are hired help, completely interchangeable with one another.  Nobody is special, nobody makes a difference, everybody is replaceable.

It’s interesting that nobody actually wants a galley slave for a teacher.  We all can recall teachers who were artists, who inspired us and brought out our best.  We want that for ourselves and for our children.  Indeed, neither Bill Gates nor Arne Duncan sends his own kids to a school that has to adhere to the policies they have promulgated.  Their kids go to private schools where teachers can practice their art.

And what does that look like?  Fostering, guiding, mentoring, loving, creating conditions under which creativity and inquiry can flourish; exploration; discovery.

Good teaching.

Good teaching.

It’s just a complete disconnect between the culture of the classroom, where respect and openness are essential, and the culture of school leadership, where you win points with the public by giving us another flick of the lash.

There.  I’ve gone and said it.

Now that President Obama has admitted that there is too much testing (although he has ducked saying that he, and President Bush before him, No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, plus Arne Duncan all caused the testing overload) and has suggested that we cut back (although his recommendation that kids spend 2% of their time on standardized testing is still far too much) and that we reduce the amount of weight we give to standardized tests when judging teacher quality, I feel it is safe to admit that I have no idea how to raise test scores.

No clue.

Although I do know how to teach kids to read, write, think, and take an interest in the world around them.

When I was a little girl, my father, who was an older father, nearly age 42 when I was born, used to enjoy saying in the most enticing, quietly thrilled voice, “You’ve got your whole life spread out before you.”  It felt so exciting to hear that.  I couldn’t imagine what my life might contain, but I knew it was going to be full of wonder– I could tell by the sound of his voice.

That’s what I feel when I look at my students.  I want them to know that the world is a fascinating place of unimaginable complexity and that no matter how much they learn, they will never know more than a tiny fraction of all there is to know.  What they don’t know will intimidate them and they will shy away from it, as we all do, but out of that not-knowing is where the learning arises.

That’s what I teach them– the anti-testing mindset.

Try bubble-testing that.

Try bubble-testing that.

Bucks County has a new poet laureate.

Well done, Tyler!

Well done, Tyler!

The youngest one ever and he was so generous as to name and cast light upon the teachers who inspired him.

A reporter for our local paper (whose article appears below) asked me for an anecdote or reflection on Tyler and his career at Central Bucks West High School.  This is what I sent to him via email:

Tyler told me after he graduated the one moment that most stood out for him of his time in my class.  It was a beautiful spring day and I was teaching them “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost.  I recited the line “Nature’s first green is gold,” and pointed out the window to the exquisite oak trees so generously planted by far-seeing benefactors when West was first built, where the leaves were just emerging, and I said, “See that?  That delicate pale green?  That is what Frost is talking about.”  Of all the things I taught them, that is what lodged in Tyler’s heart and mind.  Perhaps you can use that anecdote in your article.

As a side note, and because I am always trying to show people the difficult, onerous, skilled, and immensely rewarding work that teachers do in this age when newspapers including the Intel are bent on excoriating teachers, the above vignette is precisely what we aim to do.  We teachers say beautiful, true, and useful things every day, all day, yet we never know until much later and frequently not at all, which ones have taken root in our students.  And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the contempt of the public.

(Notes to self: quit using the word “excoriating.”  It’s becoming quite a habit.  Also, don’t you think that maybe that last sentence is just the merest bit pretentious?)

I was surprised and pleased to see that Mr. Gianficaro used that sweet anecdote of a budding poet connecting words to reality all in a heady rush– and even tipped his hat to the hard work we do.  To the planting of seeds!

Here is the article:

Chalfont poet flourishing from seeds of inspiration

By Phil Gianficaro, News columnist

His is an old soul. His words flow freely to paper from pen, arriving chipped and weathered despite the author’s brief time in life’s storm, belying the short stretch of road he’s traveled.

Tyler Kline, age 22, basks in his moment now. The Chalfont native and senior at the University of Delaware was recently named the youngest poet laureate in the 39-year history of the competition in Bucks County. The official celebration will be Nov. 15 with a poetry reading and reception at the Bucks County Community College campus in Newtown Township. His 15-poem chapbook, “As Men Do Around Knives,” will be published in May. His dreams have come quickly.

The honor elicited in Kline a mix of shock and joy. He excitedly shares what inspires his poetry – the living and growing up in a quaint town in a rural county. His poetry illustrates the wide slice of life that can be seen from a farm boy’s front porch.

When Kline is asked about being named poet laureate so early in his life, he extends thanks to those who chose him. He mentions his own work, sure, but mostly talks about others. He credits his mom, Janice, a former principal at Copper Beech Elementary School in Abington, for establishing the framework for him to learn to write well. He lauds those who boosted him to such heights so soon. As the spotlight rightfully finds him, he tilts it toward those who first noticed his promising wings and pointed him toward the sky.

“My teachers at (Central Bucks) West also have so much to do with my ability and my success,” Kline said. “When I was a senior, I had AP lit and a creative writing course with Mr. (Rob) Trachtenberg. He made poetry really accessible, and it engaged us all. He showed us contemporary poets and styles of poetry that were foreign to students. He showed us experimental, fresh types of writing that inspired me.

“And also Mrs. (Katherine) Semisch, who I had for English at West, who exposed us to poetry. I still meet with her, and Rob visits me from time to time at the organic farm, Barefoot Gardens, behind Doylestown Hospital where I work. I experienced a real connection with these teachers and all they taught me.”

Semisch remembers that beautiful spring day she was teaching her class “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” the Robert Frost poem that projects a fairly comprehensive vision of experience, and one included in a collection of poems that won him the 1924 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

“I recited the line, ‘Nature’s first green is gold,’ and pointed out the window to the exquisite oak trees a where the leaves were just emerging,” she said this week. “I said, ‘See that? The delicate pale green? That’s what Frost is talking about.’ Tyler told me after he graduated that was the one moment that stood out for him of his time in my class. That’s what lodged in his heart and mind.”

It ranks among the great unknowns in school classrooms. Teachers plants seeds of inspiration, uncertain if they’ll take root. If they do somewhere down the road, the bloom often occurs around a curve, beyond their view.

One wonderful exception is Tyler Kline, who accepts his trumpeted celebration and chooses to share some of the notes with those who planted the seeds.

For Kline, it all goes back to his teachers at West. He hopes to someday return there as a secondary English instructor. To stand beside those who inspired him. To proudly call them colleagues.

And to plant some seeds of his own.

Yesterday I tried to persuade my AP students that the passive voice will make their sentences soggy and flat.  Some sat stony-faced.  Kids who have always gotten good grades (in grades k-11) don’t much like to hear that they’ve been doing it all wrong.  I found myself saying that if they looked it up (they won’t), they would find unanimity on this point among writing teachers.  When you can, use the active voice unless you have a really good reason not to.

Sometimes you want to conceal the subject.

Sometimes you want to conceal the subject.

But how can they know how right I am?  When I’m really right, I mean?

It’s like teaching them about cliches.  They haven’t been around or read widely enough to know that we’ve heard all we want to hear about hearts beating like drums.  They come up with these things spontaneously and it’s sad to learn that your genius phrase wore out before you even got here.

So we painstakingly try to rip their illusions from them as gently as we can, establish our credibility, and hope that they see what great sense we’re talking.

For me the breakthrough came when in high school I read Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.”  I roared through it, put it down, and felt an overwhelming sense of the work ahead.  Orwell showed me that all my life I’d been writing rubbish, most especially when I thought I was being clever and original.  It was a crushing defeat that felt fabulous.  I felt that I’d finally found the true path.

I think I’ll give my AP’s Orwell’s bracing diagnosis today.  Poor things.  But at least they won’t have to take my word for it.

Maybe they'll trust a real writer.

Maybe they’ll trust a real writer.

Today, teaching The Odyssey, I had a little lightning bolt of thought.  I was trying to explain to my seniors why epics start in the middle of things.

My father was born September 18, 1917.  He was 9 years old when, so the story goes, he went to get a haircut and he heard that Lindbergh had been sighted over Scotland (I might be making Scotland up, but he was sighted somewhere on the other side of the Atlantic).  Imagine the feelings of those who hear that news– as it was explained to me on more than one occasion– the world suddenly felt a lot smaller.  One man could get from the East Coast to Europe through the air!

But also– as it was explained to me on many occasions– a number of men had already tried and failed.  Attempting this flight was old news, much to the grief of the mothers of the daring young men.

Lindbergh’s triumph began not when he designed The Spirit of St. Louis, and not when he took off, full of hope, but when he looked as though he just might make it.  Death averted, history in the making.  .  .  the world tuned in “in medias res”– in the middle of things, to participate in the glorious finish.

And so it is with epic heroes.  Their humble beginnings only matter when they near their illustrious accomplishments.  What’s the point of hearing of Odysseus’s journey if we don’t already know that Penelope is faithful and that he will return home to her?  The ending justifies the beginning– and this is what makes fiction so satisfying, as opposed to life, which must be lived forward, even if only understood backward.

And this is a signal fact about all our lives.  We feel that when we happen on the scene, that is when it all begins.  We are the generation.  This is the world.  I see it in the faces of my students:  this is not just a time, but THE time.  It’s now!  And I’m in it!

But we live in medias res, whether we know it or not.  I wonder: does knowing that we are merely passing through, that the world was here before us and will go on after we’re gone, depress the spirit or enlarge it?

Epic heroes are just passing through, too-- but they leave a legacy behind them.

Epic heroes are just passing through, too– but they leave a legacy behind them.

100 Day Journey

In which we explore and discover.

Katherine Good

Free teacher ramblings.

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