Friday, December 30, 2011

Los 12 días de la Navidad

Growing up, I figured "The Twelve Days of Christmas" from the song were the 12 days leading up to Christmas Day.  I didn't really think about it much more than "must have been some funny old-fashioned tradition".  I should have known better.  After all, I was fascinated when someone told me in elementary school that the 3 Wise Men didn't actually get to where Jesus was until Jan. 6, "Epiphany".  From then on, I cracked up my parents by insisting that we set up the Wise Men waaaay at the corner of our Nativity scene and gradually move them closer after Christmas.  (A tradition I continue today, to the amusement of my husband.)

My Nativity: The Wise Men have moved a little closer after Christmas, but still aren't there yet!
I also knew from my Serbian grandmother that "Serbian Christmas" is on January 6 as well, and all decorations at their house were always left up until then.  However, it wasn't until I became a Spanish teacher that I realized... THIS is the REAL "12 Days of Christmas"!  I had even tried in the past to count between Christmas and Jan.6 but that came out to 13, 14 if you counted from Christmas Eve... but then I finally figured it out.  The Reyes Magos come OVERNIGHT on the night of Jan.5; they got there at night on Jan. 5, and that IS twelve!

This is what I LOVE about the Christmas season in the Spanish-speaking world: Christmas isn't the end, it's the beginning.  To me, one of the worst things about American Christmas is that it's over so fast -- all that excitement leading up to it, and BAM, it's over in one morning.  Back to normal just like that.  But in the Spanish-speaking world, it's still going full throttle until the 3 Reyes Magos come overnight on Jan.5!  That feels more like the true meaning of Christmas -- just the beginning of something wondrous and exciting.  It shouldn't be "oh good, He came", but "Wow, He's here, let's keep celebrating!"

Plus, the fact that the Christmas season isn't over at Christmas is such a lovely "your way of doing things isn't the only way" teaching moment.  I absolutely love chances to turn my students' paradigms upside down, and this is such a fun one!  This year on the day before break, I created an interactive lesson on Moodle for my 7th graders with a selection of YouTube clips, pictures, and links to websites for each part of the Christmas season in Spain.  Anyone who thinks you can't "really teach" on the day before break should've come into my classroom that day, because they were fascinated.  They worked in pairs to research a certain part of the season (Christmas Lottery, Christmas Eve, Christmas, Día de los Inocentes, New Year's Eve, and 3 Kings' Day). Then we jigsawed and they shared their information so everyone got to hear about the whole season.  During both parts, they were picture-perfect engaged kids -- reacting, laughing, connecting, wondering.  They had such fun learning that they forgot it was only an hour until winter break!

Of course, my other favorite part of any holiday is making culture real for the kids.  For the past several years, I've brought Rosca de Reyes in to school on Jan.6 for my kids to eat, which they thoroughly enjoy, and not just because it's yummy. "So they're really eating this right now in Mexico?!" one of my past 6th graders exclaimed, eyes wide with astonishment.  I get the giant ones that have several plastic baby Jesus' inside, so usually at least one student in every class finds one in their piece -- more proof that what we've learned about is "real"!  This year we have another twist too: my first 7th grade class was so fascinated with the fact that Spanish kids get their presents on Jan.6 from the Reyes Magos that they begged me to let them have a "Secret Kings" gift exchange.  I would never ask a class to do this, but I couldn't resist their excited faces!  We made it optional and the students organized it, and they're super excited. At least now they'll always remember that kids in Spanish-speaking countries don't get most of their presents from Santa OR on Christmas Day!  

So while you're wading through your Christmas aftermath of wrapping paper and boxes, remember that Christmas has just begun in so many other parts of the world!  Spanish-speaking children will be releasing balloons with their letters to Melchoir, Gaspar, and Baltazar, and anxiously awaiting the arrival of Los Reyes on the eve of Jan.5!  (watch in the video below, sorry it's not subtitled in English!)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

"Like a picture print by Currier & Ives"

Last night, the large but cozy group of people circled around the Christmas tree broke into a hubbub of plates, dipping, grabbing, complimenting.  Chatter and laughter filled the house from all corners as small groups scattered at tables enjoyed everything from chips and queso to crab cakes to brownies with peanut butter fudge on top!  Then, from all the corners, togetherness again: this time around the piano.  Voices sweetly lifted in songs all hearts knew:  "Silent Night", "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!", "We Three Kings", "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear", and more.  Eyes met around the room, exchanging kindness and love and strengthening connections through the joyful music in the air.
a small part of the group singing carols: united in peace, joy, and love
This must be how people celebrated Christmas long ago, I thought.  The warmth of hundreds of years of relationships spread through me.  People gathered with friends and neighbors to re-connect and celebrate with food, stories, and carols.  I felt like this group and this house could be one of the happy lighted buildings in the old-fashioned village under Harry and Barbara's tree.  We look just like a Norman Rockwell scene!  Warmth and light and joy and love.

Was the party one of these little lit buildings brought to life?
My husband and I were the youngest people at the party by at least 20 years, but we never feel out of place with our alumni band friends.  Especially last night.  We felt happy and fortunate to be welcomed into an old-fashioned Christmas celebration full of tradition.  Sure, the food was made with electric ovens and microwaves, and the song lyrics were printed off the internet for those who didn't know all the words, but the atmosphere was timeless.  Maybe someday we will carry on the tradition of a Christmas carol party with future generations of band alumni!  A scene like this must live on, in more than just prints and figurines.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Goodness and light

our tree, full of light and  hope
Christmas lights are my favorite metaphor for the Christmas season: tiny lights shimmering through the darkness.  Their brightness beckons through the cold black night: "Here is warmth and light and happiness!"  You are drawn toward them, drawn to the hope and magical possibilities they bring.  That's what this season feels like to me: something wonderful is shining bright ahead in the darkness.

I've always loved Advent just as much as I love Christmas itself.  Not Advent like going to church and lighting those candles on the wreath, but Advent in its purest sense: the anticipation and hopefulness that permeate this season.  At this time of year, I feel a sense of hope and possibility that just isn't there the rest of the year.  With Christmas coming, anything is possible.  True peace and love and happiness for everyone: it's coming, it could happen!  Something is coming to change the world!  Is this how the shepherds and wise men felt?  I like to think so; I like to think the atmosphere was just like the song "Do You Hear What I Hear?" where everyone spreads the word that "He will bring us goodness and light".

If only everyone could feel this hope and promise all year long, it might really come true.  I don't mean that everyone has to believe in Christmas or be a Christian, but if everyone could believe in the possibility of peace; if everyone of all cultures could come together and see each other with love instead of fear.  After all, the "3 Wise Kings" were men from a different culture who traveled far with the hope of a future filled with peace.

One of my favorite Christmas songs captures the feeling much better than I can describe, so please enjoy:

I love the part where they join together to sing: "Every child must be made aware / every child must be made to care / care enough for his fellow man / to give all the love that he can..."  The imagery of David Bowie and Bing Crosby, who were so different, coming together to sing those words makes it even more powerful.  This is one of my goals (or at least, idealistic hopes and wishes!) as a teacher and one of the reasons I feel that teaching culture is essential in the language classroom.  I strive to help my students become aware of other ways of life in a way that leads them to respect others enough to treat them with kindness and love.

"Peace on earth, can it be?"

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Time and Change

This year, a 38-year-old chapter in the history of the Ohio State University Marching Band is ending: Dr. Jon Woods is retiring after 28 years as its director. (Plus 10 years as assistant director before that!)  Most current and former band members, myself included, literally cannot imagine the band without Dr. Woods.  (He became director the year I was born!)  What will it be like to not have his grandfatherly, good-natured yet demanding presence around?  What would gameday morning be like without seeing him goad you into stretching exercises on the field at 6:30am by yelling "ENTHUSIASM!!!" and bursting into jumping jacks and push-ups himself?  (Now as you're picturing that, remember he's a gray-haired 70-something who usually walks with a shuffle!)  Countless college and high school marching bands have been influenced by his innovations, and he has certainly played a huge part in contributing to TBDBITL's tradition of excellence.

While he will continue teaching in the School of Music through June, marching band season is basically over after the bowl game and he has already directed his final home game.  At that game, he received the biggest honor the band can give someone: dotting the "i" in Script Ohio.  (At the beginning of the video, you can see him talking with OSU President Gordon Gee, and then you can see the i-dot from field view.  He is lead out by the drum major and the senior sousaphone player who gave up the spot.)  I was able to be at the game and his i-dot brought tears to my eyes.

Tonight, we (current band members + alumni) are going to Dr. Woods' house to surprise him with a serenade in honor of the end of his final marching band season.  This is something the band traditionally does to honor important people who are leaving the university: coaches, presidents, athletic directors, etc.  We surprise the person by showing up at their house and putting on a little private concert for them of all our traditional school songs.  When I was in band, we played at Athletic Director Andy Geiger's house when he retired.  The most famous instance of a serenade was in 1987 when the band played for Earle Bruce the night that he got fired on M*ch*g*n week.  Rachel Maddow actually talked about this moment in her show on MSNBC earlier this year:

Hopefully that gives you an idea of what it's all about!  It's a surprise to Dr. Woods and I'm not sure how he'll react but I'm sure he will be happy and honored.  We are so excited to be a part of this traditional "thank-you" to him.   It's one of those wonderful moments where I can feel all the honor and tradition of the band's history flowing through me, reminding that it's so much bigger than my own experience.  In the words of our Alma Mater: "Time and change will surely show / how firm thy friendship, O-HI-O."

Friday, December 2, 2011


The first week of new classes is always a roller coaster: getting settled at a new school, trying to get to know kids' names and personalities, establishing procedures and expectations, working toward a community atmosphere...etc.  However, there's always also a hopeful feeling of a fresh start: "anything is possible".  Most of all, the kids spread around a buzz of contagious excitement.

the superstars board (empty)
So, here are some highlights from the first full week at School #2:

  • A sweet little blonde-haired 6th grader looks up at me in the middle of hangman yesterday and exclaims, "This is my new favorite class!"
  • A super-enthusiastic (and, I can already tell, overachieving) 7th grader stops on her way out today and remarks, "This class is really fun!"
  • I've been a lot better about "catching kids being outstanding" and putting their names up on the superstar board.  They've all been suuuuper excited to get their certificate, and they also love choosing the fun cut-out shapes for their names!  (They get a little paper shape with their name on it on a bulletin board in my room, and they get a certificate to take home that explains what they did that was outstanding.)  This was a new idea this year and I did ok with it last trimester but my goal was to try to recognize kids sooner and more often this time.  So far I'm doing pretty well!
  • Several teachers have made a point to mention that the students have been excited about Spanish, enjoying it, and using phrases, singing songs, during the rest of the day.
  • Two 6th graders spontaneously used the "word-of-the-day" (posted on the front board from suggestions from the kids) in conversations today!
  • Best part: Several girls in a couple different classes keep greeting each other with the hug and two air kisses when we practice greetings.  And when they walk into class!  I even spotted a couple of 6th graders at lunch teaching their other friends (who aren't taking Spanish) how to do it and why!  (More proof that integrating culture is essential and beneficial!)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A week of thankfulness

When I collapsed in my chair last Tuesday evening to blearily write last week's post, I was just thankful that I had survived my first cRaZy week of the year. (1 down, 1 to go: I change schools again in the spring!)  As I read through other slices of life and received a string of thoughtful, encouraging comments on mine, I was thankful that I started reading the Two Writing Teachers blog this summer and jumped into this whole blogging thing!

Wednesday morning, I was thankful for the glorious feeling of waking up in a snuggly cocoon of blankets and stuffed animals, realizing that my teaching day would normally be halfway over, then rolling back over for some much-needed rest.

Thursday, I was thankful for delicious food and wonderful family.  Highlights of thankfulness included:

  • my cute, sweet, loving husband who understands me and supports me and dutifully helps glue together game cards, cut out laminated items, put stickers on kids' papers, run errands, wash dishes, and other things that keep me sane
  • my wonderful parents, who have always supported me in everything and made it clear that they love me more than anything in the world
  • the fact that I got to know all of my grandparents and enjoy them through high school and some beyond, although they aren't around anymore
  • my also-wonderful other family members and the fact that I do get to see all of them sometimes, although not as often as I'd like
  • that both my husband's parents/grandparents and mine live close enough that we can celebrate holidays with both of them in the same day!
  • the ridiculous amount of delicious food we ate at our two Thanksgiving meals, and the fact that we always have plenty of delicious things to eat
Friday, I was thankful (again) for sleep and also for the rare opportunity to spend the whole day with said sweet, loving husband.  

Saturday, I was thankful for how much fun my parents are.  We always have a blast when we spend time with them, and we are so lucky to live close enough that we can see them every weekend!  I also felt thankful for the chance I had to attend such a fantastic university and especially for the amazing experience I had while I was in band.  Too bad the team went and lost to M*ch*g*n!  Since it was (almost certainly) the last warm day of the year, I also got to be thankful for nature and how it speaks to me.

Sunday, I kinda slacked off... but I guess I was thankful for lazy Sundays!

Yesterday, I started letting myself listen to Christmas music in the car, and I was thankful for the hopefulness of this season.  I always feel an excitement and sense of anything-is-possible at this time of year that is unmatched the rest of the year.

And here I am today... thankful for the supportive, inspiring, encouraging community of slicers that I've met over the past few months!  Reading your posts inspires me to become a better teacher and helps me find new ways to reach my kids.  The fact that you exist has let me re-find my long-lost identity as a writer, while allowing me to document my reflections on my teaching.  Getting comments from you encourages me, lifts my spirits, and makes me believe in myself.  My husband makes fun of me because I talk about people I've "met" in this community, but it's true: I feel like I know you and you know me.  And for someone who's never stayed in one building all year (through 5 years of teaching and counting), the fact that I can connect with you all year is a big deal in itself!

Now if only I could remember to be thankful more often!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Just keep swimming!

For the past week, I've been humming Dory's song from Finding Nemo to keep me going through my transition craziness: "Just keep swimming, just keep swimming..."  And it worked!  I survived!  Now Thanksgiving break is here and I've never been so glad to see it!  However, I'm much too exhausted to write a "real" post, so that piece on thankfulness is going to wait until next week, after I've had the chance to sit down and be thankful for things!  For now, here's a peek at my past few days:

3:30pm: School day ends and the trimester officially does too. (This means my classes and my time at this school are over for this year.  My students will move on to other classes, like gym and art, and I'll move on to another school, where I will provide my classes to those students for 12 weeks.)  I'm sad to see my kids go and sad to leave my colleagues at this school.  I finish grading a few last projects and begin packing up my room.  :-(  I hate packing up rooms; there are so many memories of the community we had and the learning that took place in that community!
view from the front of most of my (now-dismantled) room at School #1
5:00pm: I take a quick break to blog about a special note I got from a student on the end-of-class survey.  Such a great memory; I just had to record it!

5:30pm: Back to packing.  Lots of packing. My back is killing me.

7:00pm: My husband arrives straight from work to help me pack.  We grab a quick 45-min dinner and then head back to school for, that's right, more packing.

8:40pm: We load up both cars and drive away from School #1.  See you next year, School #1, (provided that I still have this job)!  Luckily, School #2 is only about 5 minutes away from School #1!

9:45pm: We finish unloading the boxes into my new room at School #2.  We are both about ready to collapse.  Time to head home.

Home football game takes up the whole day.  The end.

2pm: After dragging myself out of bed, eating lunch, and showering, I force myself to head back to School #2.  That empty room is calling to me... no way are my kids starting the trimester in an ugly empty void!  My wonderful husband dutifully comes along.  He's amazing!  The new room is just like the old one -- a former science room -- so it's easy to figure out where everything goes.

3pm: We enlist my dad to help move around all the tables in my new room.  (He says, "Can't you just leave it how it is?" but helps anyway.  He's not a teacher.)  I canNOT teach with the desk at the front of the room and the tables in rows facing forward.  (My dad is surprised to find out that I don't sit at my desk.  "You stand up all the time?" Yes, and walk around helping my students. Welcome to education in the 21st century, Dad!)

5pm: Our mad frenzy of unpacking and throwing decorations and important procedural items around the room has to pause for an hour for dinner with my parents. Then back to School #2 for more crazy unpacking, decorating, and preparing.

8pm: The new room is READY!  (At least, ready enough for the kids to come!  My stuff is still all in boxes, but everything they need is up and in its place!)
"superstars" board waiting for students to do something outstanding!
hall passes waiting for kids to come and go
part of the culture corner

First day at School #2. A blur of new faces, new schedule, new class times... everything is upside down and backwards from School #1.  In a couple of classes, my students mention that my room looks really nice and I must've worked really hard on it.  (They know it was empty in the fall.)  Success!

A little better than yesterday; more of a fog than a blur.  I'm having trouble getting used to the new schedule, and I feel overwhelmed by my students because I only know a few of them.  However, the room is done, the students are nice and sweet and excited for Spanish, and I finally have only a normal amount of work to do after school!  Not to mention... THANKSGIVING!

Friday, November 18, 2011

I'll miss these kids!

Today was the last day of the trimester -- the last day of Spanish for the kids and my last day at this school.  On Monday I'll be at my new school, with new kids.  Sad and exciting at the same time, like always.  I REALLY loved a couple of my classes this time though so it was hard to let them go.

I just had to share what has to be the cutest thing I've ever gotten as a teacher.  My first-period class was a small, sweet, close-knit class who was very sad at the end of our class today, and I was sad to leave them.  I always give all my classes a survey on the last day (and at various other times during the trimester), and I enjoy reading their comments.  I've gotten a lot of wonderful comments from kids over time, but one particular survey today took the cake!

These two screenshots (from that student who wants to be a Spanish teacher) say it all:

 Heart melting.  Who knew 7th graders could still be so sweet?  (Well, I did because of that class, but still, it was unexpected!) And the misspellings just make it even cuter!

I will MISS these kids!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

I don't feel like writing today

It's only 4:40, nice!  I think to myself as I absent-mindedly sing along to whatever's on the radio.  This is the earliest I've left school in weeks.  Nice to have a little break before crazy project-grading madness comes tomorrow!  Too bad the sun's already starting to go down across the cornfields.  This time of year is miserable.  Long shadows stretch over broken-down cornstalks that fly by my window. Oh no, it's Tuesday.  I don't feel like writing today!  I let out a deep breath and lean the back of my head against the seat.  Ugh.  I'm so exhausted and I don't have anything to write about.  I remind myself that I usually get into the writing mood after reading some other people's posts from the Two Writing Teachers community.  But I'm sooooo tiiiired.  I'm whining to myself like a kid.  But if I don't write when I'm tired, when will I ever write?  I've been doing so well since I started this summer...

Fine.  I sit down at the computer when I get home and open up the SOLSC comment link.  Tab after tab of stories I want to read.  I have fun leaving comments and reflecting on posts... But I still don't feel like writing!    The magic fix didn't work today.  I'm only slightly inspired / guilted into writing.  "Well, you won't get much done in life if you only work on the days you feel good," one of my favorite quotations tumbles into my head.  I don't remember who said it and I'm too tired to find out.  True though, here goes nothing...

I open up my blog and here we are!  Not a very insightful or entertaining post, but at least I wrote it!  It's actually a really good connection to Ruth's post from yesterday, now that I think of it!  Sometimes you just have to make yourself write, because that's what writers do!

Next Tuesday (or maybe sooner if I'm really good!) I'll fill you in on the craziness of this week at school for me!  Preview: it involves grading final projects and doing final grades at my current school, tearing down my classroom there, planning/preparing to start over my next school with whole new sets of kids, and putting my classroom back up at that school!  Thanksgiving cannot come soon enough!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

the awful waiting game

This morning, I ran downstairs to get my iPod Touch, opened my news app, and collapsed on the bed sobbing. Shocking.  Devastating.  Hard to believe.

Last night, despite the fact that our district is one of the highest-achieving AND fiscally efficient districts in the state, 53% of voters rejected our levy.

Because the district has already cut millions of dollars over the past few years, cuts now will be massive.  Over 150 teaching jobs will be eliminated.  Entire programs will be scrapped, potentially including both of the programs I and a colleague built from scratch over the past 5 years in our previous and current positions.

Nothing is certain yet... other than the fact that it's going to be very, very bad.  I am devastated... for all the hard work I've done that might be wiped away, and for the students who won't get to experience so many of the wonderful  programs and teachers that make our district outstanding.

Now we have to play the awful waiting game -- what exactly will be cut?  Who will have a job next year, and what will that job be?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

For their country

As the bus pulled into the parking lot, we could see a gathering of dark uniforms on a hill in the distance.  "You can take pictures of anything except funerals that are going on now," the guide reminded us over the bus microphone.

Wow.  Suddenly I had a lump in my throat and I had to blink my eyes a lot.  (Nobody look at me, please.)  There is a funeral going on right over there.  A young soldier who gave everything off in some desert on the other side of the world?  Or it could be a surly but sweet old Marine who, like my grandfathers, signed up to save the world 60 years ago.  It could even be someone long-lost but suddenly found, like my great-uncle who's buried right here, somewhere.  His plane went down over Europe and they never found him until a lake got drained decades later.  It was such a shock at that point that his wife, who had re-married, didn't even make the trip here for the funeral.  Can you imagine?

We step out the doors of the visitor center and the sight of all those white spots laid carefully over the rolling green hills takes my breath away, even though I've been here before.  My eyes are drawn to them so that I can hardly focus on counting kids to be sure everyone's still with us.  So many white markers, and they go on forever as we walk.  Another hill crest, another endless stretch of white on green.  And this is only the ones who wanted to be buried here.  Countless more across this nation, and thousands more overseas.  That poem I had to memorize in 7th grade pops into my head, as it always does in such places.  "In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow / between the crosses row on row / that mark our place, and in the sky / the larks, still bravely singing, fly / scarce heard amid the guns below..."

Thank you to all of them, I think.  Thank you to the ones who lie here and the ones who lie in similar places around the world... and the ones who lie hidden where they fell, without even a white spot marking their green space.  And thank you to the ones who might be here someday: those who are working and fighting for us right now and those who will choose to follow their brave leadership in the future.  And thank you to their families, who bear a heavier burden then I think I could ever stand to take.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Day of the Dead

Just a quick post that I wanted to write last week but never had the time for:

Nov. 1-2 was Day of the Dead in Mexico (and other countries). Ever since I've had my own room in the fall (last year), this has become one of my favorite holidays to teach about.  I love the idea that dead loved ones come back to visit on these special days!  In my classroom, I set up a real ofrenda (offering/"altar")  to my grandparents to immerse the kids in the holiday.  It's a fantastic conversation starter and really gets them curious, excited, and into the spirit of the holiday.  We go from "What's all that food, can we eat it?" to "Your grandparents are dead? I'm sorry," to connections to their own families in about 30 seconds!

my ofrenda to my grandparents

We watch a few short video clips about the holiday to explain some of the traditions and beliefs a little bit more, but having the ofrenda set up is what really brings the holiday to life.  Since I've been able to set one up, I've noticed a big change in how the kids react to the holiday.  Before I started setting up the ofrendas, they still had trouble understanding how a holiday that's about death could be celebratory instead of creepy or sad. With the ofrenda, it becomes real and they connect with the idea of setting out your loved ones' favorite things because they are coming back to visit for a day!  (Of course, they also love the fact that I bring them real pan de muertos -- "dead bread" to try!)

My 7th graders finish by designing their own ofrendas (for anyone from a pet to a family member to a celebrity!) and they love to take what they've internalized about the holiday and make it their own.  We've had some great conversations about relationships and beliefs, and it's a wonderful time to make connections!

(If you don't know much about Day of the Dead, here is a great video clip! I know it's an ad but does a fantastic job of capturing the feelings of the holiday!)
My favorite is the ending, where he says that people always ask if they really believe the dead return, and he says "Can you prove they don't?"

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A once-in-a-lifetime experience!

Last week I traveled to Washington, DC with my school's 8th graders.  I've always loved all the monuments, museums, and history, and all that was still wonderful.  I particularly enjoyed seeing the FDR and new MLK Jr. monuments, since I hadn't seen either one before.  However, the highlight of the trip was Thursday.  On my bus, we were had a student whose dad is an FBI agent.  He arranged for our bus only (lucky us!!!) to tour the FBI Academy in Quantico, VA.  AMAZING!

From the moment we pulled into the USMC checkpoint to enter the Quantico Marine Base, the whole bus was abuzz.  "Look, real Marines!" the kids shouted as they saw the men in camo gear patrolling the checkpoint.  The bus wound through a forest spotted with tan buildings sporting USMC logo signs.  My chest puffed with pride every time I saw that yellow and red anchor logo, a symbol of my two Marine grandpas. We even passed a huge outdoor shooting range: a lush field with rolling bunkers and trenches leading to the targets at the other end, presumably so the Marines can practice shooting while crawling and hiding.  However, even that was nothing compared to what awaited us on the other side of the 2nd checkpoint: the FBI Academy.

A white SUV emblazoned with "FBI Police" met us at the checkpoint and escorted us to the main building.  "Wow, the FBI has their own police?" I thought.  Even that was cool!  I started getting shivers of "I can't believe I'm here!" as we turned past signs that said "FBI Training Academy".  S's dad boarded the bus in his FBI agent garb, along with our tour guide for the morning: a retired Marine who now does administrative work for the Academy.  We drove past the new FBI Laboratory, where they can now process DNA results in 24 hours.  Then, one of the biggest treats of the day: Hogan's Alley.

Hogan's Alley is a fake town used for cadet training simulations, complete with a fake bank, hotel, drugstore, movie theater, restaurants, barber shop, laundromat, pawn shop... and anything else you'd want in a town!  Our guide joked that the bank is "the most-robbed bank in America" -- it gets robbed about every day!  The Academy pays regular people to pretend to be the "bad guys" who commit robberies, murders, etc. throughout the "town".  The FBI Academy cadets then swoop in (with training guns that shoot special paintball strong enough to break your skin!) to deal with the situation and arrest the "criminals" in the best way they can.  As we walked through the town, we could see small groups of cadets entering various buildings, and our guide said they were getting briefed on crimes that they would then have to solve.

When we rounded one block, we could see a "bad guy" hanging out in front of a storefront: sweats, just loitering there.  Something was about to happen!  We sat down on the sidewalk, and within a few minutes, he stole a lady's purse!  She screamed, the cadets came tearing around the corner firing their guns, and he ran into a house.  It only lasted a minute but everyone was mesmerized!  Our guide explained that this particular situation was an evaluation where the cadets would get a pass/fail grade, since they were in about week 16 of their 21-week training.

Although I could've stayed there all day just to see what simulations would pop up, we had to continue the rest of our tour.  We were treated to a tour of the main academy building, including the dorm buildings, classroom buildings, indoor shooting range, workout facilities, and a courtyard with a moving 9/11 memorial.  Then we got to eat lunch in the academy cafeteria with the real cadets!  We learned that you can tell apart the FBI cadets and National Academy (law enforcement enrichment) students by their uniforms, and that they always wear a gun (either real or training).

After lunch came the most special part of our already amazing day: a private tour of the top-secret Hostage Rescue Team compound, given by the HRT commander himself.  This is never included in the (rare) tours the FBI gives: we were only there because S's dad is very good friends with the commander!  With his well-defined chest muscles outlined through his camo sweatsuit (with padded elbows and knees), the commander briefed us on the history of the HRT and then led us toward the indoor shooting range.  We walked by boxes of live bullets and flashbangs as we looked at the maze-like walls of the range, which were riddled with bullet holes.  When we came out, several HRT members happened to be shooting at the outdoor range, and we watched from behind the green line -- just 10 feet or so away!  Finally, we went to the helicopter hanger, where we learned about two of the HRT's Bell helicopters and got to sit inside them!  A pilot explained to us how the agents use drop ropes like fireman's poles to descend from the helicopters at 90 feet, something they had just practiced earlier that day!

While I'm certainly not brave enough to be an FBI agent, I didn't want that day to end.  It was such an incredible experience to get a behind-the-scenes look at the men and women who do so much to keep us safe.  I have a much deeper admiration for them and other special forces after seeing what they go through just to become agents!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

lessons from a dolphin

I've always loved animals, and I'm fascinated by the fact that most other people do too.  My students LOVE our animal unit as well as any time we get to see what kind of unique animals live in the countries we study.  What is it about animals that draws us to them so much?  I believe it's partly because we see ourselves in them, and it's often the best parts of ourselves that we find in them: beauty, love, innocence.  This weekend my husband and I went to see Dolphin Tale, and it brought out this idea to me.

In the movie (based on a true story), a shy boy who gets D's & F's in school finds his passion for learning and learns how to make human friends when he develops a special connection with an injured dolphin that he helps rescue.  All of a sudden, the boy who wouldn't get out of bed or talk about school is rushing out the door in the morning and spouting facts about the animals he encounters at the marine hospital.  What an amazing transformation!  But the really moving part of the story is how the dolphin, Winter, inspires people around the country when its tail is amputated.  I was gushing tears when a mom and her disabled daughter drove 8 hours to see Winter and the little girl, who's missing a leg, says "Mommy, she's just like me!"  At the end of the movie, they show real footage of real people who are missing limbs visiting Winter and getting to swim with her.  It was incredible!

I love the way this story shows how animals can bring out the best in us and even inspire us!  Everyone fell in love with Winter because she was so beautiful, brave, and loving, and all the people in the movie became better from having interacted with her.  Moreover, those disabled people got to feel like they were not broken or alone, but just as brave and wonderful as the dolphin.

We love animals because we see their beauty and when we form a connection with them, it shows us how we are beautiful, powerful, and courageous ourselves.  When we love them, their innocence brings out the kindest, most caring part of us.  If only it didn't take animals to show us this... although I'm glad they're around to do it!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Made a difference to that one!

I'm sure you know the story of the guy who was throwing starfish into the water.  Somebody came up and told him there were too many to save, and he just kept throwing them in one by one, saying "Made a difference to that one!"  That's how I feel about teaching: there's WAY too many starfish for me to save them all, but I can do something big for some of them!  Today, I had TWO starfish-saving moments:

1. It's 7th grade lunch duty (the second of my two lunch duties in a row in the fall and definitely NOT my favorite time of the day!) and I'm walking around dismissing tables to go up to the lunch line.  As I approach the next table, I see the following scene unfold:
       Kid #1 (who has behavioral issues and is a little on the large side for a 7th grader) has his hand spread obnoxiously a few inches away from Kid #2's (who is sweet, quiet, and QUITE on the small side for a 7th grader) face.  Kid #2 backs away, saying "Don't!" Kid #1 responds by doing the Darth Vader thing where he tries to choke you from afar by pinching his fingers together.
        I walk up and give Kid #1 a look.  "He told you to stop!"
        Kid #1: "I wasn't doing ANYTHING.  I was just doing this." (He re-enacts the whole thing as if I hadn't seen: puts his hand in Kid #2's face, then does the Darth Vader thing.)  Kid #2 backs away again.
        me: "Well he didn't like that and he asked you to stop.  It's really important to stop when someone asks you."
With a resigned look (and after a little more protesting), Kid #1 puts his hands down and turns away from Kid #2 to resume a normal sitting position at the table.  I dismiss the table and Kid #1 goes to get his lunch, along with several other students.  Kid #2 stays seated, and as I start to walk away, looks up earnestly and says "Thank you!" with a very grateful look in his eyes.  Must've been a bigger deal than I thought!

2. We had shortened classes this afternoon with a pep rally at the end of the day, so my last class (6th graders) was supposed to go to their lockers and then the pep rally when we finished.  I close the door and start to walk toward the gym, after finally shooing everyone out of my room amid many questions about what the pep rally was going to be like.  One of my sweetest girls comes running up to me, pigtails flying and eyes wide, still carrying her books.
        Girl: "My locker's jammed!  I can't put my stuff away!"
         me: "It's ok, don't worry.  Let's just put your stuff back in my room for now."
I unlock the door and we throw her books and binders on a table and head off to the pep rally. As we walk (pretty much alone since almost everyone else is already nearing the gym), I tell her that I'll find a custodian and have him/her work on the locker during the pep rally.  "It's a good thing we have the pep rally or you would've missed your bus by now!"  She grins and giggles and we chit-chat until we reach the cafeteria, where I spot a custodian.  I send the girl into the gym, assuring her that her locker will be fixed by the time the pep rally is over.
       After the pep rally, I have no idea whether the custodian fixed the locker, since I was in the pep rally the whole time.  I speed-walk to my room to unlock the door and wait for the little 6th-grader to come get her stuff.  As she grabs her pile of books, she asks if the locker is fixed.
          "I don't know but the custodian told me she'd fix it, so I bet it is!"
          "I hope so..." her eyes are unsure and a little fearful.
           "Well, I'll walk down with you and watch you open it, just to be sure!  If it's not fixed, I'll be right there to run and find a custodian!"
          "YAY!!!!" She literally jumps with happiness, pigtails bouncing.
 We head to her locker together and I watch her open it -- it works on the first try!  She looks over her shoulder at me with a big grin and I clap, wave goodbye, and walk back to my room.

Made a difference to those two.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

It's nice to be noticed!

The second Tuesday of the month is always rough: staff meeting first thing in the morning.  Ugh.  Not that staff meetings aren't important... but I think everybody feels the same way about starting off the day with one.  However, today's staff meeting brought a pleasant surprise for me!

Background: Our district has an initiative going this year to get all teachers using their district-provided teacher webpage as the central point of communication for parents and students.  This way, parents and students don't have to remember where to go for information about any class; they just have to go to the school's website and click on the teacher's name to find out about that class.  I got "ahead of the game" this summer at tech camp with learning how to make my webpage, and I worked really hard to make it a visually appealing, informative place where parents, students and other teachers can find information about my classes, important links, and downloadable resources. It's mostly for parents, as I use my class Moodle sites for student resources and activities, but now the kids know there's a link to Moodle from my webpage, and many of them have been getting there that way instead of having to remember how to get to Moodle.  It's a lot easier for their pre-teen brains, and it makes a nice communication link for parents, so I've been happy with it.

This morning at the staff meeting, our principal talked about the teacher webpages and how everyone is supposed to try to have theirs set up by the end of the month.  (Most people didn't go to tech camp, so a lot of them don't even know how to start creating theirs!)  He's starting to use Moodle to provide resources to us since there's never enough time in the staff meeting to go in-depth with anything, so there's now information on creating webpages in the staff Moodle.  I love to go to sites as I'm being told about them, so I was on Moodle clicking around during the meeting, and as I scrolled through the description of suggested and required content for our webpages, I almost jumped out of my seat!  Right there, under "Model Webpages", was my name!  The very first one!  The only one that was listed as an "overall" example, not just an example of one component!  I think I may have emitted a small giggle/squeak of happiness and made a small joyful hop in my seat... sometimes the little kid in me just squeezes out!  (And that little kid is a straight-A, perfectionistic, "gifted" student who LIVES to work hard on something and be praised about it!)

As someone who "just" teaches an elective, and travels between 3 buildings at that, I often feel like I just slide along under the radar.  There are days that I wonder, "Does anybody even notice what I'm doing, how I'm pouring my heart and soul into these classes for these kids?"  Today, somebody noticed.  And it was really nice!  It's happened before, but never very often, and frequently as the result of a required observation.  Today was just out of the blue!  I hadn't even mentioned my webpage to my principal.  I didn't even know he knew I had made it.  This meant that he went and looked at everyone's webpages and found mine and liked it!  Wow!  I mean, of course my hard work on the webpage has been validated by the fact that parents and students and teachers have been using it to access resources and contact me... but that little girl in me is just SO excited and proud that my principal noticed!  And he liked it!  And he told everybody that it's a model!

A nice bright spot in a week full of craziness -- a band board meeting that lasted 2 1/2 hours last night, Spirit Week at school with a pep rally tomorrow (I always love Spirit Week but it's adding to the craziness of everything else right now!), parent-teacher conferences on Thursday evening, and 14 college kids from my row in band coming to eat at our house on Friday!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The few, the proud...

It's 9:30 on Saturday night.  Baggage claim at our airport usually has a fairly sparse crowd (generally just one or two of the 6 carousels running at once), but now it's PACKED.  A sea of people spread from wall to wall, with barely enough room to walk between one another: Scouts, young adults, families towing kids in strollers.  Grizzled Marines sport motorcycle jackets emblazoned with "Leathernecks".  Color guard members proudly hoist the military service flags.  Banners and posters wave in the air, calling out "Welcome home!" and "Thank you for your service!" in bold letters.  Almost everyone has a flag in hand.

We wait, instruments in hand, young and old together.  Gray pants and red polos intermixed with sharp crossbelts and plumed hats.  Even though it's Saturday night, even though the football game just ended a couple hours ago, we are here.  Suddenly a buzz runs through the crowd and our director starts to wave his baton.  They're here!  They're coming!

Everyone starts peering toward the escalators trying to catch a glimpse as we start to play.  "Caissons", "Anchors Away", "Marine Hymn", "Air Force March", "Semper Paratus".  I can barely see over the crowd but every few minutes I spot a wheelchair or a gray head proudly wearing a service branch hat.  "Military Medley, again," our director shouts and off we go some more!  "Caissons", "Anchors Away", "Marine Hymn", "Air Force March", "Semper Paratus".  A few times I'm lucky enough to catch a giant smile and eyes lit up with joy as a wheelchair or some unsteady legs with a cane come down the escalator to their first glimpse of us.  Mostly it's a blur of "Military Medley, again!" or occasionally "Navy Hymn!" "Stars and Stripes!"  Even a few "Sloopy!"s.  A small gap.  Then... "one more vet!" Our director cranes his neck toward the escalator, looking for a clue to the service branch... "Air Force!"

A lady gets on the loudspeaker and asks for a moment of silence.  The bagpipers quietly start the moving strains of "Amazing Grace".  We all sing "God Bless America" and then...

Tap, tap, tap.  We form up to march out: first the young, the "real" band.  We alumni fall in step behind them and together we snake through the crowd, yelling along to the familiar cadences we share.  Now we can really see everyone.  Volunteers and families and vets with grateful eyes reach out to us and say "Thank you!"  "Thanks so much for being here,"  "It means so much!" as we march by.  I think of my two Marine grandfathers and straighten my back with pride as I pass.  I just wish they could have been able to experience this.

This is a returning Honor Flight, a new addition to the long list of gigs we play at, and my new favorite for sure.  As members of a band with military roots and as regular American citizens, we are proud to be a part of saying "Thank you" to those who so deserve it.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

That spark in their eyes (or why language teachers have to stop making excuses and make time for culture!)

Yesterday I did a new lesson with my 7th graders that reinforced everything I've always felt about integrating culture into language study.  It was one of those lessons where you just WISH the principal would pop in to see how things are going.  (Of course, they never pop in THEN, they pop in right when you're troubleshooting a technology problem and some kid needs a band-aid and another kid needs you to sign his pre-arranged absence note and give him the work for the next 3 days because he's going to Disney World and...)  AND it was one of those lessons in BOTH periods, which is even better because it's much more likely that it's really appealing to a wide range of kids, and not one of those things that works like magic with one group and the next group acts like they're about to fall asleep.  What was this magical lesson, you ask?

It was one of my favorite kinds of lessons -- a made-from-scratch lesson that integrates culture into language practice.  One of the best things about my job is that I get to do as many of those as I have time and energy and creativity and sanity to make, because I don't have a book or an "official" curriculum or anything else forcing/tempting me to do p.33 today and p.34 tomorrow and p.35 the next day until the kids want to scream...  Not that there aren't good things in textbooks and other such materials, but I'm glad for the freedom because it encourages me to experiment and revise and invent, which (at least in my opinion) results in a much deeper and more exciting learning experience for the kids!

This particular lesson was a new activity for our "school" unit (school supplies, school subjects, and related basic grammar) where I wrote the kids a letter from an imaginary pen pal in Spain that they had to read and answer questions about. (The only thing better would be a REAL pen pal, but my kids don't have enough language yet for that!)  In the letter, "Raquel" (my real host sister in Spain's name) told the kids about her school day: what classes she has at what times (which I found by Googling schools in Madrid until I found one that had a schedule posted!), what school supplies she brings every day, and other aspects of a typical day.   My students, as a whole, tend to hate reading activities because they're the most "boring" of anything we do in my class.  I don't blame them, because yes, reading a paragraph and answering comprehension questions is nowhere near as exciting as playing Go Fish with vocab or exchanging information with your partner.  But reading is one of the four language skills, and therefore important to language study... not to mention a great opportunity to reinforce cross-curricular reading skills that the kids need for their other classes and the all-important TESTS!

Except in this lesson, the usual groaning and complaining and glazed-over eyes were absent.  They were replaced by squeals of surprise, kids jumping out of their seats to make comments to each other and ask me questions, and little mini-teachable-moments in the middle of reading.  The cultural aspects "Raquel" included in the letter -- having a break during the school day, getting 2+ hours to eat and have siesta, having religion class, school lasting until 5:00 (because of the break and siesta!) worked just like I had hoped.  We had spirited discussions (in English) about what it would be like to go home in the middle of the day or have religion class.  When everyone finished the comprehension questions, we had a big whole-class discussion that was just as animated, covering everything from religion to amount of homework to instruction types.  (The kids were worried that Spanish kids wouldn't have time to do homework, and then really excited when I told them there's not nearly as much homework there... and then groaned when I told them that classes are mostly lecture and memorization!)  They were engaged and excited and so involved in their learning that they hardly wanted to stop talking to play the game at the end of  class.

This is why I love teaching culture: I love exposing kids to the fact that the way you do something isn't the only way to do it.  I love expanding their minds to embrace the idea that the way you've always lived isn't the "right" way, and it might not even be the "best" way.  I love having the chance to help them look at themselves from another point of view, compared and contrasted to another way of life.  Some of them were still talking today about wanting to live in Spain and have breaks in the day and a relaxed lifestyle, while others were glad to be in a school where we play games and learn actively instead of sitting in lectures all day!  Either way, their brains were stretched in an exciting way... while also practicing their Spanish and using their reading skills!

It saddens me that some language teachers push culture aside because they think they don't have time for it.  Also depressing is the way that some teachers throw facts and figures (capital/population/two famous artists/one famous dance...) at their students and think they're "teaching culture".  That's like saying you're going to have your kids read a book and then just giving them an outline of the plot to read!    Besides, while some kids might say they "only want to learn language, not culture" (which sadly, I've heard from several kids, probably influenced by parents who think language learning is about verb conjugation), their engagement in lessons like yesterday's lesson demonstrate that culture is an essential way to tap into higher-level thinking skills in the language classroom!

I loved that spark I saw as the kids read and talked and thought yesterday, and I love seeing it again and again in other similar activities we do. Language and culture are intertwined in life, and they should be the same way in the learning process.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Una tarde llena de cultura... ¡¿aquí?!

On Sunday, I went with three of my fellow middle-school teachers to a flamenco performance... right here in our little Midwestern city!  A parent of one of the students at our school dances with this local flamenco company and invited us to the performance, which was an hour-long recital of all the company's dancers.  An hour of bright swirling ruffles, passionate gestures, flying guitar fingers, and stomping rhythms that seem to settle right into your hear.  The dancers and guitar and cajón players were dazzling, even the beginners!  And through it all, the sweet sounds of Spanish sweeping me back to afternoons in the park, subway rides, Sundays walking through art museums for free, Borbon and Moorish and modern architecture all mixed together... and that intangible, indescribable "Spain" feeling.  Right in the middle of Sunday afternoon at home, between lunch on the couch and NFL football.  Amazing!  Plus, it was my husband's first time experiencing the beautiful combination of sights and sounds that is flamenco, so it was exciting to share this little piece of Hispanic culture with him!

It left me uplifted and wondering... what other amazing things happen right here all the time that I don't know about?  What cultures and art forms and activities do I miss because I don't know to look for them?  What could we be missing while we sit and watch tv on a lazy afternoon?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

"Wow, that must be really hard!"

"Do you have a homebase?" One of my sweetest 6th grade girls looks up from her project, her eyebrows arched over her soft blue eyes.

"random..." I think. It's the very end of the day; homebase was over 6 long hours ago. But I'm accustomed to random, especially from my 6th graders. "No, I can't have a homebase because I'm not here all year," I reply in my cheery talking-to-a-kid voice.

"Oh so you're only here for this trimester and then you go to somewhere else..."

"Right! Then I go to my other schools!" I've had this conversation a million times with both kids and adults. Who can blame them? My job isn't exactly normal.

"WOW!" Those sweet blue eyes grow big with more empathy than I expected from an twelve-year-old. "So you have to take down your WHOLE room?!" Now the blue eyes are scanning my poster/photo/realia-plastered walls.

"Yep! It's a lot of really hard work!" I grin at her and start to walk away to check on some other groups. As I go, she almost falls across the table in her excitement to recap our conversation to her tablemates. "She has to take ALL of this room down and take it to another school... wouldn't that be SO hard?!" Appreciative glances around the room and nods from the others.

It just felt really nice to be understood by a kid, especially when I've been feeling completely exhausted and run down every afternoon after school lately. I think when kids realize how hard we work, they develop a new respect and appreciation for us.

6th graders are the best!

Monday, September 12, 2011

I remember

It's fall of my senior year of high school and I just finished a long essay test in A.P. Lit.  My hand is exhausted from writing and my brain is pretty tired too, so I'm looking forward to watching a video in my next class.  I head downstairs to A.P. Gov and the lights are turned down low.  There's a burning building on the tv screen, but I think Mr. M's just getting the movie ready.

When everybody gets to class, Mr. M tells us that a plane has crashed into the World Trade Center in New York.  It's CNN on the tv, not the movie we're watching.  Wow, what a terrible accident!  He lets us watch the footage for a couple of minutes and then starts the video.

Partway through the video, the teacher from the room next door walks in, looking like he's seen a ghost.  He says ANOTHER plane has hit the OTHER tower of the World Trade Center.  What?  How could TWO planes... Mr. M turns off the movie and switches back to CNN.  Now both towers are burning with big ugly horizontal stripes where the planes hit.  The reporters are using words like "attack" and "terrorists".  We are glued to CNN now, listening to the reporters speculate as if they know what's happening any better than we do.  They don't, of course, but our brains desperately want someone to explain.

3rd period ends and we spill out into the hallway, asking everyone else whether they heard what happened.  I think we just sit and talk in 4th period.  Then, there's Marching Band.  One of my friends in my section in band has his birthday today. I brought cookies for all the horn players, but he doesn't want them.  He says his birthday is ruined.  We can't believe we actually have to go outside and practice marching our show!  Can't we just watch the news or sit around some more?

The sky is crystal clear as we practice.  Clear blue and completely empty.  You don't think you really notice planes in the sky (especially when you're supposed to be concentrating on marching and playing!), but it sure looks wrong when there aren't any at all for the entire 45 minutes of practice.  There's also hardly any traffic on the two major roads that intersect by our practice field.  Our music just sounds eerie in the silence, and our marching clashes with the stillness all around.  Nobody can concentrate.  We just want to go inside.

When we do, even the boisterous lunchroom is somber and subdued.  I think this might be when I found out about the plane that hit the Pentagon.  A boy we know is scared to death because his dad is working in the Pentagon today.  The principals scramble to help him find out if his dad is ok.  (He is!)  After lunch, more watching the news and talking in my other classes until it's time to go home.

At some point, I hear that another plane crashed after it turned around right over OHIO and started heading back toward D.C.  At some point, the towers collapse.  I don't remember when I found out about all of those other pieces of the tragedy.  I don't even know if I saw them live or only replayed.  I think I might have seen the first tower collapse live while glued to the (until then) unchanging images of the burning towers.  Then again, I might have just seen that replayed so many times that my mind is playing tricks on me.

I think marching band practice after school got canceled, because I remember sitting at home on the floor for hours, watching the news until my parents got home.  It wasn't that I wanted to keep watching those horrible images, but I just couldn't stop.  I think I just wanted to understand the un-understandable.  It was like I needed that much proof that it was really happening. If I didn't watch, wouldn't New York and D.C. and Pennsylvania just be how they always were?  These crazy things were happening so far away they seemed unreal, and yet on the other hand they seemed to be happening right in our town, etched in my mind forever.

Now it's hard to believe that 10 years have passed.  My students don't even remember 9/11: they were only one and two and three years old!  I struggle with understanding that they don't understand, that they don't know what it was really like.  To them, it's just like when my parents talk about Kennedy being shot.  You think, "Wow, that would be horrible..." but you can't really imagine the feelings.  You don't really know what it's like for the whole world to turn upside down in an instant, for something halfway across the country to pound you in the chest and take your breath away.  I hope they never have to know that feeling, and I hope I never have to be the adult trying to help a classroom full of kids deal with it.  And yet, I want them to understand and know what it was like.

(image credit: City of Dublin:
This weekend, the city displayed a breathtaking memorial on a field next to my high school: one eight-foot flag for each person killed in the attacks.  3,000 doesn't seem like that many until you see it stretched out in rows like the crosses at Arlington.  It was amazing to reflect as I looked over that field of flags right next to the building where I experienced that entire day.  Children were there with their families, and I was glad to see them visualizing what is history to them and gaining an appreciation for what we adults felt on that day.  Hopefully, those who understand the past will build a better future.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

the best thing about teaching

The best thing about teaching is making an impact on kids.  Sometimes you can see it happen, sometimes you'll never even know. This morning before school another teacher dropped by to share one of those wonderful moments I wouldn't have known about otherwise. In a writing assignment for this teacher, one of my students wrote that she wants to be a Spanish teacher (I would have been excited enough if the sentence had stopped there!) "because I love my Spanish teacher".  :-) !!!  My heart went soaring up into the sky!  I love that the girl wrote that AND I also love that the teacher took the time to make sure I knew.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

happiness is a fistbump and sweltering heat

Tonight was my current school's Curriculum Night ("Meet the Teacher Night", whatever you want to call it) so I just got home.  Not much of a day to write, but I had to record this little tidbit:

At our Curriculum Night, the related arts teachers have to talk for a couple minutes in front of the entire gym-ful of parents about our class, before the parents traipse off to visit the "core" teachers in their classrooms.  This couple of minutes is one of my most dreaded moments of the year, because I hate talking into a microphone.  I think my voice sounds like a five year old and I'm constantly afraid of talking too fast or too slow or too loud or too soft or not clearly enough or something.  However, this was my 3rd year doing it this way and I'll admit... it wasn't really that bad this year.  Guess I'm getting used to it.  After I did my little "this is our class in 2 minutes", I walked back over to the side of the gym, where several parents who couldn't find seats were standing.  All of a sudden, this dad leaned over to me and said "You have the most outstanding attitude!"  He made my day right there... and then gave me a fistbump.  That's right, a FISTBUMP.  From a parent.  About my 2 minute speech.  Funny and uplifting at the same time.  It was great!

And... for those of you who read last week's post, here's a follow-up picture.  800+ current and former marching band members united in music and tradition on the field in near-100-degree heat.  I don't think I've EVER been that hot, but it was still worth it!  (I'm in the "h" of the script on the bottom of the picture, near the crossbar of the goalpost.   My husband was in the left-hand script.  One of the guys who marched was 93 years old!)

(photo credit: Mel Ponzi)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A "Score" of Friendships

If you stumbled into our local pizza shop about 10pm on certain Monday nights, I'm sure you'd think it's an odd sight.  First of all, who eats pizza at 10pm, other than maybe college kids?  And those are DEFINITELY not college kids.  Well, most of them, at least.

There are more than a few gray heads, but some that are just a mature brown or blond.  Then there's that young couple... maybe they're the college kids.  Is it a family?  Maybe, from the way they laugh and talk and pat each other on the back, and move from joking to serious in the blink of an eye.  But they don't really look alike at all!

There's a pilot, a couple of engineers, a few teachers, an architect... and who knows what else!  Some are retired, a couple are just starting their careers, and some are right in the middle. There are men and women, married and single people, rambunctious story-tellers and quiet listeners.  There's a blind guy who has the most positive attitude you've ever seen.  There was a smart old guy who told the most amazing stories about World War II and science and life, but you'll have to catch up with him in Heaven now.  Then there's us... everyone else still calls us the "newlyweds" even though we've been married for four years now!

So how did we all end up at the pizza shop at 10pm, talking and carrying on until they start running the vacuum cleaner as the signal that we'd better leave before they kick us out?  Music and tradition.  We are all proud marching band alumni, and though we might not have anything else in common, that is enough.  We might be as different as a trumpet is from a sousaphone, but we fit together to make perfect songs.  We have represented our university through time and change.  We have tried out, worked tirelessly, learned and grown and become ourselves in the context of the same sacred traditions.  And we still come together a few times a month to share ourselves with each other through music.  18 years old or 90 years old, we can play together and laugh together and cry together because we are tied together through the Band.

And on Saturday, 800 of us will show a football stadium full of fans that a single shared experience, full of pride and tradition, can build connections that span decades and personalities and life.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Google Forms: Connecting with Parents and Students

This year I'm using Google Forms (a component of GoogleDocs) to gather personal information about my students from their perspective and from their parents' perspective.  I've always done a personal information worksheet with students, but this year I decided to go paperless.  It's my first time doing a parent form and I'm really excited about the responses so far.  The online format makes it easy for everyone: they can fill out the form anywhere at their convenience, and all their data is put into a nice spreadsheet for me to read easily!  Moreover, the forms are super easy to create!  All you need is a Google account and you can make a form!  (See the screenshot on the left.)  Creating the form is really simple: you can enter your questions and select from a variety of question types -- more on this below!

Most of the parent responses have been really thoughtful and insightful.  Parents really want to tell you about their child and work with you to have him/her be successful.  Here's a snapshot of some of the data I've gotten from parents:

As you can see, the spreadsheet generated by Google is easy to read and the information the parents gave is detailed and useful!  I love how the one parent told me their child was a "jewel". Such responses show me that the parents are glad I'm asking them about their children!  The students have been giving me similarly important information from their perspective.  It'll be nice to have all the info on my computer instead of on a million pieces of paper!  The spreadsheet is even searchable so you can easily find a certain child or piece of information.

From the parent/student end, the forms are simple to fill out.  There are "themes" you can use when you create them to make them visually appealing.  On the right is a screenshot of part of the parent form showing several question types.   (You can choose from fill-ins, drop-down, checkboxes, and more!)

I'm excited about how this great tool is giving me easy access to the information I need to know about my students.  It's also a great way to let parents and students know that I care about them!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Goodbye Summer

    A few mornings ago, on the last day of real summer before teacher workdays started, I woke up with a poem in my head.  Then I actually sat and wrote it down, which is a big deal since I'm not sure I've written a poem since high school!  When I was done, this is what I had.


           Sun streaming in my window
           looking out over green
                        grass, shady tree
           roses by the mailbox

          Little girls giggle in the street
          cheerful breezes rustle
                         playful leaves
          birds chirp, cicadas sing

         Lounging reading in my pjs
         ice cream, smoothies, s'mores
                       by the campfire
        cool waves of relaxation

         Music filling parks with joy
         red-orange-purple sunsets
                      twilight, sparking stars
        learning, spinning school thoughts

                      Goodbye summer.


P.S. I know this is a day early but I won't be able to blog tomorrow!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Back to School

Despite my laments in the last post about the end of summer, I really do love back-to-school time.  I always loved school growing up, and now I enjoy seeing students who have that same excitement.  I absolutely love setting up my classroom.  This time of year always brings back memories of helping my mom set up her classroom when I was in middle school.  We'd go out to lunch and spend the whole day together getting her room ready for the new year.  I thought it was so fun to create bulletin boards and put up posters!  (Ok, I still think that's fun!)  Now she's a principal and I'm the teacher with a room to set up, and I still love that feeling of putting together a special place for the kids and giving it that "home" feeling.

I worked our school's schedule pick-up earlier this week, and it was exciting to see all the anxious kids with their parents.  They were so excited to see what team they were on and what teachers they had... and of course to see their friends.  The sixth graders were so cute with their nervous, shy faces and overwhelmed parents who were so happy to get some friendly instructions.  They've been all over the building for the past few days walking through their schedules and getting their lockers set up, and it gives the school this anxious buzz of activity that is really fun!

On Friday we had our first teacher workday, complete with a big district kick-off in the morning, that first building meeting, and some much-needed time to work in my room.  As I was working in my room, this little (I mean LITTLE... I think he came up to his friend's shoulder!) 6th grade boy and his friend popped in.  Context for this story: My first two years of teaching, I taught in our district's elementary Spanish program, where I traveled between 6 buildings teaching a tiny bit of Spanish to about 1600 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders.  I saw them once a week for 12 weeks.  Our 6th graders this year are the 3rd graders from my second year of teaching.

         Boy: "I don't know if you remember me, but I went to (Elementary School)..."
         me:  "Oh yeah!" (in my head: no clue!)  "What's your name again?"
         Boy: "I'm ____________".
         me: "Right!  Are you taking Spanish this year?"
         Boy: "Well I was going to but all my friends were taking Video Broadcast and I wanted to be with them... but I'm going to take it next year!"
         me: "Aw, that's too bad, we're going to have lots of fun! But I know it's hard for you guys because you don't get to do very many of the choices!  I'm glad you're taking it next year though!"
         Boy: "Well I just wanted to say hi and to tell you that you always made it really fun at (Elementary  School)!"

SO sweet, right? :-)  I love our students!  I've had so many little moments like that over the past couple of years.  I love middle schoolers because a lot of them are still not afraid to spontaneously blurt out "I love Spanish!" or "This class is so fun!" or "You have the best Notebook files!" or "I love your room!" (all actual quotes from my students last year) in the middle of class.

I'm sure he doesn't realize it but that little guy on Friday totally made me ready to start school again... although I am disappointed his friends talked him out of Spanish for this year.  I'm excited to see the rest of those 3rd-graders-turned-6th-graders next week!


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Too Many Slices! (or, my reflections on a busy summer as it ends)

So today is slice-of-life day, and I've been excited for that for a few days since I love reading other people's slices and getting comments on my own.  However, when today actually got here, I didn't feel like writing at all.  It's not that I don't have anything to write about... in fact, it's the opposite.  There are way too many things happening in my life right now to be able to step back and concentrate on one in a nice writerly way.

School is looming ever closer, like a thundercloud on the horizon just waiting to drop gallons of busy raindrops on my head.  Don't get me wrong; I love school.  I love planning, getting creative, making fun activities, being with kids, watching them learn and interact and grow, sharing my life and my love of learning with them.  But I don't feel ready this summer.  Maybe I worked too hard during summer school this year.  Maybe summer school just went too late into the summer.  Maybe I did too much optional PD.  Maybe I have so many new ideas and too much of this push inside of me (and outside of me, in the form of "accountability" and "merit") to be a better and better and better teacher that I'm stressing myself out.  Anyway, I feel like I don't want school to come just yet.  Will I be excited and ready to go when it does come?  Of course!  I love school and I love teaching and I love working hard on something.  I just know that when school comes, it's here until next summer, and there's no going back.  I will be spending evenings grading and making materials, waking up in the middle of the night with a new lesson idea I just have to write down before I forget, pondering student performance while I'm eating, driving, showering, working out, cooking, hanging out with friends...

The only problem is that I haven't done all the things I wanted to do over the summer, in my "more time"!  I haven't organized the house, haven't cleaned the house, haven't tried lots of new dinner recipes, haven't scrapbooked or done anything else with my pictures, haven't organized my ELL materials, haven't spent lots of time with friends... My husband and I still haven't even seen the new Harry Potter movie!  And we LOVE Harry Potter!  (Although to be fair, that's the fault of bad timing -- it came out right before we left on vacation and then we kind of forgot about it!)  It's hard to feel refreshed and ready to start a new year when there are so many things I haven't done!
Wordle: Mid-August
After looking through my calendar and to-do list, I made a Wordle word cloud to capture how I feel right now. It's not a real cloud, but it does show all the things looming in my mind right now.  I guess this is what mid-August is like: "real" school things (like lessons, materials and my room!) are taking over but I'm also still clinging to all the personal, social, and PD things I feel summer should be about.

Although, now that I think about it... I did accomplish a lot this summer.  Maybe I should focus on what I have done:  I learned about a lot of new tech tools and how I might use them in my teaching, learned a lot about Antarctica with my ELLs and used a class blog for the first time in summer school, starting reading lots of teacher blogs that have already helped me grow tremendously, joined a gym and started exercising regularly with my husband, and started this blog!  I also had a fun and relaxing vacation with my husband!  We played at lots of band events and became co-chairs of the Active Band committee.  I made my first professional presentation, as you know if you read the previous post.  I spent some fun times with my family and friends: the zoo, the fair, the Irish Festival, a Brad Paisley concert, and dinners and lunches out.  Despite all the busy-ness, I even managed a couple of relaxing, stay-in-my-pjs days too!

So I guess it was a good, productive, fun summer -- maybe too much productive and not quite enough fun, but productive is important too!  I think I could be almost ready for school now... it's feeling more like a mysterious new "front" of weather than a thundercloud.  I bet it'll bring some sun and a balmy breeze by the time my alarm goes off on Friday morning for our first teacher workday.  (Ok, maybe not when my alarm goes off, but at least by the time I'm driving to school!)  Until then, I'll be trying to squeeze in some last bits of fun and relaxation. (And just a few of those school things, even though I know they'll be here soon enough anyway!)

P.S. Funny how I wrote a lot for someone who didn't feel like writing!  I guess sometimes we all need to give up those excuses and just write anyway!  After all, I do love to write... just like I do love to teach!