June: A Blur (in many ways!)

The month of June is like the confluence:  the joining of two or more bodies of water.  But instead of bodies of water, in my case, it is the joining of two or more bodies of students.  And in the event of this particular month, it was the coming together of multiple bodies of students.

First up, was the 22 lively students that I had in front of me every day from 8:50 a.m. to 3:15 p.m.  Fifth grade can be a time of great angst and this spring was no exception.  The transition to middle school, where for some, Thoreau had been their only academic home for the past six years, can be a frightening one.  Just when they have figured out my expectations, their classmates’ personalities, and things like where the bathrooms are located, they are now facing a switch to a new school, where they now face the prospect of not having a “friend” with them (new middle school strategy) to having multiple teachers and multiple locations during the school day.  No longer will just one teacher be running after them for missing work, there will be multiple teachers with different demands on them.  No longer will there be a tubby to place their belongings, they will face the prospect of moving every 48 minutes and with that move will be their possessions that have to also travel with them.  With more blossoming of those lovely hormones, personalities that were sweet for most of the year, became pretty sour in the last weeks of school.  It was a time that sometimes it was a struggle to get through the day with all of the chatting, which is a hallmark of middle school behavior.

But amongst the angst, was some great learning going on.  How many times can I express that Robotics is the best thing that I teach?  In case you haven’t heard me say that before, I will say it again, “Robotics is the best thing that I teach.”  Robotics pulls in the best of learning.  It blends creativity, critical thinking skills, problem-solving, and collaborative work in with whatever curriculum that I decide to mix it with.  This year’s theme was Lewis and Clark.  Students needed to research the obstacles that Lewis and Clark faced and design a robot that would overcome these obstacles.  As one student noted “This is Lewis and Clark meeting the 21st century.”   Almost immediately after introducing the project, a lot of the angst disappeared.  Students who had a not so positive attitude about robotics at the beginning were asking to stay in for recess to do some programming.  Students whose expertise was more in the hands-on area of building robots, became the “go-to” students.  Students challenged themselves to accomplish some tricky maneuvers that I personally thought couldn’t be done.  Students stuck with difficult challenges.  They didn’t throw the towel in when something didn’t work as they wanted it to.  By the morning of our demonstration on the second to last day of school, the students were ready.  They were dressed for success and calmly got up in front of a room of their parents and other guests to present their robot.  The name of this project was “The Journey  Project” and it was a fitting name for the journey that many of them had taken throughout the school year as learners.  I am very proud of where they traveled through the year to become better writers, better readers, better mathematicians, better scientists, and better social scientists.  But most of all, they had become better people.  I am M.A.D. will go down as the hallmark of this year’s group.

Second group of students up:  the graduating class of 2013.  For the past five years, the Thoreau School faculty has hosted the graduating seniors.  Most have gone onto Concord-Carlisle High School, but others have moved, and others have gone onto private schools in the area.  It is always fun to see what your old 4th or 5th graders have turned into as young adults and what the next chapter of their life holds for them.  For me, I had this group as 4th graders when we had just moved into swing space at the old Alcott School.  By the end of the year, I had only ended up with 15 of them.  While 15 is the typical number of students at a private school, it is a little small at the public school level.  And this 15 could be a little on the difficult side.  So, I was eagerly awaiting  their arrival in the Thoreau School Library to see how they have morphed into young adults.  Right before the end of the day, one of my current students, whose brother was among those graduating seniors, mentioned that his family would be hosting a student who attended Thoreau but had moved in 4th grade.  That student was one that I had, Nick, and he had moved in the middle of the school year to Colorado.  I think I had originally heard a bit about him, but had heard nothing for years.  Max told me he was coming for the graduation and I was disappointed that he wouldn’t be here for the reunion of Thoreau Alum.

When this group of students arrive though, they are no longer the 4th graders they were when I had them.  A few looked identical to back in 4th grade but were taller and resembled an adult version of their 4th grade self.  However, most of them needed a name tag because they were really morphed.  One handsome young man walked over to me and said “Mrs. Erickson?”  On his name tag was “Nick”.  It was my old Nick.  I had misunderstood Max, he was there for the graduation, but also for the rest of senior week.  It had been 8 years since I had last seen or heard of Nick.  And there he was standing in front of me, reaching into his backpack and pulling out a scrapbook.  He went on to tell me that this scrapbook, which the class had made for him when he moved, meant the world to him.  It kept him up during some really down moments.  I have to be honest, I didn’t remember doing this.  A seemingly simple measure, have the students write him a note, and put it together in a scrapbook, had meant the world to this student.  The fact that he dragged it across the country to show me, meant the world to me.  No matter how tough the day, the month, the year had been, disappeared in this realization that as teachers, we have an incredible impact on a child’s life.  I am a teacher.  That’s what I do and that’s what I love doing.  The difference this made in Nick’s life made a profound impact on my life.  This made my day, my week, my month, and my year.

Group Three:  From time to time, there is a group of students that stay connected to me.  The first group just finished their sophomore year in college.  The next group, was my “replacement” group for that group of girls and they just finished their freshman year in high school.  These five girls were really tight as 4th graders when I had them as students.  In 5th grade, they use to come see me on occasion for lunch. In 6th grade, when the group was split into two different schools, they started to drift apart a bit, but would still come by after school for “tea”.  I could always count on Rose baking something pretty sophisticated for her age, and I could also count on the gang of them being pretty silly.  Sometimes almost too silly!  But year after year in middle school, some of them still wanted to come by.  I would enjoy hearing their stories about this student and that student, about their Bat Mitzvahs and siblings, and about their summer plans.  Slowly, there were growing up and the silliness started to subside.  So, Larissa had written to me in the spring and asked about getting together in June.  Rose, who had moved onto a private school, would be out of school early and could come during the second week of June.  So we selected a date and got it on the calendar.  They arrived after school.  A few of them tower over their former teacher now, but otherwise, they all are the same kind and neat kids they were when I had them in 4th grade.  Both Rose and Katherine backed something for this “tea”.  It was great catching up with them.  What I always admired about this group was that they are happy in their own skin.  They are who they want to be.  Five years later, they all have very different interests.  It was great hearing about their activities and their summer plans.  They are morphing into young adults and I am really looking forward to following them on their path.  I left that tea happy to see them and pleased at where they are in the world.  I am sure I will write more about them in the years ahead.

Group Four:  Past students who are now in middle school:  This year, I duplicated Karen Hoyt’s having former students who are in 6th grade, come back and speak to my current students about middle school.  I admit, I only originally invited four 6th graders and two 8th graders.  The two 8th graders were two of my finest male students and I thought they could offer a “big middle school picture” to the 5th graders.  When I had these two boys as 4th graders, I knew they would grow up to be fine leaders, and I have been correct on that assumption.  Their two sisters, who I had for 2 years, were also going to come, along with another girl who was going to ask two boys.  However, Karen asks back her entire former class and when word got out, suddenly, I had e-mails from other students asking if they could come.  At this point, it was easier to say yes than no, and that proved to be a good decision.  They were to meet us at 2:30 in the auditorium where we were doing robotics.  Thunder rumbled overhead as the middle schoolers filed in, completely drenched.  And it was quite a line up of students!  There was one that I was worried about, but have seen several times publicizing his own lawn business, which is an awesome thing!  They spoke extremely respectfully to my current students. answering their questions honestly and humorously.  After 35 minutes, we needed to end, but I was very proud of this bunch of students.  I look forward to “tracking” them in the future as I know they will be doing great things.

Group Five:  SuAsCo River Schools Network:  After about five years of brainstorming on how to make this happen, on Monday, June 10th, after school, about 10 of my current students welcomed about 13 students from Lowell to officially kick off the SuAsCo River Schools Network.    A total of 23 students, ranging from 5th graders to college students got together to discuss the importance of studying and preserving our rivers.  As one student from Lowell said, “I like studying about rivers because it shows us how we are all connected.”  Watching the students analyze water samples from around the watershed to exploring the Thoreau School River Trail was an awesome moment to showing how students from different areas and backgrounds could be connected over a common thing:  in this case, the rivers.  I look forward to growing this program over the next year.

And finally Group Six:  I don’t really know this group of students.  Currently, they only exist as names on my class list for the upcoming school year.  We start receiving this list early in June and it is tweaked until we receive our “final” (in that students always move in during the summer) list on the last day of school.  It can be a confusing time, looking at the future, while dealing with the present, and having the past all involved at the same time.  Yet, I find myself already thinking about the possibilities for the next year.  How will I do things differently with this group?  What are they like as learners?  What inspires them?  What will they grab onto?  Those questions will continue to be asked up to day 180  of the 2013- 2014 school year.

A blur.  A confluence of students past, present, and future.  Students who are MAD.  Students who have morphed into wonderful young adults.  Students who want to help the environment.  Students on a list.   A blur.


A Day Off

Storm Drain Bubbles

Towards the end of last week, I was pretty cranky.  I had actually got mad at my students on Wednesday, I was unusually outspoken on several matters, and in the middle of correcting assessments and open responses on Friday, I had officially reached my tipping point.  My eyes were killing me and I knew I needed a break.  A line of showers had come through earlier in the day, so I asked my storm drain girls if they wanted to go out and check out the storm drain, which they enthusiastically did.  We collected our gear and headed down to the storm drain.  Out in the cool air cooled my head a bit as we traversed through the garlic mustard down towards the running storm drain.  This has been a fascinating project and Friday’s trip just added to our mystery (but that’s another story).  This story is how did I manage to get to my “tipping point”?

Teaching is an all consuming job in a normal year.  However, since I had been in one grade level for seven straight years, I did not remember how hard it to change grade level.  Every night you are learning new material.  Even with a good teaching partner, it is still up to me to review and learn new material every night.  Coupled with moving to a new classroom, where I still don’t know where I put everything, just about everything is new.  (except for the majority of my students but as they are becoming pre-adolescents, this is a new behavior that I need to figure out) .  I had worked all summer, packing up my room, moving my room, setting up my new room, learning a new curriculum.  It was not a restful summer and I was very mindful that I started the school year off tired.  And in mid-March, I was now very tired.

Two hawks circle a brilliant blue sky

For most of my teaching career, I have tried to take one day off during the weekend from school work.  The exception to this rule is the seven weekends in the fall when I teach graduate students at Regis.  I had picked up teaching another grad class on-line this winter, along with doing an after school club this year.  So, there were a few other things on my plate.   I often blog about the importance of looking around you and appreciate the small things in life.   I love walking in the woods, armed with my camera.  Whenever I am doing this, I make a mental vow to do this more often.  But over the past month, I totally forgot all of my promises.  I forgot my routines.  I forgot the importance of trying to find the balance in life.

So, that brings me to last week.  I did manage to get out two afternoons and take a walk.  That was a good thing.  But in the season of providing quick feedback on open responses and correcting assessments, my nights were intense.  Friday afternoon came and I had “tea” with two former students.  Initially, I wanted to just go home, but after they arrived, I relaxed and enjoyed watching the nice young women that they were turning into.  After fixing a colleague’s turtle pump, meeting with another colleague to plan out an upcoming event, I headed home, tired.  Walking into the house, I looked at the calendar to determine how many weeks I had worked without a break.  I thought it was two.  I was wrong.

Starting at the end of the school vacation week (around Thursday), I had worked every day.  No break.  After working

Buds are a blooming

yesterday, that was day number 24, which is not okay.  So today, was a day off.  I slept until 9:10 a.m., walked with a dear friend, finally had the time to go and get new sunglasses.  I raked out some garden beds, shoveled dog poop, and enjoyed lunch and dinner with my husband and son.   I sat on my back stoop and read the paper, I enjoyed a Dunkin Donut iced tea, and I had time to blog.  Nothing that exciting, but it was liberating to just do mundane tasks and feel like I could enjoy them.  I didn’t feel guilty that I didn’t look at my e-mail.  I didn’t feel guilty that perhaps I am not as up to speed on the Committee of Correspondence that I should be.  As I head back into what is going to be a very busy school week, I am a little less tired.  But, I need to take better steps to ensure that I do not go through a stretch like that again this year.  I need to carefully plan out my summer so that the majority of it involves real down time.  I need to walk my walk, not just talk my walk.  I need to walk more, read more for fun, take more pictures, hang out with my family and friends more, and appreciate everything around me more.  I am done with working this many days in a row.  This day off was what I needed as I head into the last third of the school year.


Of Signs, St. Augustine, and Storm Drains

Turtle Crossing Signs That Will Be Placed Around Concord

Today was an interesting day with a capital I.  It was a short day for me having after having an appointment with my arm doctor.  When I arrived back at school, laden down with bags, one of the noon-aides told me she had brought a package down to my room.  I admit it, I was grumby since my room is already over crowded with stuff.  There are garlic mustard plants, Norway maples, Purple loosestrife, water testing supplies, books, and stream tables already strewn all over the room.  After settling in, the kids reminded me I had a package.  Expecting more bottles to collect water samples, the box instead was too thin to host water bottles.  I saw the return address — from Stay Safe Traffic.  Suddenly a lightbulb went off in my head.  The kids excitedly gathered around as I opened the box.  Finally, the last piece of tape was off and I was looking at the back of a big metal sign.  Excitedly, I turned it over.  A hush went through the room.  The kids eyes were wide open, their jaws dropped.  Suddenly, a round of applause exploded over the room.  Grins were a mile wide.  “These are real signs,” the kids said.  Proud faces were the order of the day.  It was like Christmas, but instead of the kids receiving a present, they were instead giving a present to the town and to the turtles.  It was indeed a moment to savor by all of us.

After lunch, it was time for social studies.  We’ve just begun our study of Colonial America, and our flipped classroom assignment was to watch some videos on St. Augustine.  My in-laws used to “winter” there and had once offered us to buy out their time share (which we didn’t).  We never got down there and now I regret that.  In the curriculum, the Spanish settlement that we were suppose to focus on was Santa Fe, but I felt St. Augustine might be a better fit with the explorers that we just studied.  So, I started to research St. Augustine, finding that the first Thanksgiving was held on September 8, 1568.  So, I posed this question to the students, why don’t we know about this Thanksgiving, only the Plymouth Thanksgiving.  This led into a great discussion about using different lenses when studying history.

Dry Water Discharge

And now storm drains.  I have to admit it, I am just fascinated with this aspect of the project.  Talk about looking at the river with a different lens!  Today, we needed to get down and do our January river writing.  Once the kids got settled in, I wandered over to the storm drain.  Once again, it was running when it really shouldn’t have been running.  I called the three girls who are studying this area.  They excitedly ran over and started asking all kinds of questions.   I’m not sure where this storm drain study is going to lead, but boy has it been fascinating!

So, it was an incredible three hours of school today!  Signs, St. Augustine, and Storm Drains.

Ready…Get Set….Go

August 31st — one day before the “official” start of the teachers’ school year.  I am doing something very different today.  My goal is to have three meals out on my “veranda”, walk with a friend, and not go into school.  So, I sit here on a purple plastic Adirondack chair and ottoman, shaded by my twin Red Maples, watching Kyla bark at the chirping red squirrels and write.  This is not an approach that I have tried before, taking the day before school starts “off”.  It feels strange actually.  I feel that nervous energy building.  This is my “tapering” off period before the big race begins.  Before, only tried before when I used to be a competitive runner.  It worked pretty well then, so I thought I would try it in a different light, to taper before teaching.

The Teacher as a Runner

Back in the day when I use to run track, cross-country, and then road races, the day before a big race is traditionally a pretty light day.  Some stretching, maybe a very light jog, a few windsprints, and early to bed.  After some hard training, you want to give your legs a break, so they will be ready to react to the starter’s gun.  You wanted to feel antsy at that gun, not so tired that you couldn’t envision running 800 meters, 5K 0r 10 miles.  You needed that day to let your muscle fibers heal up a bit.  I remember back in 1982 when I was running between 55 to 70 miles a week, that this “off day” felt very strange.  Your body was at loose ends, use to the high mileage, but “forced” to run maybe only two to three miles.  You wanted to go further, but knew that in your best interest for the race tomorrow, that you should not.  So, here I sit on this lilac chair, wanting to go in and put up that last piece of bulletin board border, wanting to futz around with my opening day challenge, but knowing I should not step foot in the door today.  I did my “light” training, running (rather driving) to Staples to pick up a few last things and then over to the Natural Resources office to pick up my Conservation Land Use Permit.  I finished reading Teach Like Your Hair is on Fire, worked a tad on my graduate class that I teach, and basically soaked in as much natural Vitamin D that I could stand.  Just like the day before a race, when I use to envision what that race may look like, I did the same analysis of my school year.

First and foremost on my mind is that I am looping with 21 out of my 22 students from last year.  Back a few moons ago, I have been a looping teacher before.  I went from being a 4th grade teacher, taking 12 students with me in a 4/5 combination.  The following year, I took 11 out of 12 4th graders in that combo class, and became a 5th grade teacher again.  While a good percentage went forward, 21/22 is a really high percentage.  These students know my tricks.  They totally will know what I expect from them, but they know my tricks.  I totally need to switch up my beginning of the school year activities.  I agonized over my letter to them.  Always before, they received a bag of sand.  But I didn’t want to repeat that this year.  I needed to switch my race strategy.  I’ll let you know how this switch turned out after our first week.  This reminded me of when I was a 800 runner in high school.  I liked to take it out from the gun.  This strategy went well, I was undefeated heading into our last dual meet.  Didn’t work so well at that meet, I was caught by another runner, ending my quest for an undefeated season.  With the League Championship a week away, I needed to change my strategy.  And for that race, coming off the final turn behind the runner who had just beat me a week earlier, I was able to sprint by her, winning the Midland League Championship.

I thought back to another race, the Yankee Homecoming 10-Miler in Newburyport in 1982.  I went out extremely hard,

Pre-Race Taper Strategy

going through two miles in 12 minutes and 36 seconds.  Then my legs “fell asleep” (this resulted in my having surgery 4 times in the ensuing years).  Around 7 miles into the race, they came back to normal again, and I finished in a very respectable time of 68 minutes 2 seconds.   So, how do I start this long race (180 days to be exact plus weekends for me) on the 6th.  Do I go out hard?  Do I go out steadily?  Do I go out slowly?  I have two new students to add to the 21 students, so I probably need to go out a tad slower than full speed ahead.  In a long race, you certainly don’t want to crash and burn during the first two months.  How do I maintain some semblance of an exercise program, of some down time with family?

Then there’s the challenge of your other competitors.  In my teaching case, the challenge is to be a learner along with your students. What direction will they push me this year?  (and that is in totally a good way!) What new things will light my fire this year?  The best projects are usually those that are not totally planned out.  My “pre-race” guess is that the students will want to take another crack at DPC this year.  I’m a bit worried about that as I don’t want it to be a “forced” project.  I want it to be just as exciting a process as it was last year.  So parts of the race are somewhat worrisome to me.  This is like when you don’t know the race course.  You’re not quite sure where the hills are, where the turns are.  To me, teaching is like this as well, you are never quite sure until you actually get going.  Even when you get going, there are obstacles along the way.  I have a new learning space to “learn,” new curriculum, several new students, and even those returning students have grown over the summer.  Just like the day before a race, my mind races with the possibilities.

13 years into this “race”, and the same insecurities exist the day before.  This is not a race that seems to get any easier as the years go by.  But one thing that still exists is the excitement of getting started, the excitement of watching my students grow, the excitement of learning along with them.  It is that excitement that gets me over that steep hill, that keeps me hanging on to the finish line.  I’m ready and raring to go.

Taking Time to Stop and Look at….Doorknobs

Billowing Cumulonimbus Clouds Over the Boston Skyline

After lunch with two oncologists at a converted jail (that might be a story in itself), I had about 90 minutes to kill before my train back to Concord.  I debated on what to do…Red Line to Porter Square to look at books, walk around the West End…or head to the banks of the River Charles to check out what is happening on this sultry late summer afternoon.  I elected to head down to river to sit on a bench and read.  Crossing over Storrow Drive, I noticed small waves on the river and the U.S. flag waving in the breeze.  I sat down on a bench, looking at the building cumulonimbus clouds billowing up over the river.  Out on the river were many small sailboats darting back and forth.  These sailors are part of the Community Rowing Center.  I overheard one elderly gentleman proudly telling another women that his two grandchildren are out there as he watched them head towards the dock.  A young boy, wearing a CRC life jacket strolled past me, talking on his cell phone to presumably a parent.  Runners, drenched in sweat from this humid afternoon, ran down the  bridge ramp westwards towards the Citgo sign in the distance.  Looking at my watch, it was now 2:00 p.m., one hour from my train time.  I wanted to stroll along Charles Street in Boston, so I set off over the bridge, back to the Charles Street area.

Remembering the delicious honey-ginger-lemon ice tea from Mango Mango in Amherst this past week, I set off to look for perhaps a similar drink.  Charles Street represents some very good times and some very bad times for me.  The good memories involve my dear friend Jo-Ann who went to MGH’s School of Nursing in the late 70s and her housing at 20 Charles Street.  It was always fun to go and hang out there with her.  We got our ears pierced some where along that street.  The bad memories involve when my sister was dying.  I use to take breaks from MGH and strolled along Charles Street quite frequently.  I remembered a good cafe, so I set off to see if they served that a unique ice tea.  Finding the bakery, I was disappointed to find they only had bottled ice teas.  So, I headed back out onto Charles Street.  I passed many unique antique stores along my walk, before happening upon the Cafe Vanille.  There was non-bottled ice tea, so I purchased a cup of black ice tea and a strawberry biscotti and headed to the outside seating area to enjoy people-watching.  An elderly woman honked while scooting around the street corner on her hot pink scooter.  A tour bus stopped and I heard the narrator talking about slavery.  A little sparrow perched on the cast iron chair next to me, in search of the elusive crumbs.  I tried pretending that perhaps I was sitting at an outside cafe in Europe.  Checking my phone clock, I now had about 30 minutes to make my train.

Waiting at the corner, I decided to cross the street to see what was on the other side of Charles Street.  A cool children’s shop, an organic pet store, a Starbucks, a shop that had little stuffed “Westie” like dogs.  Mindful of the time, I did step into see what the little dogs cost.  They were stuffed “Tin Tins”, I believe a British children’s story.  The price was more than I was willing to pay, so I set off back down Charles Street to get over to North Station.  It was then that I spotted it out of the corner of my eye.  Another person was stopped, taking pictures of this store window.  Why would this window hold such interest?  It was full of unique, yes you guessed it, doorknobs.

A Store Window Full of DoorKnobs

I couldn’t believe my eyes.  For years, the fourth graders at my school have written a story right before taking the MCAS Long Composition about visiting the National Museum of Doorknobs.  (this museum, as far as I know, does not exist)  But here in front of me, on this now really humid and darkening August afternoon, was a plethora of door knobs.    Door knobs made of different materials such as pewter, brass, glass, and stone.  Elaborately decorated door knobs, beautiful green and blue door knobs.  These door knobs were pieces of art.  Again, I glanced at my clock and that 3:00 p.m. hour was getting closer.  So, I snapped a few photos, and now picked up my pace down Charles Street.

Heading back, I stopped to ponder about turning around and going back to the shop.  Perhaps purchasing one of these door knobs to have a reminder of the need to stop, slow down, and look around you.  No, I needed to get home.  I kept stopping, I really should get back, so what if I miss the 3:00 o’clock train? I kept thinking to myself.  No, can you only imagine what those door knobs cost?  Again and again, I stopped, turned around, to turn back towards the train.  “You can’t afford a door

A Rainbow of Doorknobs

knob,” “You can afford a door knob,”  “You should get home and tidy up,” You should go  back.”  For several city blocks, this self-talk continued until I actually did turn around to go back.  Two factors turned me back around towards the train.  One, the clouds were getting darker and darker.  If you know me well, you know the thing I am scared most of…. Two, on my left foot, I could feel a rather large blister forming on my little toe.  Okay, for now, you can print out a picture of the door knobs and then dedicated a Saturday in September to going back and picking out a doorknob.  Settling my self-battle, I did head back towards the train.

Looking out the train window, the storms pelted down around us.  It would not have been an enjoyable experience getting drenched.  (Later reports of hail in Boston solidified that this was a good decision on my part)  But, I did think about the importance of


slowing down and looking at the world around you.  Whether it be bicycles parked at a public lot, a slug hanging out on a decomposing branch, or a window full of door knobs, I am going to set one of my personal goals for this year to try and build this in on a more regular basis.  With the craziness of the school year soon set to begin once again, I need to take stock of what will make me a better teacher for my students.  I preach about the importance of giving my students some time at the river to sit and “zone”.  I need to preach for myself to allow myself time to zone, to not be so tied into a schedule, into a clock.  It is so easy to get totally sucked into being insanely busy, but I think it is hard to sometimes slow down, look around and admire those doorknobs.  A line from one of my favorite movies, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” says “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”   So as my goal was last year to not compare my new “turtles” to my old “toads” https://305bcoaches.wordpress.com/2010/09/04/note-to-self-before-the-school-year-starts/ , my goal is this year to give both myself and my students the time to stop and look around you.  And BTW, I already have plans to go back to that door knob shop in September to give myself a door knob that will serve as that reminder.

A Tribute to Leader of the Band: Thank You Al Yesue

Al and his wife Mary Jane

The morning air was heavy this morning.  Not only due to the high humidity, but also due to some news that appeared on my Facebook News Feed.  People were posting “RIP Al”.  This didn’t make sense to me. At all.  RIP Al?  Al, to those of you who were not involved in the Hudson CYO Band aka the Royal Jades, was my band teacher from the time I was in Grade 5 as a member of the Junior Jades, to the time I graduated from high school as a member of the Senior Jades.  I haven’t seen Al for years, but even though I haven’t seen him, I have used the non-music lessons that he taught us again and again for my own students.  This couldn’t be true, I kept thinking over and over again.  How could someone like Al, that influenced so many people be gone?  It then struck me that although Al is physically gone from this world, that the lessons we all learned, will live on with us.  That the greatest tribute to Al is to keep instilling his lessons in the younger generation.

For my readers who don’t know what the “band” was, the band was a competitive marching band that competed in competitions mainly in the summer months.  We practiced pretty much year round – the winter months being about two days a week of organized practice; the summer months were pretty much a seven day affair, with Saturday and Sundays being competitions.  Our “bucs” needed to be polished with white on the top and black on the edges, the girls’ knee socks needed to come up to a uniform point on everyone’s legs (and needed to stay up while marching), our “shako” needed to be a certain amount of fingertips between the hat and your forehead, and everyone’s stride needed to be 22 inches (I think that’s the number).  We played at the first World Series game in 1975, at Disney World’s Bicenntenial Celebration in 1976, marched in the Mardi Gras, and were champions for years.  For most of my teenage years, the summers consisted of band practice or a competition every night.  I would not change a thing about those years.  The main reason for all our successes was one person:  Al.

“Do it again” are three words that we heard over and over again.  I tell my students this story again and again, while playing the first few measures of Holst’s “Jupiter” the story of how on one hot summer’s night, at the Riverside Park parking lot, we played those first few measures for three solid hours.  This was our “off the line” song, and that night, we didn’t get very far off the line.  “Do it again,” Al would say, “do it again”, over and over again.  Some of us were probably cursing after a bit, but we did it again.  Al instilled in us the importance of hard work, in making sure that you weren’t just doing something that was “good enough”.  He pushed us to be our best, not just “good enough”.

Dedication, respect, and heart were other lessons that I learned through Al.  He was extremely dedicated to this large group of teenagers.  Al brought us into his life and as a result, for many of us, Al played a huge role in our lives.  He was dedicated to making us the very best band we could be.  While championships were important, what was most important to Al was that we were dedicated to our music and dedicated to one another. He was dedicated to his own family, but let us be part of that family as well.  He always put 150% into the band.  Often sweating profusely as he directed us, we could tell how much he had dedicated himself to us and the band.  He treated us with respect and expected that we treated one another with respect as he taught us.  This was also true to our competitor bands.  He expected us to act classy as he always modeled.  Another important lesson was that he taught us to have heart.   Some of the songs that we played, “Jupiter”, “MacArthur Park”, “Speak Softly Love”, “Somewhere”  were all played from our hearts and to this day, when I hear those songs, I remember the emotion that this bunch of teenagers played them with and I thank him for that gift of music that was played from the heart.

But the ultimate gift was that Al believed in each and every one of us.  While he pushed us hard, he also believed that every one of us could do it.  My last year in the band, Al asked me  and a friend to switch from our current instruments (which for me was the piccolo) to the sousaphone, the largest instrument in the band.  I have to be honest, I hated this instrument.  We could not switch back.  Al stuck by us, teaching two woodwinds players how to play this rather large brass instrument.  When I tell my students this story, they always ask me, why didn’t you quit?  And today on my ride to teach my grad students, I think I finally came up with the answer:  Because Al believed in me enough to have me make such as large switch.  That he instilled an atmosphere, where it was all about teamwork and that if asked to do something, you were respected enough by Al to do what was best for the team.

Al, although I haven’t seen you for years, I still use the lessons that you taught me in my every day life and I pass them onto my students.  I am grateful for all that you did for so many children.  Thank you.

Why I Am Glad That I Did Not Win the Lottery

Last June, I spent some time and some money buying lottery tickets.  I was in the mourning part of the teaching profession, giving away a marvelous group of students.  If one was going to retire, this would be the group to say adios to teaching.  So, I bought Scratch tickets and Mass Millions ticket in the hope of hitting it big and going out with these students. (Mind you, I entered teaching late, have two kids of my own in college and can retire no time soon).  By the end of June, the students had left, and the only other change was that my wallet was a little lighter from buying the tickets.  I was going to have to go back to teaching and this new class would have a hard act to follow..  I blogged about this both in June and in August before the new school year started.   The new school year started, and I, fresh with new ideas from BLC10, started teaching again.

And then, a funny thing happened.  A great new idea called CBL (Challenge Based Learning) caught on like wildfire with this new group of then 21 students.  I started seeing the spark in their eyes, the enthusiasm in their voices.  Our two Blanding’s turtle hatchlings, Bowser and Yertle, amazed us all.  In early November, we decided to enter a nation-wide contest, Disney Planet Challenge (DPC).  On a long November afternoon, as I listened to the children’s discussion on creating a goal for DPC and then developing guiding questions.  This afternoon was a turning point for me as I started to fall in love with another class.

DPC was a simply amazing experience for us all.  Students who didn’t like to write, were writing webpages.  Students who were naturally shy were standing up in front of town boards talking turtles.  A real deadline united us all with getting our portfolio done.  Students who wanted to be in a certain group were fine with being a team member and doing what needed to be done to meet our deadline.  This project gave learning a new purpose and these students rose to this challenge beautifully.

Along the way, other magical things were also happening.  Blogging.  The kids blogged all the time and responded to one another so naturally in such a respectful manner.  Writing.  Trips to the river made the students’ writing more and more descriptive.  As the seasons changed, so did their writing.  Confidence.  Watching the students blossom as they progressed throughout the year was extremely satisfying.

The year also had its share of trying moments for both me and the students.  Our turtle Bowser died during his laproscopy.   During the fall, a series of freak accidents left me with a severe nerve injury that later required surgery, and a concussion that left me rather dizzy for a bit.  This spring has been particularly trying for me after being asked to go to 5th grade, a change that I am very excited about.

So, today was day 179.   At 6:50 in the morning, my buddy and I both cried over this particular student’s blog

(http://kidblog.org/Room305b/Alexander230/1520/  At 7:45 a.m. was our robotics demonstration.  Wednesday’s dress rehearsal was as bad a dress rehearsal that I have ever witnessed.  Needless to say, both myself and Ms. Howard were very nervous.  However, in front of quite a panel, the students’ performance was flawless.  As I sat scrunched on the floor, I beamed across the auditorium at Ms. Howard as group after group

My beautiful gift

totally nailed their presentation.  After the last group, my room parents came up with a huge box.  They said it had really special meaning.  Tracey was right on with that assessment.  As I unwrapped the box, inside the bubble wrap, was an absolutely stunning ceramic platter that was personalized with 22 different turtles.  This platter was complete with the DPC logo as well as quotes that the kids said about DPC.  I was stunned beyond words.  It’s not very often that I am speechless.  But this did it.  Tears welled up in my eyes, and as my principal came over to see my gift, she noticed I was pretty emotional.  She hugged me and said, “isn’t this the best job in the world?”  It was pretty easy to agree with that statement.

At lunch, I went to walk one last time with my fifth grade student Justin.  His teacher asked me if he could hang out with his class, which was a pretty easy question.  I’ll be walking with him this summer.  So, I started back up the stairs, when four students from last year, Owen, Henry, Trevor, and Julian, asked me if they could have lunch with me.  I quickly said “sure”, and we headed upstairs.  I got to tell them that they were a special group for me and that they were going to do great at the middle school.  Trevor, who moved in during the school year last year, thanked me for doing what I did for him to welcome him into our class.  Jason joined us with his yearbook for me to sign.  It was a wonderful lunch and during it, I received a call from the office saying that

Gift from David and Sam

someone was coming up to see me.  I wondered who, and soon enough, Sam and David strolled into my room, carrying the canoe paddle that they had used in the Community Chest Challenge.  I had sponsored them, and at our reunion several weeks back, they thanked me for sponsoring them and said they had a paddle for me.  I forgot about it until just then.  It just seemed like the other day that I had these two boys as 5th graders, and here they were, both heading off to great colleges, back visiting their old 5th grade teacher.  Sam had written on the  paddle “Thanks for teaching and inspiring us from 5th Grade onwards;” and David had written “Thank you for everything.  Your mark on me is deeper than a pen on paper;”

So as this school year is coming to a close, I have to honestly say that I am glad that I did not win the lottery last June.  This year has been full of challenges, both good and bad, but as Kelly said, this is the ultimate job in the world.  I can’t imagine doing anything else.  I overheard one of my students tell his father during our slide show, look how the turtles have changed since September.  I think its safe to say that both the students and myself have also changed throughout the year.  Their river writing on Wednesday, was extremely reflective.  http://riveredge.wordpress.com/2011/06/22/the-river-and-me-june-2011/#comment-265  Just as the river never stands still, my students past and present continue to inspire me to be a better teacher next year and to keep moving to find new ways to engage them as learners.

Have a great summer and I’ll be blogging about all the great classes and conferences that I will be attending this summer.