Crying Ranting Crawling Twitching

If you teach in Georgia, do you see the cryptic message in the title to this blog?

I see bubble scantrons in my sleep.  I hear the sharpening of the no. 2 pencils while I drive to and from school.  I dream that I lose the testing bucket (that we take with us everywhere we go-even the bathroom).  Our morning conversation starters are, “What was your testing dream last night?”  My most frightening testing dream involved “test detectors” at the entrance of the school. Each teacher had to walk through(without the alarm going off)  on the way in and out. Of course, it was my paranoid, neurotic dream, so the alarm blared when I went through.

I never mean for this blog to be a complaint forum.  So, I’ll save those thoughts for the teachers’ lounge.  This is after we have all been carried out on stretchers, revived, and placed back in our classrooms.  Eventually, the incessant American Idol talk will resume, and our angsty testing woes will be history.

It is best practice to utilize test data  for instructional purposes. I get that. However, I wonder how much emphasis should be put on one test?    If you saw, Waiting for Superman, you know that American students  are deficient in both math and literacy skills.  So, how do students (who PASS nationally normed and criterion-referenced tests) move through school without maintaining age-appropriate literacy and math skills?  Conversely, what about those students who have a rough testing day and don’t do well on the tests? Does anyone ask the teacher for anecdotal records, or observations from the year to refute the test results?

All year, I try to offer a multitude of learning opportunities to my students. We do projects, we work on critical thinking skills, and we study  real literature. But, by April I feel like I’ve sold out, because I’ve mutated into a testing troll. I see myself handing out test packets, and I hear myself discuss test taking strategies.  I don’t recognize me.

I began wondering how it all got started.

The earliest record of standardized testing comes from China, where hopefuls for government jobs had to fill out examinations testing their knowledge of Confucian philosophy and poetry. In the Western world, examiners usually favored giving essays, a tradition stemming from the ancient Greeks’ affinity for the Socratic method. But as the Industrial Revolution (and the progressive movement of the early 1800s that followed) took school-age kids out of the farms and factories and put them behind desks, standardized examinations emerged as an easy way to test large numbers of students quickly.
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Think for a moment.  How would the world of standardized testing change if there were assessments on the arts?

We could integrate art history, literature, music, performing arts, and drama into the mix.  We have state standards on all of these subjects, and standardized testing is not going away-so why not sprinkle these elements into the testing recipe? Learning to read and answer questions about a passage or story is essential.  Let’s take this one step further.  What if the tests assessed the understanding of a specific piece of grade-appropriate literature?

Let’s encourage students to think about how the social and political events of the world have impacted the arts.  Think of the Harlem Renaissance, The Great Depression, The Industrial Revolution, the 1920’s,the 1960’s, etc…  People use art, music, and literature to reflect how the world changes.  Elementary students can make these connections, if they are given the opportunity.

We spend the year teaching with a global view in a holistic manner.  I’m wondering why we cannot test students similarly?

The point is to develop the childlike inclination for play and the childlike desire for recognition and to guide the child over to important fields for society. Such a school demands from the teacher that he be a kind of artist in his province. Albert Einstein

I know that I would like my students to think beyond the bubble.  Just sayin…

Our end of the year project is to write a one-act play.  This was my students’ idea-not mine.  How could I possibly say no?  It will be a challenge for all of us.  But I’m hoping my testing troll fades into oblivion.


Practice What You Teach…

I am amazed by the brain.  I have researched brain-based learning and Multiple Intelligence Theory. I wrote a  thesis averring that when children know how they learn, their motivation levels for academics increase.

I told my class that when we learn new skills or concepts, our brains create more synapses.  I explained that learning something new can be uncomfortable.  I compared learning to exercising and using new muscles that are first sore, but later become stronger.  I may have possibly imparted great wisdom that day.

The easiest way to conceptualize this is that there are more synapses in the human brain than there are stars in the known universe. Mem­ory and learn ing occur when the neurons and synapses reorganize and strengthen them selves through repeated usage.

I  have said time after time that the MINUTE we feel that we have a hold of this job, the rotation of the earth changes.  All my brain talk seemed silly, since I was the biggest brain hypocrite around. Where were my synapses? Where was my discomfort in the new material that I should be learning? My synapses failed me.  Therefore, I probably shouldn’t talk about  them.

Another fun fact about me is that I have a difficult time with change.  As a child, when my mother would rearrange the furniture-I would become frenzied.  A hair cut may have just put me in therapy.

After school, two weeks ago, names were being called on the intercom.  The buzz was that if your name was called, your grade assignment has changed.  My name was called……

What? Me? Change? Huh?

I walked into the office to see the three administrators smirking just enough to make me more paranoid than usual.

Remember in my last post I wrote, “Last time I checked, I didn’t teach Kindergarten?”  I eat my words.

I will be teaching Kindergarten and first grade gifted.  I will be doing other wonderful things with literacy and 5th grade math as well.

I have wanted to teach gifted for years, so I am thrilled to have this opportunity.  But it all happened so suddenly.

I returned to my room to catch my breath.  I looked at the boo-coos of 5th grade resources staring me down.  The stress of the classroom move smacked me in the head.  The hideout under my desk was looking good.

Last night, I  dreamed that I was being observed while teaching the five and six-year olds. My evaluation said that I the vocabulary I was using was too difficult for them to understand. What do you mean? I can’t discuss the thematic relevance of The Odyssey with first graders?

Something strange happened-the synapses in my brain became audible.   I would have to learn new curriculum, create extension activities for very little people, and for the first time in eight years-not have a home room.  Snap, spark, pow…

In my stupor, I filled out the application for the specialist program in teacher leadership.  It was like the automatic writing that people do when they have been taken over by other entities.  It was too easy.  They can even use my MAT scores for admission! Yes, I skirted the GRE by taking the Millers Analogy Test.

What? Classes begin the third week of  May? Spark, crackle, boom…

Later in the week, I went to drama rehearsal.  Again, Daniel came to help.  Since I am completely directionally challenged, the blocking is a conundrum for me. The synapses fired as I tried to envision stage directions. KABOOM!

I’m grateful for my brain sparks.  I continually research and read educational material, but the sparks had dwindled.  I didn’t follow my own research-based words. I am happy to say that I am incredibly uncomfortable and thrilled to be in a small panic.

See, this is what I get for being a know-it-all about the brain.


Superman and Cookies…


Watching, Waiting for Superman, in a Comtrex-laden flu haze was a bad idea.  It is a movie that every teacher and parent needs to see.  It is raw, uncomfortable, and rife with debilitating statistics about what children (in the United States) know-or better yet, what they don’t know.  It seems that some people feel that there are children out there, who cannot learn.   One thing that I know for sure (thanks Oprah) is that all children can learn.  Ok, so this is pie-in-the-sky idealism.  What is so wrong having a Mary Poppins educational  philosophy?  Without the hope of teaching all children, we are at risk of becoming like the evil principal in Matilda.

Ms. Truchbull-

I am a realist and I have been faced with extreme challenges in the classroom. The way I saw it, I had two choices, similar to that of Robert Frost and his road dilemma.  I could ignore the problem and say I did all I could.  Or, I could work with the challenge, ask for help, research, plan, teach, re-teach, go back to square one.  When this doesn’t work, I keep going; because something has to work.

Now, I’m not Mary Poppins, and I don’t smile all day while imparting boulders of wisdom.  Many days, I get frustrated and feel like a failure. Some days, the paper work, meetings, and assessments can saturate even the sunniest teacher disposition.  The thing is, teaching is another member of the family.  It follows me around as if it were my shadow.  The educational day does not end at the last bell.  The faces of my class pop into my mind, one-by one, like the old projector slide shows.

The movie discussed how the lower socio-economic districts continually have lower math and reading scores than the more affluent districts.  Some failing high schools are nicknameddrop out factories.

Consider the following statistics cited in the film: the annual cost of prison for an inmate is more than double what is spent on an individual public school student. Eight years after Congress passed the No Child Left Behind act, with the goal of 100 percent proficiency in math and reading, most states hovered between 20 and 30 percent proficiency, and 70 percent of eighth graders could not read at grade level. By 2020, only an estimated 50 million Americans will be qualified to fill 123 million highly skilled, highly paid jobs. Among 30 developed countries, the United States ranks 25th in math and 21st in science.

The end of the movie left me encouraged more than discouraged.  The animated “good teachers” depicted in the movie made me hopeful.  If every teacher in the U.S., took one step beyond what he/she is currently doing to affect change-what would happen?  Again, Mary Poppins seeps in, but without her the cynic would take over, and the kids deserve more than that. Don’t they?

This week at school, I’m teaching plate tectonics and how mountains are formed.  The activity calls for boo-coos of cookies, icing, and graham crackers.

As the mound of sweets slowly rolled by the girl at the check out, she asked me:

“What is all of this for?”

I heard myself explaining how when two plates move together it can result in the formation of a mountain.  I told her that I was doing an activity with the cookies to model the various faults in the earth.

The girl bagging the groceries asked, “What grade do you teach.”

“Fifth grade”, I replied.

“I don’t even remember fifth grade”, she mumbled as she stuffed the grocery bags.

The girl ringing my groceries said, “I wish I could have been in your class.”

I believed her.

So, here it to a new school week, and to all the teacher superheros.


The Oxford Comma Bugs Me

Teaching fifth grade means that I must prepare twenty-six children to write as if they were prolific and published authors.  The writing test is coming.  I hear its heavy, rubber boots stomping down the hallway.  This test looms over me and follows me around.  It flicks me in the head and taps me on the shoulder.  It waits under my bed to wake me in the middle of the night.   Pure writing comes from that magical place in our brains that knits the imagination into the written word.  The results are cable-knit stories, beautifully crafted from brilliant minds.

I will digress to explain that the knitting metaphors are inspired by my neighbor and dear friend.  She knits like a crazy woman-very impressive.  She can knit in any given situation.  I have seen her knit and carry on a conversation during pedicures and while watching T.V.  I think she can knit and juggle eggs simultaneously.  I realized that the gift of writing is just as fluid as her skill with those knitting needles.

It is a sick moment when watching my friend knit makes me obsess over my writing instruction.

I love when children can describe an event with velvet words and small pieces of their hearts splattered on the page.  There is nothing more sublime than an entire class writing with the world blocked out.  The cadence of pencils scraping on paper is calming.   This point in writing instruction has proven to be my “happy place”.  I scan the dimly lit room.  I see small heads feverishly looking up words in their thesauri.  They highlight, use editing marks, and discuss plausibility and wording.  I hear angels singing.  Somewhere, someone is playing a harp.

Teaching writing is a purely subjective arena in education.   I have been in as many writing seminars as years I have been alive.  Each presenter has contradicting ideas of what effective writing looks like. I am expected to bring back sage words of writing advice to the staff.  But, it seems that all I can muster is to encourage teachers to do what feels right.

The non-negotiable area of instruction is GRAMMAR.  I have always been an avid writer.  The grammar part is just a hindrance to me.  In college, I remember being shocked out of my mind when my mythology professor gave me A’s for my essays.  In my confusion and delirium, I brought him my writing to make sure he had not made a mistake.  He told me my grammar was fine.  I kept wondering, “What about the commas, comma splices, and (EGADS) the elusive semicolon?”

At the ripe old age of forty-two, I realize that one reason I majored in Italian is because of the wisp of the wind grammar rules.  I could write an entire essay discussing the neurotic psychosis of Dante without using any punctuation!   I hit pay dirt!!

Back in the eighties, in high school-a conjunction TOOK THE PLACE of a comma.  (Notice, I used a comma and a hyphen-for emphasis.)   Now, we teach students to put a comma before the conjunction ALL OF THE TIME. The comma can be redundant when paired with a conjunction.  Yes, so this blog is specific and grammar laden.  Sorry, but it is just bugging me.

What is the ‘Oxford comma’?

The ‘Oxford comma’ is an optional comma before the word ‘and’ at the end of a list:

We sell books, videos, and magazines.

It’s known as the Oxford comma because it was traditionally used by printers, readers, and editors at Oxford University Press.  Not all writers and publishers use it, but it can clarify the meaning of a sentence when the items in a list are not single words:

These items are available in black and white, red and yellow, and blue and green.

I am in the midst of writing some essays to submit to the county.  I work with one teacher who is a published author and another teacher who taught A.P. English. I owned up to being a literary masochist, and I have asked both people to edit my essays.  There is nothing more humbling and unnerving than giving a raw piece of writing to someone to edit.  I shuddered and possibly blacked out as I pushed the SEND button to the first person.  She was kind and did a wonderful job of giving me scholarly suggestions.  She let me know that I had omitted many commas.  I knew this.  I skipped over the commas as if they were optional.  I laugh in the face of the commas!

I haven’t sent the essays to my A.P. friend.  I believe I need to drink chamomile tea and do two hours of Yoga before this happens.  She will red-pen it like a seventies teacher with a tight bun and polyester pants.  I have waited because I found a split infinitive in my essay today. I bet there are others hiding from me.   I don’t want her to see my split infinitives and dangling modifiers!!  I feel so exposed.

When I teach writing, I try to make the writing experience somewhat pleasurable.  I know grammar is important and I will succumb to the mafia comma rules.  I will even teach them to my class.  There may be a moment when I encourage them to assess whether the comma is necessary.  I believe this is considered literary license.

My students are smart.  One of my biggest pet peeves is beginning a sentence with “and”.  Well, C.S. Lewis and Tolkien do it!  And that is what you get when your 5th grade class is well read. Humph!

Until the test, I will focus on keeping their hearts in the writing while jumping through the grammar hoops.

I will teach writing, love my students and they will be fine.  (NO COMMA!)


Survival in Suburbia

Have you seen or read the Alone in the Wilderness story? It is about Dick Proenneke who retired in 1967 and decided to build a log cabin in Alaska.  He lived alone in the log cabin for 30 years.  His only companionship was the wildlife thumping and scurrying by each day and frigid night.  My smallest child watched the entire PBS special last year.  She was amazed by the fact that he never went to the grocery store.  From time to time, he sent his friend, Babe, to procure some food items and building materials.  Other than that, he lived off of the land.

As day three of the official Georgia “snow-in” begins, I think of Dick in his cabin.  What would he do if he were stuck in Suburbia?

I thought of the pictures of the grocery section of Target my friend posted on FB:

Apparently, there was a mad rush for bananas, onions, and all bread (except for pumpernickel and rye).  I guess in our fear of starvation, we can’t ignore our taste preferences.  It also made me wonder if there is some amazing recipe that calls for those ingredients.  Banana and onion casserole with a breaded topping?

Yes, I spent much time at the grocery store on Sunday afternoon.  I could not find bananas.  I don’t even like bananas.  But as soon as I saw there were none, it became a quest of some sort.   When I began asking around, no one I knew was able to find bananas.  But, someone has to have them!

I remember when my mother-in-law lived with us.  She had a banana obsession.  She would easily buy two huge bunches so we wouldn’t run out.  One bunch was green and the other would have to be ripe and ready to eat.  My theory is that the elderly community has bought them all.  That is the only hypothesis that makes sense.  See, I have all of this time on my hands and I must have answers!

My teacher friends and I are now complacent in the potential of having to make up 5 days.   The roads keep icing over and the temperatures won’t give us a good chance of a thaw until Friday afternoon.  So what do we do?  I got an email from, The Avenue, our local outside mall.  It told me they were closed so basically, I can’t go shopping.  My gym emailed me and encouraged my  not to drive on the icy roads. Nothing. We do nothing.

The most resourceful nothing-doers are the teenagers.  I’m amazed at the ready-made adventures they create on a mere moment’s notice.  They sled, walk, take pictures, download 42 movies on Netflix (and watch them all), and make every conceivable sweet, baked item left in the house.  I am waiting for them to find the Halloween cupcake mix that sits lonely and unloved in our pantry.  I believe they could all survive on a remote island with only a Dance Party Wii game and cheese and crackers to keep them alive.  They don’t even need to shower while they are stuck in suburbia.

The even smaller people must be dragged in from the wilderness.  They have this Dick Proenneke-like tenacity to build the perfect snow walls, houses, etc…  I thought my neighbor’s child was  fending off a grizzly yesterday as she searched for sticks and other natural building materials.  They tried with all of their might to sled on a trash can lid.  I took one step outside, felt the wind whipping in my face and went back in.

I believe my unease has been in the uncertainty of the days.  So, like Dick, I’ll take each day as it comes.  The snow will thaw and we will be back to our routines.   I’m learning that each minute in our lives cannot be planned.  When I let the stress and worry go, life happens.  Suddenly the impromptu pizza parties and neighborly visits occur!  Unplanned fun…what a thought.

When my control freak rears her nosy little head, I ignore her.  She isn’t happy when I do this. I tell her not to worry, she will have plenty to do next week.

Enjoy the day.


I am Rocky, Hear me Roar…

I love the shuffle option on my Ipod. Somehow, it decided that the theme to Rocky followed by I am Woman Hear me Roar would be a good combo. Yes, I know this is hokey. There are some days we need something to motivate us.

Watch how Rocky begins his morning jog. His Italian-American hair flowing in the wind. His snug gray sweat suit keeping him warm. Notice how his sweatshirt stays tucked into his pants, amazing, simply amazing. People calling his name as he passes his neighborhood. Suddenly, the entire city is following him and cheering him on as he approaches the steps. Children have left school and it seems that everyone left their houses and jobs to follow him. I also believe time stopped. What about the steps? Can he do it? YES!!!  Rocky does it!

Rocky is one of my favorite movies.  One of the reasons I love it is because Sylvester Stallone wrote the script. He then insisted on starring in the movie. This underdog of a movie and screen writer became a small part our  cinematic history. What motivated him in 1976 to do this? (Note, I am referring to the first Rocky movie, only). Was there a teacher who encouraged him along the way? Hmmm…..

Teachers hold the key to motivating students to take that extra step (pun intended). When I am teaching something difficult and it seems like I am getting NOWHERE, and the tile floor is sucking me in; I go to my mental Rocky clip. That ONE child needs all of us cheering her on. She leads the way as we follow behind calling her name!

Ok-So another Italian-American reference. TEACH:TONY DANZA. I was sucked into this show. My favorite episode is where he makes all the kids sanitize their hands. He even promises extra credit if they keep their sanitizer bottles by the end of the semester. Now, this is motivation! He cries quite a bit and makes me feel validated  for a few minutes. He teaches some things incorrectly. He doesn’t follow the rules because they don’t make sense. He was called to the front office because he didn’t sign in correctly.  There were many times, I turned my head and cringed a bit. However, I kept watching because he kept showing up. He continually self-reflected  and sought out help.

Today, I was motivated all day. I was motivated to sing in the car with my kids. I was motivated to clean out my closet and donate purses and shoes. I was even motivated to sit at my computer and write this blog. I began thinking and wondering what is the spirit of motivation? More specifically, what does that mean in education?

When I wrote my thesis, I attempted to quantify student motivation. I was told that motivation could not be measured in numbers. I did it anyway. The work was accepted and noticed. We all know when kids are motivated in our classrooms. They work independently. They ask for guidance not answers. They evaluate their work and feel a sense of pride and accomplishment. Rocky? YES!!!

I often think of that one teacher who motivated me. I had to write a response to a story we read about the Vikings. I decided to write it from the Vikings’ perspective. How they were tired, hungry, and rank. That teacher asked me to “read the essay to the class”. She encouraged me to refine my writing because I had “something”. She noticed me. SHE NOTICED ME! From that day forward, I wrote and shared on a regular basis. The high-school invisibility cloak was removed.

Last night, I spent a wonderful evening with dear friends. We rang in the New Year and talked to all hours of the morning. I was encouraged to made lasagna! I  learned that too much flour in white sauce is bad.

The White Tree is packed away and has begun  the annual holiday decor hibernation.   The remnants of the festivities are packed neatly in boxes. The crazy fiber optic tree is gone from our window.

I am ready for this year. I’m motivated to run my steps.

Happy New Year.


2011-A new year of teaching

I have been inspired to begin this blog in order to reach out to other educators who guzzle coffee, keep all hours planning, and sacrifice time to be a relevant presence in the classroom. Maybe this can be a place for lesson ideas-failures and successes. Of course, there will be discussions of kids vomiting on us and random lice checks.  I find that without the humor of the job, it can be quite a dark place that I often compare to Dante’s Inferno. I just wonder which level he would put us? I spent 4 years studying Italian; one of which was in Inferno. So, many of my DANTE references are part of my literary DNA. There may also be some Shakespearian analogies. It would be impossible to blog about education without these inspirations.

I have been in education for 10 years. Maybe this is the catalyst for my interest in blogging. I also feel that my middle-aged status puts me in a place where I feel what I say and feel has more validity than it did ten years ago. This is not to say that I do not second guess each and every move I make in front of all of those little faces. I’m just not sure that the “non-educator” has any clue what we do every day. If you think about it, education is one area in which most people North America have experience. Either they attended school, have children in school, or are part of the misunderstood world of education.

The title of the blog came to me during the days where I wish I were a mere few words or numbers sporadically scrawled on a dry-erase board. These characters are easily erased and re-written. As a teacher, we are continually erasing what we do and “re-writing” the plan. Some days, I wish that I could seek refuge under my desk with the lights out. I haven’t done this, yet. The funny thing is that I think most of my friends in the school would know where I am trapped.  The search and rescue team would find me clasping a mug of coffee in one hand and my new progressive glasses clutched in the other. I would be buried under an avalanche of colorful pens, sticky notes, and rubrics. I would surely be muttering something about my lesson plans not being color coded and the fact that I didn’t get lunch count in on time.

The thing is that with most passionate teachers, we LOVE what we do. The fascination of how those minds work mixed with the onus of being responsible for reaching each child can be enough to keep us up at night. When a lesson goes bad, it is like a stale comedian drowning. We need to know when to stop and quit beating the rotting horse. The comatose stares are usually a clue that a new plan is in order. We need to know when to re-group and lose all of our pride. I assure you that as soon as we feel that we have done a good job, something will smack us back to reality.

I have been very lucky to have had amazing parents and administrators who have been part of the community necessary to “raise a class” each year. I have had powerful mentors and other teacher friends who took me under their wings.

This blog is not meant to be a complaint forum or a place where we discuss specific children, since we must honor confidentiality. If you are a teacher, what are your hopes, dreams, or concerns? Are you planning on a big project? What gets you out of bed on a cold, Monday morning to go to work?