Sunday, February 19, 2012

How Teaching Made Me a Better Parent

    When my daughter Meredith was born in 1987, I had been teaching high school since 1971 and had been married since 1974.  (You can do the math!)  Our youngest daughter Catherine was born in 1990.  

   When Meredith entered kindergarten, like most parents, I was anxious.  Many of my concerns were about me!  As a long-time teacher, wasn’t I supposed to know about schools?  But how in the world would I know how to parent during her elementary years, when I had spent my entire professional life in a high school?

     With the advantage of hindsight, I realize that being a high school teacher helped me be a better parent during my daughters’ education.  Of course, any child’s education goes on a zigzag track.  Just think how our lives and society would be so much easier if parents dropped off their children in the kindergarten classroom and then picked them up 13 years later, knowing that their children were well-adjusted, well-educated, and ready for anything the world will throw at them.  Actually, that system sounds too much like the novel Brave New World for me.   So back to some ways my life in the high school world helped me parent.     

      My primary advantage was that I always knew where they were headed.  I had a pretty good idea what the academic world of their high school would be like, and I had a pretty good idea of the social life of teenagers.  I didn't have all the answers, but I felt comfortable thinking about what was ahead for them.  My husband likes to remind me that when our oldest daughter entered high school, I said to him, "now they are on my turf."

      We are fortunate to live in a community with excellent schools. Our school district offers two elementary curriculum choices:  contemporary and informal.  Our first decision was to choose the best program for our daughter.  Like the other parents, I dutifully visited each program.  I had fun visiting kindergarten and first grade classes, but  I didn’t feel competent to make a good decision.  Then I had an “ah-ha” moment.  I needed to visit fifth grade classes to see the students before they headed to middle school. I thought I had an understanding of how the middle school curriculum would differ from the elementary curriculum. Did these students seem to have the skills and demeanor to be successful in the next level of their education? After all of these visits, I believed the contemporary program was best for our girls. My daughters had a wonderful elementary experience, and we were always pleased that we had chosen the contemporary curriculum.

     Students who do not write down assignments have always frustrated me.  A student’s success is often based on his or her organization, which begins with knowing what the assignments are. Consequently, throughout their school years, I encouraged my girls to use plan books. In the early grades and middle school years, teachers often had specific ways for students to write in a plan book.  Because my daughters understood the value of plan books, purchasing a plan book became a priority, even before the school year started.  Plan books can be very pricey, but I let them choose their own—I could cut corners on the school supplies’ budget somewhere else.  I know they still use plan books, and I’m sure they are more organized than I am.

    We made it clear to our daughters that we expected them to always do their work.  Perfection was not the goal. However, they needed to do their best.  As a teacher, I had seen the results of students’ best efforts.  I also know that students stumble at times, but learning to deal with those stumbles is a valuable experience.

   I tried to find the right balance when helping the girls with their homework.  When should we help, and when should we step away? Parent involvement at home can be tricky. One skill I tried to teach them at home was how to break down projects and other work into smaller tasks.   I helped them work one step at a time.  When one of them had a project, we sat down with her plan book to figure out what needed to be done each day.   Even when teachers gave interim due dates for projects, I helped them break down the work.

   Taking the initiative to talk to a teacher can be difficult for students.  Asking for a teacher’s help is sometimes easier said than done.  I wanted the girls to know that the first step for help was always talking to their teachers. Also, always take advantage of any extra help opportunities offered.  This is a lesson they have learned well--when my daughters went to college, I know they took advantage of any professor’s office hours and went to many extra study sessions.

    We attended the parent-teacher conferences and school open houses.  I was happy to be on the parent-side of the conference table. I had questions, but mainly I was there to listen.  The teachers knew best about the girls’ classroom experiences. 

   When I talk to my young teacher friends, I like to give them confidence that they are better parents because they teach high school.  Parenting is hard work, and parenting while having a career is really hard work!   As I look back on our girls’ school years, I wonder how our family juggled everything. (Of course, my husband and I were younger then!)

  I have no illusions that we were perfect parents, and I expect no special accolades.  We were always fortunate to have healthy children, secure jobs, and good schools. We know that many parents have much more challenging situations.  Dean and I tried our best, and today we are very proud of how our daughters “turned out”. 



Wednesday, January 18, 2012

I Want to Go to High School Today!

Many of us like to compare today to the “good ole’ days”, noting that everything was better during our idyllic high school days.   Wait a minute!  Maybe there are things in the lives of teenagers today that we would have loved to have experienced “way back when”.

Here are my thoughts about what aspects of high school are better today.

  • Enrollment in classes is open to boys and to girls.For example, in my high school, girls were not allowed to take Physics. This rule was made by the teacher. He didn’t think girls would ever use Physics, so he wouldn’t allow girls in his class.  No one challenged his idea—this was way before Title IX addressed such unfair rules. 

  • Similarly, today there are no “girl” classes and “boy” classes.  Girls were required to take home economics; boys were required to take shop.  A girl  could not enroll in a shop class.  I think I would have loved shop!  My husband, who loves to cook, probably would have loved home economics. 

  • Students have amazing choices for their class offerings:  psychology, Mandarin Chinese, digital photography, classic film studies, jazz music, statistics, world cultures, java programming.  Sometimes educators talk about today's high school being like a shopping mall.  I know I would have a hard time deciding on some of the courses to "buy" from today's academic "mall".

  • The 1970’s landmark legislation, known as Title IX, opened up athletics to girls.I think I would enjoy volleyball, tennis, and cross country.  I might even be tempted to try “modern” basketball— the game where all the girls could run the full court, not just the anointed “roving forward”.  I love seeing boys cheer for girls' teams and vice versa.  Athletes respect athletes, no matter what gender.

  • Social media has a place for most people today. I remember sharing the phone with my family.  How could they not understand that I needed to talk for hours to my friends?  I have to confess that  today I would probably be the girl you would see texting in the mall getting very close to falling into that decorative fountain!  Because of Facebook and Twitter, my daughters have more contact with their former high school classmates than I ever could imagine.  Fortunately, my graduating class is making tremendous strides in finding over 650 people via the Internet.

  •  Diversity has become so natural in some areas of a teenager’s world that the term diversity holds a somewhat hollow meaning.  Students can easily interact with young people who come from different backgrounds or practice different religions. Paradoxically, students find more similarities with the students who  first appear so different.

  • Classes for students with physical and mental disabilities are no longer in the basement!  My grade school had a class for students with disabilities, which was tucked in a corner.  We rarely saw these students, and,sadly, those students had little chance to interact with any other students.   Finally, we understand that all students deserve respect.  Our lives are enriched as we get to know one another.

  • Today's world really is smaller! Seeing videos and listening to music from all over the world allow today's students to have a connection to other places.  Students often have the chance to travel to foreign countries for education or just for fun.  My most international trip was over the Rainbow Bridge to see the Canadian side of Niagara Falls!

I want to assure you that my name is not Pollyanna.  I know that each benefit for students today holds potential  and/or real problems.   Why focus on the negative?  Let's celebrate the parts of our teenage society which have changed for the better.
A song from "Wicked" comes to mind, as I challenge young people and young teachers:

"You can do all I couldn't do, . . .
So now it's up to you
For both of us - now it's up to you..."

Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Teacher's Teachers

I always wanted to be a teacher.

 I loved playing school, even when I was alone. One Christmas, Santa gave me a stand-up chalkboard, with white chalk and colored chalk.  Now I had all the latest technology to be a real teacher!  Teaching my imaginary students, I created fabulous classes.  One bonus, which I didn't realize until much later, was that my imaginary students always eagerly complied with everything I asked them to do!

In junior high school, I joined Future Teachers of America.  I don't recall many specific activities or meetings of the group, but I do remember that we could prepare a lesson and teach a class. I have no idea what I prepared or what class I taught, but I do remember that I had fun---and I was a real teacher. We also tutored students in our former elementary school.  I listened to a little girl read---this tutoring must have been during the spring, because I remember sitting with her on the steps by the playground in the sunshine.

My school memories, of course, include many teachers. Some of these special people stand out for me.  Allow me to introduce them:

  • Miss Sauer, my first grade teacher.   My family moved to a new house about one week before school started, and I didn't know anyone in the neighborhood.  For the first few days of school, I cried when my mom left me in the first grade room.  Miss Sauer was so sweet to me. As far as I knew, I was the only student she had in that class.  She made me feel cared for and special.

  • Mrs. Wingassen, my fifth grade teacher.   I had the measles during fifth grade, so I was out of school for many days.  She asked everyone in the class to make me a  get-well picture, which she put together into a booklet.   When I got these pictures, I was a very happy girl.  During my childhood, everyone got mumps, measles, and chicken pox, which required long absences.   I imagine we often made these  pictures for other students who were out for long periods, but I only remember the one my teacher created just for me.  Academically,  during this year my teacher introduced  the class to content about all 48 states (yes, I said 48!). With the help of Mrs. Wingassen, I became hooked on finding out about many places in the U.S.   Place names like Schenectady, Albuquerque, Phoenix, and Boise sounded puzzling and magical.
  • Miss Seifert, my elementary music teacher.  Music class was always a  mixture of fun and hard work.  In fifth grade, Cincinnati Public Schools created a 5th and 6th grade school choir to sing in Cincinnati's May Festival.  All students auditioned, and surprisingly, I made it as one of the representatives of my elementary school.  (I owe lots to  my mom who taught me the alto part of "Silent Night", just for fun---hooray, that was the audition piece--lucky me!).  Miss Seifert joined us during our rehearsals on several Saturdays at Cincinnati Music Hall.  Because of spending this extra time with her, I interacted with her on a personal level.  For a treat one Saturday afternoon, she took all of us (about 10 students) to see the  movie "Operation Petticoat".  The title is so fresh for me because the experience was so memorable!  How could a girl feel anymore special than to see a movie with her teacher?? 

  • Mr. Stewart, my 9th grade Algebra teacher.  I was no math whiz, to say the least!  Those math concepts always took a bit longer to sink into my brain!  My dad, an accountant, tried to help me, but honestly, his patience had its limits.  How could his daughter not understand something that came to him so easily?  Fortunately, my teacher offered to help me.  I probably went to his room at least two days a week after school to get extra help.  He explained everything again, showing extraordinary patience. He treated me with great respect, and I always looked forward to the times he helped me.
  • Mrs. Vail, my Socio-Economics teacher.  All seniors were required to take this class, which included sociology, economics, and government.  Each day, I loved going to her class.  She had a fabulous grasp about the kinds of information we would need when we entered the adult world.  One activity caught my attention from the moment she gave us the assignment.    We had to visit different grocery stores to  compare prices of a variety of  products.  I know this work doesn't sound very innovative today, but this was 1967. (The most real-world activity I remember until that one was a math problem requiring me to figure when two trains would meet, one going 50 mph and one going 76 mph.  Heck--I had never even ridden on a train!)  I never forgot how engaged I was in the price comparison project. I now realize Mrs. Vail was way ahead of her time---she gave us an authentic, project-based learning experience. 
     As I write about my teachers, I wonder why each one has remained so clear in my memory. Then I realize the answer!   All together, Miss Sauer, Mrs. Wingassen, Miss Seifert,  Mr. Stewart, and Mrs. Vail are a composite of a masterful educator with all the "right stuff" to help me become successful:      caring for me , teaching with  patience,  giving me academic challenges, offering engaging work, and treating me with respect.

     These teachers, and many more, helped me during every stage of my education.  Because of them,  I have been able to " go confidently in the direction of (my) dreams" , as Henry David Thoreau once recommended to all of us.


Friday, December 23, 2011

The Teacher's File Cabinet--It's not what you think it is!

  Many people think that a teacher's life becomes super easy after a few years, because he or she can go to the file cabinet, take out an old lesson plan, and ,"voila",  have a lesson for that day.  No matter how long one has taught, lesson planning involves more than pulling a worksheet or test out of a file.
Source:  Hub Solution Designs
   Familiarity with course material, understanding the timing aspects of a lesson, and just plain confidence do ease a teacher's task.
 Let me show you, however, how a lesson on "The Fall of the House of Usher" by Poe might be very different for me this year:
(This scenario is fictitious, but I think it is realistic.)

  • Last year I had 4 English 11 classes of 27 students each.  This year, because of an increase in enrollment, I have 5 classes of 27 students each. I want all students to have an individual copy so they can annotate as they read.  (This is an important skill when helping students read literature closely.)
  •  I need to make 27 more copies of the short story.  Oops....the copy machine is not working......oops, the second copy machine needs toner....oops......the next one works, but the copier jams after 3 or 4 copies, but I finally get my extra copies.
  •  Ok, now I have a copy for each student!
  • I must reread the story.  Even though I know the story well, I need to  read it again to make sure I haven't forgotten anything or thought of something different about the story. I haven't read the story since last year. I need to look at any notes I have and may add some.
  • This year I have an ESL student (English as a Second Language)  from Somalia who is a very hard worker, but has great difficulty reading independently.  I need to look at her schedule to see when she can go to the Writing Lab for extra help.  I may also email the ESL teacher.
  • I also have 2 students on IEP's who require different accomodations.  One needs extra time on assignments and one needs to have the story read orally (I'll get the info to her intervention specialist),
  • Now is the time to figure out the timing of  reading the story. 
  • I will read the first few pages with the students to set up the setting and atmosphere Poe uses.  They'll  need help with words like tarn, miasma, fissure. How should I handle vocabulary needs with my classes?
  • Students will read independently until Madeline appears, about  5 paragraphs. 
  • Review:  narrator, Roderick, symptoms of his illness, and Madeline's appearance.
  • During all of this, students annotate their copy, following guidelines I have given them.
  • Because the story can't be read in one period, I  must decide what to assign for homework--or should we finish in class tomorrow?
  • We have shortened periods tomorrow for an assembly, which will also affect my planning.
  • After discussing the events in the story, I will introduce possible themes. 
  • Students will be assigned to use quotes from the story to support each possible theme.
  • I will have students work in pairs on this assignment----this is the first time these classes have done this, so I have to plan for how the pairing will work.
  • Students also need to take notes on how Poe uses the setting and atmosphere, the plot, the characters, and the hidden workings of the human mind. Later, they will need this information to write an essay on Poe's style.
   The lesson I described doesn't contain lots of innovative, cutting-edge ideas! I haven't even mentioned  goals and learning targets when studying Poe.  My purpose here is to show the process involved in working with a lesson which I have done many, many times.  Also, each class is different, so I may need to do some things differently because of the nature of the class and students.

As everyone in education knows, we teach students, not content.  However, the content, the materials, and the process matter.  The success of my students depends on my work before class even begins!

One aspect of teaching I have loved is planning and searching for new ideas.  If anyone mentions that teachers simply rehash old work, please remind him that we are not robots and our students are not robots. Teachers don't simply turn on a start button each day, going through some mechanical movements.

Source:  123RF, royalty free photos

 Change is constant in education, even for the very familiar! 

If you want to read "The Fall of the House of Usher", here is a link for you!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A big thank you for teaching a student teacher how to teach!!!

I was lucky in 1971--I had a fabulous student teaching experience! 

Athens, Ohio, in the Hocking Hills of southeast Ohio, is not close to a large city.  My friends and I wanted to student teach in a big city-- practicing our skills in the true adult world.  The large city where OU placed student teachers was Cleveland, Ohio, about as far as one could be from Athens and still be in Ohio.

My placement was teaching 8th grade social studies at Harding Middle School in Lakewood, a Cleveland suburb.  My excitement of getting an apartment with my friends outweighed my nervousness at being thrown into a classroom.  We found a landlord who specialized in short-term leases for student teachers. We four co-eds thought we lived in Windsor Castle!  Spacious, close to the bus line, and in the city, this apartment was perfect. Amazingly, one roommate and I were placed at the same school, so we took the bus each morning to our school.

Mr. Mulling, my supervising teacher, was the reason my student experience was a perfect introduction to the classroom.  First, he let me observe him for a few days.  Each day we met to discuss his lessons and his planning.  Then one day, he told me I was going to teach.   "Yikes, I'm not ready" was my first thought.  But he knew I had to jump in.

He next required me to write out my lesson plans, giving me the format I had to use  Today, requiring lessons plans in student teaching seems like a no-brainer, but I knew others who were not required to plan and write as much as I was.  At the time, of course, I felt somewhat put-upon.  Now, I know that requirement helped in my first teaching job and still helps me today!

He stayed in the classroom for one or two days while I executed my well-written plans.  Teaching seemed very easy!  Good students and good plans made for a good day.  Then, it happened; he left me ALONE in the classroom. 

Each day became more challenging as the students realized I was "in charge".  They tested my authority each day. One day I chastised a class, reminding them that they wouldn't act up if Mr.Mulling was there.  At wit's end, I finally went to get Mr. Mulling, sure he would "have my back" with this group.   My jaw dropped when he said, "No, Linda, you need to handle the class on your own."  He probably gave me a few suggestions, but I had no time for a lengthly educational chat. The  class could be hanging on the ceiling by now.

 I don't remember specifically what happened when I returned, but I do remember that I "handled the class".  Again, he knew the right course for my successful teaching experience.   I'm sure I had some discipline issues later, but I had learned a most valuable lesson---I had to learn how to plan for possible discipline problems and how to think on my feet,  because certain aspects of classroom management cannot be predicted!

I finally need to thank Mr. Mulling  for allowing me to be creative. One of my final, planned activities was an extensive class mock trial. If he had reservations about the extent of my project, he never told me.  What he did do was ask me questions about every aspect of it, allowing me to come up with the answers. Now I know he was helping me think through the entire project, without telling me what to do!

On the big day of implementing the project, my boyfriend (now my husband) was visiting me at school.  He helped by reading the introduction of my script.   He still remembers the words: "Today on a cloudy fall morning, in Spain's prison courtyard.. . . "  I can't remember the rest of the role playing, but I do remember the feeling when I realized I had survived a huge, successful activity.

 I learned recently that Mr.Mulling died this past November.  Even though I'm sad that I can't tell him about my retirement, I am so pleased that I had called him about 10 years ago when we were visiting Cleveland.  I told him how much student teaching had meant to me, and I told him that I had been in education for many years.  I hope that phone call meant as much to him as it did to me----it was a small way to pay back his kindness to a 21 year old many years ago.

My dad used to say to "get it from the beginning", whenever my brother or I started on a new venture. 

Mr Mulling,  you were a master teacher before that term became popular in education, touching many young lives. Thank you for helping me to "get it from the beginning", which led to  my 37 years in the classroom.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Zooming from the 70s to the 2000s

Yesterday, my daughter asked me if I realized when I started teaching in 1971 that my year of retirement would be somewhere in the 2000s. It took me a few seconds to even wrap my brain around the question!

When I started teaching, I never thought about retirement at all!  In fact, I didn't think too much about retirement until a few years ago.  My husband and I were busy raising our daughters, and we didn't seem to have time for a breath, let alone time for thoughts of retirement planning.  Some of my teaching friends started to retire, and it hit me that I would someday be there!!!

I remember when my dad retired as an accountant for Cincinnati Metro.  Dean and I planned a huge surprise party for him.  My mom was in on the surprise, but what she didn't know was that my brother was flying in from Kansas City for the big event.  I'll always remember my dad's face when he came to our house that Sunday, and we told him guests would soon arrive to celebrate his retirement!  Even more memorable was the look on both of my parents' faces when I said, "And one of the guests has already arrived".  My brother walked in from the kitchen!  My mom gave him a big hug and kiss! I'm pretty sure my dad's jaw dropped! Many of my parents' friends joined us that afternoon, and we had asked each one to write a note to my dad.  The notes ranged from profound to funny to silly.

I still have those notes in a scrapbook we made for my dad.  I think it it time that I read them.  Of course, my dad isn't with me for my retirement, but I bet the sentiments his friends shared will have just as much meaning for me today.  And I humbly say that my dad would be proud that I have taught for 37 years and have earned my retirement.

So back to my daughter's question.  Key futuristic dates I recall as being significant were 1984 (because of the novel) and the year 2000.   (Has it been almost 12 years since we all worried about Y2K?)

I realize that if I  had thought of the end of my career when I started my career, I wouldn't have had much of a career. Teaching has been a journey, as trite as that may sound.   Anyway, what fun is it to read the last chapter of a book before starting it? 

Monday, November 28, 2011

Technology in the Olden Days

 This past summer I purged some books in our basement which I had had since my college days.  I graduated from Ohio University in 1971, so those books were old!  I chuckled as I read one of the books about making teaching materials, with an emphasis on audio-visuals.

  I can remember in a methods class making a copy by putting paper in some "gloppy" mess.  I saw the process in that old book, but I really don't know what the heck was in that mess.  I know that I have never made one of those copies again in my teaching career!

  Making copies in those early days took much patience.  I used those old mimeo sheets which made copies with purple print.  You had to type very carefully on those sheets.  Any mistake had to be literally scraped off the back.  I remember often hand printing some of my work because it was easier and more reliable than typing.  I'm pretty sure I still have some of those purple-lettered sheets in the crawl space in our basement.  Cleaning out those will be for another day...

  One of my hidden talents is threading a movie projector!  I loved showing movies about history in my class, and I learned how to work the projector and how to troubleshoot any problems.   Those who know the magic of a movie projector understand that the "loop" of the film must be just a certain size.  I had the touch to make that loop just right.  One time in the 70s I went to a meeting with my husband--movies of horse races were on the program.  No one could really get the projector to work, and Dean volunteered me to help.  Yep--I got the loop right and the group enjoyed those movies.  I felt like a hero--a technological genius.

   Of course, my projector skills are obsolete now. 

  Another device I loved was an opaque projector!  I showed pictures from books on that old monster.  Bob oh boy--that thing got hot!  It was also noisy, but I always loved showing pictures.  I think our art teacher still uses one of these when students need to trace shapes from pictures.  Gee--if that one breaks, can our school even buy another one?  Can we even get bulbs for it if one burns out??

   Another often used item was a filmstrip projector.   One thing I liked was the ability to add info as I showed those filmstrips.  Of course, this was much more difficult for the "modern" filmstrips which had sound with them--usually played on a record player or a tape recorder. (Oh yeah--records could have scatches and tapes could break)

   The old stuff usually had the same purposes as much of the new technology we use today.  I was trying to offer variety and  to find ways to engage the kids.  A big difference is that today's technology allows students to make more choices in their learning.  One of new  educational mantras is focusing on student learning and not teachers teaching---I see that educators can do more with current technology to help student learning.  But, I also think education can't undervalue good teaching methods!