Penmanship and Marksmanship

Ever since 20 kids and six of their caretakers were mercilessly gunned down in Newtown, every single teacher I know has had one thing on his or her mind: safety.

Schools are supposed to be safe places where kids can forget about the bad things that might happen, that do happen.

No one knows better than teachers of the daily responsibility to keep their kids from harm, all kinds of harm.

             In addition to preventing violent madmen from threatening our kids, we do our damnedest to shield them from the fear and pain of poverty and neglect.   We see lonely kids and scared kids  and struggling kids every day, and every day, even before they take out a pen or open a book, we have to find ways to keep all our kids feeling safe and secure.

Some people are saying that an initiative to arm teachers will make schools safer and more secure.  I am trying to keep an open mind, but guns make me nervous; bad things happen when the wrong people have access to guns. And guns in schools don’t really make me feel any safer or more secure.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have never handled or fired a gun of any type.  I have, however, been held up by rifle toting bad guys who robbed the supermarket I worked in while I was a college student.  Maybe that’s why I have negative feelings about guns.

But I digress…

In Ohio, 24 teachers are now being trained in a test program involving firearms. In Arizona, there is a move to allow one teacher in every school to be armed.  A Texas politician, Louie Gohmert, asserted that had the Sandy Hook principal been armed, she could have “taken his head off before he could have killed those precious kids.”  In Utah, teachers have been allowed to carry concealed weapons in schools for the past 12 years, without any reported irresponsible behavior.

Advocates argue that this is not about teachers holstering sidearms.  It is about doing all that can be done to keep the kids safe. And this is a point that we all can agree on. But, will kids be safer when their teachers complete the six hours of training offered for 2,000 Utah educators?  Six hours? My colleagues and I have spent more time in professional development lectures to become proficient in differentiation.

Though I have tried to see this from both sides, I still have lots of questions.

The idea that armed personnel would deter would-be killers assumes a degree of rational thought.   Clearly, there was nothing sane about the attack on Sandy Hook.  Do we expect a normal response from people so beyond normal thought?

Most schools have multiple entrances and Sandy Hook proved that even locked doors don’t ensure an intruder won’t get in. Do we have armed guards at every point of entry?

Background checks haven’t been as successful as we might have hoped in preventing incompetent and unscrupulous people from getting jobs in schools.  Can we be certain that background checks would be more effective when determining who has the gun in a school?

If arming teachers makes schools safer, then do we also arm day care providers to make those facilities safer and more secure?

How do we prevent kids from being caught in the cross fire?  How would it feel to lose a child to friendly fire?

I understand the need to do something. Taking some sort of action makes us feel that we have power to defeat evil.  Newtown is a national tragedy that should never have happened.  I just don’t know if more guns is necessarily an appropriate response.

  For now, I will do what I can. I will continue to do my best to make kids feel safe and secure by creating a classroom where they can take academic and social risks without fear and where kindness is the golden rule.  For now, I will nurture my kids and do what I can to help them learn to nurture others.

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After Newtown: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3….

Then it was Monday and so, as usual, we came back to school after the weekend. I just didn’t expect it to be as difficult as it was.

Part of me needed to go back to school, to be among colleagues who surely would know what to do if something as terrifying as what happened at Sandy Hook were to unfold in our building.

I needed to get back to business as usual. I had papers to return and my 7th graders were scheduled to sit for an in class essay.

As usual, I left before it was light out and pulled into my unofficial spot in Lot # 1.  And as usual, only one other car–a Camry belonging to my humanities counterpart– was parked at our end of the lot. So far, so good.

That’s when, for a split second, I hesitated before opening my car door. I didn’t expect that.

Crazy, I told myself.  This has been business as usual for the past ten years.  This is our school on a pastoral campus where deer and wild turkeys are the biggest distractions.  Our grounds are the envy of my teacher friends: a pool, manicured shrubbery, several playgrounds. Our building is airy and open.

Crazy to be scared.  Then again, maybe not.

With fresh eyes, I scanned the wooded area surrounding the building.  I lost count trying to enumerate the doors that bring people into the building. I thought about the wall I share with the Spanish classes and remembered the door joining the two classrooms that has never, in ten years, been locked.

Then I thought about those 20 first graders and their teachers.

Nothing in school will ever be the same. Not yesterday.  Not today.  Not tomorrow.  Not ever.

There is apprehension in our building and yes, there is also fear. We are fumbling with keys and, even though it is inconvenient, we are keeping our classroom doors closed and locked.  People are staking out safe spots in our corridor.  “The teachers’ bathrooms with the deadbolt locks are the best places to take your kids, if you can get there.” And it is true.  You could squeeze a lot of kids into each one of those four restrooms.

But  I look around my classroom and there really are no other places to hide, no closets, nowhere to become invisible.  Because a school is not meant to be a place to hide. A school is where every kid should feel happy and proud and above all else, safe.

A school is where a child experiences the exhilaration of reading a chapter book or doing ten jumping jacks without stopping.   A school is where kids can take the stage together and belt out the middle school rendition of The Good Life.  A school is where everyone can wear pajamas on Spirit Day. A school is where the biggest worry of the day should be about too much homework and a jammed locker.

Some people say the answer is to arm teachers. Seriously?  Would target practice then become part our new APPR agreement?  Guess I will have to be satisfied with an ineffective in that domain.

When the Newtown teachers and their kids return to school, it will never be business as usual.  But it will be an act of monumental courage to reestablish a new routine.

God Bless the Children

We heard of the horror in Newtown during eighth period, at the end of the day.  The halls in our own school were Friday afternoon quiet. In classrooms, our teachers were hoping to make the most of every instructional moment, our kids hoping to hear the clock click to 2:43 announcing the weekend, and everyone feeling very safe in a place where everyone should be very safe.

The loss is unimaginable. 20 kids, all between ages of 5 and 10.  20 kids who went to school this morning and who will never come home. 20 kids, each with a family, each with a life as yet unlived.  Maybe they looked forward to singing a song in music today.  Maybe they were worried about a Friday spelling test. Maybe they almost missed the bus. Maybe they had play dates scheduled for this afternoon and basketball practice on Saturday morning. Maybe their families already had holiday gifts wrapped and hidden in the hall closet.

Radio and television news feeds us continuous information– all piecemeal–because we are hungry for details.  No, not out of any morbid need for gruesome facts, but because acts this heinous demand that we know why. Why would this 20 year  old killer–hardly more than a kid himself–fire upon a classroom full of kindergarteners?  There is something in us that makes us think if we know why, we can make sense of this unthinkable evil.

The fact is there is no possible way to make sense of it. Reporters and anchors and television experts will try.  Police investigators and psychiatrists and  politicians will try.  And quite honestly, we need them to try. We need to try ourselves, even as we know it is not possible.

Sometime in the next day or so, a portrait of the shooter will emerge.  It won’t be pretty. It won’t matter, either, though, because in the end, anything we learn about him won’t tell us what we want and need to know, won’t definitively tell us why.

There is no why.

There will be tales of heroism, too.  Already we have heard of the teacher who brought her first graders into a classroom restroom and kept them there, refusing to open the door even when first responders pushed badges under the door, all the while reassuring these scared fifteen kids that she would take care of them, that she loved them, that it was going to OK.

The best we can do as adults is make the kids in our lives–our children, grandchildren, neighbors, students–feel safe and secure. Let them know we love them. Hugs and kisses all around.  For their sakes and for our own well being, we have to be sure we tell them that we will be here to care for them. It is our job to protect the young and vulnerable.  Forget synthesis and differentiation and metatcognition; forget all the rest of the educational alphabet soup and bureaucratic drivel that has seeped into our classrooms and now drives what we do.

And we have to hug one another as well, reaffirming the significance of life, validating the possibility that good can somehow once again find a way to trump the evil that we have seen at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

I know the Newtown teachers and their students must go back to school, but I do not know how they will.

Take Me to Your Leader

Schools are a lot like families.   Great schools, like strong families, function best when individuals do what they must for the common good. At home, we take out the trash, clean our rooms, and call if we are going to be late.  We do pretty much the same things every day at school, too. This is the only way anything gets done well, at home or in the classroom.

But cooperation and mutual respect and diligence don’t just happen, not in families, not on faculties.  Someone has to deliberately create an atmosphere where trust and love abound, where everyone can share equally in success and where missteps are learning ops, not failures.

At home, our family turns to my husband.  He has worked double shifts and nights and holidays without complaint. He moves kids in and out of tall buildings (though not in a single bound and not without some elevator rage),  makes me lunch every morning, handles the odd long distance automotive crisis, runs generators, and still has time for tea with our granddaughter. He remains calm and, as the kids say, he “knows stuff.”  Maybe best of all, he can keep me from shooting my mouth off by making me laugh at myself before I can make a fool of myself.

So, at home, we are truly lucky.  Our family is functional even when we are dysfunctional.  When things go wrong–and they often do– and people get mad, at the heart of our family is pure love.  It sometimes takes our leader to coax it out of us, but we all know it is there.

And at school, we are also that fortunate. We work in a building where professional support is the norm, where love abounds.  And we didn’t just get lucky to find such a perfect place for teachers to teach and for kids to learn.

Our principal leads by example every day.  No one in the building works harder than he does.  This week, he was part of the Geography Night on Wednesday, visited a neighboring high school on Thursday evening and chaperoned a middle school dance on Friday night, all in  addition to his day job, overseeing the smooth, safe operation of our building.   He respects his staff and his students. It’s not every day that you see the principal playing basketball after school with the middle school boys.  It’s not every day you see the principal helping the seventh grade girls sort out an over blown drama.


The result?  No one wants to disappoint him.  No one. He has given us all the great gift of a sincere and intelligent role model.  Teachers do their  absolute best because they respect him, not because they fear him.   Kids trust him to be fair and to hear their side of every story.   Some people even played basketball at a fund-raiser just because he asked.

New evaluations for teachers and administrators don’t have rubrics for this type of mutually respectful relationship. I know, supposedly it’s in there, somewhere in Danielson’s Domain 4.  Just find the box and check highly effective.  Now it’s now all about the data, supposedly reliable and objective. Reliable?  Objective?

Well, I for one am not buying it.  How can human relationships be quantified? I know I am not a math person, but I don’t think that this is even possible much less productive. People work best–are highly effective— when the person they work for respects what they do and supports their labor and cares for them as individuals.  It doesn’t take a statistics degree or an  MBA to figure that one out.

When we get together as a family, the “data” we keep coming back to centers on respect, confidence, love. We plain old like each other–most of the time.  And we take care of one another as best we can.  We also laugh together and play together and work together.
There is no “scale” to evaluate this.  You either have it or you don’t.

Lucky me, I have where I live and where I work.

Power Up

No phone, no lights, no motor cars,
Not a single luxury,
Like Robinson Crusoe,
As primitive as can be.” ~ ~from Gilligan’s Island theme song

There is nothing like twelve days without electricity to remind you of your place in this world.

And if you are still not convinced,the power comes back on and you see the photos and footage of  devastation and human suffering.

At the height of Hurricane Sandy, just after the lights went out, the night sky glowed with green and blue and red auras, creepy remnants of transformers and live wires. The wind ruled the trees, snapping trunks. Surging tides devoured the shore.

And then there was only darkness and quiet. We live above a busy and noisy railroad crossing, but train service had been suspended. The parkway beyond the tracks was closed due to downed trees and flooding. Everything had come to a screeching halt.

For people used to instant results commanded by flipping a switch or tapping a screen, standing still is torture, being quiet a crime.  We have come to measure existence through perpetual stimuli: electronic beeps validate relationships and colorful icons convey emotions.  Our HD televisions keep us company even when nothing of interest airs.  Texts and emails keep us connected.

We want our MTV!

This is the only world our students know.  Their fingertips caress touchscreens out of habit. If they can’t contact any of their six hundred thirty-two Facebook friends, they are restless.  When cell service is disrupted, they are lonely.

Technology has given our students access to the world.  The miracles of microchips and fiber optics make it possible to introduce our students to places they would never visit, people they would never meet. In one class, they eavesdrop on surgeons making delicate incisions and take a walk through Anne Frank’s secret annex in the next. They can plug into a presidential town hall meeting and send the commander-in-chief a message about the state of foreign affairs.   Digital technology has shrunk the globe.

     Technology, though, has made the personal worlds our students inhabit smaller, too.  They spend as much time with their screens as they do in conversation and paradoxically, the same click of a mouse that opens the window to so much has closed our kids into isolated chambers where communication consists of abbreviations and emoticons..  Kids used to instant responses lose interest in tasks that require sustained concentration or effort.

Don’t get me wrong; I love my modern conveniences: my  cell phone, lights, motor car and most of all these days, I love my generator.

And clearly education has to adapt or die.  But finding the balance between instruction and entertainment has become a challenge.  Districts investing millions in technology demand to see their dollars at work  and too often what ends up in the classroom are bells and whistles, smoke and mirrors.  The kids are having fun, but are they learning? It is sometimes hard to tell the difference; far too often, it doesn’t even seem to matter anymore.

There are so many things technology can give and there is no doubt that our students must be skilled in using these digital gifts.  But there are so many times when learning isn’t about a link to somewhere or someone else.  If you don’t believe this, then you haven’t examined the Common Core Standards which are all about reading and writing the old-fashioned way: closely, slowly, for detail.

Twelve days in the dark have restored appreciation for what electricity has given us.  At the same time, twelve days in the dark remind me of the value of communication skills: reading, writing and, my favorite, plain old conversation.

In the Dark With Hope for The Future

Sandy has come and gone, but the devastation described in such agonizing detail by AM radio reporters will not soon be forgotten.

With the storm surge came mass  property destruction and loss of life.  Mementoes and memories were swept away with the tide.   An entire neighborhood in Queens was leveled by fire aided and abetted by the hurricane’s winds. Even the brash and  boisterous Jersey Shore-esque Governor Chris Christie– for whom I have no love–teared up and was moved to embrace–ahem– President Obama.

For  native New Yorkers like me, Sandy has been a grim and very personal reminder again that when we see images from “somewhere else” like Joplin, Missouri and Haiti, like New Orleans and Indonesia, that those are real people among those ruins, not just shock-fodder for the evening and morning news shows.

It has also been a reality check for those of us who might find the demands of daily life a little  irritating.

People all along the east coast want some sense of normal life restored. Passengers, who just last week, hated the MTA, cheered this morning when subway and commuter rail service was partially restored.

No one in my neighborhood is complaining about the price of a gallon of gas anymore; we just want to find a station that has both power and gas.

   Even the kids on my block are pining for school.  No fooling.  With no power, no one is gaming, no one is on FB. Their parents are limiting their texting to preserve cell phone battery life.

     Which brings me to my latest post.  I am at a work table in my local public library, sharing space with seven strangers. There is running water here. It is warm here.  There is power here for electronic devices: cell phones, laptops, e-readers.  And to score this coveted spot,  I had to be in line as library staff opened the doors. It seems that  one bright spot in the ruins caused by Sandy has been this unintended public service ad for libraries and for librarians, who seemed thrilled to have so much business.

I use this library all the time.   I know where the Vince Flynn books are and where to find the Miles Davis discs. A few of the librarians even recognize me by sight if not by name.  There is a part of me wishes that as a “regular,” I might be a member of a library priority club, that I should get first shot the seat at the table that I always have had.

But the other part of me, the English teacher, speaks much louder and is delighted that so many have found their way back to the local library.  We may be accessing e-mail or using the library to “work from home,”  but we are surrounded by books.  Among these shelves are classic works of authors I love: Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Hughes, Shakespeare and Steinbeck, T. S. Eliot, Jack London. Alright, I’ll stop now.

There are also the guides to do-it-yourself re-roofing and self-help for whatever ails ya.  From my seat, I see the reference section, marked by the 22 print volumes of The World Book Encyclopedia.   Behind me, I can hear the librarian issuing new library cards to new patrons, an abuela and her young grandson.

So while I mourn for the those lost in this tragic moment and I so desperately hope that humans will acknowledge both their limitations and their responsibilities, the future looks bright.

Entering The Middle School Zone

You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension – a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into… the Middle School Zone.

Imagination and stamina? Check.  Content area expertise? Check.  Patience, sense of humor?  Check.  Seems like all systems are go for lift off. Right?

When I crossed over ten years ago, I was a traveler unprepared.  I thought my instructional trunk was well stocked with tools and texts and other tricks of the trade.

Can you spell gullible?

 Then I entered the middle school zone, where the hallways are loud and messy and arms and legs are everywhere.  Pink hair extensions and the unmistakable aroma of Axe.  Tears give way to laughter then to tears again. Alliances and entourages shift hourly.

Every cliché you have ever heard was undoubtedly coined in a middle school corridor: mountains are mole hills, haste is making waste, books are being  judged by covers, watched pots aren’t boiling, the enemy of an enemy is a BFF.

In this simmering stew of emotion and hormones, America’s Strongest show up each day in the hopes of sharing our passions for our respective content areas.

We are part-time performers, part-time psychics and full-time practitioners, full-time scholars.  It also helps to be selectively deaf, to know that One Direction is not a road sign and to have a very thick skin.

And once we get over the fact that middle school kids still fall out of their chairs, still cry when they are frustrated or scared, shout all the time except when you ask them to read aloud, we can get started on instruction.

But wait….there’s more.

For my science colleagues, here is a content area analogy: Middle school kids defy every law of physics: they are an inexhaustible source of energy and no reaction is ever appropriate. They are spontaneous and have yet to develop verbal filters.  They are surrounded by alternating currents composed of rebellion, insecurity, immaturity and inexperience. They want desperately to be taken seriously even as they act ridiculously.

 But they also are capable of  thoughtful, sensitive discussion. They are learning–the hard way, by experience– harsh life lessons about friendship and heartbreak. They are beginning to see that achievement comes only with hard work and patience. Being part of this growth every day is every bit as important as delivering content area information.  Success in guiding kids to independence, responsibility, self respect, patience and kindness doesn’t translate to numerical calculations, though.  When data shows that middle school test scores unilaterally decline, no one takes any of this other “stuff” into account.

Middle school is everything Rod Serling described in the Twilight Zone and then some. And we are middle school teachers: America’s Strongest.