Thursday, August 30, 2012

Over the Rainbow- Israel "IZ" Kamakawiwo`ole


I've lost my school keys.
     This is not unusual in and of itself.  I tell my students that I have goldfish brain, you know, once around the bowl and everything is new again.  During the school year that is especially true because while I am busy checking attendance, dress code, writing objectives on the board, greeting all my students as they come in the door, reading their faces and body language for signs of anything unusual,  handling requests from students for letters of recommendation or homework from when they were absent, worrying about paperwork that needs to be done, hoping that the lesson and technology will work that day and there isn't a fire drill, and praying that my shoes match (and I don't mean my outfit, I mean each other because life is rough at 5:30am),  there is a lot a teacher has on their mind as class begins. 
     My keys are not easy to lose.  They are big and bulky on purpose and they make a lot of noise. They have both Rutgers and Penn State lanyards, two big plexiglass keychains with a soccer ball on one and a megaphone on the other from my coaching days, a pen, a carabiner to attach them to anything, and a bunch of keys to my filing cabinets, desk, closets etc.  For the last 16 years they have been an extra appendage.  Every time I left my classroom I had my keys.  While on sabbatical at the DOE I lived in a cubicle and yet every time I got up to leave my desk I would look for my keys.  Old habit. 
     I knew exactly where my keys were up until two weeks ago, and now they have vanished.  But I think it is a subliminal message.  Let me explain.
     I have been putting off writing this post for about two months now because I didn't know how to start it.  I guess I should go back to the beginning.
     At the end of June, I had a meeting with the Commissioner of Education.  I had run into him in the elevator a few weeks before and he asked me what I had been up to.  I talked so much I was sure I sucked all of the oxygen out of the elevator, by the time the doors opened on the third floor he said to make sure I stopped by to see him before I finished my sabbatical.  This was that meeting. 
     In the meantime, I had been back to school for graduation and I knew it was going to be difficult going back into my classroom after all I have seen and done in the last year.  I knew I would be unable to simply stifle what I have learned because I had changed too much.  I read all the research on education I could get my hands on, talked to all kinds of people including policy makers, and in doing so found a newly awakened passion for education, and trust me, I was pretty passionate before.  I could see what was wrong in education, was determined to help fix it, and had no fear talking to people about it.  I admit, I had been in a nice, comfortable, and very isolated rut in my classroom for quite a while.  I was a very good high school history teacher and I loved it, but now I realized I was a really good motivational speaker, liked working on policy, and had some leadership skills.  In short, I developed educational swag.  There was some trepidation because I didn't know if my school was ready for the new and improved me, but I was looking forward to teaching kids again and getting some normalcy back in my life because this year had been crazy.  I knew it wasn't going to be easy.
     I approached the meeting as an exit interview because honestly, I didn't think anyone had been paying attention to all the work I had done since October.  I held Commissioner Cerf in high regard ever since he came in to co-teach with me back in December.  He was good.  Not only was he knowledgeable, but the kids genuinely liked him and were impressed with his intellect and ability to identify with them.  Mind you, they had no idea who he was, they simply thought he was my friend from Trenton because that was a part of the deal; no media, just us and the kids.  The meeting started and the Commissioner was gracious as he asked about the work I had done and my plans for the future.  I wanted to finish my National Board Certification, start work on an Ed.D., and I liked the work I was doing as a committee member with Teacher Evaluation, Model Curriculum and Teacher Effectiveness.  I was very happy to represent teachers in regard to all three and hoped I might be of some use in the future.  Explaining that the last thing he wanted to do was take an effective educator out of the classroom, the Commissioner liked what I had accomplished and then offered to extend my stay at the DOE for a year to continue the work I started and implement some of the ideas I had to get communication flowing between teachers and the DOE.  I was flattered and it was a great offer, but didn't give it a second thought and kept talking.  I had kids waiting for me, and lots of stuff I had put on hold for a year that I wanted to get back to.  I don't think it was what he expected.  We continued talking and the Commissioner made some very salient and insightful points that gave me pause. By the time I left half an hour later, I felt like something in my brain had just burst, and said that I needed to go away to think about things and talk them over with a few people.   I was confused, my world had just been knocked off its axis again, and I had to give a speech in two hours to award winning student teachers.   Wow.
     I got through the speech and knocked it out of the park, but desperately needed to talk to someone. Who on earth would understand my dilemma?  Another NJTOY, that's who.  I called the NJTOY I held in the highest regard even though I didn't know her very well yet.  This woman, the epitome of grace and elegance, was a mover and shaker with an amazing intellect and insight and I was in awe of her.  She is responsible in large part for the NJ TOY program being what it is today, including the sponsorship of the sabbatical.  She responded immediately to my email and by the time I got her on the phone I was sure I made no sense, but she talked me down and set me straight.  Evidently there had been many people paying attention to what I had been doing, but I had been so busy I didn't see what I had accomplished and didn't have the time to process any of it.  I spoke to a Jane, a good friend and mentor, and my Mom, and thought about the conversations for the next two days while in a history workshop with some of my colleagues.   My brain wrestled with ideas and possibilities while my stomach churned and my guilt complex raged.  More processing time was required so I went down the shore where my family was gathered.  I got them all together at once and explained my dilemma.  The universal consensus was, go for it!
     I had many questions, but my biggest hurdle was the kids.  I had a few that I was worried about and I did not want to abandon them.  It is a sensitive subject for me.  I managed to get a few of my kids together for lunch at the diner and explained the situation.  They gave me their blessing and told me that by making this move, I would be helping far more kids than just the ones who were in my classroom.  From the mouths of babes!  I emailed the Commissioner again and said I was interested in the offer but had many questions, including what he envisioned for me.  He responded that it was not so much what he envisioned but what I envisioned.  I would have the ability to work with any department, on any project, particularly regarding outreach to teachers.  It was a dream job, but a gut wrenching decision to make.  But it is only a year, right?
     The final few hurdles that were blocking my way seemed to disappear over the next few weeks, and now I will be the Educator Outreach Coordinator at the NJ Department of Education for the next year.  I am both excited and terrified because this is way outside of my comfort zone. I have the unprecedented opportunity to actually help get the teacher voice heard in NJ.  I made the promise to myself when I became the NJ TOY to be the best one I could be and try to leave the world of education a better place than I found it.  I was driven by two questions I asked myself almost daily.  If not me, who? If not now, when?  I worked myself to near exhaustion, and when people asked me why my schedule was so hectic, I replied that I only had a certain amount of time to get things done before my amazing and magical year was done.  Soon the glass slippers would come off, and my carriage will turn back into a pumpkin.  I can sleep when Thanksgiving rolls around!  Representing over 110,000 teachers is a big responsibility and I wear many hats including teacher, student, government employee, and union member.   While I have always been an advocate for students, I am now also an advocate for the profession.  I have learned that ideology only gets you so far, and you can tilt at windmills if you want, but the people who get things done are those that sit down at the table to work through issues, and I have been offered a seat.
      My usual pre-school butterflies have turned into bats, verging on flying saucers, as I await my first day of school next week.  I still have the urge to hit the back to school sales and stockpile pens, folders, and tissues.  Most of all, I know I will miss the kids terribly because my heart aches already.  I was asked if I will pine for them, and the answer is yes, of course I will.  I may be looking into some mentoring programs as soon as time allows.   
     Thank you to everyone who has been so supportive of my decision and my often fluctuating moods over this summer.  I have had nothing but love and support from friends and family, but especially from my STOY family across America and beyond, who realize the magnitude of the decision I had to make and the significance of my new position  I will now be able to effect change on a different level and your confidence in me speaks volumes.  I will do my best not to disappoint and keep it "Jersey".   To my STOY besties Katie and Katy, I can only say I owe you one.
       This brings me back to the case of the missing keys.  I decided if I was going to be gone all year, I should probably move some of my things out so that whoever was there could do some nesting.  I went in somewhere in mid-July and removed 16 years worth of stuff from the closets, desk, bookcases and some cabinets.  It is amazing how much crap you collect as a teacher because you don't want to throw anything away.  You never know when it might be useful.  Anyway it took a few car loads to get everything stored away in my Mom's garage, but there is still one filing cabinet I need to empty and move to complete the process.  I can't do it, because I can't find my keys.  Is it my subconscious that is still dealing with the change and doesn't want to let go?  Is it fear of the great unknown?  I will tell you one thing, there is something scarier than fear... regret, and I refuse to go through life thinking what if.   I have bought a series of big plastic storage bins so that I can get my books, posters and notes out of the cardboard boxes and milk crates they are in and keep them safe for the forseeable future.  My job for the weekend will be to reorganize what has been my life for the last 16 years. 

And I will find my damn keys....

Sunday, August 12, 2012

One Love (Bob Marley)

July 27, 2012

So, what does it mean to be an effective teacher?

     Any good teacher worth their salt will tell you that teaching is about far more than delivering content.  Anyone can memorize, but can you motivate, inspire and help to develop a student's natural sense of curiosity?  Learning is an adventure, and as a teacher/guide we should be inviting our students to join us on that journey of discovery that will help them to figure out who they are and what their place is in the world.  However, that journey will not take place until two things happen.

     First, students need to feel safe to make mistakes.  Learning is messy and students need to feel like they can ask questions without being ridiculed by their teachers or classmates.  Therefore, the classroom needs to be a supportive zone where collaboration, inquiry and imagination are supported.  It is not just about getting the right answer, it is about the process.  How did they come up with the answer?  Do they understand?  Can the students explain it to someone else? This requires teachers to have a love of content,  the wisdom to know that we never stop learning, great intellect to make connections, and a tremendous amount of energy.  Teaching is a marathon, not a sprint, and if you burn out you don't help your students or yourself.

     Second, and this is the most important, you can't teach 'em til you reach 'em.  No significant learning will take place without a significant relationship.  If you think about the teachers in your life that have had an impact on you, it is probably because they saw you as a person, and not just as another student.  Maybe they helped you recognize your dreams, your talents, and your direction in life, and would not let you settle for ordinary when you were really extraordinary. Maybe they helped you to see something that you didn't see in yourself.  Maybe they were a life preserver just when you needed it.  As a teacher, this requires the ability to gauge learning styles, personality, motivation, and body language, not to mention you have to have a whole lot of heart.  It is about communication, your own personality, and having an understanding of the cultural and economic background that both you and your students come from.  You have to be willing to reach out and form a connection that will take time, energy, and often blood, sweat, and tears, knowing that in a few years you may never see these students again.  In order to do this, you have to love your kids, because you give a little piece of your heart to every one of them.  Teaching requires sincerity, honesty, patience, and love because sometimes while they are on their journey trying to figure out who they are and where they are going, they will work your last nerve.  But giving up is not an option because the alternative is too bleak.  What if you are the only one to make a connection and to see a student's gifts? 

     Sometimes, these students become a permanent part of your life, an extended family that remembers your birthday and call on holidays. I have been blessed to have several of these students throughout my career, but some of my most memorable belong to the Class of 2002.  I had only two years teaching experience when I got these students as freshmen, and I had them both in class and as their class advisor.  We spent four long years together getting through Homecoming, fundraisers, the Senior trip and Prom and to be truthful, we grew up together.  It broke my heart when they graduated, but I was so proud of the young ladies and gentlemen they had become.  One, Leslie Bailey, was my first student to become a history teacher.  The other, Yvette Hagins, was my class president and an amazingly creative and talented person, particularly when it comes to fashion. She has been responsible for choosing much of my wardrobe in the last year.  I like fashion and can put together an outfit, but when I have problems I go see Yvette. 

Yvette and Leslie

     About a year ago, Yvette's mom asked me to come to dinner for Yvette's birthday.  I was to be the surprise guest.  Thrilled, I said of course that I would go, but then Mom said that Yvette's fiance, David, would be there.  I growled a little and said that I was sure no one would ever be good enough for my Yvette.  Mom said, "Well, she wants your approval before she marries him."  It stopped me dead in my tracks.  Wow.  It was then that I fully realized the magnitude that a teacher can have on the life of a student.

The birthday dinner with David, Mom (Harriet), Yvette, and me

      I met David and he was wonderful, perfect for Yvette, and I was ecstatic that they found each other.  The wedding would be the day I returned from Space Camp, and I wouldn't miss it for the world.  I was determined that I would be there and nothing short of an Executive Order would keep me away.  I was prepared to leave Space Camp a day early, but I found a flight that left Huntsville, Alabama at 6:00am and should have put me back in Philadelphia in plenty of time.  Fingers crossed the weather would hold out.

 I made it home in plenty of time (two hours to spare) and had a wonderful time at the wedding. I cried the moment Yvette appeared to walk down the aisle. Tears of joy. I spent the evening laughing and dancing with the family and my plus one for the evening was another 2002 graduate, Hollee Tucker.  We had a great time catching up on everything and everyone.  How could ten years have passed since they graduated? How lucky am I to have them as a part of my life?

My plus one for the evening, former student Hollee Tucker. So nice catching up with her!

David and Yvette before they danced down the stairs!

I may not have given birth to her, but she is mine.

Loving the pink shoes.  On the bottom one said "I" and the other said "Do"

With Mom, welcomed as one of the family

The bride and groom, doing things their way!
     In all the talk about metrics and science of how to measure a good teacher, I would ask everyone to remember who the teacher was that had the most impact on their lives and why? We don't talk about the interpersonal and intrapersonal part of education these days. Measurements can tell us a lot about our students and our practice, but they can't teach us how to connect with a student, how to inspire them, motivate them and help them find their dreams. We don't talk enough about the art of education, the creativity and emotional intelligence that you need to reach and teach these kids. We need to talk more about bias, cultural relativity, and how good education leads to increased civic engagement and a sense of responsibility.  We are not just training people for jobs, we are educating them for life. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Cosmic Girl (Jamiroquai)

She's just a cosmic girl
From another galaxy
My heart's at zero gravity
She's from a cosmic world

July 20-27
Space Camp!

I was feeling a little like I was stuck in the movie Groundhog Day as I was back at the airport again.  Thanks to the weather, I didn't roll into Huntsville Alabama until well after midnight.  My fellow STOYs had been updating their status and posting pictures on Facebook all day and even though I had only seen them two weeks before, I couldn't wait to see them all again.  The bond I have with this group is something I can't even begin to explain.

In Omaha, Dave Bosso (CTSTOY) and I had been warned by previous year STOYs about the horrible coffee, uncomfortable beds and seemingly ubiquitous tater tots.  It was camp after all, so I prepared myself.  I could deal with the tater tots and the beds, it was the coffee I was worried about.

 7am on Saturday morning and we were on the bus headed to the US Space and Rocket Center.  Thanks to my roomie Katie Ferguson, NY STOY, I had a human alarm clock who wouldn't let me miss the bus.  Now that is friendship!  Knowing my proclivity for tardiness (I just get distracted and loose track of time), she was a life saver. Getting to bed after 2am didn't help and we had a full day of events ahead of us.  I didn't care what the coffee tasted like, as long as there was a lot of it.

My roomie and one of my STOY besties Katie.  She helps keep me organized, no easy task! 

Turns out I didn't have to worry about the coffee at all.  When I sent this pic to the previous year STOYs they were very jealous!  Not only was the coffee great even when we were not near the Keurig machine, but the food was awesome.  I didn't see a tater tot (or Tang) all week!

We were greeted by Marsha, the head of the education department who had one of the cutest haircuts ever. 

We were also introduced to Wes Kennedy, fearless leader of Team Harmony. Boy would he have his hands full with our group! He was a great sport throughout and was constantly watching out for us. Space Camp would not have been the same without him and his southern twang.  You ROCK, Wes!

I found out when I arrived that I was on team Harmony, along with Katy and Katie, (this group was going to have fun) and was issued a flight suit for all my missions.  This was serious stuff! I had to add a little flair though, these suits were designed for men.

As you can see, the caffeine finally kicked in as I was laughing again with Katy, MNSTOY.  Actually I do a lot of laughing when I am with Katy, one of my STOY besties, who is one of the funniest people I know.  Team Harmony was going to be awesome as we found out that our other team members were Leigh (UT), Luisa (NE), Chad (HI), Tim (OH), Mark (WA), Elena (OR) Kristen (MO), Adam (MA) and we were joined by Judy from MS, Mak from Singapore and Tyril from Australia.  Here is a picture of our crew.


The temps in Huntsville were swamp-like outside, but the air conditioning was working well inside.  We were constantly putting our flight suits on and taking them off, sometimes because we had a mission, but sometimes because we were just cold. Our day was split between missions and classroom activity and I learned more in a week about NASA and space than I have my entire life.  We went from 7:30am to 9:30 pm on most days, but we still found time to have fun.   

Saturday evening we had our opening ceremony with the parade of nations, where we had to dress like someone or something from our state.  Who to choose?  NJ has just as many infamous as famous people so there were plenty to choose from.  However, I can never resist a chance to dress up and anytime you can wear a tiara you should, so I went as Miss America.  The pageant began in Atlantic City in 1921 and although it has moved to Vegas, there is a whole museum-like set of displays at the Convention Center hotel in AC.  I was inspired because I had to pass all the gowns and crowns when I was at the NJEA convention, my coming out party. 

The cool thing about this hall is that above our heads the Saturn V was hanging and spanned the length of the hall.  Wow.  The engines alone are enormous!

                                                 Sunday morning (it certainly didn't feel like a Sunday) we were up and at em at the Low Ropes course.  It was a team building area where we had to work together to figure out some puzzles.  It was kind of like a chess game with real people. 

We got caught in a rain storm and ended up walking back to campus, but we felt like we had accomplished much that morning and the bond in the group grew much stronger. 

Later it was back to the classroom to learn about the history of space and then have a class that showed us how to build rockets.  We launched them later that week and I even got to bring mine home.  Would you believe I got it home on an airplane?  Good thing there was no engine in it.   I don't know about everyone else, but I was pretty tired by the end of the day. 

Luisa, Elena and me launching bottle rockets.  We almost hit a car!

Betty Crocker with Betty Rocket

Ready to launch our rockets

While we were doing all this, we also had our missions to train for.  One was the Space Shuttle Atlantis and my job was the flight director at mission control.  When an anomaly happened and things went wrong it was the person in my position who had the final say so on the solution. I volunteered for the position, but my team said that they thought I was perfect for the job.  What a vote of confidence. Just watch Apollo 13, I am the guy with the vest.  It was not easy learning a new language and watching all those screens, but our all female mission control had things in check. 

Here are the women of Harmony practicing earlier in the day.  It is kind of like teaching, you have to be aware of all things at all times.  It wasn't easy deciphering all this information. 
Here we are during our mission. 

The week went on from there as we did more classroom stuff, another mission, (this time to the moon on Orion) a little public outreach, had some great guest speakers,  and a whole lot of bonding. 

The Ladies of Harmony

The crew before our Orion mission.  Bring it!

The Pilot (me) and Mission Specialists Elena and Tim

Our Commander, Kristen, and Mission Specialists Leigh and Luisa
Mission Control during Orion.  CapCom Katy looks a little stressed!

 Here we had to design a heat shield.  It could only be about a half inch thick and you had points to purchase the items on the table.  The goal was to protect our egg (the crew) as a blowtorch was set on our shield for three minutes.  When we were done, we had minimal charring, but the egg was still cool to the touch and not cooked!  We were waiting for someone's to explode. 

We also did other classroom experiments to filter water, build a lunar space colony,  and design a landing capsule and rover for an egg that didn't break after dropping it from about 15 feet.  Whew! 

 After dinner one night, it was time for astronaut simulations.  This was not necessarily the best idea since we all had just stuffed ourselves with pizza, but off we went.  The multi-access trainer had me worried, as I tend to get motion sickness, but I figured this may be the only time I get to do this.  Cross it off the bucket list.  Mission accomplished.  We also tried 1/6th gravity chairs to simulate walking on the moon and a jet pack simulation. Try not to laugh too hard at the video.

The view of the shuttle when we left simulation training was great.  Couldn't resist a photo op.

Did I mention there were zip lines?  Oh yes, we did that too.

Of course with this group it would never be all work and no play.  We managed to have a 1980s dance party back at the dorms one night and on our final night there we went to that Huntsville landmark, Olivia's, a karaoke bar.  I don't know if I will ever get the vision of all the STOYs on stage singing We Are the World out of my head....ever.

Graduation was a great event which came too fast.  Where had the week gone?  We had learned so much and had fun, but at the same time the event was bittersweet because we knew that we would soon be departing.  We received our wings, had our name badges turned, and posed for some final pictures.

 But before graduation was over, they gave The Right Stuff award to the person the staff believed was the complete package.  It went to none other than Katy from Minnesota!  The room erupted into thunderous applause and I don't think anyone in the place would argue with the decision to give the award to our own Miss Congeniality.  Katy was overwhelmed by the love.

We parted at the crack of dawn the next day, some of us not having slept at all, but when we did finally reach our homes, I would like to think that most of us went to sleep with hearing the laughter of our fellow STOYs in our heads as we ended an amazing week.  I will see all of them again when they come to NJ in September and I can't wait!

4:30am at the Huntsville Airport.  Heading home!

I had a wedding to get back to that evening.  One of my former students, Yvette, who graduated in 2002 and has been largely responsible for my great wardrobe this year, was getting married.  I wouldn't have missed it for the world, but you will have to wait a week to find out how it went and learn about the note waiting for me when I got home.