Monday, December 30, 2013

God Became a Teacher

This weekend I read the book titled God Got a Dog by Cynthia Rylant. This delightful book and my musings on the meaning of the Incarnation led me to imagine what it might be like if God became a teacher.




God became a teacher
Just for a week to see what it was like.
God knew that teachers often invoked His name
To request a snow day or give voice to despair and sometimes delight
For patience on Friday afternoons before a holiday break

But mostly God became a teacher because He liked children of all ages and
He liked learning.. and wonder.. and awe
He wanted to be the kind of teacher who taught kids to notice everything that was good
And to not think they were ever too smart to learn more.

God was surprised to see all the things teachers did that have nothing to do with teaching:
Tie shoes, wipe noses. pick up trash, open lockers, sync the computer with the  projector and answer emails about bullying and the teacher's skit for the assembly.

But God tried to focus on the teaching and the learning and never ever say the words "state assessment" or "response to intervention" or "even "common core" even though it would make him sound like He was in the know about such things. He just tried to get his students to read a little longer than the day before, to edit another sentence and to realize that the Devil, his nemesis, didn't invent fractions. In fact God took the credit for that. 

God took the light into the rooms of fellow teachers and patted the shoulder of the novice teacher crying and told her it was okay and that He loved her optimism. God listened to the veteran teacher bemoan "today's kids" and reminded her that one student that day had raised his hand and cited text evidence when all the time she thought he wasn't listening. God stood in the staff meeting and beamed at this motley crew of overworked and underpaid saints who started out on this path for all the right reasons. God reminded them that whatever we do to the kids who drive us crazy, the parents whom we can never please, our most annoying colleagues, and the administrators who make us go to  an "ungodly"  (yes, he used that word) amount of meetings, we do to Him, to God. "So, love them anyway," God advised.

"Keep up the good work, " said God as He ended his twenty minute lunch and headed back to the classroom. "They are right about teaching though. It isn't rocket science." God picked up his lesson plan book, a stack of papers to be graded, and three detention slips. "It's harder."




Based on the book: God got a Dog by Cynthia Rylant. Illustrated by Marla Frazee.
Beach Lane Books; New York



Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Show me the Evidence: Close Reading of the Gospel

Show me the evidence. Go back to the text. Support your claims and cite the examples. These are some of my stock teacher phrases these days. One of the best things about the new common core standards is that there is an emphasis on students supporting statements by citing relevant text evidence. I consider it good because if done well, we help students study text more closely and to analyze the author's techniques. If we have selected good text, we want our students to read, reread, and embed the pieces of knowledge in their own arguments or essays. It has been a little awkward to teach but in spite of my novice stabs in the dark, the students are coming along nicely.

 Before giving a test last week, I told my students I needed all complete sentences and appropriate punctuation as well as the required three pieces of text evidence.  The txting gen often totally forgets capital letters and punctuation marks and I for one don't LMAO when i c that kind of writing in their wrk. So, the thoughtful young author of the essay below was sure to include circles around his periods so I wouldn't miss them. In the margins of his paper he also included arrows pointing to the first piece of evidence, second piece of evidence, and finally the required third. Just in case I wouldn't  recognize them.


Sunday's gospel (3rd Sunday of Advent) was essentially about evidence. When asked if he was really the one who is to come, Jesus pointed to the evidence, "Go and tell John what you hear and see; the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news proclaimed to them."

This is the best news of Christmas. I love the excitement and the sharing, the music and the lights but I'm so over the frenzy and the gift lists and the overindulgence. I want my life to show evidence that I know the Prince of Peace and the one who came to fill the hungry with good things. I want to trust that he will lift up the lowly and remember his promise of mercy. As should we, followers of this baby King.

My hope is that my life will reflect evidence of the good news of the gospel.

Advent Blessings,

~Ellen~

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Stay Awake:A Teacher's Advent

"...Therefore, stay awake! For you do no know on which day your Lord will come..." This gospel message, strange as it seems, falls on the first day of advent. Thanksgiving leftovers, languishing in the refrigerator, barely take on a chill as we plunge into the Christmas season. To feed our spiritual selves, we light the candles and celebrate the waiting and preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Yet, here we are being warned about the second coming. Really, today?

All day, these words have roiled about, disquieting my complacency and causing me to wonder the meaning they might have. I have become, I realize, a liturgical soul. The seasons of ordinary time, Advent, and the rest lead me to wonder more about the seasons I am walking through and to want to understand the readings that fall from the pages of my prayer books on the known and unknown holy days. The gospel reading, particularly, read Saturday evening at church and again on Sunday AM from my Magnificat journal wash over my mind and heart and lead me to try to discover how they might impact my vocation.

Teachers are used to staying awake. Great students we often aren't as many a professional development provider can tell you after enduring the icy stares of teachers relegated to yet another inservice session! Our administrators know we complain long and loud about teacher meetings and  we gripe about the inattentiveness of our students and concurrently display that same level of distractedness when we are sitting in the one-armed desks with our faces toward the front of the room. We stay awake, though paying attention is sometimes another matter.

Perhaps in today's plethora of opportunities for distraction, that is the challenge. Not merely staying awake but being attentive:

- to the bundles of beautiful potential that walk through our doors
-to the needs of a society rich in goods and poor in spirit
- to the messages our students are bombarded with day after day which pull them from their true selves
-to the growth learners have, however incremental
-to the roots and family systems children represent and all the hopes and dreams which accompany these tender shoots
-to the honest appraisal of educational practices students are often able to give, unfettered by professional constrictions
- to the fact that while children and teens holler out loud for independence, they love bouncing against our boundaries and finding them immoveable
- to our call to be present to the irrefutable fact that each of our students is a child of God, always and everyday

An expression my father used to say comes to me on this day and is perhaps the message I am to stay awake to realize: "You are the bearer of God's infinite life."  It strikes me that if I don't get sleepy about this or crowd it out of my mind because I am chasing other ways to feel whole, I will be ready now and always for when Jesus comes. 

We are the bearers of God's infinite life. Let's stay awake to that reality.


~Ellen~

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Remembering Where We Come From


I am from books
From Chicken-of-the Sea Tuna and Comet
I am from the simple and comfortable home
Full of dusted antiques
It smelled like casseroles
I am from the corn growing in the garden and the wheat fields
The dandelions and zinnias

I am from holding hands while we prayed and not talking back
From Gene and Mary and Ida
I am from the Winnie the Pooh bedtime stories, church potlucks, trips in the car
From "Keep your elbows off the table" and "If you can't something nice, don't say anything at all."

I am from the Mennonites and the father who became Catholic
I am from Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Germany
From homemade bread and applesauce
from the mother who never learned how to milk cows because her father wanted her to go to college
From the car rolling down the street when I pulled the emergency brake and my dad running after the car, jumping in and saving me
I am from acres of love and mountains of great books.

I shared this poem, that I had written with the help of the "Where I'm From" template, with my students in preparation for reading To Kill A Mockingbird. My intention was to help them see that stories, like their authors, come from somewhere. So, I gave my students a template that I found with a Google search.  The template is based on the poem by George Ella Lyon. As I presented this assignment, several of the students groaned as I expected they might and some claimed they didn't have traditions or family sayings or familiar products in their home. I walked around, gave them encouragement and some more examples and the ideas seemed to start flowing. I loved their finished products.

Here are some excerpts from their writing:

"I am from the 2000's, from Coca Cola and Captain Crunch.
I am from "eat your corn" and "don't throw a fit."
I am from two homes but one big family."


"I am from Uggs, Starbucks and iPhone.
I am from the rose flower, the red rose, so smell the roses- you only live once."
I am from "Have you brushed your teeth?" and "Don't let the bed bugs bite!"
I am from the Catholic faith- the Holy Trinity."


"I am from the dance rehearsals and freckles on brown skin.
From Grandma Re and Grandma Sassy.
From devoted Catholics and open-minded Methodists.
I'm from Kansas and Mexico,
tacos and rice.
In the numerous boxes, waiting to be scrapbooked, are pictures from my life.
I am from the family who taught me to be myself, and to always have a good book."


"I am from Wichita, Kansas
where it is flat and boring and it is quiet.
I am the seed of the sunflower.
"You're still my baby" says my mom forever and ever."


"I am from the crazy house, crowded and noisy.
It sounds like a zoo sometimes.
From "eat over your plate" and "don't hit people."
I am from Egypt
From grape leaves and hummus.
From the family with lots of cooking talent."


" I am from chopsticks and Pho.
From "Work hard to have a better life" and "Be responsible"
From Catholics and the Golden Rule.
From what my mom sacrificed.
I am a group of atoms that was formed into an intelligent life form and transported from Vietnam."


"I am from the home with high ceilings and endless stairs
Large and Warm
It felt like a warm cup of tea on a cold day
I am from the roses twisting in the bushes
the fresh mowed grass staining the driveway."


I think these are beautiful!

~Ellen~

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Hallelujah School

"Mrs. Awe, when the bell rings at 8:00 in the morning, I get a headache." One of my heroes, a student with dyslexia says this to me one morning as he rubs his head and looks out at me from under his blond hair, hanging low over his eyebrows. Nevertheless, he finishes his work, scoops up his papers and swaggers out of my office. I hope his spirit stays strong as he navigates his way through the deep waters of education. He has a strong sense of self, a loving family and teachers who adore his winsome personality and incredible work ethic. He was, by the grace of God, born with the coolest smile and a natural proclivity to joy. He was also born with a neurological difference known as dyslexia. Learning to read was no walk in the park and although he has made much progress, a page of text renders him exhausted after 20 minutes. Uncanny comprehension skills and a vast amount of something I can only call insight carry him through the pages of text that are cast upon him day after day.

Sometimes, I wonder about our current practices and I feel badly for students who struggle and for those who are highly creative, intuitive, and open hearted, all things we don't formally assess! When I become disillusioned by state standards and mandated assessments, I am prone to daydream about my "resurrection" school. Like the Sadducees in today's gospel wondering about marriage in heaven, even whilst disbelieving the promise of resurrection, I question if in the perfect school, indeed if in heaven, there is a place for standardized tests.  My internal questioning led to a dream to start a resurrection school, named "The Hallelujah School for Creativity and Imagination."  It is a loosely formed dream, devoid of a funding plan or financial blueprint but borne out of a desire to have a school community that feeds the natural inclination toward curiosity and allows lots of time for discovery and questioning, along with the basic instruction needed to read and reason, with a least an hour for lunch and sitting under the broad blue sky.   And I wonder if like the Sadducees, I too am riddled with disbelief in the power of the resurrection. Jesus' answer, "He is God of the living" is meant for me too.

I shouldn't wait for the perfect day and the perfect school.  My Hallelujah school, or at least glimpses of it, may be for now, the strategies that are creative and imaginative and inspired. Whenever we act with hope and renounce despair we are living the resurrection, now and today. We live the resurrection when we create safe places for students and teachers to learn and grow. We live the resurrection when we fill the cracks between cultures and social groups with love and acceptance and we live the resurrection when we share our love of learning with students. We live the resurrection when we stop and listen, cry with those who cry, and laugh with those who laugh. Today is what we have and we are resurrection people.

With hope,
~Ellen~

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Memory Moments

Last week I announced to my students that we were going to learn the final comprehension strategy from Notice and Note:Strategies for Close Reading (Beers and Probst, 2013). From the back row, came a sardonic response, "Now that's a real shame." God bless the middle school teacher who learns to dance in the valley of sarcasm.  Glancing back at the young man who was smiling harmlessly, I acknowledged his "heartache" and told him that it was indeed a sad day in Literature 8.

The "Memory Moment" is a time in a text when the action or narrative is interrupted to revisit a memory. It looks a lot like the flashback often used in film and literature. In fact, having learned that my students speak in the language of media, I showed an example of a memory moment from a Harry Potter movie when Hagrid is telling Harry about his parents and why he (Harry) is so well known at Hogwarts. Using these clips seems to give the students a solid idea of what we are looking for. From there, we read an excerpt from" Hatchet" by Gary Paulsen that is in their literature books. In the story, the memory helps the character survive in the wilderness. We shared examples of memory moments from our own lives and from the books the students are currently reading.

This weekend I had a chance to revisit memories myself as I was a co-presenter at the Mothering Mennonite Symposium on Literature, Liturgy and Life: From Mother to Daughter. My mother, age 85 and reader of some 70 books a year was my partner in this presentation. In the evening, I was a participant in the 25th anniversary of Eighth Day Books, a local independent bookstore my father frequented with love and devotion during the last 12 years or so of his life. Both experience provided lots of time to reflect on memories about reading and the love of all things literary.

I remember:
  • many dusty bookstores with wooden floors and pale sunlight that glanced off hardcover volumes
  • my dad always talking with the bookshop owners while I perched somewhere nearby and leafed through more books
  • lots of library cards, glued on library pockets and dates scattered askew on the lines of the date due pages
  • being freshly scrubbed, pajama clad, and seated on the couch anticipating the nightly Winnie the Pooh chapter
  • hearing my parents talk in the language of books at the table, from the pulpit, in the easy chairs with their feet up
  • birthdays, Christmas, coming home from a trip occasions always meant a tell-tale package wrapped undisguised so the only mystery left, "Which book is it?"
  • Papa Small, Nine Magic Wishes, Little House on the Prairie, The Secret Garden
  • the smell of print and wonder
  • Coffee tables,  shelves and table tops as holding places for books
  • Reading my parents' parenting books so I could recognize their newest attempts at communicating with us, their offspring
  • Loving the sound of new words
  • Imagining characters and settings from the words on the pages
  • Thinking that Cat in the Hat was silly and pointless
  • Reading and rereading my favorites
  • The creak of wooden doors as bookcases were opened and closed to select a treasured collection of poems or essays
  • My mother's soft frame, my father's aftershave as I snuggled next to them and heard the familiar cadence of  their voices and watched their steady hands turn the pages
Richly blessed,

~ Ellen~

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Creativity

Vocabulary Graffiti Assignment
These were handed in by a couple of my students. The instructions: Demonstrate understanding of a vocabulary word by showing 3 synonyms and 3 visual images illustrating the word. These students showed  colorful understanding of the word "desist" and "passive."  Their work shows creativity and my hope is that they won't soon forget these terms. I tell my students that building their vocabulary is like putting "money in the bank" and while I am not sure they believe me they humor me and attempt to use their new words in interesting ways. I am always on the lookout for inventive strategies to teach new words.


 
 
 
 















Sunday, October 13, 2013

Words of the Wiser

This week my students will be looking at Words of the Wiser in several short stories. This strategy comes from Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading (Beers& Probst, 2013) and is a continuation of the curriculum I have been using with my 8th grade Literature class. Oddly enough, I am finding these strategies helpful in my own reading. I read for pleasure, for knowledge, and to get closer to God. Most often, I read "to know I am not alone." I am indebted to C.S. Lewis for that particular insight. At any rate, having these strategies in my mind as I prepare to teach keeps me looking for them in the material I read. Turns out they are everywhere, these morsels of wisdom, quotable quotes to keep us learning.

Although I am going reluctantly into this world of technology and I have been far more comfortable with sticky notes and chart paper than computers and smart boards, I recognize that my students are not. They need visual images, a little music, and some connections to movies and movement. So, because I am teaching students and not curriculum, I am working to implement video footage and connections to their world into my lessons. This week, I have a video I made on Animoto (I highly recommend this resource)  that depicts characters from familiar books and movies and their wise words. That will begin our discussion as I ask the students to make connections to how these wide words lead the characters to change their actions and help us to discern the theme of the story. I have noticed that my students are more likely to understand these new strategies when I begin with digital images and examples, then lead them gently to the text material.

Among the quotes:
'We've all got light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That's who we really are." Sirius Black to Harry Potter

"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it's not." The Lorax

"Remember who you are."   Mufasa to Simba in the Lion King

"The truth has a way of changing your plans. "    Insurgent

" Stand up and go; your faith has saved you." Jesus in the Gospel of Luke

Today's gospel from Luke 17 tells the story of the ten lepers. One returned to say thank you to Jesus and Jesus says, "Stand up and go; your faith has saved you." Words of the wiser. Nine times out of ten, we neglect to give  thanks for the healing that Jesus bestows on us. We worry, we fret, we are healed. We cry and mourn, we are healed. We feel jealous and small-minded, we are healed. We hunger for everything but righteousness, we are healed. We feel lonely and unloved, we are healed. We scream, "Help me" at the top of our lungs when we don't know what to do and we are healed.

And so, the words of the gospel pierce my stubborn heart and lead me to greater understanding.

~Ellen~



Sunday, October 6, 2013

Tough Questions:A Few Answers

Progressing along with the Notice and Note strategies, this week my class visited the "Tough Questions" strategy for comprehension. Tough questions are observed in stories when a character stops to wrestle with a situation. These questions, voiced by a character, often reveal an inner struggle, leading the reader to understand the story's conflict.

We began class by talking about some tough questions and not so tough questions. "What will I wear to school?" (my uniform) and "What will I have for dinner?"( whatever my parents give me) are not such tough questions for these eighth graders but there are a few life situations they have had to wonder about: What do I do if everyone around me is doing the wrong thing but I know the right thing? How do I survive a death or divorce in my family? Why was I born with dyslexia?

The authors of Notice and Note (Beers and Probst, 2013) always suggest a passage for the guided practice on this strategy and provide a copy of the text in the appendix. Another reason to buy this great book! The students caught on quickly to the tough questions in the excerpts from "A Long Walk to Water" the story of a young boy forced out of his Sudanese village. To follow up, we read the story By Gish Jen, "The White Umbrella." The questions in this text are subtle but do point to the conflict experienced by a young Chinese girl struggling to fit into American society. The story has an ending that the students love to hate and we had our own tough question at the end. Why, after four pages of obsessing over this white umbrella, did she throw it in the sewer?

After this story had ended, one young man announced that the story was pointless and that "those weren't tough questions". However, when given an assignment to create some visual images that represented the story, he added a picture of a Chinese flag and an American flag in the midst of a whirling conflict. So, I guess he did get the point after all!

As teachers we face tough questions everyday and sometimes they can overwhelm us. How do we answer the call to "rigor" (common core buzz word) and not lose our struggling students? How do we integrate technology with limited computers available? How do we get kids to read books when the their iphones have so much more appeal? How do we help them persevere in problem solving when the average attentions span steadily decreases? How do we challenge the brightest, support the most struggling and let them be creative when we have the threat of assessments always looming ahead? How do we keep going when it seems what we do has little impact and nobody ever stops to notice what we are doing right?

As usual, when I lift up mine eyes, help usually comes forth. Today's gospel from Luke asks a pretty tough question," Who among you would say to your servant who has just plowed the field, "Come here immediately and take your place at the table? .... Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded? So should it be with you. When you have done all you have been commanded, say, "We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do."

At church, Father Terry peered over his glasses at the faithful flock and said to us, "You do what you are supposed to do, take care of who is in front of you and don't worry if you get anything back." Our students may not rise up to call us blessed when we give them tough assignments, challenge them to higher level thinking, slow them down, speed them up or ask them to persevere. The state department of education will never stop changing things,, the local governing board will always have new ideas for professional development and just when we think we can rest on our laurels, a challenging new student bounces off the wall and into the front seat in our classroom to stretch us to new levels of patience. We do this and we ask as the apostles did long ago, "Lord, increase our faith."

May our faith be increased as we do the work we are called to do.
~Ellen~

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Dishonest in Small Things: What I learned in French class that had nothing to do with French

Last week, I was trolling through Facebook, vicariously experiencing life through my "friends" and I happened upon the page from my former high school in Goshen, Indiana. There was a link to the obituary of my high school French teacher, Mr. Fancil. He had died at age 83. He had taught 30 years and then spent several years volunteering. The notice said, "No services." This man taught me a lesson that I have never forgotten. The lesson had nothing to do with the French language but it served me well and I wanted to observe his death and honor his life by sharing this story. It didn't seem right that there were "no services" but I venture to guess that I am not the only one who had her own personal memorial moment for this fondly remembered teacher.

On a regular basis, Mr. Fancil would give our class a vocabulary test, as teachers are wont to do, and we would need to know the French/English counterparts of a list of words. I could have studied them but in all my 15 year old wisdom, I thought I had found a shortcut. What if, I wondered, I would take in my page of notes and use it to cheat on the test? It seemed easy enough so the day of the test, I snuck the note sheet out of my folder and slid it under the test paper. Sneaking furtive glances up to the front of the room, I would copy the vocabulary words onto my test, all the while anticipating the A+ that would soon decorate my paper. About five minutes into the test, Mr. Fancil lifted himself from his chair, walked over to my desk and picked up my test paper. Silently and without even looking at me, he wadded up my test, walked up to the trash can beside his desk and disposed of it.
Then he sat down and resumed his paperwork. I sat stunned, embarrassed, and horrified but knowing even then, that I deserved it. What happens now?  I sat there in the quiet classroom waiting for my classmates to finish their tests. Will he call the principal or worse, my parents? Will he berate me after class, have me kicked out of French II? These questions ran through my mind for the next ten long minutes in that third floor room with windows that looked out over the parking lot.

The fact is, nothing happened, except that I failed that test. He never said a word and never treated me any differently. I never cheated in school again, not through high school, college and graduate school. His decisive but wordless response taught me a valuable lesson.  Mr. Fancil, for whatever reason was shrewd, as is the steward in today's gospel. The words in Luke 16, "The person who is dishonest in small things is also dishonest in great ones " make me grateful that I was caught at a very small thing but given the gift of seeing that it mattered and wouldn't be tolerated.  As a teacher now myself, I know that when we catch students cheating, we need to address it quickly and without fanfare. To excuse it doesn't help them.

Years later, I caught college students turning in papers that were done by students who had taken the class the year previously. There were a couple of things that I had done which helped me know that these students hadn't done their own work. The first class session, I always assign a writing assignment to be completed in class so that I have a sample of a student's work. I knew how they wrote- their voice, fluency, and the use of conventions.  I had also read the previous instructor's syllabus so I knew the content of her class assignments, therefore I recognized the theme of the replacement assignments these students had tried to pass off as their own. At first, I was angry at these students, wondering why they thought they could get by with this. Such audacity! It didn't take long  to remember the lesson I had needed to learn and to decide to follow the example of my French teacher. With little ado, I talked to each young man separately and told them I knew the work wasn't their own and that I had given the assignment for a good reason. "Do the assignment," I said, " hand it in next week."  They did and it was done.  Later that semester, one of the students emailed me and said, "I don't make a habit of cheating but this time it seemed easier. Thank you for giving me another chance."  I wish I could say that was the only time as a teacher that I had to "Mr. Fancil" a student. It wasn't and with the availability of resources via technology, a teacher has to be shrewd and vigilant in new and complicated ways.  However, handling such infractions with firmness and grace is a timeless approach.

I never had the courage to thank Mr. Fancil although I don't know that he ever expected it. I wish he knew the valuable lesson he taught me that day and the impact it had on more than one life.

Rest in peace, Mr. Fancil. May your memory be eternal.

~Ellen~

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Aha Moment

Continuing to use Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading this week I worked with my students on the Aha! Moment in stories. When we find the Aha! we notice that a character realizes something new or has sudden insight and it changes the story. In class, we used some excerpts from Crash by Jerry Spinelli as suggested by the authors of Notice and Note (Beers and Probst).  We discussed how the changes in the narrator as a result of his Aha moments helped us figure out the theme. From there I had the students read Leo Tolstoy's "The Old Grandfather and His Little Grandson," a very short story with an unmistakable epiphany, a moment of truth that changed the lives of the characters.

Eager to introduce my students to Shirley Jackson, an author who often places the Aha! Moment at the end of the story, we delved into "Charles," the story of an ornery Kindergarten student.  It was fun to see the kids reaction at the end of the story when they realize that Laurie, son of the narrator, has made up the character Charles to tell stories of his own troublesome antics. A couple of students actually said, "Aha!" to punctuate the last line of the story.

Today's Gospel Reading has an Aha! moment. In Luke 15:1-32, the Pharisees and Scribes, after watching Jesus for awhile complain, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them."  Aha! Of course he does. So, Jesus kindly tells some parables to help those around him "get it." Jesus,  who came for the least and the lost, changes our story. Because more often than not, we are lost, wandering in the far lands away from our heart and our home, seeking comfort where it can't be found.  Jesus welcomes us home. When I do come home, tired, frazzled and worse for the wear, I imagine, he says to me. "Come on in girl, and sit down. Welcome home. You are loved. Stay awhile this time. " 

This moment should change our story as well. We keep our hearts open, we offer love, we welcome the unlovable as we have been welcomed so many times.

Peace,
~Ellen~



Sunday, September 8, 2013

Contrasts and Contradictions: In Literature and Life

There is a great resource available for Literature teachers of all grade levels. I am using it in my 8th grade Literature class but I find the strategies helpful for my own spiritual and leisure reading.

Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading
Kylene Beers  and Robert E. Probst
Heinemann, 2013

This book suggests strategies to help readers make sense of text.  Some of the students I work with tell me the hardest thing about reading is understanding what they have read. With the genesis of common core and the challenge to present kids with more complex text, we have to help kids develop their skills for figuring out what the words on the page really mean. This book is one great tool to have in the teacher toolbox. The authors have presented "signposts" based on features in novels commonly taught, that help readers understand character, plot, and theme.

I introduced the first signpost, Contrasts and Contradictions, with the story "Thank you, Ma'm" by Langston Hughes. The story begins with a contradiction that impacts the plot and theme. A young boy attempts to snatch the purse of a woman, who ends up taking him home.  A relationship based on trust begins from that initial contradiction. My students had no problem finding the contradictions and contrasts throughout  the story. How it impacted plot and theme was a little tougher so we will keep working on that. One of the young men noted that all the contradictions were "good" and we discussed the possibility that we wouldn't always find only positive contrasts in stories, or in life!

We carried on this signpost to another story, "The Drummer Boy of Shiloh" by Ray Bradbury. The students quickly identified the contradiction as the general in the story admitting to the scared young drummer boy that he also cried sometimes. He cried about the seriousness of the battle and the lives of young soldiers. This discussion opened the path for a discussion about the somber mood of the story which takes place on the night before one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. 

Since introducing this, I have become more aware of the signposts in my own reading. Today's gospel from Luke 14:25-33 has always been a troubling one for me. I have heard a myriad of sermons and homilies on it over the years but until today didn't realize exactly why it troubled me so. Here is Jesus, our loving Jesus, telling us to hate. It's a contrast, a contradiction, and totally unexpected. And it bothers me. But it must mean something and today the words of many pastors and writers came together for me as I sorted through the message as I understand it:

When you said "yes" to follow me, you didn't sign up to bring potato salad to the church picnic. You signed up for a lifestyle change that won't always be comfortable or sweet. The people you love the most may not always be the ones who will help you to the Kingdom. The carefully laid  plans of your white picket fence (or log cabin in my case) future may not be what is in store for you. Stay open, be willing to give some things up and don't always expect this journey to be smooth. There will be joy, there will be abundance, but get off the throne and let me run things. Don't get too attached to anything or anybody because, really, this gig is mine. You are the disciple. Welcome aboard.

Sometimes a teacher, always a learner.

Blessings,
~Ellen~

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Hope in the inbox: The Apple Tree Lesson

It happens almost every year a day or two before school starts. The anxiety builds up, I feel tired and unprepared for the beginning of school and my house is a wreck. I have something that looks like a mini-meltdown and my husband braces himself with an "I am trying to be patient and understanding but I really hope this is over soon" look on his face while I launch into a diatribe against everything I am afraid I won't be able to accomplish. It is fear-based and ridiculous and likely makes Jesus, Buddha, and the Dali Lama want to tell me to "get a grip." I do, eventually, get a grip and I breathe and smile. In the meantime, I vent rather loudly and rapidly  and when I stop to take a breath, my husband says, "Would you like a glass of wine, honey?"  After 5 or 10 minutes, there is some release and I gain some perspective back: I am prepared, (albeit not for everything and not perfectly)  I love my students, my subject matter, and the people I work with every day. All shall be well.

The next morning, I opened up one of the daily devotional readings that arrived in my inbox:

"Transformation"
An inward transformation must produce an outward one. It is one thing to hang a few apples on a pecan tree. It is quite another to grow apples on an apple tree. The latter is a more reliable source of apples. Thus the regeneration of the apple tree, which then produces apples of itself and of natural necessity, is the best, indeed the only way to get apples. But those who claim to be apple trees without producing apples are kidding themselves." (Theodore W. Jennings)

This could mean a hundred different things I suppose but what it meant to me that morning was that first of all there is the need to work on the inner life, to draw from the deep well of God's love to regenerate. I can't produce anything good or worthy without that. As a teacher, I want to produce apples or good things that benefit students but I can't do it if I just appear to be doing the right things. So, this year, I want to regenerate often and to work on the inner transformation, changing my heart and soul before changing the outward works.

So, mini-meltdown over, hope and wisdom in the inbox, and the daily work of transformation begins.

God Bless,
~Ellen~





Thursday, August 1, 2013

Letting in the Light



Last week, I had the chance to visit Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. It is my "happy place" and I spend my time wandering as many trails as I can squeeze in, breathing deeply, and being awed by the natural beauty. I find myself saying, "thank you" over and over for each flower, tree, and live creature I see.  Nature has a healing quality and having my feet on the ground in the midst of the forest was restorative.

One of my favorite sights on those trails is the tiny groups of flowers or the small evergreen growing, inexplicably, from the rocks. I think of my backyard plants that I plant, water, and weed religiously. Sometimes, even in these ideal conditions, they don't survive. How then, does this new life spring up from nowhere and thrive?


All they need is a crack, some light, a windblown seed, and they begin to grow. Mountain moisture and sunlight sustain them. It is a beautiful thing and although I love the tall beautiful pines and the statuesque aspens, my biggest "wows" are reserved for the little bits of growths in the cracks.

My thoughts turn to the cracks in my own life, the vulnerabilities I try to keep hidden and out of sight and how revealing them honestly is how I am going to grow. I need to let the light in and allow for unexpected life to emerge. Seeds of wisdom will blow in from my wise friends and colleagues and allow for new learning to sprout. 

My students, tethered to my heart, come to mind. For many of them the approaching school days bring both excitement and anxiety. Excited to be back in their school community but knowing that with the academic and social demands of school their weaknesses are always in danger of being exposed. It is important for us, their teachers, to create safe places for them. It is essential that we don't attempt to appear perfect in their sight and that we learn and live as honestly and openly as we can along with them. It may be one of our most important tasks as we begin a new school year

 Leonard Cohen's words from "Anthem"  speak to this:

"Ring the bell that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in."

Let's let the light in.

~Ellen~

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Pondering Three Questions


There is a wonderful children's book titled The Three Questions.  Based on a story by Leo Tolstoy and written by Jon J. Muth, it tells a tale of great questions and sage answers. We could probably all live excellent lives based on the wisdom found in books written for children. This is one book I have read several times ( to children) and each time it hits me between the eyes with its important message.

In the book, there is a little boy asking an old wise turtle some questions: What is the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? What is the right thing to do? I won't tell you the turtle's answers, because I think you may want to read the book or at least ponder the questions yourself.

I will say that I have been thinking about these questions a lot as I prepare to teach and learn this year. Sorting through the wrong answers has been easy. Figuring out my own answers has been a little tougher.

When is the best time to do things? Well, I don't think it is just because the child is in the 1st grade or 6th grade  or senior year of high school. Although we are somewhat constrained by expectations to teach grade level standards, good teachers know in their heart of hearts that until a child is ready, you can teach your socks off and it isn't going to stick. So, the best time to do things is when the child reaches that point where they wonder what is next and he is ready to learn it.  Wonderful teachers bring each child to the brink of new learning, then wait for the child to ask, "so... now what?"  We won't do this perfectly for each child, but we should never forget that we are teaching kids, not standards and not test preparation. I want to know my students well enough to hear what they are curious about and to know when they are ready for deeper understanding and new information.

Who is the most important one? Each child who comes into the room every day. Greet them by name, smile sincerely, and start fresh each day. The parent who may be on the school board or in an important public office, the parent who is white collar, blue collar or in the county jail isn't the most important, the principal isn't the most important, the state commissioner of education isn't the most important and the creator of state and local assessments sure as heck isn't the most important. Each student, each day, is the most important person. They deserve full attention, sincere respect, and kindness. And, by the way, so do you.

What is the right thing to do?  One's very best, every day. I am pledging to NOT say to my students that they must learn something because it is on the state assessment, that they shouldn't even learn it to be prepared for college or high school but that they should learn it because each of us should do our best every day because that is where we are.  So many times I hear teachers say to their students, " I am trying to prepare you for..." and it strikes me that the child is being robbed of the chance to live their wonderful and in -the -present life. If we need rationale for requiring certain things, it ought to be that we believe that this task or assignment is the good thing needed for the student to do today, this week, this year. The residual effect of doing that every day because it is the right thing to do? We will be prepared for life down the road. Let's stop taking today away from ourselves and our students.

These are good questions and I hope you can ponder them too. I would love to hear your answers!

Enjoy today
~Ellen~

Monday, June 10, 2013

Summer Break

"There is no need for you to leave the house. Stay at your table and listen. Don't even listen, just wait. Don't even wait, be completely quiet and alone. The world will offer itself to you unmasked: in raptures it will writhe before you."

                                                      Frank Kafka


Recently, I had some young girls for lunch and we selected questions from a "chat pack" to talk about at lunch. One question read, "If you were a punctuation mark, what would you be?" We had fun with that question and the girls were introspective. I chose a comma as my personified punctuation mark  because mostly, I am finding the need to pause ever more important.

The above quote may want you to throw your SUV keys, or your laptop, or your cell phone at the author, but it is true that we all need this kind of time on a regular basis to heal us. We don't like it very much and it isn't easy but, truth is, we need it.

Now, more than ever we can be always connected and we all know it. We are probably all suffering from FOMO, today's disorder, the Fear of Missing Out. I often take several hours at a time to unplug but recently I took a whole day and didn't check email or FBook (deliver us oh Lord, now you can shop garage sales on Facebook???) or Instagram or my blogs. I didn't text or call and it was tougher than I thought. For a long time, I sat at various places in the house and yard and attempted to listen.

Most of the time, there is no rapture, there is no writhing. Kafka was obviously better at this than I am.  Sometimes I just figure out what to make for dinner or think of someone who might be lonely and in need of a handwritten note. Sometimes, I face my fears and tell them to back off or think of how I could respond in love rather than defensiveness during my next family conflict.

I tried this in a classroom recently. The kids were creating some art to go with a story and I told them we would be perfectly quiet for about 5 minutes to see what thoughts came to our minds. After 5 minutes, the timer went off and one little boy said, "Can we have more quiet....PLEASE?"

Teachers, mothers, children, pastors, CEOs,artists and others, we need to pause, to become the comma, and to listen. So go ahead. Try doing diddly. Follow it up with squat.

God loves us and wants our attention.

,

~Ellen~

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Open the Path

As I previously mentioned, I read a lot.  I reread a number of  books and Astonished is a book I recently read twice.  This book, by Beverly Donofrio, is loaded with wisdom and came fortuitously into my hands this March. In the book, Beverly had something horrendous happen to her and she sought solace in monasteries. She recorded, in wonderful and honest prose, her experiences. She is funny, human, and so very wise.

She recounted how one friend of hers, a sage earth mother type advised, Pray every day. Pray, "Open the path and I will walk it."  It sounded like pretty good advice. So when I finished the book, the prayer began, "Open the path and I'll walk it."  I wrote it down on sticky notes, in my journal, and on bookmarks to help me remember to say it. I said it out loud on my morning walk to work and wrote it with lipstick on the bathroom mirror.

One path that has opened is the chance to teach literature to 8th graders. I am seeing this as an answer to this prayer. Besides working with students with special learning needs in grades 4-8, I will get to reenter the classroom and teach literature  again. It feels like a great opportunity and I am excited to venture in.  I believe good literature has the power to change our lives so I hope, even for a season, to share some stories, books, poems, and articles that kids will want to read closely and a few that will even help them make some sense of their world.

I hope to help them enrich their vocabulary and speak with precision and accuracy so that they know there is a difference between  appreciated, devoted, admired and yes, obsessed. I hope they write way more than I can grade, read much more than we can ever test, and know enough about punctuation rules to break them from time to time.

Another source of good advice came a few months ago when I went with my daughter to her obstetrician and was surprised to meet this motherly and frank lady who is taking wonderful care of my daughter and her unborn blessing. She was talking about the recent phenomenon of being able to read online reviews that patients (or anyone actually)  post . She said, " I don't read those reviews. I just ask God to send me the patients he wants me to have." Again, great advice. What students will I have and why? The ones I am supposed to.

"Open the path and I will walk it."


~Ellen~

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Something to hang my hope on: Transformation

I write in this journal because it helps me. I like the cover because, frankly, at age 50, my youthful optimism has gone to hell in a hemp handbag. I often find myself anxious and cynical about my aging self and my ability to keep up and therefore more in need of cheap therapy. This journal is one such therapy tool.

The sentence starter at the top of each page says: "What I am hanging my hope on today:" It's an appropriate redirection for my state of mind when I sit down to write. The other day, sitting in the far back pew at Friday's all school Mass and looking at 700 points of light in the pews before me, I realized what I hang my hope on: Transformation.

At the end of a school year, I looked over that crowd and realized the changes that have taken place. A brand new college graduate has become a teacher, a kindergartner has become a reader, a 3rd grader has become a master of multiplication, a silly 6th grader has become a less silly almost 7th grader, a new student has become a valued member of his community, a child with Autism has become an understood friend, a principal has become, once again, the mother of many children, and for a few days a new librarian has become a duck on a bike because she doesn't want kids to lose our library books. And, as I watch the priest during the consecration, I think of transformation and how the Eucharist and the love of a community has the power to change us in essential ways. This morning I am hanging my hope on the assurance that the Mass will make me less afraid and a little more loving.

When it comes to education, there is a lot to hang our hope on. But no...it isn't high test scores or new computers or even the common core standards that we should hang our hopes on.  It is the power of creative thought, the undeniable strength of the human spirit as seen in the youngest learner and the carefully crafted lesson plan of a teacher who will never get paid enough but she does it anyway. It is the child who makes connections, who asks "why?" until she understands and the child who doesn't get it because we didn't teach it right but he shows up in our class and gives us another chance. It is the kid who says, "thank you" even though you hounded him day and night until he finished a book.  We hang our hope on the parents who show up for conferences, on the dad who takes his son's phone away at night and the mom who dares to be a little unpopular with the friends of her daughter.

Finally, we hang our hope on the love of people dedicated every day to the transforming power of love. When we see ourselves as God sees us, shining, beautiful and full of potential, we know we can be transformed. And that is enough for today.

With hope,
~Ellen~

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Teacher Appreciation: An Unlikely Metaphor

In the merry month of May, my thoughts drift toward my dad, now gone from the earth about 1 1/2 years. His birthday occurred in May, as did my parents' wedding anniversary. There is also a week in May designated "Teacher Appreciation Week"  that I probably only know about because I am a teacher. At any rate, during this week I tend to reflect on the great teachers I have known as well as the source of my inspiration to keep teaching. My dad taught me a lot about teaching through the passion he had for learning and encouraging others. So, this post features a bit of inspiration from my dear dad.

This free-verse poem, titled "Remembering" was one I chose to read at my dad's memorial service because it was like him, both funny and profound.  This week, it reminds me that our role as teachers is often just supportive, not noticed until we aren't there any longer, and hidden so that our students' can look good... much like the object in my dad's metaphor.

Remembered

by H. Eugene Herr

Joe Montano is recalled with a football.
That was this thing, his tool.
Michael J and Isaiah T- a basketball, hoops.
C. S. Lewis- writing and The Inklings
A fellowship of pub and pen.
For me, I want to be remembered as a bra.
On a street in Pittsburg decades ago
Walking to the downtown Y for Employment Anonymous
Kerwin Flannery said to me, "Gene, you are just like a good bra.
You give me a lift."
I'd like to encourage the minds and hearts of family, friends, and foes
to give a lift to what is really there
to help the shape of what is inherent in personality and grace gifts
A bra is hidden, undercover of dress or blouse
and yet its quality is realized
unconsciously there but consciously important
And so I try to pray, to support.
An occasional note, a presence
I need to heal my own heart
To find my fresh spring in Jesus
I need the lift.
I'd rather be--yes, just a bra, in the attire of God's own.


 
Dad, thanks for the wisdom ... and for being just like a good bra. I aspire to the same.


~Ellen~

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Because It Matters: Perfectly Imperfect



This picture features two young people, both of them with Down Syndrome, who like the rest of us, are perfectly imperfect. When I first met Maureen, she was four years old and sitting on the floor of her preschool classroom. I walked in the room and laid eyes on this young girl who would have such an impact on my life as a teacher and as a person. She was sitting on the floor, engaged in battle with the zipper on her backpack while the rest of the class was either saying goodbye to a parent for the morning or playing at one of the colorful centers. I wondered why nobody helped her as I watched her struggle for a good 3 or 4 minutes. She managed the zipper (of course she did) and stood up to join her classmates.  That's why nobody helped her, I realized, because she can do it.  I was at her school to do a consultation at their request. It turns out they didn't need all that much help. They were walking the tightrope between high expectations and appropriate support about as well as any team of people I had ever encountered.

Maureen, plain and simple, is a testament to the human spirit and a lesson in meeting life's challenges with everything you've got. She is fortunate to have a family that believes she can learn just about anything and a school that afforded her the "dignity of risk."  Regardless of where a student is served, parochial school, public school, general classroom or special education class, every student deserves the best we can offer.  Because it Matters. Every child has something to contribute to the community and when we devalue anyone, we lose that gift that only he/she can offer.

Here are a couple of lessons I learned from working with the very special students that have come into my life:

  • Communication is everything! Students need language and language isn't limited to verbalization. Behavior, gestures, written words, pictures, and words are all language. Watch and observe it all. Nothing should be free (except love and grace) and every action has communicative intent. When students don't have efficient ways to express frustration, anger, or angst, they will often act it out. Give them tools to express themselves in ways that don't cause damage to people or relationships.

  • Have high expectations. Expect kids to behave and to follow your rules even if they have Down Syndrome, Autism, or other developmental delays.  Make sure the rules are clear and stated before the activity begins. I think the best parents I know are those who love their kids unconditionally but always expect them to behave the best they can be expected to given their age. If they threaten consequences, they follow through without much ado.

  • Choices matter. Sometimes the only choices kids have are to comply or not comply. Given those options most of us would choose to assert our independence by breaking the rules.  Besides being a great language skill, it gives kids some power in acceptable ways. Give lots of choices all through the day: Crayon or pencil? Juice or milk? Now or later? With help or alone? As the child grows, so does the breadth and risk factor of the choices.

  • Have a good sense of humor. I think kids with special needs have an uncanny ability to know when someone is for real or not. Learn to laugh with kids and enjoy the special surprises they bring to your day. Be sincere. You aren't fooling anyone, particularly the kids in our midst whose veil between the heart and mind is unclouded by social expectations.

Finally, I have to say that in our schools, churches, homes and communities, when we create places for all God's children we will all grow from the experience. Watching my students give and take in the warm embrace of a loving community is one of the most precious experiences I have been blessed to have.

And here are just a few resources:

www.Do2learn.com  (great website for picture schedules, choice boards, etc)
www.therapystreetforkids.com( amazing resources for sensory needs, writing, strengthening, etc)

Apps
Choiceworks (really love this app. you can build your own schedule and choice boards)
Wet Dry Try ( Handwriting without Tears on the ipad)
Bob Books ( great for beginning readers)

There are so many more...

As my friend Maureen would say, "You're fabulous"  ( and she is and I am a better person for knowing her)
~Ellen~


Monday, April 1, 2013

Bruised Reeds

When our students or our children don't seem to give their best efforts, we are likely to say, "He/She just doesn't care." I've heard it many times and said it a few (I confess).  I've met thousands of kids in my tenure as educator and parent and I have to say I've never met a child who truly didn't care. Learners, especially those who don't learn too much too easily, have a quiver full of coping strategies to mask the fact that they do, in fact, care very much.

A couple of years ago, I was at a west side Wichita establishment that was well known for it's country music and large dance floor. My husband and I arrived there in time for line dancing lessons which was an experience that opened my eyes. I joined the 12 or so people out on the dance floor and the instructor started slowly with no music. He just gave us the words to match the steps he was demonstrating. I repeated the words and the steps along with him. Then he added some music but still spoke  the words telling us what to do. I was still doing fine. Then he stopped saying the words. He played the music and my classmates fell right into place as if they had been line dancing all their lives. I, however, was flummoxed. I couldn't do it. I was so embarrassed and I desperately wanted to yell, "Slow down cowboy. We weren't all born in a barn."  I needed what we call in teacher talk, "extra guided practice."  I tried to do the steps but couldn't and everyone else obviously could so I awkwardly step-scooted off the dance floor, flopped down on a chair and handled it like a mature adult. "Line dancing is stupid," I said, "and I didn't want to do it anyway."  A few days later with some distance from my humiliation,  my mind went to the student in my math class who always just wrote down random answers or the kid who got back his English test with an F on it and acted like it was funny, and I understood them in a new way.

There are a lot of reasons why kids seem to not care.  If we watch and listen, we can usually figure out why. For some, it's because some bigger life issue is casting shadows in their lives and school seems irrelevant. For some, it is just being overwhelmed with lots of new information. Sometimes, like me in line dancing hell, they need more time to practice the new skill.

There are some great words in Isaiah 42 that I try to keep in mind with kids who are discouraged and defensive. These are the kids whose faces I see before I go to sleep at night.

"He will be gentle-he will not shout or raise his voice in public. The bruised reed he will not break..."

I have always felt my students for whom school is difficult are like bruised reeds and that I need to help them stand tall without breaking them.
Some ideas for these learners...
  • Start with what they know. A lot of kids with working memory issues check out of class mentally because they can't bring back what you taught them yesterday and apply it to today. Prime the brain and bring back previous content. Show them how it connects or builds on with visual cues.
  • Guided practice and lots of it. A teacher asked me once how long to give his math students guided practive before turning them loose on independent work. I told him, "Until they are rolling your eyes at you." 
  • Believe in them enough to make them take you seriously. You will not break the bruised reed by having high expectations and letting him/her know you will do what it takes because you believe they can learn what you are teaching.  Tell them you love them enough to sit them in the front row, to monitor their study habits, and to put some restrictions on their distractions.  
  • These kids have to know you like them and that you are a safe person. Show your humanity and your sense of humor. Ask them to tell you what helps them the most. Sometimes they will tell you more if they can write it down. One teacher I know had ongoing communication with each of her students with notecards. She'd have them write something down that they had thought about during her class and she'd write back to them. When they filled the note card, she gave them another. She knew more about her students and how to motivate them than anyone in the building.
There are lots more of course but this is a good start.
We are all bruised reeds, in some way or another.... Let's be thankful to those who hold us up and don't trample us down.

~Ellen~


Thursday, March 21, 2013

If you Work with Words...




Words spread across a page, scrawled on a note or spilling out from a person's mouth have so much power. Carefully or carelessly chosen, words can move us. Teachers facing the implementation of the Common Core Standards know that we have to look at vocabulary in new and different ways. I am not going to go indepth on those standards but rather, offer a few observations and tools from my own experience.

Recently I walked into the Reading Intervention class I was teaching and handed every student a white board and marker. I started saying words and asking them to draw a simple picture of what came to their mind when they heard the word. This was one student's offering for the word parallel.


 I kept tossing out words and several students asked, "Can we do this all period?" The students who typically weren't at ease with words were shining like stars with this task. I gave them the word "bifurcate" and a couple of kids recognizing the prefix bi- wrote a number 2 on their board. The rest just said, "BifurWHAT?" We stopped and talked about how a person can't have a visual image of a word, if they don't know the meaning. I went on to tell them how I learned the word from an old boyfriend, one who eventually bifurcated my heart, so my image is a heart with a line down the center.

So, regarding vocabulary, I love having kids draw their own understanding of the words they come across and sharing them with each other for several reasons: students are actively engaged, teachers get a quick preassessment of student understanding, seeing each other's ideas deepens understanding. When I gave the kids the word "greedy" it was interesting to see what their ideas were. We shared images of a huge diamond ring, someone eating another person's food, and a smattering of dollar signs. It was a time of discovery for me to see what ideas and background knowledge my students brought into the classroom. 

Whenever we start teaching anything, I've learned we have to start with the vocabulary. In this same class, a student had just been through a math lesson involving expressions and equations. He was trying to do his math lesson and he didn't know the difference between the two. "How did I get to this place in my life" he asked me, "and not know that?"  It is funny what kids say at times when they feel safe.  I know that too many times I have just jumped in with content and not taken the time to build on a solid foundation with essential vocabulary.

My second point regarding vocabulary is that we have to teach it in context and when we are participating in "close reading" that  common core promotes, that is the perfect time. Many students aren't reading nearly as much as they should and therefore not adding to their vocabulary repertoires.  This isn't where we want to dumb things down but neither do we want to frustrate the kids by giving them text with too many words they don't know. The answer? Using rich and complex text, beautiful pieces of poetry and prose, and studying them with students. When we just study vocabulary in isolation, we are likely wasting kids time because there is no context or nuance to give it meaning. Excellent teachers ask students why the author chooses certain verbs and adjectives to convey ideas. Excellent math teachers ask students to find things that are parallel (or perpendicular, etc) in the world around them.

One of my favorite activities, if you have been on Pinterest you have seen it too, is an activity for teaching nuance. Words have shades and intensity as do colors. My friend Natalie, the interior designer, personifies paint colors: That color just hates being on that wall. That red is too harsh, that tan is too weak. Critical readers and writers do the same with words.  Said is too strong, she actually mutteredHappy is lying if he was just satisfied. Don't understate or overstate. The truth shall set you free.



Here are a couple of resources that I really like:

  • The dictionary (no kidding!)
  • A dictionary app that I use frequently from Dictionary.com
  • Visual Thesaurus App
  • Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing by Constance Hale (I love this book. She feeds the reader carefully chosen verbs even as she writes about them. There are ideas for activities that are perfect to do with classes.)
  • Constance Hale has a website: www.sinandsyntax.com 
  • Vocab Girl can be found on Facebook or www.infosadlier.com/vocabulary-blog
  • I read The Christian Science Monitor for the news but also because it has such literary value. I have used excerpts from article to expose my students to well written non-fiction text about current issues.
As Luther says in one of my all time favorite old movies, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, "If you work with words, words are your work."  I rest my case.

Enjoy,
~Ellen~




Saturday, March 9, 2013

In Good Company


Weekday mornings, my tennis shoes and backpack stand ready to go. I throw some dressier shoes into the pack, sling the backpack on and head off to work on foot. It isn't such a big deal at all except that in Wichita, KS, few people walk to work. It is only about a mile and a half and after the initial crossing of semi-busy Central avenue, it is a pleasant stroll through a quiet residential neighborhood and then back again at the end of the day.

It all started with The Way, a movie about the Camino de Santiago in Spain. I watched the movie over Thanksgiving break and I became quite interested in the Camino and the meaning of the pilgrimage. That led, of course, to books and in about a months time I had read four books: two on the Camino de Santiago and two on other journeys. They were all wonderful and compelling in their own way. Each of the books featured a person on a journey and how he/she was changed by the experience So, I decided that there was no reason why I couldn't make my own journey each day.

And thus far, most workdays, I have. It's been beautiful really. Crisp cold mornings, some cloudy and some clear.  I have noticed the beauty of each bare branched tree and the singing of the birds.  I have time to think and to pray. Most days I just try to be aware, to notice what is around me and to appreciate my health, my legs, and my senses which allow me to take it all in. I do what I learned from my dad and I pray for the people and edifices I pass. I think about my upcoming day and a group of middle school kids I will teach ( and though I may walk through the valley of sarcasm, lift me up)  and my little readers ( long may they read!) and my coworkers (give them strength).  I think of my daughters and ask God to hold them in His light.

The benefits of walking are many: building muscle tone, cardiovascular  health, mental clarity, and then one good day my husband came home from his yearly check-up telling me a new advantage. "My doctor" he said, "told me that walking makes your butt smaller."  Good enough.

Mostly I do it because it slows me down, helps me live in the moment and gives me more time in solidarity with those who have to walk, who live outside and who brave the elements not because they have a choice but because they are lacking shelter.  By the time I reach my destination,  I am more grateful for my job, my students and my colleagues. I am more aware of my dependency on others and more aware of the need to slow the heck down and listen.

If you are interested, here are the fabulous books I read on walking:

The Way is Made by Walking by Arthur Paul de Boers
I loved this book. He begins, "Once I walked 500 miles to church..." and the rest is a beautiful chronicle of his journey to Santiago.

Walk in a Relaxed Manner: Life Lessons from the Camino by Joyce Rupp.
The author also made the whole pilgrimage and she describes her experiences along the way. She was 60 when she took the journey and this fact helped me decide that if she could walk 500 miles over 6 or 7 weeks, I could surely manage 3 miles a day.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
This is one of the best books I have ever read! I loved  Harold Fry and every minute of his pilgrimage. I loved what happened to him as he took this journey. A beautiful book. As I walk to and from school, often a couple of lines come to me from this book: "Life was very different when you walked through it" and 'It surprised Harold how fast and angry cars seemed when you aren't in one." So true.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
A hilarious, irreverent account of hiking the Appalachian Trail. I liked it that he did it in starts and stops and it wasn't completely successful. Still, he hiked that trail.

So, this is my journey since January. In an attempt to see my life as a pilgrimage, to become more mindful and to recognize my workplace as holy ground, I am donning my shoes, throwing on a pack and heading down the road. I am in good company.

~Ellen~

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Stepping Back

Winter Sunset
 (P. Herr)


Fill your bowl to the brim

And it will spill.

Keep sharpening your knife

and it will blunt.

Chase after money and security

and your heart will never unclench

Care about people's approval and

you will be their prisoner

Do your work, then step back

The only path to security.

                                                                   Tao Te Ching


        I found this writing in a book I am reading about St. Benedict.  Because I am a hunter/gatherer of pieces of wisdom, I wrote it down.  When I am gone, I fear my children will find little of value save the collections of wise sayings stacked in piles around the house.

     This week, I wanted to do a post on writing but I am putting it off a week. When I saw this quote last week it reminded me of the need to breathe a little between classes and meetings and to recognize that more isn't always more. If fact when it comes to recognizing the way our students learn and the way we function best, often less is, in fact, more.

       This particular quote struck me because of the emphasis on stepping back.  When we work with learners of any age, we can get so caught up with test scores and other pieces of "objective data" that we cease to notice the other important growth happening in their lives.  We know what these things are and they aren't necessarily measurable: depth of understanding, thirst for knowledge, appreciation of diversity, a sense of wonder and the ability to see beyond oneself. 

       Our role in a child's life is important, so important, and we want to do it well. We are, however, only a small piece of fabric in the quilt of our students' lives. The collective efforts of faculty, staff, parents, volunteers, peers, clergy, and community are woven together to form these young people. What we miss, and we will miss something, we need to trust will come from another source.
    
      We do our work and at the end of our day, we step back, breathe, and offer our efforts to God- Someone higher than ourselves whose love for these children surpasses our own as the glory of the sun outshines the brightest candle. 

Peace,
~Ellen~

  


Saturday, February 23, 2013

Zen and the Art of Getting Them to Read

I can't help it. When I see children reading, I have to say, "It's a beautiful thing."  This young one, so intent on his decodable reader is wearing a finger beam. They are an inexpensive gadget that I used to encourage kids to track as they are reading. Earlier this week, my little Kindergarten kiddos squealed with delight as I turned off the lights and announced we'd be reading with magic lights. These beginning readers are fun! Besides foundational reading skills we have practiced complimenting each other's efforts. "Excellent reading!" this little guy told his peer partner after reading the adventures of Pam and her fat hat.

When it comes to reading, I do what it takes to get kids to read, short of rewarding them with trinkets that are unrelated to reading. I never have seen the value of rewarding kids with a yo-yo, pizza, or extra recess for reading. It seems it sends a message to kids that reading in and of itself isn't valuable, therefore we have to create an artificial reinforcer. You can't fool all of the kids even some of the time. Why would we need to reward something if WE feel it is valuable in and of itself?

When it comes to reluctant readers, I suggest that we make reading the reward, the journey is the thing, not the destination. Zen and the Art of Getting Them to Read, if you will.  So, the finger beams were a way to add novelty and some joy on the journey. We all donned them and had a campfire kind of experience around the table. Growing up, as previously mentioned, I didn't need much encouragement to read. My parents surrounded me with books and I ate them for dinner. I still do. However, at least one of my daughters and many of my students don't have that same natural instinct to pick up a book. Not to mention the fact that  there are oh-so-many more distractions in their world.

Each summer  I would get my daughter the books on her school required summer reading list and ceremoniously present them her. "Wow!" I'd say, "These look GREAT!" She'd thank me and set them down. Around July 10, I'd notice they hadn't been touched. So, I'd tell her that I was happy to help her find time to read them. And, I told her, I would read it with her and we'd discuss it. Thus began the forced mother/daughter summer book club. We'd both read a chapter or two and then we'd discuss it. It was great for both of us and I tried not to notice when she was rolling her eyes at me. I think the lofty themes of  Orwell's Animal Farm escaped us both but we did our best to understand the farmyard revolution as it could relate to a family or classroom system.

One summer, this same daughter was assigned, Her Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. She picked it up, read the first page,set it down in exasperation saying, "I can't read this." "Why not?" I asked? " Look at the words, it doesn't make sense!" The book is heavy in dialect with "Ah" meaning" I" and" lak" meaning" like," etc. "Okay," I said, " I've got an idea" and we made a quick reference list of the dialect and their standard English equivalent. It helped. Halfway through, we rented the movie to aid our understanding of the book. We reached the finish line about 24 hours before the first day of school and developed a love for a beautiful story.

I have come to the conclusion that if we want kids to read (and I desperately do) we have to surround them with great books, prepare quiet space and time for them to read and flop down on our stomachs and read right with them. Shine a light on the words you love.  It's a double bonus for kids. They get great books and they get your attention. We can't go wrong. 

Here are some great books that helped me greatly in this endeavor:

Readicide by Kelly Gallagher

The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller

The Read-Aloud Handbook by Kim Trelease

I Read It but I don't get it by Chris Tovani

Reading Magic by Mem Fox

For 1st and 2nd graders and their parents, I wholeheartedly recommend any of the books in the You Read to me, I'll Read to You series. They are written for partner reading and so much fun to snuggle up with and discover together.



From one of my students who read Wind in the Willows with me.
 One of my most favorite experiences ever!




Blessed is the reluctant reader of any age who has an adult who shares the experience of reading.
 
Enjoy the journey,
~Ellen~







Saturday, February 16, 2013

Clear Pools of Hope

Every now and then God and the universe grants a clear view of our calling. I was given such a moment recently....

My work is loving the child who
  • would rather be playing
  •  longs to learn but hates to be told
  •  usually does the wrong thing before she gets the right thing
  •  needs to be parallel before she really gets what it means
  • needs a new chance every morning
  •  is surrounded by people who believe in him even though he is determined not to believe in himself
  •  yearns to discover in this own time, however fast or slow that may be
  •  has reverent respect for simple beauty because so much of life is too complicated
  •  when asked to use the word with in a sentence says, "Peace be with you"
  •  hugs you because she got an 80% on her test
  •  doesn't laugh when someone reads "of"  as "for" because he does it all the time himself
  •  gets the wonders of life but doesn't always grasp the logic
  •  grasps the logic but doesn't get all the unwritten rules of human interactions
  • needs to hop, jump, shake and stir
  •  loves the teacher who shows his humanity
  • lives with injustice and therefore understands it
  •  longs to be asked a question that isn't in the book





My work is to be in love, in love's purest form, with this child and to see in him the budding of a flower. To look in her eyes and see clear pools of hope.

My work, thank God, is to love this child.





Thanks to my children and my students who inspire me. Thanks to my big brother Phil for the lovely picture of the budding flower.
~Ellen~