On the Road to Learn

Yesterday I had the privilege of traveling to Harrisburg and attending the PA Symposium on the Arts and Education.  I heard about the conference through the PA Thespian Society (a chapter of which I advise at the high school), and because I recently began my doctorate studies in educational leadership, I thought I would find the day beneficial.  My principal approved the request, and I spent the day attending various workshops and networking with educators and arts advocates.  

While the overview of ESSA (the Every Student Succeeds Act that replaced No Child Left Behind) contained the usual mind-numbing political language, the presenter (a former music teacher) packaged the information in a user-friendly format that helped me understand how monies are allocated from the federal and state levels and the impact the terminology ("arts and music") and placement of said terminology has on schools receiving funding . . . when the government gets around to reviewing and approving requests, that is.  

Part of the day's schedule included a variety of workshops to choose from.  The first one I attended blew my mind.  At Central York High School, three teachers -- English, Art, and Social Studies educators -- team-teach a project-based program called The Apollo School.  Essentially, the program pairs student passions and ideas with the three content areas in a personalized, project-driven curriculum.  Here's an example: one student has an interest in fashion design.  She read The Great Gatsby and analyzed the characters, themes, symbols.  She then researched the 1920s, particularly the role of women in society and politics.  She applied this knowledge to her project, which was an up-cycled dress in the flapper style, but with literary and sociopolitical symbolism embedded in the design choices.  

Students can work independently, as the fashion designer above, or in groups as they design projects.  In its third year, the Apollo program has a fluid yet structured schedule -- "Family Meeting Time" starts each day and can last anywhere from 15 minutes to a couple of hours; students must sign up for specific times to meet individually with instructors to stay on target for their goals.  The instructors provide broad themes that guide the students through their personalized learning, eventually leading to seniors considering their role in the modern world before graduating.  

They shared some statistics -- they have a 99.2% attendance rate because kids want to be in school; kids share feeling less anxious about school because they love their projects and the process; test scores have gone up significantly for the Apollo learners (an over 50 point increase on the CDTs, compared to an average of 26 point gain for non-Apollo students).  And they were honest about the fact that this program is not for every child; and about the fact that if the group becomes too large, then the model doesn't work as well.  The teachers were true collaborators who are willing to learn alongside their students -- exactly what education should look like in the 21st century.  

An hour with these folks was definitely not enough, and I plan to reach out to them for more ideas.  

I attended other workshops -- one on using dance in gym class (wait, not "dance,"  "Movement."  A simple term switch makes all the difference, honestly!)  and another on a project-based creative collaborative in Hershey which allows students to write original plays, musicals, songs -- and to perform and workshop those pieces, to add technology components, to compete and produce.  A keynote speaker discussed the impact of race and opportunity on creativity and the arts.  A town hall meeting was held with educational leaders.  

Thankfully, I had a two-hour drive home to attempt to process all that I experienced throughout the day.  Leaving my classroom for the day is never easy, even when I know it's in the capable hands of the retired English teachers we are fortunate enough to have on the sub list.  Taking a day "off" means creating and writing plans for classes, coming back to piles of papers to sort on my desk, and potentially re-teaching some concepts (especially if one of those English teachers isn't available!).  Teachers will do anything not to call off under normal circumstances because of how much extra work it is to have a substitute.  It's a paradox: A day "off" comes with a lot of work.  But, with all that said, I am glad I had the opportunity to take the day to attend the conference, and I am already thinking of ways to apply what I learned yesterday in my classroom and ways to learn more. 



We are Family


We spent an amazing weekend with Gene’s sisters and their husbands and friends in New York. While we worried about taking time off to do this over the weekend, we are so glad we did. Life is way too short to work every weekend, that’s for sure! What a beautiful life we have. 


Game of Thrones Halloween


Gene and  I love to watch Game of Thrones together, so this year’s Halloween costumes were a not brainer. We are camping with his sisters in NY state and rocking the Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen costumes everywhere we go. My day was made when we stepped out of the camper and a random guy yelled, “Winter is Coming!” 



Middle School Misery

Aidan is in the 7th grade, and at times, I wish I could just time-warp his life ahead a couple of years so he can escape the unnecessary drama of middle school.  Don't get me wrong -- I am going to curl up in the fetal position for a few hours when he turns 13 in February, rocking back in forth in denial that I have a teenaged son.  But I can't help but wish these miserable social years away for him every once in a while. 

Most of the drama this year seems to stem from the fact that Aidan is short for his age.  With two grandmothers under 5 feet tall, and a great-grandmother of the same stature, this is not exactly a shock to us.  But, it's also something that is completely out of his control.  His dad is fairly tall, and I am 5'5", so I believe a growth spurt is coming his way soon, but that doesn't help when he is called a "midget" on a regular basis.  The immaturity and downright mean nature of some middle school boys is frustrating and disheartening, to say the least.  My heart breaks for him as Aidan tells me stories of the mean comments boys make in gym class ("I don't want him on my team; he's short") or even in chorus ("You're short and you can't sing.").  Aidan works twice as hard to prove himself (in gym, he won the badminton match 9-3 and Aidan is probably one of the strongest students in the music department right now), which may be a silver lining to this cloudy year.  He is developing a determination that will serve him well in life, but at times the energy it takes to sustain can be exhausting.  

Time will prove these lessons to Aidan.  Last night, Aidan was telling me that he only has a handful of friends, and I tried to explain that having a few good, true friends is much better than having a hundred superficial ones.  He knows that, but the sting of feeling left out remains.  I was glad to hear him say, "I hate everything about school except my classes and teachers."  That means, to me, that he is focused on the right parts of his day.  At the same time, so much of school involves learning social skills and interaction.  Again, even these negative exchanges with kids will teach him lessons, but those lessons are difficult for him to go through -- and difficult for his mother to witness.  

Aside from praying for that growth spurt, I am a shoulder to cry on whenever he needs me.  I try to advise him the best I can, but the terrible truth of parenting is that we can only do so much for our children.  Once they walk out the door, the choices they make are theirs.  I've suggested that Aidan focus on the positives in his day (he has a tendency toward pessimism), but I can't force that to happen.  I can only be consistent in my encouragement and hope, "This too shall pass." 

Fall Reflections

After weeks of summer-like temperatures, fall appears to be truly upon us.  If the frost advisory notification from my weather app is any indication, that is.  Nearly a marking period under our belts at school, and nearly a flip of the calendar away from November -- it's that time when the new begins to wear off the school year and the shine begins to fade a bit.  Classroom routine begins to feel, well, routine.  Habits begin to emerge: absenteeism, misbehavior, inattention -- and of course, enthusiasm, determination, persistence.  

Around this time of year, I like to take a bit of a personal litmus test.  What's working? What/who needs more attention? and also, as a self-professed over-Giver, I have to ask preservation questions: Can I sustain this effort and work load for three more marking periods? How will I manage this when the musical starts? Am I doing too much for students who haven't met me half way? 

I have always found benefit in self-reflection.  So far, I am very happy with what's happening in my classroom.  My English 12 students are writing on a regular basis (we are on journal #25 and we've had 35 days of school); we've just finished a book that they really liked; in addition, they have been reading current articles and responding to them on a weekly basis; and we are starting a personal essay assignment that I am excited about.  I have established a good rapport with the classes, and we seem to have a decent balance between a relaxed atmosphere and an academic one.  Yesterday, a substitute came in to get a reading for a class he's covering next week.  One of my seniors piped up after he left the room:  "When is he in for you?"  I told her, and she replied, "That's it.  I am not coming to school that day."  I asked why not, and she said, "I like him, but he's just not you.  If you aren't here, I'll just come in late."  Of course, I told her to get her butt to school anyway.  

My AP classes are small but mighty.  I find in one particularly quiet class, I need to do a little more lecture style than I am used to, but it's good for me to switch my delivery strategies up as well.  They have been journaling; they blog once a week; they wrote a formal essay; they have regular quizzes on rhetorical terms; and we just started my notorious notes chart assignment that students initially hate and then grudgingly admit was really good for them.  Because I have half as many AP kids this year, I am able to do some of the assignments that I altered last year when I had 52 in AP and 50 in Honors, plus drama classes.  I am very fortunate to have the schedule I do this year, even though I still have 130 students on my rosters for various classes.  

130 students to 1 teacher (plus learning support staff to help students who need more assistance).  At times, that number is staggering.  At other times, I am fully aware that there are other teachers in our building with far MORE students in their care.  In my doctorate class, there are teachers from all levels -- a kindergarten special ed teacher, a 4th grade teacher, two high school health and phys. ed teachers, a handful of English teachers, a high school learning support teacher, an AP history teacher -- and some administrators.  Across the board, these educators face demanding schedules every day.  This is the norm in the field right now.  (It's also part of the reason that young people are not attracted to education careers right now as well.)  In fact, I wrote my first research paper on teacher/school morale -- how do these conditions affect the school climate?  What happens when teachers feel overwhelmed and under appreciated? How does this affect students? What can be done about it?

Unfortunately, most of what effect teacher morale comes from on high -- the State demands tests, the Board cuts positions, the Administration creates large classes.  So the responsibility falls on the staff to remain optimistic and to support each other.  I have made it a point to get out of my room more often and talk to people in my building.  I try to remain as upbeat as possible.  (Yes, there are days when we just have to vent to each other, but even on those days, I try to make a joke or leave on a positive note.) I've noticed that in being encouraging to others, I find myself encouraged as well.  There are always ways to improve what goes on in our school, and I am not suggesting we all wear our rose-colored glasses and pretend everything is wonderful all the time.  But, there are many amazing things happening at our school, and being in classes with other teachers from other school districts has reminded me of how fortunate I am to work where I do.  

So, with three more marking periods to go, I'd say we are in a good place.  As the frost turns to snow and the calendar marches toward 2018, I feel confident that both teachers and students will be learning and growing through meaningful experiences and challenging situations -- and we will all come out better for it.  

The Reason I Smile

Yesterday, Ellie didn't feel well, so I took a sick day and stayed home with her.  While she was resting, I worked on the final project for my first graduate class: creating a presentation of my research paper on teacher morale.  After I completed my powerpoint and notes, I practiced with Ellie as my audience to check for time.  My presentation is essentially about the political, economic, and social impact on teacher morale, and at the end of the presentation, I close with a call to arms for those in my class to "be the reason someone smiles" in their own schools.  Instead of waiting for someone else to change the mood of the school, we should look for ways to encourage each other and make small improvements in our work environments. 

Last night, Ellie was feeling better and was working diligently on some "secret project" that I wasn't allowed to see.  After she went to bed, I found this note by my bed:


And this was on the mirror by our walk-in closet:


This morning, both Gene and I found more love from Ellie all over the house, from the kitchen to my make-up bag in the bathroom.  




This one was on the paper shredder in the office:


This one on the light on my desk:


And this one is some much-needed motivation on my treadmill:


What a beautiful way to start a Friday!  Be like Ellie, folks.  Be the reason someone smiles today! 



Of course I said Yes!


Gene surprised me with the most gorgeous ring I've ever seen and the most beautiful question I've ever heard, and of course I said yes!  We are just starting to work out the plans, and we have a lot to figure out because the next year or so is already full of exciting things like our daughter graduating and starting college.  All we know is that whatever we plan will be perfect for us.  

Funny story -- word has traveled through the school that I am engaged, and in my first period class, I had a girl ask me, "What do we call you now that you are engaged?  Like, what's your new last name?"  Another student chimed in, "Yeah, do we call you Mrs. Clark now?" I had to explain that engagement doesn't mean that I got married, but that I planned to get married.  (Did I mention these are seniors?) 

I had to have the same conversation with first-grader Liam, who kept telling me, "I am so glad you and Gene got married. That makes me happy."  He then asked me if had to call Gene "Step Dad" now, and I said that he could just keep calling him Gene.  Liam replied, "That's good, because 'Good morning, Step Dad' sounds kind of funny."

Gabrielle keeps calling Gene my fiancé in this really dramatic French accent.  Gene's kids all said they were happy for us as well.  

Aidan was the only one that was a little reticent about the news, and when we talked the next day, he told me he was afraid this meant that I loved Gene more than I loved the kids.  I assured him that love doesn't work that way, and that no one would ever take his place in my heart.  He gave me a big hug and told me he was happy for me.   (I truly love that Aidan and I have such serious talks, and I can only hope that we never stop being this close, even with the aloof teenager years hit.)

Ah, the joys of the Brady Bunch.  We love every minute of this crazy life together.  



A Gift

So. I get up every day at 430 am. I figured if Gene can get up every day and go to work, I can get up and run. Some days it's a run. Some days it's a walk day. I don't look at the scale but when I do, it barely moves. But these side-by-sides tell me, "Keep getting up at 430!"  I think a big part of it is how I have decided to look at my run: it's a GIFT to myself.  Not a chore, not an obligation. It's 45 beautiful minutes for ME. (see post about Givers and Takers.). And that makes all the difference, honestly. It's such a small change, mentally, but it works. Give yourself time to walk, do yoga, meditate. Whatever your gift is.