Saturday, May 29, 2010


One of the new features I will be working on this summer is a chronicle of the reading experiences I have with the boys.  We usually read together at bedtime and while we sometimes choose short children's books, we often read several chapters of a novel.  I've blogged about this before, but now I am interested in blogging through our reading adventures.

Yesterday, we went to the bookstore to buy our first novel of the summer.  I suggested we choose three books, then vote on which one we would buy.  Michael selected Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor and James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl.  I selected The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.  We sat on the floor in the children's section and I read the back of each book to the boys.  They all voted for James and the Giant Peach.  I am fairly certain it is because Michael loves all that is Roald Dahl and because the boys had seen the movie. I was hoping for The Phantom Tollbooth because I have fond memories of it from elementary school, but I think i will have to keep talking it up before the boys will be ready to select it.

Even though my entry had not been selected, as we settled down for reading time before bed, I was eager to begin.  I have never read James, nor seen the movie, so the story is completely new to me.  The first few chapters, however, proved to be a bit different than what I expected.  The protagonist loses his family, and begins a miserable life with his abusive aunts.  In fact, the first two chapters were so troublesome that I made myself read a few more even though my eyes began to sting in hopes of closing our reading time on a less disturbing note.  The boys even asked me to sing them a few lullabies to help their brains focus on sweeter stuff as they fell into slumber.

Tonight, I thought the boys might be less eager for reading time because of the nature of the novel's opening.  As bedtime neared, I gave them the option of one more episode of The Upside-Down Show or getting into bed for reading time.  To my surprise, they unanimously chose reading time and without delay clicked off the TV and headed for their bedroom.  The reading tonight was not much more uplifting, but the boys are totally engaged in the saga of poor James and I am quite certain they will rush off to bed tomorrow night to hear more about the peach which is beginning to bulge at the top of the tree.

My boys often do the opposite of what I expect, but this time, I was pleased by it.  Michael said the reason they still wanted to hear the story even though it started of with such sad details is because they like to see justice done in the end.  I can't guarantee that it will be, in the book or in their lives, but it gives me some peace of mind to know that he feels that is how the world should work.

This time we spend reading together not only fills our minds with stories about  the lives of others, it gives us a greater understanding of each other and an opportunity to share a vision of the world.  Who knew a peach could do so much? [I'm guessing the peach is going to do more than I could imagine, actually :)]

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Affliction Which Shall Not Be Named

Graduation was last night.  I was honored to sit on the field as a member of the Teachers Honor Court. My heart felt young seeing the relieved, celebratory smiles of all our new alums up close.  As I hugged and photographed and applauded, what I must have said a hundred times was "Enjoy the moment!" I wanted them to breathe graduation, to fill their lungs with the sweetness and poignancy of the hour.  Sometimes, I wish I would live the words I speak.  Even though the ink on the diplomas isn't even dry, I am already beginning to plan for next year.  To tell the truth, once fourth quarter makes her debut, my mind begins to imagine the coming school year.  I suppose it is part of being a reflective person , teaching a reflective discipline, in a career which encourages continuous reflection  -- I am never content to let one school year close before I begin thinking about what I could have done better, what could be the difference between good and amazing.

The first thing I am doing differently next year is banning a particular word from being said in my presence.  Now, I know that I am constantly lauding the power of language and encouraging students to develop their own voices and barring students from a particular word might be in opposition to my objectives, but in this case, it must be done. Actually, I hope to be more effective in achieving my objectives through the complete erasure of this word from my students' vocabularies.

The word? Senioritis.  Even typing it out makes me cringe.

I heard this word so many times this year that as May approached, each time someone uttered it, the irritation was like tiny prickly bugs crawling beneath my skin.  "I'm behind in my work -- you know, senioritis."  "I can't seem to focus -- it is a bad case of senioritis!"  "Don't teachers realize that we have senioritis and that makes studying nearly impossible?"  "I have had senioritis all year and that's why my grades are so bad."  It was epidemic -- spreading like hot gossip and attacking the innocent, leaving students helpless and unable to defend themselves.  Once senioritis struck, any deficiency was now a symptom of the disease -- from bad attitudes and uncontrollable drowsiness, to unfollowed directions and subpar assignments -- and any student infected was relinquished -- in his own mind, at least -- of any responsibility for his performance.  Blame it on the senioritis.

The problem is this is like blaming a forest fire on Bigfoot -- you cannot blame what doesn't actually exist.

Senioritis is a myth. Granted, it is one of grand proportions in high schools today, but nonetheless, it is a myth.  I, for one (and I am sure I'll get an Amen! from some other senior teachers out there) am completely finished with it.  When a student blames his irresponsible actions or lackluster abilities on senioritis, he appears to be taking responsibility, but in fact is abdicating blame to this relentless mythical syndrome.  And by doing so, he perpetuates the myth, thus, allowing other students to adopt the same stance -- We can't!  We have senioritis!

Now, if this were some silly, inconsequential, rite of passage sort of situation, I would not have decided to ban the word from my classroom next year.  But honestly, I think this situation is hurting our students and allowing that to happen in my own classroom is something I simply will not tolerate anymore. Though I did not lower my standards with the seniors who came before, allowing them to engage in this thinking without challenging it establishes my own culpability.  My hope is to be a better teacher -- this is always my hope -- and I would not be satisfied with myself if my reflections on this issue did not lead to some modification in my behavior. So, banned it is.  And to let it escape one's lips in my presence will result in immediate consequences.  (What they are yet, I am not quite sure, but rest assured, there will be consequences!)

In all seriousness, students need to take responsibility for their choices and teachers need to keep students accountable for the choices they make.  When a student laments a low grade, but then rationalizes her situation by believing it was all a result of senioritis, she has taken her own power away and becomes tempted by other evils, cheating being a primary example of such.  When she suggest her problems stem from senioritis, she has said, I am a victim of something that is a figment of our collective imagination; I am the prey of a predator which does not exist.

More than any other single concept that I hope to teach to my students, the concept I believe is paramount is  self-efficacy.  And senioritis, or any other condition which allows us to push the blame onto something other than ourselves, erodes that self-efficacy and, instead, reinforces the notion that we are all weak and susceptible, so the pursuit of purpose and fulfillment is merely a wish on a dying star.

Senioritis does not need a cure, because it is not real.  By removing it from my students' vocabularies, at least for the hour a day they are with me, I am asking them to live with integrity.  That, although more rare than I would like, is something real.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Annie Murdock: Little, But Like Arnold

This Teacher Testimony features Los Osos photography teacher, Annie Murdock.  I have been able to get to know Annie a bit through her work with students on Advanced Placement  portfolios and many of my current students also take classes with Annie, so I see the incredible work they do.  At the end of the school year, Annie is moving out of state.  She will definitely be missed!


SE: When did you decide to become a teacher and
how did you choose what subject/grade you wanted to teach?

AM: I've known I wanted to be an art teacher since I was 16 years old. I've always loved my art classes and my art teachers. Appreciation for the fine arts have been instilled in me since I was very young. I started dancing at 4, playing the flute at 10 and began cartooning when I was just a little one.

SE: What have you learned about yourself and the world by being a teacher?
AM: Being a digital photo teacher forces me to stay current with all of the technology. I have learned that you can never know enough. I'm constantly educating myself. I visit museums as often as I can. I subscribe to art magazines and follow artistic blogs. Art aesthetics are my passion, so its definitely not a chore! About the world? I've learned that most people are inherently good. But, there are a lot more that are lazy than I realized...

SE: Which teachers were your inspiration when you were in high school?
AM: I have had a few teachers that have inspired me. The teacher that inspired me the most was my high school painting teacher, Mrs Astudillo. She helped me cultivate my love for paint.

 SE: What do hope students gain from the experience of being in your class?
AM: I hope my students look back fondly on my class and remember that although it was a lot of work sometimes, they learned a lot about fine art aesthetics. I want them to have an appreciation for all forms of the visual art medium.

SE: What one piece of advice would you pass along to a brand new teacher? 
AM: Something I've always felt strongly about, is to set the boundary between student friendships. You have to be strict in the classroom. It's challenging and uses a lot more effort and energy, but in the end you have a well behaved environment and the students tend to have more respect for you. My students overall product (their art) is much more successful when I'm this way. This all speaking as a very young, very little, female high school teacher :)
SE:What was your funniest or most surprising experience in the classroom?What has been the most touching?
AM: Because I teach an elective course, we have an environment that allows for more...FUN! I can't think of a specific [funny] event off the top of my head, but I can tell you, my students make me laugh daily.
As the school year rolls on, students become more comfortable in their environment and begin to express themselves in their artwork. Many students share heartfelt personal experiences. These moments are very raw and often emotional. One specific experience was when a student paid tribute to her father, who had recently passed away, in a photographic series. It was for our final project. One of the requirements is that they put their images together in a slide show set to music. The presentation was especially emotional for me because I had lost my father when I was 18 yers old. Photography is a perfect outlet for expression and students take full advantage of that.

SE: What goals or dreams do you have for yourself in terms of your craft?
AM: Seeing how I am giving up the teaching profession this year, I look forward to cultivating my own art. I've felt a pull for quite some time and I look forward to having time to paint and work on my own creative side. I will miss being in the classroom immensely. Someday I'm sure I'll be back.

Not only is Annie a talented teacher, she's also a fellow blogger.  Check her site out at  Brett and Annie.  She also maintains a blog for her students' benefit.  It lists and describes their assignments and gives examples of past student work.  She also posts excellent work by her current students.  I have loved seeing the look on their faces when I say, "Hey!  Saw your self-portrait -- awesome work! The combination of surprise and pride is about the sweetest thing.  I am going to miss that next year, but I applaud Annie for being willing to pursue her passion!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Teacher Appreciation Week

The end of the school year is upon us -- we will be done here before Memorial Day.  It is sort of a wild scramble to the finish, and I have about twenty new blog ideas, but not enough time to pursue them.  So, to tide us over, I am sharing this link to a touching essay about an inspirational teacher.  I know part of the reason I am a teacher today is because of the teachers who guided me, encouraged me and inspired me.  If you had a teacher like that, maybe you can comment and share about that person in honor of Teacher Appreciation Week.  This is hard, wonderful work and giving a shout out to someone who made a difference not only honors that teacher, but all of us.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Darcy Salvadore: Finder of Delightful Things

I am so excited to have Darcy Salvadore as my first interviewee for Teacher Testimony!  Darcy and I met in 1999 when we went through the Inland Area Writing Project together.  We soon found that we were two halves of the same whole in many, many ways.  She says she's my evil twin, but in truth, we are both evil and sometimes I just hide it better!  We have both taught English for thirteen years, we were married on the same day of the same year, our mothers have the same first name and we shared our first pregnancies, delivering within a month of each other. Currently, Darcy and I both teach at Los Osos High School in Rancho Cucamonga, California.

I chose Darcy not only because I like her so, so much, but also because I knew her answers to these questions would be thoughtful, true, and a pleasure to read and share with you.

SE: When did you decide to become a teacher?
DS: I decided that teaching was the career for me the year after graduation from college. I signed up to sub to make some dollars while I tried to decide between going to law school or to graduate school. I always thought I would hate working in a high school since I hated being a high school student. To my surprise, I enjoyed working with teens and actually liked the high school setting.

SE: How did you choose what you wanted to teach?
DS: I majored in English at the University because I love to read, think, and talk about literature. If I were to do it all over again, I’d probably do art instead.

SE: What have you learned about yourself and the world by being a teacher?
DS: I learned that I really am smarter than the average bear. All of my life, I thought that most people were at least as smart as me, probably because my jobs and experiences led me to be with other people just like me. My classes have always been filled with a variety of learners, very few who are just like me. Being smarter than the average bear doesn’t necessarily mean you will have more success, or more friends, or be happier. It just means that some things are easier.

I’ve learned that it takes courage to try to do things when you are pretty sure you are going to fail. It is easy to try things when your success is a given. I see kids everyday trying when success isn’t guaranteed. I try every day in that same way.

I’ve learned that the most effective way to persuade people is by modeling your beliefs. In other words, let’s say you want people (colleagues, students, spouses, children) to try doing something your way (which is clearly better, because it is your way). You can instruct, beg, bargain, whine, or nag and they will steadfastly continue doing whatever it is their way. Sometimes, they will pretend to give in just to get you to go away and shut up. However, if you resist the urge to instruct and just show them, many people will go ahead and try your way. They might not give you credit, but you will have persuaded them to do the thing your way, which is what you wanted in the first place. I want my students to read, so I read in front of them. I want my husband to exercise, so I exercise in front of him. I want my kid to eat right and love well, so I eat right and love her. It is amazing how well it works.

SE: Did you have a teacher that inspired you when you were young?
DS: I had some really awesome teachers: Mrs. Timko who taught me to read and to play the guitar and Mr. Salisbury who made me feel really smart.

SE: When your students look back on their time with you, what is it you hope they remember?
DS: I am always surprised at what they do remember. Students from Colton [High School in Colton, California] looked me up four years after graduation to talk about utilitarianism. Who woulda thought these esoteric ideas would stick?

I want them to remember the lessons literature teaches us: What makes us human? Why do we act the way we do? How can we get along better in the world?

SE: If you were speaking to a brand new teacher, what one piece of advice would you pass along?
DS: Give yourself a break; be forgiving of yourself. Teaching, done well, is always difficult.

SE: What was your funniest or most surprising experience in the classroom?
DS: Funny things happen every day in my class, on purpose and by accident. The strangest thing, though, happened at Colton. I was in the front of the room, talking, when a girl came in the door, walked across the room, down a row of students to the last kid, reached down and picked up his soda, took a swig, and walked out. The students watched her in silence and the soda owner did nothing to stop her. I looked at the soda owner and said, “Do you know that girl?” He replied, “I’ve never seen her before in my life.” Who does that? Was she walking down the hall thinking, “I sure am thirsty. I know! I’ll just walk in classrooms until I see a soda on someone’s desk.” Talk about random.

SE: What has been the most touching?
DS: This year, both of my parents passed away, first dad, then mom. One of my students, a shy boy with learning disabilities, came up to my desk. He handed me a Hershey bar and a hand written note-card that said, “Sorry you lost your mother.” This simplicity and sincerity of his gesture really touched me.

SE: What goals or dreams do you have for yourself in terms of your craft?
DS: Some weeks, it feels like my only goal is to make it till the end of the term. But, that is just the day to day struggle to keep up with grading bringing me down. On a good day in the classroom you can actually feel the electricity from synapses flashing. I’d like to experience that more often.

SE: What metaphor would be most appropriate for you as a teacher?
DS: I am a wrangler of ideas. [She does have these perfect little cowboy boots that she wears with these short, cotton skirts -- I love those boots!]

I greatly appreciate Darcy as a friend and as a colleague.  She always has a new idea, an interesting insight or some wonderful tidbit or tip to share.  In fact, I haven't told her, but I am toying with idea of a feature on the blog based on her delightful finds.  The most recent one she shared with me is Natalie Merchant's inspiring new CD, Leave Your Sleep, an ode to poetry's presence, power and purpose in our lives. Merchant has recorded songs based on poems, but also researched these poems and their poets with attentiveness and respect.  The CD comes with a wonderful book that includes the poets' biographies as well as their works.
Thanks to Darcy for being my first Teacher Testimony and for always providing such encouragement to me in big things and small!

Teacher Testimony

We are not rock stars or professional athletes, but entertainment and inspiration are certainly part of our vocation.  We are not pastors or psychologists, but people's souls and emotions are often in our hands.  We are not firefighters, police officers or surgeons, but there are certainly moments when I believe we are saving lives.

We are teachers.

And while this blog isn't the LA Times or the Nobel Foundation, and therefore will not provide anyone featured here significant media exposure or prize money, this is simply a way for me to acknowledge the important, difficult, inspiring work that educators do each day.

My brand new feature is titled "Teacher Testimony" and in it I will interview outstanding educators and share with you their stories.  I hope it will enlighten and encourage -- just as great educators do!

Check out my first interview with my dear friend, Darcy Salvadore.