Life in small town America

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The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

This is the most wonderful time of the year. At least that is what people say. However, for some, it is the worst time of the year for many reasons. People all around us have lost children, parents, spouses, friends. They are grieving deeply as they know this will be a season of missing someone they have celebrated with for years.

Others barely make ends meet daily and are not even sure how they will eat tomorrow. They do not even consider where they will get their children any holiday gifts. Some have lost jobs are friends for no apparent reason.

Some of our local children are anxious because they know that their 12-day break means they have to figure out how to get meals because most of their meals come during school.

This time of year, if you are blessed, reach out and bless another. I was blessed today because I saw a young man in the store actually lean forward and hand the cashier money to pay for an elderly man’s cart of meager supplies. Giving like this does not require much, just a simple understanding that there are people around us who struggle daily to live, even in this small town.

Just making the effort to check on someone else to make sure they are okay during this celebratory time of year is so important. It costs nothing. We may even save a life, just by stopping by to share a few moments of our life with another.

Take some time to give the gift of you to someone this holiday season.

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First Days of School

When I started kindergarten, there were no first day photos like we see today. I did love that my mom walked me to school; met my teacher, Miss Duncan; and came to get me at noon. Miss Dunbar had a cool bell like my favorite tv show Ding Dong School that, I watched on a black and white television. I loved her brass school bell and told myself that I wanted one some day. No, I did not know I wanted to be a teacher then, but the seed was planted.

Then, there was the first day of school in a new town. It was hard. I was in sixth grade and so mad at my parents because they moved on my twelfth birthday in April and I would have to start in a new school away from all the friends I had ever known. I discovered a box of very old books in the attic of our new house. They were by author Horatio Alger. I read all eleven of them that spring and summer. Reading became my solace, and I met a friend for life in that spring. Every day we got to go home for lunch. My brother raced ahead and I moped along trying to figure out this new place. Up ahead a girl waited for me and asked if I wanted someone to walk home with. I said yes. I headed home, still moping. One the way back, I met her again. She was actually waiting for me. That was the beginning of a friendship that lasted for 54 years until she died in March of last year. For 29 years, we were able to teach in the same district and I always loved when I had students from her sixth grade class come to my high school English class. They were so well prepared.

There was another first day, when my parents decided that I would leave private school and go to public school – in November of seventh grade. Once again, no friends! I was very angry and became a recluse by hitting in the library during study hall to read books. I carried home books and read them at night, under the blankets with a flashlight.  My mother helped my by signing me up for Girl Scouts and joining as a leader. In Girl Scouting I met another lifelong friend, Lorraine. We did so many fun things together and graduated together and later ended up in the same college, both studying to become teachers. Our mothers were also friends, and we are still friends to this day.

After college, those first days of school each of my 44 years were full of anticipation as I was so eager to meet my new students and hone my skills as a teacher helping kids learn to love literature like I did and also teaching them to write well. I never slept through the night and always had the first weeks planned to the hilt every year, even when I taught graduate school. My control freak personality was always in high great on those 44 first days, definitely an adrenaline rush. Why? Because some planted a seed on that first day in kindergarten when she rang that brass bell from us to come in from recess.

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The value of a teacher

Over these 45 years as an educator, I have met some amazing teachers. On occasion, some of those teachers have held after school or additional responsibilities such as advising or coaching for small or no stipends, never an hourly rate, because schools could not afford to pay them for their time. If we paid teachers minimum wage for these extra assignments, schools across the US would be bankrupt.

Some of these very teachers are experts in their fields and are held in high regard among their peers on a national level. However, in their local school systems, some have been taken to task for giving their time and expertise to students by allowing students space to create and think and grow as individuals.

Students need space to think and speak and grow and learn. Student publications give them that place to develop their passions for life. Sometimes, students write about things that make adults uncomfortable. Was it not Thomas Jefferson who said, ‘Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a governmentI should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter’? Why, yes, it was. With that thought in mind, I often wonder what motivates administrators and school boards to take teachers to task for giving students voice in their student publications. (Full disclosure, I am a certified principal and elected school board member at the time of this writing.)

If we are to raise a nation of thinking, creative, positive adults, we need to give them space to challenge what they see that is going on in the world around them. We cannot challenge it for them.

In recent weeks I have seen numerous posts that bash students for speaking out about school safety.  Some of those posts have been acerbic and accusing students of being used and manipulated by adults. Funny, though, the very people who do not want students to speak or write about their concerns are the very people who are chomping at the bit to censor students who do speak their own minds. Yet, these very folks scream foul when people try to censor their speech. When we do not listen to students, we run the risk creating of students who do not listen to adults.

In the past five years, I have seen the exponential rise of teachers being threatened with dismissal and non-renewal of contracts as well as being suspended without pay because these very teachers, who teach the Constitution and First Amendment rights, refuse to censor students. How do we teach students that words matter if we do not let them use their words to grapple with the volatile issues that surround us in this country?

Kids are angry, as they should be, about the things going on in this country. I remember being angry in the 60s about war and unrest and riots. I was a teen then. One thing I was able to do in high school was to find my voice on the school’s newspaper staff. It helped me negotiate my passion. Yes, I taught journalism for more than three decades as a result of that experience. It also taught me that those who speak up can create change in the world.

When a teacher takes the time to give students the opportunity to develop voice, we need to honor that teacher and we need to make sure we do not ask that teacher to throw away a whole career because we are miffed that a student published something that might make the school look bad. Student publications are not public relations tools for the school.

What makes the school look bad is the denigration of highly respected teachers who help students learn more than content in the textbooks (which is often erroneous.) When that controversy plays out in the local media, social media and school board meetings, the students lose, the community loses and those who try to thwart the free voice of students by dismissing the teacher, lose.

To all of the publications advisers I know, this is for you. You are valued, you are respected, you are worthy of praise for educating a future thinking electorate. We support you. Press on.


#3 Learn and follow the chain of command

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Year three was a real eye opener for me. I never realized the value of the chain of command until my third year of teaching. I was teaching English to students in grades 6-8 in a small private school.  I also taught home economics (now called family and consumer science) and physical education.

In my naivety, I did not know that people did not always come to the teacher first if there was an issue with a student or some conversation that needed to happen to make the school a better place.

I got called to the principal’s office because a mother called complaining about my class. She did not see why her son had to do reading homework because she felt that he should do all his work at school. I shared with the principal that I was following the policy of the school that was published to parents. The school had a policy that teachers should assign homework on Monday – Thursday only, with Thursday’s assignment due on the following Monday.  I did follow that policy.

To make a long story short, the boy wanted to read a self-selected book over the weekend and was not really interested in doing family chores, so he used the reading of the book as an escape from chores. Inside, I was secretly jumping for joy because he had actually picked the book himself and wanted to read it. This was something I was trying to nurture in my middle-level students so that when they got to high school reading would be comfortable instead of drudgery.

Unfortunately, the issue went to from the principal to head of school to the board of directors. I was never part of the conversation with the parent. The end result was that the child was removed from our school because the parent wanted the school to follow her edict.

I felt so sad the next week when the student came to me with tears in his eyes asking me to sign his withdrawal papers. He handed me the book that he had half-read and walked away with his head down. I asked him if he wanted to keep the book since it was a book I had personally purchased for our classroom library, and his face light up so brightly. He left the school with the book and I never saw him again. I hope he still loves to read.

Parents, if there is ever a dilemma with your child or the school, take that up with the child’s teacher before you even go to the next level. Chain of command is there for a reason. It means solutions for problems come at the lowest level. The winner will be your child.

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#44 – Still teaching

Creativity has always been fascinating to me. How do people develop creativity? Over the years I have tried to use art, music, photography, dance and theater in my English classroom to invite students in to the conversations about literature and to spark writing ideas.

I believe creativity is something we nurture in children and that it is not innate any more that reading or math are innate. We must teach children to be observers and thinkers and reflectors about the life they live. When we do that we can expect children to generate new ideas and new things.

Although I am not a professional artist, I love to play with art and see things in new ways. As a small child, I had a great art teacher who took us to the school yard one day, not to play, but to observe. She asked us to get on our bellies and she put a small open square in front of each us on the grass. In this square, we were to look closely at what was going on inside of the square. Then, she gave us a piece of a small board with a piece of art paper taped to it and told us to draw what we saw. I remember drawing a worm and an ant playing in the grass. Little did I know that this was my invitation to observe life.

The arts can do many things for us. Music was so powerful to me as a teenager, whether it was buying my first 45 rpm record or singing in church choir, music spoke to my soul and much of the time as a teacher, I have relied on music to keep me calm and to help kids in their thinking process. When my brother died at the young age of 32, it helped heal my heart and mind because I could not fathom that he was gone. I often wonder how our kids would deal with life’s tragedies if we infused more music into the healing process. Fortunately for me, I work at a place where art therapy is a major and I get to see the impact of integration of arts in to peoples’ lives.

Last fall I learned the power of art to heal the mind. I had the opportunity to use a new art form I was learning to help heal my brain after a nasty fall that resulted in what doctors call CBI, or closed-brain injury,  often called a concussion. I spend days practicing Zentagle, a form of art using pen strokes to create designs. I had learned it earlier in the spring, from my great art teacher, Christine French, so the process of picking up the pen and drawing in this new way, helped my mind to refocus and heal more quickly.

As the school year begins, think about how you can help students be more creative.



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#2 – That first year of teaching – BE THE LIGHT

I stood at the door of my first teaching job in Indianapolis wondering if it would be my life’s work. I loved literature, I loved writing, but deep down inside, I was scared to death because I knew teaching was about kids and that was a huge responsibility.

What would this  year hold as I faced those fresh-faced juniors to teach them American literature and how to write. Little did I know I would fall in love with teaching and spend the next 43 years doing this very thing. The summer before I left for my new job, my grandmother gave me a key ring that said ‘God is love’ on it. She told me to BE THE LIGHT and that has been my motto ever since.

Teaching students to love two hundred years of literature, helping them to develop writing skills and advising them as they build their student newspaper were all part of my day.  I did not know it then, but did find out a few months later that a teacher’s life is a life of very little sleep. We worry, fret, cajole, and anguish over “our kids” just like parents do. That was a real eye opener.

I must say, the world of journalism education has really changed since then. I remember teaching my students how to use a hot wax roller to create an adhesive back on their galley sheets, so they could be mounted on a pica board and taken to the printer. We typed the galleys on an electric typewriter that actually counted the spaces we needed to reset the type in the correct width to present a justified column. We also learned how to mount tool lines with the tiniest of tapes and cross cut the corners on a 45º angle so they looked perfect. I also learned how to develop black and white film and print photos that year. All of this knowledge would come in handy seven years later in another job. I am so glad that little old yearbook adviser took me under her wing and said, you need to learn to do this so you can teach kids to do it, because it is their publication.

Today, it is just not the same doing photos in PhotoShop. Same principles, yes, but the process is not the same. Dektol and developer, I do miss you and the artistic way you enticed us all as photos emerged from the paper. Doing the newspaper was the biggest part of my life as I stayed after school for many hours helping the kids write their best stories and design their best page layouts and print their best photos. It was so intense and I wondered if all of my teaching career it would be this way or if it would get easier.

Another thing I learned that year had to do with tornados. I had never seen one, but had heard that they were dangerous. Our first school drill was a storm drill and not a fire drill. There were many days in that school year and the next school year, that we ducked for cover in hallways where there were no windows and the steel beams of the building would cover us as winds blew over the school. I was never so happy to be in a basement in my life.

In the spring of that year, I went back to my alma mater to visit my roommate and her husband. On the way to their house, I decided to stop by the college to go to the bookstore, my favorite place. When I came out I could see a storm brewing, so I hopped in my beautiful red 1969 Cougar and took off for their house, just 12 miles away from the campus. As I left the last turn before leaving the small college town, I saw this mammoth funnel cloud coming toward me from the left. At that point I thought may days were over and floored the gas pedal. I remember seeing 100 mph on the speedometer and realized that something had hit the room of my car, which made me push the pedal even harder.  As I outraced the tornado and pulled into my college roommate’s driveway, I knew there was a reason I was still here and that was to teach.  Getting out of the car, I noticed that the thud I had heard on the roof of my car as I raced to their house had come from a piece of the flying barn roof I had seen in the funnel cloud. So much for that beautiful vinyl roof.

As I went to the front door, my roommate’s husband opened the door and said “Are you okay?” Of course, I could not talk and ended up passing out from the trauma of the experience.

Yes, it was very dark in that funnel cloud that came at me that day, but I could see the light ahead of me and I kept my eye on the light to get free. After some great tea and a warm bed, I knew that my grandmother’s advice was right: teachers need to BE THE LIGHT ahead of the child, so the child can see the path to the future.

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#1 – What I have learned as a teacher

During the next 43 weeks, I will celebrate my 43 years of teaching with some classroom memories and thoughts about education. Follow along with me as I reminisce.

I will share that my first year of teaching was far from home – 10 hours of driving in the city of Indianapolis. I taught junior English, journalism, and 10th grade Bible.

Also, I advised the Trailblazer Times at Indianapolis Baptist High School, which no longer exists. It was a rather large private school for the time. One of the great memories I have from there is taking my kids to the Indianapolis Star for a field trip. When we got inside, we waited for about 10 minutes to go on our tour. Finally, the tour guide asked the students where their teacher was and one of the students said “She is right here.” It was good to be a young teacher.

Wow, time has flown and I  have loved every minute of teaching. Still love teaching kids to write. All kids should have a high school student publications experience. I am glad I did and glad I was able to give kids that experience for 34 of the last 43 years.