The Sandlot

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For the past few days, I’ve walked the boys to a little park down the street, and they’ve played soccer. Neighborhood kids riding by on bikes have seen us and called out, “I’ll be right back. I have to ask my mom!” They return decked out in shin guards, long socks, and jerseys.

It’s pretty great to watch six and seven year-old boys run around pretending to juke and jive like Pelé or Beckham or Ronaldo. They make their own rules, call their own fouls, monitor out of bounds, and banter about the legitimacy of their goals. Sometimes they stop to watch planes fly by or check out the rising moon. The other boys can’t tell the twins apart, so they gave the twins the same nickname: “Tiny.” As in, “Give the ball to Tiny!”

After some pretty spectacular play, one by one they were called home for dinner, only instead of hearing a mother’s voice call from down the street, cell phones rang. I heard the same response I’m sure mothers have heard for centuries, “Yeah, yeah, I’ll be home in a minute.”

Eventually, I walked the boys back home feeling like I’d witnessed the movie “The Sandlot” in real life.

When’s the last time you played in the park?

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Can You Hear Me Now?

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A counselor once taught me an active listening technique. During a conversation, each person re-states or paraphrases what the other said to ensure understanding. An example might be, “I feel angry when you forget to feed the dog.” The other person will re-phase, “I heard you say you feel angry when I forget to feed Ladders.” When done correctly, this technique allows both people to vent their feelings and ideas and hopefully hear exactly what the other person is saying and feeling.

In some ways, I feel like active listening is missing in the dialogue about education. Teacher bashing, union bashing, and curriculum bashing gets a lot of media attention. Teachers rarely get a chance to feel heard. In fact, when debates arise, no one turns to me calmly and asks, “You’re a teacher; what do you think?” the way they might address a lawyer or a doctor.

Usually, the person has already made some condescending statement as though he/she knows what teachers experience on a day-to-day level—the stress and pressure of trying to differentiate instruction for every student in the room, the heartache of dealing with students who have little to no home support, the frustration of completing mindless paperwork for an evaluation where the administrator spends more time looking at an evidence binder, rather than watching the interaction in the classroom—and then this person who has no idea continues to argue every point.

I rarely, if ever, argue with other people about their jobs because I don’t know anything about what they experience. Just because people have been a student in a classroom somehow makes them experts in education, even if they’ve never had any experience being a teacher. I wouldn’t let someone whose been a dental patient tell a dentist what’s the best way to do his/her job. But somewhere along the line, teachers have been devalued to a point that the basic respect of listening doesn’t apply.

And I get that there are bad teachers out there. But there are really crappy accountants and doctors and musicians and CEOs and professors and garbage collectors and wait staff. Somehow these positions—including doctors and CEOs who have incredible power and influence over people’s lives—aren’t nearly as vilified. Even with all the debates and conflict associated with healthcare, I don’t think I’ve seen a headline state: “Bad Doctors Must Go to Reform Healthcare.” People would think that’s ridiculous. But insert teachers for doctors and education for healthcare, and it sounds like a rallying call I’ve heard a lot lately.

Teachers can have tremendous influence on students; yet, two other indicators are more accurate predictors of how a student will fair in the world: socio-economic level and parents’ education. I could list a dozen different academic articles, which support this thesis. We want to believe education can be an equalizer for those students who live in poverty, and for a tiny fraction, it is an equalizer.

However, after reading articles discussing the John Hopkins Education study in Baltimore, it’s evident we need to look at education in a brand new way—one in which the entire family and community is educated.

• We need to create space for multi-generational learning, where parents are educated alongside their children on important topics like parenting, financial literacy, and health issues because ignorance in these areas takes a toll on the entire country.

• We need to create programs where 3rd graders aren’t retained just to “do over” the material in another classroom. The students should actually receive one-on-one instruction or small-group instruction isolating the skills students struggle with so they can move on to the next grade level truly knowing the material.

• They should have classes in music, art, drama, and P.E. more than just once in a while.

• We should teach students to grow their own food and learn about healthy cooking to avoid the need for healthcare expenses later.

• We should include a variety of trade classes, not by tracking students, but by recognizing students’ talents and interests in these areas and recognizing the importance of these trades for our country.

• Students identified with possible learning disabilities, should be given diagnostic testing within months, not years.

• Students should receive counseling, receive assistance from a social worker, and receive medical care when they need it.

This is true educational reform, not testing, or driving away teachers because the expectation to salary ratio is so out of balance, or micro-managing teachers, or feeding money to a corporation.

A thousand other teachers have ideas like these and even better ones. The problem? Very few people can hear these ideas from teachers over the criticism and insults flung at them in the media, and in person, almost daily.

Who doesn’t listen to you?

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Shout Out to AVID

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Since implementing a new computer system, things have been a little hectic at school. Some students have 2 different classes for the same period; others have missing classes. I happened to be in the office trying to help some students with their mixed up schedules when I saw a parent registering her student. The student had formerly been in the AVID program. Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) targets students who are generally underrepresented in going to college and teaches them strategies to be more successful in school. It provides mentors and tutors, and it also helps develop critical thinking, literacy, and math skills. It’s an elective in our school, though many AVID trained teachers use techniques in their classroom to assist the students’ learning. It’s a powerful tool, especially for those students who want to improve but don’t really know how.

When the secretary told the mother the student positions had already been filled last spring through a selection process, the mother almost started to cry. She pleaded with the secretary to somehow get her child into the program. She stated over and over again how her student had gone from being a below-average student to being placed on the honor roll. When the overwhelmed secretary said she couldn’t guarantee anything, the mother’s shoulders sank.

The AVID teacher just happens to be a friend of mine, so I asked for the student’s name and told the mom I’d look into the situation and call her back. After checking with the AVID teacher and the counselor, we finagled a spot for him. I felt like Oprah when I called the mom to tell her he’d been accepted. She was so excited.

When programs like these work, it’s hard to believe we can’t create the funding to train all teachers to use the strategies in every class. We spend so much money on things that don’t really change instruction in meaningfully ways, yet we often don’t have the money left over to spend on things that work. For those of you out there who haven’t heard of AVID, check it out for your school or your student.

What other programs have you found that really work?

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Teaching: The Good Life

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While summoning the energy to head back into the daily grind, I found some interesting facts about being a teacher taken from a Gallup poll surveying 14 different professions:

1. Teachers earned the #2 spot for general wellbeing as a profession.
2. In rating their lives on a scale of 0-10, teachers rate themselves higher than any other profession, except physicians.
3. They earned the #2 spot for those professionals who feel they  learn or do something new every day.
4. Teachers rated highest in saying they’d laughed or smiled the day before.
5. Teachers took the number one place in saying they experienced happiness and enjoyment with their jobs.

With 2 million teachers needed to replace retirees in the next decade, maybe we should spread the good word. What new facts have you learned lately?

*facts taken from “The Gallup Blog.”

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Soleado

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In all the rush to get out the door way back in May, I forgot to mention an article I worked on with some friends for Soleado, a publication by Dual Language Education of New Mexico. It’s titled, “Using WIDA’s Can Do Descriptors and the Common Core to Differentiate Instruction for Emerging Bilingual Students.” Have a look if you’re feeling like getting back into the school spirit!

What have you been reading or writing lately?

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Courage Classic

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When I first found out my niece, Jessa, had been diagnosed with a leukemia relapse, I felt sick. For weeks, I’d ride my bike to work with tears streaming down my face. I’d stumble through the days in a fog of worry and then ride my bike back home, crying. I wore my “Team Jessa” bracelet everyday and grew my hair out for “Locks of Love” as reminders of her fight. But now, over two years later, I can throw away the bracelet, cut my hair, and celebrate.

In April, Jessa finished her last chemo treatment, and this past week, she rode over 100 miles on her bike for the Courage Classic, a ride to benefit Children’s Hospital. I was so excited to see her cross the finish line in such a symbolic gesture of triumph. I’m in awe of this sweet girl.

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Who are you proud of in your life?

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Summer Fallow

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For almost eight years, I’ve followed the Treadmill Journal technique. I have a special notebook with my writing hours over days, months, and eventually an entire year. There’ve been a few times where I’ve slowed down because of school commitments and other personal issues, like taking two months off when I had the twins. Because of the stressful school year (new evaluation system, completing the National Boards, and implementing two new curriculums for two different classes, etc. etc.), I’m exhausted. I’ve decided to take a much needed writing break.

Even in the few weeks off I’ve given myself, I still feel a little uneasy about not writing each day. To assuage my guilt, I’ve decided to call it “summer fallow” season. Just as my father used to rotate crops on certain pieces of land to allow the nutrients in the soil to regenerate, I’m allowing myself to rest, conserve my energy so I can refocus when I begin again. A field of summer fallow doesn’t necessarily look appealing, but the next season, the soil is rich with nutrients and the following crop is more productive.

When do you need a “summer fallow” season?

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