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I teach at a public school, so I do not teach religion at all.  At school we emphasize the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you want to be treated.

Sunday at church, our pastor discussed compassion.  He told a story about a man from the city who came to a fork in the road.  He was trying to decide which road to take when he noticed a farmer in the field nearby.  He asked the farmer, “Does it matter which road I take?”

The old farmer replied, “Not to me it don’t.”  I know.  It is incorrect subject verb agreement.  I am writing in dialect.

It took a moment for the joke to settle in.  The pastor wanted to share with the congregation that we should care about one another.  His sermon reminded me of this anonymous story I use in class to teach parables:

The Mouse Trap Parable

A mouse looked through a crack in the wall to see the farmer and his wife opening a package.  “What food might it contain?” he thought. He was aghast to discover that it was a mousetrap!

Retreating to the farmyard, the mouse proclaimed the warning, “There’s a mousetrap in the house, there’s a mouse trap in the house!”

Chicken clucked and scratched, raised her head and said, “Mr. Mouse, I can tell you this is a grave concern to you, but it is of no consequence to me; I cannot be bothered by it.”

The mouse turned to the pig and told him, “There is a mouse trap in the house.”

“I am so very sorry Mr. Mouse,” sympathized the pig, “but there is nothing I can do.”

The mouse turned to the cow, who replied, “Wow, Mr. Mouse, a mouse trap; am I in grave danger?  No.  Good luck to you.”

So the mouse returned to the house, head down and dejected, to face the farmer’s mousetrap alone.

That very night a sound was heard throughout the house, like the sound of a mousetrap catching its prey. The farmer’s wife rushed to see what was caught. In the darkness, she did not see that it was a venomous snake whose tail the trap had caught. The snake bit the farmer’s wife.

The farmer rushed her to the hospital. She returned home with a fever. Now everyone knows you treat a fever with fresh chicken soup, so the farmer took his hatchet to the farmyard for the soup’s main ingredient.

His wife’s sickness continued so that friends and neighbors came to sit with her around the clock. To feed them, the farmer butchered the pig.

The farmer’s wife did not get well, in fact, she died, and so many people came for her funeral the farmer had the cow slaughtered to provide meat for all of them to eat.

We are all connected and when one of us is in trouble, we need to help.  We need compassion and empathy for others.

Today, I decided to try to evaluate my lesson on compassion with an alternative assessment idea that I created:  After each class I pushed a kid down the stairs.  Nine out of ten kids (or 90%) helped him.  My lesson was a success and others felt good about being compassionate.

A straight flight of stairs, at Porta Garibald...

Image via Wikipedia



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On Anger

My first period class on Friday was a little too loud and off task for my liking.  They were using laptops to research mythologies from around the world and were sharing some of their findings: strange stories and risqué artwork.  Learning was happening; albeit loud learning.  I kept circling the room like a hawk on the hunt, reminding them to quietly focus on their research.  I did not threaten them with detentions, defenestration, or death.  After all, it was the end of the week; there was a full moon, and three-fourths of the class were freshmen boys.  Nothing I hadn’t ever dealt with before, yet frustration and a little anger was building up inside of me.  I took a few deep breaths and looked at what one of the young ladies was researching:

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.” The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?” The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

It was like a jolt of electricity.  I realized that was me.  Should I feed the anger, or should I be happy that students were researching?  I decided to be happy they were learning, even if it was a little louder than I liked it.

This would be a decent story if it ended here.  However, tonight, my son needed some help on his homework.  He is reading Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen.  This is the passage he needed help with:

He makes Cole dip completely into the water shoulder-high and then asks him to break a stick, whose left side represents anger and right side represents happiness. The lesson implied is that if you focus on anger and try to break the left side off, a left side of the stick always remains. Edwin tells Cole how when he was banished to the island he would dip himself everyday in the freezing pond and try to focus on the happy end of the stick, not the angry end. 

As we finish our research and begin creating the Prezi to share with the class, I will have to share these stories with the students who become frustrated or angry.

Cover of "Touching Spirit Bear"

Cover of Touching Spirit Bear

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How to Tell When You Are Not Teaching Well

I have written about some of my success stories, but there are failures sometimes.  I guess that is why we call it learning.  For the last month I have been teaching Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel To Kill A Mockingbird, my favorite novel of all time.  I even use it as a guide as I face the trials of raising children.  I often ask myself, “What would Atticus do?”  My passion never dies for this American classic.  The novel allows the class to discuss growing up, prejudice, family dynamics, and stereotypes.   Basically, I try to instill in the kids that different is not bad.  As Atticus points out, “you never really understand a person until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

With old-style gossip in the hall or lunchroom and the use of technology to be mean and bully, the themes of the book are  relevant to teenagers.  As our reading progressed, I had students write answers to response questions, discuss events and the themes in small groups and Socratic Seminars,  rewrite scenes from two characters’ perspectives, and had shown a documentary on the Scottsboro Boys’ Trial.  My goal was to have them climb into a character’s skin and walk around in it: to see how other people think.

Today we were going to be discussing how Scout is doesn’t understand her teacher’s disapproval of Hitler and his persecution of Jews while Maycomb and the United States were persecuting African-Americans.  Scout points out the hypocrisy for the readers.  Using a teachable moment, I ask the students what the historical significance of tomorrow is.  One student realizes it is the anniversary of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.  One student, ignoring the last month’s lessons, blurts out, “We should nuke Japan every year for that.”  So much for ending stereotyping and prejudice with all freshman.

Not one to give up easily, I began teachable moment number #2.  I told the students about an optometrist I know, a United States Citizen of Japanese descent.  His parents had to sell their restaurant for a dollar, pack one suitcase, report to a train station, and spend the next several years in an internment camp.  Yes, persecution seems to have existed for many years.

As the young man began to realize he may have engaged his mouth prior to starting his brain, I thanked him for playing along and helping me demonstrate how prejudice has occurred throughout our country’s history.  Now, I hope he has finally learned about prejudice and trying to see things from another’s perspective.

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Lessons for Marriage and Parenting from Star Wars

A few months ago my children found my high school yearbooks.  After seeing my pictures, they decided I was a nerd.  However, I was never a nerd, nor am I one now.  Honest.  In fact, for a few months in 1995 I was even suave and debonair enough to fool my future wife.  Along this journey that started in a galaxy far, far way, I have learned a few things:

1. When picking up women, make sure there is little competition.  Han Solo won Princess Leia’s heart.  The only competition on board the Millennium Falcon an Old Jedi, a twin brother, a walking giant hairball, an annoying droid, and a rolling vacuum.  When I met my wife, I was the only single guy at the Euchre Party.  I was her Han Solo rescuing her from the Death Star.

2. Jedi mind-tricks work.  I can never seem to find the droids I am looking for.  No matter what I may be thinking, my wife always has a way of making me agree with her.

3. When you think: “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” you are probably right.  I have never been in a dire predicament like being in a garbage masher or giant slug.  However, I have been too close to crying child who either blows out his diaper or vomits all over me, the dog, and the carpet.

4. Wookies and some people are poor losers.  I have yet to lose an argument with my wife because I am a poor loser.   Unfortunately, this characteristic has been inherited by my youngest son.  He is a sore loser when I crush him in War, Go Fish, Sorry, and every other game.

5.If one of your family members disappears, expect a trap.   In Cloud City, C3PO knew Darth Vader and his storm troopers were there but he disappeared before he could warn anyone.  When my daughter was an infant, my wife would disappear.  Immediately the little baby would scream and cry until Mommy returned.

4. Yoda is right: “Do or do not.  There is no try.”  Luke doesn’t believe he can lift his fighter out of the swamp.  He is right.  You have to believe to succeed.  We have learned to make the kids do the chore right.  They get to keep doing it until it is done correctly.

5. Do not negotiate with bad guys and children.  While Leia is held prisoner on the Death Star, Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader ask her where the secret rebel is.  She reveals the location to save the planet.  They blow it up anyway.  Negotiating with children works the same way.   You give them a cookie and then they want a glass of milk.

Yes, Star Wars has helped many of us “cool” people face what life has to offer.  The Force is with us!

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Where to Begin?

” I don’t know where to start,” Joe, the master procrastinator in my first period class, sighs.  Thus, my day begins.

Actually, it started many days ago when I came up with the idea for this short writing assignment.  Students were given a chapter of To Kill A Mockingbird to read, and they would rewrite this part of the story from another character’s point of view.  Students were to retell the major points from one of the witnesses in the trial of Tom Robinson.

My first response to Joe is, “Start with the details of the reading selection.  Make a list of what you know.  Next, ask yourself what thoughts would this character have?  Then, free write for five minutes.  After the brainstorming, organize your thoughts and ideas.  Divide the process into chunks or small steps, ignore the others in the class, focus on your thoughts, take time to review and revise, and you will end with a good final product.”

Alas, if only I could help myself as easily, as I have had trouble writing lately.  To help me get started, I researched procrastination.  I found that about 20% of us procrastinate and there are over 600 published books on the subject.  Of course, I haven’t made the time to read any of them.  I just skimmed articles and blogs.

I did learn a few things; my problems are described in any psychology 101 class:

  1. I am afraid of failing, so I wait and use the excuse, “I would have done a better job, but I did not have enough time.”  (Notice, I do not take responsibility on how I managed or mismanaged my time.)
  2. I do not develop an achievable goal for each day.  Instead I say, “ Today, I am going to write a book.”  Instead, I should say, “Today I am going to write for 15 minutes.   A person can do any task for 15 minutes.  Fifteen minutes is plausible, manageable, and doable.  I can always write for longer.  I need to break the larger goal into smaller goals.
  3. I don’t pay myself first.  Well, I do when it comes to my paycheck.  I put money aside for retirement, rainy days, and vacations.  However, I do not always place my tasks before the tasks of others.  I could use to be a little more selfish, at least for 15 or more minutes a day.  One way I can do this is to schedule my time to write and to do it when I most creative, which is in the morning or afternoon.  I like to revise my work in the evening.

Wow!  I did it.  A little research or background knowledge, a little creativity, and a short list!  I am back on track!

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There is an old adage: The apple does not fall far from the tree.  When a parent comes in for a conference or when we talk on the phone, I can see how true this statement is.  For example, I had a parent arrive late for a conference to discuss the child’s frequent tardiness to class.  During another conference, I was subjugated to excuses why work was not completed; many were similar to the ones the teenager gave me in class.  I am not heartless and understand that feces occurs once or twice a year, and these occurrences prevent an assignment from being completed on time.  However, some folks make it a habit to create the excuse prior to doing the work.

I could sit on my throne, look upon all students and their parents and judge their shortcomings, for I am perfect.  Just ask my wife.  On second thought, don’t do that.

The truth is I watched one of my little  apples waste away his evening last night, and I never realized I was doing something similar.  It was a free night for our family except for the wife; she had to work.  However, the kids were free:  no swim practice, no soccer training, no basketball practice, and no Tae Kwon Do.

There was a catch though.  My daughter, who has missed school due to illness, had to complete her assignments.   My oldest son, who is having a birthday party soon, had to clean the basement.  His younger brothers were going to help him and the chore would take about 30 minutes.

‘We will start at 4:30, Dad” promised the apples.

At 4:35, I asked, “What time is it?”

“It is 4:35!” yelled my first grader.

“Hey Apples,  it’s time to clean” I reminded them.  With a few grumbles, the trio went to the basement to pick up toys.  Within two minutes, the younger two came upstairs.  The birthday boy decided it would be fun to throw toys at them.  When confronted with this poor behavior choice, the oldest reminded me, “Dad, you always tell us to try to make a chore into a game I was just having fun.”

“Nice try” I tell him.  “Only one-third was having fun.  Now two-thirds are not going to help you clean.  Way to increase your fun, son.”

Instead of writing from 4:40 until 8:00 like I should have done, I watched my son avoid cleaning the basement.  I wish I could blame him for preventing me from writing, but he was not the cause.  I chose to empty the dishwasher, run to the post office and the grocery store for milk … again, read my emails, go on Facebook, clean up the patio from yesterday’s storm, fix the grill, and do anything to put off writing.  I was waiting for a topic to hit me, like an apple falling on my head.

Fortunately for the soon-to-be-twelve-year-old, he realized if he was nice to his siblings, they would help him.  The basement was clean by 8:20, a new record!  The boys realized Together Everyone Achieves More.  I sure wish I had someone to help me brainstorm a topic or even write for me.  The only family member willing to hang out with me at this point was one of our dogs, Feces.

I sat down and read other blogs and websites for ideas on education or business ideas.  I found a few, and started to write.  However, the words did not flow from my brain to my fingers with great velocity.  In fact, they dripped like a leaky faucet and then disappeared down the drain.  At 11 p.m., I called it a night.  I had several ideas but no finished product.

When I awoke at 5:30 a.m. feeling semi-refreshed, I stumbled into the shower.  Today’s idea splashed into my face, and I  had to laugh at the irony of last night.  My son is just like me.   When we have too much time on our hands, we are our own worst enemies.

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It Was a Dark and Stormy Night

snoopyThe phrase has been used frequently as a comic device by Charles M. Schulz in the popular comic strip Peanuts.   “It was a dark and stormy night. Suddenly, a shot rang out! A door slammed. The maid screamed. Suddenly, a pirate ship appeared on the horizon! While millions of people were starving, the king lived in luxury. Meanwhile, on a small farm in Kansas, a boy was growing up.”

—   Charles M. Schulz (Snoopy and “It Was a Dark and Stormy Night”)

Thus began the greatest novel never written by a Beagle.  Charles M. Schulz was brilliant and a tremendous influence on my life.  And, years ago, I found the seemingly strange start to a novel to have actually been written and is now part of a contest.

it was a dark and stormy nightThe first ‘dark and stormy night’ was conjured up by the English Victorian novelist, playwright and politician who rejoiced in the name of Sir Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton. It has become synonymous with the Victorian melodramatic style, of which Bulwer-Lytton’s many works provide numerous examples. Since 1982, an annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest has been sponsored by the English Department of San José State University, California. Contestants are required “to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels”.

The original “dark and stormy night” appeared in his novel Paul Clifford, 1830:

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents – except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

I hope I write as well as Snoopy.   What an imagination!  and now to see how my students did with the assignment of creating a sentence beginning with “It was a dark and stormy night.”  More on this topic later…

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ZAP!!! Electrifying Learning

Often, I am hit with ideas while teaching.  Although one of my students claims my latest idea is devoid of any intelligent thought, I can easily dismiss his opinion.  After all, he is only a teenager; what does he truly know about school, learning, and education in general?

The spark that ignited my idea was one of the vocabulary words of the day, interrogation.  Since it is Veterans Day, I required the students to create a sentence with a reference to the military.  As students shared their super sweet sentences with the class, one student mentioned torture while interrogating prisoners.

BAM!  My brain was on fire.

“Don’t teachers interrogate students everyday?”  I asked the class.

“Yes,” they responded with looks of curiosity and trepidation.

“Well, if I am interrogating, then I should be allowed to torture, too,” I hypothesized.  “Nothing too hurtful, just a little electric shock.”  I continued, “Imagine, what if I had a row of buttons that would give a little ZAP to a student who answered a question incorrectly?”   Of course, I might hit the wrong button and accidentally shock the wrong kid.  Oh well, feces occurs; the zapped kid probably didn’t know the correct answer either.

People never like great ideas.  For example, people told Walt Disney he was foolish to create a magical place for children.  Disney’s response: “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.”  Students can be just like adults, and immediately I was met with negative comments.  The naysayers in the class told me the district did not have enough money to wire all of the desks, the desks were made of plastic and would melt, and one smart girl even said we weren’t allowed corporal punishment.

I use to see the negative side of everything, too.  However, I have been working hard to persevere through problems that arise.  I decided I would invest in the students education and would pay for the set up myself.  (We teachers are always paying for supplies, books, and additional resources for our students.)  Preventing the melting of a desk would merely require testing out the zappers.  I really do not think anything would melt; my dogs do not burst into flames when they get shocked from the wireless fence in our yard.  The last argument given by a student deals with laws.  I am not a lawyer, but Atticus Finch, the lawyer and father of Scout and Jem in To Kill A Mockingbird is my hero.  I believe he would be able to successfully counter that the definition for corporal punishment does not include small shocks.  And, if Atticus says it is ok, then I believe him.

This weekend I will spend some time researching this way to motivate my students to excel.  Yes, we teachers do not always get our job done during the school day.  A few of us even work to become better during the summer.

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Study Buddy Time and Staying on Task

*Today’s names have been changed to protect the innocent.”

“OK class, I want you to answer these five discussion questions based on the story you were to read yesterday.  The answers must be written in complete sentences and are due by the end of the class period.  You may work with a study buddy, and each one of you must write your own answers on your own paper.” Thus, with these directions we begin the mini-social hour in English class, and I enjoy the entertainment of having students work in small groups.

Why is it entertainment?  As soon as I say the words “study buddy” or “partner work,” faces light up as if it is Christmas morning or walking into the Magic Kingdom for the first time.  This day, I let the kids pick their partners.  Some students look around for someone who is smart or consistently does his/her homework.   Some students only look for their friend, even if they know he/she never does the work.  After all, socializing is sometimes more important than good grades.

Now begins my fun!  I give each pair of students a set of questions, and I walk around the room to observe.  Soon, one pair of students has trouble with a question, so they ask someone from another pair for the answer.   It takes the kids a couple of minutes to realize I gave each pair different questions.  Unfortunately for Bo and Mo, the two who never read, they never do catch on.  They just copy from someone else and think they have gotten away with something.  (I really think one of them will move to Florida and make the news for trying to use an alligator to rob the donut shop next to the police station.)

Another pair, Dotty and Marie, chooses to work together because they are best friends.  They know everything about each other; for example, what the other had for dinner last night, who was texting whom, their latest Facebook status, and what time they arrived at school.  What they have not figured out is that they have a combined class average of 47%.    Even the worst weather forecaster could predict what happens next: they begin to struggle with the questions.  Before their brains fry with too much thinking, they move on to a discussion on boys, clothes, and, of course, the behavior of other girls.  If they are lucky these two ladies will have a gossip radio show or be on some reality show that promotes drama.

I noticed Zeke and Chloe whispering and writing responses furiously.  I moved closer and listened in.  This pair had read the assignment, was discussing possible answers (the questions were open-ended and allowed for opinions and no right or wrong answer), and writing their own responses.  It was terrific to see intelligent conversation taking place.

I could have given this assignment as a quiz or open book writing assignment.  However, part of our curriculum requires class participation.  Like I do for all assignments, I began with the question: “How am I evaluating this?”  So, for this assignment, I decided that I would be grading the responses as one grade and the class participation as another grade.

As I walked around the room, I kept notes on the pairs of kids.  Of course, whenever I was next to a pair, the kids would be on task.  I knew this would happen, so I would focus on listening and reading lips of the kids who were across the room.  After all, no one is ever off task when the boss is around.  Since a few of my students read this blog, they will be on to my trick.  Oh well.

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Revise, Revise, Revise

I know I have written about my  philosophy and how it relates to one of my goals for this year: to provide every possible opportunity for students to try new things and challenge themselves.  One way I did this was to create an enrichment activity after we read Walter Dean Myers’ Sunrise Over Fallujah.  The kids could choose one of the following assignments: create and perform a song; interview a veteran; create a movie trailer; or create a slide show of pictures as seen from the point of view of a character.  Out of 154 students, I had about a dozen students challenge themselves.  Remarkably, several students did not even need the extra credit points to earn an A.  These are the future Steve Jobs of the world.  I hope to share some of the work in the next week.

Sadly, many students chose to be content with their grade and not complete an enrichment activity.  Of course, this makes me consider making this a regular assignment.  The only reason I made this an enrichment activity was due to the writing of an essay, the reading of an independent novel, a creative integrated project with the choir, and we were one week from the end of the grading period.  In teaching (and comedy), timing is everything, and my timing is a little off.  Nevertheless, I will regroup and design a creative, challenging assignment for earlier in the next grading period.

Often times, we get an idea and it only works to an extent.  This leaves us with the option to throw away the paper or revise it.   In my class, we revise, revise, and revise.

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