Appreciation of Appreciation

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 7.18.36 AMLast night was our second parent night. I feel honored when families take the time to come see me. Anyone drives a couple of towns to pay respects to a child’s education is someone for whom I’m very grateful. Many can’t come–parents who work or care for others, or have to put little, little children to bed. I try not to bring Declan to night events. It’s tempting disaster taking him out that late in the evening–I appreciate brave parents who bring little children even more. It’s a real effort.

It’s why schools have to make every event for families productive–not just five minutes of face time that could better be served with Face Time, but events that build the community and climate of the school. At our school, we’re starting to get more and more of these types of events–things that generate buzz and bring everyone together. Schools that do this well report amazing things. I don’t know what the stats are in terms of test scores and such but the climate and happiness factor increase exponentially–the weight is taken off the parent, the school, and the student–it’s shared equally. A three-legged stool never falls. A pogo stick does.

“Before I go,” said one mom, “I just wanted to take the time to thank you. Elementary teachers receive a lot of appreciation. High school teachers do not. I really appreciate what you do.” She handed me a gift card for coffee with a fancy sticky note that expressed her sincere appreciation. I was so touched–she was right. This appreciation will Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 7.19.18 AMwarm my soul long after the duration of the coffee. Gifts are not part of the high school culture, so much so, I nearly ruined my son’s gift giving experience by not preparing to give gifts in his elementary school.

In high schools, we don’t always take the time to properly express appreciation. I have one colleague who makes it part of an exercise for students to write thank you cards to any teacher they want. I get some of these cards, and feel like I’m winning the lottery. We should make appreciation a measured data point on standardized tests. If appreciation was a test score, I bet we would put it right the curricula. Truth is, we could all use a bit more practice on this one.  I think of the times I’ve failed to appreciate my family, colleagues, friends, or even the hard work I do myself. If it were measured on my evaluation, I’d learn to get it right.

One day, I read this James Altucher post, where he discusses how he saved the global economy with chocolate. I’ll admit, that’s a tall order. I had doubts. Turns out, he stood outside the stock market exchange giving out chocolate during the market crash. There was a decided lack of morale during that period where everyone wondered if financial life as they knew it would end–I remember it well, because I was wondering the same thing, just far away, so I he didn’t give me a chocolate bar.

I decided I’d steal the idea with very little attribution. I distributed Hershey bars on the Ides of March–the day a person is most likely to be stabbed in the back by someone–life, a good friend, The Man. Could chocolate raise morale in education–the field with the highest burnout rate in the nation? It did. I saw people I didn’t even know I still worked with. I reconnected. We smiled. I got hugs. Turns out it’s not about chocolate or coffee–I’d have felt the same glow in my soul if that mom said what she said and handed me a post it note alone. Or even nothing. It’s about appreciation. Gratitude. Taking the time to recognize the work, life, humanness of the person on the other side of the conversation rather than rushing through the paces in an overloaded day so we can go home, get some sleep, and rush through tomorrow.

It’s not easy. But it needs to be said once in a while. I really appreciate the parents who entrust me with their kids–even if it’s just because we all need a break from our own. I appreciate the chance to make a difference in a single life, or in education in general. I appreciate that somehow, somewhere in the universe, there’s someone doing something great in life, and that I got a chance to be a part of it. And I appreciate those who did it for me.

Most of all, I appreciate my family and friends who put up with this, because a teacher’s work, no matter what the pundits say, is never done.

 

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Why This Teacher Hates Gum

Gum is evil.

It’s something I didn’t understand in my younger days. Now I do. I used to think gum was good. When kids’ mouths are closed, I teach, kids listen. I used to use Jolly Ranchers for this. I’d give loud kids two Jolly Ranchers each. I wasn’t rewarding students for misbehavior. I was punishing them.

Screen Shot 2014-01-16 at 6.15.05 AMIt’s science. When a person chews a Jolly Rancher, the mouth fuses shut. There are two choices–fight it and lose teeth, or go with it, enjoy. Then wait twenty minutes or so until it releases its death hold. It’s almost like meditation training. Forced quiet. I was a new teacher. When you’re new, you use what you got. It was a good strategy–using the principles of adhesion to get kids to listen. Does that count as integrating curricula?

Fast forward to present time.

One student offered me gum. I politely refused, telling her I don’t chew gum.

“I don’t see the point in it,” I said. She looked mystified.

“Candy, yes. Good chocolate, absolutely. But gum gets chewed twice and tastes like an eraser. Why do all that work for nothing?” I recently saw an article correlating teen gum chewing with migraines, too.

In principle, gum’s cool. In reality, it’s nefarious. Why do kids put it under desks? They’re only going to stick to it later. They can’t remember to pull up their pants or bring their homework–how will they remember where they stuck their gum? Maybe there’s someone from Wrigley’s out there who can invent gum that doesn’t stick? A gum version of a Post-It note.

Once I had a vandal scrape gum. She flicked dirt near her eye. Then everyone was scared about kids poking eyes out cleaning messes they made on purpose, so now we have to make them say sorry instead. The gum remains.

It’s the middle of class. I’m explaining something. A kid stands up.

“May I help you? I’m about to impart the meaning of life here.” I’ve lost my thoughts.

“Just throwing out gum.” He saunters in front of me to the can farthest away. This gum, which has been flavorless for two class periods, cannot wait another moment.

It’s a teachable moment.

“Picture a business meeting.” I say, waving my hand across the imaginary board room. “My boss is giving a presentation. I stand up. I walk in front of him, sagging my pants. I nod. The Board of Directors look on…”

You sagging, Miss?” someone says. It’s an image that once imagined cannot be unseen.

I explain etiquette. Walk on the outside, don’t disturb, when eating or gum chewing at a meeting, be polite. Don’t crunch, munch and chew. If you have trash to toss, do it at a break in the activity, not while The Boss is speaking. Etiquette’s important. Conference etiquette. Meeting etiquette. Arriving late etiquette–there’s a finesse. We don’t teach it enough in schools. Maybe I should be grateful to gum for the opportunity to teach higher-level skills.

Classes ban food, drinks, and gum rather than teaching what to do with them in high society. I want my students to behave properly at fancy functions. “Gum” and “food” aren’t in the curriculum but food is a central focus of business. Employees are hired over lunch, companies built over coffee, investments solidified over cocktails or tapas. No one sticks gum under the table while talking with an investor.

But that’s not really why I hate gum. I hate gum is because Declan discovered it.

“Mommy, can I have gum?” At first, it was cute. A six-year old walking around chomping like a cow. Every once in a while, he’d spit a piece across the room like he was shooting a cannon. “I’m blowing bubbles.”

Next, he’d play with the gum, taking it out of his mouth, looking at it, wrapping it around his finger. What followed, naturally, was gum on things. Gum on shirts, furniture, toys. Gum strings, gum residue. Gum slime trails that looked like little slugs walked across my counter. Gum sculptures. “I made a dinosaur.” The germy “I’m saving this gum for tomorrow. I’m going to chew a world record of gum.” He chewed that piece for days, placing sticking it on stuff while he ate, drank, and slept.

The last straw was gum on my computer. Understandable. With iPads, phones, and tablets around, who’d know the iMac wasn’t touch screen? It’s the digital generation. I explained.

“Oh, I know that, Mommy.” What six-year old can’t program a computer these days?  I was talking down to him. “I wasn’t touching it. I put gum on it. I made a picture. It’s nice.”

There will be no more gum. I’ll ban it like Singapore.

I banished him from my computer for willful destruction of parental property.

“No more computer? Don’t you want me to learn?”

“Yes. I want you to learn. That’s why I’m giving you this paper. It’s what Mommy had when she was little.” Meanwhile, I used the computer to learn “How to remove gum from computers.”

Gum–a tool for learning. An instrument of utter destruction. It’s here to stay. The best I can do today is hope not to step in it.

The gum, I mean.

 

[images: jamiewasserman.blogspot.com]

Paying the Idiot Fee

boilerI just got a bill for fifty bucks. I had a leak in my boiler. As a rule, I don’t fix things that explode, flood, or have the potential to cause international incident. I’ll sheet rock a hole, patch, paint, lay flooring like a drunk Irishman, tile, and hack. I’ve got my own power tools. I once created and installed a system of shelves in my closet using just a jig saw, the “f” word, and piece of dental floss–an organizational breakthrough in a house that had one 18″ closet.

But leaking boilers are above my pay grade. The oil company sent out a super nice man–a trained musician who liked my dog. He’d decided that music wasn’t making him enough clams to eat at a sit-down dinner, so he went into something “practical.” Now he can fix anything. I could’ve listened to him forever.

It took him a full five minutes to diagnose the problem, four and a half of which were hanging the light, finding an outlet, and bullshitting with me.

“I checked under the boiler,” he said, “And I noticed that the leak’s not coming through the foundation.” I’d checked that. That one’s in the Moron 101 Handbook, which I read from cover to cover since I do things like put fans in closed windows and troubleshoot appliances that aren’t plugged in.

“Here’s the problem. A small leak right here.” There was a tiny pinhole leak in the 1939 copper pipe. It was spraying water on my head like a sprinkler system. A fine mist. But a mist nonetheless. Anyone with glasses who had looked up and really thought outside the box would have wiped off her glasses and noticed this fine mist. I don’t recall looking up. Just staring at the puddle on the ground.

“I can fix this, but it would be better for you to call your plumber.” “Better,” meant “much more economical.”

He recommended that I buy the insurance plan for all these parts which are not covered under the regular plan. My plan didn’t include water parts. Just oil tanks blowing up in the event of the apocalypse. As such, three days later I received a bill for $49.99. That’s approximately $600/hour if I subtract the time we spent bullshitting and run the math. He was a great guy. I’d pay $50 for the conversation, but still…

This made me think about my career choice. There’d have been no chance of me being a musician, because I suck, but nobody ever told me I could learn to fix pipes and boilers and make $600/hour while petting people’s dogs. I’d have paid off all my friend’s mortgages if I’d done that.

Heck, I’ve memorized and forgotten more facts and figures than I care to admit, but when the chips are down, I call in $600/hour musician-fix-it-genius to tell me water is falling down on my head.

I don’t want to make my students groan doing a “close read” of a bunch of Lincoln speeches because it’s listed in the Common Cores. I want them to read a ton of things about which they are truly passionate, ask questions and discuss when they need my guidance, dig deeper because they’re interested, then make a million dollars doing something they love.

Or better yet, take my money and fix that pipe. Because no one taught me how to do it.

 

The Science of Dog Biscuits

My kid eats dog biscuits. I don’t encourage this. I’ve given up.

“It’s the only meat I eat, Mom, it’s good for me.” I can’t control it. He gets out of bed or sneaks around when I’m not looking, stealing them from the cookie jar like they were chocolate chip cookies.

The dog sighs. She doesn’t challenge him. She knows she’s going to snag the roast off the table anyway the moment I turn my head. I’m fighting on two fronts. I suppose Milk-Bones are healthy for boys if they’re good for dogs. Declan tells me they are.

dog biscuit

Look carefully. You are seeing a dog biscuit fragment sailing high above Kung Fu Panda.

Two things my boy loves–dog biscuits and science. On Thanksgiving, he managed to integrate the two. His goal was to determine the size a dog biscuit would have to be in order to float on a mylar balloon. My job was to tie and secure the slipknots around the biscuit, cheer if it flew and look disappointed if it did not.

First, we tried a full Milk-Bone, which securely anchored the balloon to the ground. Declan’s face scrunched, finger to his cheek.

“I guess it’s too big,” he said.

“Not necessarily too big, Buddy,” I hinted, “Too heavy.”

“I gotta fix it.” He broke the Milk-Bone in half. I started to tie the knot. He switched the halves, giving me the small piece. He knew it would weigh less. I put the slipknot around the smaller piece. Meanwhile, he ate the bigger one.

The balloon sank to the ground. Even the smaller part of the biscuit was too heavy.

“Can’t we just use pencils or crayons or something? I can weigh them on my bread scale. This is disgusting.” I try to be a good Mom.

“Nope.” His word was final. He took a bite off of the small biscuit piece and handed the remaining fragment to me. I tied the string around the slime. It sunk to the ground. But bounced once on the way up. 

“Look, we almost did it!” Science. It’s exciting when science goes right.

He looked at the biscuit. He poked it a bit. The biscuit very much wanted to soar free like the bird it once may have been. I’m not sure what “meat byproduct” actually means. It all tastes like chicken, I’m told.

He picked up the piece, nibbled a bit off of each end, held it back, examined it, and nodded his approval. Not only did he intuitively recognize the relationship between size and weight, he knew about balance, too. The string had to be centered.

He had also figured out a bit about efficiency by simply biting off the ends instead of untying and retying the string around the biscuit. Efficiency is big in science these days. It makes money in business, too, I’m told. Entrepreneurs read and write books about it, must be important.

He released the string and biscuit. It flew. It flew around the living room. The dog considered reclaiming it, but she was in her post “I begged for turkey” slumber. Every dog knows half a turkey is better than a Milk-Bone.

photo 1One Milk-Bone gone, several principles of science learned. Today, he is measuring things and making comparisons. He usually writes these things in his field journal, a spiral notebook filled with pictures of animals, dinos, and bugs. It’s the holiday weekend. He’s taking it easy.

But if I ask him about school, he says, “Boring.” Already. Despite his fantastic teacher who is the definition of awesome. So maybe it’s not about school but about the methods of inquiry and intrinsic learning. He wants to learn about dinos and write them in a field journal. And measure things. And learn about photo 2balance points, gravity’s relationship with dog biscuits. And entrepreneurship–because I had to pay a lollipop, again, to secure the rights to these photos.

I think school could be fun. Kids have the ability to knock things out of the park. We just have to let them.

Then someone has to let us do just that.

I’m Not the Jesus of Education

I stand in front of my students. I say, “Listen, it’s your decision. Research it, make the call.” Blank stares. Pause. More blank stares.

I explain. “I’m not the Jesus of education…I’m just a nerd. You need to interpret things the way you want.” I give examples using facts, figures, case studies…

“How will I know I’m right?” Students need that sense of “I must define the right answer so you can give me an A. I MUST KNOW!!!” Right answers are seldom right. Only shades of right. It’s a lesson nearly impossible to teach–one I’m still trying to learn.

I tell them, “You’ll know you’re right because I’m the one reading it. It can’t be wrong if you back it up.”

“You see,” I say, “Life doesn’t work that way. I think I have a plan for school, for business, for life…but it changes constantly. Life evolves. Real learning is about taking the input and research–whatever you can find and whatever comes your way…and using it to be awesome. Digging deep, defending, explaining, pitching, selling, convincing…to do that, you have to collect knowledge.” Rake it into a pile…jump in the leaves. 

“Then trust yourself and take it to the next level. Who knows what the right answer really is? No one. That’s life. The answer is that no one knows the answers. That’s really what happens. I wish I had something different to tell you.”*

Pause.

“The good news is, you can get used to that and blow by the people who can’t.”

Eventually, one student cracks a smile. Then one more… until a whole bunch of smiles light up the room.  Students begin to re-engage, finding solutions to the problems of the world once again. Because I’ve told them that each one of them is a genius, and the world needs their contributions.**

*The actual phrase was “loose corners.” (Kamal Ravikant). Truly the best of lessons. I’ve passed it on. The best of lessons, kept to oneself, simply withers up and dies.

**Angela Maiers asks the question, “What breaks your heart?” then makes students solve those problems. For real. I’ve brainstormed these things, even called my students geniuses, but never made them iterate on the ideas. And that small paradigm shift, I see, makes all the difference. The power of one single student can light a thousand cities. Amazing to behold. Angela–I hope you are proud. I am.

Deep Dark Secrets in the Classroom

There are secrets that teachers should never reveal.

Screen Shot 2013-10-02 at 9.24.34 PMI’m not talking about the three days you went to the beach pretending you had diarrhea. Not that. File that under “mental health.”  Never speak of it again.

I’m talking about skills. Never reveal them. Most of the world wants to show off skills. People inflate them on LinkedIn. They give themselves high-fives, “likes,” self-marketing tweets or K+ whenever possible. Occasionally, people even lie about credentials.
In this tough economy, it seems natural to tell the world about skills. It’s good to say things like, “Hey, I balanced the budget,” or “I cured cancer.” Recent college grads could be tempted to brag “I got the boss’ grande hot decaf triple five-pump vanilla non-fat no foam whipped cream extra hot extra caramel upside down caramel machiatto.”
In teaching, keep your skills to yourself…or expect trouble.  There are several skills that should never be revealed. If anyone finds out you can do any of this, run for the mountains.
1. Event organizing: I’ve been on every committee–even some whose acronyms I never knew. “Sure I’ll be on the A.S.S. committee.” Achieving Student Success? I can organize something for that.” I’ve tied bows, fundraised, planned. Event planning is hard. If discovered, you’ll be snagged for everything from proms to graduation. All of these require fundraising, so you’ll be doomed unless you’re rich enough to pay cash for the event out of your family holdings. Your teaching pay won’t cut it. Get ready for bake sales and car washes.
2. Calligraphy: “Hey, can you calligraphy something for me? Thanks.” I’ve received stacks and stacks of book awards, certificates, and envelopes. I appreciate things looking beautiful, and calligraphy is a meditation for me. I don’t mind it. It’s the, “You can bring them to me tomorrow,” that never quite works out in the end.
3. Speaking other languages: This is the danger zone. I can never turn down helping out when necessary. I sound like a foreigner in each of the languages I’ve never completed studying. I do try, but I do so with a disclaimer. I suggest people not happy with fact I translated “embarazada” instead of “avergonzado” invest in some Rosetta Stone or watch Sabado Gigante themselves.
4. Writing grants: Nobody has any money. Grant writing is a 24-hour job. It’s a lose-lose situation. If you don’t get the money, you’re a loser. If you get it, you have a so much more work to do on the grant project itself it becomes a punishment winning the money.
Finally…
5. Fixing copy machines:  Never admit to being able to fix a copier. It’s the kiss of death in education. I take a deep breath, meditate, open the bowels of the machine, and stick my hands in hoping not to get them chopped off or get myself electrocuted. This is a win-win each time. If I fix the machine, I get to work. If it goes horribly wrong, I get time off.
Screen Shot 2013-10-02 at 9.22.12 PM6. Knowing anything about computers: As someone with few skills and negative common sense, I’ve been tracked down to fix computers by plugging things in more than once. I’ve repaired printers by turning them on. I hope it never gets harder than that or I might not look so impressive.
So hang on just a minute before you update your LinkedIn or shout out your big win on Twitter. You just might end up being the organizer of the next prom or chasing the Gates Foundation for pencil money.
But don’t worry, you got this…you’ve got skills.
I’m not going to tell you about mine.
[photos: lagirlsweetea.blogspot.com and therecycler.com]

Why I Can’t Teach Elementary School

I can’t discuss the day I had yesterday…not because I don’t want to…because of confidentiality. I never discuss things that can be pegged to individual students unless they are positive shout outs. It was a Class-A challenging day, filled with the crises I get from time to time teaching high school. It used to rattle me, but now each emergency of scale winds its way to my doorstep. I return each serve, and take the day in stride. In between, I manage to teach, knowing I’ve helped a kid or two in the process. I try to remember to smile.

Teaching high school is easy. I get to be a real person, flaws and all. Kids pick off flaws if I try to hide them, anyway. I wish I were an elementary teacher. Elementary teachers are magical. They don’t have flaws. They never lose their cool. They always smile. They dress really nice, and they have panache. I don’t have panache.

homeworkI leave my school and go home to Elementary Boy Declan. He likes bad words and fart jokes. I imagine his elementary teacher smiling as she tells him this is “inappropriate.” I try to raise him right. I don’t teach him bad words and jokes…but things get away from me. I help him do his homework. He procrastinates.

“Mommy, rub my shoulders.” I do.

“Oh, that feels really good. Way better than when I say ‘crap’ a thousand times in a row.” He tries to hide his bad words. He goes to his room saying, “I need privacy. I want to have a conversation with myself.” I listen in. “Shut up, shut up, shut up, crap, shit.” Should stop this or let him work through this developmental moment privately? What would an elementary teacher say?

“You know, saying bad words isn’t nice. You’ll grow up and have no friends.” That’s what I say. I know it’s untrue. An elementary teacher would never say this. I continue, “You’ll get bad karma.” He bumps his knee on the chair. He cries. “See?” I say, “Bad karma.” He growls. He tells me he’ll turn into a dinosaur and eat me.

“It’s NOT bad KARMA!” I tell him it is. You never know when karma is coming…

For now, I accept his compliment in the interest of finishing homework. Mommy, you make me happier than saying the word “crap.” That’s a big endorsement. I tell him not to say “crap.”

In my high school classroom, “crap” is passé. Even the “f” word gets a quick check for the first offense, “Um, language alert.” For repeat offenders, “I’m sure I can find you a hundred or so nice ‘f’ words to write about…” Hint: I’m about to make your day inconvenient. Knock it off.

My son wants to be “inappropriate.” He thinks it’s fun.  He’s received some positive reinforcement in this department. What I call “fresh,” and “obnoxious,” was relabeled “entrepreneurial,” “visionary,” “renegade.”

“That kid’s going places,” I’m told. Yeah, straight to bed. Or time out. Or the gypsies…

deskI went to open house last night. I sat in his teeny, tiny chair. There, on the desk, was a star chart. One of two star charts in the class. In teaching land, that’s not good. Where I’d give a student “the death stare,” Miss, knock that off. You can’t do the ‘death stare.’ You don’t have it in you. I just laugh…[“Well, I got you to stop, didn’t I?”], elementary teachers give encouragement. A star chart.

This means that Declan needs to behave. Last night, I received appropriate elementary strategies meant to encourage. I can’t smile that much while I encourage, though. Elementary teachers never seem to rattle. They impress me. The charts, graphs, stars, and incentives are amazing. I sat in the tiny desk thinking of what I could steal and repurpose in my classroom to “encourage.”  I’d have to white out all the smileys, frogs, and apples, though, or it would encourage students to laugh me off the planet. My charts can’t smile. Maybe I can design charts with avatars wearing sagging jeans or something. If the jeans on the chart sag, that’s not good. Students get to pull up the jeans on their avatar as they achieve more and more.

I try to encourage. Probably not so well. My elementary educator friends tell students to “make good choices,” in the face of inappropriateness.  Teaching high school, I encourage my students to do listen, or they can encourage themselves to some grave penalty.

“You like to throw paper? Awesome! You can throw paper for three hours after school. I’ll let you aim at the basket. I’ll send your stats to the NBA.”  Nobody usually chooses my offer, probably because I tell them I am a nerd, have no life and can stay till six to help their paper-throwing jump shot if need be. They pause. They decide it might just be true. They cease and desist.

Elementary teachers never lie like that. My friend Amy tells me I can’t design punishments I can’t carry out. “You can’t take away computer or TV from your son forever…” 

Maybe she’s right. I’m not sure…she is far better than me in this department.

I tell my son it’s time to go to bed, no more negotiation, he’s not buying a company or anything. Finally, I get him to bed. He only turns into a dinosaur once to try to eat me before he is fast asleep…without saying one bad word.