Monday, December 14, 2009

The Gift of Giving

I wish Christmas would just come already so I can finally stop shopping. It seems as though no matter how holiday-ready I think I am, I keep finding new things to buy, or new people to buy things for, right up until the minute the stores close on Christmas Eve. And if I'm not actually shopping, I'm thinking about shopping, usually wondering what to get those people -- and we all have a few of them on our shopping lists -- who have everything and want nothing and give too generously to be overlooked.

This year, a friend offered a possible solution to the perenniel "What to give someone who has everything" dilemma by sending a flock of chickens to Appalachia in a nephew's name. So when an e-mail about the Toys for Tots Literacy Program hit my browser, I already was primed to embrace a gift of giving. And, as a former reading teacher, this one seems like the perfect present.

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 44 percent of children in the United States grow up in families facing serious economic struggles. Those families can’t foster a love of reading and learning in their children because they don’t have access to the resources -- including books -- that the children need.

The Toys for Tots Literacy Program, a year-round initiative of the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation, offers economically disadvantaged children in the United States the chance to break that cycle of poverty and to succeed academically by providing them with direct access to books and educational resources that can enhance their ability to read and communicate effectively.

The UPS Store®, exclusive sponsor of the Toys for Tots Literacy Program, collects monetary donations for the Toys for Tots Foundation throughout the entire year. Every dollar donated places a book in the hands of a poor child in the local community. So this year, instead of wondering what to give that special person who has everything, why not give to Toys for Tots Literacy in his or her name? Give a buck; give a book; give a kid a chance!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

My Favorite Book

I recently attended a baby shower at which we were asked to bring the expectant mother a favorite children's book instead of a greeting card. As a mother of four and a former kindergarten and first grade teacher (with a fabulous college Kiddy Lit professor), I could have filled an entire home library all by myself. Instead, I spent more than an hour at Borders trying to pick my all-time favorite. (Since the expectant mother is my daughter-in-law, my choice was clearly crucial.)

I ended up selecting not one old favorite, but three. First, I chose two copies of Watty Piper's The Little Engine That Could -- a full-sized edition for reading aloud, and an abridged version small enough for child-sized hands. That I thought was fitting for a book I'd loved as a child for its mesmerizing cadence -- "I think I can. I think I can. I think I can...." -- and as a parent and teacher for its motivating message.

Next, I chose Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day -- because Judith Viorst's rhymes are great fun -- and infinitely insightful -- whether you're a toddler or Suddenly Sixty. And because kids need to know that there are going to be terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days -- but they pass.

And finally, I chose The Poky Little Puppy, by Janette Sebring Lowrey, because it reminded me most of my childhood, and because it was the book most responsible for turning me into a life-long reader.

Which book would you have chosen?

Speaking of wonderful children's books...Carson-Dellosa Publishing LLC recently launched The Very Hungry Caterpillar™, a teacher-resource Web site offering lesson plans, craft ideas, teaching tips, tools, and printable classroom materials featuring Eric Carle’s bestselling book. In addition, to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of The Very Hungry Caterpillar™, the publisher has partnered with Chorion to sponsor a sweepstakes that will award teachers and classrooms exciting The Very Hungry Caterpillar™ prizes, and the opportunity to submit a question that will be answered in an exclusive online Q&A with the author. Check it out -- and then click Post A Comment below to share with us your favorite book or Kiddy-Lit-based Web site. We'd love to hear about them.

As Groucho Marx said, "Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read."

Have a great week!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Who's Your Family?

I hope everyone had as wonderful a Thanksgiving weekend as I did. Thursday, I shared a (relatively) quiet meal with my three sons and their significant others. Only my daughter, loving it in San Diego, was missing from the table. How did this happen anyway? Wasn't it just yesterday that I was serving ear drops and antibiotics amid meal-time bickering of epic proportions? Now, I sit down to eat with entertaining and articulate adults I'd choose to dine with even if they weren't my own children. Life is good.

Sunday, I hosted a baby shower for my daughter-in-law, who's due any day now with my first grandchild. (God's reward, they tell me, for not killing my own kids during those holiday disasters of yore.) The theme of the party was...ta-da..."A Star Is Born" (Get it?) and it was great fun, attended by female friends, and siblings, and cousins, and in-laws, and nieces...all those wonderful women I rarely get to see. Aren't girls-only parties just the best? (All you women out there know what I'm talking about.)

Speaking of women, do you have a female friend, relative, neighbor, or colleague currently undergoing treatment for cancer? If so, you'll want to tell her about Cleaning for a Reason. This newly-formed non-profit provides free housecleaning -- once a month for 4 months -- for any woman being treated for any form of cancer. All she has to do is sign up and have her doctor fax a note confirming treatment. Cleaning for a Reason will arrange for a participating maid service in the woman's zip code to provide the free service. Cleaning for a Reason serves the entire United States, so pass the word to any woman in need of a little support this year.

While you're sharing good thoughts and deeds, why not visit Let's Say Thanks and take a few minutes to say thanks to a soldier? Just pick out a postcard design and choose a message or write your own, and Xerox and its partners will see that your card is printed and delivered to a soldier overseas. The designs, depicting patriotic scenes and hometown images, were selected from entries from children across the United States. The postcards are printed on the Xerox iGen3® Digital Production Press and mailed in care packages by the military support organization Give2TheTroops®. It's such an easy holiday activity for a family -- or for a classroom. Wouldn't it be wonderful if every single soldier received a supportive message during this holiday season?

The weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year's can be busy and stressful ones. Take a breath and take the time to enjoy your family -- whatever their ages or actual relationship to you -- and take a moment to think of those you don't know who might need a helping hand.

Have a great week!

Monday, November 23, 2009

A Teacher's Prayer of Thanksgiving

Thank you, God, for I am a teacher. As a teacher, I have the power to educate, to inspire, to challenge, to comfort, to reassure, to ennoble. The scope of my influence is incalculable; each of my students leaves my classroom changed in some way by what I did and said. Through those students, I have the power to change the world.

Thank you for entrusting me with that responsibility. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to do what I love. Thank you, too, for providing those things that enabled me to love what I do. Thank you for:

* the administrator who trusted my judgment and supported my decisions -- no matter who questioned them.

* the parents who faithfully showed up for parent-teacher conferences -- to listen, to communicate, to cooperate.

* the surprise assembly that held my students' interest -- and got me off my feet.

* the substitute who, without complaint, turned sometimes sketchy plans into exciting lessons.

* the student who struggled but refused to give up.

* the creative teammate who freely shared her best ideas.

* the party at which no self-described wit expounded on my "high pay and short hours."

* the student who suddenly "got it."

* the days with no surprises.

* the student who knew more about technology than I did.

* the unexpected absence of my most disruptive student.

* the specials who provided activities that supported my curriculum.

* the colleague who covered my class for five minutes so I could run to the restroom.

* the practical in-service session that held my interest.

* the competent aide who gave me time to teach.

* the volunteers who baked cupcakes, chaperoned field trips, and provided enrichment activities.

* the colleague who swappped recess duty -- or cafeteria duty or bus duty -- when I absolutely, positively had to have a few minutes to myself.

* the unexpected holiday.

* anyone who -- at any time, for any reason -- remembered to say "Thank you for being a good teacher!"

You can read this and more timely Starr Points columns at the Starr Points archive.

Monday, November 16, 2009

November is a busy month for all of us, I know. But some things are worth making time for. I received an e-mail this week from the people at My Teacher, My Hero announcing that anyone who uploads a teacher-tribute video to the My Teacher, My Hero site during the month of November will earn a $25 Giving Card from It's a nice partnership between two worthwhile sites. If you're not familiar with My Teacher, My Hero or DonorsChoose, they're both worth a visit.

Speaking of teacher wish lists, Digital Wish and Flip Video continue their offer to help you integrate video into your classroom. For just $150, educators can purchase two Flip Ultra™ camcorders (two for the price of one!). Register at Digital Wish to access the promotion.

What else is going on this week? Well, Wednesday, November 18 is Mickey Mouse's birthday -- as well as the birthday of Alan Shepherd, the first American in space. Visit NASA to learn more about Shepherd and the other six original astronauts. Do any of your students want to be an astronaut?

November 19 is the anniversary of The Gettysburg Address, President Abraham Lincoln's most famous speech. Invite students to observe the day by comparing Lincoln's drafts and final version of the Gettysburg Address with this Education World lesson plan.

November 20 is The Great American Smokeout. It's also the date (in 1789) that New Jersey became the first state to ratify the Bill of Rights. How much do your students know about these amendments to the Constitution?

And, of course, John F. Kenneddy was assassinated on November 22, 1963. Perhaps your students would like to pay a virtual visit to the Kennedy Library this week?

Finally, November 15-21 is the NEA's American Education Week, which spotlights the importance of providing every child in America with a quality public education. Take the time to celebrate your own role in that effort.

And have a great week!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Best and the Brightest?

Strategic Management of Human Resources, an education task force whose goal is to improve student achievement, recently issued a report containing 20 recommendations that task force members believe will help state and local education agencies achieve that goal.

The report, like most such reports, garnered support -- and criticism.

One school superintendent took issue with what he saw as the report's primary message -- the need to recruit "the best and the brightest" to be teachers. “In our profession, not everyone can teach regardless of how smart they may be,” said Delmar, Delaware, school superintendent David C. Ring Jr. “We need people who can relate to children.”

His remarks elicited this response from task-force chair Tim Pawlenty, governor of Minnesota: “I don’t think we are in any danger at the moment of overemphasizing smart people going into teaching.”

That view of teachers as less than the best and the brightest isn't new. In 1903, George Bernard Shaw wrote in Man and Superman's "Maxims for Revolutionists," "He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches."

Nor is it uncommon. The parent of a student I wanted to retain once said to me, "You're a first grade teacher. I'm a CEO, with three times your education, making ten times your salary. Why should I listen to you?"

Nor is it without precedent. Although the academic credentials of beginning teachers has increased dramatically in the last decade, SAT scores of prospective teachers have been consistently lower than the scores of many other professional groups.

But is it true? Do "the best and the brightest," in large numbers, refuse to consider a teaching career. Is teaching a fall-back profession for those who can't --or are afraid they can't -- make it in any other profession?

If it isn't true, how do we change the perception? And if it is, how do we change the profession?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Why Our Education System Is Failing

I recently read a blog entry written by a high-school senior just weeks away from graduation. The essay, from the blog A Boundless World, was called Why Our Current Education System Is Failing. In it, this clearly thoughtful young man said, "It’s obvious our current education system needs major reform; until then, it can proudly boast a fat D- on its fridge."

One could argue, I suppose, that a D- isn't quite a failing grade. Of course, it's not exactly a grade to be proud of either. So just what does the blog's author think our schools are doing wrong?

"Our current education system," says Bud Hennekes, "places too much emphasis on the "A" and not enough emphasis on unleashing the promise that lies in each and every one of us. Education is discovering your passions, then pursuing them....Education is meant to help us find our passion, our purpose in life."

Bud is 18. He talks a lot about passion. But is he right? Is education meant to "help us find our passions" -- or is it meant to give us the tools we'll need to pursue them when we stumble across them ourselves?

We read a great deal now about making education "real," about relating lessons to real life, about teaching what's relevant instead of what's deemed "useless" to today's youth or tomorrow's job market. But should immediate relevancy be the sole arbiter of educational content? I don't think so.

In my long-ago high-school days, I took four years of Latin -- a "dead" language. In the last 40 years, no one has ever asked me to speak a word of Latin. That fact alone makes Latin -- by today's standards, at least -- a waste of my precious learning time. And yet...the number of English words I've understood the meaning of simply because I once took Latin is incalculable.

As a freshman in college, I was forced to memorize the first 24 lines of The Canterbury Tales in middle English. Oh, how I resented that meaningless memorization exercise. And I promise you, in all the years since, no one has ever asked me to recite the first 24 lines of The Canterbury Tales in middle English -- or modern English, for that matter. And yet...when I write today, I don't just write the words, I also feel their rhythm, in part because I once memorized the first 24 lines of The Canterbury Tales in middle English.

I could go on, but my point is clear. My teachers could have spent their time exposing me to the world's greatest writers and encouraging me to join them -- and they did a little of that. But mostly, they taught me spelling and grammar; they made me memorize parts of speech and poetic devices. They gave me sentences to parse and paragraphs to punctuate. They provided me with the tools I needed to write well, and they insisted on the practice I needed to have confidence in my own skills.

Today, I am a writer -- pursuing my passion -- largely because of the apparently "useless" (and, yes, sometimes terribly tedious) classes I took 40 years ago.

So if our current education system is failing, maybe it's doing so, not because it lacks the skill to educate, but because it hasn't yet found its purpose.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Disheartened and Disappointed?

According to a recently released survey, 40% of U.S. teachers are disheartened and disappointed about their jobs. (37% are content, and 23% are idealistic.)

Only 40% of teachers are disappointed with their jobs? The state of our education system must be better than I thought. Or maybe I just hear from a disproportionate number of dissatisfied educators. Because I rarely -- almost never, in fact -- hear from the apparently 60% of teachers who love what they do and are happy to be doing it.

A few years ago, I ran -- or attempted to run -- an ongoing series called Love Teaching. During the two+ years of the series, despite constant efforts to fan the flames of career passion among our readers, only thirty-four teachers took the time to sit down (perhaps : ) and write a few words about why they loved teaching. Thirty-four passionate teachers...among more than 5 million educators who are active on our site! Maybe the rest of the satisfied 60% -- the other 2,999,966 happy teachers -- are too busy to write, or too content?

I do hear regularly, however -- apparently in disproportionate numbers -- from the discontented teachers in our audience. I hear that their students are unruly; their parents are neglectful and critical; their colleagues are unavailable; and their administrators are unsupportive. I hear that they're overworked and underpaid and largely unappreciated. I hear that supplies are meager -- and rationed -- and that textbooks are out-of-date and in short supply. I hear that burnout is inevitable, and that frequent lengthy vacations are an emotional imperative. I hear that an early retirement is their goal.

And when I hear those things, apparently from only 40% of you (although it seems like more), I wonder how much of your unhappiness is visible in your teaching -- and how much of it is learned by your students. Because while it's true that there are unhappy workers in every profession, I doubt that any group of disgruntled workers does as much damage as a single unhappy teacher.

So my advice to the 40% of you who are disheartened and disgruntled is to get out of the profession before it's too late; before your dissatisfaction with teaching translates into your students' disatisfaction with learning. Leave the job to the 60% who bring energy and enthusiasm to their work, and a love of learning to their classrooms. Leave it to the teachers who "can because they think they can." (Virgil)

And those of you who stay...take a minute to tell us why you love teaching. We hear too often from the naysayers -- and too seldom from the majority of teachers who do what they do for the love of it.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

No Excuses!

Last week, I posted a question to the Education World Facebook page asking whether Ed World fans think U.S. kids need more time in school. Most of those who responded said "no." Apparently, very few teachers believe that lack of instructional time is the reason today's students aren't making the grade.

What is the problem then? A number of teachers -- a significant number -- blamed "the parents." Children today, they say, come to school lacking the knowledge and experience and skills and motivation of earlier generations; their parents are uninformed, uninvolved, unconcerned, and happy to pass the educational buck to their local school system -- which, it appears, is equally happy to pass it back. "How can we teach," they ask, "-- in 180 days or 240 days -- when parents are sending us students who are unprepared to learn?"

A good question, perhaps -- but a futile one. We cannot change the readiness of the students who are entering our classrooms today. We can, however, still teach them -- and hopefully, in the process, improve the readiness of future generations.

As a former classroom teacher, and as someone who will always identify as a teacher, I cringe when I hear teachers blaming their students' lack of readiness, their students' parents' lack of interest, their school administrators' lack of support...for their own failure to teach. The complaints might seem valid, but they only serve to validate the opinion of those who believe that most teachers enter the profession for the "bankers hours" and extended vacations. And, in the end, the blame game provides only a justification -- not an excuse -- for their students' lackluster academic performance.

Yes, teaching today is a different -- infinitely harder -- job than it has ever been before. Many of today's students are less prepared, less motivated, less supervised, less supported than any previous generation. In many cases, you are all they have. If you're not up to the demands of teaching as it is today, stop complaining, step aside, and leave the job to those who are. It might be your students' only chance to succeed.

Have a great week!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Zero Tolerance vs. Common Sense

In 2002, I wrote a Starr Points column called "Stop Tolerating Zero Tolerance," in which I exhorted educators to replace zero tolerance with common sense and "keep our children safe -- safe from weapons, safe from violence, and safe from zero-tolerance policies that damage more children than the weapons they purport to protect them from."

Last summer, I moved that seven-year-old column to my "Once-Upon-a-Time Commentary" archive, thinking it was a topic whose relevance had passed. Educators, I thought, had learned the lesson that zero tolerance has no place in an elementary school. I was wrong.

Yesterday's New York Times published a story about a Delaware first-grader who brought to his elementary school a treasured Cub Scout eating utensil. Apparently, he loved his new knife-fork-spoon tool so much, he wanted to eat lunch with it. For that crime, he was immediately suspended and has been "sentenced" to 45 days -- 9 long weeks -- in the district's reform school.

C'mon, Delaware. What are you thinking? That a six-year-old with a spork is equivalent to a 16-year-old with a Glock? That if you let off the six-year-old spork wielder, you have to ignore the 10-year-old with a jack knife? That you don't know where to draw the line so you draw it at a six-year-old Cub Scout? Or did you just forget that the job of educators is to teach?

Shame on you.

As educators, we know -- or we should know -- that children are not just short adults. We know that a six-year old does not have the cognitive ability of a 40-year-old (unless, apparently, that 40-year-old is a school admnistrator in Delaware), or even that of a 10-year-old. We know that a six-year-old can think logically, but have trouble with abstract concepts. We know that a six-year-old can think inductively, but not deductively. We know that six-year-olds who are encouraged and commended by parents and teachers develop a feeling of competence and confidence; and that those who are not, do not. We know that -- for better or for worse -- a six-year-old is a child, dependent on the wisdom and judgement of the adults responsible for him.

Educators are not cops. We are not prison wardens. We are not airport baggage inspectors or military generals charged simply with keeping the peace for a specific number of hours or days or months. We have a higher calling. We are teachers, charged with shaping the future; with teaching and guiding and leading by example the next generation. Do we want to teach tomorrow's adults to hide behind CYA or pass-the-buck zero tolerance laws -- or do we want to teach them to think?

If there's anyone out there -- in Delaware or elsewhere -- who doesn't have the common sense and the courage to be an educator, it's time to find another line of work.

Story Update: Last night, the Christina School Board "voted unanimously to reduce the punishment for kindergartners and first-graders who take weapons to school or commit violent offenses to a suspension ranging from three to five days." So Zachary can return to school today. One can only hope that the administrator who mandated the original punishment returns to school as well -- for some much-needed professsional development.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Bargain Shopping -- and Surfing

Teachers are always looking for quality bargains when it comes to educational resources. This week I came across a few.

Borders Books is in the last day of its annual Educator Appreciation Week. Until October 7, current and retired educators can save 30 percent on purchases for personal or classroom use. Just -- quickly -- bring your shopping list and proof of your educator status to a Borders store.

SUBWAY Restaurant is offering a free Get Fit for the Fun of It kit for educators that includes a poster, parent letter, stickers, and a teacher planner and calendar full of classroom ideas and activities -- in their words, "the tools you need to bring fitness and nutrition information into the classroom." The kit is part of the Subway Random Acts of Fitness for Kids program to fight childhood obesity.

The Best Evidence Encyclopedia is another exceptional new (to me, anyway) resource for educators at all levels. The BEE, a free Web site created by the Johns Hopkins University School of Education's Center for Data-Driven Reform in Education (CDDRE), is intended "to give educators and researchers fair and useful information about the strength of the evidence supporting a variety of programs available for students in grades K-12." Kind of a Snopes for educators, it seems. Having taught such programs as ITA, Words in Color, New Math, Finger Math, Abacus Math and open classrooms, team-teaching classrooms, self-contained classrooms, multi-aged classrooms and more...often for no other reason than that somebody thought it would work (or sell : ), all I can say is Hooray!

YES I Can! Science has opened registration for its Polar Science 2009 Project, the third in a series of projects that provide opportunities for students to collaborate via blog and webcast with other classes from around the world, and learn from biologists Dr. Shane Kanatous and Dr. Thomas Hawke. This year's project will investigate the physiology of the Weddell seal, and its amazing ability to exercise deep under water without the need to take a breath. The project, which will run from October 15 to December 3, 2009, is open to students in grades 6-12 anywhere in the world.

Digital Wish and Flip Video Spotlight Program are offering a special to help educators integrate video into the classroom. For just $150, educators can purchase two Flip Ultra™ camcorders. To access the promotion, educators should register their classrooms at Digital Wish. This deal is a favorite of mine because I own a Flip and it's super easy and lots of fun to use.

This isn't, strictly speaking, a "bargain," but it is a chance to win some money both for yourself and for your favorite school. Consumers aged 7 and older who visit The Idaho Potato Commission site between September 15, 2009, and October 31, 2009, and play the "Idaho® Potato Harvest Game" can enter a sweepstakes for a chance to win $10,000: $5,000 for the winner and $5,000 to be donated to a school selected by the winner. That's sure to come in handy on your next shopping trip : )

Have a great week!