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.