Crazy Teacher’s Guide to Helping Reluctant Writers

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In honor of summer vacation, Crazy Teacher, my alter ego, will be posting to this blog. Crazy’s advice for dealing with difficult people and situations is, “Show them that you are crazier than they are.”   Here is an excerpt from The Crazy Teacher’s Advice Book.

Question to Crazy Teacher

Johnny Smith, a student in my 10th Grade Global History Class, does no written work. Like many of my students Johnny is either a gang member or a wannabe gang member. He is failing the class because he hands in no work. I’ve tried to motivate him, but he just sits there when I give a writing assignment. What would Crazy Teacher do?

Crazy Teacher’s Answer

It’s time for the Crazy Teacher transformation. Blink your eyes three times and become Ms. Toady, the humble secretary. Say, “Mr. Smith, I know you are a busy man, but I would be happy to serve as your personal secretary today. Please allow me to record your thoughts for you.” Pull up a chair next to him, pull out your pad and pen, and wait.

“Huh?” Johnny will go into his this-lady-is-crazy face, but you will note how he bites his lower lip to keep from smiling.

Blink up at him rapidly and say, “All you need to do, sir, is to listen to the question and say what you are thinking. As your personal secretary, I will be happy to write down your ideas for you on my pad here.”

Johnny will smile out at his classmates, gauging their reaction.

Bend your head in a posture of great obeisance, occasionally looking up at him as you wait.  “Sir, you’re a busy man. Let me help you get these other tasks out of your way.” Lower your head and pretend not to see his sneering face and the little triumph dance he does in his seat by rocking his big shoulders back and forth, back and forth. “Now, sir, perhaps you might want to say something related to the essay question: How did the Black Death in the Middle Ages contribute to the decline of Feudalism?”

He mumbles something.

Bite your lip in concentration and write.  “OK let me repeat what you just said. Oh, my heavens!  Was that, ‘I own this bitch.’”

He will turn his hat around, recline in his seat, and make a gang hand signal over your stooped head as he thrusts his long legs out in front of him, and the class laughs.

“Sir, perhaps it might help if I started you off.” Say as you write,  “In the 1300’s the Black Death…. ,“ and then wait.

“…lead to the end of feudalism because lots of people died from the plague which was carried by rats.”

“And,” put your hand to your ear, and look up at him hopefully.

“…And there was a labor shortage because everybody was dying,”

“So?”

“…So, the feudal lords told the serfs they would give them freedom if they would do some work.”

“Thank you, Sir. It was a pleasure working for you. Have a great day!”

“You too, Miss.”

Disclaimer by Crazy Teacher Who Is Very Old

It’s all about image, and Johnny wants to maintain his as a tough guy. Often these wise guys are so insecure that they don’t want to look like they bend to anyone’s will, let alone a teacher, in a class, in front of peers.

As my alter ego, Crazy Teacher, I draw from 45 years of experience in elementary, middle and high schools, and I write about what I have lived. True, “being old” has its advantages. If you are a newbie teacher just starting out, you might want to reserve some of these strategies for those days in your career when you too will be wearing sturdy thick-soled shoes.  I believe, however, that humor and a bit of keep-‘em- off-balance if done with love and care actually does work. The kid in this tale became my best pal after this lesson because we ended our power struggle. He won and I won too!

The Crazy Teacher’s Advice Book

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In honor of summer vacation, Crazy Teacher, my alter ego, will be posting to this blog. Crazy’s advice for dealing with difficult people and situations is, “Show them that you are crazier than they are.”   Here is an excerpt from The Crazy Teacher’s Advice Book.

Question to Crazy Teacher

When two sixth graders get into a fight in a school hallway and there is no one else around, what do I do to break it up?

Answer Provided by Crazy Teacher

Blink your eyes three times, and transform into that legendary crazy teacher, able to end fights, make students laugh, and turn moody adolescents into sweet little boys—Grandma Edna Cohen!

Read on to learn Grandma Edna Cohen’s trade secrets…

“Oy! Oy! Oy! This is not good. How can you do this to me. Oy! Oy! Oy!” Edna holds her head in her hands and rocks back and forth, back and forth. She waits.

The boys stop fighting.

“Do you know where most of my friends are now?”

The boys stop fighting and look at Edna.

“My friends are in Miami Beach, in Florida.  Do you know what most of my friends are doing in Miami Beach, Florida now?” Edna waits a second or two. “They are lying on lounge chairs by a pool, drinking pina coladas.”

The IS-SHE-FOR-REAL?  look on the young boys’ faces warms Grandma Edna Cohen’s old teacher soul. “Do I look like I’m lying on a lounge chair at a pool in Miami Beach?  Do you see a pina colada in my hand?”

The boys try to maintain their fury, but alas, they fail.

“So, dahlinks, listen to me, bubalas! Be good little boys and go back to class and be nice. OK?”

“Ok.”

Application and Follow-Up by The Crazy Teacher

I excel at doing Grandma Edna Cohen, but that doesn’t mean I can’t transform myself into another character in my repertoire. Another favorite of mine is celebrity pole dancer, Lola La La La Lampert.  When Lola sizzles out “Hi boys,” her low-pitched guttural voice coming from the body of an elderly woman wearing a blousy top,  wide pants, teacher cardigan and thick soled, brown, sensible shoes is guaranteed to make perps stop whatever bad stuff they are doing. (By the way, I don’t share Lola’s pole dancer moves, I just use them in my mind to get into my character.)

If you’re a new teacher, you might want to use part of this summer vacation to develop your own repertoire of characters. If you’re a veteran, you might want to share one of your own creations.

Thank you and best wishes for a great summer!

Crazy Teacher.

My Bag

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On the last day of school, when the last child runs out of her classroom, a teacher puts her school bag on her naked desk top and surveys her quiet classroom and its overflowing trash bags and naked bulletin boards. Hearing a buzzing by the open window, she smiles as she remembers the screams of Bee! Bee! when her students were in residence. It’s quiet now as she waits for her principal to come in and sign off on her “Closing Classroom To-Do List,”

As the teacher turns her head, she can hear the cricks in her neck. She knows those cricks are from carrying her heavy school bag on her left shoulder every day from home to school. She’s been carrying this particular bag for twenty years—she’s tripped over it, lost it, found it, and caressed it on her lap on crowded subways.

Like a good teacher, a teacher’s school bag must be flexible. It must be able to mold and stretch to accommodate many sizes and shapes. Teachers don’t just carry student papers, grade books and red pens. They haul lesson materials from their kitchens, bathrooms, supermarkets  and backyards. I’m also sure that teachers have filled their school bags with warm clothing (jackets, sweaters, mittens, and hats)  for their cold kids.

At one time or another, depending on where I was in my career, my bag has held:

  • Worms
  • Boiled chicken bones
  • Pounds of poetry books. (Never did get back the one written by Tupac Shakur. Had to pay my local library for that one.)
  • Heavy sets of glorious picture books about Genghis Khan, The Civil War, and Endangered Animals
  • Colanders, strainers, metal pie plates, mixing bowls, and cupcake pans.
  • Crime scene materials
  • Rocks
  • Hundreds of empty black film canisters…can’t even find one now.

On this last day of school, our teacher’s bag is packed with stuff that she will explore for next year’s class. She wasn’t very orderly about packing it up; just threw stuff in so it would be there when she was ready for it.

She’s drained from the heat and the task of keeping her kids reasonably safe and sane during the chaos of the June clean-up, but she knows her colleagues want to go out and celebrate. So, because she’s a good sport, she’ll join them.

When she gets home she’ll put her teacher bag in her closet, she will unwind, and she will move on with her life.

If you are a teacher, what will you do with your school bag? Will you throw it in a closet and forget about it until August or maybe even the night before school starts? Will you empty it right away and fill it with vacation regalia?

If you’re retiring, will you caress your empty bag, now an artifact of the good work you did?

 

A Letter to No-Homework-Johnny from His Teacher

This letter is dedicated to students, parents, and teachers who are on the front lines of the homework battles.

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Dear Johnny,

You don’t do my homework, but I’m not going to address that now. I prefer to consider your strengths.

I want you here. We are not in a war, and if you think we are, I surrender. Please, no battles; I want YOU to win.

Let’s build on what you do well, Johnny. Here’s what I know about you:

You’re perceptive, Johnny. You can read others. Cultivate those kids who no one else will cultivate. Find their strengths and their interests. If anybody can get to them, you can. You might be surprised to learn that one of those kids can offer something special to you too.

You need a lectern, Johnny, for that powerful voice of yours. OK, so sometimes I call it your big mouth, but when I throw out questions like, “Agree or disagree?  Andrew Jackson was a friend of Native Americans,” you love to share your thoughts, and you are a born speaker.  (Please try to wait until I call on you so that other people get a chance to think too.)

  • Using academic language will make you sound even smarter, and because you are a leader, your classmates will follow your example. I’ll show you how to back up your ideas, with true evidence. The debate team awaits you, my friend.

You have a very strong moral code, Johnny, sticking up for the underdog—even if it is against the school authority.

Others may not know this, but I know that School Johnny is very different than Home Johnny. On the block, Home Johnny helps the old people carry their packages, walks his little sister to school, and sings his heart out in the church choir.

You can make the other kids in the class laugh. Yes. I know you drive us all crazy, Johnny, but the ability to make others laugh is really a gift. I’d like to celebrate that strength with you.

Please know, Johnny, that I like to laugh too, at myself and at all the crazy stuff that goes on in our class. We teachers are human too, even though we sleep in our coffins.  A little secret—often when a kid like you is giving me a hard time, I imagine him at home in his bed, wearing his pj’s (the ones with the feet), and clutching his teddy bear, Then I smile and I keep on going.

Feel free to do the same with me, even if you need to substitute my coffin for the bed.

It is not me against you, Johnny.  We’re in this together, and I want YOU to win!

Sincerely,

Your Teacher

 

 

Johnny and His Homework

 

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The Great Slump

The teacher greets them at the classroom door, “Put your homework on the left side of your desk, and get started on your “Do Now.”

Fourteen-year- old Johnny comes in and sits down. He has no homework to put on the left side of his desk, so he plays with the strap on his bookbag while his teacher walks up and down the rows.

She stands above him, and even though he pretends not to know, he can hear the scratch of her damn pen on her damn clipboard. So much for fresh starts, positive climate, and “I believe in you.”

It’s only 8:03, first period, first failure. Only six to go before he gets the hell out of here, unless he leaves after lunch.

The teacher begins the lesson with a powerful question designed to get them all talking and arguing. Johnny has much to say, but why bother? He drops his head and shoulders, leans back in his chair, and thrusts his legs in front of him. His teacher notes his body language.  It’s the familiar slump and sprawl of defeat— with its jagged edge of defiance.

She asks another question of the class, waits a while like good teachers do, and then calls on people– some of them with hands raised, some not. Clearly her question has stoked their brain fires. Then she says, “Johnny, what do you think?

No answer.

She tries it again. “Johnny?”

“Hate this school!” He pushes himself out of his chair, grabs his backpack, and slams out the classroom door. He knows he will get in trouble, a phone call, a detention, or an in-house suspension — but he doesn’t care.

Johnny knows in two years he will be sixteen, and then he will walk out the school door, and he will never have to come back.

My Thoughts

Johnny is one of many kids who don’t do homework. Many of these kids, if they could start class positively, could thrive instead of fail. In this blog, in future posts, I will describe some of these kids, both high school kids like Johnny and elementary kids who may grow up to be Johnnies.

On Facebook I came upon a viral post by a Mom, Bunmi Laditan. She writes a letter to her ten-year-old-daughter’s school declaring her home to be a “Homework- Free- Zone.” I shared the post on Facebook and wrote a quick comment. I’m sure that Bunmi Laditan and I are part of a growing movement to change the way homework is being done. Here’s the link to her post. http://twentytwowords.com/moms-viral-post-declares-her-house-a-homework-free-zone/

 

My First Principal

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Do you remember your first real job? Did you cry? I did.

I cried, often. As a first-year teacher in an elementary school in 1966, I was sure my first principal, Hurricane Grace, was going to fire me.

Trending in the world at that time was the mystery of the Bermuda Triangle, an area in the Atlantic where planes, ships and people mysteriously disappeared. Hurricane Grace was her own Bermuda Triangle, gobbling up designated probationary teachers. Tales abounded of first year teachers called to her office at 9am, being sent somewhere (We all figured Central Office.) and then disappearing, forever.

All of us quaked in Hurricane Grace’s path, and I knew my day was coming when she came into my classroom and raged about my lousy bulletin boards.  She said something like, “Your room looks like you teach in a poor school!  Where is everything? Your room is naked!” (I remember the word naked clearly.) I spent the rest of that day trying not to sob in front of my first graders.

Thank God, my dear friend Sandy, a year older and wiser stayed with me until six o’clock that night and helped me to fix up my classroom. We put out books that had been hidden in cabinets, freshened up my ugly bulletin boards, put out new erasers, chalk, charts, and manipulative materials that I had never thought to display. Sandy threw in some plants from her own classroom, and she told me that the next day I needed to get Hurricane, bring her to my classroom and show her how I was an obedient little probationary teacher.

“You’re kidding,” I said to Sandy.

“Do it,” she ordered.

The next morning, I knocked on Hurricane Grace’s closed door. “Mrs. Bartter?” I squeaked like a little girl. “I fixed up my classroom. Sandy helped me. Would you like to come in and see it? I hope it meets your approval.”

Sandy was right. Hurricane eased up after that, and I didn’t get fired.  To this day, however, if Hurricane Grace came back from the dead I would tremble in her presence.

Also, to this day, when I see a blank bulletin board in a school hallway or classroom, I feel great empathy for the sorry soul who is responsible for filling it. I’m not even going to talk about all that Common Core Standards stuff teachers today must display; that post will come later.

Did Betsy DeVos Change Her Mind?

Betsy DeVos , Trump’s new Secretary of Education visited a public school in Ohio yesterday with Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers.

Allegedly, Betsy DeVos was originally planning to visit several Brooklyn, NY public schools instead of going to Ohio. She changed her mind however when she learned of the actions of a courageous Brooklyn teacher, Saul Revere.

Saul allegedly commandeered the gym teacher’s megaphone and somebody’s unlocked bike. He then raced from public school to public school broadcasting, “The Rich Bitch is coming! The Rich Bitch is coming!”

Three cheers for Saul— one of Brooklyn’s boldest!

Good Morning, Boys and Girls!

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In early 2016, I retired from teaching and consulting after working for 45 years, thirty as an elementary school teacher, and fifteen more as an educational consultant. I posted occasionally to The Nothing Expert, but I was not focused; I wrote about Everything and Nothing.

Perhaps I was afraid to write about education.

I’m not afraid anymore.

To warm up for my new focus on education, I wrote a list of my best days in schools.  When I say best, I mean the days you relive over and over and sit there smiling to yourself as you remember your pride, your absolute wonderfulness!

Take a minute, dear Reader, and remember one of your own wonderful work days. Savor it. Pleasure in it. Ahh!

To continue my pre-writing I made another list of my worst days in schools. When I say worst I mean the days you want to bury and forget—the days when you felt alone, stupid, worthless,  humiliated—the days when you got home from work and drank too much wine, slept too many hours, thought too many terrible thoughts, and were in a funk deeper than Hell.

Take another minute, dear Reader, and force yourself to relive one of those days.

Not fun.

Now, just to relieve your pain, pull up one of your silliest days—For me, I remember the kindergarten kid who walked the halls of our school smoking an empty applicator tube from a tampon, the way Groucho Marx (some of you won’t know him) smoked his cigar. Hilarious! The kind of stuff that makes lunch in the Teachers’ Room the best reality show there is.

After making my lists, I found my mission for The Nothing Expert’s new direction. I will write about education and my mission will be to:

  • empathize, entertain, comfort, and occasionally offer an old-timer’s tip.
  • write with seriousness, humor and compassion. I will frequently reread my lists of best, worst and silliest days and remember my feelings.
  • reach you and assure you that “We all went through this, and we survived and thrived!”
  • write as honestly as I can, grateful and mindful of the hand that feeds me my pension as well as the hand that has fought for my rights.
  • connect the trends of today with the trends of when I started…so long ago.

A heads-up before we start—If you expect state-of-the-art info on technology, do not waste your time reading this blog. I miss my chalk, the smell of it, the feel of it, the potential of it.

Time and Tides

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Photo Credit: Curt Smith

As autumn is approaching, I offer you the “summer vacation” essay I wrote in 1985. In August of that year, my daughter was 15 and my son was 12.  I thought it might be interesting to others, especially parents whose kids are at any slippery age.  Here it is.

Low Tide

The day was crisp as only a California day could be. The binoculars looped around my neck and the sweatshirt tied at my shoulders reassured me of my youth and vitality.

My husband and children and I were in Point St. Lobos Nature Preserve just south of Carmel, California. We stopped there at my insistence since I’m the “off the beaten path” tour director for my family’s vacations.

We skipped and leaped our way down the slippery sea rocks to the shore. My children were far removed from their worlds of videos, box radios, and computer games as they stopped to examine an orange crab imprisoned in a tide pool.

There were plenty of other tourists around, but the haze of sunshine and shimmers of heated air isolated us from them. The wall of heat locked my family in, together.

We got down on our bellies to examine the tide pool.  My children were oblivious to all but their fascination with the crab. We wondered what other sea animals might have washed over this hole at high tide. Which creatures had escaped and drifted back out to sea on the turbulent waves? This crab was trapped, and its only release would be the next high tide.

I watched my family as the sea water trickled from the tide pool. I watched and I engraved the sight of my children and my husband; the sky, sun, and ocean in my mind. Memories are like waves. They resound around us, and we struggle to hold them just as this tide pool held on to this crab. I didn’t want this precious moment to trickle from my mind.

My family lives the suburban life. We rush from tennis lessons to Little League to computer schools. We strive to improve our bodies, our minds, our lives. My children seem to be growing up so fast. Sometimes I just want to stop the clock and take the time to savor my blessings.

As we examined the tide pool, I thought that just for this brief moment in time and space my family belonged to me. There was no phone, no meetings, no friends to pull them from my grasp. I reveled in the feeling.

It was getting late and the tide was rising. Soon the crab would probably be washed out to sea. It was time to leave. We gathered our cameras and binoculars, and we piled into the car. My children requested the hard rock music station on the car radio. I turned it on. The music resounded in my ears. 

My Blogger’s Blooper

Yikes! What did I do? I was wrong, and my friends told me so.

They were absolutely right!

Re: Yesterday’s blog piece, “Showdown at the Double Doors”

The Truth”

  • I did meet another woman at the double doors of the post office.
  • We each opened a door and waited for the other to walk through.
  • We eyeballed each other.
  • I am seventy-one.

The Lie

  • I wrote… “she was 10 to 20 years older than me.” That would make my readers believe she was eighty-one to ninety!  Big mistake, Rosie.

The Truth

  • She was probably about my age.
  • I would never, never, never be mean or rude to an eighty-one to ninety- year-old.
  • In fairness to me, when my friends chastised me for my elder abuse, they said something like, “Rose, it was so out of character for you to treat an “old” person that way.”
  • Sometimes my “creative non-fiction” exaggeration backfires on me. There was another time when I wrote that I received a $75,000 dollar advance on my book, and some of my dearest relatives believed me!

I do apologize.