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.

Getting Your Child Off to a Successful First Day of School: People to Thank

Looking out my living room window at the kids and their parents waiting for the school bus, I am remembering my own first days—as a parent, and as a teacher. No one has asked, but I am prepared to say, “Thank these folks.”

  • School Staff who are also parents of young kids: Many of them left their own kids in the hands of spouses, grandparents, and neighbors so they could be there for your kids.
  • Those wonderful spouses, grandparents, and neighbors who stepped up for all working parents.
  • The Boss who said, “It’s OK to come in late. Bring in photos!
  • The municipal workers who protected my child.
  • Your school’s: aides, nurses, social workers, office staff, janitors, bus drivers, crossing guards, and those truly wonderful cafeteria ladies.
  • The school’s administrators, who got about an hour of sleep last night, if they were lucky.
  • Your school’s teachers who are experiencing “the longest day” of the school year and who will arrive home absolutely exhausted. Somebody please bring in a pizza for them. For some teachers, it may be just the reverse. For them it will be “the shortest day” because they so over-planned, and the time flew by, and they couldn’t accomplish all they planned. They should get a pizza too.
  • Here are two additional categories of teachers to thank on the first day:
    • Smiling teachers. They could be the best teacher your child ever had.
    • Non-smiling teachers: They could be the best teacher your child ever had.

Parents, you won’t know yet. Give everybody a chance!

  • Finally, anyone in the school community who “parented” any child who nervously waited on line or walked through those big doors that day. Believe me, every school has many of these wonderful people. They are the folks who supply a change of clothes for a wet child, and a comforting arm around the trembling shoulder of a frightened child. These “mama’s and “papa’s” are also the ones who make sure every child has a costume for Halloween; a warm coat, mittens and boots for the winter, and (about fifteen years later) a cap and gown, and maybe even a tux or a  dress for a high school prom.

Parent, you thought I was going to forget. Thank yourselves too! You have done a wonderful job!

This retired teacher wishes everyone a wonderful school year!

The Meaning of “Existential”: An Empirical Study of the Pragmatic Use of Big Words in English Language Arts, aka ELA.

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Students, try to use big words to sound smart.  One of my favorite big words is existential.  I can write or say stuff like, “The existential purpose of blah blah is blah blah,” and people will nod their heads in serious agreement, or squint their eyes in serious disagreement. Using words like existential in conversations makes people feel flattered that you have shared deep thoughts with them.

I do not know what “existential” means. This is a minor point.

My real concern is that there might be a list out there of “Teachers Whose Students Do Not Know the Word, Existential.” These days, you just never know!

Therefore,  all students who will be taking the College Board SAT’s ,  ACT’s,  KAT’s (Kindergarten Assessment Tests)and PNVEE Tests,  (Pre-Natal Vocabulary Enrichment Exams), please thank me in advance for giving you one of the  definitions of existential.

Courtesy of dictionary.com, one of the definitions of existential is:

  • Logic: denoting or relating to a formula or proposition asserting the existence of at least one object fulfilling a given condition: containing an existential quantifier.

Why are you cranky?

Here’s another dictionary.com definition of existential:

  • Of or related to existence, esp. human existence

I made up this sentence for you to clarify the definition of existential:

  • I eat because I am existential, and I need Rum Raisin ice cream to continue existing.

Now, my loyal readers, as an added bonus, I am going to share two new words that have always been problematic for me.  Common Core Standards expect you to use high level academic language. These two words qualify. According to dictionary.com, both of these words are synonyms for existential! Who knew?

The two new words are empirical and pragmatic.

Students, try substituting the word, empirical for the word, factual.

  • Example: If I write the word empirical in my essays instead of the word factual, my test scores may jump from a score of one to a score of five!

Now students, let’s take the word, pragmatic. Use pragmatic, students, every time you are tempted to use the word, practical. This is easy to remember because both words start with the letters, pr.

  • It was pragmatic for me to use the word, existential, because I had read many empirical essays about humans who existed.

Comments? Questions?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Retired from Teaching? Yes and No

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I stole this chalk from my elementary school  on the day I retired from teaching. That was in August of 2000.  At this time of year I like to hold my chalk, and remember.

I retired from 30 years of  teaching elementary school in August 2000.  By  October,  I was working again, part time, in elementary, middle and high schools as a literacy consultant.  I’m still doing that.

Consulting is like teaching, but without the lunch duty, hall duty, attendance taking and money collection.

Consulting teachers can get away with stuff that regular teachers can’t. Sometimes, for my own self-preservation, I put on my “old grandma hat. ” I can say to a potty mouth student, “If I were your grandma, I would wash out your mouth with soap.”

The kids laugh, and then they behave. They say, “Yes, Miss. Sorry, Miss.”

All teachers have golden academic moments with their students.  The real art of good teaching is to take those  serendipitous  moments and make them happen routinely. That’s happening. It will take time, but it’s happening.

Kids are kids.  Kindergarteners and high schoolers have the same needs.  All kids can think. I have learned that often the kids with the worst grades can think at a higher level than the rest of the gang. They just haven’t learned how to apply their high levels of thinking to school. Maybe it’s the fault of the school.  That’s why change is in the air. That’s good.

All teachers have moments of great poignancy  with their students.  Probably those are the moments that students and teachers will remember most. Many of my fourth (or was it fifth?) grade students remember how I cried when I read Bridge to Terabithia to them.

All teachers have moments of great comedy with students. The art of good teaching is to take those comedic moments and enjoy the humor. Even in semi-retirement now, as I  work with a new generation of teachers, the moments continue. The story below happened in one of my high schools last year.

A first year biology teacher was doing an experiment on enzymes.  I met with him before the lesson and suggested he probe the students’ background knowledge to set the stage for the lesson. Recalling  my days as an elementary school teacher, I suggested he  “Ask the kids what they know about yeast.” I knew many teachers in elementary school had baked bread with kids at one time or another.

The lesson began and my eager protégé, asked his high school students, “So tell me what you already know about yeast.”

Instantly, the one student who always calls out, described, in graphic detail, yeast infections and where they are found. Using the feline word for female genitalia, he was indeed proud of his contribution.

I clearly remember the “deer in the head light” look of my young teacher as the class gasped and laughed.  Up until this moment, Mr. C. had trusted me.

Stepping in, I said to the eager student, “Thank you for your contribution. Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, I may have an extra sip of wine as I share this story with my husband. Let’s try to use more academic language in the future, and now let’s move on.” The teacher continued with his wonderful lesson, and  the class moved on.

So newly retired teachers, as you move on, take time to savor your remembrances . Also, you might want to also steal a piece of chalk…if you can find one.  It may be a valuable artifact someday.

 

 

School’s Starting! Let’s Go to the Pool!

When I’m not writing about stuff, I help teachers, teach. Uh-oh! So now that part of me is out of the closet on this blog. Yikes!

Prior to admitting that I teach teachers, (I did teach kids for 30 years first) I outed myself in this blog for being:

  • a fake foodie
  • a pear-shaped clothing shopper
  • an inept cook, social media user, hiker, dieter, etc. etc. blah blah.

Then I outed myself as a gephyrophobic. That’s a fancy word for a person who is afraid of being or driving on a bridge. I prefer to use my own made-up word, Brobic.

From my background as a phobic, I was hooked by The NY Times Article, “Terror Conquered, the Water’s Fine.” Written by N. R. Kleinfield, the article’s tag was “A New Yorker Faces His Phobia, One Stroke at a Time.” It was about a 33 year old guy, Attis Clopton, who was afraid of swimming. After suffering  with his aquaphobia  for years, Attis signed up for swimming lessons.

As I read  his story, I forgot that I was originally hooked by the phobia angle. I was caught up in the methods,  an old teacher word, that teacher, Lori Pailet, used  to help Attis learn to swim and overcome his fear.

The story showed a teacher at work, a damn fine teacher. Most teachers I know are damn fine teachers too. Some of you will look at the article and say the man in this story  was “ready to learn,” and that’s why it worked. I don’t know.

I do know that we, teachers get all kinds of kids. Some of those kids are “ready to learn,” and some of them are not. Good teachers do their very best to reach them all. Hats off to Lori Pailet, and to all great teachers!

Here’s the link to the story: http://nyti.ms/1pPOPYU