Sunday, December 6, 2015

All I Want for Christmas

Our tree isn't up yet. My cards aren't mailed and my presents aren't wrapped.  But when I sit down this weekend to update my "to do" list, I find my mind wandering to two weeks from now--December 18, to be exact. The beginning of my two glorious weeks of Winter Break. It's not just that I won't be working--it's the brief reprieve for my whole family. No tests to study for, no homework to navigate, no after school activities to coordinate.

In addition to the visions of sugar plums dancing in my head (Kidding, why would I waste my holiday calories on a plum?) I have visions of our wonderful 16 days off and quality time spent with family and friends.

So here's my Christmas Wish List:
  1. read a good book
  2. game night
  3. visit with friends
  4. date with my handsome husband
  5. stretch my muscles at yoga
  6. watch a movie
  7. explore a museum
  8. ice skate
  9. prepare a new recipe
  10. score bargains shopping with the girls
  11. shop the farmer's market
  12. long winter hike with the dog
  13. enjoy a play
  14. try a new restaurant
  15. finish 2015 photo book
  16. celebrate Christmas with family
I confess, I'm not dreaming of a White Christmas. I'd rather save the storm for January when we can turn off the alarm, sleep in, and enjoy our snow day. This Christmas, I'm dreaming of time, and how I want to spend it with the people I love.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Be Very Afraid

Be extra kind to all the teachers you know over the next few weeks. The end of October brings something even scarier than Halloween. It's the dreaded END OF FIRST QUARTER.

We are afraid...very, very afraid.

Instead of carving pumpkins, we're carving out time to add 25 report cards to our list of things to do. Instead of trick-or-treaters, we hear parents knocking on our door for a conference. Instead of creating costumes, we're busy creating and entering first quarter data for our school ghouls, oops, I mean goals.

But unlike the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the overwhelmed feeling teachers experience at this time of year has been spotted by eye witnesses.  Look at this graph showing the phases of teacher attitudes throughout the year.

Teachers often set their sights on surviving September.  Then, October hits and we realize--ha, we were fooling ourselves--it is just as busy this month. New teachers often feel the phase of disillusionment the hardest.  They don't have the perspective of the whole year to help them remember, "This too shall pass."

Teachers, if you are feeling disillusioned, don't despair. You are not alone. Here are some tricks that have helped me ease the pain:

Focus on what you ARE getting done.  Self talk is very persuasive so if you tell yourself, "I'm overwhelmed and I don't have enough time," you will feel overwhelmed.  Instead, try saying to yourself, "I am having a productive day and making progress."  And if that doesn't work, look in a mirror like Stuart Smalley and say, "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and, doggonit, people like me."

Plan some small breaks for yourself. Listen to your favorite song, go for a walk, just step outside your classroom and breathe deep breaths. It's OK to skip dinner prep and order a pizza...wait, that's every day in my house.

Don't try to do it all. Let your family know that this is crunch time. We give tax accountants a break in April, right? Teachers need a little TLC right now. Paul knows that he's on carpool duty this week.  He is also a very excellent pb & j maker.  Flowers and Starbucks are common gifts this time of year.  You can tell he is the experienced spouse of a teacher! When you talk with your fellow teachers, don't spiral down the black hole of complaining, but support each other.

Most of all, hang in there. Thanksgiving will come.  I promise.

Stuart Smalley's famous quote

More information about phases of teacher attitudes:

Monday, August 17, 2015

Arkansas Adventure

Prologue: Tuesday--Expect the Unexpected

As much as I try to think through every last detail, I never know what will happen when I travel. This morning I was looking forward to flying to Arkansas with my friend Chrissy on a trip we've been planning for months.  However in an unexpected turn of events, Chrissy was suffering from a case of campylobacteriosis (an awful food poisoning) and Deb spontaneously agreed to be my new travel companion.

Chapter 1: Wednesday--History Lessons

Our first introduction to Little Rock Arkansas was a growling dinosaur.  As soon as we arrived, we headed straight from the airport to the William J. Clinton Presidential Center. I was surprised to be greeted by a seemingly random exhibit featuring 13 life sized animatronics. I later learned this was a temporary exhibit honoring President Clinton's work to preserve fossil-rich areas in North America. In 1996, he designated the Grand Staircase-Escalante as a National Monument. 

Besides the dinosaurs, my first trip to a presidential library was a trip down memory lane.  Clinton was president from 1993-2001 when I was in my 20's so I could really remember many of the events from the historical timeline. 
We peeked in the replica of the Oval Office, but my favorite part of this exhibit were the president's daily schedule binders.  Organized by month, I could pull any binder off the shelf to see exactly how Bill was spending his day. 

The next stop on our tour was the Central High School and Visitor's Center.  In 1957, the first African American high school students began the process of desegregation in Arkansas following the historic Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. The "Little Rock Nine" endured bullying, death threats, and even the Governor working against them. As a teacher today, this was a particularly interesting exhibit for me and it was both difficult and moving for me to learn more about their story.
From there, we stopped by the Arkansas State Capitol for a self guided tour, which included a statue of the Little Rock Nine. 
Finally, we ended up in Little Rock's River District enjoying the sculpture garden and view of the bridges.  Here, we found the official "Little Rock" for which the city is named. 
Chapter 2: Thursday-Exercising Our Options
Along with some other customers, we arrived promptly at 9:00 am to pick up our bike rentals from Billy's Bike Hike.  The store employee was not as prompt, so we chatted with other customers--two local guys--as we waited.  Our plan was to ride around the Arkansas River Trail.  This 18 mile trail crosses the Arkansas River twice--once over the Clinton Bridge and then again over the Big Dam Bridge.
I still can't believe I rode across this bridge!

 Once we crossed the bridge, we had the choice to return the way we came or to continue around, navigating some roads and construction.  Feeling confident, we forged ahead into the unknown.  And promptly got lost.  Cue those local guys, who happened to ride by and notice us standing on the other side of the highway.  They kindly helped us back to the trail and we rode together until we got to a giant fence barrier with a sign announcing, "Trail Closed." Well, apparently signs are optional in Arkansas because these guys lifted our bikes over the Jersey wall barricade and we rode right through the construction zone. Normally rule followers, Deb and I are not entirely on board with this plan.  The guys--who turned out to be a judge and a lawyer--did successfully navigate us all back to the end of the loop without anyone getting bulldozed or arrested.

Bikes safely returned, we jumped in the car to head northwest to the Ozarks.  We were in search of a scenic hike near the Buffalo River called Whitaker Point.  Heading west on the highway, we eventually turned up a windy road.  The Ozarks are not a very populated part of Arkansas, as we discovered.  We had planned to stop for gas at one of the many towns dotting the map along our route.  However, the only visible buildings as we passed through these towns were the occasional old home or post office.  Just when I was beginning to really worry, we hit Ponca.  Population 13 must be the magic number because we found a gas station and a store!

From there, we turned on a small dirt and gravel road and slowly made our way to the trailhead.  All our efforts were rewarded with a beautiful 4 mile hike and views of the valley.  If you look closely, you can see us standing on Whitaker Point--another hiker was kind enough to take our picture. 

Chapter 3: Friday--The Beauty of Arkansas
Our last day in Arkansas began with a trip to Hot Springs. There, we visited the Garvan Woodland Gardens where I learned that creatures big and small live in Arkansas. We walked over bridges and under waterfalls and fed the koi. We did not feed Sasquatch. My favorite part of the garden was Anthony Chapel.


Back in Little Rock, we completed our itinerary with the Historic Arkansas Museum and the ESSE Purse Museum.  Deb and I debated for a while about this last stop.  After all, I like a good handbag as much as the next girl but a whole museum dedicated just to purses?  Turns out the ESSE Purse museum is one of three dedicated purse museums in the world.  Who knew? 

Satisfied that we completed everything on our itinerary, we celebrated with a meal at Flying Fish, some Loblolly ice cream and a beer at Blue Canoe Brewery.  We are ready to go home!

Chapter 4: Saturday-Chicago

Well, we made it halfway home.  We flew into Chicago and learned that our connecting flight had been cancelled.  Apparently all the flights to our area were cancelled due to some kind of flypocalypse.  Deciding to make the best of an unplanned evening in Chicago, we checked into our hotel and took the L downtown, arriving at 5:00 pm.  There were so many suggestions and so little time!  We started with a walk around Millennium Park, caught an architectural boat tour, found some Chicago deep dish pizza at Giordano's and rode the elevator to the top of the Hancock building.  Not bad for one night!
The Bean

view from the water

view from the top

Watching the Cubs-White Sox game while eating Chicago pizza!
 As long as this post already is, so much is still missing.  It is impossible to write about everything that happened in five days--so you don't hear about the hotel mix-up that had us schlepping our luggage across the highway.  I left out the story of us sneaking past the line at the Hancock building to get up to the bar and take pictures without having to pay for an overpriced drink.  Many of these stories are memories now of a trip I will never forget! 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Buyer Beware

I just got home from having a massage and cried from the stress of the experience.

Normally, the luxury of the spa isn’t a part of my teaching salary budget.  So, I was pleasantly surprised and even a little excited to receive a gift card on the last day of school.  I logged onto their website and clicked on the button to find a convenient location. 


Perfect—I called to book my appointment and spoke with Danielle. I confirmed the cost of the massage to make sure my gift card would cover it and confirmed their acceptance of gift cards. 

And so, today I went in and had a lovely, relaxing massage.  Relaxing, that is, until it was time to pay.

“Oh, we don’t take gift cards,” the woman at the front desk explains.

I tried to explain right back to her that they did indeed—I even looked it up on my phone and showed her the listing, but to no avail.  I told her that she better tell and Danielle about this policy because I was getting some bum information. 

“Well, that’s suspicious that you even thought you needed to confirm that we would take that gift card,” the woman tells me.

So, I hand over my Visa and then right there in the middle of the spa, I started to cry.  I was so embarrassed!  So, I end up paying for my own massage, what’s the big deal?  Why were my eyes turning into broken faucets?

Besides the fact that teachers don’t make a boatload of money for discretionary spending, we also live in the land of teacher lingo.  We don’t “meet with coworkers,” we “collaborate with our team.”  We dialogue and discuss.  We practice the seven P’s of collaboration: Pause, Paraphrase, Probe, Put ideas on the table, Presume Positive Intentions…sometimes I feel so much like a Psychologist it makes me want to Puke. 

So when I leave my bubble of the education world and step outside into the summer sunlight, I may be a little naïve to think the rest of the world operates the way I do.  I am trustworthy, so I trust people.  I am honest, so I believe others. As a consumer, I believe the salesperson wants to help me be a satisfied customer.

So, not to sound overly dramatic (well, since you already see me sniffling in the spa reception area, let’s continue) but I think I started crying because I felt someone had taken advantage of me.  I trusted the website and the person on the phone.  And in return, I got accused of being suspicious?  I think I started crying because I “presumed positive intentions” and someone didn’t presume the same of me. I don’t want to be the cynical, distrustful consumer.  It isn’t in my nature.

This is also the second time this week that I have felt like an unprepared consumer.  Jack’s big present for his 16th birthday was a pool table—in stock, on sale, and ready for delivery!  I called this week to figure out when it was coming since I hadn’t heard from the store and they tell me “end of July.”  How can a pool table that is in stock take a month to get to my house?  The store manager checks and returns my call.

“It’s the legs,” he tells me. “The table is in stock but the legs are coming from the warehouse.”  OK, not to sound naïve again, but why would you have a pool table in stock without legs?  Is there a big market for legless pool tables?  I suggest possibly they could mail the legs instead of waiting for the truck delivery.  Heck, where is the warehouse?  Can I go pick up the legs?  Clearly, the store manager has never lived at home with a teenager.  He seems in no hurry to think outside the box and help figure out a creative solution.  What I see as “thinking outside the box,” he sees as “batty, crazy lady.”

Again, I want to assume that the store manager cares about me and wants me to be a satisfied customer.  But I’m feeling a little jaded.  Because it seems as if now that he has his money, the month-long delay in delivery is no longer his concern.

Before the end of school, teachers reviewed the results of our annual teacher survey.  There was some frustration that parents are allowed to leave anonymous comments that are sometimes downright mean and hurtful.  We are told that we need to give parents an opportunity to express their level of satisfaction. “We’re in the business of customer service,” my assistant principal explained.  Yet, my experiences this week make me wonder what customer service means anymore. 

Just when I’ve decided to adopt the new motto “Buyer Beware” and become a distrustful, cynical person, the phone rings.  It is the woman from the spa.  She’s calling to tell me she is sorry, and her plan for how to fix the situation.  So what do I do?  I burst into tears again.  This time, because her kindness and concern restores my faith in humanity.  It also makes me wonder if I should go back to the pool table store and start to sob. If being an honest, authentic person doesn’t get me what I want, maybe I’ll have more luck as a blubbering crybaby.

P.S.  Out of curiosity, I googled 7 P’s of collaboration and I found out the U.S. State Department uses them as well.  Diplomacy in action!

Sunday, May 31, 2015

My New Job

This summer, I will receive my Endorsement in Gifted Education from UVA's Curry School of Education. In the fall, I will leave my position teaching third grade in the Advanced Academic Program (AAP) to teach fifth grade in a general education classroom.

Wait, what? Why would I want to leave the gifted program when I am officially certified to teach in it? Why would I want to leave a curriculum I know and a team I love? This is my third year teaching in the AAP at my school. Over the past few semesters, as I took the graduate classes and learned the gifted strategies, I kept thinking, "These aren't strategies to teach just gifted kids--these are good teaching strategies for all kids." Although many teachers I know share this belief, not all do.

I remember one particular Back-To-School night. I am sitting in a junior high classroom trying to listen as Jack's teacher shares how he uses guided notes in class. "Every unit I give them a new packet," he explains. "The kids read the text and then fill in the key ideas. It's basically like a fill in the blank." My attention wanders to the back of the room where the desks are turned on their sides and piled up across the tile in a line. Curiosity gets the best of me so I raise my hand.

"What are all those desks for?" I ask.

"Oh, that's from my honors section," the teacher replies. "They are doing a simulation activity building World War 1 trenches."

So my son, who loves to be social and hates to sit still, is in the general education program. He gets to sit at a desk and fill out a packet while the gifted kids act out trench warfare? That didn't seem fair.

Luckily, not all of Jack's teachers are like this. In grades 3-6, Jack was enrolled in the general education program and every single teacher he had was amazing. They made learning meaningful and fun and he loved Ms. Butler, Mrs. Kight, Mr. D and Ms. Tang! More important than the curriculum, each of these teachers was able to see in Jack a smart kid with a good sense of humor and a kind heart. Each of these teachers believed in him, and in turn, Jack believed in himself.  The thought that a student’s reality can be positively or negatively influenced by the expectation of his teacher is supported by research. The Rosenthal-Jacobson study showed that if teachers expected enhanced performance from children, then the children’s performance rose—it’s sort of the Pygmalion effect in the classroom. “When we expect certain behaviors of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behavior more likely to occur,” (Rosenthal and Babad, 1985).

Unfortunately, for some, the general education program has a stigma attached to it and the expected behaviors are not ideal. As an example, another memory I have is high school information night. An English and History teacher are talking about a combined class they teach. I was enthralled as they spoke about how they work together to integrate the time period they are studying with the literature they are reading. What a great idea! "We offer this class for our Honors sections," one teacher told us.

"This sounds fascinating," I told the teacher. "Would you ever consider offering this class in the general education program?"

"No, those kids are too disruptive," she responded. (Those kids? Why does she think I am asking? Does it even occur to her that I have one of those kids?)

In some classrooms, a real disparity exists in the quality of education for “honors” and "gen ed" students. Maybe that's why I think I belong in a general education classroom. I want the chance to offer the students a quality education and for my students to know that I expect that they will succeed.  Maybe that's why I'm willing to leave my comfort zone of a great team and known curriculum to make this switch. It might sound crazy, but I feel a strong pull in my heart that this is where I'm supposed to be.

 So, in September, 5GE, here I come. We'll be learning a new curriculum together. We'll have adventures at Camp Highroad together. We'll take risks and make mistakes and learn and grow as a community together. We're going to have an amazing year and I believe in you!

Saturday, May 16, 2015

All I really need to know I learned at Ragnar

Robert Fulghum makes a strong case that all we really need to know we learned in kindergarten.  I spent last weekend on the Cape participating in my second Ragnar Relay and have come to the conclusion that this event also imparts many valuable lessons for life's journeys. So, with apologies to Mr. Fulghum, here are some of his ideas adapted for Ragnar:

Share everything, including the 192 miles you have to run to reach the finish line.
making the exchange
Play fair.  Set your goals and do your part, whether it is a "wicked hahd" 13 miler or an easy three mile jaunt down main street.
If you run 13 you get an extra medal.

Don't hit people, especially since Mike didn't get insurance on the rental vans.

Clean up your own mess when sharing your space with 6 other people.  We promised to be better about organizing our space last year.  Otherwise your van captain will NOT be happy with you.
We're so happy to return to our organized van!

Flush, or when that's not an option, be prepared and take your own supply of TP and hand sanitizer to the porta-johns.
The final exchange brings us one step closer to real bathrooms.

Be aware of wonder, which is easy to do when you have the cutest baby ever as an honorary team member.
Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you and so is warm pizza, cold beer and tons of Swedish Fish.

Take a nap every afternoon, or whenever the opportunity presents itself (such as 2:00 am curled up on the seat of your van).
No sleep for us.
Don't take things that aren't yours, especially Mike's parking spot...unless you want to be called a simpleton.

We earned these medals!
Live a balanced life--run some and laugh some and sing and talk and dance every day some. And when you are too tired to run, consider a pedicab.

When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.

It's been a week since Ragnar weekend. We've returned the vans and returned to reality. Even though physically our team is now spread across four different states, we're still a team. Even though we're apart, we can still stick together. 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Whole School Field Trip

Rule number one: stay WITH your chaperone. Rule number two: BE flexible.

I admit to being a little nervous about our whole school field trip on Friday. I mean, every student, teacher and chaperone in our school adds up to over 1,000 people setting out to hike in the woods.  The odds are, something won't go according to plan. (I think I was probably reminding myself to be flexible with rule number two!)

Our bus dropped us off in a parking lot at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts. I've been here many times--it's a great venue for a summer concert on the lawn at the Filene Center or to take the kids to a puppet show at Theatre in the Woods. All these years, I never realized it was actually 117 acres of national park land, complete with several hiking trails. 

So, here we are in the parking lot. At this point, multiple grade levels are supposed to access the trails at various starting points and different directions to help spread us all out. (Can you imagine 1,000 of us hiking together? Neither could Wolf took a while before they would return our principal's calls when we were planning the trip!) Where is third grade supposed to go? I look around in vain for the rest of my  team but my bus seems to have parked by several fifth graders. You all know I have a horrible sense of direction. I will insist I drove over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and it turns out to be the Roosevelt Bridge, which isn't even close.  Whatever, they were both presidents.  You can probably guess where this is going...I look down at the black and white copy of my map.  Why are my palms starting to sweat?  I consult with my chaperones and we decide to start on the closest trail and figure it out as we go. 

Once on the trail, I am amazed to find that some of my students have never been hiking before.  Besides getting lost, I was also anxious that it wouldn't take us anywhere near the 2 1/2 hours we had allotted to complete our three mile hike. I didn't need to worry about that at all! As soon as we left the asphalt lot and stepped onto the dirt path, these kids were transformed.

"Oh, a log!  Can we walk on it?" 
"Look, I found a flower!" 
"Check this out! There's a fungus growing here."

Thank goodness for my team of amazing chaperones. As we spread out, it was impossible for me to keep track of everyone. We stopped to look at insects, rocks, and the sandy bank of the creek. We put our hands in the cool water and squished through muddy spots with our sneakers. Sometimes we crossed over the creek on a bridge, sometimes we maneuvered across hopping from rock to rock. Occasionally, we stopped to take it all in--the vast expanse of trees letting us forget, for a little while, the suburbia just outside.

When we finally reached the field, we sat for our picnic lunch. Kids finished eating and began running around playing tag or rolling down the grassy hill. Our PE teacher brought out some balls and Frisbees and different grade levels began to mingle together in an impromptu game of soccer. Carefree and laughing, they were kids being kids. As one of my students ran by chasing down a ball, he turned to me. "I never want to leave this place," he said.

Too soon, it was time to load the busses. As we headed back to school, I looked around at my class, with grass from the hill in stuck in their hair and dirt on their shoes. "This was the best field trip ever," one sighed, resting her head against the window.

As we prepare to take our state exams, teachers across Fairfax County will spend the next few weeks reviewing curriculum standards, trying to stuff our students' heads with as much information as they can remember before the tests. I am betting we'll forget many of those facts by June.  I believe that instead we'll remember the sensation of the creek water running through our fingers, the excitement of overturning a rock and finding a millipede, the sense of accomplishment when we completed the trail (no short cuts!) and didn't get lost.  I agree with my student--it was the best field trip ever.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

To Be or Not to Be...Vegetarian?

Katherine wants to become a sort of vegetarian.  "I don't want to be a vegetarian," she tells me.  "I just don't want to eat meat."  This doesn't come as a total surprise to me...she's my child who swore off fast food years ago after reading Chew On This and hasn't set foot in a McDonalds since. 

I don't have any issues with Katherine's choice, except that I want to go about it the right way...

Being educated:  The biggest concern I hear about eating vegetarian is the lament of the loss of protein.  Is this a misconception or is it a real issue?  In lieu of becoming a registered nutritionist by Friday, I wonder if there is a good book that Katherine and I could read together so that we are both more knowledgeable on the pros or cons of avoiding meat.

Being healthy: Bagels, pasta, and chips are all easy meatless options.  I need to make sure we have some good options for breakfast, lunch and snacks. 

Being understanding:  I want to make sure I am clear on Katherine's choices and reasons.  Are eggs OK?  Fish?  Does she want to avoid meat for an ethical reason or is it a matter of taste?  Vegetarian, pescetarian, vegan? 

Being together: We eat together as a family as often as we can and this tradition remains important to me.  Lately, I've been cooking with more meat and less starchy foods.  How do I satisfy the varied desires of all the family members without spending the entire day in the kitchen?  (Well, I already fall short on that since Jack prefers a diet of pizza and Chipolte.) 

Being involved...but not too involved: I want to be supportive and helpful but I want to give Katherine space to figure this out on her own.  Maybe she would like to cook dinner once a week?  Maybe we could prep together on Sunday afternoons?   I could do nothing and let her figure it out?

 Or should I wait and see?  My fickle teenager might just be back to bacon by next week

Sunday, January 4, 2015

It's Over?

Sixteen days ago, sixteen days seemed like an endless amount of time.  Sixteen glorious days of Winter Break!  Tonight, I'm packing lunches, doing laundry and looking at a giant stack of grading.  But, as the wise Dr. Suess once said, "Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened."

So here are some things that made me smile:

Visiting with family...

Pop Pop and Grammy Carolyn
Uncle Stu and Sarah

Bobby (and Julie too...not in the picture!)


Shirley and Harold

 ...Adventures! Local trips and Kentucky-my 31st state...

Christmas Adventures

And Birthday adventures

the doorman at the Martha

heading to a play at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, VA

underground ziplining

Double Scary!

home of the Kentucky Derby

this is where it all takes place

the famous double spires
touring the Louisville Slugger factory
Kentucky Bourbon tasting

  ...and Friends.
Time to walk the dog, enjoy brunch, and celebrate the season.

Happy New Year!


I'll try to smile thinking of all the fun I had.  I'll try not to cry about returning to work tomorrow. Maybe, if I'm lucky, there's a snow day in my near future!  Happy New Year!