Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Little Joys of Teaching Are Without Number

I've been teaching for about sixteen years now. Teaching can be a very rewarding career, but it's not often we get to hear back from a student who can specifically point out the things you taught that helped him or her. I use Facebook, and I have a lot of my former students as friends on there. Today I got a message from one that really made my day. No, my YEAR.

This student told me that in her biology class they're writing a research report, and they also did one recently in another class. The librarian had them in the computer lab and was going over search engines and research methods and ways it's okay and not okay to conduct research. My former student kept wondering why the librarian kept going on and on about things she (my student) thought everyone should know. Then she realized that her experience at Milpitas Christian School was why she already knew all this stuff. (My take on this: our staff are so consistent about making sure kids conduct honest, fair research -- and cite all those sources -- that our graduates leave our school truly ready to face these tasks in high school and beyond.)

My former student then went on to talk about how much MY class (technology) helped her and prepared her for all the work she does in high school. She told me she has classmates who don't know how to change margins in Word or even what Excel or PowerPoint are used for. When she was my student, she wondered what the point was to all the projects and assignments we made them do. But now things she takes for granted, believing everyone should know how to use them, are things she sees as having been very useful training. She thanked me profusely for what she learned from me in middle school, and she expressed how grateful she was to have all these skills to take with her into her future.

Of course it made me feel good to hear from a former student who is happy and successful in high school. But what made this especially wonderful for me is that it's pretty rare for a teacher to get such specific, enthusiastic feedback from students so soon after having them in class. Some of us teachers wait YEARS -- DECADES, even -- before we ever hear from our former students that we made a difference in their lives.

Now, this "difference" I made to this one student may not have been huge, but it reminds me that what I do here is important, has value for years to come, and is appreciated.

Like I said, it really made my day.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

"Freedom is Not Free."

I wrote this letter to the San Jose Mercury News today. I wonder if they'll print it.

Today (Thursday, August 14, 2008), I was among thousands of people who paid $8 per car to park at the County Fairgrounds and NOT get to see my husband become an American citizen. It took ages for the new citizens to actually get inside the facility, but most of the guests who had come along to watch never got to go inside. At no time did USCIS tell people attending this ceremony what to expect upon arrival. No signs, no workers from the Fairgrounds or USCIS to tell people where to go or what to do. Much of today's terribly planned disaster could have been avoided with a simple "what to expect at your naturalization ceremony" document enclosed with the directions sent to new citizens.

I am a very proud and patriotic American by birth. I was embarrassed and ashamed at how we were treated today. When ONE person from USCIS FINALLY came outside to tell people how they might let people in five or ten at a time, he was very rude to the people who had assembled. The line of thousands dispersed for the most part after being told we would not be allowed inside to witness the ceremony. It was very hot and sunny, so most people headed for whatever shade they could find. And then we proceeded to wait and wonder how long it would take before the new citizens would be done with the ceremony many of us would never see. I am truly heartbroken that after all this time, all the forms and fees, and all the waiting inherent in the immigration system, I did not get to see my husband take his oath of naturalization. We had brought my son (age 4), my step-daughter and her boyfriend, and a family friend to the ceremony. If I had known what we would have encountered I would have gone alone or perhaps just brought my son. I had been telling him for weeks about when we would go to see Daddy become an American.

It is perhaps fitting that this ceremony is held at the County Fairgrounds. We were herded and spoken to like animals, and we were assumed to have the intelligence of cattle when the ONE representative from USCIS (or the Fairgrounds?) actually did bark at us. (The people who were waiting were actually surprising calm and respectful, despite the heat, dust, and aggravation.) I have to wonder if the lack of information about what to expect was just to get $8 per car (we had to bring two cars for our group, by the way) out of people ignorant to the mess that awaited us. At least WE live in San Jose. My heart goes out to the families and friends who traveled from all over Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, San Benito, and Monterey counties today only to be charged to park and then turned away at the door.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Review of The Overachievers by Alexandra Robbins

Robbins, Alexandra. The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids. New York: Hyperion, 2006.

In this book, the author returns to her own high school (Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland) to follow nine students dealing with the competitive pressures of making the transition from high school to college. All but one of the students are juniors or seniors; the one other is a freshman at Harvard. As students prepare to go off to college, prestige is the key in their selection process. Ivy Leagues are preferred. Students (and their parents) frequently compare themselves to one another based on course loads, SAT and AP scores, GPAs and grades, and choices of colleges they’re applying to. When the parents get involved, the competitive comparison reaches epidemic proportions. The author also assigns each student she studies a nickname that is based on how that student is perceived by others around him or her.

Each chapter of The Overachievers takes us chronologically through a school year, chronicling the progress of the students while also focusing on topics that could fill entire volumes themselves, and about which many studies have been done. Robbins located and found many specialists and experts to consult for each topic. She distills each controversy or element of this overachieverism culture into what directly affects kids in this vicious trap of comparison and measuring up. These issues have a great impact on our country’s education system and the effect its having on our nation’s youth. The end of the book documents her thorough research to back up her assertions.

Here’s a quick overview of what she covers in each chapter:

In chapter one, “Meet the Overachievers,” Robbins introduces the students she followed as well as the overachiever culture that has transformed high school’s sole purpose into getting students into the most prestigious colleges and universities rather than the school that would be the best fit for each individual student.

In chapter two, “Pressure,” she describes the impact of Asian culture and expectations on Asian American students, especially where education is concerned. She also talks about how the problem of overachieving is universal across our entire country, not just in affluent areas or at well-known high schools.

Chapter three, entitled “Finding a Place,” details the impact of stress on adolescent health. We meet the world of professional college counselors whom parents hire to get their students into the colleges of choice. The emphasis is on the prestige of the university, not on the needs of the student.

Chapter four, “Numbers,” outlines the importance placed on teaching to tests, including AP exams, and how NCLB (No Child Left Behind) is changing the face of American education. In an effort to get us competing on the world stage, we’re sacrificing true education and academic integrity for a prized score. Robbins describes the epidemic of cheating in our country, including information about a 2004 incident at Saratoga High School here in our area.

Chapter five is called “Competition,” and it shows how this trend begins as early as preschool and kindergarten. There are even consultants for the process of getting kids admitted to selective schools at this young age. This chapter also covers class rank and GPA and several controversies over the titles of valedictorian and salutatorian, as well as more about how common cheating is, partly so that students can achieve high GPAs and class ranks.

In chapter six, “Perceptions,” Robbins is invited to observe the inside world of kindergarten admissions at Trinity School in New York City. In addition, there is a discussion of youth athletics and both their cause of major health issues in children and the intense competition at unhealthy levels and how it affects kids and their families.

Chapter seven is called “Left Behind.” Here we continue our inside look at Trinity’s admissions process, and then the topic turns to sleep and the adolescent. High school students go through a profound change. Their internal clocks keep them wired until at least 11:00 at night, and their bodies and brains now require 9.25 hours of sleep per night. However, high school days start at 7:00 or earlier. Some research has been done on later start times for high schools, and despite findings that this is a great success, most schools and districts will not even consider changing their schedules.

In chapter eight, “Verdicts,” the high schoolers we’ve been following start hearing back from the colleges to which they’ve applied for early decision admission. In their community, they feel judged based on where they applied and where they’re getting accepted. Robbins looks into whether a university’s prestige even matters in a student’s future success. (She cites many examples of well-known and successful CEOs and other executives who attended “ordinary” schools.) She also delves into the magazine rankings of colleges and universities. It turns out that this practice is pretty bogus and the entire process is plagued by dishonesty on the part of the competing schools. Finally, real admissions officers from Stanford and other prestigious schools share how the admissions process works, and we learn that much of what high school students kill themselves to achieve actually has little or no bearing on their acceptance.

Have you heard of “helicopter parents”? Chapter nine, “Family Matters,” brings this phenomenon to light. Helicopter parents hover around their children and swoop in to handle any crisis, no matter how big or small, causing their kids to be unable to fend for themselves when they need to. A professor and former administrator from Georgia is quoted as referring to the cell phone as “the world’s longest umbilical cord.” Parents living vicariously through their students cause the kids to not even know who they are or what they want. Eventually, the children “crash and burn” (word choice mine) and feel as though they have no value, especially if they fail to become what their parents unrealistically expect (demand) of them.

Chapter ten, “Breaks,” exposes the practice of “grade grubbing,” where students refuse to accept less than an A and will pester and cajole teachers point by point to get their grades raised on tests, projects, and report cards. It’s no surprise that this is rampant among students when schools cheat in their own ratings process by discouraging certain students from taking the SAT or by falsifying data about how their students have performed.

In chapter eleven, “Superlative,” we hear how students perceive one another, often mistakenly, and how in high school many students sacrifice exploring interests and having fun for trying to make their classes and activities fill out a perfect resume for impressing college admissions officers. Some students are actually pushed by their parents (like one young man who took 17 AP courses during high school), but others are driven by an unhealthy perfectionism within themselves.

Chapter twelve, “The Space Between,” is an eye opener. It discusses drinking, drug use, and sex among high school students.

Chapter thirteen is called “Tested.” It covers the SAT, why and how it was changed, and whether the revised version is any better at rating or evaluating students and their ability to succeed in college. We also learn about the new SAT and its essay component, which some college completely ignore. Some college and universities are eliminating their requirement for SAT or ACT scores in an effort to minimize their importance and the stress that surrounds them.

I found chapter fourteen, “Keeping Up,” a bit disturbing. It focuses on ADD and two commonly prescribed ADD medications: Ritalin and Adderall. Apparently, many non-ADD students are using other people’s prescriptions to get a competitive edge at school, especially during testing periods or finals. Even more shocking is that some parents actually push for their non-ADD children to be diagnosed so that they can get them drugs. They will shop around for a doctor and go through visit after visit until they find someone willing to prescribe. In the lives of the students, as SAT scores come out, one of the kids we’re following describes the different kinds of “score weasels” at her school – kids who spend all their time comparing and trying to find out each other’s scores. Another student reacts angrily when her mother talks to other parents about the student’s score report. This “Age of Comparison” phenomenon extends to students’ choices of schools where they apply – they are constantly asked where they’ve applied, where they’ve been accepted, and they feel as though they’re being judged.

In chapter fifteen, “Young ‘Adults’,” we see how this intense drive to succeed begins with parents of babies and toddlers, even some whose babies are still in the womb. Intense educational efforts are being made to give the youngest children an early start at becoming geniuses (and some of these in utero efforts are even being considered potentially harmful to the developing fetus). We then lament overscheduled kids and the demise of recess, despite its proven effect of impriving student wellness and achievement. We learn about the rise in suicide among children (not just high school students) due to stress. The concept of taking a “gap year” is discussed as a way to give kids a break.

Chapter sixteen, “Changes,” sees some of the student stories brought to a resolution as they seek to change certain aspects of their lives. We discover first hand the inability of overachievers to function as adults capable of making their own decisions and allowing themselves to seek happiness over “success.”

Chapter seventeen, “Back to School,” continues winding down the student stories as each individual moves on to the next year of schooling. There is a review of overachiever culture and the author suggests how we can begin to remedy the situation. So I close my review with a quote from the author, and a skeletal list of her suggestions (which she describes in more detail in the book).

“Let me be clear: This is not a call for mediocrity. It is a call for perspective. What good is a nation with the highest test scores in the world if many of its youngest citizens are so miserable they kill themselves?”

What Schools Can Do:
• Delay High School Start Times
• Drop Class Rank
• Deemphasize Testing
• Provide Less-Competitive Alternatives
• Assign – and Enforce – Coordinated Departmental Project and Test Days
• Increase Awareness
• Limit APs
• Reinstitute Recess

What Colleges Can Do:
• Boycott the Rankings
• Scrap the SAT
• Eliminate Early Decision
• Prioritize Mental Health
• Send a Message (by changing applications to reflect what the school is truly looking for)

What Counselors Can Do: Focus on the Student, Not on the Schools

What Parents Can Do:
• Limit Young Children’s Activities
• Get a Life
• Schedule Family Time
• Place Character Above Performance

What Students and Parents Can Do:
• Stop the Guilt
• Adjust the Superstar Mentality
• Carve an Individual Path
• Ignore the Peanut Gallery
• Accept That Name Does Not Reflect Ability

What Students Can Do:
• Pare Down Activities
• Take a Year Off
• Try an “Unrewarding” Activity
• Reclaim Summer
• Accept That Admissions Aren’t Personal
• Take Charge

My opinion: if you are a parent or if you work in the field of education (or if you ever plan to do either), you MUST read this book. The sooner the better.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

America's Hidden History by Kenneth C. Davis

Recently I read America's Hidden History: Untold Tales of the First Pilgrims, Fighting Women, and Forgotten Founders Who Shaped a Nation by Kenneth C. Davis. He wrote Don't Know Much About History, followed by a bunch more books in the "Don't Know Much" series. This particular book was six chapters, and I found it to be a fairly quick read. The chapters have interesting names that entice you to go deeper to find out "what the deal is" about each: Isabella's Pigs, Hannah's Escape, Washington's Confession, Warren's Toga, Arnold's Boot, and Lafayette's Sword.

These catchy titles (I just noticed there's a pattern of sorts to them) uncover true chapters from our nation's early history -- things that we never learn in the history books or in school. I personally love American history, especially Colonial and Revolution-era stuff. So this book was perfect for me. It has a slight ring of conspiracy theory, so if you enjoyed National Treasure (which had a lot of fictional stuff), you will enjoy this read (which is all fact).

My husband also read this book (he finished it before I did), and then went and started re-reading Rise to Rebellion by Jeff Shaara. Back a few years, I had bought The Glorious Cause by the same author and then picked up Rise to Rebellion as it came first. You may know Jeff Shaara for his Civil War piece Gods and Generals, which actually took over as the second in a trilogy started by his father Michael Shaara. Gods and Generals was made into a movie (which I have not seen, nor have I read any of the trilogy) that won critical acclaim and was popular with the masses.

Shaara's works are fictionalized versions of historical events, and I feel they bring these distant days to life through the eyes of those involved . . . at least how the author thinks they may have thought, spoken, and acted at the time. Whenever possible, he bases his story on what actually happened, but he fills in the dramatic in-between with dialogue as he imagines it would have been. What I like best is that he shifts the perspective with each chapter to that of a different character -- on both sides of the war. In his Revolutionary War books, we get to "be" George Washington, John Adams, Benedict Arnold, Lafayette, Cornwallis, and others. I recommend these two of Shaara's books as an entertaining telling of the real events of our country's beginnings.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Freedom is Not Free (first time)

I've been looking back through some of last year's writing and marking those posts I want to be able to find again as "memories" in LiveJournal. I found something I wrote in response to a post by one of my summer blogging group. He posted something brief asking for responses. I was the only one who responded and my response was so long that I ended up having to cut it into five responses, one after another.

It was weird to read something I had written, talking about my family and how we reacted to the September 11th attacks, when my father was alive. He died on March 27th of this year, and it was sudden and unexpected. I want to remember what I wrote, so I am copying and pasting it here:

I grew up as the child of immigrant parents who came to this country and became naturalized citizens. I can't tell you they came here to escape poverty or persecution or better basic rights. My parents are both from the UK. While it's true that they did come here and have a good, successful middle-class life, they both probably would have done okay back home too . . but then there would be no ME! (They met over here.)

My son is the child of one immigrant parent (Alec is from Glasgow, Scotland too, like my Mom) and one first-generation American. His big sister, my step-daughter, is an immigrant.

The United Kingdom (from whom we celebrated our independence last week) is also a democratic society, though it's a bit different from ours in many ways. People there do not lack in human rights; in fact, there are more social services available to an extent (think socialized medicine and better public housing in some ways).

However, my parents came HERE, to the United States. And you'll never meet another couple more patriotic than my folks. (I may have blogged some of this elsewhere, but here goes.)

The reason my father came to America was because his older sister had married an American soldier stationed near their home, and she had written home from America about life in the US. My grandparents wanted to see what it was like. So they moved, bringing their two sons with them. My Dad was their youngest. Long story short, after many moves back and forth, my Dad joined the US Air Force and became a naturalized U.S. citizen.

My mother's parents died before she reached adulthood. Her father died when she was three, her sister was two, and her brother was one. My mother remembers her father. She also remembers crying on her first day of school because she thought she would never see her mother again, like she never saw her father again. My mother was about seventeen when her mother died. They went to live with an uncle and his wife (who despised them), and became very close with their younger cousins. They had a pretty poor life, though.

When my mother was old enough, she became legal guardian for her sister and brother. They moved from one condemned apartment building to another, occupying perfectly good apartments until the buildings were scheduled for demolition. (This was apparently not all that uncommon in the Gorbals in Glasgow at the time. There's nothing left of my mother's childhood neighborhood now.) My mother's friend talked her into trying America. They came as au pairs, I guess you could say.

My mother didn't like the first family she was assigned to. Her assignment was changed. That wasn't going so well either. She and her friend ended up living at the YWCA in Passaic, NJ. She was still there, considering a trip back home -- perhaps for good -- when she met my father on a double date.

The other couple never hit it off. My parents are coming up on fifty years of marriage (November 1, 2008).

They vote in every election. They support local organizations, such as the volunteer fire department (of which my brother is a firefighter, and for which my mother is a member of the Ladies' Auxiliary). Mom is active in church groups, local women's groups, and she held an office in the local regional high school board of education. She also worked, for a time, as the Social Security officer for my small hometown. She only has the equivalent of a high school education. She has mostly worked in stores and small restaurants. But my Mom is for sure one of the biggest heroes in my life.

My Dad isn't as active socially or politically, but he drives up to my sister's house, a half hour or so away, every school day, and he takes her three girls to their three different schools, and then he picks them up at the end of each day. He is very friendly with the crossing guard outside the elementary school. He has talked a few other grandparents there through the changes in MediCare. He has taken a fellow kid-picker-upper for a doctor's appointment when she could not get there herself.

During the summer, my Mom and Dad are at my sister's house about three days a week, I would say. They watch the kids and get them to lessons or to the town swimming hole, or out for lunch, or to a friend's house. I sometimes envy my sister for having them so close . . . but then, it was my decision to move to California from New Jersey.

What does this have to do with the 4th of July? Before September 11, 2001, I so often saw Americans, often second- or third- or later generation Americans, completely disregarding the importance of our freedom and of our way of life here. It was only when that was threatened by terrorists that many people began to proudly display American flags instead of just watching on the news as people in faraway lands burned them.

When September 11th happened, I was in bed. I had not turned on the news before leaving for work, so as I drove the eleven miles across San Jose and turned on the radio, I found out for the first time what had happened. A mere eight miles from my parents' home. My brother, the fireman . . . where was he? Would he be sent into Manhattan to help? My parents, my sister, my nieces, were they all right? They go into New York to see shows or for a special dance class, I think. My sister's next-door neighbor was running late and stuck in a cab on her way to a meeting at the World Trade Center.

My sister was in court in Paterson, NJ. From a hallway outside a courtroom, they could see smoke at the Twin Towers. It was not so long ago that there had been a fire there (the first terrorist attempt), so they thought maybe something like that had happened. Later, after entering the courtroom, they were told a plane had hit the WTC. Everyone assumed it was a horrible, tragic accident. A few minutes later, it was announced that the second plane had hit the other tower.

There was that moment, she said, when everyone knew.

Immediately, as this was a county courthouse, they were evacuated. ALL government buildings in the region were similarly cleared of all occupants.

My sister knew people who worked in the Towers. Her daughters' softball coach. My parents and brother knew someone. A fellow volunteer fireman in our hometown. A guy who had graduated from my high school. He was in the Navy, and he died at the Pentagon.

It's amazing, given where I am from, that I didn't personally know more people who died that day in those attacks.

My husband and I had just been back home in August of 2001, for a friend's wedding. The next time I went home, flying into Newark Airport . . . I always used to find the towers, then scan with my eye into the harbor and find Lady Liberty . . . the skyline was left with a gaping emptiness. Of course, I cried as we landed. I had, after all, grown up being able to see the skyline from the street in front of my house.

So I guess what the 4th of July means to me is that we have something in this country so powerful . . . so amazing and brilliant and worthy . . . that people who fear freedom are willing to kill and die over it. To wipe it from our planet. Perhaps they fear that human nature can't handle the freedoms we have.

The first fireworks I saw after the terrorist attacks made me jump and quiver. And not in a good way. I have since gotten over that, and I reflect instead on the Battle of Trenton, which took place in my home state, and which was the turning point in the War for our Independence. (Of course, my family was still British then, so I should say the War for YOUR Independence.)

I reflect on the sacrifices being made every day by American men and women . . . and now the most recent attacks in my OTHER homeland. My mother, husband, and step-daughter are all from Glasgow. I can't tell you the number of times I have gone in and out of that airport. My father is from Northern England, currently a bit of a hotbed of home-grown terrorism in places.

Is all this simply so that I, as an American woman, can be educated? Work outside the home? Have an opinion? Wear what I choose? Show my legs and arms? Those things I take for granted . . . freedoms. They're not free.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

What about the child's RIGHT behind?

Let me start off by saying that I work in a private school. We don't have buckets of money lying around, and my salary is less than that of many public school teachers with less experience than I have.

But what we DO have, that many public schools do not, are quite a few things.

1. Our students typically don't come to school hungry. Their parents have the time, energy, and funding to make sure their kids are dressed properly and appropriately and well-nourished.

2. Our parents are employed, typically in well-paying jobs. In some families, only one parent works, making big bucks while the other stays home to tend house and make sure the kids have all the attention and supervision they require. Some families have two highly-paid parents or two working parents whose combined incomes make the family's life comfortable enough to afford private school tuition.

3. Our parents, for the most part, are involved. They have clearly communicated to their children that education is top priority, and they walk their talk by attending school functions, taking the time to find out what their kids are learning, helping with homework, and maintaining good communication with teachers. Our parents have e-mail, with access at both home and work, so they can reach teachers almost instantly. This is the case in most of our families. Some parents are TOO involved, which leads to other issues, but we've learned to manage that.

4. Because it is a Christian school, although many of our families are not churched or belong to other religions (Buddhism and Hinduism are big ones here), we have the luxury of teaching our students values education in a single, unabashed framework of the Christian faith. That means they get the same message throughout the school, and we, as staff, can back one another up. I know that most teachers impart values to their students, and most schools have a central values framework, but ours comes from outside our school (the Bible) and is one we can all adhere to because of our faith beliefs. We can tell kids that something is wrong because the Bible says so, not because of one teacher's or administrator's personal preference.

(Not everyone has to agree that this is a good thing, but it works well for us in our school.)

5. Most important to me, when I consider what my public school colleagues face, is that we DON'T have to bow down to the Almighty test score. We are not bound by NCLB, API ratings, or the results on our annual standardized tests. Our students do very well on tests, by the way, but I think that has more to do with my above-stated reasons than anything else. As teachers, we can do our jobs without having to worry about all the other things our public school counterparts face every day. That's not to say our kids don't have problems and issues. Theirs just aren't issues of day-to-day survival or safety.

What we've discovered is that test scores don't tell you much more than how that group of kids was doing with that information or skill set on that particular testing day. Teach to the test all you want; we know the kids aren't really learning anything useful (except how to play the system) when we do that. If the government (which is made up of individuals who live in nice areas and/or send their kids to private schools) could be more patient and await results, maybe public schools all over our country would have a better chance of succeeding where it really counts. Kids could work collaboratively on projects that would give them the 21st Century Skills most of our "ruling class" doesn't even know exist.

I am so tired of the hypocrisy inherent in big government, full of wealthy white guys and out-of-touch old folks, telling professional educators how kids learn and how we measure the quality of that learning. Maybe they would see us more as the professionals we are if our salary were commensurate with our responsibilities.

But that's another rant for another day.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Skills/attributes necessary for outstanding teachers

Today, Steve Dembo blogged about how people arrive at his blog by searching for an answer to the question “Describe the skills or attributes you believe are necessary to be an outstanding teacher.”

Within today's entry, he linked back to when he initially discovered this phenomenon, and how he felt these potential teachers were only cheating themselves by looking for someone else's answers to use.

From there, you can get back to his "Writing When It Counts" entry from April of 2005, when he first wrestled with the short-essay question himself.

I found the entire process fascinating, and (I admit) I am kind of wondering what Steve wrote in his response to the application question back some three years ago.

I agree totally with his assessment that each teacher needs to write his or her own response, from the heart, and not take what someone else wrote as their own. But, of course, if someone does find something inspiring from another educator, it would be only fair to cite that person's original writing. I know that when my students ask me a question to which I don't know the answer, I tell them, "I don't know that right now, but I know where we can go look to find out." Isn't that really what teaching, and indeed parenting, is all about?

Teaching prepared me immeasurably for becoming a parent. I feel the single most important attribute a teacher can have is respect, and along with that inevitably comes honesty. The funny thing is, these are the qualities by which I try to guide my entire life, not just my career as an educator or the choices I make as a parent. When we respect others, we are, above all, honest with them. We must force ourselves to be humble, even when we know that we're right about something and the other person is wrong. Students know instantly whether or not we have respect for them. But it's also a good idea to have a conversation about respect, what it means, and what it looks like, with each group of students with whom we interact.

Kids also know when we're flying by the seats of our pants. If we make it fun enough -- a sort of adventure we're on together -- they don't seem to mind as much. But if we have enough respect for them to be honest about the fact that we're discovering something together, they will feel that we genuinely care about them enough to admit that . . . "You know what, kids? Adults don't always know everything, and it's better you learn that now before you become one of us and expect too much of yourself too soon!"

Of the adults reading this, I ask: Can you remember a time that, in your role as a responsible adult (teacher, parent, etc.), you simply did not know what to do? I sure can. The key to being grown-up (other than being taller than my four year old son) is knowing that you don't know everything.

So, what if I had to answer that short-essay question right now? (Although I feel I must point out that it's not really a question but rather a command -- imperative sentence.) Would I talk about respect, honesty, and humility? Knowing me, I would probably quote the end of my favorite Robert Frost poem ("The Road Not Taken") and talk about how I have had a mini-poster of that posted in every place in which I have taught since I began my career sixteen years ago. I'm a bit of a weirdo in most settings. I have my summer hair, my funny t-shirts, my tattoo (soon to be tattoos), and I don't wear makeup or dresses. How would this serve to answer the question?

Respect starts with self. How can I respect others if I do not honor and respect myself? If I require respect from those around me, modeling respect in how I treat others, it's a win-win situation, right? I guess I have just learned to try to live by the Golden Rule and not be too hard on myself when I don't get it right. Being an outstanding teacher really comes down to learning who you are as a person, maximizing your ability to teach others using the traits you have always had, and always striving to grow in your ability to be comfortable being yourself for a living.

Almost sounds easy. Ha.

Thursday, January 24, 2008


Earlier this school year, I applied on behalf of a group of us for a National Semiconductor Science in Action grant. As a group, we could apply for a $5000 grant. I got our three 5th grade teachers and the 6th grade teacher who covers science and math to be in the group with me. Yesterday, at a staff meeting after school, we found out (quite by surprise) that our proposal was approved to receive a grant!

Our project is like a dream come true for me. I teach computer technology to grades one through eight at a private school here in San Jose. Students come to our class once a week (or twice a week in middle school) to learn computer skills. Last year and this year, since I have come into this particular position, we have really tried to push for true technology integration into the curriculum our classroom teachers are already covering. We have had some success, especially this school year, in meeting their standards while also accomplishing our own goals, which generally involve Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Publisher, in addition to online research skills, e-mail (in grades three through eight), and information literacy (citing sources of information and images). This year we have also been using Google Earth.

Another new addition to this year's program has been geocaching. We've had 4th graders answer questions about California Indians, and we've had 5th graders make decisions on behalf of the main character of the novel Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. This was done through an on-campus geocaching activity during our class time. I'm also going to have a mini-course (like a non-graded elective class) for middle school students during our third trimester. But I have long wanted to combine true scientific investigation, data entry and graphing, and this hobby of mine (that would be the geocaching) into a truly engaging activity for our older elementary and middle school students. Enter the grant project.

What we're going to do is set up real geocache containers, which would be hidden and published on the leading geocaching website, and have them be data collection sites for weather and water quality testing. I'll get some thermometer/hygrometers, mini cloud charts, and notebooks for recording temperature, humidity, cloud cover, and general weather for the 5th grade geocaches. I'll have water testing strips and notebooks in the 6th grade geocaches, which we will hide along creeks in our area. When people find the hidden containers, they will be directed to take readings and record them both in writing in the logbooks, and also on the website when they log their finds. (I am going to have take-away sheets so they can write down their notes to refer to later when they go online.)

We will monitor the geocaches and keep track of the data we collect. I am also really happy I live in the Bay Area, as there is a fantastic geocaching community here, and I know people will be eager to help out by visiting the geocaches and participating in the data collection. I just shared the news with them last night, and I have already gotten some messages with suggestions about possible hide locations and contacts with area volunteers who work with the creek managers and city officials.

Best of all, I know the students will be very enthusiastic to have this real data, gathered in real time, to track and graph (in our technology class, of course) in Excel and Chart Wizard.

I have my sinister ulterior motives too. Maybe kids will find out that the creeks become littered often and they will want to organize creek clean-ups. Maybe they and their family members will discover geocaching as a fun activity to do as a family, and they will learn more about the natural wonders in our own backyards and neighborhood parks. Maybe the kids will become even more environmentally aware and take a proactive role in rescuing our planet from the brink of destruction. I am so sneaky.

This is an exciting development for me and my colleagues. We are excited about how this project will take shape over the coming years. Watch this space for updates . . . almost semi-sorta-regularly.