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A Brief Introduction

Welcome to my website!

I’ve had an online presence for quite a while now (I think my first blog post was around 2005) and I’ve moved my site from place to place a few times over the years.  My latest blog was at http://www.yetthereismethod.net/ and before that I was at http://www.yetthereismethod.wordpress.com.  The WordPress site was my primary site for most of my online years, and served, for the most part, as a place to stash my teaching thoughts, resources, and materials.

This blog, though, is going to be a place to share my writing about what’s going on around me.  Most of it is written in a “Slice of Life” format (especially titles that include “SOLSC”), but this blog might include commentary (not a lot) and a bit of poetry.  A few pictures now and then.  Maybe the odd video link.  It’s hard to tell.  That said, thank you for being here!

Ch Ch Ch Ch Changes

I’m writing this on an Apple MacBook Air.  I’ve never been an Apple person (honestly, because during the early years I couldn’t afford to go that route and I became comfortable with the other mainstream alternatives), but here I am, stumbling through “command” instead of “control” shortcuts and wondering why the red X to close a window is on the left side of the screen instead of the right.  Why am I on a Mac?  Because “the district” gave me one to use, so I’m learning it through hands-on practice.  Why did the district give me one?  Because I’ve got a new position and I need a laptop to work as I move from school to school.  

Wait a minute.  I’ve got a new position?  I thought I was a third grade teacher!

You’ve heard it said, I’m sure, that one should never pray for patience.  Patience will come, it’s said, but only through experiencing more trials than any person should have to endure.  The last month or so has been like that for me, but instead of patience I’ve gained the ability to handle change.  Change.  

Okay, I’m gaining the ability to handle change.  I’m not quite there, yet, but I’m getting closer.

I’ve taught third grade (before I go any further, I really prefer to say I teach students who are in the third grade, but that sort of gets awkward to both write and read after a while) for 11 years.  It’s all I’ve ever taught, and I fully intended to do so until I retired in another 100 years or so.  As the last school year came to an end, though, two of my co-teachers found themselves making a change within the school.  One was happy with her change, and the other wasn’t, but as I tried to encourage them I found myself thinking that maybe I could also break out of my comfort zone if the opportunity arose.

And then it did.

A STEM coach position within the district was posted.  I applied.  I interviewed.  And just like that, I’m writing on a MacBook instead of my Chromebook.  This is only a temporary position, and I plan to go back into the classroom in a few years, but for now it’s what I do.

Change.  It’s new, but I can do this.  I’m not, by the way, praying for patience.  I’ve got enough going on, thank you very much.

Show Biz

I’ve learned a few things over the last few days.  Way up on the list of things I’ll remember?  If someone asks whether or not you can catch a bicycle, they’re almost certainly going to throw one at you.  Without looking.  More than once, in fact, until it’s done perfectly.  I’ve also learned shooting video in a green screen environment is fun, and that I want to do it again!

Early Saturday morning I found myself on the set for the shooting of a new Steve Trash science video, this one covering the water cycle.  Steve (whose non-stage name is Richerson) is a world-traveling “illusionist, eco-entertainer, kid comedian, and environmental educator,” as his website reads.  He’s world traveling, but his roots are in north Alabama, as is his love for teaching others about the environment.  Hence the early-morning video shoot at a small studio in the city of Florence, Alabama.

The video opens with a question: “The water cycle: What is it?”  Before he gives the correct answer, the sight gag involves three wrong answers: A tiny bicycle, a unicycle, and a popsicle.  It was decided the first two of those three things would come to him through the air (not so much with the popsicle).  That’s where I got to help.

After a few quick run-throughs, we were ready to go.  

Andrew, the assistant director, stepped to the front of the stage, filling the screen of the video monitor.  After looking to see if everyone was ready, he started the litany I’d hear over and over throughout the morning.

“Sound?”  

And Damien, the sound engineer, replied with, “Rolling.”

“Camera?”

And Danny, the videographer, replied with, “Rolling.”

“Steve Trash, Water Cycle, scene 1 take 1.”  Then Andrew did that cool thing with the clapboard–Just Like In The Movies!

Morgan, the studio manager, read through Steve’s lines one last time before he went into character and performed them.  Andrew, having put down the clapboard, picked up the tiny bicycle as Steve started.

“The water cycle: What is it?” Steve asked.

As Steve was saying “what,” Andrew was in his backswing with the tiny bicycle in order to get the timing right. Without looking, Steve’s arms came up and to the left to catch the prop that had just been thrown to him.  

With just the right amount of exasperation, Steve said, “That’s not the water cycle, that’s a tiny bicycle!”

And then he threw it off camera to his right, into my waiting arms.  I passed it down to another volunteer, JB, and quickly prepared to catch the next wrong answer.

With just-right comedic timing, Andrew lobbed in a full-sized unicycle–that’s right, a unicycle.

“That’s not the water cycle, that’s a unicycle!”

And then Steve threw it off camera at me, er, I mean, to me.

Okay, just a few quick observations: First of all, those tiny bicycles–you know, the kind that you see clowns riding, their knees up beside their cheeks–are heavy!  I mean, 20 or 25 pounds heavy.  I think my full-sized bicycle is lighter than those things.  Second, bicycles and unicycles have parts that move when they’re thrown.  Andrew’s job was to throw them in a manner that minimized the chance of Steve catching an errant pedal the wrong way, Steve’s job was to catch them while appearing not to look in their direction, and my job was to catch them after he threw them without looking at either them or me before he tossed.  My final observation: it was a lot of fun, and I’d do it again at the drop of a magician’s hat.

My job done, the scene continued as Andrew slowly handed a popsicle to Steve, with only his arm visible to the camera.

“That’s not the water cycle, that’s a popsicle!”  As the popsicle (not thrown to me this time) slowly moved back off camera, it paused expectantly.  “Okay, okay, you can eat it,” Steve told his off-camera assistant.

His face and eyes turning back to the camera, Steve paused for a moment to facilitate later editing.

“Cut!”

With that last word from Steve (wearing his director’s hat which still looked exactly like a steampunk top hat), the scene was over.  One scene down, leaving somewhere around 60 to go!

Being involved with this project, even in a small way, was a lot of fun.  Steve’s efforts for the environment are multifaceted, but all are geared toward helping people build an awareness of their personal impact on our natural world–the only one we’ve got.  As a teacher, I want to dig into my own bag of tricks to help my students develop that same awareness.  That said, the bicycle was fine, but I hope his next video doesn’t involve one of those cannons…

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Note: Within the next few weeks you’ll be able to watch this video along with Steve’s others at http://stevetrash.com/classroomvideos

 

Training for a Worst-Case Scenario

 

Strangely enough, despite its relatively light weight, I found a degree of assurance as I released and reattached the Velcro strap snugging the body armor close to my torso.  With that last adjustment behind me, I turned my attention to the Glock pistol I held in my right hand, checking to make sure the slide was all the way forward, a round secure within the chamber.  Confident in my equipment, I looked toward my partner, Robert, at the same time he looked back at me.  

With a nod, we began moving silently and deliberately down the hallway of Gulf Shores High School, moving toward the gunfire and shouting that had echoed off the now silent lockers just seconds before.  Responding to an active shooter required movement to contact, ignoring one’s desire to find cover and concealment. Responding to an active shooter wasn’t something I planned on when I accepted a position as a teacher of third-graders some eleven years earlier.

But here I was, my pistol pointing toward the direction from which we came, my eyes scanning for the threat I knew stalked those halls.  My right hand securely held my weapon, and my left hand rested on my partner’s back as I allowed his eyes and ears to guide us forward past the blue lockers illuminated by the seemingly-inadequate fluorescent light.  His confidence was enough, and I was determined not to let him down as I covered his six o’clock.

Unchallenged to this point, we turned left and found the result of the mayhem we so recently heard.  A student sprawled across the floor, his eyes and voice pleading for help as we came around the corner.  Blood oozed from an apparent gunshot wound to his right leg, and he clawed at my partner as we came within reach.  Despite the urge to do otherwise, we did our best to ignore him, brushing him away as our eyes continued to scan for the threat we knew was well within the effective range of our weapons, knowing we were within range of it as well.

“Open door to the left,” Robert barked, and with a last glance to the rear I prepared to follow him into the room.  We smoothly entered what was apparently a storage room, his body following his weapon in and to the right as I went in after him, swinging my own weapon up and to the left.  

“The room’s clear,” we called out almost simultaneously.  Given the opportunity to attend to the victim lying on the floor, I sent my gaze past the sights of my weapon and back into the hallway, scanning left and right while my partner dragged the student into the empty classroom. Forced by the situation to be content with this small action on behalf of the victim, we headed back out into the hallway.  

“Open door to the left,” I heard, and once again we swept into a classroom.  As with the last, this room was devoid of human threat. As we prepared to move back into the hallway, our individual positions put me in the front of our two-man team.  As he had before, I felt my partner’s hand as it rested on my upper back. As he had before, I moved forward without the need to worry about an undetected threat from the rear.  Flashing lights, similar to those seen from a fire alarm, added to the sensory load we were experiencing, and we could hear shouting just ahead of us.

With my left shoulder dragging along the wall, I moved toward a blue tarp that hung inexplicably across the hallway ahead of us.  Suddenly, the threat burst through the tarp, and time seemed to stand still as my mind struggled to process what I was seeing.  I was aware of a figure dressed in black, a mask covering his face and his hands clutching what appeared to be an assault rifle.

In retrospect, I am given pause by how I reacted through  instinct and training.  My index finger moved without thought from its position along the side of my weapon and onto the trigger.  Within what seemed less than a second I pulled the trigger three times at nearly the same time my partner did so with his own weapon.  We watched the target drop to the ground, continuing to move toward us as he fell.

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And then the corporal’s whistle blew, letting us know this part of the scenario was over.

“Put your weapons on the ground,” we heard.  “Move into the classroom ahead of you!”  With her shouts echoing in our ears, we placed our pistols on the ground and moved quickly through an open door, leaving the shooter on the floor behind us.

“Pick up the keys and lock those doors!”  Totally disoriented by the 120 seconds of chaos we had just experienced, we were now tasked with placing a key in the lock of a door knob mounted to a stand in the middle of the room.  Earlier in the day I had learned about the effect stress has on fine motor skills, and now I was faced with that reality first-hand.  Picking up a set of keys from the floor, I fumbled with the effort, finally placing the remarkably tiny piece of metal into the hole and, after another several seconds, turning the lock and ending the exercise.

“Good job–take off your masks,” the corporal ordered.  

And just like that, we were done.

Every day, in schools across the country there are law enforcement officers who serve alongside teachers and administrators.  School Resource Officers–SROs–are there to protect and establish a positive relationship with young people as well as those who seek to educate.  I’ve recently had the privilege of attending the annual conference of The Alabama Association of School Resource Officers (TAASRO).  This narrative reflects (as best as I can remember it–things got a little crazy) my experience with TAASRO’s active shooter familiarization experience for educators.

UPDATE: I’ve had a few questions about why law enforcement is training teachers to respond to active shooters.  They’re not–not even close.  This was simply an exercise designed to help us as educators know what was going on outside of our locked doors.  I am appreciative for the opportunity.  Also, this is a personal narrative–a story.  It doesn’t include anything that didn’t happen, but it also doesn’t delve too deeply into all of the coaching and direction that we received during the exercise.  In simple terms: wow, did we screw up…but we learned along the way.  Thanks again, TAASRO!

Dirt Under Our Fingernails

A post hole digger isn’t a tool that’s used every day by most folks, and, as such, it is typically used with one of the appropriate adverbs: strenuously, arduously, and laboriously are all commonly associated with that particular implement of excavation. With my wife and me, though, “spontaneously” can be added to the list.  

It almost always starts with a book, in this case Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots: Gardening Together with Children by Sharon Lovejoy.  Books lead to ideas, ideas lead to pondering, pondering leads to discussion, discussion leads to a decision, a decision leads to a trip to the home improvement store, and that trip leads to a post hole digger.  Now, my wife isn’t one to shirk away from work (on the contrary), but my greater size usually means I get to do the digging.  And I love it.

We’ve always gardened, with varying degrees of success.  Houseplants really aren’t our thing, but we consider our yard space to be an extension of our living space. Our style is “eclectic,” which means a little of this, a little of that, and someday we hope to tie it all together.  We’ve got our chickens and their coop, we’ve got a few blueberry bushes and pecan trees, and we’ve got a lot of shade because of the trees we’ve planted over the years.  We’ve got a nice side porch and a growing number of places to sit in the yard.  And, as of a few years ago, we’ve got grandchildren. Grandchildren in whom we hope to foster a love of the outdoors and all things natural.  Thus, the post hole digger.  

Gardening with chickens requires a fence, either to keep them in or out, depending on the situation and one’s perspective.  So yesterday, racing against the oncoming rain, we started the fence that will soon surround a garden of dreams (My wife, Lisa, walked around yesterday singing the Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams”).  Dreams of ours, and, we hope, dreams of those little kidlets, as my daughter calls them.  A garden with sunflowers to sit amongst, a garden with pumpkins to watch and measure as they swell, a garden with flowers turning their faces toward the Alabama sun.  A place in which we can plant hopes for the future.  A place where, with a nod to Wendell Berry, we can know the peace of both the wild and the cultivated.

All that said, my coffee cup is empty, so it’s time to get back out there.  I give thanks for the opportunity.

Thinking

Thank you, Betsy Hubbard, for these words in your post announcing this week’s Slice of Life: “There is always something in our mind or on our heart that we can write about.”  This slice is just that: What’s in my mind and heart this day.

When I stop to think about it, the best example of personal growth I’ve seen since committing to writing on a regular basis is my ability to recognize the stories that go on around me all the time.  They’re everywhere, which, I suppose, is the whole idea behind the “Slice of Life” story challenge.  We live it–now we need to write about it and share our stories.

This week has been no exception.  I’ve experienced big stories that practically write themselves: Exploring wood firing kilns with my artist friend, taking my granddaughters (a wealth of stories, they are) to see the dinosaur exhibit at the local botanical garden, and surviving as a bachelor with my wife out of town are all worthy of writing about.  I’ve experienced countless small stories: Helping a friend through a minor crisis, purchasing a trailer through Facebook messenger, and any number of student stories all come to mind.  Okay, buying the trailer sight unseen might be a big story.

None of those, though, are resonating with me this week.  I wish they were…really, I do.  My mind, it seems, is spinning and I can’t get it to slow down (now that I think about it, wrapping up a school year might have something to do with this…).

As I go on, this isn’t a political post, though it has been inspired through the events of the last week.  Please don’t read too deeply, looking for a position on my part.  This isn’t the place for me to share that sort of thing.

I remember when I was a young junior in college.  Young, as in my late thirties (teaching is a second career).  I was floored by being introduced to the concept of critical thinking and critical literacy.  The ideas weren’t new, and I believed I’d always tried to practice both of them (don’t we all?); what was amazing to me is that they were actually things–things that some people did, things that some people didn’t do, and things that needed to be taught.  Objectivity, people, objectivity.

In the nearly 15 years since I’ve had this awareness, I’m regularly blown away by just how difficult it is for most people I encounter (me included, I’m sure) to think and consume information critically.  It’s hard to be objective; it’s hard to see the other side of any story; it’s hard to be empathetic when an opposing view is in your face.

Read the news lately?

Like many teachers, questions are a huge part of my life.  My two favorites, I tell my students, are “Why?”  and “So what?”  I regularly marry those questions with words that gain more and more importance as I continue to grow older.  Attributed to Mary Lou Kownacki and brought to me by Fred (Mr.) Rogers, they are, “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve heard their story.”

As much as possible, I let those questions and words shape how I see the world around me, how I think and consume information critically.  They help me to stop and understand “the other side.”

May we stop.  May we think.  May we love.  Let it start anew with me.

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Note: Since posting this, I had someone ask me what I was talking about when I mentioned the Slice of Life Story Challenge.  Here’s a link so you can check it out: https://twowritingteachers.org/challenges/

Reading the Stories the Land Has to Tell

As the rain slowed to a gentle mist and the last bit of daylight faded from the north Alabama sky, a river otter stood next to a small pool of water just off a tributary of Limestone Creek.  Confident in its apparent solitude, it dropped into the water and quickly swam to the other side, its powerful tail allowing it to cross in just seconds.  Recognizing the easiest path available, it left the water and stepped onto the smooth mud of a beaver slide that was worn between the pool and the nearby creek.

Not quite running, it moved at a quick pace with a sense of self assurance.  It slowed and ducked slightly as it passed beneath a low-lying branch, its right front paw crushing a tiny plant into the soft mud as it did so.  Having cleared that small obstacle, the otter moved quickly once again up the slight incline of the slide before flowing gracefully into the dark, cool waters of the creek.  It disappeared with hardly a ripple as it went on its way, watching for predators as it sought prey of its own.

That’s what the story says, anyway.  The story written in the mud of that particular beaver slide.

I was recently able to spend a morning learning basic tracking skills from Nick Sharp, a friend who’s a wildlife biologist with Alabama’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.  He and I both serve on the Land Trust of North Alabama’s environmental education committee, and we were spending time together preparing for an upcoming children’s workshop.  He’s the expert on tracking, and I’ve got a bit of experience translating adult-level material down for an elementary-aged audience.   

I’ve always enjoyed being outdoors and know a thing or two about temperate hardwood forests, but this was a new and eye-opening experience for me as I’m now able to see things I couldn’t see before.

We started our morning together with Nick quickly walking me through some printed resources he uses with adult learners.  After a short discussion about how they could be used with children, we were off, heading across an open field and into the woods to see what we could see.  

Evidence of animals in the wild falls into two broad categories: tracks and signs.  Tracks are just that–footprints cast into soft dirt, sand, or snow.  Signs, however, can be so much more, and are plentiful in comparison to tracks. As we traversed the countryside, Nick’s words and tutelage helped me read the stories the land had to tell.

When an animal moves through grass and other vegetation, it bends and breaks the plants in the direction of its travel.  This is called flagging.

Flagging was easy to see as we started walking across the field we shared with a small herd of cattle.  I certainly didn’t have the ability to follow the trail of a single animal from the herd, but the experience was akin to reading from a children’s book and gave me the basics that I’d be able to apply later in the morning.  We saw flagging again later, this time apparently caused by deer or armadillos.  It wasn’t nearly as easy to see, but there it was once I knew what to look for.

The way this vegetation is shredded lets you know that deer probably browsed here.  Deer don’t have teeth in the front of their top jaw.  They have a hard palate that they use with the teeth on their lower jaw.  This means they can’t bite cleanly when they eat.

It was neat to think and learn about the ways animals find food and eat.  Larger squirrels like the grey and fox squirrels will chew the shells of different nuts to pieces.  It’s not uncommon to find the shell pieces of harder nuts like black walnuts, while softer nuts like acorns may be shredded. Smaller rodents like flying squirrels, chipmunks, and mice can’t begin to do that kind of damage to a nut, but will chew holes in the sides and eat the nut meat through them.  Deer browse, shredding vegetation as they go, but beavers and other, smaller rodents shear vegetation at a near-45 degree angle.  Squirrels dig small holes the size of a saucer as they bury and dig up hidden nuts, armadillos disrupt the soil and vegetation of an area the size of a dinner table, and wild hogs basically plow areas the size of the whole dining room–and then some.  

What we’re doing is reading the woods…reading the forest.

The story was fascinating as we did just that: read the narrative that was laid out before us.  Whether it was dissecting bird droppings or tracing the oft-traveled trail of an armadillo, the tale of the otherwise unseen was there for us to decode.  Examining the chewed bark of a squirrel stripe on a tulip poplar and spotting hair plucked from the tail of a passing horse by a protruding branch all helped us piece together the recent past as if we had been there to witness it.  Even listening to the warning chirp of a distant chipmunk gave us a sense of the fauna all around us.  

If you get the chance, take a walk and open your eyes in a new way.  You’ll be glad you did.

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Note: The ideas expressed in italics are Nick’s, but the paraphrase is mine.  I’m sure the lessons were expressed more clearly when he gave them.

 

 

An Old Friend of Sorts

It’s the busy season for teachers, isn’t it?  As May gets underway, we’re preparing for the end-of-the-year everything: Report cards, parties, assessments, lessons, sanity savers…the list goes on.  In the busy-ness of things, it’s nice to have a moment of calm pop up every once in a while.

I oftentimes start my mornings in our school car-rider line, helping direct traffic and keep kids safe.  One of the bright spots of the spring (and there are many) is the first red-winged blackbird of the year.  They usually show up around late March, and I love it when I hear one sing his song to me after the months of absence.  I listened to one just this morning, and it inspired me to bring out this poem to go with my short introduction.

Red-winged Blackbird

It’s like seeing an old friend

Across a crowded room
Across a field at woods’ edge

You know his voice
before you recognize his face
You know his voice
before you see him, just a glance

His carriage, familiar in a subconscious way
His tipped head, bringing a smile to your face

Remembering the walks, the talks, the dialog
Knowing this time you’re only there to listen

A moment shared before good byes
A brief time, ending in a flash

of red. Until next time, old friend