One of Those Days

If I’m not mistaken, it was Oscar Wilde who advocated the idea that life imitates art more than art imitates life.  I’m sorry to say that his notion came to my mind after I realized–with no small degree of guilt–that my life today reminded me of a country music song.

Brad Paisley has a song he calls “One of Those Lives.”  In this song, he recognizes that having “one of those days” is nothing compared to people who are experiencing “one of those lives.”  His–and my–minor problems like traffic or missed appointments absolutely pale in comparison to the problems of people dealing with more significant issues.  From his song, the line, “the doctors say the cancer’s back” gives you an idea of what he means.

This morning I was running late, but I got a text from a dear friend telling me she and her husband were on the way to the hospital with serious blood pressure issues.  My tardiness wasn’t as big of an issue anymore. Later I was running around searching frantically for iPads to conduct a class when another friend with frightening medical issues came to my mind.  Slow down, Tim, it’s not that big of a deal. I was wrapping up my school day telling a colleague about the behavior difficulties I had with a student, hoping for some advice or strategies to use during our next meeting.  Not five minutes later I was approached by another colleague looking for advice concerning a former student who is going through some stuff way too heavy for someone who’s only 10 years old. Suddenly, the minor behavior issues I dealt with during my day faded away.  

I’ve written before about a quote that Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers) is said to have carried in his wallet.  The quote was of Mary Kownacki, who said, “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve heard their story.”

People all around us are carrying some heavy burdens.   Let’s show some love.

How We Communicate Today #2

Today I taught computer programming to kindergarten students.

Screen Shot 2018-03-14 at 3.21.14 PM

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The screenshot above was created with the programming language Scratch.  While it’s not the programming language I used today (we used Scratch Jr), the image comes close to capturing what I feel I’m giving to my students.

Just like with written and spoken words, we’re empowering young people to change the world.

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Want to know more?   Check out https://scratch.mit.edu and https://www.scratchjr.org

Oh, Coffee, How I Love You

A cup of Joe.  Brew. Java. Coffee.  

I occasionally see a meme in which the author states that he or she drinks a lot of water.  Filtered water. Water filtered through coffee grounds. Okay, coffee.  I chuckle every time.

Coffee.  It’s a thing.

I just finished my last cup for the day while pondering my post for this afternoon.  As I tipped it back, I started to think about the impact coffee has on the people who mean the most to me, especially my students, of all people.

With my wife, it’s a daily ritual, a time in which we sit and talk.  

With our adult daughters, it’s an event they’ve grown to enjoy, an element of their relationship with “the parental units.”

On a daily basis, though, it’s a connection with my students.  It’s part of who I am. My shtick, even. I regularly have students whom I barely know (as a STEM coach, I’m in a lot of classrooms) come up to me and ask, “Mr. Gels, where’s your coffee!?”

Coffee lets my students know I care for them.  I regularly tell them how much I love it, even more than 3rd graders (or whatever the grade I’m with).  When I ask if they believe me, my tone tells them to answer no, and I get to tell them they’re right…but, wow, do I love coffee.

Coffee is a connection.  “Mr. Gels, my mom loves coffee, too.”  “Mr. Gels, you’re like my dad; he drinks a lot of coffee.”  It gives me something to talk about with other teachers, as well.

Coffee gives the opportunity for think time–something that I oftentimes struggle with.  I’ll let a question hang while I search the room for my mug. I usually find it as the maximum number of hands are up.

Coffee lets me redirect attention.  If someone embarrasses themselves or a situation gets awkward…I need to find my cup, and I need everyone to look around to help.

You’ll never guess what my most common Christmas/end-of-the year gift is.  Or, maybe you will.

How, some people wonder, do I drink so much coffee?  There are, I confess, two parts to my secret. First, most of the coffee I drink is lukewarm, but not quite cold–it takes a long time for me to drink a cup.  

The other part (shhhh): Decaf.

A Few of My Favorite Things

Is the word favorite a superlative?  I used to think so, in my sometimes narrow-minded way of looking at words.  I used to think that there could only be one “favorite” anything…that’s why it was the favorite.  Of course, I was wrong. We talk about our “favorites,” we save “favorites” to our computer browser, and–if you’re of an age–we even remember Julie Andrews singing about a few of her “favorite things.”  (If you hum that for the next few hours, you’re welcome.)

As I’m writing this, my daughter and our grandchildren are on their way over for breakfast.  They’re going to get out of the car, the youngest one is probably going to shout “Nana!” when she sees my wife, and it’s not uncommon for the four-year-old to call out, “Grandpa!” as she launches into a sentence or two about whatever is going through her young mind at the time.  My daughter will say, “Hey, dad” as she gives me a hug.

“Dad,” “Grandpa,” “Honey.” “Husband.” “Son.”  Julie, these are a few of my favorite things.

The Never-Ending Cycle

My wife and I have always been dog people.  There’s nothing wrong with cats–we had one, once–but we’re dog people.  (Our one cat? My wife was 7 months pregnant and wanted a baby NOW. To this day, she jokes that she didn’t know cats lived that long…our 16-year-old daughter was quite attached when we lost Scruffy.)

We’ve got a dog.  Or a dog has us. Something like that.

Maggie, our dog, is a wonderful part of the family, but sometimes she makes us regret a decision we made 15 years ago when we moved into this house.  After nearly all of the moving boxes were empty and our first autumn in this house was upon us, we decided it was time to start planting trees and shrubs.  For some reason, the previous owners of this house hadn’t planted a single tree; all we had were the obligatory three silver maples in the front yard. We wanted trees.

We knew we wanted some river birches to help with poor drainage in the back yard, we wanted some blueberry bushes so we’d have some, well, blueberries, and we wanted some crepe myrtles for quick-growing shade and their beautiful flowers in the early summer.  We planted some shrubs near the foundation of the house, and put in a flowering dogwood in the middle of the front yard. In addition, we satisfied a desire that my wife had maintained since visiting her grandparents’ house as a child: We planted a few pecan trees.  A few years later, my own arborous desires were fulfilled with a backyard oak tree that replaced a poor decision in the form of a Cleveland pear tree. A little water, a passing decade, and we had our dream yard.

And Maggie’s own personal nightmare.

Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration.  Most of the time, in fact, I think she likes it.  Why do I sometimes regret it, though?

A + B = C.  

A = pecans, B = acorns, and C = squirrels.  Not very many, but enough to keep our dog from napping much during the day.

Here’s the routine: Maggie sits by the back window.  Maggie sees squirrels. Maggie barks maniacally. I open the back door and clap my hands to give the squirrels a head start.  Maggie sprints the 150 feet to the back fence, sometimes hot on the heels of a zig-zagging grey streak. Maggie sniffs the ground indignantly near the back fence.  Maggie walks back to the house and scratches on the door to come back in. Maggie sits by the back window. The cycle repeats. Over, and over, and over.

Along with the trees, my wife and I are just a little bit…nuts.

 

Bluebird Trail

As chores go, this one’s not so bad.  

Last year, the school I taught at installed a bluebird trail on campus.  The property on which the school sits is fairly large–big enough to host four bird houses at least 100 yards apart along the southern border.  When you factor in the distance it sits from the school, it’s about a half-mile to walk the entire thing. I no longer teach at this school, but as a coach I spend a day or two each week there.  Today was just such a day.

Today has been fairly warm, with temperatures in the low 60s and a light breeze blowing from the south.  I had a bit of extra time, so I decided to do a check of the boxes to make sure they are ready for the spring nesting season.  I decided to start with the farthest box, and headed out the door in that direction.

The first box had the beginning of a nest!  I’m not good enough with birds to know the type of nest, but given its location I knew it was one of the small cavity nesters, probably a chickadee or bluebird.

The second box was empty, and the third had a massive wasp nest, left over from last fall.   After cleaning out that third box, I headed toward the fourth.

When I open one of the nesting boxes, I stand off to the side, just in case it’s occupied.  If it’s occupied, the bird will typically stay on the nest in defense of the eggs, but sometimes it bursts out of the hole as soon as it senses my presence.  After nearly suffering a heart attack a few times, I’ve learned to prepare for that otherwise-startling experience.

As I opened the fourth box, nothing flew out.  I exhaled, laughing at the realization that I’d been holding my breath, and tilted the box liner forward.

It wasn’t expected, which made the experience all the better.  Sitting in the matted bowl of grass was a single chickadee egg.  Not much more than a half-inch long, and white with tiny brown spots, it sat there, a miracle in miniature.  I snapped a quick picture, tucked the liner back into the house, and snapped the front of the box closed.

If my experience is any guide, the next time I check there will be 4 or 5 eggs in there, with a doting parent providing warmth during these springtime temperatures.  Given a dose of luck, the eggs will hatch and I’ll be blessed with the experience of new life in a few weeks.

No, as chores go, checking the bluebird trail isn’t too bad.

Two Letters: PD

Education, not unlike the military, runs on acronyms.  To the outsider, walking through a group of teachers can be a mystifying experience as they talk about RTI and BIPs, ESLs and ELLs, LEAs and BOEs, not to mention IEPs and 504s, although that last one isn’t actually a acronym.  But you get the point.

While many acronyms carry some emotional weight, there are few that are as polarizing and opinion-generating as these two letters:

PD             Yep, professional development.  More specifically, teacher PD. 

Professional development, in my experience, is something for which everyone recognizes the need.  That said, it’s best when the teacher being professionally developed has an interest in the material or experience being presented.  If it’s their idea…great. If not, well, let’s just say it’s a genre of online comedy in and of itself.

If you’re reading this, it means you’re connected to the internet.  Go ahead, open a new tab and do a quick image search for “Teacher PD meme.”  After you get it out of your system, come back. I’ll wait.

It’s a totally different experience, though, if you’re the person responsible for providing the PD instead of receiving it.  I am, on occasion, just such a person, and today was a day in which I was to conduct just such a session.

As it turned out, earlier this week, my PD day took an interesting twist before it even started.  The memo came out with the first draft of a school-wide schedule for class and club pictures. The first of many drafts, some sent out throughout the day itself.  To use the vernacular, OMG.

For better or worse, earlier this week, I had nearly finished my preparations for what was to be a fairly structured day.  Presentations were started, articles were selected for copying, highlighters were placed at the ready: I was nearly good to go.

Now, with only four people from three different grade levels scheduled to attend my session, this wasn’t looking like a good day.  And, indeed, had I stuck to my original plan, I don’t believe it would have been, given that one or more of the four teachers was almost always out of the room.

Instead (and this turned out pretty cool), I decided to present the teachers with a menu of sorts.  A menu of choices that could be accomplished individually. A menu that allowed the teachers to decide what needed to be done and learned during the day, with me there to assist and instruct as needed.  

You know, I don’t think it would have worked with a larger group–there’s only so much of me to go around–but today it was good.  My goal with PD is to conduct a session that doesn’t inspire a meme, and by all accounts that goal was met.

On top of it all, we got to eat lunch at a real restaurant without a student in sight.  Bonus.

The day is over and I’m sitting here, still in the classroom, drinking coffee and writing this narrative.  I’m already planning how to conduct my next PD. Will it have a lot of structure? Probably not.

Again, My Thanks to the Creator and to the Poet.

The sun had just dipped below the horizon line as I pulled into my driveway this evening.  The day had been a hard one; not the kind of hard that a construction worker, a delivery person, or a factory-floor laborer might experience, but the kind that involves communicating new concepts to very young children, each student examining, interpreting, understanding, or rejecting them in their own ways.

I walked the 40 or so feet back to the mailbox at the roadside, and, after pausing to take hold of the garbage can standing nearby, headed back toward the house.

The growing sound in the distance stopped me short, though.  I let the garbage can tilt back to stand on its own, and the hand holding today’s mail fell to my side.  Silently I stood and waited, already relishing what I knew was to come.

Today it was three.  Sometimes it’s two, but usually three, a number that brings just a hint of melancholy to what is a blessing in my day each time it happens.  I know the third is alone, despite the pair with which it flies in formation.

Three Canada geese powered through the air on their way toward some point northwest of where I was standing.  They pass my house most evenings, I imagine, and my heart settles just a bit, my shoulders relax, and I know the joy that a touch of the natural world brings every time I watch them pass.  Wild geese.

For the second time in just a handful of days, my mind recalled the words of the poet Mary Oliver.  

For the second time in just a handful of days, I use these words to give thanks to the Creator, and to the poet.

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It just takes a bit over a minute to watch this.  You’re worth it.

 

 

It’s Not Always Easy

Just a quick aside before I dive in: This slice is intentionally vague in some areas (names of people and programs, especially).  It’s to protect their privacy and/or brand. Well, and me.

With just a few minutes left before I was ready to head out the door toward home this afternoon, I glanced at my phone and saw that I had an email from one of the administrators in my district with whom I work on a fairly regular basis.  As a tax-season widower (which is kind of like the football-season widows of yore, but in this case my spouse is a personal income tax preparer which means I’ll see her sometime after April 15th), I still had a positive attitude toward email that late in the day since I wasn’t going home to anyone other than my dog.  

Please don’t tell my dog I wrote that.

Anyway, this administrator wanted my opinion about a question posed earlier in the day by a few of the teachers from his/her school.  Though I’m serving in a coaching position, I still view things through the eyes of a classroom teacher (at least I like to think so), so my first instinct after reading the question was to close my laptop and pretend I must have missed that email.  Most of my friends are teachers, and a few of them posed the question. They weren’t going to like my answer.

Argh.  Couldn’t do that.

If you’re just stumbling onto my website, I need to tell you that I’m composing this account as part of a daily writing challenge.  Most of my readers will be other teachers who are also writers, or other writers who are also teachers. If you’re not a teacher, or a writer, just do your best to stick with me.  Thanks.  Oh, and give writing a try–I think you might like it.

For the purpose of this narrative, I’m going to say that I was being asked my opinion about a pre-packaged writing curriculum (wink, wink…not really).  With this writing curriculum, it doesn’t take a long time to prepare for each day’s lesson.  There are videos to watch and worksheets to complete, and on some days your students will actually experiment with different writing activities.  For the teacher, it’s fairly easy: Watch the videos, hand out the stuff, and grade the papers.

What’s the problem, you might ask?  The website is filled with positive testimonials, and you’ve heard from plenty of teachers who like it.  It’s standards-based, and not really all that expensive–just a few dollars per student. It all sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?

No, it doesn’t.  

And to make matters worse, if I have to explain why it doesn’t to a fellow teacher, I’m probably going to make matters worse unless we’ve got a few hours, a large pot of coffee, and an open mind in both of our heads.  

How did I respond?  In essence, I said that if you’re looking for a curriculum that doesn’t require much preparation or knowledge on the part of the teacher, it’s good. I’ve worked with this administrator for a lot of years, so I think my meaning was fairly evident.  

The truth is, I’m counting on it.