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.

Book Fair

It’s almost not fair.

When I walk into the school library, I’m instantly overwhelmed by the massive aluminum cases, giant prismatic clamshells opened to display the colorful books stacked one after the other on the shelves within, facing outward to display their covers, each of them alluring in their own ways.

In addition, there are the tables.  Table after table of stacked books, each stack topped by a single volume standing, slightly opened, inviting me to stop, browse, and covet.  

And the open bins of plastic trinkets.  Actually, those aren’t really a temptation.  Scratch that line.

But the books, oh the books.

I’ve got my students to think of, my own reading to consider, and, perhaps most importantly, my grandchildren.  Grandchildren who won’t grow up to be the readers they could be without that one book I’ve not yet purchased.

Heaven help me, I’m weak…and I work in four different schools.  My wife is gonna kill me.

Slow Down

I was browsing in the local used-book store the other day when I came upon one of Mary Oliver’s more recent collections of poetry, Felicity.  I’ll leave, for now, the idea that someone would relegate a collection of this caliber to a used book store, and focus rather on a passage from the work that came to my mind this morning as I walked through my back yard.

From Oliver’s “Leaves and Blossoms Along the Way”:

For how many years did I wander slowly

through the forest.  What wonder and

glory I would have missed had I ever been

in a hurry!

I’ve written recently about the dozen or so steps from the chicken coop to my back door, a brief trek I’ve taken hundreds, if not thousands, of times.

Today, though, I walked the distance one slow, deliberate step at a time.  I noticed the recent growth of the grasses, the springtime resurgence of a variety of blossoms, and the gnawing of an acorn that was carried out by some nocturnal visitor, undoubtedly one of the squirrels that daily torment my dog.  

This morning, I didn’t need to view a grand vista or an expansive horizon to see the beauty and grandeur of the Creation, visible in only a few square yards of cool, damp earth at my feet.

To the Creator, and to the poet, I give my thanks.

 

They Don’t Teach You This Stuff in College

It’s a beautiful Saturday morning, the air is cool, the breeze is slight, and the sun is dazzling here in my neck of the woods.  I’ve been mulling over my post for today, but with what was a nearly-unconscious move of my hand, my direction changed.  It’s funny how that works.

I was in the backyard, taking care of our small flock of seven chickens (delicious eggs, and nearly constant entertainment).  With the ladies fussing and flapping their wings as they followed me through the yard, I cleaned and refilled their waterer, and topped of their feeder.  We walked back to the coop in Pied Piper fashion, and after dropping the containers off I turned to head back to the house.  It was then that I realized I hadn’t collected eggs in a couple of days.  

Okay, here’s the conundrum.  Just two days in the spring means I’ve got nearly a dozen eggs to carry back to the house.  Mind you, the house is only 40 feet away, but I’m a guy…no, I don’t want to walk up, get the basket, and walk back to the coop, thank you very much.

I have on a fleece pullover, though.  A pullover with big pockets.  I pulled 4 eggs out of the first nesting box, slid them into a pocket, and reached back to the next box and pulled out three more.  Those went into the other pocket.

You’re thinking I’m about to make a mess, aren’t you?  No, I didn’t.  This isn’t my first chicken rodeo.

As I pulled the last few eggs out of the third box and transferred them into the first pocket, I was careful. Really careful.

My hand went into the pocket, and as I heard the eggs make that indescribable sound (clink? thunk? click? chink?) as they settled in together, I was instantly carried back to the hallway outside of my classroom during my first year of teaching.

I had just left my room, heading toward the front of the school on some errand that I’ve long since forgotten.  What I’ll never forget, though, is that one of my students, a tiny, quiet, impossibly-shy wisp of a girl, was walking toward me with tears streaming down her face.  Her little body shook with each sob, and as I approached her I scanned to see what had to be some sort of grievous injury.  

I didn’t see anything obviously wrong, so I knelt down beside her (I was nearly four feet taller than she was–she really was a small third-grader) and asked her what was wrong. It took a few minutes, but finally she calmed down enough to tell me that her egg broke.

Full stop.  What?

“My egg broke.”  As she spoke, she moved her hand toward the hem of her simple, white cotton pullover shirt.  A shirt made in a fashion quite similar to the one I’m wearing this morning.  A different material, definitely a different size, but the same general idea.  A shirt just right for carrying an egg in the pocket.

Carrying an egg, not to save a few dozen steps, but to be just like one’s older sister.  The older sister in high school.  The older sister doing that activity where she cares for a raw egg in order to get a glimpse of the responsibilities of protecting a baby.  

As I followed her hand down the front of her body, my eyes settled on what was a growing patch of yellow, damp cloth, moving up and down with each gasping sob.

You learn how to be a teacher in college, right?  Suuure you do.

That Darn Tree

It’s what appears to be an early spring here in north Alabama, and while most trees are still bare, new green is everywhere. The daffodils have bloomed and are already on their way out, crocus blossoms can be spotted here and there, and even some early wildflowers have made their appearance. Despite all that, we’re still in what is only the first week of March. The gorgeous pink that will appear with the advent of the redbuds and cherries is still in the (albeit near) future, and the iconic magnolias have yet to let their flowers show.

But the Bradford pears…oh, the Bradford pears.

Bradford pear trees (a cultivar of the Callery pear) command attention throughout the southeastern United States, just as they soon will in regions further north.  Their white flowers, dense upon the branch, cause them to stand out on hillsides so as to be seen from an incredible distance.  These trees are not unlike the regional crepe myrtle in that many people love them (their flowers are striking; they’re easy and fast to grow) and an equal number of people loathe them.  Aside from their many flaws as a tree (they’re easily damaged by wind; their dense foliage prevents much from growing beneath them), they’re an invasive species that spreads quickly.

Why, you might be asking, are they a slice of my life?

Flowers have one primary purpose: Seeds.  Lots of flowers; lots of seeds.  Lots of flowers; lots of p o l l e n.  

Okay, I’m a science teacher, and I understand that Bradford pear trees are primarily pollinated by insects.  That means, amongst other things, that their pollen is typically not an airborne nuisance.  I understand that my allergies (argh!) are probably not caused by Bradford pear trees.  

I don’t care.  It’s irrational, but I don’t care.  I can’t breathe, my eyes have been puffy for a week, and I’m buying facial tissue by the truckload.  Allergy meds are my friends.  

Can’t I just direct my ire at the most visible target?  

No, I really shouldn’t.

Honestly, they are a terrible tree, but beautiful in their own way.  

Besides, it gets worse: Just wait for pine pollen.

Today, I’m Glad I’m Not a Dog

I know it’s a little thing, but I’m glad I get to go potty in the house.  Our dog, on the other hand, enjoys no such luxury.  Not that she doesn’t occasionally cross that line, but certainly not with the blessing of either my wife or me.

As with most of the southeastern United States, it’s rained in Alabama quite a bit over the last few days.  To be fair to Maggie, our dog, “quite a bit” is somewhat of an understatement.  It’s rained a lot; nearly six inches in the surrounding area.  You know it’s going to be real when the National Weather Service issues a flood warning before the first drop falls.

After two solid days of rain, our back yard is a mess that’s a few inches deep in some places, complete with a stream that’s floated a canoe before (we just had to try).  The subdivision developer clearly favored our neighbor’s property.  

This morning, as I have many times before, I put Maggie on her leash, bracing myself for the disbelieving look of betrayal that comes with the back door opening instead of the front.  We went outside into what was a heavy drizzle, me leading the way in a resolute show of solidarity, searching for and finding high ground.  A mournful look, a shake or two, and a distracted stare at what must have been a squirrel in the mist: All of those had to take place before the eventual crouch.

And then we were back through the door.  A solid shake, a cookie, and all was well in the world.  Until, that is, I get home from school.  Here’s hoping that approaching front passes through early.

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!