Saturday, December 31, 2011


There are still so many adventures and stories to write about, but the teacher of the year platform is no longer appropriate.  Please visit my new blogs:

Boundless is where I write personal essays about speaking at TED, parenting, friendships, creativity, politics, and whatever else flits through my world.

RethinkEd, is my new education blog, where I continue to discuss the issues we face in the education profession, as well as explore technology integration, literacy, and best practices.

Thank you for all of your support throughout this exciting journey I have been on!

Friday, December 30, 2011

The End

Last night when my husband asked me if I had yet to write my final teacher of the year blog post, I had to shake my head no.  In fact, I had to admit, I had not updated my blog since November 12—a month and a half ago.


Well, partly because I have struggled with looking for a way to clearly articulate the joys, the frustrations, and the transformations that occur when becoming a teacher of the year.  Because that’s what happens—you don’t walk into the position, you become it, you grow into it, and it takes a year.  But mainly, I haven’t written because I’m back in the classroom.  The craziness of travel, presentations, speeches, and opportunity is winding down, and I am finding myself focused on what is in my plan book.  And my plan book looks entirely different than it did one year ago. 

In fact, my entire professional landscape looks different than it did one year ago.  I’m not the same teacher; my head is not in the same game.  While this made teaching a little difficult for me during the fall—I felt out of place in my own school, disconnected from the students I spent so much time away from, and restless as I found myself walking into Holderness day after day without interruption—I am now transitioned, feeling strong, and finding my stride again.  I have spent long hours talking through muddy ideas with close colleagues and my husband about where my passions lie, what I want to take with me as I leave this year, and what I must leave behind.  I have finally been able to articulate my goals and my desires.  I have sat in my classroom late into the night looking at blank bulletin boards that I haven’t had the energy to decorate and reading about educational theory.  I have collapsed in chairs at the 2:55 bell feeling beaten like a new teacher, and I have cheered at 2:55 feeling like I have conquered the world.

I’m not the same teacher.  And who can be after the boundless opportunities of travel I have been granted or the chances to meet engaging, dedicated teachers across the state and nation?  Who can remain the same after meeting with state legislators about the damaging legislation we witnessed, sitting on Capitol Hill with our senator, addressing the US Department of Education, the NH Board of Education, and of course, meeting the president?   I have been gifted with incredible fortune this year—it has been a life-changing experience for which I will be forever grateful.

Out of the course of this experience, I have come to some conclusions that have taken me by surprise.  I have discovered that teachers are their own best resources and that we need to support one another through grass roots professional development.  I have realized that the world is not always kind to ambitious women, nor is it always flexible or forgiving of human error.  I have learned that teaching is a lifestyle—that you cannot do two jobs at once and be an excellent teacher.  I have learned that our classrooms need to be catapulted into the 21st century and that we need to do a better job at teaching on the very ground our students are growing up in.  I have seen the importance of relevance in education.  I have recognized that not everybody who makes legislative decisions about my career knows a thing about my field—that in fact most legislators are not well-learned in the realities of the classroom at all, which means that teachers across the state and nation must be voices of activism and change.  We must take hold of the educational conversation and offer proper guidance.  And most importantly, I have discovered that teachers in New Hampshire and across the country are doing remarkable things in their classrooms. Amazing things.  Last week I was speaking to a woman from TED2012 and she said, “I just read and watched over 800 teacher applications from around the world, and I can’t believe what kinds of things are happening in their classrooms.  I wish my children could have these kinds of people as teachers.”  “They do,” I told her.  “They do.”  Our culture underestimates what takes place in ordinary classrooms—they don’t understand the intricacies of the art that goes into tying together emotion, content, motivation, personality, scheduling, discipline, and creating awe.  They don’t realize that all of our children have amazing teachers.

So I return to the classroom with all of this in my back pocket where we are taking on new ideas, transforming what ELA instruction looks like, and redoing the plan book.  My students are happy to have me back, but I am happier to be back in the midst of their learning.  For a while I wondered about leaving the classroom to work with adults, but I don’t think that could be a fulltime possibility for me.  I need to stick closer to the roots—to the energy that drives the branches.  I’m keeping that for me. 

On the horizon?  Possibly a professional development organization driven by teachers.  A book proposal.  Teaching at conferences.  Speaking.  A new blog. Who knows—I have many ideas and renewed drive given to me by the consistency of teaching in the classroom every day again.  But whatever I do, it will only be done with students by my side. 

So in once sense I feel whole again—I’m back in my room, surrounded by the students and books that I love, engaged in conversations about learning, dealing with the intimacy of the written word.  Parts of this feel normal.  But in another sense I feel like my whole person is pieced together with new parts.  My topics remain the same; my approaches not so much.  And with this newness come the remarkable feelings every new teacher experiences—elation, excitement, inquiry, curiosity, and a sense of being overwhelmed.  It’s not exactly where I anticipated ending up, this feeling of newness, but I'm grateful for it.

Thank you. 

Bethany Bernasconi, 2012 NH Teacher of the Year

Bethany Bernasconi, the 2012 NH Teacher of the Year, teaches Science in Windham.  Her energy, enthusiasm, creativity, and drive will make her an exceptional representative of our profession this year.  I, for one, am proud to call her a colleague and a friend, and I can't wait to watch her transformation over the year.  Good luck to her as she takes on the world!

NH DOE Announcement

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Middle School: The Perfect Storm

When we middle school teachers alert other teachers that we are middle school teachers, we inevitably receive one of the following comments:  You must be crazy. Or God bless you.  Or You are a special person.   Other teachers know what happens after the students leave their cozy pods of elementary classrooms and what happens before they enter the liberation of high school.  And it is a bit crazy.  It is a time of intense change both socially and developmentally.  In fact, consider a newborn baby.  And then examine a three year old who can speak, control her bowels, feed herself, walk, etc.  Between the ages of 10-14, children experience the same kind of intense growth and change as they do between 0-3
These changes impact family structures greatly. The child who used to come home and tell parents everything is much more selective about what he or she shares.  He or she might even be surly.  Removed.  Irritable.  Erratic. Looking in his or her backpack creates arguments—because it feels like an invasion to the child’s desperately desired autonomy.  A focus on social issues overcomes the household so that the bathroom is never empty, the phone is never available, the computer is always taken.  Parents often complain that their children never come out of their bedrooms; that they don’t tell them if homework is done; that they don’t tell them about things that are happening at school. 

At the same time that all of this is happening, students change educational structures.  In our school they move from class sizes of 9-15 with one teacher to a team of 5 teachers who see 85-100 students a day for 40 minute periods.  In many schools in larger districts, students move from classrooms of 15-20 to large middle schools where teachers see 100-125 students a day.  It is impossible for a teacher to contact 85-125 parents every week. Parents who were once accustomed to getting frequent communication, positive and negative, from their elementary teachers, find that communication drops off as teacher load increases, during a time when their children are also communicating less.  To top it all off, parents were once accustomed to having one teacher to communicate with and now have up to 5 content area teachers, so aren’t always sure where to begin themselves when they have concerns.
It is no wonder so many teachers opt not to teach this level.  And it is no wonder that so many parents are unhappy with middle schools across the nation. It is a perfect storm of physical, hormonal, mental, and educational change.  And the children that parents once sent off to school are not the same ones that come home. 

During this time, students start experimenting at school.  What happens when they don’t do their homework?  What happens when they talk back to a teacher?  They try on different personas, looking for their identity, hanging out with different groups of kids.  They make mistakes.  But they are most often surrounded by teachers who both love and understand this age group and are willing to provide them with a clean slate the following day.  And so we know it’s okay for them to make mistakes.  It’s okay for them to try something new and abandon it the next week.  This is the time to learn from these errors.  And we’re there to catch them.  We also know that it is their responsibility  not to make excuses for themselves.  That it is their job to relay communication accurately to their parents.  That it is their job to take responsibility for their actions.  And so discipline, communication, classroom management, homework policies…none of those things are the same as they were in the younger grades.  Because we are dealing with a different kind of kid.
I frame this blog post in this context: The other day we sat as a faculty and read over comments that were made on our recent school survey completed by parents, students, and faculty as part of our self-evaluation process.   One major theme stuck out:  dissatisfaction with the middle school.  At first it stung.  But if we looked at numbers—out of the 61 parents who took the survey, only 4 of them were consistently negative—the parents were overwhelmingly happy with us.  More importantly, when we read the students comments, my heart felt like it would burst.  Over and over again, the majority of our students wrote that the greatest thing about their school was the teachers—that they felt challenged, understood, and cared for.  And that is our audience:  those 10-14 year olds who show up every day during some of the hardest years of their lives, trusting us, including us, and taking risks for us.  They are magnificent creatures, these middle schoolers—and maybe that makes us crazy.  Maybe that exposes us to criticism.  But I can’t imagine a more rewarding job.     


Tuesday, November 8, 2011

How Curiosity Led Me To Game Theory

 We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we're curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” ~Walt Disney
In terms of the game theory, we might say the universe is so constituted as to maximize play. The best games are not those in which all goes smoothly and steadily toward a certain conclusion, but those in which the outcome is always in doubt.” ~George B. Leonard (1923)

 When a teacher is no longer curious, he or she has brought stagnancy and complacency into the classroom, and I find the idea of those entities being present in our children’s lives unacceptable.  And so every once in a while I do a quick self-check.  Am I still curious?  Do I still have wonder at how the human brain learns?  Do I still want to know more about my subject? Do I still want to know more about my students?  I feel like as soon as I fail that assessment, it is time to leave the classroom.
This year, however, the answer remains yes.  And my curiosity has led me down an unexpected path:  one that involves technology, game theory, and a flipped classroom approach.  Anybody who knows me well and has spent time in my classroom knows that those kinds of things make me extremely uncomfortable and certainly don’t define my teaching style.  But I’ve been watching other teachers make an incredible impact on their students and deliver difficult material in a way that caters to a variety of learners—both in ability and style—and I’ve started rethinking some of my practices.

Start small.

In rethinking my approaches to subject matter, I decided to do a trial run of game theory in my typical 8th grade grammar unit.  When teaching grammar, I often feel as though I am leaving behind a group of students who don’t get it—yet I have to move on.  I feel as though there’s another group of students whose needs I am directly meeting, and then there is another group who is bored because they got it the first time, and now they are waiting while everybody else catches up. 
The Great Grammar God Game will be an 8 week unit.  Each student has created an avatar and username and as they earn points during the unit they climb the board.  This past week I would have simply covered nouns, but “Koogle” and “Yolanda” have each mastered nouns and pronouns, and are well on their way to covering the adjective material.  Meanwhile, most of the class is undertaking pronouns, and then a couple of students are still working through the noun material with me, getting some reinforcement.  I am running the program through Edmodo—kind of a cross between Moodle and Facebook—and on this program, kids access all of my video podcasts (also on Vimeo), all of their written practices, and all of the directions for other activities they must do.  They work with one another and help each other master the practice work; they meet with me about questions or struggles they might have; and when ready, they sit down and take a quiz independently.  They get four lives—and so if a student does not get an 80 or higher, he or she must retake the quiz.  It is my job, after all, to teach for mastery.  Today, a boy who failed his first and second quiz sat with me and we found a different approach for him to show me his knowledge.  Granted the time to sit with him because of the independent learning taking place in the rest of the classroom, I was able to find out that he does in fact have mastery over nouns.  He got a 95.
For each part of speech, the practice work is worth 50 points and the quiz is worth 200.  As the kids gain points they climb the board—they start out as a Nothing, move to a Mere Mortal, on to a Monster, Satyr, Centaur, Sprite, Hero, Demi-God, and finally a Grammar God.  It is also possible to become a Titan with extra points earned throughout the game.  One student came to see me after taking his quiz.  I told him he got a 96.  He didn’t blink.  “But how many points do I have?”
The idea of a student-centered classroom where students are working independently and all of their needs are being met is not a new idea—but some days it feels like an elusive one.  And I’m not sure how I could apply this kind of classroom to my subject matter entirely, but I’m working on melding my reading workshop philosophy with game theory; I think it will work. 

My nightstand is stacked with a new collection of books about educational gaming, 21st century learning, and technology for the sake of advancing learning.  It’s a place I never thought I’d find myself—but when you’re curious, you never know where you’ll end up.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

TEDx NewEngland: An Abstract

“We need to stop in the course of our busy lives and look at what we already have done and ask, ‘What else is possible?’”

“To deny the chaos of reality is a disservice to our students.”

“I am what I share.”

Generation Y “will be the one that needs to tackle global and economic issues” and they are a group of “strategic optimists” with “more dreams than memories.”

“There is $50 billion in 4th graders’ pocket change. Imagine what they could do with that.”

“We need to empower kids to become social entrepreneurs who make a difference for themselves and the world.”

"When you create value, you can claim value.”

“Character is not a trait. It is as malleable as anything else.”

“You and I are as infallible as anyone else and there are moral circumstances that will test this.”

“How do you cultivate your moral humility?”

The above quotes came from the scribbles I hurriedly made in my program yesterday as I sat in the audience at WGBH studios in Boston (and so I cannot claim complete accuracy…apologies to anybody whose words I butchered or accidently re-invented), watching the first ever TEDx NewEngland. I believe they repres ent the level of thoughtfulness and exploration that then guided conversations well into the evening and the wee hours of morning. Artists, scientists, researchers, sociologists, PhD candidates, and educators took the stage in what proved to be a highly successful event, leading us down paths of thought that filled us with admiration for a new generation, questions about our own fallacies, intrigue for the future, and hope that once-thought impossibilities could be seemingly possible. I don’t think my words can or should compete with theirs, and so I’ll leave my commentary brief. But I do want to congratulate the coordinators of TEDx NewEngland on their brilliant inaugural event and thank them for their support of the New England teachers of the year. Your generosity and new friendship is greatly appreciated and adored. Thank you.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Everyone Has a Story

I was standing in the kitchen washing potatoes several years ago--it was a winter night, dark had come already, and there was a steady hum of kids playing, NPR reporting, and my husband working around the house.  I reached for a knife to cut off a green portion of a potato when suddenly a childhood story about a homeless man who was in my grandparent's basement eating their raw potatoes came pouring back to me.  I quickly cut up the potatoes and raced through my living room yelling over my shoulder to my unsuspecting husband, "I need to go write something..."

I had a story.  I am reminded of this every year when I embark on our memoir writing unit in 7th grade.  I start the unit by telling my students the green potato story, and later read what I had eventually written down--words that wove together my childhood memories and my adult realizations of justice and prejudice to show how we find meaning in our memories.  On this first day, we sit in a circle in my classroom on the floor and just spend 40 minutes telling stories.  The only person who can speak is the one with the bouncy ball.

Writing memoir is one of my favorite units to teach, but this particular day is one of my favorite lessons.  Without any sense of hindrance from getting language fine tuned on their paper, my students begin to pour forth their stories.  And so I hear about getting lost in the grocery store; near death experiences, traveling, washing a cat off in a mall parking lot mud puddle, buying a new puppy, getting stranded in the snow, mistaking another adult as a parent...

Every child has a story.  That's one reason why I think teaching English Language Arts is nothing short of an honor; my job allows this intimate glimpse into what my students think about, believe in, and question.  But even then, I wonder if I take the time to really know everybody's story.  Do we, as teachers, know the stories that are guarded behind a child who is a behavior problem?  Do we know the stories behind the quiet student in the back of the room?  Because when we know those stories, we are suddenly much more efficient in the classroom.

Last week on an 8th grade trip to Boston, I stood on a cement wall a couple of feet above my students, in front of the Holocaust Memorial, explaining to them what the towers and numbers represent.  An elderly man and his wife wandered over to our group and stood among the students listening.  I wondered why they were standing there, and I have to admit, my first reaction was one of annoyance.  As the kids left me and began to stroll through the memorial, I saw some of them give the old man a quick lookover and then promptly move away from the stranger.  I walked over and reached out my hand.  "May I help you?"  I asked.

The man was a WWII Navy pilot who flew over the concentration camps, never knowing what they were--he was never told until his service was up.  He was shot down over Yugoslavia and it took him 10 days to get to safety.  He asked me why my students were so interested in the Holocaust--he didn't think they would care.

And there you have it--I almost missed his amazing story because of an initial response to a stranger "infiltrating" our group.  And he almost missed the story of how 14 year olds are passionate about justice, find meaning in history, and are fascinated by the Holocaust.

Think of all the stories we miss in a day because we are too busy, overwhelmed, annoyed, overbooked, scared, shy.  We must not only remember to take the time to hear each others' stories, but to teach our children to take the time to hear one anothers' stories as well.  And we need to, above all, make sure that our school environments are safe and comfortable enough for our children to share their stories.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

One Week at Home: Final Reflections

"She was beginning to understand that evil is not absolute, and that good is often an occasion more than a condition." ~Gilbert  Parker

I had hoped to come to some solid conclusions about life in Cuba after my brief visit.  I had hoped to sit down in the airport terminal in Miami and let it all pour onto the paper.  But draft after draft filled pages of messy, unorganized writing and unclear thoughts.

If I learned anything on this trip, it is that things are not black and white.  And while we often give lip service to this cliched adage,  nothing more so as my experiences last week has made it more clear.

When faced with different ideologies, we Americans, revolutionists and patriots at heart, tend to lean toward polarization--we feel that there must be a right way and a wrong way. We crave justice and justification. But I came away from Cuba with the new understanding that humanity is a leveling factor that simply defies ideology.  We are so quick to judge another country's downfalls without examining our own, and we are afraid of embracing and learning from successes that our enemies may have encountered along the way.

I recently received an angry three and half page typed letter from a Cuban exile who personally attacked me for my views posted on this blog, requesting that I "withdraw that fantasy drivel" that I have written.  At first, I began to compile research so I could write a rebuttal.  But then I went back through to reread my "drivel" and realized that we are reading through two different sets of eyes. We  are of different generations, different nationalities, and have different historical perspectives.  What I write as inquiry and wonder about a process and its results, he misperceives as awe and admiration for a gang of bloodthirsty thugs.  What he has determined as black and white for so many years now, I am now viewing as gray.

This is the very problem with policy and polarization.  Cuba has a bloody revolutionary past.  At the end, many left, frightened and having lost everything. Loved ones went missing.  Others saw their families settle into better situations,  experiencing greater equality.  Anything historical can be seen through two sets of eyes.  As Americans, we can admire our innovation and Western expansion of this great land and nation, while Native Americans may recall a time when 30,000 of their people were lost to combat and 80-90% of their population fell victim to smallpox.  It's all about perspective.

Cuba is fresh though.  Those who prospered and those who suffered are still alive, trying to make sense of a living history as Fidel Castro lay sick, and his 80 year old brother leads the country.  And the changes that are positive, like health care and education, feel outweighed at times by the documented human rights atrocities and limitations on freedom of speech.

Nothing is black and white.  Some situations elicit inconclusiveness.  But no situation eludes the necessity of inquiry and exploration.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Examining Cuban Literacy: aka The Reason for my Travels to Cuba

In 1961, the rural illiteracy rate in Cuba was 42% (illliteracy in urban areas was closer to 11%) .  During that year, nearly 270,000 teachers traveled into the countryside to live alongside families to teach functional literacy.  Of those 270,000 "brigadistas," over 100,000 were between the ages of 10 and 19 and more than half were female.  Within one year, the illiteracy rate was lowered to 4%, and today, 50 years later, Cuba has the second highest literacy rate in the world and is called upon by numerous nations to assist with raising their literacy rates.

I find this fascinating.  There are pictures of hundreds of thousands of teachers returning to Havana, marching into Revolution Square, carrying large, wooden pencils where their leader greeted them.  Teenagers were willing to leave their families to go and teach others--it was a political initiative and it embraced the youth.

"Yo Si Peudo" is the name of the Cuban Literacy Program that is now implemented across the world. The program works with coutnries such as New Zealand, Mexico, Canada, and Boliva. In 2006 UNESCO recognized Cuba's innovative methods and recognized its work with over 15 countries to improve social conditions through literacy.

At the Cuban Literacy Museum we were given a presentation and shown the materials used in "Yo Si Puedo."  And while we only had the time to quickly peruse the English materials, I didn't see anything remarkable.  What was remarkable were the initiatives that embrace such materials, the cultural sensitivity when applying them in different countries, and the developmental pedagogy involved when educating adult learners.  Each country who has enlisted Cuba's help in literacy training has made it a priority.  And while putting youth in uniforms and marching them into the fields is a bit extreme and unlikely to occur in any other country than post-Castro Cuba, the sentiment remains the same:  literacy is a priority.  When Cuba collaborates with another nation, it does not just make adjustments in language; it calls for developing materials that align with the intended audience's culture.  Actors from those countries are brought in to create the video clips used and written materials address local customs and culture.  Adult learners are given adult topics; it is recognized that making connections is a critical element to reading comprehension.

The United States has a 99% literacy rate--only .9% behind Cuba.  But the largest difference is the value placed on education and literacy.  Detroit has a 47% functional illiteracy rate.  Imagine, with our force of powerhouse teachers and youth, what could occur if we gathered our own sorts of reading troops and made adult education a priority.  That would be unheard of..

 Like the history of Cuba and Castro or not, the country's commitment to adult literacy is impressive.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Day 4 In Cuba: Just the Facts

On the first day here, Sarah Daisy, our guide, asked us to hold off until the end of the week before we drew any conclusions about her country.  I will.  For the time being, here are some of the facts that have come to light for me, which I will use to form my opinion:

1.       Every single person in this country is given a ration of food.  Today I was able to sneak a look at a ration book.  Among other things, each person in a household receives 2 pounds of chicken and 7 pounds of rice per person. Other foods include cooking oil, flour, eggs, pasta, juice, beans, etc.  If they want to trade their ration at the store for something else, the grocer will generally allow it.  If they want other foods, it comes from their paychecks.

2.       Everybody is guaranteed housing, and they pay 10% of their paycheck for their homes.  Just recently the government passed a law that residents are allowed to sell their houses.  However, there is a major housing shortage, and so if somebody wishes to move, they need to find somebody else who is willing to swap homes with them at the right price.  This makes moving into a nicer home or a bigger home difficult, because it is rare to find somebody in a nice, large home who is willing to trade for a smaller, dilapidated home.  And there are many of those, because the government decides when you can refurbish or repaint homes.  In the 90s, during the Special Period, the economy was particularly bad for Cuba, and then in 2005 the island was hit by numerous hurricanes.  This has left many buildings uninhabitable and in disrepair.

3.       Cuba has the second highest literacy rate in the world.  They have some of the best doctors in the world, and their infant mortality rates and average lifespan rival first world countries.  This is because when Castro came into power, he focused on healthcare and education.  I find this fascinating, because for any country to rise from poverty and become empowered, those basic needs must be met.  In countries like Sudan, you see efforts focusing on healthcare and education.  Because of this, when you walk around Havana, you see healthy people, and most of the people we have encountered here are well educated.  These are priorities.

4.       Because the government pays for all jobs, people who work in the tourist industry and receive tips sometimes make more money than doctors or teachers.  One of our cab drivers was a teacher, but decided to become a driver because he makes more money that way.

5.       The embargo makes getting simple supplies expensive and this creates great hardships.  With a bit of digging and talking to people who were finally willing to share, we heard that hospitals don’t have enough supplies.  They have amazing doctors, but no supplies.  People don’t have enough food.  They are guaranteed a certain amount, but it is not enough, and their salary is so low (one man told one of us he didn’t even make $200 last year) that they have a hard time paying for food.  While we have been shown beautiful schools, we have passed other schools that are in shambles.  We have heard that there are not enough books for children.  They are allotted 2 pencils per month per child.  One man in the streets begged me for pens for his nephews. 

6.       The government subsidizes the publishing houses, and because so many book publishers are tied with American publishers, it is difficult to get outside authors published in Cuba. Four hundred copies of every book that is published are placed in libraries around the country.  According to the director of the Cuban Book Institute, they are not interested in publishing the likes of Dan Brown, because he is not literature.  Any kind of writing that would encourage violence will not be published.  The government has the final say in what kinds of literature the people will read.

7.       For a Cuban to travel, he or she must receive a written invitation from the person he or she would be visiting.  Even if this occurs, it is difficult to save enough money to visit other countries.  The United States is supposed to give 20,000 Visas a year for Cubans to visit, but last year only allowed 400.  Sarah Daisy saves Euros and American dollars in the hopes that someday she will have enough money to save to travel.  If she could go anywhere in the world, she would choose Canada.

8.       Under Batista, there was legalized segregation.  Fidel Castro integrated buses, schools, and workplaces.  With slavery as their backdrop of history, Cubans are highly aware of race relations.  And while racism still occurs, interracial marriages are more common, and the general public, especially in Havana, is fairly tolerant.

Tomorrow:  opinions.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Havana: Day 3 In Poetry


With rum that pulses in veins to the
rhythm  of cha cha bands—
men caressing guitar strings,
muting trumpets,
and swaying their hips—
it easy to forget the call of democracy.

No ocean breeze
penetrates the age old heat
that is trapped by walls of stone
in a town square.  Vibrant blues, greens, and
oranges take our attentions captive
so that we do not recognize the absence of
the life we know.

Laundry blows from a balcony
and cigar smoke lingers in the air.  The lilt
of foreign tongues dance while
a man with smooth brown skin winks.  Bueno.
A child laughs.
An old woman, hunched in an arched doorway
watches, nods.  We forget heartache.

Che Guevera, impossibly handsome, overlooks
every move from a poster here.  A billboard there.
His warm eyes convincing us
that revolution can be progressively suave.

The people are warm.  Ask us anything they tell us.
We will be honest. 
But the cab driver from Guantanamo
driving a 56 Chevy
doesn’t quite answer my questions about Castro.
And the tour guide with her open smile dismisses
me with humor.

But I understand.
I too live in a country where the corrupt are forgiven or forgotten.
Where those who have sinned against us
do not need to repent,
and the people who have
been sinned against,
do not often know.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Day 2 In Cuba: Old Cars, Long Meetings, and a Little Cha Cha

Day 2 In Cuba

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

I am still pinching myself—I am in Havana.  Old cars cruise the street.  Music blares from apartments.  Laundry hangs over balcony walls.  Dogs roam the sidewalks.  Old women smoke cigars.  People everywhere are falling in love.

Looking at our agenda, I would say that today was probably the most difficult day for me. Anyone who knows me well, knows that I cannot sit still long.  Meetings that stretch for hours leave me doodling or pacing in the back of the room, and no matter how compelling the speaker or the subject, I lose interest and become impatient, antsy, and rammy.  Unfortunately, I experienced this a bit today—an engaging, charismatic teacher—one who was part of Castro’s original literacy movement 5o years ago ran a session for us to inform us about Cuba’s education setup.  Sarah Daisy, our guide/escort/interpreter for the week translated her words.  But the lilt of the words and the cadence of the Spanish began to lull me, and I once again found myself standing in the back of the room. 

That being said, the professor’s session was incredibly informative and struck a cord with me, as she kept mentioning the importance of family and community involvement with their schools.  Cuba underwent a huge public awareness campaign called “Educate Your Son” (yes, I know, I too have a problem with this title…) that really brought the importance of early childhood education (0-5 years) to the forefront of parenting.  The campaign reminds parents that they are the most important resource for their children in those early years.  She talked about how decisions for children are made with the families and how they are involved with the school.  It was very impressive.

Before our next meeting, we had an hour of free time, and so my new friend Peggy and I hit the pavement and explored the neighborhood taking pictures, meeting new people, and just soaking it all in.  The streets of Cuba teem with life and color.

We then traveled over to the organization that is hosting us and met a lovely woman who spoke to us about how they work with other international organizations.  We discussed political issues—particularly the one with the Cuban 5—five men who have been arrested in the US and are being detained and accused of terrorism.  It is very interesting to read the US version and then to hear the Cuba version.  It makes you realize the different perspectives that emerge from cultures.  It also makes you realize that Cuba may not be the only place that uses propaganda.  I am finding myself wondering how much of it we are fed ourselves.

We had a city bus tour, and this would be my third bus tour this year.  DC, Huntsville, and now Havana.  All I will say is I hate bus tours and ended up falling asleep. 

With an hour and a half back at the hotel, I finally got out for a run along the pathway that weaves alongside the waterfront—the Atlantic on one side, Havana on your other.  The intense pollution, uneven tar, inhibiting heat, and ridiculous machismo of the men sitting on the seawall, riding their bikes, or just driving by, made running difficult, but  how often do you get to run in Havana?

Dinner was heavenly—and I was able to rouse my delegation to some dancing to the cha cha band; we even got the cook and waiters to dance with us.  But it was a restaurant for tourists, and I am desperately wanting to find my way into the real Cuba to talk to real Cubans.  I asked Sarah Daisy about this, and she told me that tomorrow when I am free for the afternoon to just start talking to people and adventure will find me.  I want to eat at roadside stands and walk crumbling streets.  I want to hear people’s stories.  I think I can talk a couple of the other delegates into this as well.  I was not able to successfully convince anybody to hit up the jazz club across the street tonight, but I’m working on it.

My vegetarianism doesn’t quite fit into the pork pork pork diet here, but they are delighted that I eat fish, and so I have had fish for four straight meals.  It has all been delicious, but I wonder how much fish I will have eaten by the end of the week!

I miss my TOY friends—we would have a blast here together and it feels odd to be on a trip without them.  And I miss my family.  My husband and I travel well together, and there are so many times I wish I could turn to him to exclaim over something.  Tomorrow we get to explore on our own.  My goals:  find some souvenirs, ride in a big old car, dance with a Cuban, and talk with a child. I just want to absorb it all. So I am.

Day One In Cuba--Entering Surreality

Monday, October 10, 2011 11:06 pm

Day 1

Cuba.  I am in Cuba sitting on a bizarrely large bed made up of two double beds pushed together (thanking whoever the room gods are that I don’t have a roommate) in a room that overlooks the city skyline of Havana.  The air outside is humid, and while I know I should be tucked in, putting myself to sleep, contagious Latino excitement fills the air.  Today is a national holiday for Cubans, and the streets are lined with people sitting alongside the ocean.  The jazz club across the street exudes waves of blue and green lights, and the mojitos here slide down a little too easily.  Sleep eludes me.

This morning—which feels a lifetime ago—I started out in Miami.  After a late night of couch talk with my old high school friend, I awoke this morning and strolled down to an Argentinian bakery and sat outside eating croissants and drinking fresh squeezed orange juice reminiscent of Mexico.  When I arrived at the airport, I found myself in a terminal that did not compare to any my other flight experiences.  Men resembling Oompah Loompas in their black outfits with neon green stripes around their midsection canvassed the terminal, convincing passengers to excessively wrap their luggage in neon green plastic wrap.  English was barely heard anywhere, and the counters were barely labeled with small signs of airlines I have never heard of.  Police officers rode through the hallways on mountain bikes.  When I looked out the window, it was obvious we were in a very remote area of the Miami International Airport. 

I walked around a bit and finally found my airline—Sky King.  (Really.)  And then I found the rest of my delegation—a diverse group of mostly university professors from around the country (except dear Rebecca, who made a very long trip from Uganda).  They stood in a group to the left of a long, snaking line full of Cubans with carts stacked unimaginably high with neon green packages—TVs, fans, tires, and bags and bags of who-knows-what-kind-of-stuff.  We got our boarding passes and checked our luggage.  Apparently, you can fly out of Miami directly to Cuba.   Who knew? Everything appeared to be normal, until the attendant came around with a pad of paper and publicly took down everybody’s body weight.  It was definitely an icebreaking moment of unexpected group intimacy, but I was suddenly a bit nervous about the possibility of a delicately balanced airplane.

We then received notice that our flight was delayed by 3 hours, so settled into a hotel lobby to meet.  Quick introductions indicated that we have a group of all women who, while committed to research and literacy, are truly part of this delegation because of the desire to visit Cuba.  Adventurists at heart, we will find excellent companionship among one another, I think.

Security and the flight were surprisingly uneventful.  The plane was large, and the landing was one of the smoothest and most relaxing I have experienced.  We caught sight of Havana outside our window, and then swooped over the lush, green countryside skimming the landscape for some time—so low we could see the details of palm trees and cars on the highway.  Perhaps this was a piece of propaganda to show us the beauty of the land? I appreciated it.  

Inside the Havana airport my picture was taken in Customs and I was made aware that intricately designed fishnet stockings are the current trend for the women workers at the airport.  We waited for some time for our luggage and then left the interior.  A large crowd awaited their families’ arrival outside—it looked like a Beatles concert—people reaching over the gate, cheering when a recognized face emerged.

We got a brief taste of the gorgeous scenery and old cars that await our cameras over the next few days and met our personal tour guide—Sarah Daisy—an articulate, honest, engaging Cuban.  “Ask me a question, and tell me what kind of answer you want,” she cheerfully told us.  “The official answer, or the regular citizen answer.”  She is honest in the struggles of Cuba, but also revels in its successes.  She is a wealth of knowledge and tells interesting stories.  She asks that we cast no judgment on her country until we’ve examined it closely.  I’m looking forward to spending the week with her.  Our hotel is a 5 star hotel that sits alongside the Carribean and my room is on the 13th floor, on which the elevator does not appear to want to stop.

Dinner was served in Old Havana—a maze of cobblestone streets and old, brick austerity.  Cats meander across the architecture 20 feet in the air.  Dogs laze around in the square.  Families play with their kids.  Women with baskets of fruit on their head, smoking cigars ask for money.  Mojitos are served with meals and the fish is simply to die for.  The heat does not break.

I exchanged US dollars for CUCs at the hotel and went across the street to a small market where I had to spend $8.40 CUCs for a 12 pack of bottled water (approximately $9 USD).  But I am supposed to run tomorrow, and already feel dehydrated.  I cannot figure out how to log on to the Internet, for which I also had to pay, but will attempt that in the morning.  The walls are thin; I can hear the mopeds zooming by on the streets and the couple next door engaged in a lively conversation.  Propaganda about America and Castro line the downstairs lobby hallway.  They clearly know who their audience is.

Tomorrow we begin our explorations.  I am anxious to start thinking about literacy rates, healthcare, and the desire for socialism.  My readings have reinforced the importance that I cannot look at the culture through my American lense.  There are two sides to every story, and this story, I believe will be an interwoven one full of the complexities of humanity, struggle, and justice.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Testing Season

'Tis the season.

For eight straight days, my 8th graders are settling into my room, uncustomarily set up in sterile rows facing front, handed #2 pencils, and asked to sit in silence for over an hour to complete their NECAPs.  It does not feel natural, and the students comment that they do not feel at home in here, in this setup.

But they listen attentively as I read aloud the same instructions they have heard for the past five years.  The same instructions that all students across the state and New England are hearing.  They do not feel as though I am personalizing their instruction.  They do not like that I cannot help them or guide them.  Yet, they still open their booklets, at the same time, and begin to read and write.  They use up every last minute allotted to them.  They fill their spaces.  I watch them and hope that all I've taught them about reading for information and writing about texts will become evident here, because even though this test was never intended to test my teaching, it is used in that way.

As a teacher who often works from intuition, who knows that science and data cannot name or dictate all parts of life, my first instinct is to criticize standardized testing in schools:  there is irrefutable research that shows that noninstructional factors--like poverty, parent education, and community--explain most of the variances between school districts.  When the 2010 PISA scores were examined closely, the only consistent correlation between achievement and another factor they could find was that between student achievement and parent education.  And when teacher accountability and performance is tied in with test scores gains, there is a 26 percent error rate. Clearly these are red flags. 

Yet, I am also a teacher who loves data.  I analyze what my students know and then use that to drive my instruction--because that's what we should be doing.  We should be able to justify every single moment of teaching in the classroom.  And to do this, one must test; it is inevitable.  Testing is not perfect.  It can be biased, and accuracy can be thrown by too many personal issues that students carry in the door with them--they will be the first to admit that.  But this imperfect source of gathering information is a place to start. 

I talk to my kids about all of this.  I go over their scores with them, so they know where they can improve.  We talk about what these scores mean and what we need to do in the classroom together over the course of the year.  I do not teach to the test.  I teach my curriculum, and I must do so with confidence that the test is aligned with my curriculum.  I explain each part of my curriculum to my students and tell them why it is important.  I listen to their frustrations about testing, but watch them pour over the data.  They see value in this, too, despite the obvious imperfections.

Amidst all of the criticism of standardized testing, voices of reason fail to emerge.  We need reform in this area, absolutely, but we need not throw the baby out with the bathwater. We need to push for more adaptive testing that indicates growth and not status. If policy makers had included educators in the decisions that led to this test-heavy educational environment, we may have arrived here earlier.  Once again, we are reminded that teachers, the experts, need to be the guiding voice in these kinds of decisions and educational policy.  But we do eventually learn from our mistakes.  New testing practices that are being examined do adopt better practices, and educators are being included in the conversations.  For the time being, however, we must embrace what positive we can from our imperfect system and use it to benefit our students.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


“Let me say before we part, so much of me is made of what I learned from you.  You'll be with me like a handprint on my heart.  And know whatever way our stories end, I know you have re-written mine by being my friend...” ~Elphaba (from Wicked)

Jay Maebori, WA
There is physical pain in saying goodbye for me.  I feel it when my 8th graders graduate or when a student moves away.  But the heaviness that squeezes my heart today after having said goodbye to the other 2011 State Teachers of the Year is nearly suffocating.

Wilma Ortiz, MA
We have met as a cohort four times over the course of this year—in Dallas, where we were prepped for the year; in DC where we were set forth to use our voices; in Alabama where we learned to take risks; and finally, this last trip in New Jersey and New York City where we were able to process our insecurities, confusions, dreams, and futures.

Jennifer Facciolini, NC
The relationships built through these trips have grown to become part of our identities, both professionally and personally. I know what this looks like from the outside. We have, after all, only spent a total of 22 days out of 8 months in one another’s company; it sounds absurdly shallow to say that these are some of my best friends.  But we have been woven together during a time when we are juggling the complexities of new roles and being immersed in experiences at home and nationally that have changed who we are.  Not one of the 55 of us is the same teacher or person we were a year ago.  And in the midst of exciting, turbulent change, we have needed to reach out to those who fully understand, simply because they are experiencing the same.  And I think this is a difficult concept for many of our colleagues, friends, and families to accept. 

Erika Webb, KY
And I understand.  Because how is it possible to fully describe my preciously wild Wilma, who embraces me each time we meet and reaches out to hold my hand during dinner?  Or my steadfast Jennifer who lets me curl up on her bed in my pajamas in the middle of the night, and then says just the right things to ease my mind?  How do I explain that my beautiful Erika’s spirit is so much the same as mine, that the very first time we met, we fell into a conversation like old friends?  There is no way to articulate my comrade Jay’s ability to make me laugh aloud at absurdities, and then moments later delve into a serious discussion about pedagogy, a good novel, or humanity.  And words cannot accurately capture the treasured friendship of my dear Paul, whose honest, forthright conversations have accompanied me on many long meanderings through Alabama heat, city traffic, and riverside trails.
Paul Andersen, MT

These are my people.  And I have fallen in love with them. They have reinvigorated my teaching and challenged my thinking.  They are part of what defines me.  They have left “handprints on my heart.” There are many things that have taken me by surprise this year, but nobody prepared me for the intensity of the friendships I would build, nor the heartache of leaving those people on a warm September morning in Times Square.  
But then I remember,  we were all brought together because we can make amazing things happen—and there’s nothing so amazing about visiting an old friend. We’ll see each other again. It’s what friends do, after all.

Monday, September 19, 2011

A Little Honest Reflection

"And, because there was an honesty about all that was going on, it connected with the people in the street." ~Ben E. King

Confession: I did not want to return to school this year.

 In the days leading up, I agonized over how to stay upbeat and positive in the classroom, how to pretend I cared during endless meetings, and how to invest the time necessary to do a good job. I confided in my husband that I wanted a job that didn't overwhelm me--one that didn't overtake my life. I daydreamed about writing books, public speaking, consulting...anything but the classroom.

Before speaking at three inservices, I broke down to a friend that I felt like a complete fraud. How can I stand in front of what totaled thousands of teachers and inspire them to go out into their field and take on the world, when I didn't feel like I had the strength to do so myself?

And so I resigned to starting my year with a "fake it til you make it" kind of attitude, feeling the word fraud emblazened upon my forehead.

But I didn’t have to fake it.  Because as soon as real live kids walked through those doors, I fell in love with teaching all over again. It is nearly impossible to break away from clich├ęs when you are talking about love, I tell my students when they are writing, and that is how I feel when I talk about teaching.  Teaching is love for me. A breath of fresh air, a drink of cold water, contagious energy…it’s all there.  I was immediately engulfed in their very joy of living.  Did I really contemplate not spending my days with such an amazing creature as the middle school student?

When I arrived home from school one day last week, I joyfully declared to my husband, "You will be happy to know, that I love my job." He smiled at me, wearing that smug, "I told you so" kind of look, and reminded me that he had actually ignored all of my griping. "I knew," he said, "that as soon as you got back in the classroom with the kids you'd be fine. It's who you are--what else could you be but a teacher?"

He's right. The other day I watched some of my students play with a professional musician as part of our Artist In Residence program, and I left the room crying because the joy on their faces spoke so strongly to me. A student wrote about me, "It sounds like Mrs. Miller has a great family, but what I love about her is that she treats us like we're her family too." I have had parents thank me and I have watched students' eyes come alive as they understand a new concept. I have already had to sit and have some really difficult conversations with students that led to productive decisions. I often come home feeling like I have triumphed. I laugh out loud every single day at my job. How many people laugh out loud countless times every single day because of their work?

I love teaching. What else would I do?

But I don't do well with hiding my feelings, and I feel like part of my job is to be honest with fellow teachers. Know that these confessions do not come easily, because I have been criticized heavily for my honesty this year. However, when I step back and look at where the criticism has come from, it has never once come from teachers. The teachers I have worked with over the past year have thanked me for saying what they feel they can't say (although I argue each time that they too can say these things), and have greeted me so kindly with their support. It is those not in the classroom who expect us to defy the forces of human emotion and smile without acknowledgement of the difficulties we face each day.

Sometimes we just need to hear from one another.  We tend to suffer in silence, feeling as though nobody else understands.  But it’s okay to confess.  It’s okay to be real. We just need to remember that there is a reason why we came into teaching—the kids. And we need to forget the other stuff and embrace the learning and life that exists in our classrooms. And be honest about it. Because only with honesty do we find the truth.