Monthly Archives: June 2013

Imprint of one generation on another

Imprint of one generation on another

Have you ever caught yourself calling your child by the name of one of your own siblings in the same birth order position? I have, and it’s a strange experience. I caught myself doing it when my daughters were about the age my sisters were when I was a young teen, the age at which I started to consider myself grown up. My sisters are seven and ten years younger, and my daughters are about the same number of years apart as them, so somewhere that imprint of roles and identities transferred to my subconscious. Something about me being so much older, taking care of, teaching, and playing with them when they were little. A distinguishing element between my two sisters was that the older had brown hair and eyes, and the younger blonde hair and blue eyes. This reinforces the subconscious transfer, as my older daughter is brown-eyed and younger blue-eyed. I sometimes even imagine my older blonde daughter as having brown hair. And I gave my youngest almost the same names as my youngest sister, in reverse order, without even noticing it (my mom pointed it out).

I’m glad that there’s no strangeness in my sisterly relationships that might inadvertently push forward in my relationships with my daughters. There was no jealousy, negative comparisons, taking on a controlling big sister role (that I know of). On the contrary, they were fun little girls to dress up, watch grow up from the distance of years, and they became women to be admired and with whom I have much in common. Too bad we live thousands of miles apart, since they are wonderful with my children and we enjoy making music together. If those positive memories and realities influence me to look for similar good relationships with my daughters, so be it.

I also have two sons, neither of which shares a family position or physical likeness with any of my three brothers. The only strange occurrence there is that I occasionally call the family dog by my youngest son’s name, because both have a tendency to make too much noise at times. I always feel ashamed of myself when that happens.

What similar types of patterns have you noticed  arising in your adulthood? How does it affect your relationships?


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Reactions to a Memorial Day school assembly

Reactions to a Memorial Day school assembly

American patriotism still makes me cringe sometimes. Having come on strong there, I must say I also recognize the value and importance of loyalty, and sacrifice to protect one’s people. I have also have grown to appreciate some of the foundations for American patriotism, beyond mere attachment to one’s place of birth. The American Declaration of Independence is awesome. But I’m wary of too much patriotism, when early foundations of patriotism (the “we’re all American and isn’t that great” of early education) is not exchanged for a more balanced and objective appreciation of and loyalty to one’s country.

Part of it comes of being a Canadian and a Maritimer by birth. One rarely sees a  “Proud to be Canadian” bumper sticker anywhere, of the border, but Maritimers sometimes think of themselves as inhabiting a country of their own, a region apart from the rest of Canada. At one time we might have become part of the U.S., and even now, lying east of Quebec, which has always had national aspirations, we necessarily regard our bonds with the west as somewhat tenuous, since our proximity to and shared heritage with Quebec might make us part of that new country some day, with an English-speaking minority.

In Canada, we tend to be brought up to be more internationally minded than in the U.S.. Children pass on from Canadian history to world history early in their lives. I was never required to memorize the names of the prime ministers. We are a mosaic, valuing the countries of origin of our immigrants, not a melting pot like the U.S., which expects that everyone take on a new American identity. Canadians have been seen in a more positive light when traveling internationally (hence the occasional maple leaf on backpacks to ensure our welcome in hostels). We give more development aid per capita and per GNP, and less of it is tied to huge industrial developments that benefit us in the end.

I married an American who knew some world geography and promised we could live within the broadcast range of CBC radio. I’ve lived among Americans for nineteen years, and no longer feel much different, now that I’ve got a community here. But when I get to attend a patriotic American event, I do feel that sense of strangeness, and that I’d better be careful how I express myself.

This Memorial Day I was working as a substitute teacher in a high school. In the morning I enjoyed several hours of reading and discussing Shakespeare with students, then trotted off with them to the gym for a patriotic assembly. The cadet drills were very good. Young men and women in starched uniforms, in order, dance-like, marching, turning, pounding rifle barrels on the gym floor in booming unison, in obedience to the leader’s quiet commands. I admired their discipline, coordination, submission for the service of the group. Something valuable, in its place. In its place, along with other important aspects of individual self-government. There was also a reading of a letter from a Yankee soldier to his sweetheart, before he died, with a background of live music. Love of country over love of mate. Laudable, even by the mate, in the proper context.

But when the poem “My Name is Old Glory” was read, I could hardly help but roll my eyes. Not only was it (to my untrained but moderately literate ear) a bad poem, but it was full of patriotic claptrap. Now there was a topic for someone’s sociology, psychology, history class to discuss and debate at length. And, Lord, I hope someone used the opportunity. Or is it too risky to analyze and even critique a poem about the American flag? Might be considered dangerously unpatriotic. If I get audited next year, I’ll know. Maybe it’s just nitpicking, like criticizing a hymn sung in church for its bad theology (which I did in my Old Rugged Cross post).

(To read the entire Old Glory poem, click here.)

I had my own children read the poem and make observations, and their responses were very interesting.

My ten year old loves poetry, enjoys memorizing and reciting favorites, and reads them for fun. He’s currently into Shel Silverstein. He has spent only third grade in public school so far, and studied native Americans in social studies. At home we’re up to the Civil War in American history. Here’s our interview:

Q:Here, read this, and tell me your impressions, what you think it’s about.

A: (Impatiently) I don’t feel influenced by poems; I don’t think things, and understand meanings, like, oh wow, that’s so spiritual. I just think, that’s a good poem–it has a good rhyme.

He reads it through, quickly, won’t slow down when I ask him to.

Q: What do you think of the poem?

A: It’s not a good poem, no rhyme or rhythm, too much repetition. And it’s like bragging–it’s all bragging.

Q: Why would someone write a bragging poem?

A: Because he thinks the flag is cool, and some people don’t.

Q: Do you think it’s a good one to read on Memorial Day?

A: Yeah.

Q: Even though you don’t like it?

A: Yeah.

My twelve year old is a straightforward person, not much of an abstract thinker either yet. She attended public school in fifth grade. She said the poem was meaningful, but we don’t know what the meaning is. She seemed shy or unsure about stating any opinions. Said the first stanzas reminded her of the stars for some reason. She couldn’t abstract the meaning in words. She liked the poem and thought it was a good one to read out on patriotic days.

My fifteen year old read and reacted to just about everything about the poem. She decided to take lines literally and rejected them as illogical. “It doesn’t fly, it sticks to a pole. It doesn’t stand for peace, honor, truth and justice; it stands for America, and America is not those things. It can’t bow–it’s just a piece of cloth. It should not be worshiped. No one is afraid of a flag. It wasn’t at every battle. People don’t rip up the flag for bandages.” She agreed with some lines. “True, Americans are arrogant.” Her closing statement: “I think flags are overrated. They symbolize America, but American isn’t the best country in the world. And it’s not a very good poem, because nothing rhymes.” As an after thought, she added, “You and Dad ruined me for life, so I’m not patriotic at all.” Oops.

My seventeen year old read the poem without comment. He knew, I am sure, why I was asking for his opinions, and was reluctant to give his own opinion, because he’s been working on being open-minded and less judgmental, as he develops his personal views about various things. He was objective: “It’s a song of praise for the American flag.” Was it a good poem in terms of form, in terms of meaning? “No.” Why not? “It’s inspirational for those who appreciate that stuff. Noble, nice, it helps the U.S. to feel proud of itself. But I don’t care about that. It’s not really into it.” He felt it was a good poem to read on Memorial Day. For all ages? Maybe not in high school. It was “a little much–I’d tone it down for high school, or maybe read a poem that focused more on the people instead of the flag.”

I think we ought to be careful, when children are young, to expose them to great poetry, and great ideas. If we expect them to say the pledge of allegiance, let them learn first what it means, to the best of their ability at each age. Perhaps we should instill in them, rather than a fierce love of the United States, a strong appreciation of its best principles and practices–freedom, equality, justice, loyalty, democracy, dissent, balance of power, universal education, environmental protection, and so on. If they are expected to salute the flag, let them associate it with these principles as worked out in America. Then as they learn their American history, they can measure historical events and people against these principles.

As young Americans study world history (more, please!), they can learn the roots of these principles and varieties of interpretation around the world and in different cultures. Were these principles around long ago, even more than 250 years ago? As they consider the acts of the American military and individual soldiers around the world and throughout history, they can be asked, who are the heroes and heroines of the wars–everyone who fought and died, or only some? Are there some war deaths that are not triumphant, but only tragic? Who are the war villains–are they only on the enemy side? Are there some reasons for joining the military besides the desire to serve one’s country and its highest principles? What are valid reasons to refuse to join or to fight?


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Thoughts from long ago

I thought I’d jump across the ditch and do “He loves me, he loves me not” on a daisy on the bank, for fun. Smiling to  myself, I jump-stepped…and landed in a patch of wild strawberries. “Ah,” I thought, “he not only loves me, but he loves me in a wild, sweet passion.” And a vivid green grasshopper leaped toward me. “It’s a love that’s alive.” And I plucked the daisy petals for their sweet confirmation. The next thing was the warm, fragrant smell of moss, leaves, and ripeness rising from the ground. “It permeates the world around us,” I thought. Then more creatures hopped and crawled, and led my eye to a patch of daisies that looked already plucked.

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Posted by on June 10, 2013 in Places & Experiences


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It’s such a relief to stop trying to sound wise. Here’s this for you:

If I had a beige pyjama for all the road I’ve read,

then the shoes I once beleaguered would be half a pint from dead.

Candles burning in the shower would have all but blamed away

so ten thousand million doorknobs could not hesitate to say,

“Put the sticks around the blender and the boys all in a fright,

for we’re going on a buttered ramp and we’ll all fray tonight!”

GMS 1992



Tips for substitute teachers

  1. Prepare mentally. As you drive, visualize your confident competence, and/or pray for favor with staff and students, wisdom, insight, confidence, anything you feel you need to have a good day. And expect a good, challenging, successful day.
  2. Check in with the office staff, introduce yourself, get teaching plan, schedule, map or directions, names of people to call for assistance.
  3. Bring your basic supplies to the classroom and stash them near your desk: water bottle, snack, lunch, extra writing tools, a notebook, and some riddles, mental puzzles, group games that require no props, etc., for lag times.
  4. Read the sub plans carefully, underline key items for quick reference, jot down bell schedule if it’s not included on the plans.
  5. Write the basic plan on the board for students (and your) easy reference. Also write your name.
  6. Make a classroom tour. Locate all materials and supplies, and check equipment functions. See what other supplies, books, and charts are there. If you have time, look at posted or shelved student work.
  7. In your notebook or on scrap paper, draw a rough seating map. Some students like the freedom to switch seats when a sub shows up, and since you don’t know names and faces, it’s a good idea to make an up-to-date map. As each class arrives, you can have a student fill in the names, or go around yourself and jot them down. I prefer the latter. Students seem to appreciate the small check-in, and I tell them I want to be able to call them by their names. If they joke around and give a false name, I go with it tell them I’m going to use the one they give, and expect them to answer to it. Usually that brings out the truth. THIS SEATING MAP IS MY MOST USEFUL TOOL!
  8. When class starts, get attention and introduce yourself simply, pointing out your name on the board. I hope at this point you can communicate that you’re glad to be there and meet them all. Then get busy right away with first items, and keep it moving.
  9. Stay alert to “testers,” and win them over with subtle communications (shake of head from across the room, touch on shoulder while talking to class generally, specific, quiet instructions, etc.) while protecting their dignity (Don’t stare at them, single them out, frown them down, come down hard without warning). Try to give most of your positive attention to those engaged with the learning process, and keep things moving.
  10. Carry your seating chart around (and schedule/plans, if you like) on a clipboard, with a notebook to jot down anything that helps you–notes by names of students, who’s out at the library or bathroom & when they left, questions for regular teacher, etc. When students ask what you are writing, tell them.
  11. If necessary after prolonged sitting, give students the opportunity to stand, stretch, and get their wiggles out.
  12. Ask students for help–most appreciate the opportunity to be useful. Where do you keep supplies? Does Mr. R___ read this aloud? What’s the next door teacher’s name again?
  13. Ask for students’ thoughts and opinions on the material, or anything that might make a good discussion (hands really are necessary to hear everyone, even with older students). Try to wrap things up with some synthesis or review.
  14. Say goodbye, and thanks.
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Posted by on June 9, 2013 in Education


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When all else fails, tell the migrating geese riddle

Elation and fatigue. A good combination, I guess. Figuring out where I ought to be, preparing for my re-entry into teaching. Subbing again this month after a year off has awakened that desire again. But I dreaded being in a fifth grade class, the only gig available that day, being more comfortable with older students. I like the developing complexity of teens, their ability to think in the abstract, appreciate multiple points of view, and control their impulses. They know how to work the tech equipment, and don’t need to be escorted between classes.

I arrive, am looking over my sub notes, see the first page lists names of students most likely to give me trouble. Then I see notes from yesterday’s sub–so they’ve been out of their routine already–that’s hard on them. A teacher comes in from across to give me a heads up, says this crew is a handful–they gave yesterday’s sub a hard time; she explains the usual disciplinary procedure, and pledges her support. She says she plans to come in and give a little talk on respecting the sub at the start of the class. Another comes in, and says basically the same thing, and wishes me luck. A third! Must have been some talk in the staff room yesterday. She says I can send the rowdies to her, no problem. It’s certainly a supportive place to work.

Despite the warnings, I feel ready. Eighteen years of parenting, eleven of homeschooling, and a few years teaching public school have done something for my confidence. I mindset to turn things around and not get pulled into a tug of war.

Ms. H– comes in at the start of home room, and says her piece. It comes across fine, not, as I’d feared, as if I was a wuss who needed the senior teacher’s help. Had that experience before. I add that I’ve been given The List, but I don’t plan to look at it unless someone’s going to cause trouble, and if they’re already on it, I’ll come down hard. Ms. H– likes that, later says she likes my style, has to get my number. Maybe I pulled the wool over some eyes there, since I’m not really that way.

And I find I just really like these kids–every one. Not that I’m afforded many meaningful exchanges in the busy classrooms, but they are fine, just fine. They’re really all ready to respect me, and I find all I seem to have to do is be kind and respectful, be real, laugh with them, do what I do best, ask them to help with the rest. “Where is the cafeteria, anyway?” “How do you usually do this?” “Sorry about switching partners on you, can you make it work anyway?” Um, who was that teacher who just came in?” “Yeah, it is boring, but it’s all I have right now. Any ideas how to make it better?” When I can appeal to their better nature, things flow pretty well, most of the time.

It was a fantastic day. I got to do some real teaching, not just administer a test, show a video, or supervise busywork. Didn’t have to send anyone anywhere besides the occasional seat switch for focus. A got kudos from several teachers, had no deadlocks with students, just lots of interesting “contextualized interventions” to keep noise down, keep students participating and being nice to each other, and, what swelled my head most, twice I overheard students calling me “nice.”

Student discipline: “You just have to keep your thumb down,” said one teacher. “Keep ’em in line,” “Give them an inch, they’ll take a mile,” and so on. We throw the words around, but the best teachers, the ones I respect because I see how they really are with students, don’t really live by that. I think one of the biggest mistakes new teachers make is to take that advice as first principles. But it’s not that simple. It’s not about “classroom control” in that sense. It’s a very difficult thing to express, but achieving a state of educational progress, not a state, a flow, is an art, not a set of techniques. It’s about being very observant, getting a handle on the plan and routine, keeping things going, and showing you really are glad to be there and intend to do your best. And never, ever, trampling any student’s dignity, while, as much as possible, keeping one’s own ego out of it.

Contracted teachers can be so stressed, tired, discouraged, and sometimes it means stupid discipline. As a sub, I think it’s easier to be objective about it. I’m not hampered by loyalty to the system or school or staff, not so concerned about job security or impressing the principal, not tired or burned out, and in most cases the previous reputations of students are unknown to me. Another advantage is that, if I float from place to place, I remain somewhat of a novelty, a mystery.

Dumb discipline–once it was three boys goofing around in an assembly, and a teacher picked one and came down hard, on the wrong one. It was before the event had started, and after they had no doubt been sitting still in their chairs for a hour, and needed to move a bit, check in with the tribe, connect and laugh. Is that so bad? I can’t remember what caught the teacher’s attention–I think it was an object snatched and tossed. She steps in, picks the one the thinks is guilty, tells him to stand, face to the wall, until she says he’s done. It’s called “Step 1,” part of the “Steps” disciplinary strategy. When a kid breaks a rule, the teacher is to say “You’ve chosen Step 1,” and he or she has to stand apart in a designated area until talked to by the teacher, to think, take responsibility and discuss a better way, then they are released. Or go to Step 2 if they continue to break the rules, until there’s an office visit, etc. Handy, straightforward, logical, open to intelligent interpretation by individual staff. And the kids knew what to expect, wherever they were in the school building.

But this teacher was pissed off, perhaps off her game because of the change of routine, and busy with other things. The boy stood there, and stood there. Had she even remembered he was waiting? He looked embarrassed, out of his element. I wanted to step in, since I’d seen the incident, but didn’t want to mess with a teacher on her high horse. What was going through his mind? I didn’t do anything (he hadn’t). This is dumb (it was). Teachers aren’t fair (she wasn’t). My friends are laughing (they were).

As a teacher,you try to interpret events, see who started it, make an example, get back to your job of teaching the others as quickly as possible, but if you realize you’ve got it wrong, for God’s sake, admit it! Many a time in my first year teaching I left a student outside waiting for a talking-to, forgetting they were there. I’ve yelled at students out of cumulative irritation, overreacted, been unfair, reinforced bad behavior with attention, missed important incidents. And I remember that feeling of just being such a rookie–if things started to slide out of control, started to become merely a show, a show of my incompetence and the coolness of some clown, I felt so tense, so frustrated. It takes time to learn the subtle art of classroom control. The very term is misleading, really. It’s more a process of observational, relational, verbal, physical, and emotional multitasking. And having reasonable expectations is very important. I will probably always set impossibly high expectations of what I want to accomplish with and for students, but I’m learning to notice progress, in any case. And I try to take it all with good humor.

When all else fails, I tell this riddle:

You know those V-formations of geese flying their migration routes? How there’s always one arm of the V that’s longer than the other? Who knows why that is?

(I’ve told this any number of times, and hardly ever hear the right answer, which is: Because there are more geese in that one.)


Posted by on June 8, 2013 in Education, Places & Experiences


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TED Talk: Susan Cain on the Power of Introverts


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How to treat substitute teachers

Office staff

  • Say hello, exchange names, give sub info, key, schedule, locations of classroom and staff restroom, and any other important information. Give out your extension number in case it’s not easily available in the classroom.

Teacher that requested sub

  • Provide folder with emergency info, contact people, student rosters and/or seating charts, basic routines and policies of your classroom, and any passes or disciplinary forms that may be needed. If necessary include information on special challenges that may occur (with student names), and your expectations, so the sub can provide continuity with your established patterns.
  • Post a phone list near the phone, not just with names and extension numbers, but positions held.
  • Assume the sub has full teaching credentials, experience, and some knowledge of the subject area (s), unless you know otherwise.
  • Write clear sub plans that include more material than needed, with options. (Personally, I like plans that allow me to practice my skills and engage students on the topics covered, rather than just show a video.) Make sure you explain where to find all necessary items. If the sub will be using electronic equipment, make some instructions available, or name a person who can assist. Include some tasks the sub can do to help you or other staff during their prep period.
  • After returning to your classroom, read the sub’s notes. Then ask your students for feedback. Not just “How did you like the sub?” as a general question to the class, but ask specific students, discerning ones, whether the sub was a good teacher, handled situations effectively, etc. Any willing students can fill out an evaluation or write a note.
  • Fill out and file an evaluation and file a copy in your records, and in the other usual places.
  • Add the sub to your preferred provider list if things went well, and send them an encouraging email if you have time. If you engage a certain sub numerous times with good result, ask them if they are looking for a contract position, and if so, offer to write a reference or give an administrator a good word on their behalf.

Regular teachers and staff

  • Pop in before classes start to introduce yourself and offer support that many be needed or other helpful information, especially if you teach the same grade.
  • If you need to come in during class time to get something or talk to a student, check in with the sub first to explain what’s up. Do not ignore the sub–that’s uncomfortable for the sub, especially if you haven’t been introduced, and a poor example to students of professional and social etiquette.
  • Introduce yourself and be friendly in the lunch room, then carry on. Subs don’t mind being quiet observers as they discern the atmosphere on each staff and learn what’s going on in the school and community.
  • If you believe a sub is unable to handle a situation, assist in a way that preserves their dignity in the eyes of students and themselves. Communicate privately with the sub about such situations.

Principals and other administrators

  • Pay attention to the subs in your school. They may be among the candidates for jobs soon to be posted, and your observations and feedback are valuable. Pop in and introduce yourself. Be willing to observe and evaluate the sub during instruction if requested. Read sub evaluations in your spare time, or at least if they apply for a job in your school.
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Posted by on June 1, 2013 in Education, Relationships


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