Monthly Archives: April 2015

Further attempts to establish continuity

I’m still struggling with a convoluted blog post and unable to finish, and so I’m switching gears now and writing an aside. No promises of depth or substance here, just some light banter which I’ll lay down before my early bed time.

It’s back to work subbing tomorrow, in the same class as three days last week. I look forward to it–environmental science, math and physics, the middle group a more interesting one, having come together to make up for an end of course exam they failed, so there’s a bit more testiness about school and teachers, and insecurity about their ultimate chances of success. But there’s a good community spirit there, and motivation in most cases to get the concepts.

I feel guilty about how easy it is to sub in a regular high school classroom, how reasonable most people are, how rare are the confrontations. Also seem to have amassed a pretty good general knowledge of high school material, and can call it up from memory on a need to know basis, so I feel I’m being useful in some way.

The next day I’ll be attending a youth summit, which should prove to be interesting–educators, health workers, law enforcement, community leaders coming together to discuss how to support at risk youth, so I’m sure I’ll learn a lot and meet some big hearted folks.

Not sure what further steps I may take on testing opt out in the coming weeks. I kept my son home for the first session, but he’ll have to hang out with the other opters-out for the big week of tests coming up, as I have to work. I’m curious as to what he’ll be expected to do instead of testing. I’ve heard how schools are trying to convey a message that opting out is not meant to be enjoyable, so some are not even allowing kids to read, at least not until they sit and stare for ten or fifteen minutes. I really don’t know what the feeling is about the tests at my kids’ school–I didn’t want to start that dialogue when I slipped in to file the opt out form, but I might just do as I gain confidence. As in, Mr. Principal, what do you think of these tests, and how does it make you feel when folks opt out? Do you see them as troublesome? Brave? If you thought something handed down to you was bad for kids, would you take a stand if you might get in trouble? Do you solicit feedback about this issue from your staff? What would happen tpo a staff member who would not administer the tests?

I had an idea for a college scholarship–it would be for students who had kept a nature journal for a few years. They’d submit or present it, with a chance to explain what they learned through the process. Might target a different kind of intelligence and sensitivity, an underrepresented group that deserves encouragement.The winner would receive a scholarship to pursue something along the lines of environmental science or other field that showed commitment to sustainability and furthering our understanding and appreciation of the creatures with which we share the planet.

It’s time for bed. Coal train whistle blowing makes a sleepy noise. Underneath the blankets go all the girls and boys.


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Posted by on April 27, 2015 in Arts, Poetry and Music, Education


Right Response

I just attended a two day training called Right Response, and it was worthwhile after all, though I went in with fairly low expectations. Not sure why I did–I guess because of my attitude problem. Which can be a problem but which can also help me sympathize with young people with attitude problems of their own.

The room was full of quality people, most with a good deal of experience–teachers, para-educators, a campus monitor and coach who left police work because he didn’t want to carry a gun any more, two bus drivers, both of whom were in the habit of thoughtfully filling backpacks with special supplies that distressed students might need, counselors, a school secretary, special ed teachers, several educators who were parents of kids with behavioral issues, and a few substitute teachers, both new and experienced.

The leader of the workshop had been a teacher in a classroom “of last resort,” as well as at times in other roles, including administration, and now does these workshops for an insurance company, because people rightly trained are less likely to cause or allow situations to escalate and then get sued. So there’s the positive side of insurance companies: their emphasis on safety and dealing properly with conflicts. The pressure from the other direction, to give every student a chance to get a quality education, balances things out on the other end so the “problem kids” don’t just get kicked out.

Many of the folks taking the class had experienced confrontations, some, threats, and a few, minor assaults (even from little kids). Others had an interest in working with at-risk students, and knew they needed more training. That’s where I might be heading, with my special preference for working with students who aren’t at ease in the system, who have spirit but sometimes poor relational and coping skills, and need help developing a vision for their lives, and a plan for their education. Not sure if that will mean a regular classroom or working in some other role. Another year of subbing is okay too, as it gives me a broad range of experiences, as well as lots of flexibility.

It’s not that I learned anything really new (other than how to get out of a ponytail hold or respond to a scratcher or grabber), but that it came up fresh again, and to tell you the truth I was getting slack in applying at home what I naturally do at school. At school, I show respect for a student’s personal space, give them time to comply with requests, treat everyone as if they are capable of great things, don’t take anything personally, and so on. At home, I order people around, nag, make negative assumptions, push too hard and fast, and get offended. After the day or two it took me to notice this dichotomy, I started being more pro-active in responding rightly at home, and things are definitely more peaceful. Now, though, there’s the problem of the kids getting on each other’s cases, following my old example.

One of the really freeing things I’ve learned over these years is that I don’t, after all, need to be what I’d call a “policeman” in my classroom. In fact, though I’m glad some people do that job in necessary situations, I don’t ever want to work in a classroom in which behavior management has replaced teaching. There’s a place for telling students what’s required, and giving consequences to students in order to bring them around as well as maintain a healthy learning environment for other students. But I and my students work best on the assumption that they are ultimately responsible for themselves, and that they want to be responsible for themselves. It’s really cool to work in those little teaching moments where I remind them (or sometimes tell them for the first time) that when they choose to work hard and push themselves they are developing themselves, that their abilities, their intelligence, their “potential” are not fixed entities. As I have been reminded by a writing coach, more and more I want to remind my students that if they want, I can help them with what they want and need to learn.

I guess those idealistic views may no longer have a place in the mainstream classroom. From what I hear, it’s a real struggle to keep the focus on meaningful student learning facilitated by good teachers using their gifts and watching each other’s backs. Maybe that’s why I want to work where not many are willing to go, where there can be a certain flexibility of approach, and I can develop my own high expectations instead of trying to meet up with someone else’s, as defined by an HQT rubric written by a consultant working for a corporate-funded think tank which has an eye on the cash cow of tax payer’s money and wants public servants to fail so they can step in.

My plan to get more connected here in my district is to go visit the nearest “alternative” high school and let them know I am seriously interested in subbing there. I’ve already emailed the teachers there but didn’t get any response. The alt school¬† in the district to the south is still an option for subbing–in fact I remember those students and hope to move to the next stage of trust and see if some of the tough fellows can become a little more willing to work on academics. But it’s a drive rather than a bike ride away, and my goal is to be able to bike to work some day. I have no idea what the turnover or the need is locally, but it’s worth a try.







Posted by on April 23, 2015 in Education


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12 Tips for new middle school substitute teachers

I relate to so many of the stories I read about the challenges of subbing, the desire to get things right, the love/exasperation relationship with those kids that we care about and are trying to serve, the nerves and sometimes fear. Now that I’ve made it through a year of teaching middle schoolers full time (right out of school–yikes!), then a few years of subbing in those grades, as well as raising four children (the youngest now in middle school), I feel I can offer some assistance–the kind I was desperate for when I was starting out. Keeping in mind that the journey is very individual and personal–getting a feel for your own style and the cultures and conditions in which you teach.

Some of these tips are crowd management techniques, while others are based on what I think students have a right to expect. None if them are about teaching, which I hope you will get to do in your areas of expertise, and in your own ever more effective and satisfying style.

  1. Stuff to bring: extra pencils (old stubby ones for emergency handouts) and pens, a clipboard with scrap paper, a notebook to gather tips for your future jobs and journal during your prep, backup stuff in case of inadequate plans, list of key personnel.
  2. As a hook, bring something to share—either a fascinating object or an anecdote, a puzzle, or a cool thing you can draw on the board (and later show them how). Last year I brought a large wolf spider carcass and a true spider story. This week I shared “dried slugs” (dried Italian plums). You could also save this treat for the end of the class after you wrap up the lesson.
  3. Read up on what you’ll be doing and how (individually or groups, to hand in or not, when work is due, what to do if done early). Mark it up for a quick reference. I also write the plan on the board.
  4. Explore the classroom. Look for all the machines, get the layout, find safety info and supplies, assignment trays, books, other useful materials. Don’t be shy about looking in cupboards and drawers–they are for teaching materials, and you’re the hired teacher.
  5. Before kids arrive, sketch the seating arrangement and fill in as kids arrive (you might use tone provided by the teacher, but students often switch when they see a sub, and I don’t make them switch back unless there’s a problem). It’s also a way to mingle, connect, etc. If it’s time to start before the bell rings, fill the rest in later. If a kid pulls the wool over your eyes and gives a false name (you’ll learn to see it in their eyes and in the delay as they try to think of what name to use), share the joke. The map is useful for a quick attendance (confirm with the kids who’s absent) and for taking private notes (see below #12). I use a clipboard for these seating maps, the sub plans, and scrap paper, and carry it practically everywhere.
  6. Write your name on the board and leave it there all day. When you introduce yourself (a common courtesy you should never omit), give a few basic details. For example, how long have you been subbing, your specialties, whether you have children. Cheerfully, briefly, set out basic expectations. Don’t be the heavy at that point, or you’ll probably be tested sooner and more dramatically (as in “Make my day”). Let them know you’ll be following the plan left by their teacher, with your own variations. I err on the side of caution/safety when it comes to rules & procedures on my first few days until I know the students. If I hear “Mr. B lets us….” I say, yeah, but he’s way nicer than I am.” Or I explain that since I’m new I’ll have to be more “strict” until I know everyone better. They understand. Ask individual students during the course of the day about any important details not in the sub plan, like does the teacher usually meet them at the door after recess, where’s the remote for the document camera, is there a hall pass, does the teacher usually collect this work, etc.
  7. Make allowances for normal, natural human behavior. This includes socializing, friendly teasing, humor, curiosity about things not on the lesson plan, creating classroom entertainment, wanting to move around, and testing the sub. Remember your own youth. Yes, you can ask for and expect quiet during instructions or reading, hands raised for group discussion, and minding their own business when work is being done, but don’t be unreasonable and overly controlling. I have students get up and stretch or walk around to get blood flowing and to relax muscles between seat activities, kids breathe deeply to settle down after a humor interruption, sometimes invite antsy students to walk around at the back while they read, or pick them to do a job requiring movement or talking.
  8. If a student is starting to disrupt the flow, try to get him/her back on track subtly with a stroll around the room, a tap, a look or signal, with as little interruption as possible. Try not to let the disruption become classroom entertainment. Appeal to reason and the student’s conscience, with your underlying communication: You know what I ask is reasonable, don’t you? Please do what you can to make this class time work well for everyone.
  9. Repeated interruptions and off task behavior call for quiet intervention aimed at determining the real reason for the problem–is the work confusing for the student? Can they not handle sitting near distractions? Is there an ongoing issue that you as a sub cannot address? So many variations here, I hesitate to advise, except to say, use empathetic discernment, clarify expectations, and be firm when student persist in interfering with the learning of other students. The phrase, “I insist” can be helpful here, if you don’t glower at the same time. Occasionally I realize the problem is bigger than I, and I regretfully hand the student over to the school discipline people (I call ahead and send the student down to the office). I try to check in with the student again later, and with staff members who know him or her.
  10. If assignments are due, ask students who aren’t handing it in for some reason to write that reason in a note to the regular teacher. Try to include these details in your own notes too.
  11. If a student asks you to sign a permission form, e.g. for a field trip, have them ask a regular staff member instead, explaining that they have the authority to do that. If you can’t find hall/library passes, make your own, noting the time and reason.
  12. Keep notes, in your own scrawly handwriting and code, on who’s working well, who’s goofing off (and so got moved), who got the day’s work done (have them show you to be signed off)–to be used for the neat sub notes you leave for the teacher. Try to finish up each class with a few minutes left for students to tidy up and relax.

Posted by on April 13, 2015 in Education


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From the ground up

Once I knew–I had the epiphany–what was truly important to me, the thing that I would seek above all else, give over everything, or learn to through stages, the pearl of great price. “This is it,” I thought.

But I woke up this morning, and couldn’t remember what it was. This wasn’t the first time I forgot my purpose n life. So, I thought, I’ll clean up this mess–the floor is gritty, and after that I’ll do that accumulated list of little things. Just to clear away the distractions. Maybe organize that desk, fix the rattling keyboard drawer, and tape up that box to go back to the trampoline parts store. How can I even think about deep stuff like that when my physical space is so out of feng shui?

But I look at the mess–sneakers, electric sander, dog dish, horse blanket, all jumbled up on the floor, laundry in piles to be washed, sorted, and I don’t care about any of that either, whether it’s temporarily tidy or not, whether I can ever live in that rarefied level of spotlessness housewifehood. “it was a simple home, but spotless, with starched cotton curtains she had made from salvaged flour sacks.” House work is only as a means, like I said, to get to a place of more clarity. Despite my trying to believe that somewhere therein was, √† la Brother Lawrence–sanctification. The quotidian mysteries. I am open to that possibility, but am essentially agnostic there.

Which raises the question, why all this indoor living, if it’s not, as promised, helping us live a more intellectual, a more spiritual life by protecting us from the raging elements and wild beasts and providing effort-reducing technologies? A life of the higher realms of consciousness that transforms the human race, lifts it above a life of subsistence and survival of the fittest to pass on genetic material, and drives Progress? I say, the walls and roof might have been a good idea, for the domicile as well as the monastery, and the dishwasher and fridge were great idea, but the problem is the floor, which needs to be swept, and cupboards and shelves–basically anything with a finished horizontal surface–which accumulate both possessions and dust.

There is also the problem that we’ve got away from the idea of having a virtual slave class to keep these things in order while we upper classes create culture. Or a hierarchy where the novitiate labors and aspires to rise, so someone always gets the housework done, and even sees it as a necessary if primitive aspect of one’s education. Now there’s the housework, and everyone is expected to pitch in like a good egalitarian, but somehow these duties still fall unevenly, unless a lot of extra higher consciousness is applied there, and wasn’t that what we were trying to avoid in the first place?

Which might be an argument for mail order wives (or husbands). That is, why not keep a stock of folks on some underprivileged archipelago or subarctic clime who simply aim to please. Not a companionship of the intellect, but of one with the brain and the leisure (and the extra cash), the other with the brawn and a submissive spirit, so lovely in the eyes of the lord (or lady). It has been done with satisfactory results, I am told. Sometimes even locals can be trained in that submissive spirit, so genetic cross fertilization is not always necessary. Well, if they’re happy that way, why not?

Clarity indeed. What is it that I need clarity in order to seek, something to which I have inherited an addiction along with this infernal self consciousness. that hasn’t been made necessary by the very fact that I’ve moved indoors, out of the Garden. That was such a happy place, where everyone did the housework. At least I think they did–I can’t remember. Whatever they did, they didn’t angst about it, and I think they would have been free to grow up in a more natural way into the knowledge of good and evil, without the need for dishwashers and a slave class.

You reminded me of the pearl, with your talk of giving it all, and the euphoria, the falling to your knees, the prayers of thanks. And I remembered feeling that way–tears come even now–though it didn’t seem to come through so much will power, and drive, and all-out effort through personal suffering. You might say that what you have been given, even so, is in the realm of grace. In fact I’m pretty sure you would. But the self denial, the pressing on through pain and self doubt, that requires more bravery than I feel capable of. Or that is even called for in my circumstances. Unless, unless…


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If only there were enough if this to go around

Heavy turquoise, mug, softly ribbed and a little asymmetrical, warms your hands as you sip the foam. You reflect on the pleasures of the good breakfast of sausage, eggs, and Brussels sprouts with cheese, the run along the trail with Indian plum buds bursting like candle flames on the banks of the running stream. The soy milk foam is stuck down at the bottom of your mug, and you want that last bit. Reaching for the first implement on hand to scoop it up, you find a weathered stick cracked to a point, rough and splintery, and after imagining the feel of the wood on your tongue, decide to leave it where it is. Your youngest son has been here, whittling sticks being his specialty. All sizes and shapes, with or without duct tape handles or wooden hilt, some with round twine, left behind everywhere, swords and pistols for his daily battles. You used to study animal tracks when you were a girl, learned to recognize rabbit trails, the difference between dog and cat impressions, the story of an owl attack on a rodent in the snow. Now you follow trails of toy weapons, discarded socks, used dishes, and food wrappers, interpreting natural human history.

You’ve hooked up your laptop in the back bedroom for some quiet while most of the family watches the football game. You’re glad your daughters and son can enjoy that relaxed time together with their dad, but you’ve never tried to cultivate that particular interest, though the advertisements are an interesting study. But sometimes people get annoyed at your commentary. The Mazda ad that asks, “Remember the time when your trunk wouldn’t open itself? When you only had HD in the living room? When a little weather could put a hold on your plans?” All a giant cultural irony to you, and you can’t help saying so. Do they think that just because some folks are sitting down to a football game on a Sunday afternoon, they think their purpose in life is to strive for more luxury, withdraw more from the troubles and injustices of our times, to give in to and feed a craving for more, more, more? Must just be clueless, never studied or served overseas, never had a taste for, say, the news. We talk about an educated citizenry, and then this is what we produce–manipulation of those too dull to separate false from true, want from need.

You pick up some audiobooks for your boy last week, told him they were required listening, wanting him to broaden his range beyond the usual formulaic series. Knucklehead: Tall Tales and Almost True Stories of Growing up Scieszka, Hitler Youth, and Farmer Boy. He was totally engaged. Hitler Youth an eye-opener, the way these boys were encouraged to compete to be the best while being ruthless to the weak, to elevate the state above all other loyalties such that children turned their neighbors, their companions, their parents in for comments critical of the regime and the fuehrer, submitted themselves sacrificially unto death, all the while fighting tooth and claw to survive and come out on top, hoping to be one of the elite. As their nation did the same, organizing to recover from their war losses and breech the humiliating conditions of the Treaty of Versailles. In their trust in the state and desire to serve it in its struggle, ordinary Germans people failed to convey to their children the foundational principles, the personal ethics, that would have enabled them to see through this demonic form of patriotism. Which you see as a kind of moral laziness, an abandonment of parental responsibilities, both in actual families and in German religious institutions.

Back in the kitchen after the game you hear the comforting rush of dishwasher, the oven timer on the granola rings, your daughter taps on keys as she wraps up her essay on experiential learning. She was completely stuck, couldn’t get from being about to talk about what she wanted to say to creating written sentences that flowed. So you asked her questions and typed her thoughts, worked on showing her the process, even fed her some phrases. She’s really improving, and starting to write about issues important to her, getting that this is her education. You suggest that she conclude her paper with something about how it was through her educational experiences that she became interested in experiential education, and is now interested in not only getting this paper handed in as required for a grade, but in studying related issues for a deeper personal understanding.

Running down the trail today, you tried to pay more attention to the different bird songs, catch sight of the singers. The tough ones are those that hide out in the underbrush. But today as you came to the intersection of two trails, there was a winter wren perched on a mossy rock, singing. High and sweet, melodious in a non-structured way, each phrase a few seconds long. Each time it sang, it opened its tiny wings and held them at an angle downward from its body, and turned its beak from side to side to direct the song to all the wrens at various points of a wide arc. Although you were standing only a few yards away and it must have seen you, it ignored your presence and stayed relaxed. When a second runner came around the bend the wren looked after him and got quiet, and you moved on quietly.

It went like this:


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Wrapping up college applications and comparisons

When my oldest son joined us in the airport arrivals area, he said we had all got taller, except me–I looked a little shorter, he said. Which reminded me of times I had felt that very same thing on seeing my family after an absence–some kind of manifestation of relative expansion into the significance of a developing life. Or possibly it is more about parents being imprinted on one’s early memory as large, in relative stature as well as in influence, until, voila! there they stand, looking very small and ordinary to the adult progeny.

Acadia University, Wolfville, Nova Scotia, is now my son’s college of choice. If he gets accepted there, it will be tough to break it to the Grandma and Grandpa here, who have their hearts quietly set on Whitworth. My daughter saw my mother-in-law’s face when I was telling the family at dinner what my son had liked about Acadia, and she said her expression was very controlled. My father-in-law shared with us what a difference Whitworth had made in his life when he studied there, then coached and taught P.E. My mother-in-law said–jokingly—is what if he meets and marries some wonderful Nova Scotian girl, and decides to live there, so far away? Like I did, basically, depriving my parents of regular contact with their grandchildren. Another way to look at it, though, is don’t we then owe my parents some time with at least one grandchild?

The Acadia tour was led by two students, and my son was struck by how many of the others they met along the way that they knew personally. Also by the quality of the computer science program (they also have a great education program) and the scale of the campus. He told me that he loved the opportunity to be closer to my side of the family for a few years–my parents, sister and brother-in-law, niece, and brother all live within an hour of Acadia–as well as to be immersed in a Canadian way of looking at the world. Also, he wants diversity. Whitworth, he said, limited diversity, first by being expensive, and second by being Christian. My husband an I are both very aware of how narrow and sometimes even intellectually dishonest an “orthodox” world view can be. And there’s so much of value to learn from folks with other points of view and life experiences. As for the opening up of other cans of worms such as exposure to lifestyles and philosophies that he, and/or we, would find immature, unhealthy, or dysfunctional, I have confidence that not only will he maintain his integrity, but he’ll be a good influence. I hope I’ll feel the same about all my children as they get to that stage, that they are ready to go out there and be light and salt, and when they make mistakes, that they’ll be okay.

While he was away we had some really interesting conversations with two of his cousins who went to an evangelical Christian college in state. What they shared confirmed in both my husband and me that a conservative Christian college probably wasn’t the best option for our son. This wasn’t the intention of my nieces, of course. These sisters have completely different personalities–one, a self-admitted compliant child and introvert, admitted that she sought the cultural shelter of the Christian campus and needed that for a few years, and the other, a self-admitted strong-willed child, who originally wanted nothing to do with Christian schooling, went in to be challenged and to challenge, feeling–this is my between-the-lines interpretation–that she needed the loving constraints of the campus covenant and close knit Christian community as a kind of spiritual discipline.

So we’re waiting for the mail, now. Whitworth and another college (low priority) have sent acceptances. This is so exciting. Even though all of our lives will change with one leaving for college, I’m looking forward to seeing him make his way, and expect he will do well.

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Posted by on April 6, 2015 in Education, Religion & Spirituality


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A swallow tale that might be hard to swallow

Sadie is annoyed at you again, though you let her sleep in and offered to make her breakfast. But she wants to go out and order from a restaurant, says she can’t stand the options offered, and why do you never want take us out, Mom? She stomps off to the bathroom, but there’s someone in there, and she pounds on the door in frustration. A muffled shout from within, a growl from the hallway, and she stalks off to her bedroom. You turn back to the keyboard, which offers a more welcoming field of possibilities, though your conscience raises its eyebrows at that choice–a vacation of duties? Why aren’t they more thankful, kinder to one another; why do they still no know how to take turns? Your eyes lift and gaze out the windows of the wide dormer overlooking the lake, over which swallows bank and wheel, blue, gray and white. Young ones practicing flight maneuvers. So natural and free, without a worry. No family conflicts or toxic self analysis. She breathes in the pine scented breeze as she followed the fledgelings–now one, now another.

Mother swallow perches in the pine tree and watches her young ones. They will never get it right, she frowns, and flicks her wing tips to cross the other way over her back. Plowing the air ahead of them, frightening the tiny flies away instead of snapping them up, dipping too low over the water and losing momentum. Was the feeding during the fledging insufficient? Not enough of those fatty crickets and too many flies? And what about the training–did they go too quickly from the glide to the dip? She should be out there demonstrating, but she is tired, so tired. She turns to the nest, identifies the places that needed to be reinforced, then looks up at the houses perched above. Those humans, so contented in their beautiful nests, peaceful, well fed, children never starving or pecking at one another, knocking each other out of the nest. She takes a deep breath, lets her eyes trace the silhouette of the houses against the morning sky.

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Posted by on April 6, 2015 in Parenting & Family


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