Thursday, September 24, 2015

Losing a Recent Student

On Tuesday morning, the faculty and staff at my school was called to the lecture hall. There, the Dean of Operations tearfully broke the news that one of our recent students had been killed in a car accident the night (or early morning) before.

We've had a lot of staff turnover, so for some her name meant nothing. Others of us, however, worked closely with this young lady every day for years. Speaking for my myself, I taught her either English or Advisory for over four years. I am distraught beyond words...

That doesn't mean, of course, that staff members unfamiliar with D were unaffected. It's always tragic when a child of 18 dies, no matter the circumstances, and most new staff members had to aid in supporting distraught students. D was a fellow student and peer of the group of kids that graduated in June, so many kiddos remain that were very close to her.

I teach in a very small town, and one of the great things is how everyone comes together in times of tragedy, whether they get along otherwise or not. Everyone in this small town is lifting high D's spirit to heaven and keeping her parents, siblings, and close friends in their thoughts and prayers. I fear that when the shock of this tragedy wears off, the gossip mill, the biggest thing in any small town, will go into overdrive. For right now, love is abounding, as it should be, and love and prayers for D are all over Facebook and the accident site and in the halls of my school.

D. is not the first student I've lost (RIP Teddy D...please show D. the ropes in will like her, everybody does), but she is the one I had most recently and one I had an extremely close connection with at one point.

I don't know if this is common knowledge, but most teachers refer to their students as "my kids" or "my kiddos". For over four years, D. was one of my kids....and because I am me, she will be forever.

These are the things I will always, always remember about D.:

1. The Mickey Mouse sweatshirt she frequently wore. Every time I see Mickey attire, I will think of D.

2. The way she greeted me with, "Hey, Miss Loud, hey Miss Loud, hey!" every time I saw her.

3. The ability she had to connect with a book. D. did not love to read (although I'm pretty sure she in general liked it). When D. found a book that called out to her, she would devour it in a matter of days. She would write about it insightfully. She would discuss it intelligently and thoughtfully. 

4. She adored her niece and wrote often in her journal about babysitting and time spent with the little girl.

5. She was loved by many different factions of students. Looking at D's Facebook wall, outpouring of emotions are coming from students of all social groups, all ages and grades. She was well-known; it's safe to say that she transcended most typical "cliques".

6. Although D was delightfully sassy, she had a heart of gold. Her laugh was infectious, and she shared it generously with pretty much everyone.

7. I once gave a writing assignment where my students had to write about a "defining moment" in their lives. Some students didn't understand the depth I was looking for ("a defining moment for me was when the dog ate my homework"), but D wrote the most poignant defining moment essay I have ever read. I will never forget D's defining moment and that she was willing to share it with me.

8. D's handwriting was like the cliche of what "girl handwriting" looks like in the's pretty, but big...a little bit of cursive combined with a little bit of print. She filled many class journals with this interesting script...

9. D did not like to read aloud or share answers she came up with for questions in school. She tended to say in a melodramatic voice, "I just don't know, Ms. Loud. I think maybe you'd better ask someone else." The irony, of course, is that she had great insight and very often correct "answers". I spent years trying to convince D that she was a smart girl that would never, ever be dismissed as "the stupid kid". I wish I had been able to convince D of her potential and how to believe in herself a little bit more. She knew that I cared, knew that I wanted her to succeed, knew that I believed she could succeed...but she never totally believed in her own potential at school. I wish with all my heart that I had tried harder...

10. D had a tremendous zest for life. She lived fully every day that she was alive, and there are some people (including myself) that need to learn how to do that, how to suck the marrow from the bones of life and find passion in the mundane. D taught me that, if you are bored or unhappy or lonely or thinking bad thoughts, you need to find it within yourself to change that. It's not always easy, but her grit pulled her out of any unhappiness and forced her to focus on finding happiness, humor, and hope.

If you are a parent, as I am, please hug your children extra tightly today. 

Every child is a gift, a joy, a potential for greatness on his or her own terms. D taught me that, among other things.

She was loved by many (every time I saw her mother in town, we chatted about D and what a good kid she was and what she was up to these days). Her Facebook wall is an outpouring of grief from friends and former classmates that are in shock and completely brought to their knees by this terrible, tragic loss.

The site of the accident has become a shrine to D (pics taken from Facebook walls of those honoring D)

The world will sparkle a little less without D, but she was the kind of person that touched pretty much everyone she met in some way or another. For that gift, she has impacted many, many people and left many legacies for those she left behind to follow.

D, I will always be honored that I was your teacher. I was proud of you all the time, more than you know. 

Fly high, beautiful will always be loved by those of us here on earth lucky enough to have had you in our lives.

I will never forget you, D ❤️

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Today's Lesson Flopped ...

It's easy to understand why teachers get jaded, especially after a day like today!

After eleven years as a classroom English teacher at the secondary level, I made the change to a Literacy Interventionist (basically a Reading Specialist). I get to work with kids of all ages, and I get to run diagnostics to figure out their strengths and challenge areas and then design individual programs to address those specific needs (and bolster specific strengths). 

I love my job, but at times it is very frustrating. I have one class that has me digging into the very dregs of my bag of tricks, and I'm coming up empty.

If you imagine struggling readers at the middle school level, you can probably imagine that sitting in a desk doing seatwork is not going to fly for these kiddos.

With this particular crew, I'm working with their core academic teachers to provide support through pre-teaching vocabulary, exploring articles in advance, and allowing class time to work on writing assignments. 

Teaching content vocabulary has been a flat-out nightmare ... 

"Why do we have to do this?" "Can I go to the bathroom?" "I don't want to do worksheets!" "I can't sit still after lunch." "I have to go to the bathroom!" "You're not our science teacher!" "I really have to pee!" "Why are we doing science in here?" "If you don't let me go to the bathroom, I'll pee in front of the door."  

It's seriously like something out of a bad movie.

I've tried given students lists of words to define. They hated it. Refused to do it.

Gave them a list of words defined and asked them to use it correctly in a sentence to show that they understood meaning. Hated it. Refused to do it.

Make a visualization sketch of a word when given a definition AND sample sentence? Hated. Refused.

So me being me, I asked them for suggestions after their cries of, "This is boring!" bore completely through my eardrums. It is, I explained, my job to improve their reading skills, and working with content words for an upcoming science article will make them better prepared to read the article. 

"We're not going to read the article anyway, you know," one of them pointed out.

I shrugged. "Hope springs eternal."

Then I asked them more directly, what can I do to improve your experience? 

One of them mumbled something about wanting to do work that was a bit more hands on.

Okay! Hands on! A direction ...

And so I scoured this article for potential vocabulary words. I pulled them from the text and wrote them down onto two sets of note cards (actually, they were printed on colored paper cut like note cards by my amazing paraprofessional), one green and one yellow.

I was so pumped that I almost asked my supervisor to come observe the activity. Haha, good call on not sending that particular e-mail ...


I had them do a quickwrite about what they think would be the greatest challenges faced by miners at work (the nominal topic of the article), then I divided them into groups, gave them a stack of words, and instructed them to work together to tape each word on the correct definition written on the board.

Objectives were essentially:
* Students will be able to read grade level vocabulary
* Students will be able to use process of elimination to identify definitions for a set of word
* Students will be able to work collaboratively 

Yeah, after about twelve seconds, they started whining that they wanted to sit down because they were tired. Then they said it was too hard and they refused to do it.

I showed them strategies--read through the words and make a pile of words you know, read through the definitions and see if any words jump out at you, try to narrow down options using the definitions, et cetera. They didn't care.

I told them the winning team would get a prize tomorrow. They cared enough to try for another seven minutes before flat out giving up.

I'm only a little daunted. Thirteen years of teaching, after all, and there's more than one way to skin a cat ... or teach vocabulary, as the case may be. I'll get back on the horse tomorrow and try to come up with some other creative way to reach these reluctant readers.

Today, though, I'm wallowing in the experience of my lesson flopping.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Equalizing Education? Not with This Obstacle ...

While the United States provides public education to its population, the quality of such is all over the map. It's simply unavoidable.

There are many and varied reasons for this, of course.

School districts that pay their teachers and administrators well are likely to retain a strong, talented staff of educators. The converse, of course, is also true.

Larger schools have a larger pool to pull from in terms of athletic teams, extracurriculars, and students to fill in Advanced Placement classes.

Smaller schools often provide a family feel, where students and staff know each other well and would go to the mat for each other. 

Inner city schools are frequently rich in culture and diversity.

Consolidated country schools offer original electives such as cow care and snowmobile mechanics.

Whether we are using "Common Core", sold as the great educational equalizer intended to level the playing field, or not, there is no question that schools are vastly different. I live in New Hampshire, and my children have gone to three different school districts. Extremely different.

Are all New England Schools alike? Of course not. The South? Runs the gamut, I'm sure. California? The so-called Bible Belt? Alaska or Hawaii? 

It's hard enough to compare schools in one state or one region, but let's be real; no two schools are alike. I've been an educator long enough to know that each and every school has both significant strengths and weaknesses.

There is--I'm just going to say this--no way to uniformly educate the children of America. Geography, finances, quality of teaching staff, and so on ... it's just not possible to enforce uniformity.

And that's okay ... because the biggest obstacle facing American children in 2015 is none of those things.

Nope, my theory is that the detriment to American schoolchildren is their families.

Wait, their families? Not the Common Core? Not teachers on strike? Not shoddy materials? Not shabby facilities?

That's right. Their families.   

I learned early on that, when I asked my eldest daughter, Emily, how school was, the inevitable answer was, "Fine." It took me a few years, but I eventually learned to ask direct questions. What was on the history quiz? Are you enjoying Of Mice and Men? What music are you playing in band? It was harder for her to give monosyllabic responses to that.

And then Ari came along, and she couldn't talk about school enough. Well, let me rephrase that ... Ari couldn't talk enough about the social aspects of school. The kid should have written an elementary school gossip magazine. However, I'd learned from her stoic sister that specific questions led to discussion, so I ended up hearing all about her classes as well.

Yup, it was pulling teeth to get any sort of curriculum conversations going with either of them, excellent students both ... and I'm a teacher.

I wonder sometimes how many parents want desperately to talk about school with their kids, to analyze Steinbeck and conjugate Latin verbs and weigh the pros and cons of the Vietnam conflict. I suspect the number is large, even for those that never have said conversations. Children can be tough nuts to crack, and if school is their private world they might well want to keep Mom and Dad out of it.

I persist, though, and I think a lot of parents do as well. I have a fairly good idea of what's going on with each of them, even though Emily is in college now (hating her astronomy class, disappointed in her language acquisition course, and learning lots in history of the English language) and Ari is a middle schooler (exponents in math, warning sign identification in science, the story behind their first name in Language Arts).

It would be really easy for me to say, "I'm an involved parent. I talk to my kids about school, even digging for details. I check their homework. They ask me for help when needed. I am so involved it's not even funny." 

Except that's not precisely true.

Personally, I hate big crowds of people I mostly don't know. Going to open houses and festivals and concerts and such bring on anxiety attacks. I know Ari would like it if I volunteered at her school (if I had the free time) or took her to middle school football games or encouraged her to have friends over. Sometimes I can even handle this, but much of the time, I can't. 

Also, I could stalk the online grade program and/or e-mail her teachers all the time, but I don't want to be a pain.

Overall, though, parental involvement should not be a concern for me, right?

Wrong again.

Parental involvement is a problem for everybody!

The biggest problem shared with me by both Emily and Ari is one and the same: the other kids act like monsters and keep the teacher from being as effective as he or she would otherwise be.

You might say, the teacher should send the kid to the office. The teacher should call home. The kid should be punished. This shouldn't be allowed.

Sadly, these kids have missed out on a lot of learning when they languished in the office. Phone calls home run from, "Well, he says you have it in for him!" or "Everyone else was throwing spitballs, too" to, "That's a school problem. I have a hard enough time dealing with him at home." 

Because those parents enable, make excuses for, or give up on their children, my children miss out. 

Is that fair to my children? No ... but yes. You see, my children have had to learn to extend their education on their own. Instead of being one of those obnoxious and overbearing parents that call teachers the second week of school and say, "My child is bored", I strive to teach my kids to read more, to list questions about topics in history class that we can discuss as a family later, to write in a journal. My children are bright and successful, but I would never extol them as special snowflakes.

Parental involvement is a multi-faceted thing. It's not just talking to kids about school. It's not just having sports dates and days off written on the calendar. It's not just going on teacher websites. It's not going to school events, whether you want to or not.

It's all of those things, and it's more.

As a parent, I raise my children fully aware that their teachers are playing a role in their upbringing as well. As a teacher, I buy everything from lunch to deodorant to tampons to notebooks to sneakers for my students. I teach them English, but I also teach them manners and respect.

But it's an uphill battle.

Until parents are unified in their view of what education means for American children in 2015, the problem will exist. In fact, it will get worse. Parents work long hours. They are too tired to attend school events. They might not have transportation, and it's increasingly common for parents uncomfortable with speaking English to avoid going into schools out of fear and discomfort. Kids are seduced by drugs and gangs and horribly short skirts from American Eagle. 

The only way for education to be equalized is for parents to become fully invested in their children's schooling. Only then can we all work together to provide a high quality, equal education to every student. 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Getting Stuck in the Middle of Government Minutiae ... and Finding that "Equal" is Bogus

In one of the great ironies of life, I've found myself a victim of government minutiae. Yes, me, a liberal Democrat, is screaming, "There is too much BUREAUCRACY in our government!"

I try to be a good person. I work hard at my job. I take parenting very seriously and I'm proud of how amazing my children are. I would do anything I can to help a person in need, whether I know him or not.

I'd like to think that karma would give me a break at some point, but I seem to exist under a dark cloud of bad luck. I used to say to my parents all the time, "I'm cursed", and they would roll their eyes at me. As I grew older, though, the presence of my bad luck became increasingly difficult to deny. To this day, my mother will occasionally say, "Okay, maybe you really are cursed."

I've spent a lot of time venting about my ex-husband. I'll just say that he is an abusive, lying, alcoholic monster and leave it at that.

Our divorce was finalized in April of 2010, and he was ordered to pay $79.22/week of child support for our daughter Ariel. He was also supposed to pay half of her medical expenses and any activities which she participated in, but I knew way back in April of 2010 not to hold my breath on that.

For awhile, he paid the weekly child support. Sometimes he was late by a couple of weeks, but he did pay it. Over time, he has let it add up to fairly staggering amounts when you consider the drop in the bucket that $79.22 a week is in the great scheme of things, but he usually did make an effort to pay it. He would pay off the balance when it got close to $1,000 (that seemed to be his guilt threshold), and then the circus would start all over again.

For the past year, though, it's been a nightmare. The biggest issue is that our daughter has become a competitive gymnast, and gymnastics is a very expensive sport. For awhile, he committed to paying half of her gymnastics classes, but that lasted for one month. Her classes are $200 a month, plus there are costs like team leotards and attire, competition fees, beam shoes, and required summer camps. Ariel is not my only child, but I spend more money on her gymnastics than on her siblings (happily, because gymnastics brings her great joy and she is also very talented). However, the times when my ex-husband would man up and pay a lump sum of back child support that always seemed to come in the nick of time (car registration, repairs, Christmas, dog to the vet, and so forth) are long gone.

I have a court order stating that he is ordered to pay $79.22/week. The problem is, getting someone to enforce that is virtually impossible.

When I complain about this, people say, "Go to court." I did go to court. There is a court order. He flagrantly ignores it.

One of my friends suggested I contact his employer directly about wage garnishment considering I had the court order. His employer said it had to be done through court.

Another friend suggested I go to the Department of Health and Human Services because child support enforcement is apparently under their umbrella. When I took a day off from work last year to go there and get it figured out, I was told that because he didn't live in New Hampshire, I would have to file for enforcement in the state he lived in.

And he didn't just live in one other state ... oh, no, that guy bounced all over the place.

So it seemed easier to just nag him until he paid a small piece of what he owed. He kept crying poverty while going on vacations all over the country. He promised that he would pay the full past-due amount the next time he got paid. The check was in the mail (the U.S. Post Office must have lost a hundred checks allegedly mailed by him). I documented all of this, doing my nagging via e-mail and making him communicate the same way.

I should mention that he is only allowed to see Ariel with supervision. He has shown decreased interest in seeing Ariel for years, and he has not seen her since early 2014 purely by his own choice. In his frequent travels, he is at times in the very city we live in and frequently within an hour of her, yet he does not make any effort to see her. I can in good conscience say that I did everything I could to allow him to have a relationship with Ariel, yet he has shown over and over that he cares nothing for her. In the court order, she was supposed to call him every night at 7:00. He would sometimes go a week without answering, and she would be a nervous wreck. He then asked that she call only on weekends. He still didn't answer most of the time. When he didn't answer the phone on Father's Day, Ariel had a meltdown. To hear my little girl sobbing about how her daddy didn't love her and all she wanted to do was wish him a happy Father's Day and she wasn't a good enough daughter for him and so on ... it broke my heart. Anyway, I e-mailed him that Ariel was not going to be calling anymore as it was just too painful for her when he almost never answered, especially on Father's Day. I did say that whenever he wanted to talk to her or see her, all he had to do was call or e-mail. I got no response. I'm not really surprised.  

We had a couple of huge financial hits, and it seemed ridiculous that he owed all of this money and nothing could be done about it when it was looking like we were going to have to pull Ariel out of gymnastics, at least temporarily. However, at least I could file paperwork to get the weekly amount taken out of his paycheck (assuming he has a job ... that has been quite an issue for him).

I printed out the application for child support enforcement for New York state and filled it out. I collected all the documents they required and sent my ex-husband one final e-mail (because I was trying to give him a chance to do the right thing). No response.

When I went to mail the package to New York State Child Support Enforcement, though, I hit a snag. There was no mailing address available. I called the number, and I was told that I needed to have a number. I said that's what the application was for, to begin the process. They told me that I had to begin the process in New Hampshire.

New Hampshire had told me that I had to begin the process in the state in which he lived.

I mailed the application anyway, generically posting it to New York Health and Human Services Child Support Enforcement in Albany. The same day, I requested an application from New Hampshire. I filled it out and sent it off (I still had copies of all the documents) the next day.

I have done everything I can possibly do .... the state I live in, the state he lives in, and the documentation.

I know it's going to be a slow process, though, and that makes me crazy.

One of my friends has a son who had a one night stand with a girl. The girl named him as the father and demanded child support as soon as the baby was born. She requested that the child support be paid in oxycontin and marijuana. The girl lives in Section 8 housing and receives Medicaid, food stamps, and welfare money. The kid didn't feel right about having drugs count for child support, particularly when he didn't think the baby was  necessarily his, so he said no. The State of New Hampshire set up a paternity test, and he apparently is the father. He had to fill out some forms about his income and living expenses, and now he has $150 taken out of each paycheck. This entire process, from the paternity test to the wage garnishment, took three weeks. Why? Because the money goes to the state to pay for her welfare.

If you're on welfare, apparently it makes sense for child support laws to be enforced quickly.

If you try to do it the right way, you sit there waiting for years for someone to help you. And once you realize that you apparently have to fill out applications and start the process in multiple states to hopefully get something to happen, there is no rush on the part of the government.

The paperwork has been sent out. To two states. Applications for child support enforcement. Birth certificates and divorce decrees and uniform support orders. No news yet ...

I'm giving them another two weeks (I figure I'll give them the same time that the girl on welfare that was essentially pimping her kid for drugs got), then I guess I'll have to find myself another job.

And a Republican candidate for President that I can live with ... 

Toddler's Death Ruled a Homicide, I Have a Nightmare, and the Beat Goes On ...

On September 5, just last Saturday, a little girl living in the same city where I reside died of blunt impact head injuries. The death of Sadence Willott was declared a homicide a few days later.

Little Sadie Willott was only 21 months old. 

So is my daughter, Gabrielle.

There are terrible stories in the news every single day, of course. Life in 2015 is an ugly, scary place, and I think a frightening number of us have become almost immune to the terrors of the news. Every time I have the news on or see news pieces that come up on my Facebook feed, I am appalled.

But usually, I just shake my head and sort of mutter, "What a world" or something like that. Even the really bad stuff. 

I internalize it a bit more when it's about children, of course. I have four children of my own, and I'm a teacher, which means I've "raised" hundreds of kids in my career.

I don't usually carry it around in my heart anymore, although I used to when I was younger and less jaded and had more hope that the world would get better. 

But this one, the story about Sadie Willott, hit me like a kick to the gut. 

I was staying at a friend's house close to work following a night meeting when I learned that someone had hit or kicked or clubbed Sadie's little head, a head that was around the same size as Gabby's melon, until she was dead. 

I fell asleep early that night, but I woke up soaked in sweat at 3 in the morning, a scream on my lips. 

Nightmares are a funny thing. Sometimes, you wake up and you know you had a nightmare but can't remember what happened, just that you're glad as heck to be awake. Other times, you wake up and think to yourself, "A purple people eater? Really? No more bedtime margaritas for me!"

And then sometimes, you remember. And you know what brought the nightmare on. 

And it doesn't help a bit.

In my dream, I was walking through the halls of a hospital with a female doctor wearing a white coat. I kept trying to ask her questions, and she just shook her head and said, "Not yet." She finally reached a set of double doors (made of stone and crumbling as though they were very old) and slowly opened them.

"I've finished the autopsy. You don't want to see her. You should go pick out a coffin."

And then I saw my Gabrielle on a metal table, white and lifeless. Her curly blonde hair had blood in it, and her head was misshapen. I had one crazy, morbid thought--do they make coffins that small?--and then I woke up.

Thank God.

I spent three hours awake and crying because I didn't think going home and waking up the dog and scaring everybody was the best choice. I texted as soon as I knew that everybody was awake, and of course I was assured that Gabs was just fine.

I didn't relax until that afternoon, though, when I picked her up at daycare and hugged her so long that she asked to be put down.

There have been a few nightmares I've had that will be with me always--the one where I got eaten by a shark, the one where I encountered a raccoon in the woods and he flipped me off before jumping on my face, the ones where I relive the time I was raped over and over again. 

This was, without question, the worst dream I've ever had.

Gabrielle is napping on the couch next to me as I type this. She is perfectly fine (other than still using a pacifier at her age, but that's a different story) and happy and healthy. Her head is its usual beautiful shape, and she's even snoring to dispel the myth that she is perfect at this moment in time.

Gabby is fine, Gabby is safe, Gabby is loved and adored and protected by people that would do anything in the world to keep her from any sort of harm.

But Sadie Willott was murdered by blunt force head trauma.

There are millions of kids like Gabrielle in the world, kids adored and revered by their parents and families. Those kids are, in generally, blissfully unaware that there are children in far more dire circumstances.

I have read about murdered children before. I will read about murdered children again, I am sure. 

I will always remember and honor Sadie Willott, though, and keep her in my prayers and in my heart.

The terrible power of that nightmare has ensured that.

It has not, however, answered the dark and ugly question that haunts me, asleep or awake:

Who would do that to a child?

And why?

Are Minorities Discouraged from Taking Upper-Level Classes?: The Elephant in the Room

As a public school teacher for sixteen years, I sometimes feel like I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen Standards come and go (and despite the brou...