Sometimes You Must Do What Is Required

This morning, Al Gore, had a fine Op-Ed piece on global warming published in the NY Times. Global warming has taken a hit recently because of some errors — minor ones — made by scientists who study such things. Despite the errors, the consensus, according to Gore, remains unchanged: Global warming is our legacy to our children, grandchildren and beyond.

Every time I’ve visited a country outside of the United States, I’ve been blown away by the public transportation options available. On our last trip to Europe, Adrien and I spent 3 weeks traveling from London to Brussels/Bruges to several regions of France (Strassbourg, Reims, Beaune, Lyon, and Paris). We used public transportation the entire 3 weeks with the exception of our flights in and out of London.

We did not ONCE use a car, nor did we have the need to do so: rail service – whether it was between countries or within the city – was convenient, affordable, accessible.  The high-speed train service from Lyon to Paris (TGV speeds reach 200 mph), Eurostar, Thalys were all more comfortable and less hassle than air travel in the US. No need to use an automobile, public transportation was plentiful. If the trains can regularly get to the small towns in Burgandy, why can’t we get decent train service here in the Northeast?

However, what I really am thinking about is the ending quote Gore writes in his OpEd which was attributed to Winston Churchill:

“Sometimes doing your best is not good enough. Sometimes, you must do what is required.”

What is required of all of us now? We seem to know, but are unwilling to let go of old ways of doing things. The days of changing your own motor oil and dumping the used black sludge behind the garage are long over. The joking about our Northeast snowfalls aside, this is the real thing.  The signs of Global warming are all around us and we must heed them.

If you don’t like New England’s weather wait a minute….

or a day, or a week.  We’ve been experiencing the ugliest winter weather in a while lately.  Off and on snow showers. Snow in some locations and the next town over will have rain. Torrential rains, destructive winds, shoveling and sanding. Grey, cloud filled skies. I don’t remember the last day that I actually saw the sun.

If I may be so bold as to speak for many, we are sick to death of it.  Ground Hog, damn you, we want spring and we want it now.

Everyday Lives of Students

Monday was our first day back from Winter Break — I suspect this is only a New England school vacation as I never experienced it growing up in northern Ohio.  A week-long escape is a welcome respite from the stresses of teaching – and yes, I am aware that I chose this profession – but it also serves to highlight the stress of teaching students in urban education.

Our Monday morning meeting brought forward three stories from my 8- and 9-year old students. Stories that are told in such a conversational way that they seem as normal as a visit to grandma’s. Again, Ruth Payne’s fine chronicle of trauma and poverty, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, helps me to see the events outside of my middle-class white Leave It To Beaver upbringing. For these children, life is what it is.

Story number 1: “my cousin was arrested with his pit bull.” Now sometimes “arrested” takes on a rather broad definition in the mind of an 8-year old. In this case it was true; I verified it by reading the local newspaper online after school: the cousin had been taken into custody after allowing his unleashed and unrestrained pit bull to lunge at people walking in the downtown area, had refused the request of a police officer to leash the dog, and resisted arrest.

Story number 2: brother – who the student had recently revealed was in jail – was rearrested.  This student reported on the event as if it were an everyday normal occurrence.” Had I seen X’s name in the paper? He’s going to jail.”

Story number 3: a tenant living in the same apartment complex as my third student triggered the SWAT team to swarm the building after said tenant threatened a cab driver with a gun. The student had lots of details and had obviously seen most of the confrontation – her details matched the newspaper article too.

Now several things come to mind here.  First of all, the traumatic distractions in these students’ every day life are unbelievable. Secondly, yes school is a “safe place” and expectations for what happens in school remain high. But the distractions and worries these children must overcome to even be close to ready to focus and concentrate are, most of the time, unimaginable.

This is what stresses out urban teachers.  We come to know the human story, the reality these children deal with.

Time Travels Revisited

For some reason I am fascinated with history – family history. And during school vacations, when I finally have some time to spend on such endeavors, I am able to do quite a bit of research. Not exactly as exciting as skiing or snowboarding or as relaxing as sitting on a beach or by a pool, but something different to occupy my mind.

This week I came across an obituary – a scrap of newspaper folded neatly into my great, great grandmother’s autograph book. The obituary was for her father, James Cuthbertson Sharron. JC as he is referred to in my family (his father was James Russell Sharron), was a minister’s son who himself became a minister in the Presbyterian church. His life’s travels took him from Dauphin County, PA where he was born in 1810 to Jefferson College and Princeton University, then to a posting in Muskingum, Ohio around 1835. In the 1840s he moved to Iowa, before Iowa became a state. Here he moved from pioneer town to pioneer town, organizing churches in West Point and Birmingham as well as some smaller town. In the 1860s — at the ripe old age of 50-something — JC joined an Iowa regiment as a chaplain for the Union Army. After the Civil War, he returned to Iowa and to his ministry, dying in 1868.

Now why is all of this interesting? For some reason the connections to the ancestors who make up my family history, make the dusty stories and facts that were taught to me more real. 1810, before the War of 1812…. how odd that one of “my people” went to college (twice)! 1830 was when Ohio achieved statehood – JC was in Ohio shortly after that. And yet, Ohio was too settled for him so he moved on to Iowa when the population of that territory was 50,000. The Civil War – 1865 – this ancestor lived through it.

Granted that JC had a more interesting life than most of the ancestors I have uncovered. In fact for whatever reason, his story is the most complete of my ancestors’ stories. Reading through my great great grandmother’s autograph book reveals some of the threads of an everyday life — the sadness of having to move to a new town, illness or deaths of friends and acquaintances, the chronicle of a plains pioneer.

I am at once awed by the strength of character of these people and maybe, just maybe, beginning to understand the challenges of living in another time in history.

In Need of an Educational Time-Out

School vacation week in Massachusetts started for me as of 2:50 yesterday afternoon.

I know there are some in the private sector who will read that statement and disparage me. But here is why I not only need this vacation, I deserve it.

1.  I am not paid for the days off. Contrary to popular opinion, teachers are paid to work a number of days per contract period.  No one is counting next Monday through Friday in the day count.  Hence, working the requisite 180 (actually it’s 181 in Lowell) days means we stop the clock on Monday at Day 106. The daily count will begin again on Monday February 22.  So you see, taxpayers, you are not paying for my days off. My official work year (more of that word “official” later) will end whenever we hit 180 days.

2.  Since we returned to school on January 4, I have put in 10 hour days 5 or more days a week. It takes planning and preparation to engage children in learning. What it takes for me is 4 hours daily on top of the time I am with the students. That’s not poor time management people.  That’s the amount of time it takes to correct and analyze assessments, reset education goals – sometimes for each student, find resources to meet those needs, and then write the whole mess down using Language and Content objectives as required by my District.

3. Official work week of course in not any where close to the hours spent with students. “Officially”, I am not working during the summer. I am definitely not getting paid. In reality, I am taking courses that not only update my professional understandings but help me acquire the needed Professional Development Point to be relicensed every 5 years. And no, you can’t get PDPs for sitting by the pool or mowing the lawn.  It takes about a week after the students leave to close out required paperwork. It also takes time to gear up for a new school year — I stopped counting last August after I’d spent 40 hours. It was too depressing.

4. The amount of paperwork, testing, reporting, etc. in any given time period during an academic year would bury most anyone I know. Every year there seems to be more of it.  And I’m a classroom teacher – imagine the Special Education people who have legal documents to fill out! I’m pretty adept with a computer having worked with them since 1977 (no that’s not a typo). Even Excel can’t bail me out of time-sucking reports and data analysis.

I am exhausted and slept a record 10 hours last night. I’ll probably take a nap today. Maybe by Wednesday I’ll feel like a human again. And on Monday, I hope to meet my students with some renewed energy and the ability to pull of another round of 10 hour days.

Reality Bites

Over the last weeks, my hometown has had two incredibly sad instances of domestic violence. Working in an urban setting, teachers are always aware of the nasty underbelly of society. Certainly I have had students who have been impacted by domestic violence, but that was in the city. Not in my neat little suburban, monied hometown.

In the first instance, a man shot his wife during an argument and then turned the gun on himself. The woman lingered for a day and then died. At least two high school age children were at home at the time of the shooting and a third arrived home shortly after. Now three children are without a mother or a father, who is in custody pending trial.

Last week, a father shot and killed his 17 year old high school senior daughter, shot his wife, and then committed suicide by turning the gun on himself. By all accounts, this girl had a wonderfully bright future ahead of her; she had just been accepted to UVM. While the reasons for the shootings have not fully been revealed, the reality is that they happened. And they happened right here in the cozy suburbs.

No one seems to have seen this coming. There had been a 911 call hangup and, following protocol, the dispatcher called the home back. The daughter indicated that all was okay and no police assistance needed. However, even as the dispatcher was talking with the daughter on the telephone, her father began using his gun on the family. Another family is destroyed by violence.

Even though I did not know this family, or the other family affected by domestic violence, I feel an overwhelming sadness. Sadness for the families who must try to pick up the threads of their lives and continue to live. Sadness for a mother who, if she regains cognition and awareness, will now live with unimaginable grief, sadness for classmates who have lost a great friend to senseless violence.

Such incredible sadness to this story and the story of  the other family in town destroyed within the last two weeks by violence. And it happened here in the safe, secure, suburbs. Were there warning signals that weren’t picked up because of our affluence?

Domestic violence is all around us. Lulling ourselves into feeling complacent because of affluence is no longer an option.

100 Days

Yesterday, we reached the 100th day of school — triple digits.  From this point on the year will whiz by at the speed of light… 80 school days from now we will be all done. For kids, that seems like an eternity, but for me Day 100 is the point at which panic sets in.

In Massachusetts – and in most of northern New England – we have a school vacation week coming up beginning next week. Originally put into the academic calendar to accommodate the ski areas, it morphed into a week of “energy savings” in some districts. No students = low(er) energy costs for buildings. I’m not certain I buy into that one. It seems like teachers and custodial staff both show up for chunks of time during “vacation” weeks to catch up.

After the vacation week, my third graders will be subjected to a battery of tests that rival the National Teachers’ Exam (remember those?).  First, each ELL will be evaluated for language acquisition using the MELA-O (more of an observation really), then they will take the more formal MEPA test. The District Math benchmarks are opening up on the Monday after vacation and all students will take those tests. Then there will be end-of-term assessments in the classroom, and last – but certainly not the least – we have the MCAS Reading Test, my students’ first foray into state-wide testing.  Just thinking about all the testing is making my head explode – imagine what it must be like for a 9 year old.

But wait, that’s not all. We have another round of testing in May (MCAS for mathematics) and more required assessment.  After we hit the math MCAS, we’re on to end-of-year activities – field days, final field trips, report cards, Team Meetings…. yikes!

So for me, Day 100, while a milestone in our academic year, is the start of stress season. Heaven help us all!