Monday, November 30, 2009

Giving Thanks 2

Thanksgiving is a fairly pure holiday, know what I mean? There is no pretense, no pressure about presents, no weird feelings about giving and receiving equally or about getting presents that you really have no use for. There is no use for regifting or guilty feelings for not getting someone a present even though they got one for you.

There is the gorge. But there is often family, a few much needed days off, and a little time to reflect on just how fortunate we are. And we are. If you have read my blog for any length of time, you know that I went to Rwanda a couple summers ago. I was there for the 13th Liberation Day celebration. The day that Rwandans celebrate the end of the madness that overwhelmed the country for a little over three months.

During that time over one million, one hundred seventeen thousand ethnic Tutsis were mercilessly killed. Neighbors turned on neighbors, friends on friends. I spent precious time with Immaculee Ilibagiza (the author of Left to Tell)

and her friend Richard, both genocide survivors. Nothing in my life has ever touched me the way my time in Rwanda did. Probably, nothing ever will.

The wonderful part of that story is that Rwanda (Youtube, Wycliff Jean:"Million Voices")is very far along on their way to forgiveness. That may sound absurd. As I read over my own words, it seems unlikely. Impossible. I’m here to tell you that it is true. If I was ever unsure about God and God’s mercy, spending time with the beautiful people of Rwanda dispelled any doubts I may have harbored.

The vast majority of Rwandans have no electricity and no running water. They are fortunate indeed to have a bicycle to help carry their heavy loads of water, firewood, fruits and vegetables. We drove through the country one late evening and went for hours without seeing a single light other than a fire. Another remarkable thing about Rwandans is that they count their blessings. I’ll get back to my thoughts about Rwanda from time to time – I can’t help it. But honestly, the lessons I learned there will last my lifetime. One of the biggest lessons is about being grateful for my many blessings.

Last Thursday The State newspaper printed prayers of thanksgiving from many cultures. Each is brilliant in its own way. Here are a few of my favorites.

A circle of friends is a blessed thing.

Sweet is the breaking of bread with friends.

For the honor of their presence at our board

We are deeply grateful Lord.

Thanks be to Thee for friendship shared,

Thanks be to Thee for food prepared.

Blessed Thou the cup; blessed Thou the bread

Thy blessing rest upon each head.

-Walter Rauschenbusch, 1861-1918

For good food and those who prepare it,

For good friends with whom to share it,

We thank you, Lord. Amen.

-Traditional Blessing

Oh Lord of the universe

Please accept all this food

It was given by you

Let it be of service to all

Only you can bless it.

-Bhagavad Gita, fifth century B.C.

May this food restore our strength,

Giving new energy to tired limbs,

And new thoughts to weary minds.

May this drink restore our souls,

Giving new vision to dry spirits,

And new warmth to cold hearts.

And once nourished and refreshed,

May we give thanks to him who

Gives us all and makes us blest.

-Adapted from an Irish blessing.

Just one more for now. This one is my favorite.

When you arise in the morning,

Give thanks for the morning light,

For your life and strength.

Give thanks for your food and the joy of living.

If you see no reason for giving thanks,

The fault lies within yourself.

-Tecumseh, chief of the Shawnee Indians


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Beyond Belief

There aren’t all that many people whose music I follow these days. I’ll still buy an album by some of my old fav’s like James Taylor and Jackson Browne, but I haven’t bought any top 40 music in a long time. Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE listening to music and I love new music as well. The musicians I follow who put out fairly regular new music are kind of obscure. The cover of Flesh and Bone.Lucy Kaplansky, Richard Shindell, John Gorka (thanks Julie!) to name a few.

One guy who I DO follow, and who may not be that obscure, is David Wilcox. I bought his new CD, “Open Hand” at Best Buy so he must not be THAT obscure. He is an incredible guitarist, all open tunings and partial capos, finger picking, etc. His voice is smooth and very baritone. When I first heard him he reminded me of some old James Taylor. Others agree. After a while he just started sounding like himself. The third part of his triple threat are his lyrics. I’m not sure that every single song is inspired, but some are truly memorable. He’ll never be top 40, but, honestly, I like him just where he is.

When I listen to a new album the first time or two, I just let it wash over me. This one sounds a lot like one he did with a band. It was called “Turning Point”. So I notice the music first. I get so I can hum along with favorites before really tuning into the lyrics.

I was driving along, thinking about the school day when this line jumped out at me…

Jesus - called me a hypocrite, 

When I said that I was saved

I started that song over and it gave me chills. I don’t want to interpret it. I just feel the need to share it.

Beyond Belief (youtube link)

Jesus - called me hypocrite. 

When I said that I believe

He said, how can you follow me

Without a willingness to leave

Leave the gates and the passwords, 

Known by just your kind

Walk beyond the divisions that religions always find

And BE the mercy,

My people need the peace

This fight over faith won't bring them relief

I love them beyond belief

Jesus - called me a hypocrite, 

When I said I'd spread the word

He said, how can you teach of love

Unless you live what you have heard

Hear the hearts of the people,

Crying out in pain 

Pain caused by dominion,

And fighting in my name,

So, BE the mercy,

My people need the peace

This fight over faith won't bring them relief

I love them beyond belief

Jesus - called me a hypocrite, 

When I said that I was saved

He said, how will your soul be judged

With all the judgments you have made

Faith can't be your fortress,

Arrogant with pride

Come walk here beside me

With the humble ones outside

And BE the mercy,

All my people need the peace

This fight over faith won't bring them relief

I love them beyond belief

Jesus called me to be the mercy

2009 Publicity Photos

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Philadelphia, The City of Brotherly Love

Heidi and I went to a big language arts conference in Philadelphia, PA. We met up with a lot of old friends and mentors. And we met some new ones. The NCTE conference is like coming home for me. But because it is so expensive to fly, be a member and register, I only get to go every other year or so. It is a wonderful time to see old friends, teachers and acquaintances.

This is a huge teacher’s conference. There are thousands of people attending, hundreds presenting. It is held in a different city every year so it is like this huge moving village. San Diego, Chicago, NYC, Atlanta, Philly. I get to see my professional village every couple years. Sometimes I just step to the side of a bottleneck in the teacher traffic and watch the people go by, occasionally spotting an old friend or acquaintance from another time in my life

One interesting feature is seeing my old peeps in two-year intervals. Sometimes my mind sort of keeps the biological clock going on their image for me so the extra gray or thinning hair and deepening wrinkles are exactly how I know them. Others I may not have seen for 4, or 6, or 8 years and their current appearance is a surprise

The opposite is surely true. My own hair is graying and my beard is half white. I’ve been a full-time-glasses-wearer for many years and I’ve put on a few pounds. So we clap each other on the back and exchange hugs. My old professor, Jerry Harste, gives me a peck on the cheek and a big bear hug.

Going to these conferences feels good. It’s sort of like coming home again. It is energizing professionally as well as personally. Attending sessions by young earnest teachers and college professors is a way to push my current thinking, get some fresh ideas and become juiced up for these winter days stretching ahead of us.

I had the good fortune of running into an old student teacher from the fall of ’97. Gresham Brown has become a masterful teacher and presenter. While it has been a number of years since we’ve seen each other, our relationship fell easily back into place with the stories of family and school and how the years have flown. When Gresham did his full time student teaching in Kindergarten he was able to bear witness to an important time in my son Devin’s life.

We presented with brilliant teacher friends from Hawaii and Arizona and it was a great feeling to connect people we’ve known for years who are like-minded. We were a little nervous in our preparation (at least I was) as we all hung out in Jennifer and Renee’s hotel room the night before. We shared our ideas and thought aloud about how they would fit together. That work, that thinking up together, was such a great bonding experience for us; another great shared experience around which our friendship is forged.

Of course, being in Philly, you have to experience some of the historical sites. Our friends Jennifer and Renee from Hawaii walked to Independence Hall early Saturday morning to get tickets to a late afternoon tour. I was psyched. I teach about the Revolution, the Declaration and the Constitution and I’ve seen pictures, read books, and viewed videos. But to be able to go to the actual building where Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, et al, met and argued and made deals and sweated and swore and laughed and wrote and fussed and positioned themselves and gave favors and made alliances and worried, that would be amazing. That was the wild place to be.

So, Jennifer and Renee and I trucked the six or eight blocks to get there – literally breathing in the city. Horse drawn carriages for historical tours, cigarette smoke, steam coming up from manhole covers worn shiny smooth from years of traffic, homeless folks with long beards, stylishly dressed young business people in suits and dress coats, and everywhere that cool Philadelphia accent.

Not far from our hotel we could hear an amplified shouting voice. “Maybe a street preacher,” Renee said. We walked on, the voice ahead on our path toward Independence Hall. On a riser ahead of us, shouting into a microphone, which powerfully amplified and distorted his voice, was an African American man with a long beard and wrap around sunglasses. He was really riled up.

While his message was confusing, at times quoting New Testament scripture, at times invoking God to help Black people to rise up, his message was mainly one of revolution. As we walked directly in front of his riser, he shouted, “God HATES the White man!” Not me, I thought.

Then on to Independence Hall. Being there with the teachers from Innovations Charter School made the experience that much more meaningful. Renee took pictures of her class’ ‘flat’ dolls with all of the historic backgrounds. The tour guide with his booming voice set the stage and filled in fascinating little details so it was easy to imagine those great thinkers in these rooms doing the tough necessary job that needed to be done. It was quite thrilling, humbling, and memorable.

Just before we headed to our hotel, the big clock tower of Independence Hall struck six. We watched the crescent moon next to the tower of the building in the clear indigo sky. We shared our feelings about being in that amazing place on our return trip.

As we walked back to the hotel, it was full of Saturday evening foot traffic, busy people on their Saturday night missions. We could see a guy ahead of us squatting down with what I took as a backpack, its contents spilled around him on the sidewalk. I thought he had just dumped his stuff to reorganize it, to get rid of the trash. He looked down on his luck. Maybe he was homeless. Renee said it was a woman’s purse. Sure enough, as we walked by I could see tissues, a compact, and lipstick. Was he going through a wallet? We stopped and just watched for a moment. He didn’t look up. Had he just found it? Stolen it? Unsure of what to do, we simply walked on.

See full size image

Soon we were within earshot of the loud street preacher (or whatever you might call him). There were guys standing on either side of his makeshift stage with their arms crossed over their chests. Bodyguards? It was intense, scary. It was one racially charged statement after another. “You want to know why public education is mandatory for African Americans?! Because they want to brainwash all of us to do the White man’s bidding!” Not mine, I thought. “Whether you think White people are out to get you or not, it’s a good idea to treat every one of them like they are!” Not such a good idea, I thought. “You’ve got to understand that EVERY WHITE MAN WITH MONEY HATES EVERY ONE OF US!!” Not me, I thought. There was a sign to the side of his stage. In large block letters it read, “GOD HATES YOUR FEAST DAYS!” Not mine, I thought. A mixed race couple walked by, arm in arm, heads down. To the Black woman, the bearded man shouted into the mic, “You can do better than that white @#$%, Sister!”

This trip to Philadelphia was such an interesting blend of experiences. Thinking up with my professional community. Poverty. Conversations with old friends. Hatred. Getting a glimpse into the brilliant minds of our forefathers who fought for freedom. Realizing that most of them were slave owners. Hugging the necks of old friends and being introduced to new ones. Stupidity. Abundance. Crime and desperation.

As I write this on the plane on the way home to Lexington, SC, Heidi is talking shop with a friend and colleague. I can’t wait to get home to see our boys, to spring the dog from the kennel, to plan for these last couple of days before Thanksgiving. I have so much to think about, so much to be thankful for.

Philly. What a trip. The City of Brotherly Love.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Mr. Rogers

Last week I was looking for a quote by Fred Rogers. This was for a presentation at a big conference. I had read this quote before. It has to do with using what we learn about language and mathematics and how those powerful tools may be used for good or evil.

It took a while to find it, but along the way I ran across many wonderful ideas penned or spoken by the amazing Mr. Rogers. The guy was brilliant. His words were simple but elegant, easy to understand but deep.

The search for that quote reminded me of the time when my own boys were really young and we would watch Mr. Rogers Neighborhood when I got home from school. This was before we had cable and the only channels we could pull in on the old rabbit ears were ABC, NBC, CBS and Public Television. Thank God for ETV for Kids. Watching Mr. Rogers with my boys was a treasure. His messages of love and self-worth were not just for the very young.

After all those years, reading his words again rejuvenated me. They reconnected me to that special time when Devin was about 3 and Colin 1 ½. Both boys in diapers and nothing else. That was such a special time for us. Such an intimate sharing. After the show we might hold on and watch Magic School Bus or head outside to romp around near the lakeshore.

All of this came flooding back as I read through quote after quote. What a smart guy. What an inspiration. Little kids hooked on Mr. Rogers were lucky. Grown-ups hooked on Mr. Rogers (and few of us would actually admit it out loud) were lucky too.

Finally I found the one I was looking for. When I first rediscovered the words it was pretty late. Heidi was already asleep. I read it aloud to myself to see if it would work to begin my presentation. I copied it word for word from the computer screen. For the next several days I carried it with me, pulling it out occasionally to practice reading it so when the time came to read it aloud to a big bunch of professionals, I wouldn’t choke up.

You know with the No Child Left Behind legislation and pressure on teachers and students to perform well on high stakes standardized tests, Fred Rogers words help me to keep it all in perspective. It’s not enough to merely be able to read. I want my students to laugh when they read something funny and to cry when they read something sad or touching. I want my students to read like they can’t wait to share something they have learned or well-crafted words they have read. I want my students to be moved by what they read.

Likewise, it’s not enough to merely be able to write. I want my students to be compelled to write, to convince, to share who they are and what they know. I want my students to choose their words wisely and to be able to move others by what they write.

So Fred’s words were perfect. They said, in few words, what it took me many to say. It is an honor and a privilege to share them with you.

"It's easy to convince people that children need to learn the alphabet and numbers. How do we help people to realize that what matters is how a person's inner life finally puts together the alphabet and numbers of his outer life? What really matters is whether he uses the alphabet for the declaration of war or the description of a sunrise, and his numbers for the final count in Buchenwald or for the specifics of a new bridge" (Fred Rogers)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Four Poems

No Way

No matter the words

My feelings for you are too great

To express on paper

Or with sounds.

While I am myself

I am also a part of you

And you of me.

Who knew, that fateful day

When our paths crossed

So long ago

That our lives would be so changed,

So intertwined,

So uplifted,

So focused,

So filled,

So amazing?

Who knew?

Old Friends

Wooden music on the back porch,

Around a smoky fire,

In the dimly lit garage –

Surrounded by night,

Or children

Or wives

Or just the dog

Who raises her ears and eyes

At the sounds of us.

Old songs,

Often repeated,

Melodies, harmonies,

Finger picking, rhythms

And rhymes.

Old beat up guitars,

Then new ones.

Guitars better than us.

Something to strive for

Something to deserve.

Maybe we would, someday.


Laughter and sweat

Stories and tears

Anger and faith

And politics.

There was nothing unimportant

From our days to our families

Both near and far.

Childhood stories and the

Death of loved ones.

Accomplishments and setbacks.

It was all fair game.

Whoever we were

Was laid out plain.

Our successes and faults

Our bruises and scores.

Nothing was held back-

We were unguarded

Unfiltered, honest.

In some ways

I am who I am




Indiana Winter

Dark crusty snow

Cinders at the side of the road

Bare trees with

Skeletal fingers

Reaching upward

Almost touching

The low cloudy sky






lightning bugs



humid night

dark, dark woods


on and off

off and on



line segments

crawling across the sky

weaving their

magic paths





wanting a mate

Friday, November 13, 2009


This evening we saw the sun for the first time in days. Here in central South Carolina we have had the remnants of hurricane – then tropical storm – Ida, lingering over the state. It has only rained for three days straight, but it felt much longer. Indoor recess is kind of fun for a day, a novelty for the second day, but by the third day in a row it is a little depressing. I’ve never been a big believer in the whole “they need to get their energy out” thing, although of course I believe in exercise. I crave recess myself.

And it was so dark for these last three days. When we turned out the lights for story it was like nighttime. Since daylight savings time, it’s hard to get enough face time with the sun as it is. Most days, I get to work while it is still dark, and leave when it is nearly dark. On some days recess is all I’ve got. When Heidi and I take our evening walk it is with the flashlight.

sunset.jpg NM SUNSET image by lindasharkey

So this evening, about ten minutes before the sunset, there was a break above in the west. A pale blue streak spread across the sky and the sun descended into it, just above the horizon. Sunlight spread across the low purple clouds in a wheel of incredible Godlight. Heidi and I happened to be outside just as the sun appeared. We faced the sun and closed our eyes. It felt fine to have the sun's warming rays competing with the chilly breeze. It was in sight for just a few minutes before slipping, crimson, below the earth’s rim. Ahhh, bit it'll be back.

It’s funny how a small thing, such as a glimpse of the sun can be so uplifting, so heartening. Of course it put me in mind of an old song by Joni Mitchell, Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone.” Know what I mean? I find myself regularly taking for granted the things I hold dearest. Friendships, family, this incredible job, playing music with my church friends. When I knew my dad was dying, all those years ago, I finally told him I loved him. And when he died, I missed him so bad. When my buds Pete and Alan moved away, I realized that there would be other friends but life just wouldn’t be the same. Now that my babies have grown to young men, I miss those little guys. You think it’s going to last forever, you know?

Anyway, that sun, that little glimpse of beauty, which I see on most days – and take for granted – reminded me to appreciate the here and now, to keep what is precious in my heart. I guess, “These are the good old days.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Mrs. G. - Again

I posted this about a year ago. I know a few more folks who may be reading now, including some young teachers-to-be. It's long for a blog post, so if you have read this, pass on by. If you feel like reading this, grab a cup of coffee or something...

Mrs. G - A Student Teaching Epidode

When I first began my student teaching in the spring of 1979 I was an idealist. “Chuck E.’s in Love” by Ricky Lee Jones, “Dependin on You”, by the Doobie Brothers and “Dog and Butterfly” by Heart were on the top 40. The Bee Gees did a shamelessly disco version of “Sergeant Pepper’s” which was way over played on the radio. Way over played. Saturday Night Live was happening on, well, Saturday night and we all crowded around my roommate’s old black and white TV. Nothing was sacred any more on TV with Saturday Night Live. We were loving it. Bell bottom pants were in but going out. We called our girls “chicks” and it was cool. “Cool” was in, “groovy” way out. Being a hippie was becoming passé but long hair was still fashionable for about half the young men I hung around with. Jimmy Carter was president. I had voted for him in 1976. I was a senior in college. I was looking at graduation (not that I would actually walk across the stage – I was way too cool for that). After graduation, a graduate internship in Grand Rapids, Michigan. All was good in the world. All was cool.

With my course work mostly behind me, (I had changed majors and still had a little catching up to do the following summer – but that was cool) I was looking forward to real teaching. I had loved spending time with the little ones in my practicum courses. After a spell of not knowing what I would do as a “grown-up” I had settled into the fact that I would teach little kids. It was going to be a wonderful experience, a wonderful life. My classmates and my very best friend Heidi (who was to become my wife in another year and a half) were doing their student teaching at the same time. I had just enough money to make it by. I lived in a communal house with my music buddies. All was right with the world.

Because I was going to have an Early Childhood Endorsement with my teaching credential, I had a split placement for that semester. I was going to spend the first 9 weeks in a second grade class and the next half of the semester with a Kindergarten group. When I showed up, bright and early at the second grade class on that first day of school the door to the classroom was locked. I had never met Mrs. G (I shall use her initial henceforth), but I knew that her husband was the principal of the elementary school. The door was locked. The other teachers in the hall were all there early, setting up their rooms, taking down the Christmas decorations (in those days it was still politically correct to have Christmas decorations publicly displayed in the halls and in classrooms) and anxiously preparing to see their precious students. Two weeks is a long time in the life of a little one and these teachers knew it. They were probably as excited to be back at school as their kids. I was excited too. Breathless. This would be my first real class. I knew I would fall in love with them, that I would learn so much from this experience.

All of the other teachers were there and the door to my new classroom was still locked. Children were entering the building. I was beginning to doubt whether or not I was in the right place when Mrs. G. came barreling down the hall. She was an enormous woman. I wouldn’t even mention this except that it was part of her presence. She practically yelled whenever she spoke. Most of what she said was an order. The first words I ever heard her speak were something like, “Get out of my way! DON’T YOU SEE ME COMING?” She hustled down the hall (as fast as she could hustle) and dropped her bookbag at my feet as she reached for the classroom key on the springy elastic band around her wrist.

“Hi,” I said weakly. “I’m…”

“I know who you are! Pick up my bag and place it next to my desk. On the right side looking forward.” We walked in and I beheld the room where I was to spend the next nine weeks, the official beginning of my teaching career. “WELCOME TO 2ND GRADE” was stenciled on faded construction paper above the chalkboard. Above that was the manuscript alphabet, white letters on a green background. They’d been up there for years. They looked exactly like the alphabet up on the wall in my second grade classroom in 1964. “That’s where you’ll sit,” she said with a swivel of her large head. In the corner of the room, facing the wall was a student desk with a student-sized chair. “Wash the board before the students get here. So, they let you have hair that long at IU, do they?”

“Ummm, yes.”

“Not very professional in my estimation. You’ll find that when you have your first interview, I expect. Now hurry with the board and dry it with that rag. Write in your neatest manuscript, ‘WELCOME BACK CHILDREN’ all capitals. Children really love capital letters. They didn’t teach you that in your methods classes did they?”

“No, ma’am.”

“There, you see, I taught you something already. Hurry up, the children are coming.” Mrs G. smelled. Her body odor trailed behind her like an unwanted ghost. Sweat. Perfume. She hadn’t had a bath in a while. My first impression was a scary one.

The kids came piling into the classroom in that way that kids do. They were eager to see each other and to catch up on the last two weeks. It was obvious that they were not looking forward to seeing their teacher. She barely addressed them but as soon as they came across the threshold their voices dropped and they put their things away and went to their assigned seats. Mrs. G hardly looked up as she was pulling out worksheets to copy for the morning work. “Here, get these run off.” I didn’t know the procedure for running papers in this building but it was clear that I was on my own. It was also clear that I’d better hurry. “BOYS AND GIRLS! QUIET. GET TO YOUR SEATS!” It seemed to me that she was hollering and I couldn’t tell why. “Get out your math books and do the problems on page 68. Let’s just see how much you’ve FORGOTTEN over these last two weeks!”

In that building the secretary had to run all papers. They used an old ditto machine, the kind with fumes and purple ink. The secretary asked me who my cooperating teacher was and when I said Mrs. G. She paused and sighed. I couldn’t exactly read that, but it didn’t strike me as a positive sign.

I could hear her hollering as I came back down the hall toward room 202. I don’t remember exactly what it was but I do recall that, “WHAT IN THE WORLD IS WRONG WITH YOU!?” was one of her favorite sayings. When I came in the room was silent. Stone quiet. Mrs. G. was puffing. Sweating a little too. And stinking a little. “WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT!?” Well I hadn’t been looking at anything I mumbled. “Make yourself a key and check these papers for me,” she ordered. I was happy to oblige.

The rest of the morning was seatwork with the language dittos I ran off for her. She let me have the honor of taking the kids out to recess. It was a little chilly and I had checked all the papers she left for me. There was a blacktop pad on the playground with a basketball goal. With Mrs. G. not around, I felt more at ease with the kids. We played and laughed and had a good time. No one misbehaved in any way that I could tell. They were just kids. I was miserable thinking that Mrs. G. was going to be my mentor for half a semester. All I had seen her “teach” was the dittos and they were pretty insane. Circle the letter for the initial sound of the picture… Fill in the blank with a word from the word bank… And handwriting, handwriting, handwriting. The way she “taught” handwriting was tracing over letters and copying letters. On dittos. The morning seemed like it had lasted for hours. No one could talk or whisper.

Now that we were outside and playing and laughing hard, I wondered if I could take being Mrs. G’s underling for nine weeks. I was trying to be optimistic but the morning was the exact opposite of what I was taught about good classrooms. I had already participated in a number of practicum courses and all of my methods courses and underneath all of these was a basic respect for human dignity, an appreciation for children. There wasn’t a whiff of those feelings in Mrs. G’s second grade classroom.

The afternoon was nearly the same as the morning, only the handouts were fairly random math seatwork (called arithmetic by Mrs. G). These sets of papers were handed to me as the children went to gym. I sat at my assigned seat in the corner fuming about the day and thinking that all she wanted me there for was to run off and check her stupid papers. What was I going to learn about how to be an effective teacher from this?

We had hardly spoken to each other all day. The silence in the room was uncomfortable as she snacked on potato chips and I graded the papers. “I saw the way you were interacting with the children at recess. I can see the recess field from the window.”

“Yes?” I responded. Her tone was accusatory. I hadn’t a clue as to why.

“Awfully familiar, don’t you think?”


“Familiarity breeds contempt, you know.” It was an accusation.


“You’re NOT to play with the children at recess. It’s unseemly and the children will not treat you with the respect you deserve if you play with them. It’s unprofessional.”

I was perplexed. I could see that she could never - would never, even if she could – play with children. But she was forbidding me to play at recess. I was only 20 years old. Not much more than a kid myself. She was telling me that I couldn’t become friends with the students. I didn’t know how to respond. I tried to be bold. “Don’t you think that a little time playing together might help me to get to know the kids? I mean we just met and I thought…”

“You thought? Are you questioning me? What in the world are they teaching you at IU? It’s all about respect, Mr. O’Keefe. RESPECT!” She turned away from me toward her desk and left me to sulk about not being allowed to play with the kids. We’ll see about this, I thought.

“Libby,” I pleaded with my university coordinator after school on the phone. “She is totally mean. She is always yelling and the kids don’t even know what she’s mad about half of the time.”

“You were just there a day. You don’t know the history of the class.”

“Libby, you would have felt it too. It is poison in there. Poison. I’ve got to get out. Can’t you find me another placement? It’s so early in the semester. I’ll make up the day, I swear.” Libby was an old hippie. She was a grad student making her own ends meet with supervising student teachers. She was kind and real and sympathized. She knew what I meant but wasn’t willing to let me give up.

“Stick it out for a week or two, O’Keefe. You were there what, one day? You didn’t give the woman a chance.”

“You should have heard her Lib. She was mean from the second she saw the kids to the second they left.”

“Listen, I have had some kids with tough placements before. You can still learn a lot. It isn’t pretty, but in a very real way you can learn how NOT to be a teacher. Based on the things you’ve told me already, you’re learning tons.”

“No way. Nine weeks? You expect me to learn how NOT to teach for nine weeks? And she stinks to high Heaven,” I said, grasping at straws.

“I trust you, OK? I have heard that she is a decent teacher but you’re probably right. Please just give it a week. Just five school days. If it doesn’t work… we’ll find something. Five days is all I ask.”

“Just to the end of the week. That’s four more days.”

“OK, but keep the faith.”

That conversation did not put my mind at ease. I should be in another classroom with someone kind. I wouldn’t have cared if they were the same as me philosophically, I couldn’t stand being around someone who never lightened up, who never stopped hollering and who stunk. I felt so sorry for those students. I felt that way after a single day, I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to live with this woman for seven hours a day for one hundred seventy days. That would seem like an eternity.

The next day was basically the same. I was early. Mrs. G was late. I ran off papers and then checked them. She hollered and scolded. She smelled worse than the day before. I asked about teaching science at our break since it didn’t look as though she was headed in any particular direction that way. It didn’t seem as though she had any science of social studies in mind at all. “SCIENCE?” she yelled. “Of course I teach science! Would you like to see how an experienced teacher teaches SCIENCE? Watch carefully Mr. O’Keefe.”

When the children returned from their morning recess, she kept them busy at their seats with plenty of meaningless seatwork. She removed an egg from her huge lunch sack. Then she took a dirty old glass milk bottle from a cabinet. “Watch what you can do with SCIENCE, boys and girls!” she yelled, smirking in my direction. She removed the shell from the hard boiled egg and sat it nakedly on her desk. Then she ripped a piece of paper from a notebook and took some matches from her desk drawer. After lighting the paper she clumsily dropped it into the bottle. She grinned. The children ooohed as they had probably never seen fire in the classroom before. Then she put the egg over the mouth of the grimy bottle which covered the opening completely. The fire in the bottle went out as the air inside was used up. Smoke curled up and because of the low pressure in the bottle the egg sank into the opening. Unfortunately, it was not enough to suck the egg into the bottle. The effect was rather subtle and I’m not sure that the children could notice any change. Mrs. G squirmed a bit.

“YOU SEE?!” she asked. “THE EGG IS GETTING SUCKED INTO THE BOTTLE!” The egg just sort of sat there. “SEE?!” she said again, as if saying it louder would make it actually happen. Then, not so subtly, she reached up from behind the egg with her thumb and popped it in. It landed in the ashes at the bottom. The children were not all that impressed because they had seen her push the egg in. “DID YOU SEE?” The children dutifully nodded that they had, in fact, seen the egg enter the bottle.

“Well, alright then, it’s time for lunch. Get your things.” The children gathered their lunch and recess things and lined up. “Take them to lunch and recess, Mr. O’Keefe. And remember what I said. I can see the recess field from the window.” As I left the room I could see Mrs. G with the overturned bottle and a knife cutting the ashy egg to pieces, which she would no doubt eat as part of her immense lunch.

Okay, disgusting. And not good science by any stretch. Also, I wasn’t allowed to play with the kids at recess. But it was not an altogether horrible morning. I guessed that I could get used to it if I had to. But for nine weeks?

When we got back in from recess it was time for more handwriting. The kids had a few trace-and-copy worksheets to do. When they were finished they were expected to pretty much just sit there quietly. Mrs. G sat at her desk flipping through magazines (she told me that she was working on lesson plans – I never saw any lesson plans). At one point she got up and walked around to check on the kids’ progress. One little girl was sort of doodling on the back of her paper. Mrs. G had walked up behind her as quietly as was possible for her. The girl kept on making her looping drawings on the back of her finished handwriting sheet.

“WHAT IN THE WORLD ARE YOU DOING, MISSY?!” she shrieked. The little girl jumped as if slapped. “WELL, WHAT?”

“Just trying some cursive, Ma’am,” was her soft reply. I wouldn’t have believed that Mrs. G could move so fast. She did not hit the girl. But she snatched up the paper from the little one’s desk and violently ripped it to shreds all the time yelling, “HOW DARE YOU WRITE CURSIVE?! WHAT MAKES YOU THINK THAT YOU CAN TEACH YOURSELF?” She tore all of the papers on the girl’s desk into pieces. “WHAT YOU LEARN INCORRECTLY COULD TAKE YEARS TO FIX! YEARS! DON’T YOU EVER WRITE IN CURSIVE AGAIN UNLESS I TELL YOU TO. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”

The kid was scared speechless. “WELL, DO YOU?” A nod. “FINE, and let that be a lesson to all of you.”

She returned to her desk with a satisfied sigh. She was panting. It was the most effort I’d seen her put into anything in the two days I’d spent with her.

That was it for me. After the children were dismissed at the end of the day I gathered all of my things. Mrs. G didn’t have a word to say to me. I didn’t have anything to say to her. Not even a good bye.

“Libby, it’s Tim.”

“Uh oh…”

“You don’t have to worry. I’ll get a job waiting tables this spring. There’ll be plenty of placements in the fall. I’ll just finish my coursework in the summer and stick around. I love Bloomington. I’ll just begin my masters a semester later than I thought…”

“Okay, okay, how bad was it?”

“Truly, Lib, it’s not a problem. If we can’t come up with an alternative placement, I’ll just stick around…”

“What’d she do, O’Keefe?”

“For one thing she screamed in this precious little girl’s face. You wanna know what for? For pretending to write in cursive! She was done with her freaking seatwork and she was bored and G came down on her like a ton of bricks. The kid was just supposed to sit there and do nothing. Like it’s solitary confinement at your desk or something. She committed the crime of pretending to write in cursive…” I was ranting and I knew it. But it wasn’t right, what G had done to that girl. It just wasn’t right. “She tore up that child’s paper, Lib. Shredded it and threw it in her face like she was worthless. She made her cry, Lib. For no reason.” I was running out of breath. “No reason at all. I can’t do it, Libby. But don’t worry, like I said, I can wait tables…”

“All right. All right. You win. If I made you go through nine weeks of that it would be idiotic. We’ll find you something.”

And we did. By the grace of God, Heidi heard a fourth grade teacher sort of complaining at her faculty meeting at the University School about never getting a student teacher. I contacted Libby, she contacted the principal, who contacted Sandy Richards. Sandy welcomed me into her classroom with wide open arms. There couldn’t be two more different teachers on the face of the earth than Mrs. G and Sandy Richards. G's mean spirited attitude was raplaced with Sandy's kindness. The student-vs.-the-teacher mentality of G's classroom was replaced by collaboration and great conversations in Sandy's room. Sandy's students loved coming to school. They laughed a lot. They were optimistic. They dreamed. When I got to Sandy's fourth grade classroom they were in the middle of studying whales. Those students were passionate about whales. They thought they could change the world for whales. I don't even think G's kids knew what science really means. My placement there at University School with Sandy, and later with Vickie Drummonds in kindergarten, was the most incredible good fortune in my life up to that point.

I ask myself now and then how things would have turned out if I had stuck it out with Mrs. G. Would I have become as miserable as her? Would students be my enemy? Would I still be teaching? Or, could I have learned how not to teach and come out on the other side of that mess a strong teacher who loves children?

Because she saved me from my predicament, Heidi and I did our student teaching at the same school for the winter and spring of 1979. We were married a year and a half later. Would we still be together if I had not switched placements? What if Libby was hard-nosed about it and made me stay with G? What if I had quit and waited tables? Would I have even gone back in the fall? I know that I’ll never know the answer to those questions, but I think back on how close my life was to becoming something so very different than it is now and it is another reason for me to count my blessings.

Thursday, November 5, 2009




Good Teaching is more a giving of right questions than a giving of right answers.

– Josef Albers



Early October, 2009


Fall is an interesting and wonderful time of year for 3rd graders. Spectacular.  For one thing wildlife is so abundant.  My students love creatures.  The other day we spent an hour or so just rooting around in forest soil that a child brought in.  It was about a 5-gallon bucket full, so it was a lot of soil.  Basically, we just spread it out on white construction paper, on top of newspapers.  Then we dove in. 


How amazing could a bucket of soil be?  More than you could probably imagine.  At first there were a few groans because there were very few big animals in the soil.  There was a pretty large spider (a gray wolf spider we think).  She was put into a separate jar and released.  We did get a good look at her.  Spiders are amazing creatures and she was very much appreciated.  Hairy, multiple eyes, a bunch of leg joints, a big abdomen. We had her in a clear plastic box with a magnifier for the lid so we could really see. We thought she might be ready to lay her egg sac so we released her straight away.


As the kids and I looked closer and closer, we discovered more and more.  There were tiny little termites and some very small snails and a species of ant that was almost too small to see.  There were a few nice sized earthworms, which the kids sketched diligently.  There were some tiny beetles, rolly pollies, centipedes, a couple very big grubs, some termites, and other tiny creatures almost too small to see with the naked eye. 


After the larger animals were explored, the really tiny ones were appreciated.  I mean some so small you couldn’t see them with the naked eye.  Well, out came the magnifiers and the kids were examining soil by the teaspoon.  I saw stuff I had never seen before and I know the kids did too.   There were many spontaneous expressions of excitement and when one person found something different the others would rush over to share in the energy of rediscovering a creature never experienced. 


As lessons go, it was not rocket science.  Materials: dirt, magnifiers, pencils, paper.  Procedure:  Look closely, listen carefully, be amazed.  Record your amazements.  On the other hand, as lessons go, it was a winner.  You could feel the excitement.  There was this collective realization – not exactly a surprise, more like a reminder, that there is a huge amount of fascinating creatures right under our feet.


So you know, this wasn’t some random lesson, an arbitrary waste of time.  We were studying animals.  Rather than merely studying pictures in a science book, we borrowed some real animals from the forest.  The children sketched and recorded and got their hands dirty.  They held worms and grubs and gazed with intensity at spiders and millipedes.  They wondered, described, sketched and asked brilliant questions.  Some I could answer, others were answered by their peers.  And some questions were left unanswered. 


But there was a sense of wonder that is the Holy Grail of inquiry teachers. There are lots of teachers who teach biology without having animals in sight, or walking outdoors to record the ones in the vicinity.  There are teachers who teach astronomy without ever looking up at the night sky.  There are teachers who don’t to ever seem amazed with their students.  I hope that I never stop being amazed.