Saturday, March 26, 2011


This week the computer I usually use is in the shop. I’m not exactly sure when we’re getting it back. Part two of my last post, “Smellophobia” is on the hard drive of that computer so I’ll post that next week.

In the meantime, I have just finished our student-led conferences with my class and their parents at school. These were just delightful. The students reflected on how they are doing in the subject areas, wrote brilliant notes about that, selected writing samples, reading samples, practiced up on some math and science demonstrations so they could really strut their stuff. And they did. They were at once, cute and charming, and brilliant and precocious. I was so proud. Parents were pleased too. Most important, I think the students were proud of themselves.

Progress reports come out the week after spring break. I finished mine a few days ago. This round of progress reports is a narrative report. Each report is about 3 pages of comments and observations about the children and how they are doing as readers, writers, mathematicians, scientists and social scientists. There is a section for me to fill out about how each child is doing as a community member. Do they take their work seriously, turn their assignments in on time, are they excited about reading, how have they grown as writers, etc. It is all important. These narrative reports reveal so much more than a traditional report card. When I was a kid I got the usual A,B,C,D or F in the subjects. There was a tiny little space for the teacher to write comments and most teachers didn’t bother. The letter grade said it all.

Really? Most schools still use almost the same system for reporting to parents about their child’s progress in school. After all these years the A-F scale just will not go away. I have always been a little confused by it. As objective as the old scale seems to be, I never found it very fair or revealing. How much does a B- in reading tell you, for example, about how much a child likes to read, how well they use their reading time, what author’s they like, what strategies they use, how they have grown? The answer, quite simply is – not much.

So, the narrative progress reports take far more time to prepare, but they are worth it. You can say things in sentences and paragraphs that you just can’t in a single letter, even a letter with a + or – after it.

Our faculty is usually a little exhausted after writing narratives; our backs are a little sore from sitting in front of the computer for so many hours. But it is so worth it. I know because Heidi and I were on the receiving end of these reports when Devin and Colin went through our school. It was always so gratifying to know that our kids’ teachers really knew them as students and as human beings. From a teacher’s point of view, it is satisfying to pull together all of the information and notes involved in writing these reports and to get it all down on paper. I know my students so much more now, than before setting down to the task of writing about them in this detailed way.

I added a little bonus section to the progress reports this time. It might be the most important part of all. In February, I asked the kids to all write a little about everyone else in the class, some appreciations. Then I compiled them into lengthy paragraphs written especially about each child by their peers. I copied it onto pink paper and called it a Valentine. OK, it wasn’t candy or a jump rope or even a book. But every child wrote something personal, something meaningful about every other child. Our student teacher, Madona, and I added our two cents worth as well to these letters, but the really good stuff came from the kids. They know how to say things without pretense. They appreciate what’s real. They write from their hearts. Some of it is about academic stuff; some of it is about how they play our classroom game on the playground. Some of it is surface level – but the kind of thing that makes a kid feel good. If you gave one of these lengthy paragraphs to anyone in our class and asked them who it was about – they would know.

So, this is a list I’ve compiled from the many appreciations. It is a moment in their second grade lives, a time capsule. This is a little bit from a lot of children, but you can get a taste of their voice. If only adults could be this honest, this appreciative, this kind and direct.

Thank you for telling us all about the weather every day. I like how you always have a sweet smile. I like how you always play with me. You are one of the best guys I have ever seen. You are great at counting money. You remember stuff, you have an awesome mind. I appreciate you because you always sit by me at lunch and we talk together. You are a nice boy. I like you smile every day. When you laugh it makes me giggle. I like how you teach me a lot about animals. I love your smile and your sense of humor. It is fun playing ball with you. I like how you play that spy game with me. I like how funny you are and how you chase me on the playground. I like your stories. They make me laugh. I like your jokes. They are really fun. You are so intelligent. I like your cool clothes. I enjoy you because you are funny. You are my BFF. You rock at running. You always do funny stuff and you have been a good boy to me. You always make me laugh every time I look at you. You always have a smile on your face. You really love to teach us nature and other stuff when you write in the journals. When we went to the park with you I had a great time. You’re cool. Everyone knows it. I like when you show me fossils. I like you because when I want to know a reptile’s name you are there to tell me. You really care about others. You help me spell words. You are quiet and kind and helpful and patient. I like how you played that game at aftercare with us. You are the best friend I ever had. I love you as a friend. You are pretty and you are nice and we laugh together. You are even funnier than me. I like you laugh at my jokes even when they are not funny. You are really talented at reading. Thank you for always working so hard. I can tell that you try your best in everything. I like your puppy. It is sad when you are not in school. I like your comments about what we read. One of my favorite things was when you invited me to your sleepover. I had the best time there. You show a lot of good manners to me. I like it that you always play chess with me. You are kind and sensitive and insightful. I like it that you always play chess with me. You are the best friend a boy could have. You really try your best. You are a rocking kid. You are like a playful puppy. Can we be friends? You are a great kid. I like all of your talents. I like your smartness. You have a scientific personality. I love your hair. It stays up. You are so beautiful! You’re my BFF. You are fashionable. You can do a lot of things I can’t do. We always play sisters and it is fun. You always make me laugh in a good way. You are a fantastic reader. You make some really funny faces. You are so good at knowing when to work and when to play!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Smellophobia, Part 1

This is a memoir I wrote about a child in my class many years ago. It is a little long for a single post so I'll publish it in parts. I had a hard time coming up with a title for this one. I am open to suggestions.


In the late 80’s I taught little ones in a large public school in Cayce, SC. Back then, and still today, kids are tested to see if they are “ready” for first grade. The teachers meet with children individually to see if they know their colors, shapes, letters and numbers and to see if they can name pictures of common items and their uses. The Cognitive Skills Assessment Battery, or CSAB, was pretty important as it placed kids into two groups; ready or not ready for first grade. Back in those long ago days someone had the brainchild in my school district to take all of the children labeled not ready and place them into a single classroom.

When I first started teaching these students there was only one of these special rooms. There were seven or eight first grade rooms and lots of kids scored “not ready” – far more than enough for a single class. So my class was the lowest scoring 18 children out of the 140 or 150 children given the test. Since most of these students were destined to have an extra year of first grade – the year with me being their first year of first grade – we were called the Transition First Grade. I worked with the Transition First Graders for five years.

In order to make the other first grade classrooms more alike, (more homogeneous in educator’s terms), by reducing the number of low scoring children in the “regular” classrooms, the process provided us with an extremely diverse group.

My class was filled with bright, funny, happy kids. They may not have tested well, they may have taken a little longer to read confidently, but our Transition children were fun, challenging, capable people. I loved working with them. In some ways it was far more interesting than teaching a “regular” group of first grade aged kids.

One year, it may have been 1988 or 1989; there was a little boy in our room who had a bit of an eating disorder. Or maybe it was a smelling disorder. His mom called it a “delicate stomach”, a classic understatement if I ever heard one. Whatever we called it, Brandon was one of those people who could simply not stand the smell of our school cafeteria. It’s not just that he found some odors offensive. They made him sick. Literally.

Brandon regularly threw up at lunchtime. After the first couple weeks of school the fall Brandon was with us, our class was moved to the lunch table nearest the set of double doors that led directly to the outside. Brandon would signal me and go right outdoors, burst outside and relieve himself of his stomach contents.

It’s not like he wasn’t getting enough nutrition. He was a pretty robust kid. No problem there. It was the smells. I know it seemed like an awkward solution but it worked. We considered other options like having him near the trashcan, using an “air sickness” bag – all of that seemed a little gross for the onlookers and would only make Brandon more self-conscious about his barfing thing. So our class sat by the door and Brandon always sat closest, within a few feet of the exit.

One day as we were walking to the cafeteria. Brandon tugged on my sleeve. “Mr. O., they must be having boiled cabbage in the cafeteria.”

“I think you’re right, kiddo.” I hadn’t smelled it yet, but I knew enough to trust his nose.

“But I hate boiled cabbage!”

“You don’t have to get it, Brandon.” Soon I could smell the cabbage. Not very pleasant. Whatchagonnado? Cabbage is cabbage. The lunch ladies were nice. They understood the situation. There was no offense taken.

As he pushed his tray across and said, “No thanks,” to the cabbage, he looked pale. I recognized the signs. Soon we were seated, Brandon just a few feet away from the double doors and poised to hit the bushes if need be. I figured he might, and half expected his usual rush out the door. I would go out, kind of rub his back, wait with him until his nausea passed, kick some dirt over the mess, and then come back in to finish lunch. It sounds weird, I know. But that was our rhythm. It worked.

So we all were seated. To be fair, while there was the heavy, cloying, funky smell of cooked cabbage, there were other more pleasing food smells mixed in. Sausage, biscuits, green beans, rice. There were other smells too: steam, industrial disinfectant, wax from the cafeteria floors, cigar smoke from Old Mr. Steverson the head custodian and, of course, the smell of 200 children in one big room. This was a blend of smells I was used to with about ten years of teaching experience behind me. But it was the blend of odors that made my little friend Brandon sick. Regularly. We hoped that he would simply grow out of it. Unfortunately, on this particular day, he had not.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Start With The Ending

I have written on a number of occasions how great it is to be a teacher of little ones. While not all days are great, a bad day teaching is better than a good day working at most places.

It isn’t necessarily easy. It is, in fact, quite challenging at times. Managing the curriculum, guiding the group dynamic of 22 young people (and most often 2 adults), communicating with parents, being on committees, meeting with teachers about school business and pushing each other to be the best we can be, writing lessons, assessing student work, writing newsletters, writing progress reports… The list is endless and, with the exception of the very beginning of each school year, I always feel a little behind.

While I am a very rich man by the world standard, one doesn’t go into education for the money. It has many other, far greater rewards.

The staff at my school eats lunch with our kids. The grownups used to sit together to chat or talk shop and try to maintain eye contact and proximity by occasionally walking around near the class tables. It wasn’t all that successful. Now we eat lunch with the kids and, frankly, I like it that way. Unlike many other schools, we also take our own classes to recess, which is another bonus as far as I am concerned. While these 53 year old legs don’t carry me across the playground field as fast as they used to, I can still play a great game of tag, or Across the Ocean, or Monkey in the Middle, kickball or – our current favorite playground game – OBALL. It is a hybrid game that we made up; a cross between Dodge Ball and Capture the Flag. Fast paced, funny, great exercise, an excellent opportunity to demonstrate good sportsmanship, OBALL is consistently one of the class favorites. Well over half of the class plays every time.

We don’t keep score. I change teams after every game. Sides are selected at random so there is never a “last” person picked. Everyone compliments kids on both sides. “That was an awesome catch... You can throw so much better than even a few weeks ago… Great dodge...”

There is a little smack talk as well – second grade style. “Mr. O., you’re going down today!”

“Oh, yeah? Well you are going down first!”

“Oh yeah? Well, you’re going down as soon as we get to the playground!”

“Ohhhh yeah?! You’re going down BEFORE we get to the playground!!”

“OOOHHH YEAH!?! Well you’re going down before we leave the cafeteria!!!” You get the picture. It is all in good fun.

I can’t say that people don’t get hurt during the game. We use perfect playground balls. They are soft, spongy, make a loud noise when they hit (very desirable to make it seem like you took a far greater shot than you actually did). But occasionally someone gets hurt. They trip over roots (the tall pines on the playground are an important part of the game), bump into each other (this happens in every game where people run around), slip, trip, or get a little road rash from the playground dirt. Sometimes, although the balls are pretty soft, if you get hit in the head, it may hurt a little. More often than not when someone gets hit in the head they just shake it off and go on. On most days, everyone is fine.

The other day we were about half way through recess when Bay got hit right in the chin. We stopped the game, crowded around as we always do when someone gets hurt and asked her if she was OK. In less than a minute she said she was fine and was raring to get back into it.

In about 15 seconds Bay was smacked again, this time right in the cheek. Once again, play was stopped and both sides gathered around. This time she shed a tear or two. I asked her if she wanted to play on and she wasn’t so sure. I didn’t know who threw the ball. It didn’t really matter since it was certainly an accident. Bay wasn’t angry, just a little hurt. She didn’t care who threw it either.

Garrett, one of our constant players, the biggest child in the class as well as one of the kindest and gentlest, came over to see if Bay was going to be all right. He had a look of real concern on his face. He always does when someone gets hurt. He rubbed Bay on the back and looked wide-eyed. He said that maybe we should stop the game for the day and find something else to do.

He said that he was real sorry and that he sure didn’t mean to throw so high and that he didn’t mean to hurt anyone and that he would be more careful next time and that it would be OK to stop the game and he was sure sorry. He started to get a little misty himself. Bay said that she would be fine and that she knew it was an accident. Garrett was relieved. We all were. Garrett gave Bay a big hug. And Bay hugged him right back.

I was so moved. There are lots of lessons we can learn from kids. One is to say you’re sorry when you make a mistake. Another is to forgive when the apology offered is sincere. Maybe a third is to give someone you have hurt a big old bear hug. And finally, to learn to hug back. It’s not all that complex really.

At some point along the way to growing up, we forget what it is like to empathize, to truly put ourselves in another person’s shoes. We don’t fess up when we make a mistake. We lose sight of the fact that at sincere apology often makes things right again. And we forget how important it is to show our true feelings.

It’s like that old David Wilcox song. Sometimes I think we should “Start With the Ending”.

Because when I grow up I want to be like Garrett. I hope that I grow up to be just as sincere and kind and sweet as he is.

For the last few months we have been reading and thinking about Civil Rights and social justice in general. The children just finished, under the direction of our brilliant student teacher Ms. Madona, a little book for literature study called Let’s Dream, a biography of Martin Luther King Jr. [Yes, Chris, we’ll probably write a song about him.] We read and appreciated his words for our short language appreciations, and Madona shared from his Letters From a Birmingham Jail. We had some powerful conversations and will have many more.

Yesterday, during writing workshop Garrett asked if he could write a speech. I thought it was a brilliant idea and that many others may want to do the same. [I also considered, Why hadn’t I thought of that invitation?!]

Garrett wrote this in about 10 minutes and came in with it today in final draft form.

A Perfect World Speech

A perfect world would be if there was no bullying.

A perfect world would be if every soul was treated with respect and kindness.

A perfect world would be if there was no violence or killing.

A perfect world would be if there were no assassinations.

A perfect world would be if everybody was nice.

By Garrett

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Spring, 1976

The other day I realized that I am at an odd place in my life. Our son Devin is 18 years old now. He is in the second semester of his freshman year at USC.

When I was precisely at his age and stage I met Heidi. My whole life turned then. It wasn’t long after we met that we fell in love, and while we have had some ups and downs, we committed our lives to each other and got married 4 ½ years later. Now we have been married for over 30 years. 30 years.

I remember so clearly being exactly his age. I remember being in class with Heidi and wanting to talk to her but being a little too shy.

Southern Indiana, 1976. The Bicentennial. Gerald Ford. Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Elton John, Stevie Wonder. Saturday Night Live, M*A*S*H, Charlie’s Angels, The Muppet Show. Rocky, A Star Is Born, All the President's Men.

Her hair was long and straight and shiny auburn. She was tiny and tanned and freckled and her smile was so pretty that it made my heart hurt.

We lived in the same dorm, Wright Quad, and ate in the same cafeteria. We played Frisbee in the same courtyard, listened to the same hits on the radio.

That spring semester at Indiana University, we ended up in the same art class – Crafts and Design. The classroom building was a Quonset hut in the center of campus. The teacher was nice. She was simple, fun, cool. A hippie chick. The work in her class was creative. It was a completely relaxed atmosphere. We could sit where we wanted in that room. I was afraid to sit too close to Heidi. She was too pretty.

I found myself gazing at her when she wasn’t looking and sneaking peeks from the corner of my eye. While we walked back to the same dormitory after class, I didn’t have the nerve at first to walk with her.

In about mid-March, one of the first warm days of early spring, we had an assignment to go to the small art museum on campus and sketch a favorite piece. The class met on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. I hadn’t done my sketch earlier, of course, and was just going to stop by the museum on my way to class. When I got there I found that the museum was locked for lunch and there was no way it would be opened before it was time to go to class.

I was a little disgusted with myself for putting off the assignment to the last minute. I was trying to look through the narrow glass window in the door to see what I could sketch when Heidi came in. She was in the same situation it seemed. So, that’s how we met. Both of us procrastinators, both of us peering through the small glass windows to get a peek at part of some barely visible piece of art so we could sketch it just in time for class.

I don’t remember the sketch, but I remember exactly what Heidi was wearing, a yellow halter-top and blue jeans shorts. Her long hair was in a ponytail, her skin impossibly brown for the time of year. She was beautiful. I was shy, but not too shy to hold up my end of the conversation.

From that day on we walked back from class together. We laughed, and joked, talked about music and class, our roommates, our families and our new friends. Simply, we shared our stories. I was in love so fast that it was ridiculous. But before Heidi fell for me, we were friends, then best friends, then we left for our respective homes during the summer. We wrote letters nearly every day. They were silly and light and full of good cheer. I wrote as much as I could between those lines.

It wasn’t until the next Christmas that we first kissed, but that time we spent as best friends? Those meals we shared, those walks we took, the ideas and laughs and evenings spent looking at the night sky? I wouldn’t change that for anything. All of that time becoming friends has translated into a lifetime of friendship beyond our love.

I remember high school and my junior high days. I even have lots of memories of elementary days. But that time when I first met and fell for Heidi Mills – that time is crystal for me. For that is the beginning who I really am now. The man, husband, father, teacher, friend, musician I am right now started when I was just the age that Devin is at this moment.

He might not meet his one true love very soon. It might take him a long time. It seems to happen later these days for many people. But I am excited for him and can only hope that he remembers the days he is living right now as I remember mine – the beginning of a brilliant time of change and hope and becoming.