Thursday, May 31, 2012

Dear Parents

The World Is Our Classroom


Dear Parents,
                   I hate when a teacher says, “The three things I like most about teaching are June, July and August.”  It isn’t true for all of us.  It surely isn’t true for me.
                  I’ll try not to make this a long letter, but it is hard to sum up what I’m thinking in few words.  If I simply said, “I’ll miss your children,” it wouldn’t even come close to describing the complex feelings I have about this class.  I guess there are teachers who breathe a sigh of relief when it is time to say good bye to their classes at the end of the school year.  I’ve known teachers who sing HALLELUJIA when the last child gets into the car or bus.  Some teachers count down until the 180th day comes and each day gets longer and longer because the anticipation is so great.  Not me.
                  I’m not feeling sorry for myself.  Teaching – especially here at CFI – is a great gig.  I honestly don’t know any grownups who love what they do as much as I do.  I never dread coming to work.  I don’t have back-to-work issues on Sunday evenings or on the last days of summer break.  Teaching here is where I have always longed to teach and where I plan to teach until I retire.  I have been at this for a long time.  Nearly as long as some of you have been alive (just guessing).  I started in 1979.  33 years.  None have been more satisfying than this year with your children. 
                  Who, besides teachers, gets to hang out day after day with brilliant people who keep growing and changing, challenging one another, gaining knowledge, becoming skilled language users, mathematicians, and scientists?  Who gets to spend this much quality time with people whom they love, who are working at figuring out how the world works, how to get along peacefully and kindly, who are trying to make the world a better place?  Who else gets to read their favorite books to their best friends and make amazing discoveries together?  In what other job is it so important to plant seeds and wonder why the roots grow down and the stem and leaves grow up or to watch breathlessly as a butterfly emerges from its chrysalis and unfolds its wings waiting for just the right moment to take off for the rest of its life?  I have been so very fortunate to end up here – in this room – with your child. 
                  You might think that by now I would have grown used to the rhythm of teaching, the coming and going of each group.  I have said good bye to so many classes over the years.  Maybe I’m just getting to be an old softy.  Maybe it’s because I know that I have far fewer years ahead of me as a teacher than those behind me.  But this class, your children, have touched me so much.  As these last few weeks have sped by we have finished so many important things: the high stakes tests, our final literature study (Because of Winn-Dixie), finished out last workshop project (the character development piece), our last chapter book read aloud (Heartbeat by Sharon Creech), and our final science project (the plant experiments).  We said good bye to Miss Liz, had our concert at Sparkleberry and the USC Hooding Ceremony.  We recorded and sold our CDs, sent our money to Rwandan HUGS and received heartfelt gratitude from central Africa. 
                  Beside the “big ticket” memories, we did a lot of the usual things that have become part of our routines.  We kept putting the high, low and normal temperatures on the temperature graph, kept trying to increase our scores for the multiplication and division tests, we kept reading and writing and playing hard on the playground and singing and reading our stories aloud.  At the end of the day we had wrap-up conversations and passed the love. 

                  I really don’t know what the children will remember from all of the time we have spent together.  I remember so very little about my third grade teacher, Mrs. Albert, at Saints Peter and Paul Elementary School.  She had shiny red hair and soft hands.  She didn’t holler as some of my early teachers did.  She had beautiful cursive handwriting.  That’s about it.  Years from now, will my students remember much more than that about me?

Surely they’ll remember how to multiply, divide, to write in cursive, to create setting when they write a story, and to make their characters real and believable.  They’ll probably remember some specific information about animals, the H. L. Hunley, and maybe even some of the books we shared.  But what I want them to remember is that they were listened to and cared about.  I want them to know that their teacher wanted to do his best, although he made some mistakes.  I want them to remember the hugs, fist bumps, handshakes and high fives.  I want them to remember that we laughed out loud in here, that we sang songs in full voice.  I want them to remember simply that they were loved. 
We’ll spend some time together as they move to fourth grade.  Maybe we’ll get our classes together and sing songs.  We’ll see each other in the cafeteria, on the playground and in the great room.  But it won’t be the same.  They’ll grow up.  They’ll make other strong attachments.  They’ll become the wonderful grownups they are destined to be.  But when they look back on the time we shared in this room, I want them to smile.  If that happens, then I will have done my real job.
I have said thank you for so many things over these two years.  The biggest thank you I can make is that you have allowed me to be an important part of your precious child’s life for these two formative years.  For that, I can never thank you enough.  They have changed me.  I don’t want this letter to be a Hallmark Card, someone else’s sentiments with my signature on it, but I found this poem a few years ago.  It sums up what I am feeling. 
Have a wonderful summer.  In love and friendship,  Tim

A quiet tension fills the room
On this last day of school.
I expected exuberance and rowdiness,
But that came yesterday,
When there was still one day to go.
Today the children are disturbingly subdued.
I am embarrassed at my own emotions;
I cannot look at the children directly.
The room is so blank
Our desks are cleaned out.
The last traces of the party have been swept away.
The charts and posters are down for the summer.
So now we sit quietly,
Too wrought even for songs and games
And we wait for the bus to come.
I expect to see these children again, of course,
But it won’t be the same.
They know it,
And I know it.
The will come around to see me,
Jealous of the new class,
And I will look at a room of little strangers
And miss the familiar faces.
In time
The strangers will become friends.
But every class is different and special;
No new group of children will ever take the place
Of the one leaving me today.
~Author Unknown

Saturday, May 19, 2012


I love nature.  Even the scary stuff.  Even the gross stuff.  Nature fits together in a wonderful way.  It is complex.  It meshes.  It works.   Nature is proof of God for me.

I’m afraid of Alzheimer’s.  I’ve seen what it can do. I don’t want to be confused or more forgetful than I already am.  I don’t want to be mean to those who love me most. 

In my third grade class this week we wrote about our loves and fears.  It wasn’t my idea.  I was reading this awesome little book to the kids.  It’s called Heartbeat, by Sharon Creech.  In the story Annie, our heroine, has an unusual assignment in her middle school English class.  She must write about her loves and her fears.  We read Annie’s list and how she felt kind of different from her peers.  Her list was so very distinct. 

After we finished that little section, Hannah piped up, “Hey!  We should do that!”  I love it when that happens.  Many of the children agreed and wanted our next writing workshop to start with a reflection on this idea.

The children chose how to approach this project.  I was thinking of a “quick write”, where we spend about five minutes writing as fast as possible, and then wrapping up the writing for another minute before sharing.  This was no five-minute job.  There was a lot of looking around, a lot of deep thought, lots of pencil twiddling.  Some kids flipped their papers over and would write loves and fears alternately.  Others stuck with one list until their ideas were exhausted before switching to the other.  Altogether we wrote for about 20 minutes before collecting the papers. 

We saved the lists for our end of the day wrap-ups.  We took turns going around the circle sharing one fear at a time.  We saved the loves for another day.  We went around clockwise, every child sharing some word or phrase until everyone in the circle shared.  Then we went round again.  And again.  There were some giggles and some pauses of stony silence as an idea struck a chord.  It felt good for us to share our fears.  We opened ourselves, we gave voice to what might have been gathering power inside of us.  We were made vulnerable by our admissions.  We got to know each other a little better.  No one laughed at another’s fears.  No one passed when it was his/her turn.  When it was time to go home, and there were so many left on our lists someone said, “Let’s do this again.” 

When I watched the children write so intensely, and I heard their lists of fears – it made me kind of sad.  I guess being fearful is part of the human condition.  There is no way to avoid it.  Even very little babies may fear loud noises.  But it made me acutely aware of my role in their lives.  When we studied the Civil War or Civil Rights or read the news over the two years I have been with them, did I play a part in developing some of their fears?  Did I make their lives a little more uncomfortable by bringing up bullying or reading books like Not My Fault or Pink and Say

At the same time, their lists of fears…   gives me hope.  If children fear war and violence, and they are willing to write it and to say it aloud, might they be willing to take a stand against these things as adults?  If they fear ignorance or reckless leaders, perhaps they will work against them when they have the power to make a difference.  I have told them many times that they are the leaders of tomorrow.  That they will probably be the ones who clean up the messes that us grown-ups are leaving behind.   

So here are some of our fears.  I wrote from one child's list to another just as they were shared in the classroom.  Imagine 23 of us sitting cross-legged on the floor, papers in front of us.  One voice at a time.

Guns, getting sick, rats, the devil, bullies, fires, falling things, sounds at night, global warming, never seeing my family again, 6th grade and leaving this school, monster truck rallies, being alone sometimes, hypocrites, getting old, getting yelled at, my parents dying, leaders who want to be super-heroes, bed bugs, falling from a great height, getting lost in the woods, Bloody Mary, war.

When I am feeling sick it makes me scared, copperhead snakes, burglars, bungee jumping, people who cuss a lot, bombs, hate, earthquakes, Halloween stuff sometimes, cancer, never being able to read or write again, sadness in the world, steep hills, if my daddy misses something important, gossip, aliens, people who always want their way, getting in trouble, my nightmares may come true, skunks, hatred, my family dying, being outside alone at night, bullets, when adults fight.

Getting shots at the doctor, roller coasters, electric shocks, fierce animals, mean people, going to jail, earthquakes, car crashes, my cats dying, getting drafted for a war, outer space, leaving this class, scorpions, segregation, burns – they hurt for a long time, funerals, smoking cigarettes, my friends will some day turn on me, really high bridges, people who think they are better, having the past come back, getting beat up, growing up, chain saws, Chuckie.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Standardized Tests

Standardized Tests

It is quiet – too quiet.
Concentration, voiceless whispers
Pencils fill in ovals,
Looking up with a smile
Allergy sniffles
Pages turning
Smiles of success
Frowns of confusion
Heavy sighs
The automatic gestures of the wiggling of pencils
And slipping loose strands of hair behind ears
Light nervous tension
A nod, a smile, a furrowed brow.
Does a year’s worth of instruction
Rest on these few mornings
Of filling in bubbles
To outsmart the test makers
Who are trying to outsmart us?
Can they ever come close to capturing the essence
Of important conversations, the smirks, the “duh”s,
The stone silence of children as books are read aloud,
The dirty fingernails of plant experiments,
The crumpled pages of a well-used
Writer’s notebook?
Can they measure anything about 
The dog-eared pages of a much loved book,
The uproarious laughter,
The occasional tear,
The breathless excitement of discovery,
The friendship,
The coaching,
The research,
And reading,
And strategy sharing,
And sense of success,
At learning something,
Entirely new?
Can one objective test
Ever truly measure
Favorite authors,
Favorite places to read,
Passions, questions,

Below I have reposted a piece I wrote exactly two years ago when my last class of third graders finished the high stakes tests at the end of our school year.  This week I felt the same.

Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted. - Albert Einstein

I couldn’t have been prouder of my students than I was this week. Tuesday through Thursday we took the final part of our high-stakes, standardized tests. If you have an elementary age child in SC you know that Tuesday was Reading, Wednesday was Math and today was Science and Social Studies. The tests take an hour and a half or so for these three days. We had already taken the writing part of the test back in March. My students did shine. I am blessed with a bright and curious class. I did not look at any of their answers. I just read the instructions like I was supposed to. But I could tell.

I think one reason they were successful is that we kept alive a tradition started by my teacher buddy Brent Petersen. We created an adversarial fictional character named Ed. Ed makes the tests and tries to outsmart us, tries to trick us, tries to get us to mark incorrect answers, to think illogically, to tire, give up – to bomb the test. The further along in the year, the wilder our Ed character became. Now we have this image of Ed-the-test-maker-scorer as being a greasy guy in a small windowless room, with a single bare bulb dangling from a wire. He is a smoker too. He sits around all day creating these crazy writing prompts and test questions, or reading kids’ responses trying to find fault with our answers. Ed is the enemy. We must defeat him.

No one really believes this scenario but we have fun with the image of Ed. Sometimes he is wearing an old fashioned fedora hat, sometimes a sleeveless t-shirt. At various times he is shiny bald or has big tattoos. We imagine him reading our responses to the writing prompt, or scoring the fill-in-the-dot answer sheets with a cigarette dangling from his lips, the bare lightbulb casting sharp shadows on the cement block walls.

I tell the students and their parents that these tests don’t sum up the year. Not for me. And hopefully, not for them. The way we teach and learn is not rote. It is not a matter of dispensing information that can be picked up like radiation with a Geiger counter at some point later on to see what residue is left.

When we read it is for more than comprehension. It is for captivation and learning about the world and understanding human nature and characters. We read to enjoy well-crafted words, to immerse ourselves in other places, other lives, other worlds. When we write it is to express ourselves clearly, to share who we are, what we know. When we were writing our farewell notes to one of our student teachers last November I asked the children to think of what Tammy taught us, what she means to us, what we’ll remember most. Daquan said, “Well, maybe we should also try and make her cry.” So, OK, we also write to make people cry… and laugh and think deeply.

There isn’t much room on the test for their “stories” to amaze us, or any opportunities to make a reader laugh or cry. Filling in dots to show what we know about science or math or social studies doesn’t even scratch the surface of what children know about how the world works. So no, these tests do not reflect the two school years we have spent together. Not even close.

But, when I sat with these children, my children, for all these hours over these three days (not to mention the four mornings spent in the computer lab with testing and the two mornings spent in March with the writing part of the test) they worked incredibly hard. They pondered every question, worked in silence, completely isolated – as if in a room full of others in solitary confinement. They didn’t talk at all (an amazing feat in itself), checked over their work, put up with me reading directions in my “Ed-the-Test-Administrator” voice. No one complained. Everyone took it seriously.

I watched them stretch and yawn and give themselves little mental breaks, raise their hands with dulled pencils, read and reread confusing questions, shake their heads, furrow their little brows, look up pensively and think, erase incorrect answers, wink at me to let me know they were doing fine… smile at me – SMILE at me.

I know it’s silly, but during this testing time, when kids were scratching their heads, biting their lips and smiling at me, I felt this overwhelming sense of pride. It was the wrong time in so many ways. Tests are so artificial. They DON’T give a complete picture of achievement or instruction. But these children, my children, gave it everything they had. They know exactly how I feel about the tests but however incomplete the information they yield, I told them this was important. They trusted me and took this seriously. They trust me. Me. 21 minds. 21 spirits and hearts. 21 totally unique individuals. They trust me. This takes my breath away. Maybe I’m making too much of it, but it is staggering that these 21 little friends have this kind of faith in me.

It is one more powerful reason why I will miss these children as they move on to 4th grade. And why I don’t take the job of teaching for granted. It is simply so important. They trust me, you know? And their parents trust me. I don’t know why, but that astonished me a little today.
When we finished the tests, there was no big hoorah. The kids gathered around to learn a new song, munch a few cookies, and have some fellowship. For the rest of the day I listened a little more closely and laughed a little harder (“Hey, Mr. O,” said Joe, examining his cafeteria sandwich, “is some of the chicken for the chicken sandwiches made from the chicken’s… you know… behind?”). Today, with these precious few days left in the school year, I learned again why I love this gig.
“Standardized testing has become the arbiter of social mobility, yet there is more regulation of the food we feed our pets that of the tests we give our kids”
Robert Schaeffer

Wednesday, May 9, 2012


I didn’t think I’d be any sadder on May 9th than the other days since my mom passed away.  Ruthanne Hill O’Keefe Engdal Burns was born on May 9, 1926.  She’d have been 86 years old today.  I remember her saying to the Hospice worker in New Mexico where she spent her last few weeks, “I’m 85.  I’ve outlived three wonderful husbands.  I have seven children.  They’re all doing fine with beautiful families of their own.  I’m 86.  I am an old woman.  What, do you think I need to be 87?”

The Hospice worker cried.  I was so proud of my mom.  She seemed to look at death the same way she looked at life.  With her eyes wide open.  She lived and laughed and loved right up until the very end.  God, I miss her.

Last evening on our walk, Heidi said that she missed my mom a whole lot too, that she could talk to Ruck just like she talked to me.  With complete honesty.  We’re lucky if we have just a few people in our lives we can pour our hearts out to, who we can be completely ourselves with, with no pretense or inhibitions.  Ruck was one of those people.  She was like that to a lot of folks. 

My memories of her are already becoming less about the grief and much more about her wit and wisdom, her humor and grace and feistiness.  How absolutely blessed I am that I was born to that good woman.  

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Be Careful Out There

I was listening to TV the other day.  Don’t really watch much TV.  Perhaps I will as I get older but for now it’s mostly news shows and Comedy Central.  I was washing the dishes when I heard this ad for a medication to help you stop smoking.  I was vaguely interested.  Smoking is bad.  Stopping is hard.  I understand how addictive nicotine is.  The MOST addictive substance, right?  More addictive than heroine, cocaine, morphine.  I heard that it is even more addictive than caffeine.  No laughing matter. 

Everyone in my family smoked at some time when I was a kid.  My parents and their friends smoked or were in the middle of quitting for a long time.  I remember plainly as a kid, my mom sending me to the drugstore with 35 or 40 cents.  “Honey, go buy me some Winston Lights.  The ones in the box, not the pack.  There is an extra nickel there so you can buy a candy bar.” 

Sure.  Good deal.  It was only a couple blocks away.  And a nickel candy bar back in the day was huge. 

The guy behind the counter never questioned that I was buying it for my mom.  He’d slip it into a little paper sack along with my big old Butterfinger and give me some change back.  Yessir.  Those were the days.

So I was listening with mild interest to this commercial for CHANTIX.  The actual advertisement for the product was brief.  You know, it is a prescription medicine that helps people 18 and older to stop smoking.  [Tim: Because no one under 18 wants to quit more than likely.  Because when you’re under 18 and you start to smoke you think you’re going to live forever.  When you are under 18 you defy death by starting to smoke in the first place.  You know it causes cancer.  But that doesn’t matter.  Because when you are under 18, and you might get cancer when you are in your 60’s or 70’s… that’s a lifetime away.  60’s and 70’s are only theoretical when you are under 18.  60’s and 70’s are old people.  And when you are that young, you are never gonna get that old.  But I digress…]

So you can take CHANTIX to help you stop, but of course the ad goes on to say that you would also benefit from a “quit-smoking program, and/or counseling during your quit attempt.”  I’m thinking the quit-smoking program and/or the counseling alone just might do the trick without CHANTIX.

That was about the gist of the ad part.  I thought that it might be a little difficult to get it since it is a prescription drug.  You’d have to lean on your doctor a bit probably to get him/her to prescribe it.  But the pharmaceutical companies must count on that a great deal, otherwise, why would they advertise it on primetime?  Those ads must be expensive.  You’d have to sell an awful lot of CHANTIX to pay for just one ad.  Many smokers-with-the-intentions-of-quitting would have to pester their doctors a lot to pay for that tiny little ad. 

And then came the precautions.  I thought about jotting them down but the guy with the voice spoke so quickly that there was absolutely no way.  Luckily I googled it and there they were.  I’ll reprint them here but as you read imagine a guy with a silky smooth voice, a guy who get paid for being this voice, reading this text all ultra fast.

Some people have had changes in behavior, hostility, agitation, depressed mood, suicidal thoughts or actions while using CHANTIX to help them quit smoking. Some people had these symptoms when they began taking CHANTIX, and others developed them after several weeks of treatment or after stopping CHANTIX. If you, your family, or caregiver notice agitation, hostility, depression, or changes in behavior, thinking, or mood that are not typical for you, or you develop suicidal thoughts or actions, anxiety, panic, aggression, anger, mania, abnormal sensations, hallucinations, paranoia, or confusion, stop taking CHANTIX and call your doctor right away. Also tell your doctor about any history of depression or other mental health problems before taking CHANTIX, as these symptoms may worsen while taking CHANTIX.
Whoa!  Some people have had suicidal thoughts and actions while taking this?  And I thought the effects of smoking were bad.   I have been around people quitting cigs before.  It’s bad.  I get it.  But… anxiety, panic, aggression, anger, mania, abnormal sensations, hallucinations, paranoia, or confusion?  Who would want to go through that?!  I mean it’s only a possibility, right?  But there are more precautions.  FAR more…
Do not take CHANTIX if you have had a serious allergic or skin reaction to CHANTIX. Some people can have serious skin reactions while taking CHANTIX, some of which can become life threatening. These can include rash, swelling, redness, and peeling of the skin. Some people can have allergic reactions to CHANTIX, some of which can be life threatening and include: swelling of the face, mouth, and throat that can cause trouble breathing. If you have these symptoms or have a rash with peeling skin or blisters in your mouth, stop taking CHANTIX and get medical attention right away.
That is a LOT of possible symptoms!  Look at that list!  Serious stuff too.  I mean I could deal with some redness.  But swelling of the face, mouth and throat?  Peeling skin or blisters in your mouth?  That seems like a nasty list of side-effects (possible side-effects).  You’d have to be some kind of desperate to chance all of that.  But there is so much more…
Tell your doctor if you have a history of heart or blood vessel problems before starting CHANTIX, or if you have a history of these problems and have any new or worse symptoms during treatment with CHANTIX. Get emergency medical help right away if you have any symptoms of a heart attack.
The most common side effects of CHANTIX include nausea (30%), sleep problems, constipation, gas and/or vomiting. If you have side effects that bother you or don't go away, tell your doctor. You may have trouble sleeping, vivid, unusual or strange dreams while taking CHANTIX. Use caution driving or operating machinery until you know how CHANTIX may affect you.
Who likes nausea?  People get nauseas when they quit on their own.  Can you imagine the nausea if you added another layer on top of the normal quit-smoking nausea?  And 30% of the folks who try this get sick to their stomachs.  That’s a lot.  Now vivid or unusual dreams might not be that bad.  I’m surprised with all of the other DANGERS they even threw that it.  I don’t remember my dreams all that often.  That might actually be a benefit.
Using caution while operating machinery or driving?  Heck, most people over 18 DO DRIVE, right?  What kind of caution are they talking about?  Just being aware that this medicine might mess you up a little bit, so exercise a bit more caution?  Or designated driver level of caution?
CHANTIX should not be taken with other quit-smoking products. You may need a lower dose of CHANTIX if you have kidney problems or get dialysis.
Before starting CHANTIX, tell your doctor if you are pregnant, plan to become pregnant, or if you take insulin, asthma medicines, or blood thinners. Medicines like these may work differently when you quit smoking.

One would have to really want to quit smoking and have next to no self-control to voluntarily take this drug.  The next time this ad comes on, I’m going to watch it, because the soundtrack alone was really spooky.  Probably the visuals are really great to offset the frightening list of possible side effects.  You know, paddling a canoe down a pristine river, holding hands with a loved one in the moonlight, accidentally bumping  into your honey while cooking.  Oh no.  That’s the little blue pill…m The most common side effects of VIAGRA are headache, facial flushing, and upset stomach. Less commonly, bluish vision, blurred vision, or sensitivity to light may briefly occur….