Tuesday, June 23, 2009

You Live Where?

Italy . . . Sicily . . . Italia . . . Sicilia. I had been to Italy many times and loved it, but like many Americans, I had preconceived ideas about Sicily. And they weren’t good. It wasn’t until I paid a couple of visits there in my AVID job with DoDDS-Europe that I discovered Sicily was a well-kept secret. I decided that if I ever had the chance, I would like to live there. Lo and behold, my chance came in 2004 when Bad Aibling closed and I got a transfer there. I was thrilled to move to Sicily and to go to work with my friend Marj Lewallen as my principal.

I have a whole blog dedicated just to living in Sicily: Sicilian Odyssey. I knew it would be a special experience, and I wanted to share that with as many friends as possible. Blogs were something I had only heard of, but I decided to try it out. As of today, that blog about Sicily has had over 40,000 visitors!

Sigonella has been a wonderful place to live, to work, and to end my career in teaching. I feel like I’ve done my best teaching, learned the most, had the greatest impact, and made many friends for life.

How was my teaching experience here different from any other? The two major factors that made it so unique were (1) the Navy and (2) Sicily. All of my other DoDDS locations had been with the Army, and, while I love Navy kids and families, I have to say the Navy itself nowhere near as supportive or responsive as the Army. They mainly seem annoyed if they have to deal with you at all. And they just aren’t efficient or available. The community commander put up a wall, a fence, and a gate between his house and the school which just about started World War III. He didn’t even want teachers and kids walking on “his” street.

Sicily is what I call a “Two-and-a-half World Country,” not quite Third World, but close. Things never run smoothly and that affects our school. While we have, by far, the most beautiful new school in DoDDS-Europe, it is near impossible to get things running right or fixed. The fire alarm sounds in one building but not the other. But, you can have expresso or cappuccino with fresh Italian pastries at any time in the cafeteria (even some of the kids go for this stuff), palm trees and flowers surround the school, we have an original Sicilian cart in the foyer, sunshine three hundred days a year, and a view of Mount Etna to die for. The entire base is brand-new and looks more like a southern California college campus than a military base.

Because Sicily is at the southernmost tip of Europe, and our kids still compete in all the DoDDS sports, and it’s a very small high school (about 200), I fondly refer to it as Sigonella Part-time High School. More than half of our sporting events are away, which means at least one day of school missed for travel every week of every season. During tournament time, that equates to multiple days missed. During the recent spring sports tournaments, I actually had only twenty-six kids present and thirty-six absent over a two-day period. They bus them on 12-20 hours bus trips and sometimes fly the teams to Germany to compete. And this is a little-bitty high school, so they compete in the Championship for Little-Bitty Schools!

Navy kids and families, as I said, are great. There is a large Filipino population, which I had never experienced before, and the families are super-supportive of their kids’ success. They were great to work with.

Because Sicily is so ancient and so diverse in its historical populations, we have wonderful destinations for field trips. Kids typically go to Roman and Greek archaeological sites like Taormina, Siracusa, Agrigento, Catania, and Piazza Armerina to see theaters, temples, castles, mosaics, villas, forums, and more. They hike up on Mount Etna in the lava fields and learn first-hand about volcanoes. I took a group to see an original Greek play (2,400 years old) in an original Greek theater, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Every year, we take the Honors 10th graders to see the World War II German and British cemeteries and then to the Museum of the Invasion in Catania. It is a truly moving experience for them each time.
Chaos often reigns at Sigonella, for a variety of reasons, but, in the end, it’s always the teachers who pull things together and make them happen. At the beginning of the 2007-08 school year, we started the year with two new administrators (both with little to no experience), no secretary/personnelist, no supply clerk, and no registrar. But did we let that stop us? No! We opened on time just like everything was hunky-dory. We have some highly-dedicated, hard-working teachers and staff that go above and beyond (often) for the kids and the school. You have to be pro-active to get the things you need, to get things fixed, and to make things happen. Luckily, I have quite a few colleagues here who do just that: the ed tech who gerry-rigs the SMART board to make it work, the teacher who petitions the State Department to increase our Living Quarters Allowance, and school nurse who sponsors student council are just a few examples. Virtually everyone goes above and beyond to ensure a quality educational experience for these kids. (Below, Tina, Kendra, Pat and I lunching with The Standards)

I have had the best social life of my teaching career here in Sigonella. Maybe it’s because we are isolated and remote, but colleagues become friends become “family.” They are generally an inclusive group, and one never feels uninvited or left out. There are some “characters” here. I think that is the type of DoDDS teacher who thrives in Sicily. Outings, get-togethers, and support are abundant. We really care about each other. That is the magic of Sigonella.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Return to the Old Country

When I decided to return to DoDDS and Europe in 2002, I was at the mercy of human resources at headquarters. But I didn't leave it totally up to them. I contacted all the principals I knew for whom I would like to work and I ended up in the smallest school in the best location in all of Europe: Bad Aibling, Germany. The principal there, Bob Bennett, created a position and convinced the superintendent that he had to have me there. It worked!

Picture the Bavarian Alps, between Munich and Salzburg . . . beer gardens, lederhosen, edelweiss, and Sound of Music . . . that's Bad Aibling! It was the most beautiful, enchanting, healthful place I ever lived, and I would have stayed there forever if I could have. Sadly, they were on the chopping block to close, which they did, just two years after I arrived. Sigh.

But, while I was there, I thoroughly enjoyed the unique experience of working and living in a special place. Bad Aibling is a lovely German spa town. Bad Aibling Station was a "listening station" for Army military intelligence and National Security. Top secret stuff. Bad Aibling School was a kindergarten through twelfth grade school all in one building, with a total of about 185 students. Of those, about eighty were in grades 5-12 and only forty-some in 9-12. We graduated four kids our last year. The school was so big and the population so small, we kind of got lost in it. The superintendent joked that, upon one visit, he thought they had closed Bad Aibling and forgot to tell him because he didn't see any kids in the hall.

The school itself was in one of the typical German military buildings from World War II, and the classrooms were like bowling alleys. It was two stories high and you could walk half a mile from end to end without going outside. We were well-equipped. I think at one point we had at least two computers per kid. There was no need for locks on lockers, and many kids just left their stuff hanging on hooks or on the benches in the halls. It was too small to have any sports but basketball, cross-country, and co-ed soccer. The whole school, grades 1-12 used to enjoy a week of instruction in skiing in the Alps every year (till the last, when the principal, not Bob, nixed it). We also did a whole-school Volksmarch in the snow and took the entire 6-12 grades to see the latest Harry Potter movie in English in Munich (that was two buses).

I had the coolest colleagues and made some lifelong friends there. We were so remote . . . I believe that (like Sicily) is what draws people together. When we went out for Christmas dinner as a faculty, everyone wore Bavarian clothing, which was very popular there with all of us. One person joked that no matter where we ended up next, we could probably each outfit an entire cast of Sound of Music at our next school! We enjoyed Munich and the Alps and Salzburg and Chiemsee Lake and Berchtesgaden to the fullest. The entire faculty rafted on the Isar River and drank beer and schnapps all day while the band played on. I ran, biked, or hiked the mountains nearly every day. Life was good.

Teaching in this tiny school was an adventure and a challenge. I started the AVID program, and by the second year, forty percent of the students in 6-12 were enrolled in it! Today, nearly every one of them is in college and one is going to Harvard. My second and last year there, I seriously taught kindergarten through college. How's that? I taught elementary art K-5, AVID 6-12, and AP English Literature. This was the first time I'd taught little kids, and, although I was nervous as heck, I ended up loving it and they loved it, too! Kindergarteners totally frightened me, but I got used to them, too. There's something special about teaching all those ages at the same time. It definitely gives you the bigger picture of child development and what education is all about.

The base got smaller and smaller as closing drew near. The commissary was only open a few days a week. The post exchange, already quite small, got smaller and everything was randomly on sale. I used to joke that AAFES would send all the weird stuff in their warehouse to Bad Aibling ("They'll buy anything there because they don't have anything!"). I owned more CDs than they stocked. Luckily, though, we could buy whatever we need in the German towns. Another benefit--my German finally got good!

Our last year was only marred by an insecure principal who turned vicious and vindictive. People still talk about her to this day. However, it also had the effect of drawing some of us closer together and, to this day, we are fast friends. DoDDS took care of us. We were transferred all over the place--Germany, the Azores, the Netherlands, England, Japan, and ITALY!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Life at the Top

In 2001, I secured a year's leave of absence from DoDDS to take a position with the AVID Center as the Director of Professional Development at their Eastern Division office in Atlanta, Georgia. It was an exciting year professionally as I was in charge of all the professional development for AVID in states east of the Mississippi.

It's all a little fuzzy now, but, according to my VITA, "In this capacity, I designed and delivered staff development models and support, including AVID Summer Institute strands, staff developer selection and training, provision of professional development and ongoing support for AVID Regional Directors, development of online resources including a weekly e-newsletter and an online discussion group, development and updating of program and training materials; assumed responsibility for quality AVID implementation efforts by assisting directors with ongoing program and local professional development, developing and assigning technical support to meet local needs, oversight for certification processes and outcomes, dispensing program development advice, working with school boards and district and state administrators, assisting with alignment of state standards and AVID; overall coordination and leadership of the Eastern Division AVID Summer Institutes (over 1000 participants), including facilities coordination, strand content standards, staff developer materials and training guidelines, special events and ceremonies, and evaluation; communicated AVID's mission and unique capabilities to various external constituencies via media, direct personal communications, publication, proposals, and Awareness Sessions; and worked effectively with AVID Center personnel to provide positive motivation and inspiration at local, regional, state, national and international levels. Additionally, I worked closely with the College Board Florida Partnership program to bring the AVID program into Florida under their auspices in order to increase enrollment and success in Advanced Placement courses."

Wow! I did all that? It was a very busy year, and I learned so, so much. Some of the things that aren't on the VITA were more memorable. I traveled to Worcester, MA for AVID and found The College of the Holy Cross for my daughter Alison. I paid my first visit to New York City on an AVID trip and then walked the entire perimeter of the still-smouldering World Trade Center (see bottom of page). I represented AVID as a Distinguished Speaker at the Military Child Education Coalition conference in Tampa. I used my first walkie-talkie at the Atlanta Hilton and also got to stay in an executive suite. I met the granddaughter of George Washington Carver at the AVID banquet at Lithonia High School outside of Atlanta. I had the privilege to meet and work with three incredible and inspirational AVID students who were immigrants from Poland, the Ivory Coast, and Mexico. And I got to work all year long with Mary Catherine Swanson and the fantastic staff of the AVID Centers.

In the end, though, I missed Europe, DoDDS, the classroom, and teaching. I had to go back.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Principals I Have Known

This week, my principal at Sigonella, Sonny Bertschinger (at left), told the staff that he is being transferred to another school in Germany next year. Of course, the school was abuzz with who might be his replacement. In DoDDS, principals come and go quickly. I've already had three in just five years here. In the States, it doesn't happen as often, but even there, I had quite a few. Let's crunch the numbers.

37.5 = years in education
28.5 = years in the classroom
5 = number of schools where I've taught
14 = number of principals (10 male, 4 female)

My very first principal was A. E. Heck at Galva High School. We never knew what A.E. stood for, but everyone, even the teachers called him "Mr. Heck," anyway, which we all thought was hilarious at the time. He a a serious guy. I don't ever remember him laughing, or even smiling. Galva was a very small, rural, conservative town in the 1970s, and he seriously told me, "We don't care if you drink. That's your business. But just don't do it in town." We all went to a private club one town over every weekend. One time my mother came to visit and we went to a basketball game. My mother mistook my principal for the janitor, because he went out at halftime and swept the court with the big dustmop. In the meanwhile, the real janitor stood on the sideline in a sport coat and watched.

The very best principal I ever worked with Sherwood "Woody" Dees, at Hall High School in Spring Valley. Why was he the best? He was respectful, efficient, caring, smart, supportive, and available. We didn't always agree, but he always listened and made sure I knew he understood my point. He, like my other mentors, empowered me to become better and better, as a teacher, a coach, and a staff developer. He was strict with kids. He once told a kid whom I had caugh doing something, "We don't need a Polaroid print of you doing it. If Ms. Pienta said you did it, THAT is proof!" If coaches had to miss a faculty meeting, he held a special "make-up" for them the next morning in his office. He rewarded two or three teachers at every faculty meeting for something he had witnessed them doing and pinned a big paper medal on them. Corny, but we loved it and coveted the medals. He made the whole community shape up and behave appropriately at graduations. He saw me through two babies and came to my mother's wake. He was the best, hands-down.

Marj Lewallen (left) was my friend as well as my principal. I knew her when she was an assistant at Bitburg, when she became a principal there, and eventually had the good fortune to work for her for one year at Sigonella--her last as a principal. Marj had the best sense of humor, sense of fun, and personality of all my principals. And, as I said at her retirement, she was once of the best, in my opinion, because she had kids at the center of her focus, she listened to parents, and she took care of her teachers. This is a hard balance to achieve, but she did a pretty good job of it. Marj was another one who empowered me, and I always do my best for those kinds of people. I was empowered to take the AVID program and grow it, strengthen it, and all for the benefit of the entire school.

In my job as AVID Program Monitor for DoDDS-Europe and then with the AVID Center, I got to visit many school and meet dozens of principals. There are some really great ones out there and I was honored to meet and work with them. It really is true that the principal is the single most important influence on the climate of the school. What they don't always understand is that teachers make them look good, and that it's the people under you, not above you, that make you successful.

And they can be really bad. At one school I worked at, people would sneak in and out of school, or go up a flight of stairs and over just to not see or be seen by the principal. We dreaded getting an email from her saying she wanted to see us. In just one year, she demoralized, alienated, and mentally and emotionally abused 80% of the staff. One teacher, who was being "scolded" for the twentieth time or so, said she might as well go home and shoot herself. The principal didn't even pause, but just kept deriding her. The superintendent said, "You think she's bad? I've three more worse than her in this district!"

There was the wishy-washy principal whose decisions were based on whom he talked to last, the one who couldn't or wouldn't make any decisions, the one who locks himself up in his office, the one who can never see you because she's "in a meeting," the insecure micro-manager, the one who couldn't organize a kindergarten picnic if he had to, and the one who ran hot and cold (and you never knew which it might be). In spite of them or because of them, teachers always come through, especially in DoDDS, and rise to do their best for the kids.

Exciting Mystery Solved at Sigonella This Week

From: Spadaro, Patricia
Sent: Tuesday, April 28, 2009 9:57 AM
To: Ali, Amber Cc: #Sigonella HS All Staff

Thanks Amber! that's exactly where it is...

Have a nice day!

From: Ali, Amber Sent: Tuesday, April 28, 2009 9:20 AM
To: Spadaro, Patricia Cc:#Sigonella HS All Staff

Hi Pat, it was behind the garage door on the stage last time I saw it.

From: Spadaro, Patricia
Sent: Tuesday, April 28, 2009 9:19 AM
To: #Sigonella HS All Staff

Good morning, anyone have any idea where the school's "red carpet" is at? We will be needing it for an event on Friday. I looked in several places I thought it would be at but no luck.

Very Respectfully,
Patricia Spadaro
School Assistant
Stephen Decatur Elementary MS-HS

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Seniors in Black

Here's a photo of my AP Literature class recently. They all happened to be wearing black (this happens often in high school), so I got their photo. Yes, this is the whole class but one who was absent. DoDDS teachers are spoiled, but, boy, can we get a lot done with them!

During a review of the novels we have read, I asked if the main character, Elizabeth Bennet, in Pride and Prejudice was a kind of "Cinderella" looking for her prince. One female student replied, "No, Elizabeth had her issues." Kids love that word (so do adults). After a pause, one of the male students, who had obviously been really thinking about that, said, in all seriousness, "Cinderella had issues, too!" I deftly avoided any further discussion on that topic. :-)

A Step Outside the Classroom

As the AVID program took hold in DoDDS-Europe in 1992-93, it quickly became apparent that leaders, called "directors" by AVID, were needed to nurture, guide, and grow the program. As more teachers and schools heard about, more wanted it, most of them right now! I let the powers-that-be know that, if a position became available, I was interested in applying for it. It did, they did, and I did! And it all fell together in a wonderful way.

Me, Dr. Sweeney, and Gloria at our DoDDS Summer Institute: "AVID: The Next Generation"

I was selected by DoDDS-Europe Director Dr. Arlyn Sweeney and her committee to join Gloria Ollhoff as the second AVID Program Monitor for Europe in 1993. I was to serve the Nuernberg District AVID programs while Gloria had the Wuerzburg District. We each had a handful of schools. Superintendent Larry Philpot insisted that I move to the district office in Nuernberg and be supported and mentored by him and his staff. I resisted this idea at first, but, when Larry explained it to me, I understood his reasons. So, for the first time in my teaching career, I was out of the classroom, out of a school, and into an office with a whole new set of colleagues, protocols, and benefits.

I remember the very first thing Larry had me do: "Write a letter for my signature on (something on AVID)." "You want me to do what?" He explained it again. I had no idea this kind of thing existed, but I did it and apparently successfully.

Gloria and I were the luckiest teachers in Europe. We were told by Dr. Sweeney and our respective superintendents to "Go forth and spread AVID." We had no limits on money or travel or freedom. We were trusted and empowered explicitly. Therefore, we worked our butts off to do a good job! We could call meetings, provide orders, visit schools, give workshops, and create materials. And we pretty much had to do those things to grow AVID. There was no sitting around, twiddling our thumbs.

I found out soon that, in order to be in this position, I "had to" go to San Diego for something like six weeks out of the year for Regional Directors training. And for this, DoDDS was paying a whopping amount (like $20,000/year for two years) to have me take this training. So, off I went for one or two weeks at a time, several times a year plus once in the summer, to learn all about AVID. And it was there that I met my great AVID teachers and future friends, Kathy Deering and Cyndy Bishop, who were the cornerstones for Mary Catherine's program at that time. We spent a lot of time together, both there and in Europe, over the following years as we learned and grew together.

So, for the next eight years, I worked solely with AVID in DoDDS, and it was the best job I ever had. Instead of trying to get kids to do what I wanted, I spent my time trying to get teachers, counselors, and admin to do AVID better. It was the best job in the world to go to all the middle and high schools and meet the teachers, tutors, and students in AVID.

Lilia Pellicano (Pacific Monitor), me, and Gloria

When Nuernberg District closed in 1994, I was asked to move to Heidelberg, where Larry Philpot was to be the new superintendent. Of course, I went, a wonderful move for my family as well. When Larry was promoted to European Director, he took me under his wing to that level. When he left, I was fortunate to have a series of wonderful supervisors such as John Davis, Martha Brown, and Diana Ohman.

Gloria and I did everything. We did training of all kinds, from tutors to staff developers We built our own cadre of trainers in AVID and produced several Summer Institutes of our own. We connected AVID with the Outdoor Ed program and had several AVID student experiences at Hinterbrand Lodge in Berchtesgaden. We had a Summer Bridge Program with the University of Maryland at their Mannheim campus. We had Site Team Conferences, Student Conferences, and made appearances to make AVID connections with all the college prep subject areas. We fought the battles with the algebra teachers (first in 9th, then 8th grade), the Honors and AP teachers, we collected and shared data (the first I'd seen in DoDDS), and logged thousands of car and air miles. One year, I performed $25,000 of travel on the job. I kept track of every travel voucher. In those days, we had "open travel orders" for the whole year or semester, to go wherever we needed to go to perform our job. Ah, those were the years. We were the first to have cellphones for our job and digital cameras (thanks to Gloria). Money was not tight then.

One time, we came up short $40,000 for our Summer Institute in Garmisch. Dr. Sweeney just picked up the phone and called downstairs, "Gene, do we have an extra $40,000 for this?" We did.

We learned. We learned we had to make connections with the "decision makers," the principals and supes. We formed important relationships with them and AVID improved. We grew from seven schools in two districts to forty schools in eight districts, from Iceland to Bahrain! We soon had over one thousand students in AVID in Europe. Things happened in those days and people got lots of training opportunities, schools got frequent visits, and ideas and energy flowed.

None of this would have happened without the support of one key person at DoDDS headquarters in Arlington, VA--Anne Muse (at left with me, Mary Catherine, and Gloria). Anne was the AVID "godmother" at HQ and the person who made sure we were included in all the training, initiatives, and budgets that we needed. She kept it alive through changes in administration that were difficult. Without Anne, AVID would have gone the way of all the other "dead" programs we have seen come and go over the last twenty years. Anne spoke directly with the AVID Center. She included Gloria and me in professional staff developers training, paid all the bills, and even helped change the way DoDDS pays tutors by working with DFAS (Finance and Accounting for the federal gov't)! She was our AVID Angel from the beginning to her retirement from DoDEA this year.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Making it all worthwhile

On Monday morning, before classes even started, Markus, a senior, came into my room and gave me an envelope with my name on it.

"What's this?" I said, as I began to open it.

"You'll see," he said.

A little white dog running like crazy was on the front of the card. Inside, it said "help is on the way!" Under it, he has written: "The Army to the rescue! I just received a call from a staff sergeant Haan from the University of Dubuque ROTC unit. They are offering me a full scholarship. I want to thank you, because I never could have achieved this without you or AVID Thank you for Everything, Markus"

Awwww!! I gave him a big hug. "It was just like you said," he said. "The college has scholarships to give themselves."

The next day, his mother saw me and said that the night he got the call, he insisted that his mother go out and buy him a card for me! :-)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

And One Heroine

Earlier, I wrote about the three mentors who blessed my life. But, I also had one heroine, and that would be Mary Catherine Swanson, the founder of AVID. I could search the Internet and dredge up all the articles about her and the awards she's won, but I would rather tell you what I know, or think I know, about her. (Above: me, AVID student Carlo Abcede, and Mary Catherine in Sigonella, Sicily, 2007)

In 1980, long before I ever met her, Mary Catherine was an English teacher in a high school California near San Diego. This school had always been a high-performing school for high-performing college-bound students in the suburbs. Then, integration and busing changed it all. While many of her colleagues felt these new, strange students (many of whom could not speak English) would drag the school down, Mary Catherine felt that they could perform as well and also go to college if things were done a little differently for them. She and a colleague put together a program designed to do just that and started with thirty-two of these non-traditional students. By trial and error and "just plain hard work," the teachers and students employed best practices to make these students successful in college prep courses instead of the "throwaway courses" into which they had been slotted. Four years later, they all had college acceptances, and eventually all of them achieved their dream of a college degree. The "experiment" found a name: AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination).

Word of Mary Catherine's success spread to neighboring high schools, whose teachers wanted the program, too. It was a teacher-to-teacher program, a "bottom-up" program, which you rarely find in education. Mary Catherine became a teacher of teachers, too. Soon she was elevated to the San Diego County Office of Education and AVID became a countywide program. Still, teachers were the focus. More often than not, it was a teacher who brought the idea to the administrators rather than vice versa. Teachers (like me) wanted to teach this program.Today AVID reaches over 300,000 students in grades 5-12 worldwide. It is the longest-lived educational reform movement in America and the only one started by a classroom teacher. In my thirty-seven years in education, I have seems dozens of programs, maybe hundreds, come and go. Only AVID is still around and still growing.

But, back to Mary Catherine's story . . . what makes her my heroine? She basically turned the whole idea of "tracking students" upside down. From her earliest days, she was a champion for the "forgotten" students, the underdogs, the ones who fell through the educational cracks, the underachievers, the under-represented, and even the unwanted. She saw in them what I had also seen in my first twenty years of teaching: the potential to do so much more! These were kids who were smart and didn't even know it, who could go to college and didn't even know why or how. They took the wrong classes, hung with the wrong crowd, and didn't do any of the things that successful, college-bound kids did. Most often, their parents were not college educated, and many did not even finish high school. But who says certain students can or can't take algebra or Honors English? Why not?

So, what Mary Catherine (and AVID) said to them was, "Look, you are smart! You could go to college, too, if you just did things a little differently." And AVID was born, nurtured, and grown. Mary Catherine fought the battles, with administrators, school boards, teachers, and even parents who resisted this idea. It had never been done this way. Outrageous! Just imagine, putting "those kids" in college prep classes? But AVID was put together brilliantly. As Mary Catherine says herself, "It's just common sense." Nothing in AVID is "new," but the combination of elements makes it powerful. Kids are "accelerated," not remediated. They are put in rigorous courses and then given the support to succeed there. "Hard work makes you smart," says Mary Catherine.

As AVID grew in southern California, Mary Catherine surrounded herself with other teachers, like herself, who were successful with and believed in AVID. They were all teachers, and that is another reason for its success. Teachers believe in other teachers, and when they believe in kids, too, and their potential, they make great AVID teachers. The heart of AVID is the classroom teacher, the one who makes that connection with the kids and their parents. Because Mary Catherine did it, we knew we could, too.

As the program grew, spread, incorporated, and even became gigantic, Mary Catherine remained at the head of it as a teacher-leader. The highlight of every AVID summer institute was her address to the participants, whether in Sonthofen, Germany, or Richmond, Virginia. Thousands were inspired by her story, her ongoing work to grow AVID, and the successes of the students. Mary Catherine was like a rock star at the summer institute, and her presence there today is sorely missed and greatly needed.

I am extremely fortunate to have met this great woman whose philosophy so matched mine and to have become an AVID teacher and then a leader for the program. I even had the privilege of working directly for the AVID Center for a year. Like my mentors, Mary Catherine inspired me and empowered me. To this day, AVID is pretty much like it was designed by her from the beginning, which is why it still works. But without her vision and determination, it never would have happened and the world would be significantly different for tens of thousands of college graduates and for me.

Gloria Ollhoff, Mary Catherine, me, Anne Muse, and Candace Ransing

Wiesbaden, Germany 2000

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Kids Write the Darnedest Things, Too

In AVID, we often have guest speakers who talk about their college and work experience to the students, who take notes and then have to write an article based on those notes and what they heard. I just posted some of their best comments HERE. But there were some cute and funny ones, too:

"Ms. Rettie walked into our class on the twenty-third of February, and told us a bit about herself."

"Right now she is a school nurse, a really good one if I may say."

"After fighting through it getting good grades, she got her Bachelors in Nursing."

"She went to big nurse type meeting in an autotorium and then she ran into a DoDDs' person. And was offered a job overseas."

"Till her time is up as a nurse she would like to enjoy her life as a nurse."

"Her favorite slogan or quote is children are 1/3 of our life and 1/3 of our future."

"Usually you don't find many people with a motivating motto, but for Ms. Rettie hers was "Children are 1/3 of our population and all of our future."

"Her hobbies are reading and traveling, sometimes both."

"She had encountered two deaths up until now."

"Ms. Rettie went to a university in California, the name I failed to recall."

"Later on she graduated with a 4-year degree and was ready to rock 'n roll."

"To me, Ms. Rettie is a hero, because everyday she wakes up, comes to school and is putting herself in danger."

"In high school she knew she wanted to be somewhere in the doctor region."


Saturday, March 7, 2009

AVID, Part One

Okay, this is how it really happened . . . in 1991-92, I was an English teacher at Ansbach and my friend Phyllis Walton was working at the Nuernberg District Superintendent's Office in School Improvement. She told me to sign up for a briefing on something called AVID when it came to our school because it might mean a trip to San Diego. I had never been there but certainly wanted to go! In those days, DoDDS had a seemingly limitless pot of money for training and travel.

Sure enough, sometime during the schoolyear, the opportunity came up to hear someone from Caifornia talk about AVID. I was right there. The "someone" was Kathy Deering, who, at that time, was one of AVID founder Mary Catherine Swanson's right-hand women. Only a few of us showed up to hear her, and I think I was the only classroom teacher. Within five minutes, I knew I wanted to teach AVID! It wasn't that Kathy was the world's greatest salesperson, although she is very charming and smart and "together." When I heard what the program was all about, it fit perfectly with everything I believed about students and achievement. It was all about the kids who are smart but who don't take the hard classes or go to college for one reason or another. I had studied and taught a lot of study skills over the years, and I had been a fairly successful athletic coach, too. Some of those skills fit perfectly with AVID.

Before you could say T.D.Y., it was summertime and I was in San Diego with two colleagues, Beth Cunningham and Sandra Bruce, along with teams from six other schools in Germany and our superintendent, Larry Philpot, and his business manager, Bud Korth (also in photo left and below). We attended the 1992 AVID Summer Institute along with a few hundred other people on the University of San Diego campus. When we weren't in Tijuana, on the beach, drinking bird-bath size margaritas in Old Town, or betting on the horses at DelMar, we were learning about AVID right from the experts, Mary Catherine and her staff. In fact, Cyndy Bishop, her other right-hand woman (see photos below), taught me all about how to coordinate the program and teach AVID. We were given two HUGE binders (about 6") with everything you needed to run this program. That was it in those days. I don't think there were even page numbers on them.

Beth, Cyndy, me and Sandra in San Diego, 1992

It was sink or swim when we came back to Germany for SY 92-93. I had one AVID class of nineteen freshmen (see photo below). I had given up all extra duties to devote myself to making this program work. I have to say we got great support from the district office and from AVID. They made frequent visits and we had a lot of meetings. The kids, the tutors, and I struggled to discover what AVID was. They resisted, the teachers resisted having them in honors classes, tutors came and went. But, when the consultants from the San Diego AVID Center visited us late in the year, according to one of my tutors, "Aliens invaded their little bodies and they became perfect little AVID students!" Well, we learned a lot, and the second year was 100% better and easier!

My first AVID class at Ansbach with Cyndy Bishop and Bud Korth

DoDDS-Europe was the first place outside of California to adopt AVID. Today the program is established in nearly every state in America, parts of Canada, all the DoDEA schools worldwide. It has grown from 32 students in 1980 to over 300,000 today. It's the longest-lasting educational reform movement in America. And why? It works; that's why. "It's not rocket science," as Mary Catherine says. It's good teaching practices, belief in the student, partnerships with the parents, high expectations and a structure for reaching them. AVID works for a lot of reasons, but I believe the most important ones are belief in the student, rigor and support, teaching kids to think (writing, inquiry, and collaboration), and the commitment of the AVID teacher and the student. I believe it is a teacher-driven program, and when it was a grass-roots, bottom-up program, as it was then, it was most powerful. Unfortunately, it is not that way today, but it's still good at the school level.

AVID "happened" to me at a time in my career when I was rather bored with the classroom and teaching English. It revitalized me, renewed me, and, to this day, I will say it was the best thing that happened to me in my career. It is still my favorite course to teach and program to coordinate and, by far, the most rewarding.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

My First Duty Station and German "Hometown"--Ansbach

I arrived with my family in Ansbach, Germany the first week of September, 1987. By December, we all knew we were there to stay! Our very first family roadtrip was to Neuschwanstein Castle on Columbus Day weekend (see photo left).

Having no experience at all with the military, I found it harder to get used to the Army than to get used to Germany. While DoDDS teachers are not in the military, they are bound to them in ways I never expected.

As a teacher in the States, you went to your school, did your job and maybe some extra-curriculars, and went home at the end of the day, to a totally separate life. In DoDDS, your job (and the military) become your life. They control your pay, where you live, what you drive, where and when you get mail, and how you travel. But, they also take care of you in all ways, medically, financially, socially, spiritually, and more. Right off the bat, I was assigned a military member and a DoDDS teacher to navigate the system for us until we figured things out. They were wonderful!

I learned the importance of the ID card (your entrance ticket to everything) on the first day. I quickly learned the language of military acronyms, like PX, APO, POV, HQ, IG, BDU, TDY, LQA, and a lot more. I learned to stand in line and wait--at the post office, the bank, the commissary, and the gate. I learned to shop at the one store on base along with thousands of other people and to hoard things when you found them. I met wonderful military families and the most independent teenaged kids I'd ever encountered. My family became my "dependents." My SSN and my signature had to be on everything they did. I became "the sponsor." It was a really big deal, to be your own sponsor.

My new job in DoDDS was a piece of cake. I could hardly believe the light load I had as a reading specialist. I had one period just for testing new students for their reading level when they entered our school. My reading lab classes were tiny--just a few students in each one, so I was able to individualize totally. I soon became bored because there was so little to do! I began to look around for more--I sponsored the school newspaper and became the girls soccer coach when the girls pleaded with me. I had never even seen a soccer game, much less coached one. Undaunted, I took it on and it became a wonderful experience for us all as I learned from the best players and my assistant coach. We were fourth in Europe for small schools my first year!

My new colleagues were the most interesting people with whom I'd ever worked. They had lived and worked all over the world, and most were adventurous, hard-working, and fun-loving. As ex-pats, we became "family" to each other. We traveled together, celebrated holidays together, helped each other through good times and bad, and formed bonds beyond those of normal school colleagues.

During my five years in this school, I moved slowly but surely out of reading and into English. I became the department chair. I became active in the union as a faculty representative. I attended wonderful staff development opportunities, which, in those days, were week-long events at wonderful hotels in the spa towns of Germany, like Bad Kissingen. Wow! I took kids on field trips to France. My soccer team played in the championship at the Olympic soccer field in Munich. The kids were great. Ansbach itself is a lovely medieval and Baroque Bavarian small city with everything you could want or need. We traveled every chance we got to dozens of countries. We drove to Berlin when it was still divided and Dubrovnik when it was still Yugoslavia. Life was good.

It got even better when I was introduced to AVID, but that's the next story.

Our rowhouse (in the middle) in Langenloh, outside of Ansbach.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

How Teachers Amuse Themselves in High School

How Teachers Amuse Themselves in High School
From: Andre, Philip (biology teacher) (not the world's greatest speller)
Sent: Monday, February 23, 2009 1:27 PM
To: (All teachers)
Subject: Remembering those who are lost (including rodents)

Just thought all of you who have not given up hope. Dave Saylor's hamster (who was lost around this time last year) has been found! He never made it out of the Biology Room. Phil

From: Pienta, Maryellen
Sent: Tuesday, February 24, 2009 9:58 AM
To: Andre, Philip
Subject: RE: Remembering those who are lost (including rodents)

Is he a former shadow of himself?


From: Andre, Philip
Sent: Tuesday, February 24, 2009 9:59 AM
To: Pienta, Maryellen
Subject: RE: Remembering those who are lost (including rodents)

I don't think he would cast a shadow. Yes he is dead

From: Pienta, Maryellen
Sent: Tuesday, February 24, 2009 11:58 AM
To: Andre, Philip
Subject: RE: Remembering those who are lost (including rodents)

Can you get a photo of his remains for me?

From: Andre, Philip
Sent: Tuesday, February 24, 2009 12:11 PM
To: Pienta, Maryellen
Subject: RE: Remembering those who are lost (including rodents)

I will try to pry him loose. He is stuck between a rock (the drywall) and a hard place (a steal bar)

(Photo below by David Brown, Sigonella Information Specialist, the guy with all the information! You really can't see "the remains," but the remains of the remains are clear.)

Monday, February 23, 2009

Kids Say the Darnedest Things

Remember that from the Art Linkletter show? If you're as old as me, you will. Nonetheless, kids still do say the darnedest things!

Today in Honors English 10, I mentioned that Nelson Mandela had been interviewed by Larry King and it could be found online.

One student said, "Is he the guy with the shoulders?"

I had to smile. "Michael, I think all guys have shoulders, don't they?" Everybody laughed.

"No, I mean is he the guy with the shoulders who always sits like this?" and he imitated Larry King, by gosh.

"Yep, that's Larry King," I said. I had never thought about it till that moment.

"He just about blocks out all the scenery behind him," the kid said. He had a point.

I came home and looked up Larry King on Google Images. Look below for yourself!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Teacher Abroad

I had to leave Illinois or die of boredom. Traveling with students to Europe every other summer was great, but it was never enough. I wanted the time and opportunity to live in Europe and explore every country, castle, and cathedral. I started to explore possibilities for working in Europe. I looked at and applied for teacher exchanges and international schools. I saw an ad in Psychology Today: "TEACH IN EUROPE! Send a SASE and $2.00 for complete information." What I got in return was a mimeographed list of agencies for international schools plus a new one: Department of Defense Dependents Schools. I had never heard of it but sent away for their application. (This was 1985--when we still wrote letters on typewriters and mailed them at the post office.) I received a large, thick envelope with the famed "Apple Book" and an application for DoDDS and federal employment. Still knowing very little, I filled it out and sent it to Washington.

Later that year, I was asked to come for a personal interview at the Federal Building in Chicago, where a principal from some school in the Pacific met with me. The interview went well; however, I got a letter later that year saying they weren't hiring anyone (this was 1986). Did I want to keep my application active for another year? Yes, I did.

Another school year rolled by. Early in the summer of 1987, I got a registered letter from DoDDS offering me a position teaching in the Azores. This was exciting, but, first of all, I had never heard of the Azores, nor did I know where they were. This was B.I. (before the Internet), so we went to the public library and looked it up in encyclopedias (remember those?). I was shocked to see how small the Azore Islands were and where they were (800 miles off the coast of Portugal). In addition, the weather was described there as very windy. The topper was that DoDDS did not authorize concurrent travel for my family. If I took the job, they would have to follow later. Bummer. I had a whole 48 hours to reply. I agonized over this. because I wanted to get into the system so badly. In the end, though, I knew I couldn't take it and wrote back that I would love to teach for DoDDS but that I could not take the position due to having to leave my family and the location of the school. I told them I wanted my whole family to have the opportunity to travel to other places together and I hoped they could offer me something else.

Turning down that job offer was one of the hardest things I ever did. A month went by. I thought it was too late for anything to happen. Then, in July, another letter came, this one offering me a job in Ansbach, Germany, as a reading specialist at the high school! This one was easy--I accepted it! Luckily, my husband had just left a bad job and he was up for any kind of move. The kids were three and eight and excited as we were. In just one month, I got a leave of absence from my position at Hall, rented my house, gave away or stored a bunch of stuff, we were in Germany by the first week in September, 1987. The great adventure had begun!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Teacher/tour director

When I was teaching at Hall High School in Spring Valley, I began to organize trips to Europe for me and my students. I had been there twice myself: first, at age thirteen with my grandmother to Poland for a month, and then again with friends in college to the Italian Riviera on a trip organized by the university. The travel bug bit me--hard!

So, I got the idea of taking students to Europe in the summer--you know, those "seventeen days, seven countries" tours. I led these groups in 1981, 83, and 85. Besides students, I had a number of adult friends join us. All I had to do was recruit the travelers, orient them, and chaperone them. The ACIS company of Boston did all the real work.

Some of my most memorable moments were . . .
. . . occasionally "losing" a student (i.e. Jay in Heidelberg, Paula in London and Rome)
. . . LONG bus rides between countries
. . . thirty minutes in the British Museum
. . . gypsy pickpockets in the Vatican
. . . being stranded in London Heathrow Airport for twenty-four hours
. . . protecting the girls from Italian men
. . . watching the boys use their mother's credit card
. . . drinking Bellinis at Harry's Bar in Venice (not with students) instead of a gondola ride.

Best of all, though, was getting to know these kids in a new way and seeing the wonder and delight on their faces of as they experienced the best of Europe, from a medieval dinner in London to trying out French phrases in Paris to eating our first "real" pizza in Italy. We all have wonderful memories. And at least one student found her life's calling on this trip; she is now an architect.

I would save a few dollars from every paycheck for two years just to go on these trips, but it was never enough of Europe. I had to find a way to get more of it. Stay tuned for the next installment . . . .

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Thanks, dad . . .

I was with my 87-year-old father when he died last week. I had lots of time to reflect on his life and mine and how he influenced me.

My dad could make, build, fix, or do anything. I never saw him fail. From him, I learned the importance of belonging to the union, which I have done every year of my professional life. He once was on strike for a whole year, but in the end, he won numerous rights and benefits for his fellow rivermen.

My dad went to a one-room school, Kickapoo Creek School, in rural Marseilles, Illinois. He was the only kid in his 8th grade graduating class because his two classmates flunked. Those are all the boys in the school above, and my dad is the sixth from the right, the one with the hair sticking up and no hat.

He never had the chance to go to college because he was orphaned at thirteen and forced to go to work right out of high school, even though he had "a stack of letters this high" from colleges who wanted him to play football. He landed a good job on the river and worked his way up to become a master pilot of a towboat, earning the title "Captain." In our family, it was a foregone conclusion that we would go to college, and dad paid for it. He was proud of my brother's and my careers in education and of our advanced degrees. And he felt the same way about his granddaughters' educations.

My dad taught me to read, put me through college, and supported and encouraged me in everything I did. He empowered me and made me the person I am today.

My dad's last words to me were about my upcoming retirement. He said, "You're doing the right thing. You're doing the right thing. Retire as early as you can." He should know--he retired at age fifty-six and enjoyed thirty-one years of retirement! That's what I want to do.

Thanks, dad, for everything. We love you and miss you.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Hall High School 1978-87

The second stop in my career was at Hall High School in Spring Valley, IL, a "bigger" school of about 500 students, and a rival school to my very own high school, LaSalle-Peru. I traded in the Andersons and Petersons for classrooms filled with Dzierzynskis and Giocomettis. Spring Valley and the feeder towns of Ladd, Cherry, Dalzell, Seatonville, and Bureau were populated with southern and eastern European families, as my own home town of Oglesby was, just fifteen miles away. I had no trouble with the names, nor did most of my colleagues with similar ones. The kids were a little wiser, a little rougher, but certainly spirited and caring at this school where all of their parents and some of their grandparents had gone. (There were third-generation cheerleaders; I kid you not!)

I was now an English teacher and a Reading Specialist, as I had earned my M.S. in 1982. So I taught the then-popular (to principals, not students) "remedial reading" as well as different levels of English, College Study Skills, and even Athletic P.E. at times.

This was the perfect next school for me, as it afforded me mentorship and great opportunities to grow in professional development, technology, and coaching. Walt Westrum was the superintendent there my entire ten years, and he greatly empowered me in all these areas, often coming up with the ideas himself and inviting me to take part.

I was sent by Walt (and funded by the State of Illinois) to Tucson, AZ, to pick up their "Catch Up, Keep Up" reading program for high schools and to become the state facilitator of the project. With Walt's urging, I began to be a "presenter" at local, county, and then state meetings of teachers in reading strategies and later in using technology to teach writing. It was all "stand and deliver" in those days, and LCD projectors were not yet invented. You might see an occasional high-tech teacher using an "overhead projector." Wow. Of course, the more you do this kind of thing, the more you get "known" and invited to do more.
At Hall, I put hands on my first computer (word processor, then) and it was "love at first touch." Walt was a genius at getting this stuff for our school, either free or for very little money. We had two labs for student use before I knew it, and one was set up right next to me! Soon, all of my English students were doing all of their writing on these machines, and saving it on those big old floppy disks--remember them? Our experimentation and research in this area put us at the cutting edge of English education in Illinois at that time. Thanks to Walt, I also had my very own Commodore 64 at home! And a dot-matrix printer!

This was the dawn of Title IX, and I became the school's varsity softball coach, a position I held for all ten years there. My players, my assistants, and I built that program into the best girls' sports program at that school and one of the most-respected in the area. It kind of became my "mission" to make girls sports more equal with boys, so I relentlessly pursued that with public relations and motivation for winning. The Lady Devils (or She-Devils, as I called them) were in the paper, on the local radio, and even on cable TV! I loved softball and I loved coaching these young athletes, who were so, so dedicated. I even continued it right through two pregnancies. The athletic director, Frank Colmone, finally said that they were worried about my coaching on the bases "in my condition." He asked me to take on a second assistant, which I happily did, a former player who was attending the local community college. Perhaps it's no accident that both of my daughters were great high school athletes themselves, years later in Heidelberg, Germany. But that's the next part of the story . . . .

(This photo from a 1984 newspaper shows us in gale-force winds and me six months preganant!)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor hail . . . .

. . . shall keep a teacher from going to school. Oh, add sickness in there, too. The main reason of course is that we are so dedicated . . . . No! Wait! It's those darned sub plans! There aren't too many jobs in the world that require you to make detailed plans of what to do every minute and to leave emergency folders, seating charts, rules and regs, passwords, and also call in at the correct window of opportunity and then hope they get someone who can carry out the plan. I believe there would be a lot fewer missed days of work if everyone had to do this. At most jobs, your work probably just piles up and doesn't get done while you are gone.

And the trick is to find meaningful things for the students to do (so that some learning actually continues) as well as make it easy enough for a sub (who probably isn't an experienced English teacher) to carry it out. And you can't show movies all the time, either.

Speaking of weather, which is why I got to this subject in the first place . . . it's a really big deal in a school if weather causes school to start late, get out early, or be cancelled. Grown people (teachers) pray for snow! This is absolutely true!

Today, our school here in Sicily let everyone go home at noon because of torrential rains and flooding of roads. It was so dark and foggy by the time I got home, you wouldn't even know it was mid-day. It was caused by warm air from Africa, which made the sky yellow (with sand from the Sahara) and the rain "muddy." But it was raining SO hard, I felt as though I had driven through a super-strong carwash for an hour.

In Germany, we rarely got out . . . just once or twice for a little snow or ice or freezing rain. But in Illinois . . . now there's a state with WEATHER! Tornadoes! Electrical storms! Ice storms! Fifty degrees below zero! Snow up the wazoo! And blowing snow! It was that last one that really caused problems, because it both drifted and froze on the road as cars passed over it. There were times when I didn't think I would get home! Once we were snowed in for three days! I think that was 1980. One thing that amused me there was that is wasn't the principal, or the superintendent, or the school board who made the decision about school closing--it was the owner of the bus company! He had ALL the power!

But the only time I really sweated the weather because I almost had to spend the night at school with students was right here in Sicily a couple of years ago. The whole story is on my other blog here: "A Teacher's Worst Nightmare." Today's rain is almost as bad.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Thank God, It's Monday

My mentor Larry Philpot (see preceding entry) once delivered an address to teachers at an AVID conference entitled, "Thank God, It's Monday." He said that AVID teachers were those kind of teachers, the ones who looked forward to going to school each week, even Mondays. I have to say, it's not far from the truth. I have enjoyed going to school every year for thirty-seven years. Some are better than others, of course, but I still like it, even this year.

Today started out great, even for a Monday.

A parent stopped me in the parking lot to tell me her son, an 11th-grader whom I taught for several years, asked her if it was true that I was leaving at the end of this schoolyear. She told him it was, and he asked, "Can't she stay just one more year?" (To see him graduate, maybe?)

A few minutes later, a colleague told me my new haircut made me look at least fifteen years younger! Woo-hoo! (And this was in the rain and wind!)

I saw the principal in our hallway; he may have even come in my room, a rare appearance but a nice one.

In first period Honors English 10, a boy came up to my desk and said, "How do you fill this stapler?" I have a very cool battery-operated one the kids love. I showed him, and he told me had brought me some very cool blue staples to put in it, which he proceeded to do. He said, "I have these staples but no stapler, so I am giving them to you."

The seniors in AP Lit seemed to really, really like the novel we just finished, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, and we had a lively discussion.

All of these little things made me smile, and it's why I still like Mondays.

Friday, January 9, 2009

My Three Mentors

I have been very fortunate to have had three outstanding mentors in my teaching career. I believe they are the reason I am the teacher I am today and why am where I am. (I'm beginning to sound like Popeye: I am what I am and that's all that I am . . . )

When I was a beginning teacher in Galva, Illinois, I was greatly influenced by Marge Dickinson, who was a colleague and art teacher at the high school. Marge was probably about twenty years older than I, and so "together." She and I took some grad classes at night in the same location and so we spent lots of drive-time together, which is where I think I learned the most from her. Marge taught me some very valuable things about classroom management and organization, relationships (public and personal), and learning. She had it all--intelligence, style, confidence, speaking ability, humor, ambition, and enthusiasm. She not only was a successful teacher, she had a beautiful home and family and ran her own business, a restaurant and gift shop, as well! Probably most importantly, Marge provided me with the model of a successful woman in the education field. Now in her 70s, Marge is still involved in art education in Illinois and the arts in her community.

The second important mentor in my life was Walt Westrum, who was the superintendent of Hall High School in Spring Valley, Illinois, where I taught for ten years before moving overseas. Walt, above all, was a visionary in education. He could see more than all of us of what could be, and he also made more happen than we could imagine. Our little school of 500 students in the middle of nowhere became recognized throughout the state and even nationally for pioneering the use of technology in schools. Under Walt, the school built an early working satellite dish and formed a partnership with NASA. We were the first, by far, to have computers and to use word processing to teach writing. We had computer labs before the colleges! And Walt got me involved in computers and their use in education. He paid for us to come in the summer and get trained. He got the school board to finance the purchase of personal computers (Commodore 64s) for any teacher who wanted one and deduct it from our pay without interest. He was smart, because we all started using them! He had me presenting at state conferences on the use of computers to teach writing. This was in the very, very early 1980s, before the internet even! This led to my being selected for a summer fellowship at the University of Illinois with a select group of English teachers from throughout the state for a Writers Outreach Workshop in 1985. From Walt, I learned the importance of vision and became involved early in the technology movement and in staff development. He empowered me in so many ways. Yet he was also one of the gentlest, kindest, most generous men I've ever known. When I applied to go overseas, Walt encouraged me to go for it. Unfortunately, Walt died unexpectedly in 2006. I miss him.

The third mentor to bless my life was Larry Philpot. Larry was the District Superintendent of Nuernberg and then Heidelberg. He became Director of DoDDS-Europe before retiring in the late 1990s. Larry, like Walt, was a gentle, kind, and generous man, but he was also tough as nails, straight-talking, and a guy who got things done (and done now!). Larry is the person who moved me out of Ansbach High School and into the district office. When he moved to Heidelberg, he took me and my family, too. When he moved to the Europe Area Office, he kept me under his wing. Larry, more than anyone, is responsible for the birth, growth, and success of the AVID program in DoDDS-Europe. He always took care to protect, nurture, and support it, and he did the same for me as his AVID Program Monitor. And when I took a year's leave of absence to work for the AVID Center in Atlanta, Larry continued to mentor and support me there. It if from him that I learned how to lead, coach, inspire, and get things done. He taught me how the system worked and how to work the system. He, like the others, empowered me. He basically told me, "AVID is yours; make it work." AVID was important to Larry, as it was to me, because it was all about making kids successful. If I could develop any great skill, I'd like to be a powerful speaker like Larry. One of my favorite quotes of his is "AVID grabs kids by the emotional throat and shakes them till the best in them falls out." Larry was just like that--he grabbed me and shook me and brought out the best, too. Larry lives a semi-retired life in his old hometown of Mena, Arkansas.

Thank you, Marge; thank you, Walt; and thank you, Larry. You made me who I am today.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Teacher-pleasing behaviors

Yesterday a student asked me, "Did you like this book (A Tale of Two Cities) the first time you read it?" I knew what he was getting at, and I told him it wasn't my favorite Dickens book then or now.

I was struck, though, at how politely he broached the subject, even as a tenth-grader. This is something I've had to teach explicitly to students as part of my "teacher-pleasing behaviors" on-going curriculum. It goes something like this: "Let me give you a tip. Never, never, never tell a teacher that you hate or even dislike something he or she has assigned you to read. That is definitely not going to endear you to the teacher, and he/she is the one who gives you grades! And another thing (now I'm on a roll), don't tell them you didn't read it! That's just as bad. If you don't like something or don't understand it, find a nice way to bring up the subject without offending the teacher. Besides, you're only in tenth grade. Do you think your opinion of Machiavelli or Shakespeare really carries any weight?"

Kids actually aren't put off by this kind of thing; they appreciate knowing "how to play the game." I find it amazing that they haven't learned it anywhere else, though. I'm pretty sure my own kids would be too polite to say anything like that to a teacher, because they would think it would hurt their feelings.

"Teachers have feelings, too, and they usually feel a strong love of their subject and the things they assign to you!" Students seem surprised by this thought.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

"Old chickens"

Happy New Year! It was 37 years ago this week that I started my first full-time teaching job at Galva High School in Illinois! I was hired to take the place of a woman taking maternity leave. Luckily for me, she decided to become a full-time mom and I became a full-time teacher there for 5 1/2 years.

Yesterday, in my limited Italian, I told my Italian cleaning guy that I was retiring at the end of the schoolyear. Alfio weighs about 400 pounds and has a greasy pony-tail. He said, "Maria! No! I miss you!" He asked me why I was retiring. I told him I was old (vecchio). He said (in Italian), "Old chickens make the best broth."

I do think I'm a much better teacher than I was when I started. I have learned so much, changed so much over these years. You kind of have to to survive in high school, but not everyone does. I feel like I've done the best teaching of my life these last five years in Sicily. Old chickens DO make the best broth!