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!