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Posts Tagged ‘Education’

I am amazed at times what a little rest and little reflection can allow to come around in our memory. The last two weeks have been a whirlwind of challenge by way of time pressure and emotional workout. So, even though today is also full of chores and duties, I had the privilege of sleeping late. But sleeping late for one in the habit of early rising is difficult. Usually 7 PM is all that I can manage, but it was a few minutes past 7:30 when I first saw the clock this morning, and my dear wife slept away. In the unhurried moments I lay musing on random thoughts when one came through quite clearly.

Do you remember the names of your elementary school teachers? Sequentially from 1st grade through 6th mine were Mrs. Denton, Mrs Gaston, Mrs. Henderson, Mrs. Gervin, Mrs. Tucker, and Mrs. Alexander. I know that a child’s view of the world and the addition of many years makes memories a bit skewed, but I thought of a few things I remember about them.

Mrs. D was a large lady. I don’t mean overweight, just a big person. She was kind but seemed sad. She had gray hair. None of my teachers were young. I always wanted to please my teachers and I wanted to do my best for her. One day during milk break in the cafeteria, I felt sick to my stomach and couldn’t finish my milk. Mrs. D would stand at the garbage can inspecting to see if we had finished our milk. I was nervous and dropped the carton, mostly full of milk, just before she took hold of it. It fell and splashed milk all over her dress. She had to go out and change her clothes. She was not happy with me. I don’t feel like that she held it against me after that. I think I remember struggling to learn to read and yet enjoying the new world it opened up.

Mrs. G was a small round woman who wore lots of jewelry and smiled most of the time. She was also strict. The first and last time I ever cheated on a test was on one of her weekly spelling quizzes. I wanted to do well but spelling did not and does not make sense to me. I used a little cheat sheet and she caught me. I was publicly shamed and worse, my parents were told. In this day and time publicly shaming is frowned upon, but I think it only hurts significantly because we tell children falsehoods about self-esteem the rest of the time so that they have “entitlement issues”. At any rate, I never cheated again, ever. I struggled in reading. After a short stint in reading group #1, I was demoted to the second reading group. My mother was told that I was struggling and it was suggested that I read extra at home. Mrs. G had a box of 2nd grade reading level books. I checked out one or two a week to read to my mother at home. I improved in reading, enjoyed the stories, being drawn most of all to facts related books. I am still a laboriously slow reader, but I understanding is good, and I enjoy an encouraging story or informative narrative. We still had nap, or quiet time. Most of the other students giggled and fidgeted on their mats, but I frequently went fast asleep. I distinctly remember several times awaking, disoriented and drowsy, to be given a hard time by classmates and defended fiercely by Mrs. G.

Mrs. H was almost certainly the youngest elementary school teacher I had and I’m pretty sure she was middle aged. She was innovative and energetic. She decided that our study of American History and the Capitol, Washington D.C., should have a visual. So she set out having us make paper mache models of the various buildings in D.C. I made a Washington Monument. By 3rd grade I had a best friend, Andy D. We loved math and did problems together. We liked science and talking about space exploration and going to the Moon. We liked drawing symmetrical shapes with ruler and compass. I grew up with mechanical drawing since my father worked as a draftsman for ORNL from shortly after the war.* So, Mrs. H selected Andy and me to draw out a map of D.C. with streets, bodies of water, and the locations of monuments and buildings all to scale. We did this on butcher paper laid out on the floor of a particularly large, empty classroom down the hall from her room. Andy and I would get to skip classes we did well in to work on the map. My childish memory wants to say the map was perhaps 20 x 30 feet in size. We spent many hours drawing, talking, and reveling in time together, just the two of us in that empty room. After all of the paper mache buildings were completed with white acrylic paint and all, they were placed on the map which was painted with black streets and blue rivers and pools, and large green spaces. The model that I had made was not selected and I thought it was better. Later someone helped me to understand that Mrs. H had allowed me the privilege and limelight of drawing the map. It would not be equitable to also place my paper mache monument on the map. During the next PTA meeting most of the school and their parents walked around the periphery of the map in that otherwise empty room admiring our work. It was probably the most unforgettable thing for me about elementary school.

Mrs. G was a thin, quiet woman. I somehow remember being a favorite of hers and growing in my love of learning new things. I had a vague memory of some written project that I did well on, but for some reason everything about that year is vague. In fact, even the room we were in seems vague, being set back in a corner at the end of the hallway. Mrs. G liked to keep the blinds shut so that the room had a dark, calm atmosphere.

Mrs. T was a fierce, little fireball who loved to raise flowers. She lived about a block from me in a little white house that was unimpressive, but the flower garden because of the small yard could not be anywhere else but next to the street, was impressive. When I would walk or ride my bike by her house, you could see the weedless beds of massive flowers of many varieties and smell them, too. Many evenings and summer mornings, Mrs. T was out weeding and replanting slips or cuttings. In class, she expected her students to work hard and behave, all orderly and well presented like her garden. I wanted to please my teacher so I did both. Good behavior produces good results. I was allowed to help the teacher and do work ahead of my grade. One of my best friends did something one day that set the class off and sent Mrs. T into a frenzy. It was warm and our school did not have air conditioning, so the banks of casement windows were laid open. A yellow jacket flew in and buzzed around the back of the room. Many of the girls screamed and others jumped out of their seats to get away. While Mrs. T was trying to settle the class, Jack jumped up with a new pencil, made noises as he sung his pencil like a sword, knocking the bee to floor dead on his last downswing. The class went wild with elation.

Mrs. A had to be close to retirement. She told me she had been a teacher for some period of time that seemed astronomical to my young mind. She always seemed to be happy and encouraging. I’m not sure if I am remembering correctly, but I think that I heard that she had had some deep hurts in her life, which if my memory is correct, made her demeanor all the more amazing. She liked to have classroom competitions and interclass competitions: weekly Spelling Bees, group math quizzes, history facts group competitions. I dreaded the spelling bees and seem to remember managing many 2nd places, despite my abhorrence of the art form. Mrs. A invited a number of her best students to come to her house a few times to study extra for a math competition that we went to. I felt so special eating a snack in her breakfast room with a few of my classmates. 

This commentary is a very narrow slice of what I remember about my elementary school years. There was baseball and bowling and bike rides and vacations and good grades and friends and chorus and library and safety patrol and playground (woods, swings and monkey bars and merry-go-rounds, kickball) and PE with the principal and plays and promenades and always working real hard to please my parents, my teachers, and make good grades and times with friends. But my teachers had more influence on me than I have previously given credit for in many long years. They may not have been the best teachers by modern pedagogical standards, but they had high expectations, rewarded what was good, punished what was not, and seemed to care about their students and their content. That was enough for me.

* I decided to say it the way we would back then instead of explaining it for the younger set. ORNL stands for Oak Ridge National Laboratory, site of the Manhattan Project where my mother was secretary and just a couple of years before my father arrived, and much of the focus of anything related to radioactivity studies. The war, of course, was World War II where my father had recently arrived home from when he began working there.

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It is very possible that you do not know what you fear most because you have not confronted that situation yet. There is also depth of fear and extent of fear, by which I mean absolutely horrifying as opposed to what you most guard against because it is constantly in your thoughts consciously or subconsciously. 

Evidently, I speak of the latter when I say what I most fear. I most fear being publicly humiliated for being incompetent and unprepared. I say evidently because occasionally I have dreams about just such things. I tend to have two kinds of dreams, those that may or may not seem significant, based on my emotional state after I awaken, but that I can’t remember any detail about, and those dreams that are very clear in every detail and seem to be communicating something profound to me or about me.

This morning was an occurrence of the latter. I am a science teacher. For some, what seems to me, a silly reason, I always have a few moments of first-year teacher nervousness about the first day of class (a tale tale indication of my greatest fear?). Now in terms of the school year, the dream I am about to relate to you is a mid-summer nights’ dream, making it all the more curious that it should happen, since school should be the last thing on my mind.

I was in a old school building that was very well remodeled. It was between classes of the last period of the day on the first day of class. I was required to rove to a different class this period, which when I have been required to do is the most bothersome thing to me, probably because it always involves some level of not being prepared for class when it begins. On the way there students in the bathroom were involved in some unknown rowdiness which my appearance and stern voice immediately dissipated. This further delayed my arrival to class. The students began filing out of the bathroom. I recognized most of them and many of them went into the classroom that I was entering. As we entered the tardy bell rang. The room was large with the classroom set-up at one end. Students were already in their desks. I knew all of the students, having had most of them the previous semester and others the year before. All of the students had attempted, out of a social habit that I have observed that makes them feel more comfortable, to sit in their previously assigned seats. Everything was in order except for one desk missing on the front row, so that a student assigned last year to that desk was sitting on the floor where the desk would have been. As I walked to the front of the room all faces turned toward me and the immediate thought came to me, “Why are these students here? I have had them all, most of them last semester, and they all passed (didn’t they?)?” I came to the desk, seeing that it was very neatly organized with every office supply gadget you could want and organizers for many colorful highlighters and markers. As I surveyed this wonder and the fact that there was not one piece of my papers, syllabus or otherwise, on the desk, the thought occurred to me, is this Earth and Environmental Science class that I have exclusively taught the last few years or the Chemistry class that I was told I might be teaching? If I ask the students which it is they will know that I am unprepared, not because I don’t know the subject, but because I have no materials to hand out and no lesson prepared. If it is Earth Science, I’ve done it so many times recently that I can totally wing it, but if it is Chemistry, as likely these “repeating” students imply, I’m clueless where to begin even though my head is filled with Chemistry facts. I stood overlooking the smiling faces in front of me, students who had likely taken Chemistry because they liked me as a teacher before, waiting for a spark of inspiration.

The dream ended by me awakening, lying flat on my back in the pleasant morning light and coolness, wondering what I would do next, and wondering why such dreams persist in my consciousness. Evidently, I fear being humiliated publicly for being incompetent and unprepared. Given that fact, should I share this dream?

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Time to graduate some students. It is a time for smiles and celebration and happy tears. The education we give our young is too focussed on knowledge and understanding devoid of moral evaluation, too lacking in wisdom for living and discernment for awareness of various dangers. I hope that I may be a mentor in thoughtful and careful living.

Knowledge leads to understanding
This path will serve you very well
To your mind and heart rewarding
In interactions it will tell

Acquire wisdom in your youth
Always prudent to do what’s right
Acting kindly along with truth
With wisdom overcoming might

Many deceived by false knowledge
Seek that you may discernment find
That at home or work or college
By truth delivered, sharp of mind

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It’s Marvelous Monday! Just before I stepped back out into the refreshingly crisp and slightly breezy 32 degree morning, I spied the signed that read “…Learning Commons, Encouraging collaboration, exploration, and creation. Supporting lifelong learning since 2007.” I proceeded to my parking lot duty station to stand watch just after 7:15 AM, making my school a kinder and gentler place to be. My mind began to stir with thoughts and comments I had with a student the Friday before concerning the way we do school. As the Sun rose above the small ridge behind the school into a nearly cloudless sky and a songbird repeated his song, my thoughts came together. 

Lifelong learners
They tell us we should be
But how do you touch the heart
By compulsion and decree?

Critical thinking skills
Synthesis to high degree
But without facts in their toolbox
What hope that they will see?

College is a must
AP courses, advanced degree
But where is creativity
Without time to explore and be free?

Learning is for high pursuits
For wisdom for you and me
But when will we understand
Growth of the spirit is key?

Look the look, play the part
Be all that you can be
But have you learned of heaven
To be eternally set free?

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About five years ago one of my classes built two bluebird boxes to put just out the window of two classrooms at the school. One lasted one year and then got taken by vandals. The other one outside my window could be destroyed but not so easily taken because of the wiring that runs out the bottom of pipe pole, through concrete, underground, through the wall into my classroom and to my computer. I realize that wireless cameras exist, but this is what my students could afford. It is color, works at night by shining infrared lights, and has sound. At one time you could record segments of video, but the school techs lost the software that has to be reinstalled every year due to computer re-imaging.

There are two problems with the present set-up. Even with retreating the wood, five years is considerable weathering, so the roof piece is bowed and lichen encrusted, though still functional. The other problem is a matter of rushed planning on my part when it was built. The students were excited about the camera arriving; the box was already built; we quickly installed it and began observing nesting soon afterwards. The camera, however, was mounted too close to the subjects so that it has always been blurry. The new box has a ceiling below the roof where the camera will be installed and not susceptible to moving when the side panel is opened to clean out last year’s nest. The distance is increased sufficiently to enable in focus viewing.

Since there are three eggs in the present box now, the installation of this new box will wait until Fall or later. I had the time to build it now and the availability of the school shop, so I did. I may put a roof shingle on the top when I install it so that it will last more than 5 years.

Students totally love to see the progress of the birds building a nest, laying eggs, hatching, feeding, growing, and leaving the nest. They are amazed when they here the chirping, chagrinned when there is a runt that is underfed because the others poke their heads up faster and more consistently, and curious about gestation and developmental timings. We have 2 to 3 nesting each Spring. One year the bluebirds and tree swallows fought violently over which pair could nest first. At one point two males (one bluebird and one tree swallow) were rolling around on the ground, clawing and pecking. The students flew to the window to see what was happening. We have never been able to observe the hatching of the birds. It seems to always happen on the weekend or in the early morning. I have left at 5 PM and arrived at 7 AM the next morning to find several birds hatched.

I sincerely wish that I could do more of this kind of teaching, what I call “affective science”. Students need an emotional connection to what they are learning to prick and increase curiosity. I could give many reasons why this is not happening, but I’m not in the mood to wax political or negative, so I will leave that to your imagination. I recorded some aspects of the box build, but many details are also left out. I hope that you enjoy the pictures, but even more, I hope you will observe the world around you and give thanks to our Creator for its utter beauty and utility.

If you hover over the pictures, you can see the captions.

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