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58 posts categorized "Teaching"

March 28, 2012

Gratitude journal: The ticking of the clock

I find myself struggling to find gratitude this evening.

I left the house at 6:30 this morning and returned at 8:00 this evening, thanks to a day of teaching followed by a series of parent-teacher conferences. As a result, I spent about 90 seconds with my daughter today, who was already in her crib and nearly asleep when I finally returned home. 

I can’t tell you how upsetting this is to me.

And I get to do it again tomorrow.

And I already did it yesterday.

Nevertheless, there were things to be grateful about today.

  1. My conferences went very well.
  2. My students worked very hard throughout the school day.
  3. One of my colleagues is keenly aware of the number of hours that a classroom teacher works during the week of parent-teacher conferences and has done her very best to ease our burden throughout the week, including today. I can’t tell you how much this means to classroom teachers. For this alone I should be supremely grateful.    
  4. I received great news from my agent regarding sales of my new book in the UK, Australia  and New Zealand.
  5. My audiobook publisher sent the audio recording of the first two chapters of my new book, and I loved it.

In truth, there was much to be grateful for today, but the almost complete absence of my daughter looms large over everything else.

So I try to find gratitude for all the good things that have taken place today, but instead, I find myself grateful for every minute that ticks off the clock, for each minute that passes brings me closer to the moment when I can pluck my daughter from her crib and squeeze her again.

March 21, 2012

Gratitude journal: My big little writers

Tonight I am grateful for my class of earnest, committed and genuinely talented writers. As part of their reward for completing two weeks of standardized testing, my class enjoyed a full day of Writer’s Workshop today. Nothing but writing, conferencing and the sharing of their work.

In total, the class spent about two full hours engaged in silent writing and another three hours conferencing and sharing, and every student without exception was fully engrossed in the process.

Every single one. 

I honestly did not need to correct behavior once.

I could not have been more impressed. 

We ended our day listening to a bunch of stories, poems and essays that were hilarious, original, suspenseful and even creepy at times.  Quality stuff, some of which I could easily see published as YA fiction or picture books with some work.

It was honestly that good.

It was the kind of day that teachers only dream of, and it was all thanks to my committed class of talented writers.

March 19, 2012

“Striking many” and “wishing death to some” still allows time for plenty of math and science

Mathematicians and scientists are often undeservedly assigned nerdy, frail, reputations, and I fear that this perception may steer some students away from these disciplines in school.

As a teacher, it is my job to ensure that math and science are celebrated to the same degree as the arts, if not more. If we want to produce more mathematicians and scientists in this country, we must find ways of letting students know that the sciences are not reserved for quiet, studious, industrious children.  

Enter Lists of Note, one of my favorite new websites. Last week they posted a list of Isaac Newton’s sins that will serve to assure students that mathematicians and scientists come in many forms:

In 1662, at which point he was a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, 19-year-old Isaac Newton wrote, in his notebook, the following list of 57 sins he had recently committed — 48 before Whitsunday, and 9 since. It makes for fascinating reading.

I’ll leave you to visit the site and peruse the list yourself, but here are a few of my favorites that will convince even the most rough-and-tumble boys that discovering the secrets of the universe is not beyond their grasp.

Threatning my father and mother Smith to burne them and the house over them

Wishing death and hoping it to some

Striking many

Stealing cherry cobs from Eduard Storer and denying that I did so

Punching my sister

Beating Arthur Storer.

Apparently Newton has a serious beef with the Storer family. 

March 16, 2012

Gratitude journal: My kids

Tonight I am grateful for my students. They aren’t always perfectly behaved, and there are days when they can be more than challenging, but they are a cohesive group of kids who genuinely like one another and do not suffer from the drama that can afflict the lives of so many ten and eleven year old kids.

It’s rare to see a group of kids come together so completely as this year’s class has, and while I’m not exactly sure how or why it has happened (I have theories), I am supremely grateful to them for this unusual level of maturity.

I love my job, but somehow this year’s class has helped me to love it even more.  

February 27, 2012

I can only hope that my students were playing videogames or watching TV or playing with fire when Rick Santorum was speaking.

One of the most important lessons I try to teach my students is the importance of admitting a mistake and possessing the moral integrity to apologize and make it right. Ask any one of my students, past or present, how I feel about mistakes, and they will tell you that the first, best and most important step in getting out of trouble with me is admitting to the error, apologizing for the action, and executing a course to correct the error and avoid repeating it again.

This is so hard for some students, and it is understandable. They are ten years old. Their egos are fragile. They have much to learn.    

It is equally difficult for many adults, and this is a lot less understandable. I have watched colleagues, spouses, friends and relatives refuse to admit error and apologize, even when the person who they have so clearly wronged is someone they respect and love.

I have many, many faults.  In fact, I once listed them in a post and added an addendum a few days later. I should probably update that list soon. But an inability to admit fault and apologize is not one of them. I am an expert at admitting that I was wrong. I am the king of culpability. I admit fault and apologize even when I am not quite certain that I did anything wrong.

I do not support the requested or demanded apology, for reasons outlined here (and possibly also because of my oppositional nature), but otherwise, I am an expert at both making mistakes and apologizing for them.   

Admitting fault should not be difficult.

Apologizing should not be hard.

It is almost always the right thing, and yet for so many, it is so difficult. 

Case in point:

The idiocy of Rick Santorum, who said this in regards to apologies yesterday:

GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum on Sunday criticized President Obama for apologizing to Afghans this week for the burning of Qurans by NATO forces at a U.S. military base. “There was nothing deliberately done wrong here. This was something that happened as a mistake. Killing Americans in uniform is not a mistake,” Santorum said during ABC’s This Week. “Say it’s unfortunate … but to apologize for something that was not an intentional act is something that the president of the United States in my opinion should not have done ... I think it shows weakness.”

I had to read this three times, because I have listened to ten year old students say almost these exact words.

“Yes, I ran into her on the playground, but it was an accident. I didn’t mean to hurt her. So why should I say I’m sorry?”

Seriously. These are the kinds of things that my students say. Sadly, they are also the kinds of things less enlightened adults who wish to become leaders of the free world say.

I didn’t mean it.

I didn’t do it intentionally.

It was an accident.

It’s not as bad as what she did.

I shouldn’t have to apologize for an honest mistake.

These are the comments of a person with a weak mind.

I cannot believe that I live in a world in which politicians criticize leaders for apologizing for mistakes. I cannot believe I live in a world in which the willingness to apologize is considered a weakness to some.

I can only hope that my students were not listening to this nonsense. I can only hope they they were playing videogames or watching cartoons or playing with fire when Santorum was being stupid, because even videogames and cartoons and pyromania would be better than listening to this lunacy. 

Every day I try to instill a foundation of moral integrity and a strong sense of self in my students. I try to teach them that the easiest way to forgiveness is through truth and sincerity. I try to make them understand that apologizing does not make you look weak. It demonstrates your strength of character.

Then an idiot like Rick Santorum comes along and tries to undo everything that I have tried so hard to teach my kids. 

Someone please tell that man to shut the hell up.

February 22, 2012

Gratitude journal: Not tempted in the slightest

Tonight I am grateful for my job.

Earlier this evening, I was offered a teaching job at a different school that included an increase in pay, an opportunity for advancement and an allegedly lighter workload. And while I was honored to receive such an offer, I never thought for a second about leaving my school for more money or potentially better working conditions.    

Not for a second.

I feel extremely fortunate to be working in a school with students and teachers who bring bring me enough happiness on a daily basis to render an offer like this moot. 

February 19, 2012

Why learning to write well matters.

There is a policy in my classroom that requests submitted in writing receive greater consideration than those that are not.  Also, the quality of the writing has a direct impact on the likelihood of a request being granted.

As a result, I receive some very serious letters from very serious students with  very serious requests, and in most cases, I try to at least meet these students halfway. 

I have adopted this policy for several reasons, but primarily, I want my students to understand that regardless of the future that they envision for themselves, they will need to be able to write effectively, and that writing effectively can be a tremendous asset to a person regardless of his or her career choice.

Conversely, the inability to write effectively can be a great determent to a person and his or her career.

Case in point:

Here is a response that my wife received from a local museum that recently changed its policy in regards to member benefits.


Mrs. Dicks,

My apologies for the email response to your phone call.  As you can imagine, you’re not the only member with questions, and responding by email gives me the opportunity to give you more details.

Of all the problems with this response, this paragraph annoys me the most because it makes no sense. Why is responding via email any more conducive to providing a customer with details than a phone conversation? Is the writer implying that the mere act of writing confers special powers of information dissemination that a phone call cannot?

Thank your for valuing your membership with The Children’s Museum, apart from of the additional benefits.  We will automatically place you in our new membership program, at the level for your family size (the Scientist $125 level), and send a new card and materials in approximate six weeks.  In the meantime, you can use your current card to visit the museum.  We are also adding a benefit package of vouchers and discounts with the new membership program, a $35 value which is the same amount you paid for the Plus upgrade.  I would be happy to send that to you, if you like.

I had to read this paragraph three times in order to understand what was being said, and I’m still not entirely sure. There are obvious problems with the words your and approximate (which I have highlighted), and I am not sure what “apart from of the additional benefits” is supposed to mean, even if I remove the word of. It makes no sense. Regardless, three typos in a single paragraph are not acceptable.

You can still use the reciprocal admission at science centers and museums that participate in the ASTC program. (As always, call ahead if you are visiting an organization within 90 miles of The Children’s Museum, to see if they will accept your membership.)  We are enforcing the 90 mile rule, which, for the most part, we hadn’t previously, but the decision on whether or not to enforce the rule is optional, and it is made by each organization.

I’m not a fan of the clunky way that the writer uses parenthesis when they really aren’t necessary, but it’s the last sentence that is the worst.  It contains a total of 35 words and five commas. FIVE.

We understand the confusion and concern this is causing, but it was a necessary financial decision, and one that was made very recently.

I have more confusion and concern over the quality of the writing in this email than any change made to the museum’s benefit package. If the museum is actually receiving as many inquires in regards to this policy change as they claim (and I believe they probably are, since the changes are considerable), you would expect them to have some kind of form letter ready that could be tweaked if needed. Or even better, perhaps someone with a modicum of writing ability could be placed in charge of responding to the flurry of inquiries that this change has generated, because this response is unprofessional and reprehensible.

I’ll be showing it to my students next week.  They’ll do a little editing and hopefully receive some reinforcement regarding the importance of writing well.

February 07, 2012

A potentially great day ruined by you-know-what

Today was a potentially great day for me.  

To start, Cosmopolitan UK named my next book, MEMOIRS OF AN IMAGINARY FRIEND, #1 on their Best Books for February 2012 list  and offered a glowing review.

The cover of the book also appeared publicly for the first time, and it’s one that I love. In fact, I have seen a sneak peek of the US cover as well and am blessed with a bounty of great art for both sides of the pond.


The actual UK cover will feature a quote from the very generous, internationally bestselling author Jodi Picoult.  Ms. Picoult offered me the best blurb of my life in regards to the book.  It reads:

A novel as creative, brave, and pitch-perfectas its narrator, an imaginary friend named Budo, who reminds us that bravery comes in the most unlikely forms. It has been a long time since I read a book that has captured me so completely, and has wowed me with its unique vision. You've never read a book like this before. As Budo himself might say: Believe me.

A pretty good start to the day. Right?

During the school day, I managed to earn my students’ respect in a realm rarely achieved by an elementary school teacher:


A truly outstanding a cappella group performed at our school this afternoon, singing a number of Motown hits by Michael Jackson, KC and the Sunshine Band and others. The kids loved this music, which I thought was odd since they normally make fun of me for liking “old music” like The Beatles, Van Morrison and Springsteen. 

When I questioned them about this after the performance, they explained that Michael Jackson, The Who, Neil Diamond and others are not considered old in their minds (a few admitted that The Beatles were probably acceptable as well).  When I showed them that I have 38 Michael Jackson songs on my phone, they gained an immediate, albeit grudging, respect for my taste in music. 

I went on to show them the 67 Neil Diamond songs, the three full albums by The Who, and the handful of songs by new artists like Katy Perry, Maroon 5 and Lady Gaga that currently reside on my phone. 

They left school feeling like I possessed a modicum of coolness, which in the land of ten-year olds is quite an achievement for any adult. 

At dinner, I told my daughter that I loved her, and with a piece of bread still stuffed in her mouth, she said, “I love you so much, too, Daddy.”

Clara has said that she loves me many times before, but something about her earnestness and sincerity nearly brought me to tears.

It was as if she really understood what the words meant for the first time.   

Later, I felt our baby kick inside my wife’s belly for the first time.  Actually, I felt it kick several times. It was jumping around so much that it nearly made Elysha sick.

I still remember the first time I felt Clara kick, and this was just as exciting. 

An unforgettable moment, both then and now.

But the Patriots lost the Super Bowl on Sunday night, and in horrific fashion, so all this good news was wasted on me.  There was no way in hell that I was going to feel at all good just 24 hours after a loss like that, regardless of what happened during the day.

Nice try, universe, but I don’t think so. 

Gratitude journal: Unexpected empathy

Tonight I am grateful to my students, who knew better than to tease me or even mention the Super Bowl to me.  Two kids came in offering me a hug, but not another word was spoken about the debacle. 

I overheard one girl telling a small group of kids that it would be unwise to tease me about the Patriots loss, so perhaps there was a bit of fear mixed in with their empathy, but either way, I was grateful for their understanding and compassion on what was honestly a difficult day for me. 

December 14, 2011

What to give a teacher for the holidays

The New York Times tackles the always tricky question of what to give your child’s teacher for the holidays

After thirteen years of teaching, allow me to chime in with some advice.

First, giving your teacher nothing is perfectly fine. Teachers do not expect to receive a gift and are often surprised by the generosity of parents, especially considering the state of the economy today.

Not giving a gift does not make you a bad parent in anyway whatsoever. 

And contrary to the belief of at least one parent who I know, the gift that a teacher receives (or doesn’t receive) has no bearing on his or her opinion of the parent, the child or the family in general.  We do not keep score in terms of gift giving.  No teacher will ever remember which child arrived at school with a gift and which did not.  

Trust me. Not giving a gift is perfectly acceptable with every teacher in every situation.

In fact, many schools have a policy that does not permit teachers to accept gifts from parents, so offering a gift can place a teacher in an awkward and difficult position.  Refusing the gift, regardless of the policy, is impolite, but accepting the gift violates school policy. 

As a result, no gift is sometimes just easier for a teacher. 

But if you are going to give your child’s teacher a gift (full discloser: my wife and I give Clara’s teachers gifts), here are a few suggestions:

The best gift I ever received from parents was given to me when my daughter was born.  Each student in my class purchased his or her favorite book from childhood and signed the inside cover with a message to Clara.  These books were then assembled into a library and presented to me after Clara’s birth.  The books in that library are still some of Clara’s favorites today, and we always take a moment to read the messages that my former students wrote to her after we are finished reading the book.  A couple of the kids actually pasted photographs of themselves into the book along with the message, and Clara now knows these kids by name.

It was a remarkable thoughtful and lasting gift that I continue to appreciate to this day.   

Three things to take away from this:

  • Books are always excellent gifts.  Be sure to personalize them with a message for the teacher if you decide to give a book. 
  • Gifts for a teacher’s children make excellent gifts.
  • When the class is able to come together and pool their resources, the gift that the teacher receives is often be something special.

Along these lines, I know a teacher who received a gift certificate to the local golf course from his class at the end of the school year.  Not only was this thoughtful in terms of matching the gift to the teacher’s interest, but he was able to brag to his golf buddies (me included) that every round of golf throughout the summer was sponsored by his students.

Making an effort to match the gift to the teacher’s interests and passion is always appreciated. 

Playing golf for free is great. 

Providing a teacher with the opportunity to taunt his friends all summer long is the best. 

But when it comes to gifts, I firmly believe that the best gift that you can give a teacher is simply a note expressing your appreciation for all that he or she has done for your child. 

Teaching can be a lonely profession.  We work in isolation for much of the day, and our clients, the students, are not always forthcoming or insightful enough to adequately express their appreciation for their teachers.  While we are routinely observed and critiqued by administers, these critiques do nothing to elucidate the impact that a teacher can have on a student or a family. 

I have letters from mothers and fathers that I cherish as much as any other object in my life.  I read these letters after difficult days in the classroom and they lift my spirits beyond measure.  They serve as reminders that what I do is making a difference in the world when a tough day or an impossible situation causes me to think otherwise.

Regardless of the gift that you plan on giving your child’s teacher this year, take some time this month to sit down and write a letter to your child’s teachers, telling them how much they have come to mean to you and your child.  Remind the teacher that his or her impact extends far beyond the classroom and that he or she is making a difference in this world.   

And if you truly believe that your child’s teacher is exemplary, send that letter to the principal or even the superintendent of schools as well.  During my first year of teaching, a mother sent a note to me during the holidays expressing her appreciation for all I was doing for her daughter, and along with it was a copy of a letter that she had sent to the principal and superintendent expressing her support for me.

For a first year teacher, this meant the world. 

It was better than anything else I could have been given that year. 

During the holiday season, give a teacher the gift of words. 

Give the gift of appreciation and admiration and love.  It really is the best gift that you could give. 

Yes, my wife and I will probably be giving Clara’s teachers a gift this year, but we will also take an evening to sit down and write a letter thanking them for all that they do on a daily basis to help make our little girl the person she is today.

I suspect… no, I know that they will appreciate and cherish these letters more than any book or gift certificate that Elysha and I might give.