May VayKay 2015 Week 1

“I’ll bet you never saw yourself doing this when you were growing up,” Mike says for the umpteenth time since our marriage nearly 32 years ago. The this he’s talking about is packing up our Lance trailer for a two-week road trip vacation away from “mud season” in Leadville, just me and my hubby and our 85-pound German Shepherd. Ranger probably never anticipate this either.

I’ve christened our trailer Laurel’s Luxury Liner because it’s a huge improvement over the Lance camper we traded in for it. The camper—which we enjoyed for 6 years and filled to the brim during trips with two grown boys—was a huge improvement over sleeping on the ground in a tent, which we did for many, many, far-too-many years.

“I never saw myself doing most of what I’ve done,” I say.

And it’s true. Just 32 short years ago Mike and I graduated from West Point, married a few weeks later, and my life has been a new box of Cracker Jacks every day since, complete with sweetness and surprises and plenty of nuts.

“Do you realize this is the first time since we’ve been married that we’ve taken two weeks off together?” I ask. I don’t count the 3 ½ weeks between graduation and our Officer Basic courses during which time we took 10 days to plan and execute our wedding (thanks for the suggestion, Mum!). I think even Mike is surprised by the realization.

For a fleeting moment I’m nervous about the prospect. Two solid weeks of visiting national wilderness area and living in close confines with our socially awkward dog, cooking on the little 3-burner gas stove, taking quick showers in our little bathroom (not sure how long the hot water will last), parking between who-knows-who at RV parks . . . but I’ll take it one day at a time.

We spend our first night at a campground in Fruita, CO after visiting friends who invite us to join them downtown for Mike the Headless Chicken Festival. It’s a thing. One of the silliest things ever. After a photo op with poor-ol’-headless-Mike, we enjoy dinner out, a warm walk around a little lake and a fabulous night’s sleep.

“We’re on vacation,” I say as we wake to see 08:30 on the clock, but it hasn’t really hit us yet.

There’s something special about eating “in the wild” too, and our cheesy eggs and sausage have never tasted better. I appreciate the large sink in our new home-on-wheels and the seemingly endless hot water.

On to Moab, UT where one of our neighbors is the don’t-need-to-take-a-breath-ever-while-I’m-talking kind, and for four days we find ways to avoid contact. It’s not difficult since we’re gone most of the day, but I’m aware of several times I need to rescue Mike from the endless questions about biking and racing which he never really has to answer because Mr. Chatty just keeps on talking.

Anyway, our first day out in the spectacular scenery and I turn my ankle—“Crack”—and honestly think it’s broken. Once the stars clear from my vision, I do my best to make light of the situation.

“Laurel never turns her right ankle,” I say, trying not to cry. I’ve turned my left ankle a kajillion times in my life and have grown accustomed to rolling with it. It burns for a bit, but I always walk it off quickly. This is different.

I test it lightly and although it hurts like hot coals in my boot, I’m pretty sure it’s not broken, despite the noise it made. I don’t even notice my bleeding left knee.

“A bad sprain can hurt worse than a break,” my honey says, wondering how I could have done such damage on the gently angled terrain. Although I hate to blame the dog, I generally watch where he’s going more than my own footsteps, and I also realize I’ve put far more faith in my new hiking boots’ ankle support than I should have.

It’s a truly arduous hike back out, but I make it, and Mike hooks me up with anti-inflammatories and ice.

For the next few days I take mini-hikes and watch the beautiful colors spread around my fat ankle. I stop myself from taking a photo of it. I’m not going to let a little ache ruin my vacation, and it doesn’t. We visit new places around Moab, frequently looking at each other and saying, “We’re on vacation” and grinning like idiots. It’s finally starting to feel like we’ve made a great escape, and by our last evening in Moab, we’re taking cues from Ranger, sleeping in late after dream-filled nights and needing naps during the day.

Driving from Moab to Bryce Canyon we make the mistake of asking my phone to provide directions and “Debris” (Mike’s nickname for “her”) takes us the scenic way. The way with miles and miles of “End State Maintenance” pavement.

“So it’ll take us an extra hour,” I say. “We’re seeing things we wouldn’t see if we’d gone the faster way.” We laugh at all the new things we see. Lots of sheep. Lots and lots of potholes along the bumpy road.

Ruby’s RV Park outside of Bryce Canyon is great and Ranger’s a champ when we leave him to hike around the no-dogs-allowed trails. He has his bed, his bone, his new home to guard, and he’s happy when we return.

We’ve now spent one whole week together loving the freedom that comes from simple living. While Mike biked today—getting soaked in the cold rain—I tidied up around the place, which is wonderfully easy to do. I rearranged items in cabinets more sensibly and worked on my list of extra things to bring next time, because there will be many next times. Mike enjoyed a nice hot shower and a nap while I worked on this blog, and now it’s just about time for hors d’oeuvres and Merlot.

Hey, we’re still on vacation!

Bryce selfie

A Salute to Selflessness

(IRIS) ALL AVAILABLE SEARCH AND RESCUE MEMBERS BE AVAILABLE TO HIKE MT ELBERT TO THE SUMMIT TO ASSIST A HIKER.

That’s generally the type of text message that ruins my plans—as it does just as I come down for coffee this Friday morning, May 8th. It’s all about me, you see, and I’m irked that Mike, our son Nick and two other young responders will be out on a snowy, stormy mountain all day rescuing one lost, and I believe irresponsible, hiker. When I hear that he’s requested a helicopter, I get really pissed, and my thoughts take me to a dark place.

“Let Darwin take this one,” I suggest. It seems to me that more and more people throw caution to the ominous clouds in foolish personal quests knowing that all they have to do is call 911 when things stop being fun.

But my husband cannot do this despite all the past rescues that have ruined weekends and holiday dinners and left me feeling like poppin’ a cap in the asses of the asses he’s rescued. A little buckshot in the butt might keep them from ruining someone else’s day down the road, I think.

It also irks me that most people think Search and Rescue (SAR) folks get paid for their efforts. In our county, as in most, SAR is strictly a volunteer organization. Those who offer their time and risk their lives for others do it because they believe in it. They have a unique genetic code that screams of selflessness, and if only our scientists could harvest and implant that code in others, our world could be a much finer place.

I don’t consider myself to be a helicopter wife, but I make my first call to Police Dispatch at 8 p.m. and my second at 10:45 p.m. I’ve long ago put dinner in the fridge. It’s been storming and thunder-snowing and, hell, they left early this morning and know the mountain inside and out. I’ll be seriously pissed off if they’re not back soon. I’m worried.

“They’re almost to the North Trailhead and sounding fine,” the dispatcher tells me. She probably thinks I’m a cry-baby.

Sure, I’ve written and sent out far more queries to literary agents than I had planned for the day, and I’ve almost finished reading Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent (appropriate, I think), but hours of anxiety leave me feeling edgy.

It’s 12:07 a.m. and my phone pings. It’s Nick.

Heading back now. If you’re still awake, can you heat up all the food?

Yes, I respond, smiling at his phrasing while sticking the dinner I hoped they would have enjoyed much earlier back in the oven. But I’m still a little irked.

Finally, they’re home. They’re tired and wired and starving. They’re wind-burned and sunburned and smiling. They’ve saved the life of an individual unfortunate in many ways who surely would have perished had our volunteers decided not to respond to the IRIS page. They thank me for the hot dinner, devoured in an instant, and tell me how pleased they are with how the mission turned out.

Close to 1 a.m., I hand Nick a container of what remains of “all” the food and hug him. He’ll be heading to the Mine to begin his 12-hour shift in about four hours.

I’m no longer irked. Tired, yes, but bursting with love for my family and pride in them as people. My fatigue, my inconvenience, is less than insignificant. I’m the luckiest woman in the world. Lucky, too, are the countless individuals whose lives are saved by the selfless volunteers who risk everything to ensure those individuals have another opportunity—hopefully—to make better decisions in their future.

FLAP YOUR WINGS!

Flap Your Wings (and maybe stomp your feet a little)! My Editorial on Education

(and btw, I feel like I’ve just been endorsed by John Oliver): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J6lyURyVz7k

I have felt overwhelmed countless times in my life. Opening a junk drawer can ruin my day. I would rather show up for class sick than create a lesson plan for a substitute teacher. The thought of writing a whole book nearly paralyzed me. I could not go into a library or bookstore without coming out depressed. What could I write that hadn’t already been written? But I had made a promise.

“Someday I’ll write a book about this year,” I told the first group of 7th graders I ever taught. I didn’t know how or when or what type of book it would be, but every student wanted to be in my book, and I still have the roster with their actual names and the names they wanted me to call them whenever I wrote it.

Although I could not fit over 100 students into my novel and felt a need to create my own names for the amalgamated students I chose to represent, I fulfilled my promise seven years later and donated over $1,200.00 in sale proceeds to a graduating student in my community. I also found my real-world model for the troublesome character “Bernicia” and learned something wonderful.

“Miss?” is fictionalized for obvious reasons, but the realism of Maggie’s first year teaching experience is apparent to all teachers I’ve spoken with about the story. It certainly helped that I kept a daily journal my first year of teaching.

I discovered quickly that they just don’t make schools like they used to.

Today’s public schools are becoming battlegrounds, figuratively and literally, but they don’t need to be that way. Daily, teachers post their frustrations on social media, many who then are written up by their superiors for expressing their feelings. Routinely, citizens become a bit more outraged by the tide of school violence, the recent surge against which we seem to have no power. Companies are developing bullet-proof blankets for students; many suggest arming teachers.

Teacher complaints are well-founded. Much like the companies that will get rich from blanket sales to schools, others are flourishing from quick-fix programs school administrators are eager to employ, and classrooms around the nation are becoming marketplaces. “But wait! There’s more!” . . . and more, and more for teachers to work into their full curricula. They feel besieged. More “professional development” for teachers—on the latest programs—equates to less time doing what they know how to do best: Teach.

“So what’s the answer, Miss?”

Many of my friends, astounded by the picture I’ve painted, have asked me this question after reading my novel. There is no single—no easy answer, no quick-fix, and I do not pretend to have the solution.

Struggling schools face a plethora of challenges daily, and three of the most debilitating I’ve experienced include corrosive work environments, over-testing of students and lack of effective student discipline. Of the three, lack of discipline can be the greatest detractor to success, though potentially it is the easiest problem to remedy.

Ideas on polishing potentially “corrosive work environments”:

Are all teachers great at what they do? Of course not. Neither are all administrators, all CEOs, all parents, all community and government leaders, all students. Nevertheless, the current environment in many districts is suffocating and good teachers are reconsidering their profession. Many factors combine to create harsh work environments in schools—a revolving door of initiatives, lack of communication and trust between peers and supervisors, and lack of community support—and I won’t even address the issue of low pay in many of our most difficult towns.

Teachers are fed up with having to implement the latest program-du-jour with inadequate training or preparation time, and veteran teachers see though the smoke and mirrors of purportedly “new” programs.

“Just wait five years and you’ll see the same things come back,” one retiring elementary school teacher recently told me. “They’ll just give it a new name.” After 45 years of teaching, she should know.

The same is true for instructional standards set for each subject by state departments of education. Weeks have been wasted on reconfiguring curricula to the latest standards that have been tweaked to sound more reasonable, more doable, while the bottom-line expectations remain the same: students must be able to read and write and do ‘rithmetic at more advanced levels each year. Rewording requirements so we have four rather than six for Language Arts standards is a wasteful, frivolous exercise. Teachers know this, and students have never felt the need to fret over the boring banners outlining all they are expected to learn in each classroom.

I recommend that leaders in school districts across the nation step back and take a deep breath the next time they are approached by any agency offering a new program, especially from commercial entities, and consider if the potential benefits are worth the time needed to invest in adequately implementing the program. Consider as well that even if a program has demonstrated success in a small town in Maine, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will deliver the same results in a rural Texas town.

Let me take my recommendation one step further and suggest that school leaders look within their own pool of teachers and staff members before paying outsiders to deliver training and “professional development.” I lost track of teacher hours wasted during my years in public education, hours during which my peers and I felt belittled or treated as if we knew nothing about the students in our care—by people who knew nothing about us nor about our students. We preach differentiation for students, so why not extend the concept to teacher training?

More often than not we sat through information we already knew or could have presented ourselves, with no opportunity to “test out.” A potential stipend or continuing education credits for someone already employed in a school district would do much to improve morale and would cost significantly less than paying a program-pushing agency. If we truly want to develop as professional educators, we should explore every opportunity to develop from within.

School administrators who are ignorant of their internal assets will also undoubtedly struggle with organizational communication, increasing environmental toxicity and destroying morale.

For years I taught my students how to use figurative language elements to give readers a clear picture of what they are trying to express. “Unclear communication is like an outdated road map; it can leave you lost and confused,” I’d say, and some of them even appreciated my simile. The ability to communicate effectively is critical for building effective relationships, and effective relationships inherently require trust between parties. Without an atmosphere of open and honest dialogue in an organization, it is nearly impossible to develop trust between members of that organization.

During my first back-to-school meeting with district staff and faculty in my new school, my boss, who knew about my West Point education and Army background, encouraged me to lead a group activity. That was the start of my involvement with the district instructional leadership team. For two and a half years in that school I collaborated with my peers and those above me on topics ranging from curriculum design to school spirit. I sent weekly emails to all staff members with topic recaps, suggestions and reminders. My peers knew they could share concerns and questions with me and that I would represent them the best I could.

Turning around a corrosive atmosphere in which members believe information is being withheld can be as simple as sending out routine status updates, minimally once per week. To be truly effective as a leader, those you lead must believe that you value them as individuals—a belief worth more than any price tag—and by keeping them “in the loop,” you demonstrate that respect.

Sure, there will be times when closed-door sessions take place, but leaders must still find ways to share even the most difficult conversations in a way that keeps the best interests of the organization in mind. Secrets will always breed contempt and destroy trust among those who feel left out, and we all have witnessed or experienced the wildfire effects of rumors.

What kind of investment is necessary to improve communication within a school district? Time. Even 15 minutes each week dedicated to sending out an update and perhaps even highlighting a success, however small, could start transforming the morale in an organization where employees have felt in-the-dark for too long.

Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, demonstrates several examples of organizational leaders who have deflated the mood of otherwise buoyant employees by communicating in a way that inadvertently failed to emphasize anything positive. He reminds us that “Just as important as what you say to employees is how you say it.”1 The premise of The Happiness Advantage is that success follows happiness, not the other way around; it is a book worthy of designing a professional development session around.

Involve local communities to improve the environment in your school district!

Those who are able to participate in community outreach programs should do so. Outreach is vital, especially in school districts with limited funds, and the most creative school leaders find ways to expose students to the world outside their classrooms before launching them into that world with a handshake and a piece of paper.

Local businesses were delighted to open their doors to my students for field trips and writing opportunities and the local newspaper welcomed articles and pictures of those free fieldtrips.

Leaders must be available to serve and support others in their community in order to build trust and unity of vision, and community members need to get to know our students if we hope to have them share our vision of success as well. Exploring opportunities for visits, internships and community service would cost only an investment of time—and the rewards would be invaluable.

Leaders and teachers owe it to their students to develop relationships with community members in an effort to realize a shared vision of growth and success for all members of their district. Ultimately, schools in which community involvement is valued will be more successful, and a school’s success, in turn, will improve the whole community.

Assess, yes, but in moderation.

A school district that fails to assess its students is like a proctologist whose magic wand explores the wrong end; both will lack the vital information necessary to improve the lives of those in their care. Now more than ever our students must understand that their public education is designed to prepare them for a workforce increasingly geared toward employing those with education beyond high school. Regardless of the type of further education—whether it be in a degree program or in technical training—assessments are an academic reality. The challenge, then, is to ensure there is an acceptable balance between time spent assessing and time spent teaching and learning because our students—whether or not they are English Language Learners—will not perform well when assessed without sufficient time to learn and will rebel when they believe they are being used as guinea pigs.

Students and teacher alike know their schools will try anything to improve yearly performance on high-stakes testing and that “anything” generally results in a multitude of assessments throughout the year. These assessments often have no consequences for the student and reduce actual teaching opportunities for teachers.

What follows is an essay I wrote encouraging parents to rally together to opt out of the latest high stakes test designed with no other purpose than to keep a corporation’s pockets full. It clearly outlines my frustration with the current environment of over-testing in our public schools.

Stop Outsourcing our Children

I’m not proud of what I’m about to share with you, but here goes. Many of you know me as “Leadville Laurel,” one of your local authors. I have taught, and continue to teach, English to many of your children. So when I started hearing about the new test—PARCC—which replaces CSAP this year, I started asking questions. My questions were answered with grumbles. “Take the 5th grade practice test,” someone suggested, “and see for yourself.”

Never one to walk away from a respectable challenge, and feeling quite confident that I am smarter than most 5th graders, I visited the web site and started the 5th grade English test. An hour later and with shaking hands (pretty sure my blood pressure was up several points), I got my score: 30/40, a solid 75%, perfectly “average” for a 5th grader. Granted, I didn’t go back to check my answers, so I might have reconsidered some of my responses. And I suppose I might have earned an extra four points for two essays I wrote, one having to compile and compare information from three separate essays and one having to rewrite a narrative from a different character’s point-of-view, but those portions would have to be evaluated by a faceless person and scored. When? Who knows!

Developed by Pearson, the same company that earns its fortunes through the sale of textbooks to our schools, the test—in addition to being stressful—is vague, complicated, and confusing. So why am I sharing this with you? Why am I confessing that despite my MA in English, I did not even score in the “Good” range on a 5th grade test? Because I’m asking you to do what I did. Pick one of the practice tests and see how you do. Then scream out loud. Then, if you have a grade 3-10 student, hug them. Then write a letter to their school saying, “I am opting my child out of taking the PARCC test this year.”

Schools across the country are already protesting the increasing insanity of the testing we’ve imposed on our children since the inception of NCLB. Proponents of these springtime tests (with results coming months later, never in time to alter instruction) say that testing is a part of life, and use the SAT college exam as a reason to pre-pre-pre-test. I say hogwash. If teachers were allowed to teach their students core material (teach, not test, because there is no instruction or learning happening during a test) like my teachers could back in the olden days, their students would do just fine on the SAT. Or not. Not everyone needs to attend a four-year college anymore.

Most parents won’t take my suggestion. Most will continue to grumble, but will not want to “rock the boat.” And without a dissenting majority, our schools will continue to buy the latest “testing success” materials and our children will learn less and less each year. And perhaps our parents don’t feel qualified to be vocal about what’s happening in our classrooms, so here’s my suggestion to those of you who don’t like what’s happening, but are unsure of what to suggest as an alternative to having your child sit through days of meaningless assessments.

Our school district is still in the process of implementing Expeditionary Learning. Why not use testing week(s) to have our students complete a project that is both meaningful and manageable to evaluate internally using the core standards at each grade level for English, math, and science. At least have that as an “opt out option” rather than sending students wherever administrators decide to send those who are bold enough to “just say no” this year.

Here’s the thing. Our teachers are “highly qualified” in their subject areas and in evaluation strategies. They know what their students should learn and where they are weak. They’ve endured countless hours of professional development on the same topics every year (from money-making companies who package old ideas with new names), and they’ve been forced to outsource the evaluation of their students to corporations that don’t give two hoots about them or their classrooms. Why?

We can’t afford to be complacent anymore. Whether we have children in the public school system or not, we pay for the schools in our district, and all of our graduates will impact the communities in which they live. We all should feel empowered to demand more: More learning, less testing. Opt out, Leadville, and work with your elected officials and school board members to take back the education and evaluation of our students from careless corporations.

~~~~~

Just as professional runners should not train at race-day pace every day for fear of injury or burnout, students should not be assessed so frequently that they, too, experience burnout. The student, like the runner, wants to perform well, but also knows that without the proper amount of time to absorb new learning, s/he will struggle. By evaluating and selecting the most efficient tools for assessing students and employing them judiciously, we can expect that students will do their best when asked. Regardless of the results, effort and improvement—however much—should be recognized and applauded.

Socrates is credited with stating that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” While perhaps an extreme viewpoint, it nevertheless is a strong suggestion that examination, assessment, thoughtful reflection on what works, what doesn’t, and why, can bring about growth. School leaders and teachers, much like that proctologist I mentioned earlier, must use their examination tools wisely to benefit those they serve.

 The Ultimate Challenge: Discipline

How do we solve the problem of discipline in our schools? We don’t. Every year teachers will have to learn how best to handle new challenges brought to their classrooms with unruly and often emotionally disturbed students, but if teachers and school leaders present a united front, then not everyone has to become the victim when little Johnny and Janie act up.

While many in academia tout the advantages of using technology in classrooms to appeal to their students and keep them engaged, in a December 2014 article in The Atlantic by Alexandra Ossola, psychology professor Daniel Willingham mentions a study in which the majority of teachers surveyed believed that technology posed a negative influence on their students. The professor’s concern is that “kids can pay attention but they just don’t want to. They have the expectation that everything should always be interesting.”

As an English teacher, I would tell the professor that the word “interesting” is as meaningless as the word “nice” when describing something, but I also know what he means. Students today do not tolerate boredom well, and why should they? We live in a world where the power to learn anything from soap-making to proctology rests in our pocket. Still, many a lesson has gone unlearned by students who have mastered the art of pocket-texting friends while pretending to listen to their teacher, and who believe their multi-tasking is not interfering with their learning. Studies have shown what we teachers already know: our students are wrong.

We’ve seen how kids of all ability levels turn into troublemakers when they are bored in classrooms. One suggestion, then, is to organize our classrooms in a way that helps teachers minimize the opportunity for boredom. Let’s let students with similar academic abilities learn together. Let’s finally answer the question of how teachers will differentiate for all levels of learning by differentiating our classrooms. This is not a politically correct solution, but haven’t we all had enough of teaching to the average—or even lowest level learner in a classroom designed with only political correctness in mind?

Another suggestion is to stop the practice of advancing students who are not ready for the next level of education. Currently, community colleges are faced with enrolling students with high school diplomas who cannot test into the basic college classes. They offer remedial courses for no college credit, sometimes concurrently with first year classes, and the burden on unprepared students is tremendous. College professors are flummoxed by the lack of preparedness for higher-level learning.

Although we’d like to put the blame on the student for not being prepared, how can we if we’ve never expected them to demonstrate proficiency in their K-12 years? As a minimum, students advancing to high school should demonstrate they have mastered the fundamentals of reading, writing, and mathematics. Tenth grade English teachers should not have to teach the proper use of a period and high school principals should not find it necessary to give up their 28-minute lunch break to tutor students on multiplication tables.

Students who are passed along through the K-12 system should not show up to class each day knowing that if they disrupt their peers or tell their teacher to piss off, or worse, they will be sent home for the day, a consequence students consider a bonus. Too many teachers’ hands are tied by threats of lawsuits and administrators who favor the notion of nurturing over discipline as if the two were mutually exclusive. Discipline, something that winning teams and organizations know is necessary for success, has somehow earned a bad rap in education circles and students know it.

So let’s take back control of our school environments, my final suggestion. School leaders, do the right thing. Do the unpopular thing. Review your book of rules and student conduct, revise it if necessary, and then—most importantly—enforce the expectations you’ve established. If you don’t do it, and do it consistently and across the board, then don’t expect your students to comply. Expect them instead to decide which rules, if any, they’ll follow, and then expect your staff and faculty to waste valuable time on disciplinary issues that rob them of their ability to teach effectively. Once you regain control, have the backbone necessary to hold students responsible for demonstrating their readiness at each level of education before advancing them to the next.

What more can school leaders and community members do to improve their schools?

Whether your school district is small or large, affluent or struggling, it can always improve with increased effort and attention. I believe that what works in a disadvantaged town also can help in areas more well-off. This is what I am asking you to do in your community whether you teach or have school-aged children or not. Strong schools benefit the entire community, so share these suggestions with everyone you know:

  • Encourage community members to visit your schools. Have them call ahead to find out about sign-in and security procedures. Let them visit classrooms, and if they have time and talents to offer—
  • Ask them to volunteer to help. Could they tutor a subject? Make copies? Bring supplies to the art teacher? Listen to a child read? Work with math flashcards? Do a presentation on an area of expertise? Research ways to challenge advanced students? The possibilities in this area are limited only by what community members are willing to do. If you know someone who has their own business—
  • Find out how their local businesses can interact with your schools. With limited funding, schools are often unable to provide field trips for students. Local business can provide a solution by opening their doors to student groups. Regardless of the subject matter, teachers will find a way to tie in an academic standard, be it writing, research, calculation, art, history, and by exposing students to local businesses, their understanding of the practical applications of what they are learning in the classroom becomes more meaningful. With a bit of planning, business owners will be able to answer the question, “But how will I use this in the future?” And if business owners are open to the idea—
  • Find out if there are opportunities for students to do internships. Paid or not, internships provide students with goals beyond their K-12 education. Speaking of internships—
  • Consider and suggest ways students might intern within the school district. Could the district’s website be updated routinely? Might teachers need help researching future lessons? Are there custodial projects that could be completed with extra hands? Would the local news outlets like to receive routine articles highlighting school activities? There are many ways in which student involvement would enhance both their skills and their communities.
  • Run for a school board position. You do not need to be a parent of a school-age child, but you do need to care about the routine and future decisions of the school leadership. If you are not inclined to become a board member, you may still attend board meetings. Find out what decisions are being made about your schools and know the people who are making the decisions—they are elected to make smart ones. If you are not happy with the way things are handled in schools in your community—
  • Elect people who have the best interests of students in mind. This goes not only for school board members but for other local officials as well. As a minimum—
  • Teachers, support your peers in whatever ways you can. Let them know they are not alone and that you understand their challenges. By becoming involved outside of your classroom, you can help to improve the environment in your schools. Good teachers work long hours for meager pay because they believe what they are doing will help their students, and ultimate the future of their communities. Write a note. Make time to visit another classroom. Meet for coffee. Lend an ear.

On the last page of Achor’s The Happiness Advantage we are reminded of the story of the hurricane attributed to a butterfly flapping its wings. “And each tiny move toward a more positive mindset can send ripples of positivity through our organizations, our families, and our communities. . . . the ripple effect is the perfect example of how there are no real discernible limits to our influence and our power (210).”3 Recognizing that I sound like Pollyanna, I still will ask each of you to believe you can bring about significant change by exercising your wings.

“Bernicia” ended up earning her diploma through a GED program after dropping out to raise the child she had as a young teen. She has a good job and a great relationship with the father of her child. She told me that my belief in her and in her poetry inspired a belief in herself she never had before. Every teacher and every community member has the potential to change a child’s world view.

Public schools will never be what they used to be when I was a kid, and in many ways, that is a good thing, but school should not feel like battlegrounds. There should be no “us against them” in places that prepare our students to become productive members of the communities in which they will live. We are all in this together. Educators are smart, tools are plentiful, and with the right team, any school system can improve. Together we must work toward improving the conditions of all who pass through and work in our academic establishments. Get involved and get your community involved. Offer what you can. Flap your wings. Do not leave the future to someone else.

1 Achor, Shawn. The Happiness Advantage. New York: Crown Business. 2010. Page 59.

2 Ossola, Alexandra. “Why Kids Won’t Quit Technology.” December 10 2014, 11:50 AM ET.

http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/12/why-kids-wont-quit-tech/383575/ Web. retrieved 01/02/15

 3 Achor, 210.

 

Going Commando

I love escaping from Leadville to indulge in a mini vacation every once in a while, especially during the nine long months of winter, and the hot springs south of us in Buena Vista provide a frugal solution. For $15 on a weekday I can soak until the Sun-Maid Raisin Company drones start hovering, and if I’m feeling like a good girl, I might even treat myself to a nice dinner.

Today was my good girl day. After finishing several ankle-biter projects, I joined my friend Carol and we made our escape. The afternoon was perfect, the water in the pools was crystal clear and steaming hot and the place was practically empty. Relaxation and pruning ensued, and something about being immersed in water for hours left us craving sushi.

To the showers!

I grabbed my towel from my bag in the changing room and then sensed something was missing. On the wall hooks hung my hoodie, my belt, my . . . my belt? Where the heck were my jeans? I searched my small bag. Not there. Carol searched hers. Not there. We were the only two in the room. I wrapped the towel around me and strode to the office where I reported the heinous crime.

Mortified, the young girl at the counter did the only thing she could do, and after helping me dig through bags of lost-and-found clothes, I found the only pair of pants in the heap. Having previously decided I was going to go “commando” after my soak (the decision which surely guaranteed I would go pants-less that evening), I cut out the liner in the oh-so-stylish swim trunks. A girl—even a good girl—can’t be too careful.

And then came the dinner decision. Would Carol actually be seen with me in a restaurant pantsin my, ah, unusual attire?  Did I mention she’s a good friend? She thought I looked adorable.

“The way I see it,” she said, “if you’re embarrassed about something, you can either hide it or paint it yellow.” There had been one pair of ratty-looking midnight blue sweatpants I could have selected, but then I would have been hiding. And sad. I decided to rock the retro shorts.

Nervous that the sushi management might look askance when I walked through the door, I was relieved to see the place was closed. We went, instead, to a more casual establishment. Still, I noticed the other patrons judging me as our waitress seated us.

“What do you think of these?” I asked her, spinning around for the whole restaurant to see, and before she could come up with a tactful reply, I told her about how someone had absconded with my pants.

“No way!” she said. “Someone else just left here and said her pants were stolen from there! She’d left them folded neatly under her shirt, and they were gone, so she took a pair that was hanging on a hook. She said her pants were much nicer than the ones on the hook . . . and she was your size.”

So I’m sorry for the woman who lost her nice jeans and ended up with my old, holey, thrift-store jeans, and I’m ever so grateful that she left my belt. And my hoodie. And my socks. I was just starting to think about replacing my pants. But maybe I should just throw on a pair of tights under my new shorts. It’s almost springtime in Leadville.

“Paint it yellow,” right?

MWF seeks KAA!

Yes. This married white female is seeking a kick-ass agent to represent WATERWIGHT, and I’ve decided to share my query letter with you. Perhaps you know a KAA who’s ready for a fun adventure:

Dear KAA:

Imagine a world where a young girl’s most trusted friend is a flying frog. [thanks, Maggie, for this suggestion! And if you’re reading this, please buy Maggie’s book “BODY PUNISHMENT”]

I am seeking representation for WATERWIGHT, a 42,250-word YA fantasy adventure set in a post-cataclysmic world in which time is somehow “off” and bizarre anomalies have been unleashed.

Celeste, a 14-year-old orphan, must discover the key to saving what is left of humanity from an encroaching body of stinking water that threatens to consume everything in its path. Although she is aided by mystical beings—including a flying frog and an old mountain spirit—and her special powers, discovered after running away from a wretched children’s home, she alone must find the solution.

After finding mysterious poems in her diary, Celeste questions her sanity. Only after interacting with a pack of wild dogs and a talking mountain does she realize her ability to communicate with non-humans, and eventually, with those who speak different languages. All signs convince her to go “to the other side of the big water” where she is certain to find the key, but superstitious villagers and a fissure-prone planet thwart her at every turn. And let’s not forget the Shifter, pawn of the Overleader, whose mission it is to stop her.

This is a stand-alone novel, but I see it as the first book in a story arc that completes a trilogy. Middle school teachers in three schools are currently using WATERWIGHT: Book 1 for their end-of-year reading project. I have started to write Book 2 and plan to have the trilogy completed by the end of 2015.

I am a teacher (MA in English), a published author and an ex-Army officer who has experienced many adventures. My novel “Miss?” is available from Amazon (September 2013) as are books from Publishing Syndicate’s new series Not Your Mother’s Book for which I co-create Not Your Mother’s Book…On Being a Stupid Kid (November 2012) and have several short stories published in many of their other titles. Colorado Central Magazine has also published several of my short stories.

Thank you for your consideration,

MWF

Now, who’s with me?

 

 

 

 

 

Hey, Tootsie…

Yellows are lemon, pinks are cherry, greens are lime (yum!), oranges are, of course, orange, and browns are chocolate . . . but blues? Well, they’re vanilla, of course!

In any case, these are the colors of the panther I petted in my dream last night, the panther who will influence the plot in the first book of Waterwight. Perhaps one of his cubs will be named Tootsie!

OPT OUT!

Stop Outsourcing our Children

I’m not proud of what I’m about to share with you, but here goes. Many of you know me as “Leadville Laurel,” one of your local authors. I have taught, and continue to teach, English to many of your children. So when I started hearing about the new test—PARCC—which replaces CSAP this year, I started asking questions. My questions were answered with grumbles. “Take the 5th grade practice test,” someone suggested, “and see for yourself.”

Never one to walk away from a respectable challenge, and feeling quite confident that I am smarter than most 5th graders, I visited the web site and started the 5th grade English test. An hour later and with shaking hands (pretty sure my blood pressure was up several points), I got my score: 30/40, a solid 75%, perfectly “average” for a 5th grader. Granted, I didn’t go back to check my answers, so I might have reconsidered some of my responses. And I suppose I might have earned an extra four points for two essays I wrote, one having to compile and compare information from three separate essays and one having to rewrite a narrative from a different character’s point-of-view, but those portions would have to be evaluated by a faceless person and scored. When? Who knows!

Developed by Pearson, the same company that earns its fortunes through the sale of textbooks to our schools, the test—in addition to being stressful—is vague, complicated, and confusing. So why am I sharing this with you? Why am I confessing that despite my MA in English, I did not even score in the “Good” range on a 5th grade test? Because I’m asking you to do what I did. Pick one of the practice tests and see how you do. Then scream out loud. Then, if you have a grade 3-10 student, hug them. Then write a letter to their school saying, “I am opting my child out of taking the PARCC test this year.”

Schools across the country are already protesting the increasing insanity of the testing we’ve imposed on our children since the inception of NCLB. Proponents of these springtime tests (with results coming months later, never in time to alter instruction) say that testing is a part of life, and use the SAT college exam as a reason to pre-pre-pre-test. I say hogwash. If teachers were allowed to teach their students core material (teach, not test, because there is no instruction or learning happening during a test) like my teachers could back in the olden days, their students would do just fine on the SAT. Or not. Not everyone needs to attend a four-year college anymore.

Most parents won’t take my suggestion. Most will continue to grumble, but will not want to “rock the boat.” And without a dissenting majority, our schools will continue to buy the latest “testing success” materials and our children will learn less and less each year. And perhaps our parents don’t feel qualified to be vocal about what’s happening in our classrooms, so here’s my suggestion to those of you who don’t like what’s happening, but are unsure of what to suggest as an alternative to having your child sit through days of meaningless assessments.

Our school district is still in the process of implementing Expeditionary Learning. Why not use testing week(s) to have our students complete a project that is both meaningful and manageable to evaluate internally using the core standards at each grade level for English, math, and science? At least have that as an “opt out option” rather than sending students wherever administrators decide to send those who are bold enough to “just say no” this year.

Here’s the thing. Our teachers are “highly qualified” in their subject areas and in evaluation strategies. They know what their students should learn and where they are weak. They’ve endured countless hours of professional development on the same topics every year (from money-making companies who package old ideas with new names), and they’ve been forced to outsource the evaluation of their students to corporations that don’t give two hoots about them or their classrooms. Why?

We can’t afford to be complacent anymore. Whether we have children in the public school system or not, we pay for the schools in our district, and all of our graduates will impact the communities in which they live. We all should feel empowered to demand more: More learning, less testing. Opt out, Leadville, and work with your elected officials and school board members to take back the education and evaluation of our students from careless corporations.

Waterwight (end of chapter 2)

A single beam of intense light streamed through a crack in the door and struck Celeste’s closed eyes, startling her awake. Instantly alert, she slapped herself hard on the cheek and feeling pain, realized this was no dream and she had, in fact, run away. She surveyed her surroundings. The odor of urine still lingered, but there was no sign of the furry animals who had kept her warm. She did not know how long she had slept, but by the angle of the sun, knew it must be close to mid-day.

Across the room she could see the contents of her gray sack scattered. Hungry now, she hoped the animals had not eaten the few items she had managed to scrounge before her hasty departure. Celeste shook her head as she moved to gather her belongings.

“Talking cats, yeah, right,” she murmured to herself, chuckling at the thought. Then she noticed her diary lying open on the floor. Feeling for the key around her neck—still there!—she reached for the leather-bound book.

“No . . . way,” she said when she saw something scrawled on one of the pages. Panic returned at the thought of someone invading her space and her property while she slept. She tiptoed to the door to see if she could see anyone outside. All was as barren as it had been when she first arrived. She looked back at the page and read aloud:

“You can’t stay here, you can’t go back,

A tool please find within your sack.

South is where you’ll find your home,

Though for a time you’ll be alone.

Head for where there are no things,

Follow your nose to find the springs.

Danger’s near, it’s time to go,

Eenie, Meenie, Miney and Mo.”

Celeste wondered who would play such a childish joke on a defenseless girl and was angry at herself for not waking when someone must have taken and replaced the key around her neck. She grabbed her sack and opened it to find an old metal object at the bottom. A compass.

The spinning needle brought back a fleeting memory of camping with her parents. Celeste’s father had given her a toy compass and planned a short adventure around the campground.

“The red arrow always wants to go north,” he had told her. She could almost hear his patient voice now. “So if you turn until it lines up on the ‘N,’ you’ll know where east, south and west are. Now, take ten steps west!”

That was all she remembered from a lesson meant for fun, but now she was anxious to leave this filthy place. At least they hadn’t taken her food. She devoured one mushy apple while reading the bizarre poem again. Not knowing whether to take it seriously or not, she gathered her things and stepped outside. If only the cats were there, then she might know if she was losing her mind. Talking cats were things for fairytales, and the world outside looked like no fairyland she had ever read about.

Holding the compass in her hand, she turned until the red arrow pointed north and realized that was the direction of the children’s home. She turned around to face the south. She knew her home was gone. Why would someone tell her to head south, and where was the danger? She had no idea what springs had to do with anything, or why her nose would be involved in finding them. As for “Eenie, Meenie, Miney and Mo,” she could make no sense of that whatsoever.

Although the sun shone brightly, the hairs on the back of Celeste’s neck prickled. A surge of energy motivated her to move away from the house and she instinctively headed south, her pace quickening with her growing feeling that she was not safe.

Her brisk walk became a jog and then an all-out run when she looked over her shoulder and saw in the distance a pack of what looked like wild dogs fighting.

Celeste heard one faint, gruff voice from the direction of the pack. The animals stopped their commotion and turned in her direction.

“Food!” it said, and Celeste ran like she never had before.

Waterwight (chap 2 beginning)

Chapter 2

The heavy old door complained at being pulled open in the midst of a gloomy night. Already filled with nervous energy, Celeste felt her senses tingle as she ran into the chilling darkness. She ran until she was breathless, stopping under a street light near an abandoned house over two miles from the creaky old door. Startled by the easy speed of her escape, she took a moment to look around and realized she had no idea where she was.

“What now, genius?” she asked herself, pretending not to feel the fear rising in her chest. Without a hint of daylight to be seen, she knew she would soon be shivering. She dashed to the back of the dilapidated structure and looked through a small window. All was dark. The back door was open, and cautiously, she stepped inside.

Frozen in place, her heart beating loudly in her ears, Celeste dropped her bag by the door and waited for her eyes to adjust to the darkness of the small room. Soon she could see the shapes of a kitchen and discovered she was not alone. She also discovered the source of the powerful odor of urine that assaulted her senses.

Eight glowing eyes from four furry creatures stared at her from the opposite corner of the room. Cats, she hoped, though the huddled mass could have been a mutant creature. She did not move a muscle. Then, voices broke the silence.

“Of course we’re cats,” said the first voice.

“Mutant creature!” said the next.

“Silly Celeste,” said another, its eyes focused on her bag.

“Come, curl with us, sleep,” said the final voice, and Celeste thought she must still be dreaming. Perhaps she hadn’t yet left the frightening ledge of her nightmare, hadn’t yet run away. She knew her dreams could jump from scene to scene without making any sense. And how could they know her name?

The furry mass did not move, but the sound of a rumbling “purrrrrr” drew her, trancelike, toward the animals. They parted to let her kneel among them. Unafraid now and believing she was still dreaming, Celeste stroked the warm fur of her strange new friends and felt a pang in her heart when she realized there had been no animals at the children’s home.

There had been no talk of animals just as there had been no talk of anything before her rescue. How was it that she had forgotten about holding the plump puppy her father brought home shortly before the event? She had forgotten about many things, and now her mind raced to remember.

Memories of shaking and shouting and deafening noise came to her then, overpowering her. She began to cry. The cats rubbed against her, coaxing her to curl up in their midst. She crumbled to the floor, her cry turning to a soft whimper, and soon she was warm and fast asleep.

(tbc)

Waterwight (end of chapter 1)

She was barely alive when they rescued her from the rubble of what was once her cozy home and brought her to the stark building where now she merely survived. They were not bad people; they were just cold, like everything around her. The other children in the home had evolved as she had into submissive little robots, doing what they were told and mindlessly following the endless list of rules.

Wide awake now in the dark room, Celeste took a deep breath, looked around and shivered. Thirty metal-framed bunk beds lined the bare white walls of the room in which she slept. The cracked linoleum floor had lost its shine years ago, and the curtainless windows, thick with grime on the outside and a wet layer of condensation on the inside from the breath of so many sleeping children, hadn’t let light through in decades. Chips in the white porcelain sinks in the communal bathroom at the end of the narrow hallway trapped used toothpaste and hair, and even though she knew the toilets and showers were scrubbed daily—one of the chores all the girls were scheduled to complete—nothing in the overused bathroom could ever be truly clean.

The other girls, still restless in their own unsettled dreams, would not waken until the clang of the dawn bell hours from now. After years of living with these girls—had it been three years? Maybe four?—she had not made any close friends, despite her efforts at coaxing them to share their past lives. No one within the cheerless walls would talk about the event that left so many children alone. They simply called it “the event,” and after a while, the children stopped questioning. She had grown to hate her life in the hollow building with its repetitive days and its people with their blank faces. She had often daydreamed of running away.

Celeste glanced toward the small nightstand where she knew her meager possessions lay: blue jeans, a few baggy shirts left by older girls when they moved away—Where did they go?—the green scarf, a diary with a lock, the key to which she wore around her neck, the gray sack stamped in orange with the single word “HOME” which they gave to all newcomers, and a worn leather jacket with her initials, “C.A.N.,” embroidered on the warm inside lining.

A wave of guilt washed over her when she thought of how excited her parents were when they gave her the expensive gift to mark her first decade of life. It had been far too big for her at the time and she refused to wear the baggy garment. Today she wished they could see how much she treasured the now perfect gift. But they were gone, and she didn’t even know why.

Her heart raced again when she thought about the voice in her dream and its message of an easier way. Was it time to listen to the voice? Was it time to turn her daydreams into reality? How she wished for someone to trust, someone to make her believe that everything would be okay, someone to make her feel safe and loved again.

Resolved now that she would leave this place of nightmares, Celeste rose, dressed, stuffed her belongings into the gray bag, removed her name card from the foot of the bed and slid it into the clear outside pocket. Holding her shoes, she moved noiselessly to the kitchen, hoping to find some food. With four bruised apples, the only unprocessed food the children ever ate, and half a bag of stale crackers—everything else was locked behind steel cabinets—she made her way to the imposing front door and put on her shoes, zipped her jacket and tucked her hair beneath her scarf.

Remembering a trick her parents taught her as a child when she was frightened, she closed her eyes and breathed in deeply with her face upturned. She believed now as she had believed as a child that this would help to make her courageous. She reached for the door latch. It was time for Celeste Araia Nolan to leave this wearisome place that would never be home. It was time for her to take a leap into the unknown, even if it might hurt.