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Laurel lives and breathes and shivers and writes and publishes in the highest incorporated town in the U.S.! She's the author of several books, all available on Amazon.

Fix our school district with nothing, please!

Here’s the second of four essays submitted for the superintendent application. You might want to use it as a sleeping aide?!

LCSD Superintendent Essay B: In a district with growing diversity and students of special needs, how do you allocate limited resources to provide a wide variety of curricular choices, fund extracurricular activities, maintain good but aging facilities, fund competitive salaries, and keep current with technology?

Lake County School District serves students with diverse ethnic backgrounds, abilities, and interests, and it is this diversity which brings both richness and complexity to the school community. From the perspective of being able to provide differentiated instruction for our current generation, every child should be considered to have “special needs.” One of the greatest challenges for the leader of this school district is the allocation of increasingly limited resources in a way which best serves the needs of all of its learners, its teachers, its staff, and its facilities.

We must remember that the mission of a school district is to ensure that our students are both successful while in our care and prepared to realize success in schooling and employment beyond high school. This is particularly crucial in light of articles like the one shared on my Facebook page today (January 26, 2012): “Today, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, we’ve slipped to No. 21 in high school completion and No. 15 in college completion, as other countries surpassed us in the quality of their primary and secondary education. . . . Only 7 of 10 ninth graders today will get high school diplomas.” The article goes on to suggest innovative ways some districts are restructuring their pre-K through 12 classes. Our K-12 curriculum should not only satisfy state requirements, but should also provide elective options that will transfer into skills needed to be competitive in the future. Clearly we must prioritize the courses we will fund based on the availability of instructors and schedule hours, and must create a schedule which maximizes the ability of students to populate elective classes. Knowing what we know about the current economic environment, we must not allow our students to waste valuable hours by selecting to be a “student aide” rather than by earning legitimate course hours; this has been an issue in the recent past, and elective classes have gone significantly under-populated, wasting valuable resources. We must also accept that not every student will continue on in a degree program after high school, and embrace ways to prepare those students to secure jobs in other vocational areas. Once these students demonstrate mastery of the basic requirements at each level of their education—in courses that are at the top of the funding priority list—they should be provided with opportunities to intern with established local governmental and private agencies. The school superintendent should play a key role in establishing contacts to secure those potential job related programs.

When considering funding for extracurricular activities—as it is highly unlikely that funds will be available for many programs desired—we should consider instilling in our students the idea of a lifetime activity, and helping them to become more resourceful in their efforts to secure extracurricular options. A fabulous example of how this was accomplished recently is the high school’s new competitive mountain biking club. Because of the generous sponsorship of Pedal Power bike shop, and contributions of time and money from members of the faculty and community, our school’s team was able to compete in high visibility events across the state, and with no cost to the school district. We have people in our community who are passionate about many diverse activities and who would love the opportunity to coach/sponsor/mentor our students; we need to find those people and encourage them to help our students with enriching extracurricular events. With available funds, we should ensure that historically popular activities such as drama, skiing, track, cross country, soccer, basketball, and volleyball remain viable. We must also do whatever it takes to keep the 21st Century grant program alive. Involvement in extracurricular activities will pay dividends far into the future for our students, and finding creative ways to support them should be a priority.

Our students and employees deserve to feel safe in our aging facilities. We must develop both a short and long term schedule for allocating available assets by prioritizing “Must do,” “Should do,” and “Would like to do” projects. Just as we will ask our students to be creative with finding ways to fund their activities, we need to employ innovative ways to match potential funds available through grants. How might we use in-kind matches for funding? Could we quantify efforts from our shop class? Could we rent out space for activities? Do we have professionals in the community who might provide services or property as a match for funds? We should apply for all available grants, and encourage our community to take part in ensuring that our students have better than adequate places in which to learn.

Our teachers and staff—sadly—are accustomed to earning less than competitive salaries these last few years. Lake County has lost more than 500 people between the 2000 and the 2010 census, and with a smaller population comes less funding from tax revenue. We need to scrutinize our budget and look at areas of possible reallocation. We need to evaluate the amount we have, and should keep, in reserve.  We must find a way to unfreeze the salaries that have been locked for the past three years. We know that most people who work in public education do not do so because they think they’ll make big money, so as a minimum, we need to find other forms of compensation for our employees—time, rewards, special recognition—to let them know that their service is valued . . . and that they are valued as people.

Beyond ensuring that our 20th century buildings are safe and—as a minimum—adequate, it is vital that we bring both students and staff into the 21st century in the area of technology. Again we must be creative in finding ways to train our staff on “the latest” tools for integrating internet resources into the classroom curriculum. Undoubtedly we have students both in our own district and at CMC who could teach the staff a thing of two in exchange for community service hours. What a perfect opportunity it would be to have student interns in the district office to ensure the district web site—the first place most incoming families will go for information—is state of the art. Sites such as the Khan Academy and TED talks are free and would provide relevant data to supplement the school curriculum. Social science classes could conduct interschool dialogs around the world using Skype. All students could follow Twitter feeds on different topics and be expected to discuss the most interesting ones. Students and staff could use Google Documents to collaborate on projects. We should also ensure that the technology curriculum is relevant to what our students will be expected to use beyond high school. Let’s ensure that time is not wasted on what our tech-savvy students already know, but let’s challenge this new generation to employ the internet for intellectual advancement and preparation for a future in which computer technology is ubiquitous. While some may argue that communication skills are lacking in this generation, they are, in fact, changing, and we all need to keep up with these changes in order to remain culturally literate. Our staff should feel as confident as our student do with these essential 21st century skills.

Yes, we have many tasks to accomplish with limited funding, but if we all pull out our MacGyver knives (with blades shorter than 3”, of course), there’s nothing we cannot fix! (I’d like to credit my husband for the MacGyver suggestion).   [end]

“Testing…1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, …”

As I was not selected to lead Lake County School District R-1 (in Leadville) into the future, I decided to share the four monster essays I was required to write as part of the application process. Feel free to use them as examples of how to answer multi-tiered writing prompts in two pages or less! (I think I did a pretty good job!)

This is the first of the essays, and I’ll say for the record, we’ve been over-assessing our students.

LCSD Superintendent Essay A: In today’s educational environment that emphasizes assessment and measurement, how can the Lake County School District meet the diverse needs of students (especially English Language learners) while increasing student achievement for all students?

A school district that fails to assess its students is like an oncologist who fails to conduct routine blood tests; 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 that is 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. One challenge of an environment that emphasizes assessment and measurement is to ensure that 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.

Lake County School District can meet the diverse needs of students while increasing achievement for all students by designing an assessment cycle that employs best practices—those known for successful results—and by using data from both formative and summative assessments. The first step in this cycle is to plan out what we want our students to learn. Fortunately, the Colorado Department of Education has taken the guesswork out of what skills our students should be proficient in at each grade level and for each subject taught in our schools. They are, however, guidelines, and as such are not inclusive of all the skills our students should possess before launching into the world of employment. Those other talents—now called “21st Century Skills”—are just now beginning to appear in the ongoing revision of the language of our state standards. It should also be understood that a “plan” is just that—a strategy for accomplishing a larger mission—and should have the flexibility to adapt to changing needs. Teacher training programs ensure that graduates understand the process of curriculum design, and all highly qualified teachers should understand that the process is an integral part of their job description. By ensuring that our teachers have the time, tools, and guidance to create curriculum maps that outline a logical progression to include requirements for their areas of expertise, the “plan” part of this assessment cycle, if not already in existence, should be handled expeditiously.

Once the plan is in place, it’s time for action, or the “do” phase of the cycle, in which the teaching and learning take place. Here we must ensure that teaching techniques are effective. Again, when we look to teaching best practices, the model of “I do, we do, you do,” has historically been one which bears positive results. The learning objectives for each class must be made clear to all students at the beginning of each class, and there should be no secret as to how the learning will ultimately be measured (in the 3rd phase of the cycle). The teacher models the task at hand, talking through the thought process involved with whatever skill is being demonstrated. Next, students join the teacher in walking through a similar example. Finally, the student applies what they have learned to complete the skill on their own. In this critical phase of the teaching/learning cycle it is vital that our ELL students and students who might have other special needs based on learning disabilities be provided with the best possible environment in which to learn. When possible, these students should have a teacher who is a specialist in the area of need to ensure effective communication of requirements, and to ensure that each student feels safe and confident enough to allow for an open exchange of what is working for them. Ideally, there would be a working relationship with parents of students who require more specialized instruction, and students would be encouraged to be receptive to learning, knowing that success in the classroom is a good indicator of success in the world beyond public education. More ideally, parents of all students would be encouraged to support teachers in their daily attempts to convince students of the old adage that “good enough is neither.”

The hope is that in the third phase of the cycle, the evaluation or assessment phase, students will demonstrate that they have learned the material “well enough” to indicate proficiency. If an assessment is designed to be relevant to the instruction provided, teachers should get an accurate answer to the question, “Did my students learn what I expected them to learn?” The learning objectives for each unit taught must be measurable, and with minimal subjectivity. There should be no “surprises” for the students, because teachers should be clear about the objectives and the requirements to demonstrate proficiency on Day 1. Teachers should provide feedback on assessments quickly; otherwise, students may become frustrated and lose any momentum that may have been gained on the topic.

The last phase of the assessment cycle asks, “Now what?” This is where teachers get the feedback they need in order to revise and/or reinforce the next step of their plan. This is, perhaps, the most challenging phase of the teaching/learning cycle because the results of an assessment can range from mastery to failure. In a “standards based” instruction model, students typically have time to relearn, and are provided opportunities for reassessment; this also challenges teachers to make decisions that will most benefit their students. How many times should a student be allowed to retest? At what point should instruction move forward? These questions are not easily answered, but with appropriate resources (extra practice materials, tutors, specialists), students who are trailing can expect to catch up if they are willing to make the effort to do so.

We must not forget, however, to find opportunities for celebration in this last phase. This is a “must,” and this is where we step back to ensure that our biggest challenge—balance—is realized. 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, he will struggle. By evaluating and selecting the most efficient tools for assessing our students and employing them judiciously, we can expect that our students will do their best when asked. Regardless of the results, though, effort and improvement—however much—should be recognized and applauded.

Socrates stated 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. Although I’m certain he would have loved a debate on his controversial statement, I do believe that his point validates the importance we place on the thoughtful use of assessments in schools to improve the achievement of every student served, regardless of their background. School leaders and teachers, much like doctors, must use their tools wisely in order to ensure the maximum benefit for those they serve.   [end]

Upcoming “new post” NEWS! Charles M. Bernier, (aka, Moe, Murray, Chuck)

Now that I am finally “on a roll” working on content for my “V-Mail . . . ” book, I have decided that I will use this blog as a posting place for Dad’s letters. My book is not so much the letters themselves as it is the inspiration to look at life–in his generation, mine own generation, my children’s generation–and to challenge readers to look at their own lives in a memoir’ish, social commentary’ish kind of way.

The book will be a multi-generational study of different themes expressed in Dad’s letters; each chapter will start with excerpts from the letters which provide the impressions, beliefs, and challenges of a 19 (then 20 and 21) year old young man, and will progress through the following two generations. Ultimately, I hope to provide some insight for future generations.

Since I focused considerable effort on transcribing each letter, I would like to make them available to anyone who might want to read each in its entirety. I will begin uploading letters as they correspond with the current dates of the year . . . the first letter will be posted on March 1st, as that is the date on the first letter Dad sent home in 1943. I will welcome questions, comments, and anything you might be moved to share!

My goal is to complete the first two chapters of the book by the time I post the first letter … wish me luck!

“Twas the Night Before Christmas . . . “

In an effort to “complete” a piece of creative writing before the start of 2012, I tackled the classic Christmas poem and used it as a template for my own family version. It was more difficult than I had anticipated! (hope you enjoy it)

‘Twas the night before Christmas at the Lead Ass Inn
Not a soul had forgotten their faraway kin;

The stockings were hung on the bookshelf this year,
To help the Red Room appear far less austere;

The children were working on muscles with Dad,
Vacation from college had made them both glad;

So Mike in the gym, and I in the kitchen,
Had just figured out how to minimize bitchin’;

When out in the yard there arose such a noise,
I left my potatoes in fear for my boys.

Away to the entry I ran like a mouse,
Tore open the first door and tripped over Klaus.

The moon on the icicles hanging above
Cast a glimmer from heaven which sparkled like love,

When, what to my curious eyes should appear,
But husband and sons in their gym-sweaty gear,

With a look in their eyes, so hungry and tired,
I knew that I had what their muscles required.

More rapid than ravenous donkeys they came,
And I welcomed them home, and called them by name;

“Now, Nicholas! Jacob! Now, Charlie* and Mike!
Come to the kitchen, I’ve something you’ll like!

To the warmth of the kitchen! To the nicely set table!
Now come on in! Sit right down! Show me you’re able!”

As laborers that before royalty know,
When invited to dine with them, and plan to go,

First up to the showers like eagles they flew,
With towels, deodorant, hair products, too.

And then, with much giggling, I heard from the rooms
The descent of feet on stairs, sounding like booms.

As I waited for them, and expected them soon,
To the kitchen they came with a Christmas Day tune.

They were dressed  in Melanzana**, from their heads to their feet,
And their urgency said it was past time to eat;

Computers and iphones they’re never without,
And they looked like mad scientists abolishing doubt.

Their eyes—how they twinkled! Their faces how cheerful!
I knew over dinner we’d all get an earful!

Their brains were both filled with “the latest” they’d learned,
And with happiness shared all the knowledge they’d earned;

The “interwebs” demonstrate “knowledge is power,”
And provide a week’s worth of “stuff” in an hour;

The boys shared new songs and cute memes and fun sites,
We listened and questioned and laughed between bites.

They were happy to share with their parents their world,
And we laughed as our past became truly unfurled;

A wink in their eyes and a shared chuckle, too,
Soon let us know that our brains would grow new;

They spoke with gusto, but were quick to explain,
And never let on that our questions were lame,

And after our dinner when bellies were full,
And one to the other, to the stairs did they pull;

They sprang to their rooms, after smiles and warm hugs,
And away they both crept into bed like good thugs.

But we heard them exclaim, ere they fell from our sight,
“Merry Christmas to all, may your futures be bright.”

*   Our "guest" cat, who spends more time at our home than his own
**  Leadville's own made-in-store outdoor clothing shop


SOOOO happy to post this photo because it means that I’ve completed the typing of three years worth of Dad’s letters! And what an adventure these past few months have been. Now the real work of creating “the book” must begin. Fortunately, I’ve got a plan . . .

Fact checking …

…visiting Mom and Dad November 8-15, 2011

Although I’m not quite finished uploading the letters yet (I’m close!), I didn’t really need an excuse to travel back to Boston to spend some time with Mom and Dad. I’m sure I’ll hear stories that didn’t make it into the “Censored” letters!


From Texas A&M to Lehigh

School days continue to challenge Dad, and I start to learn little bits about his younger brother Jackie/Jack/Jake (it does not surprise me that he calls his little brother different names as he also signs his letters in a variety of nicknames including Murray, Moe, Chuck, Charlie . . . not yet Charles). I wish I had some of my uncles letters, as I understand he was very funny! Perhaps my cousins could find some?

Old Tyme Sayings (we should bring back!)

As I continue to type Dad’s letters, smiling all the while (because it’s fun to imagine my Dad writing them as a 20 year young man), I’ve been gathering remnants of the lexicon that was fashionable in the forties. I will add to this list as I come across sayings we rarely hear nowadays (and please feel free to add ones you might hear from your great, great relatives!):

  • The old duck (a 74 year old European story teller)
  • Chum around together [hanging with your peeps]
  • t’other [as in, you take one, I’ll take t’other]
  • I’m back in the chips again [after being paid]
  • Pretty classy [I suppose we’d say ‘stylish’?]
  • Weather is wetter than babies’ diapers [how’s that for a simile?!]
  • Those so and so’s [i.e., sonsofbitches]
  • Fair to middling [feeling only okay]
  • Full of vim and vinegar [fiesty!]
  • Get dolled up [so you’ll be looking fine for your babe]
  • Terrific [used to express excess or something horrendous ]
  • You’ld think… [an unusual contraction]
  • Methinks… [perhaps he was trying to be “classy”!]
  • ___ will come in mighty handy [fill in, “the dollar you sent”]
  • I’m a’raring to go [so look out, world, I’m ready!]
  • That fellow is really tops [and is probably a swell chap!]
  • Spry young man [lively, energetic, fun]
  • Stepping out [hitting the town, looking for action!]
  • Perchance [quite the elegant way of saying ‘perhaps,’ or ‘maybe’]
  • The laundry “did me dirt” last week…[didn’t come back dirty because it didn’t come back at all! Our much more crass saying today would be, “screwed me over”]
  • Gaily decorated tables [the word “gay” continues to evolve from the original meaning of “bright” or “cheerful”]
  • Someone ‘put us wise’ to an empty barn…[now we might say “schooled us” or “told us about”]
  • So I can’t kick too much [can’t complain too much]
  • On the blink again [not working quite the way it should]
  • All the Gilder Snerds and Vander Snoots of the town…[the upper crust of society–and perhaps “upper crust” is slowly becoming obsolete!]
  • Swell…as in, “You’ve done a swell job on your homework, Jimmy,” or, “The dollar you sent in your last letter was swell!”
  • No soap! [for “it’s not happening,” or “no way”]
  • Umpteen times [I now use the word “kajillion” for large numbers]
  • Here I am hale and hearty [and probably feeling “swell”]
  • Bitching to beat hell [what the fellows did when unhappy]
  • Fellows [dudes]
  • Jalopy [a car which needed lots of TLC to stay running]

I’ll keep my eyes peeled (yuck!) for more swell saying!


From Camp to College

I learned today (from a letter written home in August of 1943) that I came by my sharp-shooter skills honestly! Dad evidently won “big money” back in the day:

“Last Thursday I was called up in front of the company, with six others, at retreat. We were the high scorers in the rifle competition. The company commander congratulated us, shook our hands and thanked us for making a good showing. The first prize was $10. I got $7.50 as second prize and five others received $5 apiece for tying in third place.”

I do not believe the army gives cash prizes anymore for demonstrating skills proficiency!

He then presents his latest challenge (torment, fad!) to his family in his typical matter-of-fact way:

“As I sit here thinking of what to write, I am afflicted with a new torment. My latest fad is heat rash. This is similar to poison ivy and spreads like hell. It is very itchy.”

I can see him sitting there on his bunk bed, pen in hand, thinking of what news to send home . . . scratching!

Shortly after receiving his commendation for weapons skills performance, Dad was finally picked up for advanced schooling and sent to Texas A&M. His first induction to college life, however, was all but academic:

“Yesterday we started our college work. We were presented with grass cutters and told to have a certain part done by noon.” 

Army boys at college were still, first and foremost, army boys.


Our Kathy

vessel of acceptance, love
and understanding

Her internal light,
Radiant beyond compare,
embraces us all

Challenging us to
release the pain of our past,
to overcome fear,

Knowing that today,
here, now, is reality
we must not deny

Everlasting gifts
she gave to us, joyfully,
through sparkling bright eyes.

[rest in peace, my beautiful cuz]