Archive for January, 2012

We Must Educate Every One of Them

January 26, 2012

Hello, my friends,
Today’s message came through to me as I sat in a coffee house along with one of my neighbors and we were joined by a young fella who graduated from our local high school, had Denise as his elementary school counselor, and today owns and operates his own business less than two miles from where I live.
Four of us at the table started to discuss the current state of education especially the ‘New State Tests’ to be given to students starting this year.  This test is reputed to be harder, more demanding, and includes ‘end of year’ exams for potential 2012 graduates. The results of the ‘testing’ will make up about 15% of the student’s final grade in the class. The discussion also moved into a consideration of the need for graduates to take four years of mathematics and four years of science during their educational trip.  Since this young man had come through the system, I prompted him to speak about his experience and did my best to keep my own opinions to myself except that I had to say that I thought we were neglecting that portion of our high school population that would probably not go on to college after graduation.
This young man came from the worst kind of family – alcohol mis-use and abuse, mental illness, divorced parents, kids being embarrassed by behavior of parents, and some really severe learning problems himself.  I think it would be fair to say that this school saved this guy.  Someone suggested that maybe we should start some kind of work/study program whereby kids could go the the regular schools for a time in the morning, and then leave the proper school to go to work in a field of interest for the rest of the day.
Listen to what this young business man had to say when that was suggested:  “That’s exactly what I was doing – going to Smithson Valley in the morning and then going off to work for the rest of the day.  Then we had to take more classes at the high school and we were told that we’d have to take these tests. When someone found out what I was doing, my program was dropped and I had to stay in school all day just studying things that had nothing to do with what I wanted to do as an adult.  So, I quit going to school – I just went to work.  Someone found out after five days that I was doing that, and I was brought back to school and put back into that old program.  I didn’t need the money but I needed to learn how to do some mechanical things and my boss taught be a bunch of things that I use every day now.”
Today, this young man is married, has an eighteen month old son (that he absolutely worships), owns his own business and is doing very well; he is even considering running for the office of County Commissioner. He pays attention to the ‘goings-on’ at the sheriff’s office, the fire department, the home owners’ associations and his business.  He’s teaching his son to speak English and Spanish during these developmental years and loves both his boy and his wife (he’s very open about those things!).
As I listened to him – and as I watched my neighbor listen to him – we both agreed that there are probably many kids who will never use advanced mathematics concepts nor even advanced science concepts.  They will fix our cars, they will own businesses that pay taxes, they will perform services for many of us if only we’ll open some door for them to walk through.  Why, you know, these kids might someday hire people to work for them – one of this student’s employees joined us for breakfast.
As I drove alone that short six miles to my home, thoughts of this fella ran through my head and I became even more convinced of some thing:  1) I believe in ‘Education For All’, but this does not mean the same education for all of our kids.  Some need all of the high academic work we can pull together for them, others need clear instruction and experience in working with their hands and doing jobs that will not demand knowledge of highly abstract mathematics or science.  I have a valuable Mustang in my yard which refuses to run consistently and I’ll need someone to pick it up, deliver it to my mechanic down the road, and he will diagnose the problem, probably install one or two new parts and this Mustang will run again.  The driver of the tow truck, the mechanic, the parts delivery person, the secretary for the mechanic all need to know how to do their jobs efficiently and properly.  How can our schools help them learn the latest techniques and at the same time keep their interest high in important jobs?  2) I believe we need some measurement of one’s abilities, but that does not suggest in any way that we should be giving tests with multiple choice answers and bubble-in answer sheets which can be easily graded by a computer.  These tests measure nothing but memory – the lowest of the identified ‘intelligences’.  If we could but listen to young people such as the guy I’ve described above, we could certainly devise some method for him to let us know that he can successfully repair a car which is not working properly.  and, 3) We’ll need to recognize the values of the contributions to society by all.  Just when we think that ‘ . . the least of these . . are not important, someone brings to our attention the role of two people in a simple story (I’ll be the person to bring this to your attention today):

“A world renowned organist was performing a recital at a concert hall.  During the intermission, he took a break behind the organ and came upon the old man who pumped air for the pipes.
“‘Some concert we’re giving them,’ remarked the old man, wiping his  brow with a handkerchief.
“‘WE??’ questioned the organist indignantly.  ‘The last time I checked, I was the only one giving this concert.’
“The organist returned to the stage and began to play his next piece.  But when his fingers struck the keys, no sound came through the pipes.  The musician excused himself from the stage and rushed behind the organ to find the old man just sitting there!
“‘It seems I was mistaken, my friend,’ said the musician nervously.  ‘WE are most certainly giving this concert.'”  

At tonight’s school board meeting I read the school motto.  It stated clearly that the mission of this school district is to give every student the opportunity to learn so that they could become productive citizens in society.  I think that means we’ll educate some to ‘pump the bellows’.  What do you think?  

Have a wonderful weekend, and I’ll be back with you next Friday, and if you find time to drop me a note, I’d like that! 



Meet a Teacher!

January 19, 2012

Friday, January 20, 2012

Each of you can remember at least one teacher in your life who really had an impact on you – might have changed the pathway of your life completely.  And, in many of these cases, that teacher worked in a school system and was probably certified by some governmental agency.  And, having accepted that, is it possible that we have amongst us some people who are natural born teachers, who will never do the work necessary to be certified, who will teach many and then turn and go on their way looking for the next person who wants to learn?  We know today that kids often learn a good deal from their phones, their computers, their iBooks and iPads and that some are lucky enough to run across some person who ‘makes all the difference by opening doors we might never have chosen to enter’.

Today, I’d like to introduce you to a student I taught years and years ago to illustrate the importance of giving the students we teach an increasingly large voice in deciding what they want from our education system. 

Meet Jerome Smith:  A relatively big guy, about 23 or 24 years old, a smile that would melt glaciers, a full head of hair in what we called in the ’70’s an afro, and the most pleasant way of presenting himself that anyone could imagine.  He said, “Hello!” to me as he entered the room joining about 65 other students.  He took a seat and I noticed that he immediately took up a conversation with the young gal he’d chosen to sit beside.  One of my first activities was to hear the students say their own name to me and he said, “I’m Jerome!”  No last name, but that’s OK – I just noticed that while every other student gave me at least two names, this guy gave me one!  

I handed out my syllabus – a two page document which I thought would cover the topic at hand in this class – an overview of the things children learn outside the formal classroom.  Western Michigan’s University had titled the class, “Human Development and Learning” – it was one of a two-part sequence designed especially for students going into teaching.  After covering the basic requirements in the syllabus including attendance expectations, I informed that class that if a student would do everything listed on that handout, he/she would receive a ‘C’ in the class – that grade would indicate that the student had met the basic requirements.  Of course, you know that some student would ask, “And, what do we need to do to get a ‘B’?”  I had that one covered too:  “Read at least one book off this reading list.”  The students, having been conditioned by years of being evaluated, judged, assessed, asked how do we report on the book and I told them that they only had to tell me – preferably face-to-face – that they had read it. 

And, then the next question:  “And, how do we get an ‘A’ in this class?”  That seemed to be very important to these young people – I wondered at that time (and several times since) if the grade would eventually be worth more than the learning!!  My answer:  “You’ll have to do something else – something which interests you and I’d like to have you share with me what you’ve chosen to do.”  

Well, you can imagine that the anxiety level of those students accustomed to be spoon-fed assignments left that day with several unanswered questions on their minds.  Jerome didn’t leave, he came directly to me at the end of the class – dinner time, as the class met from 4:00-6:00.  “I’d like to tell you now about my ‘something else’,” Jerome started.  And, even before I could respond to that, he continued:  “I’ll show up at your place at 4:00 every Tuesday during this tri-mester and I’ll teach all four of your kids – you did say you had four, didn’t you? – how to play stringed instruments, you know, like guitars, and ukeleles, and violins, you know, just regular stringed instruments.”  His eyes literally danced in his head as he added, “Of course, I’ll expect dinner at the end of the lessons.”   What could I say to this young fella?   ‘Go for it, Jerome!’ 

I learned in the next week or so that Jerome had very little (like no’) interest in attending college, this was his dad’s idea and dad would pay for one year. Jerome had but one desire, he wanted to go to Nashville to play back-up for some country western band.  And, I wasn’t at all sure whether or not he’d show up at our small upstairs apartment on Gull Road.  

Well, Jerome came every time and on time – didn’t miss even one session.  He brought a variety of instruments (we had none) and he taught the kids to play the ukelele, the guitar, the mandolin, the banjo, and a bit on the violin.  The kids couldn’t wait for Jerome to come, and later argued about who would get to sit by him at dinner.  He was full of music stories, he seemed to know every song we mentioned, he loved the kids and they loved him.  Pam presented a bit of a problem – she’s left handed.  No problem for that ‘natural teacher’ – he strung one of his old guitars with the strings in the opposite order, and that way he could sit in front of her and model how she could play her guitar.  They sang songs, they played the instruments, they even wrote a song with Jerome’s help.  

I’ve asked my boys to tell me what they remember now about Jerome and his lessons.  You might be interested in what they told me.  Paul, who after high school traveled and sang with ‘Up With People’ and who can play the guitar better than anyone else I know, remembered this:  “The two things I do remember are:  1) I loved learning to play the guitar and never felt pressured to make the chord changes smoothly or continue strumming during the changes or anything like that.  It was all positive; all accepting.  2) During the writing of the song we all did together (School, It Ain’t So Cool), he asked us for input.  As I remember, he managed to get every small suggestion into the song.  He welcomed input from the four of us and our friends (I think Pam’s friend, Robin, was responsible for the line, “I don’t like math ‘cause it really is too hard”)  All four of the songs we learned together (Bobby McGee, Clayton Delaney, Yankee Lady, and School) remain a part of my repertoire.”

Paul still plays the guitar both professionally and for those he loves.  He’s performed with the cast of the ‘Country Dinner Playhouse’ in Denver, he’s led the music for his church, and I’ve watched him walk into an assisted living facility and begin to play and sing in the cafeteria. In a short time a crowd gathers around to join in the singing of many favorites.  He also plays at a family gathering just a bit north and west of where he lives in the Denver area – they call the gathering ‘Campfire’ – some of our close friends have heard his work. 

And, while Chris doesn’t play professionally, he will on occasion join with Paul to add his guitar sounds and his warm voice to songs when the family gathers together.  Chris sent along these memories of Jerome:  “I remember his patience, and his talent .. He taught us the ‘easy’ chords that our little fingers could reach on the guitar, and when we’d struggle with the harder ones (‘F’, and ‘Dm’) he was very encouraging…  I remember what Paul says about writing the song too . . he really made it easy for us.”

As with every good thing, this tri-mester ended, the lessons were finished, and I remember the day I called Jerome into my office.  We were alone when I asked him if he knew what grade he would be getting in my class, and with a surprising enthusiasm and his straightforward honesty, Jerome said, “Yep!  I’m getting an ‘F’.”  I can’t remember anything in this world harder than bringing this message to a young guy I had come to love as my children loved him.  “Why would he receive a failing grade?”, you ask! Because he didn’t do anything else in class – didn’t read any of the assigned books, didn’t hand in any of the assignments.  He did, however, attend every class, he contributed many insights, he won the respect and love of his classmates and my four children and he probably went happily to Nashville to fulfill his dream.  

It’s been my pleasure and honor to work with many – MANY – wonderful and effective teachers, but I’ll probably always remember Jerome as ‘His Classroom Would Have Been Exemplary’.  He knew how to teach!  He knew where he was going!  I’m glad his life touched mine and the lives of many of my students at Western and four people I love!

On a January morning!

January 14, 2012

Good morning, my friends,
    The sun greeted us this morning as we climbed forth from a warm bed, dressed, started coffee, and went walking with Ollie to get the morning papers (he did much more than that – ran about two miles, awakened two of his ‘friends’ up at the end of the driveway and took care of natural things)! 
     Breakfast was delicious – Denise usually fixes our breakfast on the weekends and I enjoy what she makes.
     We turned the televisions off as the content of what was shown on way too many channels was inane and not worth watching at all (Are you old enough to remember when the tv channels didn’t appear until about 8:00 or even noon and went off the air to the playing of the National Anthem at the end of the evening news?  Maybe we should return to that process)
     And, I sat down to find something to stimulate my thinking and perhaps yours and found this piece in my archives entitled ‘A Different Kind of Prayer’.  Now, my own personal taste is to pray in private, but this seems to request a larger audience – I’ll bet you’ll see something in here to lift your spirits and maybe to direct some of your actions today:

    Help me remember that the jerk who cut me off in traffic last night is a single parent who worked nine hours that day and was rushing home to cook dinner, help with homework, do the laundry, and spend a few precious moments with his/her children.
    Help me remember that the pierced, tattooed, disinterested young man who can’t make change correctly is a worried nineteen year old college student, balancing his apprehension over final exams with his fear of not getting enough money for tuition next semester.
    Remind me that the scary looking bum, begging for money in the same spot every day, is a slave to addictions ordinary people can only imagine in our worst nightmares.
    Help me to remember that the old couple walking annoyingly slowly through the store aisles and blocking my shopping progress are savoring this moment, knowing that, based on the biopsy report she got back last week, this will be the last year they go shopping together.
    Help me to remember that those in our country that do not speak ‘our language’ may be able to speak the language of love, if I would be patient and understand that they feel alone, out of place, and are looking for a new beginning from a place of poverty, persecution, and hopelessness to a place of security, freedom, and a promise for a future.
    Help me to reach out to those who are grieving today for some reason or another and to lend what help I can as they carry the burden of sadness.
    Remind me each day, that of all gifts I’ve been given, the greatest of which is love. It is not enough to share that love with those we hold dear. Open my heart, not just to those who are close, but to all humanity.
    Teach me to be slow to judgment, quick to forgive, patient, empathetic and to love – TO LOVE!