Sunday, November 6, 2016

Why I Plan to Stay At My (High Needs) School

One of my favorite articles in recent months is Justin Minkel's "Why I Plan to Stay in Teaching" (Education Week 2/24/16). It is more than a pep talk/tough it out/what did you expect kind of treatise. It is really inspiring and is saved to my desktop to read from time to time as a concise reminder as to why I love teaching and have been in this field for 39 years. I could've written it, but he beat me to it! LOL. But recent events at my school have given me reason to come with another version of that article and it is Why I Plan to Stay at My School.

I have been the Media Specialist at my current elementary school for 14 years. Before that I was a Media Spec at another school for 3, and before that I had over 20 years as an SLD/EH teacher in Secondary, and before that I was in Elementary for a mixture of ESE students when it was kind of getting started. When I came to my current school, I was not necessarily planning to finish out my career as an educator at that location, although I did feel called in a divine sort of way that this was my new mission field. As the years went on, I felt it was my home, and I certainly moved enough stuff in to make it that way! Anything we were getting rid of at home ended up in my Media Center: Christmas trees, decorations, party supplies, kids books, know what I mean! When the demographics of the school started to change, thanks to a completely illogical boundary the District established, mini-exoduses became a regular occurrence. "So are you coming back next year, Mrs. Penvose?" "Of course" I'd always respond. They would wait for a reason, since it was quite an unexpected response. At first my reason was (jokingly) I had too much stuff to move or some such thing. More recently, however, the reason became "I am one of the only elementary schools with a Media Clerk and a Tech Specialist, why would I leave?" We are a Title 1, Renaissance, 1000 student high needs school...those positions are crucial! But with our District looking to reduce resource positions, and not fill the vacancies, our Tech Specialist opted to take a classroom teaching position in a middle school. Ok, so there went half of the reason I repeatedly gave as to why I'm staying. I'm hoping my clerk, who is at retirement age, will hang in there with me for a few more years. I'm treating her with kid gloves to help make it happen!

But seriously, why AM I staying at my school? It is for students like Kristen, who is now in 8th grade and came back to visit with a little sister at a recent Conference Night. "I was hoping you'd be here. None of my other teachers are left". When asking about her family, who had been unstable, to put it mildly, she responded that her mom was back on drugs with a boyfriend and dad was in prison for armed robbery. Grandma and Aunt took Kristen and 2 siblings in...and Grandma has since died. "She just had to come a see 'her' Mrs. Penvose", said her Aunt.
It is for students like Jack and Trevor who, when learning that I lived closer to some higher SES schools, asked why I don't want to teach at those schools. "Because you're here" I said, truthfully.
It is for the middle school students who experienced the suicide of a classmate and clung to me when I went to the funeral, not seeing many of their previous elementary teachers in attendance.

These are just a few of the students who see their elementary experience as more than the fun and learning that took place. It was and is their foundation, their entry into the world of education that is populated not only with friends and classmates, but also adults that they want to turn to, and return to, for a sense of stability and security. In their worlds of more upheaval and uncertainty than I might ever experience in a lifetime, they live every day. When they come back to visit their old elementary school, I want them to know that there will be someone there for them, that remembers them, that is interested in them and has genuine love for them and gives them a sense of constancy that they are searching for.
When I was talking to Kristen, I asked what she thought of all the changes in the Media Center. In the past few years, I've gotten the furniture recovered, tables re-laminated, carpet replaced (thanks to a water fountain flood) and generally tried to keep up with renovating the space to keep current with media trends. To me the change is dramatic, yet cosmetic. She looked around and said, "oh yeah, it looks nice". Her nonchalance struck me like a ton of bricks..she wasn't here for the decor. She could have cared less if the tables were Seafoam green or Arizona turquoise. Whether the baseboards matched the carpet or not. She didn't note the dust in the corners. She was there for the human contact, the interaction, the relationship. How much time have I spent searching for funding, ideas, etc. for the externals in the Media Center (which of course make a difference) when the students are there for the human element?

So as I labor on, adapting to taking on more of the Tech role at my school and being in the rotation for Specials classes, I remember why I'm there. For the kids. For the current students who come in every morning before going to their free breakfast (don't forget, you need a pass first...oh yeah, I forgot), for the students who have had more books deleted from their record due to moving/family trauma/foster situations/acts of nature/ etc. than I'll ever know, for the students who arrive on their bikes in the dark in the morning who just feel safer at school than at home, for all these and more. My heart breaks that I can't do more, but perhaps just staying at my school is enough. Being some sort of constant and consistent adult in their lives will give them a hope that they're not being given up on or forgotten.

I know that most educators, facing a multitude of challenges, will choose to change schools this year...if they wait that long. I don't fault anyone for making changes they deem necessary. In fact, I think it's healthy and wise to have several educational experiences and different schools, grade levels and subjects. But unfortunately, the most movement and transition seems to be at schools like mine, with needy children who don't have the option to go to other schools. For that, I am sad.

So take some time to reflect on why you're where you're at, or even why you're staying in education. Maybe why you even pursued it in the first place. If you truly are answering a call to change lives, it shouldn't matter where you do it...there are lives there who need you, want you, and are seeking to be changed.

We are in a mighty and powerful profession! Encourage each other, seek support as needed and Stay Grounded, friends!

Monday, September 5, 2016

Doing, Not Deciding!

Five frogs are sitting on a log. Four decide to jump. How many frogs are left on the log? (cue the Final Jeopardy music...despite the error in my questioning...your answer can be in the form of an answer). Raise your hand if you said "One". Now look around to see if anyone wonders why you're talking to yourself. Actually, of course, the answer is Five. Deciding to jump is not the same as jumping. Deciding isn't doing. Doing is doing.

As we start the new school year, how many new things have you decided to do, either in your library, classroom, or school? Throughout the summer I thought about doing Orientations differently, looked on Pinterest, Twitter, etc. for inspiration for something new. But when it came right down to doing something different, I relied on the powerpoint I usually do, with a few additions for our theme, etc. and did it in the same face to face way I've done for the past few years. And it was perfect, with a couple additions. While I'd love to do the cool scavenger hunts, start the first day without any orientations, broadcast on CCTV to everyone at once (all of which I have tried) I decided to stick with what works and there's nothing wrong with that. I had to consider my population, large number of homerooms to orient, large numbers of new students, and other unique school factors that lead my decision making.

However, since I had made the decision to inject something new and exciting, mainly to stave off my own weariness in presenting basically the same info almost 60 times, I added a couple fun things. For my second graders, I met with 2 classes at once, for 45 minutes, so there'd be time for the lesson and book checkout. However having 2 classes book browsing and checking out at once is too chaotic, so one class stayed at the tables, which I'd covered with white butcher paper, gave them markers (really!) and said to write a reading message for the next class. They loved it! A great substitute for those cool whiteboard tables you actually CAN write on! After a few classes came through, they became graffiti banners that have been hanging in the media center and our windows.

The second new and exciting thing I did was create a Photo Booth. I've had a big book rack that has been "upcycled" to display poetry, twitter chat banners, reading projects and more. When I was trying to decide whether to stick it in the back or hang something on it, I pictured a frame (recycled cardboard from a western theme we did one year) with a jungle backdrop (cloth that I dug up that  is, no lie, at least 15 years old) Our theme is "Learning is an Adventure" and it would be perfect. So after students had checked out their books, they had the option of taking pictures of each other in the photo booth with appropriate handheld signs. What a crazy, spur of the moment hit! And I can't even tell you the adults who want their picture taken! I'll change the backdrop to space, underwater, and other "adventures" the students want to take this year. The possibilities are endless!

So have you started with a "To Do" list or a "To Decide" list? It's not too late to implement that cool new idea, display, lesson, etc. In fact, it's never too late! But remember, deciding isn't doing. Weight Watchers can tell you that! I've decided to go, get back on track, count points, exercise, maybe even go back to being a leader, etc. more times than I can count, but if I don't DO the program, it won't work!

What keeps us from actually doing what we've decided to do? More things than I can write about
here! But often, especially in the case of trying something new at school, it's a fear of failure, that it won't work out and then what....well, probably nothing! Even if you've done it wrong, it's better than not doing it all. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

So, here I've followed up on a doing, not deciding, and resumed my blogging! I usually have too much to say that won't fit in a Tweet, so I'm doing what I love and hope it touches someone out there.
Hope your new year keeps that "new car smell" way past the honeymoon period!
Remember to Stay Grounded, Friends! (not just decide it!)

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Old Movies, Reagan, and Library Love!

I love old movies. TCM, Turner Classic Movies, is my go-to channel most evenings and weekends. And if they aren't showing something good, then it's TCM On Demand. Our kids pooled their resources and got us a "smart" tv last year when everything we watched looked like the lovely green fairways of Augusta National Golf Course, only we weren't watching golf! But they teased that all my shows were  black and white anyway, so what does a crisp colorful screen matter? Well, my husband likes it! And the glorious old Technicolor is quite spectacular!

So a classic I watched recently had some powerful scenes that screamed "if that doesn't start you writing again, Sandy, I don't know what will!". It was "King's Row" with Ronald Reagan, Robert Cummings, Ann Sheridan, and some fantastic supporting players. In the movie, Ronald Reagan (yes, our former president) played a character (Drake McHugh) who had his legs amputated unnecessarily by a wicked surgeon. He portrays a gamut of emotions, as you might expect, but is unaware that the procedure wasn't necessary. His best friend wants to withhold the truth, fearing it will destroy his fragile recovery. But then he decides to tell him what really happened. Reagan's character responds with a strength and defiance and renewed will to live instead of remaining in the depths he had sunk into. "That's a hot one, isn't it? Where did Gordon (the doctor) think I lived... in my legs? Did he think those things were Drake McHugh?" Bravely liberated and renewed, he hugs his wife declaring his intentions for their new life.

This has been one of those years for me. Increased demands for testing, faculty turnovers, 2 principals, retirements of longtime friends, personal and home name a few! At times I felt like old Ronnie, like I lost my legs. My confidence was misplaced in my circumstances, which resulted in my being shaken by the changes going on. But something about that scene in the movie jolted me back to reality. Is my joy and passion for my job based on the circumstances (my legs), or is it somewhere else? Am I doing what I do because things are pleasant and comfortable, or because I just love what I do, no matter what's shaking around me? In fact, I've come to Ronnie's realization that the challenges and difficulty that seem to define our school and the year only served to strengthen my faith and resolve to continue to advocate for kids and promote reading. Parts of what I used to do may be missing, but the heart of me and what I do is still there: kids, reading, and relentlessly pursuing making their lives better for having been in our library to hang out with the right books or just hang out!

I hope your year is wrapping up with some time for reflection on those challenges you've faced. I know you're stronger and better for it, despite some shaking that may have occurred and a longing to check the vacancies on an hourly basis! Shaking will always be's called life! But let your passion for what you do and why you became a librarian and teacher carry you through. Your faith and confidence can't be in something as uncertain as your day to day activities, or in people who can and will disappoint you, but in something more substantial and enduring.

It's how I stay grounded, and I hope you find your grounding, too! See you after the next movie!

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Making Lemonade

 In the first two weeks that we've been back to school, I've been open 2 whole days. The other days, the Media Center was either closed completely or up until the last 30 minutes of the day. Frustrating! But more than that, how unfortunate for our children to not have access to the books, computers, etc. Well, you could say they had access to the computers, but it was to test for 90 minutes at a time. Not exactly World Book, BrainPop, Cool Math or PBS Kids. And this was for something called an "Interim Test" for what? Or who? And we're only half through these Interims! When these testing decisions are made, schools are large as ours, with the number and sizes of small groups that are pulled to test (ELL, ESE, etc.) can create a logistics nightmare. But this isn't a testing rant (oh really?) That's not my thing (yet!)
But as they say, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade! If I couldn't get the kids to the Media Center, I'd take the Media Center to them. I was  asked to cover several classes whose teachers missed their planning times, so I wanted to come up with something fun for these over-tested kids when the Media Center was closed. So here's what I did, on my shoestring budget, minimal technology, yet abundance of enthusiasm for some fun activities:
Grades 2 and 3: We feature penguins in the Media Center in January, so I took copies of a reader's theater for "Tacky, the Penguin", some hastily collected props, and led several classes in Drama 101. Most kids love to participate in these activities, and we had lots of fun. Then I led them through a cartooning exercise that started with the letter "P" on the whiteboard, and with the addition of a few strokes, created a penguin on their paper. More learning fun, with opportunities to encourage the creative side, both artistically and dramatically (wait, is that the same thing?), that often gets short-changed.
On to Grade 4. Since this is the time of year that our 4th graders need a shot in the arm for our district Battle of the Books, I used a 25 minute video of book trailers of all the books, which I didn't have time for when we did our kick-off. The students were all given a "Movie Review" sheet in which they marked if they'd read the book, or gave it a "Thumbs Up" or "Thumbs Down" as to whether they wanted to read it. They then kept the papers for future reference. The result? More students at our weekly BOB Lunch Bunch than ever this year!
And finally Grade 5! What book do most of them ask for? Wimpy Kid! So I showed a video of a brief interview with Jeff Kinney explaining his writing process, then went to "Art Hub for Kids" in which a cool dude artist and a cool dude kid create popular characters step by step and side by side. After handing out paper and skinny black markers to those who needed something to write with (everyone), we proceeded to create our own versions of our favorite stick figure. The results were quite varied, but it was another great opportunity for tapping into and encouraging their creative side. Sadly neglected in these days of "Interim Testing".
So I know it wasn't exactly rocket science, but we were able to have a fun learning experience, lemonade, in the midst of the lemons of testing. Another upside was seeing all the students I haven't seen in the Media Center due to their being new, missing books, lack of teacher sending them, or of course, us being closed for testing! A few new relationships were forged as I could reach out to these unreached kids.
So how about you? Do you have some great go-to activities, "emergency plans" or a trunk packed when you have to take your show on the road? I'd love to hear from you about how you make the best of these testing times. I'm not going to let any "Interim Anything" get in the way of maintaining a
media program that is engaging for our students. That's how I'll Stay Grounded!

Monday, January 4, 2016

Expiration Dates

Happy New Year! While it's nice to get back to the routine and out of the cookie tins, I do miss just being at home. I love being able to have a little more time to prepare meals and other special treats during the holidays.  In addition to enjoying everything about being an elementary school librarian, I love everything about being a homemaker (well, that's a bit of a stretch where cleaning is concerned) and cooking and baking is just about at the top of the list. To  look in my kitchen cabinets, you'd think I never met a spice I didn't like, which is almost true. Unfortunately, I'm about as current in "weeding" my spice bottles as I am my non-fiction collection at school! As with my books, there are multiples of things that aren't even the most up to date, but I don't toss thinking I might need it for something. Cardamom? Of course! No self-respecting Icelander would be caught dead without some cardamom in the cupboard. Unfortunately, this Icelander just might risk being dead according to the ancient date on this pricey spice. So when it's time to do a thorough kitchen cleaning, I start checking expiration dates. Yikes! Is anyone in my family still alive, after enduring some dated ingredients? So it's time to toss, toss, toss...weed, weed, weed!

I regularly have to check the "expiration dates" of some of my teaching and library management practices also. Each new year, when I bring out the boxes or files of seasonal or otherwise activities, I wish they had an actual expiration date, to let me know it's time to toss them. If I can't remember how long I've used something, that's a good sign. If it's purple and has that intoxicating mimeo smell, that's a good sign. If it's something I know I had at a previous school and brought to my current one, that's a good sign, since I've been at my current school 13 years. If it's something with "Sandy Tiffany" on it, who I haven't been for 23 years,  that's a definite sign! Toss, weed, purge. 

Maybe it's not an actual sign, lesson, or artifact that needs to be pitched. I've had to get rid of some attitudes or ideas that are dated or expired also. Not utilizing more technology, or I should say, not learning more technology to effectively enhance my instruction, is one of those attitudes. While I'd like to stay "status quo" for my final few years, my effectiveness will be as stale as the 4 bottles of parsley flakes in my kitchen! If I find I'd rather pursue my own agenda and have fun reading groups with the best and the brightest students and not really explore how to reach those more challenging students who are harder to reach, I need to throw that attitude out. Putting my fun penguin, informative MLK and FRA lessons for January on hold is part of those items that have to be set aside to be utilized for testing in the next few weeks. Unfortunately! Not that the fun has expired in my Media Center (come on people!), but  clinging to "my stuff and agenda" and not embracing the total program at our school is an attitude that has to expire. "My stuff" has to be the school's stuff. "My money" is the school's money. I shouldn't be considering any expenses that don't have the students best interests and the school's vision in mind. "My program" needs to be what the administration has determined to be what's necessary to move our students ahead. But you'd better believe that I stand up for the Media services when I don't think they're being included in any conversation about that student achievement. We got a new principal just before the Christmas break. Our 4th in 4 or 5 years...I've lost count. So you can be sure I'll invite her to the Media Center as much as possible to show her our what we have and how the students are using it. "What can Penvose do for you" has become my new just might catch on!

Before Christmas,  I attended a program that my granddaughter was singing in. What a treat! She was one of several 3 and 4 year olds from her day care who thoroughly entertained with more cuteness than should be allowed in one church sanctuary! But before that, I sat in the audience with my grandson and other family members. Andrew, 5,  was playing some video game on some device while we were waiting. Inwardly, I cringed, thinking it was inappropriate, he should be telling Grandma about his day at school, asking about the new rabbits we got at our house, etc. (yes, I don't get out much...esp with him!) Then I glanced at other members of the audience who waited for the program to start. How many adults were doing the same thing with their phones? For whatever reason, they were occupying themselves while also carrying on conversations. Andrew would stop and talk, but also play his game. He wasn't being rude or disrespectful, just a kid in 2015. So why did it initially bug me? Maybe my old, outdated attitude about how he should be. I needed to just relax, enjoy the Christmas cheer, and be thankful to be there! More expired notions to discard.

As we enter 2016, what do you need to toss, purge, discard or just get rid of? It's never a bad or wrong time to weed the stuff--either physical, emotional, or spiritual--that is expired and not helping your personally or professionally.  And if it's not helping you, it's not helping others. Don't wait for Spring Cleaning, or the end of the school year, or retirement to get rid of things that are expired. Do it now and start 2016 fresh and current and at your best. You'll be glad you did. I hope you  have a happy and healthy 2016. And to repeat an often said phrase from school, stay safe, kind, and responsible...and of course, grounded! Have a great year!