Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Heartbroken for Denham Springs

It appears that the last time that I came to this blog to write, I wrote about the turmoil that was happening around my home state of Louisiana, and yet, here I am again with heartbreak over my hometown of  Denham Springs.

You may not have heard about the devastating floods that have swept through and decimated entire cities and parishes.  What started out as a normal Friday for many, has turned into a living nightmare  that  they can't wake.

Summer rainstorms are nothing new for South Louisiana,  but Friday's storm would be one for the record books.  I was unaware of what was happening until my sister-in-law texted me Friday morning to tell me her parents were picking up their furniture and water was at the slab of their house.  A house that had never flooded - ever.

My brother packed his family up from the beach vacation they had been waiting on for so long to begin the drive home in terrible storms and flash flooding.  He is a nursing home administrator and needed to get to work because things were turning into a state of emergency.

Her family evacuated and stayed at their home Friday night, but on Saturday morning, I received a text saying they were evacuating from their home because the water was getting to close and they didn't know if they would be able to get out.  So, again they traveled with precious possessions to my parents home.

Saturday my Facebook feed was flooded with texts of people needing rescuing by boat.  Images of rising water vividly showed how quickly the situation was deteriorating.  One by one, friends began posting they were evacuating if possible, or getting rescued by boat, or waiting for help to arrive.  Life quickly began to look very similar to Hurricane Katrina.  Pictures like these began appearing (Photo credit: Jeff Morgan)

And then, you see one like this, and it rattles you to your core. The wife of a friend, anxiously awaiting the birth of her baby, but is now wading out with a few possessions on her back.

This wasn't a normal storm, or even a normal flood.  My hometown has been wiped off the map.  My immediate family thankfully are in the 10% of homes that weren't flooded, but my friends' list on Facebook is full of people who have lost their possessions and must start over in their homes.  Most have lost at least one vehicle.  Most have lost their source of income because 75% of businesses were also affected.  Schools have been closed until further notice.

In 2005, I was in Louisiana for the arrival of Hurricane Katrina.  Denham Springs and Baton  Rouge opened their arms wide and took the people of New Orleans into our homes, businesses, classrooms, and lives.  Now, the people of Denham Springs and Baton Rouge are seeking the same.

But, in the midst of the despair, there was pride.  My friends and family took to deploying the Cajun Navy, a fleet of good people with boats, to go door to door to rescue people and pets.  Neighbors took in neighbors.  There was no consideration of race or socio-economic status.  People simply helped people.  

There was no waiting for someone else to lead the charge.  The people of Louisiana stood together and came in droves to lend a helping hand.  

This girl was proud, prouder than she ever has been of her state, of her people.  

Friday, July 8, 2016

I've been in Baton Rouge this week and what was supposed to be an enjoyable week of visiting my old stomping grounds, has turned into a week of heaviness and weariness.  The television has been on since Tuesday and I've seen videos replay hundreds of times.  More incidents have occurred that have left my heart hurting for the world in which I live, but breaking for the students that I teach.

Over the last two nights I've had a running image of the students I have taught and I have loved over the last 16 years.  The beautiful faces of dark eyes and dark  skin looking to me for guidance and examples.  The tender hearts when they question the actions of those around them.  The tears when they feel hurt or excluded.  I've stood in the hallway and talked through their frustration, hurt, and anger. I've listened to the stories of their childhood and cried with them.  I've hugged their necks when they had no words.

I worry about the students who walk the halls of my schools and what their future really  holds.  I want them all to know that I stand with them and want to wrap my arms around them and their families.  You are loved and you are prayed for daily!

As teachers, we tell all of our students that they have the power to change the world, but after this week,  I don't know if I have equipped them enough to do so.

Teachers have a tall order in helping to change the dialogue in our country, but it is critical that we do.  We need to stop ignoring the issues and allow our classrooms to be a space where students can talk about their fears and their worries without judgment.  We need to recognize what our minority students bring to the table and how things really are different for them.

I don't know what the next steps are,  but I know that we need to join hands and commit to talking about the uncomfortable.  

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

He is MY Success Story

On Friday evening, I had the honor of being a special guest at a former student's high school graduation.  While that may seem mundane and an every day occurrence for many,  this invitation meant more to me than words could adequately express. While this student was not loved or liked more than the others, he definitely had a hand in making me the teacher I am today. So often, as a teacher, I focus on the success of my students, and rightly so, but this student completely transformed what I knew about teaching, shifted my mindset, and set me on a path that could not be ignored.

It was no surprise that this young man would be placed in my classroom that year.  At our little school,  students were placed into classrooms based on learning styles.   Some students found themselves placed in analytical classrooms where every detail was important, routines were well established, and there were clearly defined expectations for assignments, projects, and any other activities that took place throughout the year.  Some students found themselves in a global classroom where the teacher painted big picture ideas first, allowed things to occur organically, and looked quite a bit different from that analytic room.  And others may have found themselves placed in a flexible room that incorporated elements of both styles.  That also meant that teachers were assigned classes based on their learning style or teaching style as well.  I often fell on the analytical end of the spectrum, but was sometimes given a flexible classroom depending on need.  This particular year,  I believe I was the flexible teacher, but leaned toward analytical tendencies.  He needed routines, no surprises, clearly defined outcomes and boundaries.

Before school began, I met with mom and she came into my classroom with a giant binder that provided a very clear picture of this young man as a student.  We talked about strengths and weaknesses, areas of growth that were in progress, areas to push further, triggers that would result in shutting down, and strategies that had worked in the past.  At the end of our meeting we both agreed that he needed to be pushed to try new things and to offer no excuses.  I felt prepared and knowledgeable to enter the school year with success.  But, little did I know that this 5th grader would teach me what it truly meant to be a teacher.

Up until this point, I had approached teaching with creativity, but honestly with a binder full of lessons that I knew had been successful, but didn't really reflect the learning styles or needs of my classroom of students.  Differentiation was just starting to be the buzz word across schools and districts.  Books were being read on the topic, discussions being had, but the year this child was present was when I truly saw the value of tailoring my instruction for individual students and where they were on the learning continuum.

Early in the year, we developed a mantra so to speak that we used when he needed to consider an alternative.  That mantra was "I'm adaptable."  It was hokey and a catchphrase, but we wanted to get the full 5th grade experience - from tasting new foods, learning new social skills, and trying new things.

He came to me with very clear expectations of where he would sit and that he couldn't use a cubby that was near anyone.  So, we developed a plan.  His desk would be by mine to begin with, but the goal was to move it closer to a table in hopes that he would work with a group before the end of the year.  His chair had a yellow dot placed on it so it was easily identifiable to others.  They weren't allowed to touch it.  His books were kept in a cabinet instead of near others.  When I needed him to talk to a group, I prepared him  ahead of time and we role played the conversation and we chanted "I'm adaptable."

Each time I cooked for Social Studies, we checked the ingredients to make sure that they were within his dietary requirements and then tasted a spoonful - and he was allowed to spit it out if he wanted.  At recess time, he was allowed a certain amount of time talking to the teachers and then was sent to socialize with others with predetermined topics.

He questioned me, challenged me, gave me feedback.  It wasn't uncommon for him to ask  for my resources or ask why we were spending so much time on a topic when there was only going to be one question on the PASS test.  I became comfortable with saying, "I don't know." I began to ask for feedback not just from him, but from other students on lessons that I planned.  I shifted from being the one to create the expectations and requirements of a project to a teacher that created them with student input.  I began planning lessons with my students in mind, not me.

Fast forward 6 years and I find an email in my inbox asking if I would be his mentor on his senior project - not just any project, but a book that provided his perspective of life with autism.  Of course, I said yes.  We worked all year sharing drafts and feedback.  Reading stories of how autism affected him in different settings.  Discussing the challenges that were present, what successes and opportunities were there and what his path would be after graduation.

I received my signed copy this week and cried like a baby when I read it again in its final form.  While he has had extreme success as a student, my success has been linked to his in so many ways. If I would not have had him as a student, I wouldn't have made a shift in my teaching.  

As I sat in the audience of his graduation Friday night, I could not have been more proud of him and the journey he has traveled.  As I stood to celebrate his accomplishments, I was so thankful for the opportunity I had as his teacher.  He helped me to learn what was best for students, to be comfortable with letting my students be the teacher once in awhile,  and to never settle for what has always been done, even if it has been successful.

Thank you, EC, for being MY success story.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Unlocking the Magic

This past week, I had the opportunity to hear Katie Stover, literacy guru, speak at Furman University.  Normally, at events that have a Keynote speaker, especially over dinner, I have found that I have a difficult time focusing on the content of the message.  Nothing against the speaker, but it is rare that I ever find myself sitting down much during the day, and when I do, it doesn't take much for me to get so relaxed that I want to doze.  It's strange, I know, but I'm on the go so much that I really only stop to sleep or veg out for a few minutes before moving onto the next thing.  That is why movies are never a good idea at the end of a long school week.  I can't tell you how many times I've been to the movies with my husband and I've fallen asleep during them. Any way, Katie's talk was refreshing.  She spoke about her own journey as a reader and the moments that the magic was unlocked for her.  I found myself drifting in my thoughts, not out of distraction, but reflection.  I began to trace the words of my reading journey and how the simplicity of books at a young age stimulated my passion for reading and writing with my students.

I guess my journey starts way before I was ever in existence - with my mother.  She was a writer, not so much a reader, but a writer of journals and scrapbooks that documented her thoughts and highlights.  She tucked these items away into a cedar chest that would become a treasure chest to me in my childhood.  In it,she carefully hid away her 16 year old thoughts, love letters, and a pregnancy journal.  When I arrived in her arms when she was just 18 years old, she probably didn't know how powerful those tucked away items would be to me and she surely hadn't read the current research on how to instill a love for reading.

In her young, new Momma self, she purchased Little Golden Books like The Pokey Little Puppy to show me.  We would climb on her bed multiple times a day.  The giant king-sized bed with puffy pillows and settle in for what ultimately would become an afternoon nap.  We would start with the pictures, looking at the cover and pointing out little details that if you read too fast you may miss.  As she turned each page, she asked questions about what I saw on the page, what did I think would happen next, and so on and so forth.

My first memory of reading isn't necessarily the act of reading, but a memory about a book that scared the wits out of me.  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a text I owned, but wouldn't dare go to sleep with it in the room.  The wicked witch frightened me, yet, I still read it, as long as when it was time for lights out, it was locked safely away in mom and dad's room.  As I grew older, a little brother came along and with it brought the first book that I distinctly remember reading.  P.D. Eastman's The Best Nest can even now be recited from memory.  My brother wanted to read it EVERY night.  Despite the simplicity of the text and how many times my mom had already read it, she crafted a unique rhythm and cadence to the familiar song of Mr. Bird, "I love my house, I love my nest.  In all the world, my nest is best."  I remember vividly the night that we read it one too many times and I declared that, "If we read that book one more time...I'm leaving."  And that was the end of reading aloud to me.  I packed my stack of books up and went to my bedroom, climbed in the bed and picked up a book and have been doing so most nights for the last 35 years.

As time progressed from Momma's bed and through Richard Scarry's Best Ever Word Book, reading came alive for me.  Summers were spent with the Sweet Pickle's Gang and Amelia Bedelia.  Visits to the library were just as good as a summer vacation to me.  The teensy one room house that had shelves and shelves of books always smelled like a new adventure.  Momma always helped pick out books and she read every one that I did.  We logged our books on a tracker from the public library and turned it in at the end of the summer to get a prize.  It  wasn't an iPad or an electronic device, usually, it was a book.  My parents never denied me a book when I asked.  They may have denied a new toy, but never a book.

I don't have many memories of reading in school and that breaks this teacher's heart.  I do remember being in a reading group in 2nd grade in Mrs. LeDoux's class.  Our reading book was entitled Moonbeams and we met at the picnic table at the back of the room.  Other than that...I don't remember learning how to read.  I know the class next door was fully immersed in phonics and had a phonics book and workbook, but we didn't.  I went home crying one day because I so wanted to learn phonics and my Momma said, "But you already know them." In elementary school, there were times where the treasured hope chest was opened and the beloved scrapbooks came out for me to touch and feel and read.  The movie ticket stubs, the notes, the cards that my Momma collected to document a life.  This was the reading I most enjoyed.  I can still see the pages and pages of memories that helped me to know her more as a person, not just a Momma.

In 5th grade, I remember Mrs. Thomas reading The Cajun Night Before Christmas to the class in her heavy South Louisiana accent - something that I still do each year with my own class.  Mrs. Foster assigning us our first novel to read at school, but there weren't many memories of true reading and stepping into a world beyond myself.  Not until I To Kill A Mockingbird was given to me my junior year of high school.  This book, along with Of Mice and Men changed reading for me.  Now, instead of reading fluff, I was reading deep themes that crossed controversial subjects.  I witnessed how authors made sense of the worlds around them by writing about the things that terrified them, the things that they didn't understand, the things that broke their heart and their psyche.  My eyes were unveiled to reveal a world where I could visibly see how writing and reading helped someone make sense of the insensible.  These books became late night reading that kept me up because I just had to know what was going to happen next.  They are the books that fostered in a magical place that I could escape and learn more about the world beyond Denham Springs, Louisiana.  There are so many more books that transported me from my little bedroom to New York City at the turn of the century or the English countryside, but there isn't time to document my reading history.

Now as a teacher, I want those same experiences for my students, but the reality is that many of them don't have the same opportunities to curl up with a book that I did.  I want them to experience the unlocking of the magical worlds that exist beyond the pages and into the depths of their imaginations. I want them to read what scares them, what inspires them, what angers them.  I want them to move beyond the author they love and the genre that is familiar.   Some years, it has been easy, and others difficult.  But, it can be done as a teacher and a parent.  It is never too late.

1. Turn the technology off for a time.  Even as a 40 year old, I've found that when I am reading in a room with a television, computer, or my phone on, I'm  less likely to be focused on what I'm reading.  There is nothing that cannot wait for 30 minutes.  More often than not, I find myself reading for much longer than 30 minutes.  In order to develop readers, there must be space in the schedule to do so.

2. Give Choice.  One of the things my Momma did was let me choose the books - all the books.  She never made a suggestion that I can remember, but allowed me to be in complete control of what I was reading.  If it was all Dr. Seuss, then it was all Dr. Seuss.  Reading was reading in her eyes.

3.  Visit the library.  I truly think this is one of the lost pleasures of a world so inundated with technology.  I still visit once a week and check out a stack of books.  If you have younger children, take them often and stay for story hour.  This is where I discovered many of my favorites.

4.  Ask questions.  I'm not saying to give a student a worksheet with comprehension questions listed on them, but what I am saying is to have a conversation about a book.  Ask questions like, "What is your favorite part so far?  Who is your favorite character and why?  Have you experienced anything similar?"  Having an open dialogue about a book just for enjoyment is something many students haven't experienced.  Too often, the tasks in a classroom are all graded and there isn't room to just talk books.

5. Notice the illustrations. In picture books especially, spend time studying the images, pointing out details, playing I Spy.  Not only will this help to hone observational skills, but it will help a young reader begin to make connections between the illustrations and the text. If reading a novel with a young child, stop and talk about the images that were created when you read specific sections.  This helps students to visualize the story as it is unfolding.

Reading is the door to unlocking a lifetime of magic whether it be fictional stories or informational facts.  Donalyn Miller says it way better than I could ever when she states, "Reading changes your life. Reading unlocks worlds unknown or forgotten, taking travelers around the world and through time. Reading helps you escape the confines of school and pursue your own education. Through characters - the saints and the sinners, real or imagined, reading shows you how to be a better human being."

Saturday, April 30, 2016

It's been awhile, friends, and I hate that the reason that I'm writing won't be as uplifting or useful,  but this little space has been my spot to process what teaching has taught me,  lessons that have gone well or not, or just lessons that I've learned along the way as an educator. Writing has always been a cathartic exercise for me, so when things happen that I don't quite understand, it is where I turn.

Wednesday morning I woke early and was preparing to tackle my day.  I had already put into motion my usual routine - make coffee, take a shower, get ready, and log-in to facebook to check in with friends who were having birthdays, conduct a little Rodan and Fields business, and generally see what everyone was up to for the day.  While I was perusing, I ran across a post from a former student that really set me on a hunt for information.  The status was simple, "For all of you struggling with the news of Chloe Allison Duncan..."  I don't even think I read the rest of the status before I sent a message and began to investigate what had happened.

Chloe was a student in my 5th grade classroom at Tigerville 9 years ago.  I remember her clearly as a long-legged, beauty with glasses who would rather play soccer with the boys at recess than sit and make daisy chains on the hillside with the girls. She was more comfortable in her own skin at 10 years old than I was in my mid-30s.  She was quiet and didn't mind where she sat because nothing really bothered her much.  She had a laid back approach to anything, but at the same time, held herself to a high standard.  She was constantly asking how she could do better or for extra help if she needed.  The boys in the class always tried to get her attention by telling jokes or asking her if they could sit by her at lunch,etc.  She would often shrug her shoulders and say, "Sure." Chloe was a friend to everyone, even those who weren't the first choice of others.  She had a genuine heart and noticed when someone needed a friend.

That year we started a Girls on the Run club and Chloe was one of the first to sign up.  She attended every practice and at the end, we ran a 5K at Furman University.  My goal in that race was simply not to be last.  I wasn't, but Chloe had already finished the race and ran back to finish with me.  It was a simple gesture, but one that showed exactly what kind of person she would grow up to be.

Middle school arrived and Chloe went on, but she often came back to see me over the years.  She always had a hug and would rest her head on my shoulder.  She didn't need to say anything.

Fast forward to Tuesday morning...when I finally found out what had happened, I felt like I had been punched in the stomach.  Chloe had been killed in a drunk driving accident.  She was riding on the back of a motorcycle with a friend and the drunk driver hit them from behind.  I got in the car to go get my haircut and could not stop crying.  I've never experienced the death of a student and nothing prepared me for it.  I'm  still trying to process what has happened.

She was 19, a freshman in college, and recently engaged.  She was making plans and they were immediately halted, not just for her,  but her family and friends.

Gone too quickly for sure.

Chloe, you will be missed, but more importantly, you will be forever remembered.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

February Currently

Let's just take a minute and applaud the fact that I showed up today.  It has been a journey and one I'm coming to terms with - a new position, finding myself in that position, and realizing that I still have things to share.

But, another day, because today is time for Currently with Farley. If you aren't quite sure what it is all about, head over to her blog Oh Boy, It's Farley!  She just got a new blog design, and ya'll it is precious!

Listening:  We don't have cable, so my background noise is ETV classics. I've learned a lot in the last few weeks.

Loving:  Since moving at the first of the year, I decreased my daily commute from an hour and 25 minutes - yes, you read that right  - to 25 minutes.  I have gained 2 hours of my life back :)  Partner that with a position that allows me to walk out of school at a decent hour and I have almost 4 hours back to my day.

Thinking:  We moved into a new to us house and it is painted with a lot of different shades of yellow - every room is different.  Throw in green and I need a new paint scheme.  I wanted to go all white because it is a farmhouse after all.  But, I can't decide white, or neutrals.  

Wanting: Could be needing as well. A new pair of jeans because I have outgrown the old ones.  I just need to get in gear and take better care of myself and then I'll have about 5 pairs of barely worn jeans at my disposal.

Needing:  Sewing is not my gift, so I need to find someone who can teach me the basics.  I need curtains desperately and boy are they expensive to purchase.  

Swooning:  Our 1895 farmhouse is my love and swoon today.  The gingerbread trim and the leaded glass windows.  A claw foot tub and sun porch....oh, it is perfect!


Sunday, August 30, 2015

Dear Hailey...

Dear Hailey,
It's been 10 years since I've seen your sweet face, but it is one that I will never forget.  We met under tragic circumstances.  Hurricane Katrina had wreaked havoc in New Orleans and Baton Rouge was in chaos.  I was a 3rd grade teacher who would be forever changed by my interaction with you.

About 2 weeks after Katrina left her mark, my principal opened the door and introduced me to you.  You were a precious little 3rd grader with fear in her eyes.  I didn't know the circumstances around your move into the area, other than you had been uprooted because of the storm.  I knelt down to look you in the eye and took your hand to welcome you into my classroom.  A classroom that didn't have a desk, books, or supplies for you.  But it was a classroom that had a room full of kids who had opened their door to family members and friends who had also been uprooted.  Zachary had 10 extra people living in his house, so we didn't question whether you would stay or find another room with more space.

You were quiet.  I don't think you said very much in the short time that you were with us.  That first day was a blur.  I don't remember much other than your arrival.  After school, I was told your story.  You lived in Slidell and your home had been destroyed, as well as your school.  You were living in a shelter in the area and your mom wanted you to start school to keep some sort of normalcy in your life.  You had lost it all and were trying to make sense of the world again.  You were wearing clothes that were donated to you at the shelter, eating meals with people you didn't know, clinging to your momma at night because you were terrified.

The next day, as school began, I was called to the office.  You didn't want to come inside for the day.  You were clinging to your momma.  You were both crying and I started shortly after.  With help from the secretary, we peeled you off of your momma, assured her I would take extra good care of you, and brought you inside with you clinging to my side.

That day, I had a substitute teacher in the room so I could do reading assessments down the hall in the empty classroom.  I had everything set up for the class and let the sub know that I was just a short distance away in case she needed me.  It didn't take long for an SOS to come with the next student I needed to read to me.  I walked down the hallway and heard you sobbing.  As soon as I entered the room, you left your seat and attached yourself to me.  You spent the rest of the day with me reading quietly.

The rest of your time with me was similar.  You began to quietly talk to some of the other girls, but you didn't say much.  At recess, you played within my sight.  Each morning, I met you on the sidewalk and we did the same peel and hug maneuver.

After a week, you came in late one morning with flowers and a gift for me.  It was your last day.  Inside the wrapped present was a beautiful silver heart and a handwritten note thanking me for taking care of you.  The thoughtful words brought me to tears.  You gave me one of the fiercest hugs I've ever received.  It still sticks with me.  And with that, you walked out of my classroom 10 years ago.

I don't know where you are or what path your life has taken, but here I am 10 years later still thinking about you and the impact you made on me.  In a world that had been turned upside down, you taught me an important lesson that I still haven't forgotten.  That lesson was simple, students need to feel loved and cared for first.

There was no way that I could have taught you anything other than feeling safe that week.  You weren't ready and that was okay.

Thank you for trusting me while you were a guest.  I hope that you have found your place and you are changing your world.

Mrs. Looper