Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Fall back


Part parenting.  Part discipling. Part wizardry.

It’s November.

The time of year when teachers just get “tarred.”  As in very, very “tired”…

You see them in the hallways stifling a yawn.  

You see them dragging a duffel bag of lesson plans out of the trunk of their cars.

You sit across from them in faculty meetings and their pencils pop the table about a hundred times a minute, a reflection of their long to-do list that’s been on hold since the school year began.

It’s hard, fine work.

Here’s the good news.

You can help.

If you know a teacher, give him/her a word of encouragement. A letter.  A card.  Better yet, a gift card. Nails. Sonic. Groceries. Movies.  Relief.

If you live with a teacher, back up and back off.  Not the time to fall on your sword over any issues/events/drama. Be a partner, not an adversary.  Be her cheerleader.  Her champion.

And if you are a teacher, give yourself a break. 

You will not save the world.  Despite all the bookmarks, Tweets, and Pinterest posts.

All the superhero stuff probably just feels like more and more pressure to you.

Let yourself go to bed early or stay up late. 

Let go of your “perfectionist” tendencies.

Show yourself a fraction of the love you show your students.

Teaching is an art, not a science.  Despite your best efforts, not all students are going to learn what you set in front of them.

Developmentally, they’re all different.

Just like you.

They’re ready or not ready.

They’re learning today or learning tomorrow. They will learn. 

It takes time.

We’ve got time.

It’s November. 

...and p.s.  don't forget you get to set your clocks back on Sunday!

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Isn't she lovely?

This is a picture of a sixteen-year-old girl on her wedding day. Virginia Isabel Brooks Mortensen Overby. She is my mother. She told me that right after this picture was taken in Valley City, North Dakota, her young soldier groom would lean over to kiss her, swerve onto the shoulder of a lonesome country road, and get ticketed by a police officer the only $50 they had. He was charged with reckless driving, but neither one of these two were ever reckless. Not a single day of their lives.

My mother would spend the next 53 years married to her best friend, through many moves around the globe.  She'd finally earn her high school diploma in Japan,  after giving birth to her fourth child. She'd raise four children, love sixteen grandchildren, and welcome great-grandchildren into her world. She'd earn the respect and loyalty of hundreds of families and businesses who relied on her acumen in real estate. She'd fight breast cancer in her forties and win, play tennis in her fifties and win, and keep her revolving front door open for all of us to enter and depart. She'd knit and sew and paint and bake. She'd write and call and read and relate.  She'd bury her beloved at Arlington National Cemetery after a terrible battle with throat cancer.  And four years later, she would be laid to rest beside him, together once more.

My mother was always, at her core, a homemaker.  She shared that legacy with me, and with my children. She valued her role, yet was always her own person.

I miss her every day.

When I meet someone with eyes as blue as a summer sky, I think of her.  I'll talk with a store clerk with smile wrinkles on her face, and I'll think of my mother's deep dimples. There's a tiny feisty funny lady who comes to church who makes me long for my mother so badly I want to cry. I see my mother's dry sense of humor in one daughter;  her common sense in another.  I see her devotion to family in my son; her sense of honor in my oldest child; her beauty in another.

I was so lucky.

Today I'll go to a Hallmark store and pick out a mushy card that I'll never mail.  I'll reflect on all my mother gave me; none of it material.  I'll offer up a prayer, and another, and another, that I was given the gift of a beautiful mother.

If you have your mom on this earth today, go hug her, call her, reach out to her.  One more time.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016


It's what a new school year is all about.

It starts with promises to myself.

  • I'll go to bed early.
  • I won't hit the snooze button.
  • I'll pack my lunch every day.
  • I'll stay positive.
  • I'll work as hard as I can. 
Then I examine promises I make to others.
  • I will be there for you.
  • I will be there for you.
  • I will be there for you. 
  • And you.
The new school year represents so many lavish opportunities that God places in our lives to be His hands and feet.  

I think about the little ones He's bringing back to us, or new children who've moved into our area over the summer, those we have not yet met.  

I grieve over the students who will not be returning...thinking especially of a precious little boy who was killed in a car accident over the summer.  Will all of our students return safe and sound?

I fret over students who will come back to us after a summer of neglect.  Unless the school doors are open, they may be unfed, unsheltered, unloved.  When they return to school, they need care immediately. 

I worry over students who are anxious themselves about a new year, as they have difficulty with transitions.  

I pray for our new teachers, who are about to embark on a life-changing year, a life-changing career. 

A new school year is all about promises.  

I love that I work in a district that puts kids first, even when it's hard. There are so many demands on our time, our talents, our folks.  Within a few short days, most of us will be stretched thin.  

But we have this thing called faith.  For so many who think they must go to church to find a Christian school, I would argue that search is incorrect.  I have met more Christians in a public school than I've ever met in church. 

And we have each other.  Oh how we need the promises offered to each other.  

They take the form of the smile offered first thing you walk through the gauntlet of parents and kids in the morning. 
The pat on the back given wordlessly.  
The treat in your mailbox from an anonymous pal.  
The knowing glance when you pass each other in the hall. 
The hurried sigh offered during planning time. 
The affirmations given with no strings attached. The deep exhalation when you've taught bell to bell. The high five when the last bus pulls away.

A new school year is about promises offered, proferred, and fulfilled, one at a time.

One day at a time.

One student at a time.


Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Oh, teacher...

Teacher Appreciation Week is here once again, and I've been trying to show my appreciation to the teachers who've supported our library so well this school year.  Our school has been without a librarian for several years, and I was tasked with making the library a vibrant learning hub once again.  We're not there yet, but we're well on our way.  I decided to hold my classes this week without the teachers...normally they're required to stay so that we can collaborate on lessons or in order for teachers to assist their students as they search for "the right book" each week.  But this week I sent them away so their students could write and record the reasons their teachers are special to them.  I've seen lots of stick figures, hearts, flowers, and sentiments like, "You're the best teacher," or "Thank you for making me ready for the test..."  Our children are so ready and willing to spill the beans about what their teachers mean to them.

I have a couple of literature circles going at any given time, and while students worked in the library on their teacher appreciation letters, I had to break away to meet with one of my literature circles. The group of fourth graders discussed the last few chapters of a novel we're reading, Crenshaw, by Katherine Applegate.

In the book, the main character, Jackson, is dealing with his family's financial issues by inventing an imaginary friend.  It happens to be a huge, black and white cat who shows up during critical emotional passages in Jackson's life.  Jackson is embarrassed by the idea that he has this friend he calls Crenshaw,  but he needs the connection in order to handle the difficulties of his father's MS, his family's homelessness, and his need for meaningful friendships at school.  As we read through the novel, we have done a lot of vocabulary work.  Some of our students have a limited lexicon;  there are many words we've encountered in the novel that are unfamiliar and we've done quite a lot of detailed work with understanding context clues to discern meaning.  

Today we had a term I wasn't sure they'd understand, so I'd highlighted it in my mind.  "Final Notice of Eviction" was the term, and as we reached that phrase in the paragraph, I paused for understanding.  The word final was clear;  the word notice was clear; but I expected some questions about eviction.  Not necessary.  Each student was completely familiar with that experience.  As I listened to their stories and followed the connecting threads that had become a part of this rugged tapestry called childhood, I thought of their teachers.

When you teach at a school that is classified as Title I, and that school is labeled with "poverty issues",  teachers must do so much more than teach. They offer more than an academic scope and sequence.  For teachers in Title I schools, the school day is full of diverse and challenging moments. 

Safety.  Security.  Stability.

Day in and day out, our teachers show up.  For the most part, they are not absent.  When they're sick or sick and tired, or when their children are sick or sick and tired, they don't stay home.  They come to school. They know that a day away from campus may threaten the very stability that their students have learned to trust.  They arrive early and stay late.  Each weekend they're quizzing each other via social media to see when "the building will be open" so they can go to school to work.  

They talk the talk and walk the walk, offering both leadership and friendship.

I'm very proud of the job they're doing;  I'm proud of the job we're doing.  The teachers around me make me proud to be part of this profession.  

As the week concludes, I'll convey my appreciation with my own letters and words, just like their students, but I have so much more to say than what I can fit on a card or in a sound byte.  

These teachers, they're changing the world.  
One child at a time. 
What they do is important. 
Their pay will never be commensurate with what they give.
What they offer our kids is priceless.
I'm proud to know them. 

Oh child, would you give me your smile, your burden, your story 
and trust me with the treasure of who you are?  

Sunday, February 28, 2016


It was a simple request, actually.

Read enough books to earn ten points.  If you're a first grader, that means you'll need to read at least 20 picture books.  If you're a fourth or fifth grader, you'll need to read at least one solid chapter book. But you get to pick.

Just do the reading.

By mid-month, we had some interest.  We could tell there were a few kids working toward the goal.

Ice cream with the principal-- Dr. Ibarra.  That's all we were offering.

The momentum picked up.  A couple of teachers started an after-school book club, and students were staying late with their teachers for an hour just to read.  They'd come to the library, pick up dozens and dozens of books, then go back to class to read.

Children came to the library two and three times a day, all smiles, working towards the goal.

By the start of this week, I knew we were in trouble.  We were going to be buying a lot of ice cream.

On Tuesday we had 53 children who met the goal.

I published an update on who was earning the reward;  who was "close" to meeting the challenge.

My friend and I went to the Mexican market and bought a pinata.  Covered up the "Minions" motif with our own designs--pictures of ice cream cones and reworked with the words "Ice Cream with Dr. Ibarra".  Hoping to generate some extra excitement on celebration day.   We kept the pinata a secret. It was going to be a "bonus" reward.

By Thursday, we did a final count:   107 children surpassed all of our expectations.

On Friday afternoon, my partner in crime and library assistant, Laura Cisneros, walked outside and tossed her son's lead rope over the widespread branches of the oak tree, dangling that big, gaudy pinata in the middle of a circle of almost giddy children.

We passed out fudge pops, ice cream sandwiches, dream sickles of all kinds. Our students stood in a huge, wide circle, talking and chatting with each other in the sunlight.

The students with the highest reading totals earned the privilege of striking the pinata first, while the whole crowd of children sang:

Dale, dale dale,
No pierdas el tino;
Porque si lo pierdes
Pierdes el camino.

Go, go, go,
Don't lose your aim;
Because if you lose it 
You will lose the path. 

A prophetic song, actually.
Go, go, go young readers.  Don't give up, or you'll lose your path. 

Children who'd read dozens of books took aim at the pinata, wielding the big stick into the air, trying to burst it wide open, one after another.  

Finally, I asked our principal to do the deed.  With a blindfold over his eyes, he cracked the tar out of that pinata, and 107 children rushed to capture the treasure.

It was just a simple request:  read.

Please read.

Just read.  We're not going to tell you how or what.  You decide.  

Just read. 

We know the future will be bright and full of promise if this one skill is developed...practiced...honed. 

As a reader, you can achieve, you can lead, you can change your world and perhaps even change ours.

That's all we wanted our students to glean from this incentive.  

107 children figured it out.  

It's pretty simple, actually.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Beauty nearest

“When we love, we always strive to become better than we are.
When we strive to become better than we are,
everything around us becomes better too.” 
– Paulo Coelho

Teaching is a creative art; it is the finest work I know.  And last week, I was given a small gift that demonstrates why I stay rooted and grounded in this profession.  It’s a short, simple story, but moved me quite profoundly.

My principal had this idea:  he wanted to give every child in school a book for Christmas, and he wanted the book to be on each child’s reading level so s/he could actually read it.  We set about creating the book order;  it took a little time and I’m sure it was not as accurate as it could have been, but we purchased a book for each child in grades pre-K through 5th. 

Children were asked to enjoy the book over the holidays, but as an added incentive to read, our principal asked children to create a “brown bag book report”—writing a summary of the book and placing 5 objects in the bag that represented some aspect of the story.  If they followed these instructions, they’d be rewarded with special time with him-together they’d play Loteria (Mexican Bingo) when they returned to school after the holidays.

Over 140 children brought their brown bags to school after Christmas.  Let that sink in.  That’s a great response for children who had the option of creating the project.  The idea was a hit. 

We held the first session of Loteria with pre-kindergarten students.  The little group of 9 children entered the library with their small brown bags, and the principal asked them to share their stories with each other. They excitedly told each other about what they read.

Then our principal shared his own brown bag.  He told the students that he read The Alchemist by Paul Coelho.  I’ve read the book, and I instantly felt sorry for the man.  I thought, “Oh my goodness.  These are pre-kindergarten students.  They’re never going to understand the book he wants to present.”

Then the magic happened.   

He begins to pull various items out of his bag…a map to signify Santiago’s journey- the shepherd boy who would need to travel all the way to the Egyptian pyramids in pursuit of mysterious riches.  He shares a compass, to demonstrate the many twists and turns of Santiago’s journey.  Out of his brown bag, he pulls his beautiful gold watch, to explain that Santiago wanted the alchemist to help him find riches like gold, crystal, and precious treasures. 

Finally he asks our students to look at the last treasure in the bag.  It is a compact mirror.  And our principal opens the mirror, asking each little four or five year old child to look in the mirror to see the treasure.

Eyes wide, each child finds in the mirror, an image of himself.  Our principal walked around the group, giving each boy and girl an opportunity to find his own reflection. One little girl held her cheeks beneath her little palms and exclaimed, “Are you kidding me,” awed that she was the treasure.

Oh the beauty of that moment brought me to tears.

Teachable moments are fleeting, despite the fact that we spend nearly eight hours a day in a classroom.  But this was indeed a teachable moment.  In that library, at that moment, nine little ones knew without a doubt that the treasure Santiago sought was the same one we all seek—to know our own value.  

Small lessons with profound beauty are the reason I stay in this profession. In this classroom. In this school system.  Paul Coelho wrote, “The simple things are also the most extraordinary things, and only the wise can see them.”   I am so grateful for the wisdom supplied in moments like these.  

 “Remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure.” 
 Paulo CoelhoThe Alchemist