How Can We Prepare Students to be Global Citizens When We Rarely Hire From”Outside” Our Own Communities?

How Can We Prepare Students to be Global Citizens When We Rarely Hire From”Outside” Our Own Communities?

Teachers,

Principals,

Superintendents,

all with links to our community.  Some of these people were students at our high school, student teachers in our classrooms, life long community members residing in our neighborhoods, and we hire them. We hire them to teach our children. Our school district has a vision statement of “Educating every student to achieve global success.”  Can we do that when those teaching, administering, planning, or evaluating only have a local scope of reference?

This isn’t just true in education, either. I have seen the nepotism in health care as well. Virtually every teaching hospital my husband and I worked in over the last 30 years strove to keep some of their own. It makes sense to try to keep the cream of the crop, so to speak. But, what if the cream is thin? Or, not up to cream standards elsewhere?  Or what if those doing the hiring have no outside scope of reference?

We all talk about diversity and the importance of having diversity in our communities, in our lives, and as examples for our children. And, yet, when it comes to hiring in education…..locals, incumbents, and familiar faces all have an edge. As a person living in a community who is not from this community or even this state, the thought process behind the preference (whether intentional or not) bothers me. It certainly does not set an example of diversity or globalism, for that matter.

From an administrative stand point, I do understand the ease that comes with hiring one of “your own.”  These people are more of a sure bet, easier to train because they have already experienced “the system” or “your system.” And, don’t get me wrong, there are definitely some people worth retaining or obtaining from your own system or community. But, I really think that this should be the exception not the norm. And, certainly not the norm that it has become – an expeditious fast track to just fill the vacancy.

We, as a community, should be seeking, welcoming, and hiring people from outside our local region to teach our children. Instead, at times, I feel we are suspicious of them and their experience.  If we want to prepare our students for participation  in a global society, they have to receive some experiences of diversity, hear of “how it might be done differently” elsewhere, and be mentored by those who actually do have more of a diverse background. Maybe that means from another state, another region of the United States, another type of setting (rural or urban), or even another nationality, or country. As educators and stakeholders we would do well to provide (by hiring) some of these “outside” diverse human resources.

A varied and variety of experiences are important for a well-rounded life that can consider options and opinions that might, at first, seem foreign or outside of the local “norms.”  I know that is something I have valued in my own life, my husband’s life, and that we both have tried to impart to our children.  Our experiences in other states, in both health care and education, at both esteemed institutions like Johns Hopkins Hospital and University in Baltimore, or small community hospitals like Sister’s Hospital in Buffalo, New York, where most of the residents were of a Middle Eastern background imparted a vision of diversity, global-ness, and tolerance. If we, and I do mean all of us, want to embrace a vision of global citizenry and preparedness to participate in a world after local graduations, then it would be wise to start looking for hires in the world of education outside of our own communities.

Those with experience elsewhere can bring a freshness to the ideas presented at the table and in the classroom, with more flavors and reasons to experience teaching and learning in ways that are different from what is currently offered. It is more than just attending a conference and bringing an idea home, it is the inclusivity of taking a  chance on an educator or administrator who has a different background or comes from an area outside our own. Seeking, attracting, and hiring those individuals might take more time and patience, but I believe, for our students, the dividends will far outweigh the inconvenience. And, while we truly love and appreciate some of our homegrown educators who have had extremely positive influences on our students, and definitely want them to continue to do so, I do think at least the idea of hiring from outside the area has its merit and is deserving of some serious consideration.

*** Disclaimer*** This op-ed does not take into consideration the issue of state licensure which undoubtably plays a role in the hiring process of educators and healthcare providers.

This piece is written to share with the writing community of TwoWritingTeachers for Slice of Life Tuesday. Thank you to those at TwoWritingTeachers.org for the opportunity to share with other educators.

 

 

Does New Educational Lingo Impede Progress?

Does New Educational Lingo Impede Progress?

Every few years, new educational buzzwords seem to surface.  I remember first noticing this when we were in the third year of running a district wide Parent Support Group for families with Talented and Gifted students. In the third year of our existence, 2013,  a new instructional services person was hired. She was not new to the district but new to the position. It became entirely clear that she was not in favor of our efforts to support these students with more challenge, awareness and opportunities. After several repeated invitations, she finally came to our meeting and used the new common core state standards as an excuse to not provide students at our middle school with honors classes in language and the sciences, stating that the common core standards would support gifted learners because they were more rigorous. She also used the word “unpacking”. It was at that point she really lost me…….Unpacking???? What the heck? Did she mean getting used to? Starting to use? Implementing?  Now, looking back I assume she meant all of the above but her use of the word unpacking as applied to the Common Core State Standards, really turned me off. It was probably done so intentionally, as she might have assumed we parents did not “understand” what was needed in terms of time or effort from the district educators in getting used to the new standards. I, for one, did understand. I also understood, it was an excuse. I mean, really, who enjoys unpacking anything?

Multipliers

Thankfully, this person is no longer with our district. Unfortunately, her exit was only accomplished after she had time to wreck some damage with decisions that affected every student at our high school with a grade policy change in the summer/fall of 2016. When I asked, early that fall,  about the research and reasoning behind this grade policy change, which constituted 80% summative assessments, and 20% formative assessments, I was able to surmise that there was none. It was an arbitrary decision meant to “standardize” grading. Over the last two years, and after some analysis, I can honestly say it did nothing of the kind.  Other ways were found to manipulate grades such as the use of a multiplier (which was previously, almost always left at 1.0, but had now started to be used to increase or decrease weight of assignments and assessments). Some weird numbers were inserted for the multiplier on digital grading system, such as 2.67 or .43!  It just did not make sense and certainly young high schools students did not see the impact these numerical changes made on their grades, if they were even aware of them!  I can barely remember the correct name for this statistical tool – the multiplier – because in my head, I have equated it with being a “manipulator”.  All this from an educator who talked the lingo, such as “unpacking”, but really did not recognize (or maybe, did not care about) the impact arbitrary or poorly considered decisions can have on students.

History

The development and use of educational lingo has been around for decades. As with any discipline, terms develop and evolve according to the needs of those involved in the profession.  I know due to my recent forage into the field of Environmental Education – talk about an evolution of terms!  Anyway, I remember when my mom was still teaching back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and the terms inclusive and inclusiveness came into use. Certainly, these terms have stood the test of time in an educational capacity. However, you can be sure that when they were first utilized there was skepticism and uncertainty about how they were to be implemented. I vividly remember my mom having severely handicapped children placed in her “general education” third grade class without much additional support.  It took awhile for systems to recognize that while inclusiveness is good and necessary, it also deemed increased support for those teaching in an inclusive setting. Fortunately, I do think we have arrived at that point.  But, for my mom, it was the beginning of the end.  It took a while for the implementation to catch up with the phrase. She got out because the transition was not fast enough.

Equity

For years now we have been hearing about equity, another “educational buzzword”.  My first educational exposure to this word was when my eldest son was a young elementary student and I served on PTO. The principal at the school used the term during a discussion at one of our meetings, stating that equity is not the same as equality.  Given the fact that my son is now almost 24 years old, this was a wise piece of information for our principal to impart.  In fact, my own experience in K-12 education tells me that we still have not reached equitable experiences for all of our students and I have started to educate myself on that very subject.  And, while I did not have the chance to use my examples when I interviewed recently for a school board seat, you can be sure I went armed with them.  Sometimes, the pendulum swings so widely that we end up causing inequities for other groups of  students while we were trying to provide equity for those most in need. This applies to co-curricular offerings, community experiences, internships, and more – not just academics.  While the term equity has been around longer, it is still misunderstood by some of those who use it and therefore, remains a buzzword in education.  In other words, it makes you sound like you know what you are talking about when you really do not.

The Newest Terms

More recently, we are hearing the terms culturally sensitive and trauma informed.  I would consider both of these phrases educational buzzwords at the current time. They are new and have not passed the test of time like inclusiveness and equity.  Cultural sensitivity and trauma informed education are the popular subjects of books, discussions, and district personnel trying to find ways to reach all of our students – especially those that come from more difficult backgrounds or from outside what is considered to be the mainstream.  Reaching all students, especially those with challenges, is certainly an admirable goal, so I am not faulting the premise behind the development or use of these words.  Time will be the judge as the implementation is initiated, carried out, and tested.

In the fall of 2016, while in graduate school for environmental education I had to do a project that included forming a focus group on cultural interpretation that had to do with the administration of our lessons.  The largest minority group of students at the elementary school where I led a garden club for the past 13 years (2004-2017) were Hmong. I wanted to look at the proportion of Hmong students joining garden club and how I could serve this population of students/families better, as well as how we could learn from them. The Hmong tradition includes a great deal of involvement in gardening already. Could this be a reason few joined the garden club? This was only one of several questions posed.  I would have to say this was a “culturally sensitive” area to pursue. My focus group included building administrators, past and present, teachers retired and current, and our retired librarian, as well as the ESL (the English as a Second Language) teacher. The problem with this, however, is that none of the ideas that formed as a result of the focus group were ever implemented. I did the work for a class, the teachers and administrators supported my work, but we never moved forward with any of it.

I fear that might often be the case with new educational lingo. The words are developed or altered to fit our educational systems, book studies are done, discussions are held, parameters or action plans might even be developed, and then – nothing. We continue down the same path that was there before.

Admittedly, I do not know much about the trauma informed model of education that is evolving now. From what I do know, it makes sense to support students who have had trauma affect their lives differently than a student who has not had those life altering experiences. But, where do we draw the line? The potential problem I see with this is that not all student trauma is visible. It might not be the death of a parent, a house fire, a crime, or any other horrendous act that is traumatic for a student. We might not ever know every child in our classrooms that is affected by trauma. A good place to start, then, might be how to recognize trauma in all its shapes and sizes.  When it comes down to it, we might all have some traumatic incident in our lives that impedes learning. So, I have reservations about this newest phrase in the world of educational lingo and how it will be woven into current systems.

Answers

Does new educational lingo impede progress in our educational systems? I do not have the answer. In some cases, I think it does. Certainly,  in the case of the educator who used the word “unpacking”  used it as a divider, a distractor, and an excuse, it did.  In that case, yes, an impediment to our goals as a Talented and Gifted Parent support group was put in place by the “lingo”.  But, then you look at the word inclusive and how its understanding has helped to provide for many students over  a generation, and one becomes not so sure.

Words are important. In fact, words themselves play a huge a role in education.  We would be wise to pick ones that do not impede student learning by being caught up in how they are defined or put into action. The more time spent on that means less time for teaching. While it is important to continually evolve education to provide for all scenarios in the human condition, it is equally important to ensure the students who are in school now do not get passed by because of districts wanting to be on the newest wave of educational lingo.

 

Tears in the Garden

Tears in the Garden

I cried today while I was at work. Very unprofessional of me, I know.

Today was planting day at the school where I am the new garden club advisor.  Recently, I’ve spent 10-12 hours prepping the garden beds for planting. Over the weekend, I purchased the plants. I made sign up sheets for the teachers and today about 150 students were scheduled, class by class, to come outside and plant an annual in the school garden. Two nights ago, my husband helped me till it up. Last night I went to put out plant markers for a search and find with some of the more unusual named plants, count shovels to make sure I had enough, and generally check to see if we were ready. By the time I sat down last night it was 9:30. I had 16,000 steps on my FitBit. I had worked. Hard.

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By 6 a.m. this morning, my husband was taking the plants over to the school, about 20 minutes away, to drop them off for me. I arrived at 8:30 a.m. and left at 3:15 p.m.. I was in the garden all day and it wasn’t all rosy, believe me.

My problem started before today. The “old” garden manager is still very much involved with the garden beds I was hired to care for last fall. She’s said I am doing a good job but then adds many suggestions about what or how things should be done, as well as telling me that I should ask permission if I need to replace a plant.  Until late last week, I was able to ignore these suggestions.  But, as the planting dates loomed closer, I could feel my annoyance building. I let a couple of  emails from her go unanswered, hoping to give off the impression that I knew what I was doing and did not need guidance. After all, for each of the last 14 month’s of May, I planted with 30 or more school aged children in a school garden close to my house – at the school my boys had attended as elementary students.

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Intensity builds

But since the end of last week, I felt my intensity grow. I was super focused on doing a good job and doing it right, but a couple of thoughts kept floating to the surface. The  predominate theme was that this job entails too much gardening and not enough teaching for me. I am a teacher first and gardener second – the garden is the vehicle in which my lessons ride.

So, when I planned today’s planting session, I gave a mini-lesson on annual plant life cycles, seeds, and a how-to demo. This took 10 minutes. Planting took 10 minutes (each child only planted one plant). And, I also constructed a search and find for the students to do after their planting was done to introduce them to the plants in the garden bed. One of my educational goals for this garden is to connect the students to it. They see it, walk by it, or even through it, but do not know about it. It is part of their “place”, their school, where they spend a majority of their waking hours. They should know about it.  This was a simple exercise to learn plant names and where they are in the school gardens.  One of my strengths is being super organized, so fortunately, this plan worked well all day today.

Back Up…

But, shortly after I arrived, the old garden manager came outside. I am not sure what she was doing there. Perhaps volunteering in her grandson’s classroom. I do not know.  I was still prepping for the first class which involved moving plants around, marking spots to dig, placing shovels near the plants, etc.. I was busy. I had gotten the water spigot key from the custodian and needed to fill water buckets. She complimented me on my plant choices. Then, she asked if they were going in the main garden bed, I said that they were. Well, then I was told that “for future reference” that is the “seed” bed because second grade studies seeds.  They always just “seeded” that bed in the past. Well, I said, this year will be different. We’ll have some instant color and each student will get to put a plant in the ground. This conversation and others like it was what I was afraid of because it is pretty much how the emails have gone. A compliment is followed by a zinger. The recognition of this pattern had caused me to stress about planting at school this week.

Truly, I was not looking forward to it for this very reason. I knew I would be told, “it wasn’t they way it had been done in the past.” You know, I was hired to do a job. No one told me it had to be done the way it had been done in the past. My emotions were close to the surface; I could feel it. I had been close to “spilling” over for a few days now. My family knew it. I knew it.

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Well, the first class came out. I gave my mini-lesson. The old garden manager stayed and watched. I asked her to help and fill up some water buckets. I gave her the water key I had the forethought to get from the custodian. Our prior conversation had interrupted my prep time so I did not get the buckets filled.  She asked if I had brought a hose over to the spigot. No, just the cans and the key, I replied.

In return, I got, “Well, that doesn’t work well here. You need a hose.”

Loosing it

You know, I lost it. I thought for a minute and then said, well – it will have to do. I am trying to do a good job and I am not you or the person that helped you in the garden.  The garden will not be the same was it was when you managed it because we are different people. I never had a hose before and it always worked. UGH! This was in front of the kids!

We finished planting and she came over to apologize. Then, she went inside for a while but came back as I had a break for an hour. Despite saying I didn’t want to “get it to it” we did. I ended  up crying. This is embarrassing. There was not anyone to hear us but still I didn’t want to cry. Damn! I knew it was going to happen. So, I cried. I cried as I told her this has not been an easy transition. I am a teacher first and a gardener second.  There is too much gardening and not enough teaching with this role. The gardens are huge. They really need a full-time, dedicated GARDENER!  That person is not me. I am a teacher! If there was any ever doubt in my mind before today, there is not now.

As I proceeded with my day, my intensity lessened and I was able to relax and enjoy the students. In part, this is because this person did not return to “help” – even though we parted amlicablly.  I enthusiastically taught each group, enjoyed planting with them, enjoyed getting to know the teachers, and having both teachers and students get to know me.  I was fine with the next group, 37 second graders, their teachers, and me.  We did fine. My lesson plan and organization of the planting  worked.

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So, what happened here? Well, first off, my emotions have been close to the surface for a while.   Since last month, I have been fighting for my garden club group again – just at a different school. I’m tired of fighting for my groups. Tired. I am only trying to enrich  students and yet, I have to fight for the opportunity to do this. Paid or volunteer, I have to fight. It isn’t right and it is exhausting!  Secondly, in part, I am grieving for my previous garden club group; this was a group of students I led for 13 years. I miss them. I miss the familiarity of the school, the teachers I know who appreciated me (and the few that didn’t), I miss it all.  Planting with new students, however great they were, made me miss my old students. There is no denying that.  Thirdly, May has been extremely busy.  I have a senior in high school, a looming graduation  (9 days), visiting family – some who have not been here in 5 years, finishing of two graduate school classes, and organizing the planting all the while I was working on cleaning up the garden. Not to mention things to do in my own yard!

I always try to look at things from another perspective. I told the person that brought me to tears earlier that I live down the road from the garden I used to manage and if I saw someone working in it, I would never stop and tell they what they should do or what I used to do. I resigned, much like this person resigned. I have no right to tell the person that takes over what to do.  Yet, I was being told.

What do I do?  Well, I can tell you what I think I should do. I can tell you what my husband wants me to do. But, that can wait. The other thing  I have been thinking about is how I need to get my intensity under control. Not everyone understands intense people. I get that. But, I am one. I do not necessarily like that about myself. It has its advantages, but probably more disadvantages. I will tell you this, I am thinking of ways I can enjoy life more, be LESS intense, and more relaxed.  And, yet, I will also tell you that having students who just met me today and left school waving, calling me by name, and telling me planting was fun was the highlight of my day.

But, I also know that life is much too short to be crying in a school garden at ten o’clock in the morning, with a person I barely know.  It just isn’t something that needs to happen. And, I’m not quite sure a hug from a kindergartener or even a whole line of them makes up for that.

 

 

 

 

Procrastination Fueled by Inefficiency, Disorganization, and Devaluing

Procrastination Fueled by Inefficiency, Disorganization, and Devaluing

Procrastination is not usually something that affects me personally. Character traits such as being highly organized, efficient,  motivated, and goal orientated are more likely terms you might hear to describe me and my work ethic.

However, here I am procrastinating! I should be working on my graduate course work this morning.  Still left to do are two more weeks of assignments, a final project, and more progress on analyzing my study data with a move towards writing up my findings. But, here is what I’ve noticed.

Our assignment this week was finally posted yesterday (Thursday evening). It was supposed to be posted last Sunday. Our course weeks run Sunday to Sunday. This Master’s degree is entirely online and after this semester, I will only have five credits left. I am ready to be done! And, I don’t feel that way because I am tired of learning or tired of the subject matter – Environmental Education. Just the opposite, I am finding more and more opportunities to share what I know and encourage others to work to conserve our natural resources, provide habitat for declining species, and act as stewards. But, I am ready to be done with the system of higher education – at least the system I find myself in at the current time.

Why – when professors expect your work to be submitted on time do they not expect the same of themselves? Our course runs Sunday to Sunday – our assignment should have been posted Sunday, not Thursday! For an organized person, such as myself, and I expect many of my class cohort, this is intolerable!  Most likely, we have all planned out our weeks, and given ourselves adequate time to do the readings and then, the assignments. When the assignments are not posted in a timely and organized fashion, we suffer!

Then, when the assignment was posted it was accompanied by a disclaimer that because we are “virtual” students, and not stopping by our professors “office” to remind her of our class, we have been sent to the bottom of her priority list! What?! I pay tuition too! This is not right, and it certainly isn’t right to devalue our student status just because we are not “bothering” her left and right with knocks on her office door!

You know, I taught years ago at the college level in a different discipline, and this would never have been tolerated. The devaluing of your students, the lack of organization in posting assignments, the inefficiency of grading (none of our previous work had been graded until the end of week eleven!)

In sum, it is all affecting my level of motivation and leads me – a non-procrastinator – to procrastinate! I have lost all interest in doing a good job on my work because I do not see a good job being done in return! I know my professor is busy – it is her job to be busy! But, despite being virtual students and maybe, in part what causes us to be virtual students, is that we are busy, too!

And, to further my own ire, I am working on a research study with her as my mentor! Let me just say that it is a good thing that I can chalk up her lack of involvement with this to the fact that I took on research as independent study credits.  It’s been truly independent – without even a syllabus or set of objectives to guide me through this semester or last. My sister, who is an assistant professor at another university, tells me this is very abnormal! I guess, I don’t need to be told; I know!

I have long fought for educational reform at the K-12 level. We still need to fight for changes within that system. But, what I am seeing and experiencing now, is a lack of teaching standards at the college level. With three boys either finishing their secondary education, or entering into the second phase of their educational lives – at the college level, it truly concerns me.

As educators, we cannot expect our students to perform at their highest level, adhering to rules and standards, when we – as their teachers, mentors, professors, and guides – fail to do so ourselves!  I firmly believe that those that teach CAN and DO – and those that don’t – SHOULD NOT!  I am counting the days until I am done with these courses.

 

 

 

Lessons from a Home Maker Space

Lessons from a Home Maker Space

Just over a year ago, my husband bought a 3D printer for our house. Really, it was bought for my 18-year-old who will graduate from HS in a few months. He’s our inventor, our experimenter, our dreamer.  Over the course of the last year, he’s put the 3D printer to good use.  He played with it enough to learn how to use it well. He’s read tutorials, been on forums, and even fixed it a time or two when one of the axis’ seemed off or the thermostat was not functioning. He’s patient. He is persistent and he perseveres. He’s self-taught. And, he’s great at using the printer, the software that goes with it, and our CNC machine – another “toy” out in my  husband’s shop.

 

Miniature versions of Groot have been made, some to keep and some to give away.  Car parts have been made as a custom order from a referral made by a friend at the high school. A vacuum table accessory has been developed and more, just by learning and persisting with a new tool, new knowledge, and practicing new skills.

 

He did not give up when things got hard. Instead, he tried to figure out the problem – and fix it – whether it was software or hardware based. It’s been fun watching him learn with enthusiasm.

 

And, this experience says a lot about learning. None of the skills he is using are measured at school. There is nowhere to apply them there with the exception of the art class with a very flexible teacher who let him carve a notebook cover of a wolf instead of sketching one for his notebook.  That was so cool!  Even the computer science course being taken now and the AP physics course of last year did not allow application of these skills.  But, he learned them anyway – because he wanted to.  Free of grades, free of judgment, free of the demand to be “right” with his answers every single time.  It seems he has been able to go beyond the walls and narrow tunnel traversing that traditional teaching and learning environment. Instead, he has become able to direct his own engagement in absorbing new material and the manner in which that is done.  The 3D printer and our home maker space has allowed my son to feel accomplished and have pride in what he has learned and produced.

School used to be the way kids obtained these feelings about their skill sets. Maybe it still is the path for “in the box” thinkers or traditional learners. But, the ability to think critically. learn from one’s mistakes without fear of a poor grade or drop in GPA, and continue forward, are traits we want all our children to have by the time they are adults. Where they acquire them should be secondary.  The home maker space, 3-D printer, CNC machine (on which he is also self-taught and produced products), and table saw have been essential for learning and making our son not only college ready,  but life ready.  I am glad we could provide these tools. He’s used them well with only the guidance of his own intelligence, drive, and dreams.

Now we have in-depth conversations about the synthetic production of body part replacement or web-based companies for products made on these machines that he has continued to master.  He is inspirational.  He is a new breed of learner.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photos on phone

 

Starting to Sprout: The Growth of a New Garden Club

Starting to Sprout: The Growth of a New Garden Club

In October, I accepted a position as a Garden Club Advisor for an internationally themed elementary school in our area. It is a well-known, well-respected school of choice, locally. I do not want to say I was a shoe-in for the position, but I interviewed offering 13 years of experience of leading a garden club for an elementary school in my resident school district. Not only did I lead the club, I founded it in the fall of 2004 after completing my Master Gardener Volunteer Level One Training. What was supposed to be a way for me to obtain my volunteer hours, actually turned out to be my calling!  I am meant to teach children, this I know.  I have come to learn that I want most to teach them about our environment. Environmental education allows interdisciplinary lessons to be woven through all subject areas. It is a great fit for me, and hopefully, a new set of students, too!

After serving over 500 youth in my resident district, including my own three boys, and countless others that I developed relationships with during the last decade, I ended the group. Why, is not important for this post. Essentially, I needed to, so I did. It took a long time – actually years – to arrive at that decision. But, finally I was ready to leave. But, I knew I cold not go back to this school to visit, to hold my other group – a writer’s circle, or even to maintain the butterfly garden that I so lovingly created and maintained with students since 2006. I had to make a clean break.

Unexpectedly, this fall,  I saw an advertised position, a paid position for a Garden Club Advisor at a neighboring school district. A larger school system with a larger garden. A new school with new students! I did not need long to think it over.  I applied and was hired the day I interviewed.

Tonight, I held our fourth garden club meeting.  I had four students. We planted bulbs – not the bulbs I used with my previous group – but different kinds. Not one bulb per student – but six. Forcing bulbs and teaching young children about bulbs as plant structures is one of my favorite lessons.  I can firmly say that by the time we were done today, I think it was one of their favorite lessons, too!

Our group is jelling, I am happy to say! Yes, it is a small group. It is about 1/6th the size of my first garden club group at my previous school. Still, the students are engaged, good listeners, and curious about what we are learning. In addition, I am being paid! PAID! And, I am still love what I am doing!

I won’t lie. It is different. A new building. A New staff. The fourth administrator with whom I have worked. But, relationships take time. I have the time to build another club. It seemed this month was a turning point. I met with the principal on Monday to discuss my vision of the club for her school.  Mostly, I want to share with the staff, parents, and students what my vision is – not only beautiful gardens but the gardens used to educate, instill pride, and a collaborative effort. We put some plans into place to help me communicate the vision.  I want to get rid of any preconceived notions that might exist about my role. While the gardens are beautiful and will need maintaining, I am there for the students, first and foremost.

Our club meeting had a new comfort level. The students arrive knowing who I am, my expectations, and how the club meeting goes. I have gotten to know them, with the need for name tags long gone.  They are a great bunch. We talked about flower bulbs.  I was seated at a table with the students. We learned. We laughed. We planted some bulbs. We cleaned up as a group! Together. And then we played Garden Club Hangman which just means that our vocabulary words from the day’s lesson were used. New rules of play were accepted without question.  Everyone was picked up on time at dismissal. It was a very satisfying meeting.

On the way home, I found myself smiling. Our club is starting to sprout! Roots have been established. The building is warm. We are growing. Together, our garden will grow.

Advice on Choosing an Elementary School

Advice on Choosing an Elementary School

Every once in a great while, I will be asked an odd question….

…..”how did your son complete all his high school math in middle school” was one of the more classic examples of the odd questions posed to me in the past.

But, last week I was asked by someone I know only through emails, if I could tell them about the elementary school at which I told them I was working as a newly hired Garden Club Advisor. I had to back up quite a ways in my emailed response explaining that I actually knew very little about this new school at which I was trying to claim as my home base. This was much different that the intense loyalty, dedication, and yes – even defensiveness, I felt towards the elementary school I had just left this past June after being an involved parent and volunteer for the past seventeen years!

I took this person’s question seriously, as I would hope anyone else would take a similar question from me. This acquaintance had revealed that she and her husband had two toddlers and even though their school years’ seemed far away, she was trying to learn as much as possible about the elementary schools in our area. I like a prepared person, and I also did some research (nineteen years ago) on the schools in this area. Although, it has been five years since I had a student in elementary school, I felt qualified to answer, having spent a great deal of time, in multiple different roles, at one of our local elementary schools.

So, I decided to try to help her out. Firstly, I congratulated her on looking into the upcoming event of her children starting school. Then, I reiterated that I knew next to nothing about the school I now found myself in as the Garden Club Advisor. The job was posted; I had just left a similar volunteer position. I applied, and was hired.  I told her what I knew. The school was an “international” elementary school – a school of choice in a larger district that neighbors my resident district. Their international theme means that students and their families can choose from two tracks, a Spanish language and cultural immersion track, and a global track that focuses on multiple cultures the world over. The gardens, of which I now find myself in charge, also have an international theme – matching the school’s mission. I have my work cut out for me this spring, as there are many plants and connections to the various cultures that I do not recognize.

But, she essentially was asking me how to go about picking an elementary school or school district. Many families do not have the ability to choose. I know that.  However, that particular social justice issue is beyond the scope of this post. But, she was telling me their family did have a choice. And, her question was logical, as the school I am now at receives many families from all over the area through open enrollment, as a school of choice.  It is not a neighborhood school (although, it is in an upper-middle class neighborhood).

I suggested she should check out the various websites of the schools her family was considering. There is a plethora of information available now on district websites, as well as the websites of the individual schools in a given district. She can peruse, at her leisure, the mission/vision of the districts, the qualifications of the teachers, the courses offered, class sizes, and even extra curricular activities such as the garden club I offer at the elementary school.

When we researched schools, prior to moving from New York to Wisconsin, I used a service/website called SchoolChoice.com. Finding a high quality school district was important to our young family during the relocation process. On this website, I was able to select the area school districts I was interested in and for a small fee per school, get information on 25 or so different factors, including the number of tax dollars spent on each student. We found it revealing and it helped us narrow our housing search down to two districts.  After that initial search narrowing, I did contact each of the districts regarding specific requests for information that was essential for our decision-making. The specifics of what I asked are not really as important as knowing you have the ability to ask! I remember telephoning one district, and being able to talk with both the superintendent and an elementary principal. Both were welcoming and helpful in providing information.

After some digging, while writing this blog piece, I could not find this service or website under the name SchoolChoice.com. Obviously, the term “school choice” has come to be a hot topic in recent years. However, I was able to find a similar service called School Digger.com that looks like it provides similar information. The point is that if you want information, do not be afraid to look for it or ask for it.

Other than directly asking school districts for information, which admittedly might be self-serving, and politically correct in the answers received, I advised my acquaintance to seek out parents with students who attend the schools they are considering.  Many parents are happy to tell you of their experience with their child’s school. Be careful, however, to get more than one opinion.  But, all in all, other parents are a great source of information.

Going to a PTO, or parent-teacher organization meeting, even before your child starts school is a great way to scope out what is important to other parents and staff at the school you are considering. We did this for a full year before our oldest started kindergarten, making games for the Spring Fling (now a Fall Festival) and helping out at the annual Chicken-Q.  By the time he was in kindergarten, I knew other families and became a PTO officer, and class-mom, myself.

Here’s the tough part however, there are only about six people left at the elementary school we chose to have our boys attend that know this history.  Principals and staff change. Districts are re-districted. New families come in, established families move on. Contributions are made and then, forgotten, along with the changing families and personnel. We were so involved in our boys’ elementary years that by the time they were no longer there (a timeframe which spanned 13 years), few of the staff knew why I was still walking the halls with book club students, writer’s club students, and holding garden club once a month.

With the research I did, we made a great choice. Our boys’ elementary years were among their best years of schooling! The staff was caring, attentive, and accommodating. The three administrators who served this elementary school over the span of seventeen years of our involvement all grew to know and appreciate our family contributions to the classrooms, and eventually, entire student body.  But, boy, has it been tough to say good-bye to that school!

In essence though, is that not what you want? Don’t  you want a place so nurturing and enriching that it becomes part of your family? This mom is on the right track by looking for that school – ahead of the time they will need to make a choice.  Lastly, I would advise my acquaintance to look for teachers who invest in their students, who get to know them as people, and want to educate those students from the point they are at, not some arbitrary pre-set classroom curriculum or standard.

Caring, Investment, Individualization, Enrichment, and Belonging. These characteristics are things I would look for when choosing an elementary school for my children if I had to do it again today. The above characteristics are as important as those of safety, growth, convenience, communication, test scores, and funding.  The former are the intangibles of a successful school choice. And, if you are lucky enough to find a place that offers your child a place to grow happily amongst their peers, with the full support of staff and administration, allowing them to be the best version of their very young selves, it will be a wise choice, indeed. Perhaps, you will also find it hard to say good-bye after a very long, but satisfying stay.