30 August 2013

Still Marching

I had a TV hooked up in the library with MSNBC playing in the background while I worked on Wednesday.  It was only the third day of school and I hadn't started teaching lessons yet, so I didn't have to worry about the noise disrupting classes or distracting the students with the commercials.  I still missed the first part of Obama's speech, though, since he was beginning as our dismissal bell was ringing.  But I was back in time to hear this line: "That tireless teacher who gets to class early and stays late and dips into her own pocket to buy supplies because she believes that every child is her charge -- she's marching." I had tears in my eyes.

I went to get Isaac out of the after school program so he could watch the broadcast of King's "I Have a Dream" speech with me.  I had played a video during my children's sermon on Sunday because our scripture was about loving all God's people, but we hadn't talked about it much other than that.  I told Isaac the story of how King improvised the "I Have a Dream" portion of the speech and we watched and listened for the shift in tone.  And he brought me tissues when I teared up again.  

I was rather disappointed that the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington fell the first week of school.  So much is going on those first few days that it is hard to stop and take the time to teach about an event like that.  We were focused on teaching procedures and rules and creating community in the classrooms and building relationships.  All of those things are essential to a successful year, but I feel like we missed an opportunity.

Over the past decade I have read and taught with many books about the Civil Rights Movement.  There are so many good ones.  Some beautiful picture book biographies about Dr. and Coretta King have been written in the past couple of years.  Last year Kadir Nelson illustrated the text of the "I Have a Dream" speech.  The combination of the words and his paintings will bring tears to your eyes.  He also illustrated Ntozake Shange's biography of Coretta Scott King.  Nikki Giovann's biography of Rosa Parks, illustrated by Bryan Collier, who also illustrated Doreen Rappaport's Martin Big Words, is a lovely tribute to that Civil Rights pioneer.  

Those are all wonderful biographies of people that the students learn about every year.  But the books that really bring the struggle home to me, and that I like to use with students, are the fictional stories that depict the era from a child's point of view.  Wednesday night I read Isaac The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson.  It is the story about two girls growing up in the south in a town with a fence dividing them -- blacks on one side, whites on the other.  They overcome this physical hurdle to become friends despite the scorn of their peers and the worry of their mothers.  It ends with a hopeful picture of a future when the fence will no longer exist.  This evening I read him Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles.  This story is more raw than the sweet innocence of two girls in Woodson's story. Two best friends, one black and one white, look forward to swimming together in the newly integrated town pool in the summer of 1964, only to get there and find that it has been filled in with asphalt, the towns people preferring to do without the summer past-time rather than share it with the blacks in their community.  Both of these stories had Isaac going to fetch me tissue, but for different reasons.  I cried reading The Other Side because it made me hopeful.  I cried reading Freedom Summer because it made me angry.  

The other book that I can never read without crying when I try to teach with it, and which I have not yet read to Isaac, figuring one teary book a day is enough, is Goin' Someplace Special by Patricia McKissack.  In this story, a young black girl convinces her grandmother to allow her to go to "someplace special" by herself.  Reluctantly her grandmother sees her on her way.  On her journey the girl is subjected to racism and scorn that her grandmother usually shields her from, but she finally reaches her destination -- the Nashville Public Library, the first integrated library in the south.  Yes, I am tearing up even writing about the book.

I could list so many other books that are well-written and beautifully illustrated and that give homage to the people who have worked to make Jim Crow laws and "Whites Only" signs a thing of the past.  I could also send you to the Coretta Scott King Book Award page to see the books that have been awarded honors for demonstrating "an appreciation for African American culture and universal human values."  Or I could invite you to visit a school and see white and black and Asian and Hispanic children playing and learning together, because that is where King's dream is being lived out and taking root in another generation.  It is not fully realized yet, but it is still growing in the hopes and dreams of the children who read these books and hear these stories.  And I am thankful that I get to be one of the teachers who is marching to help nurture them.

26 August 2013

Summer Reading in Review

School started today.  It was Isaac's first day of 3rd grade. He turned 8 three weeks ago and he is now making his own lunch and learning to do his own laundry.  He is definitely not the baby I brought home from the hospital what seems like an eternity ago.

Okay, enough maudlin nostalgia.  

Over the summer I shared with Isaac some of my favorite characters from books I loved when I was growing up and he read a book that was assigned by the third grade teachers.  

I remember reading Beverly Cleary's Ramona books when I was Isaac's age.  I love reading series and I devoured Cleary's books about the precocious Ramona and her family.  I also read every Henry Huggins book she wrote.  On a trip to the library I let Isaac pick out one and we brought home Ramona's World to read.  This one came out when I was an adult. I had read it when I first started working in the library, but I didn't remember the plot.  Books that I read as a child have stuck in my head much better than books I read last month, so it was like Isaac and I were reading it together for the first time.  We would read a couple of chapters a night, just enough to keep Isaac's interest piqued so he would want to continue the story the next evening.  Ramona is a universal character -- one that boys and girls can both enjoy.  She is sweet, yet mischievous, but rarely purposefully mean.  She is a typical kid whom children can still relate to after decades in print.  I like her so much better than Junie B. Jones and I think Isaac does now, too.

Another series I loved was Encyclopedia Brown.  We have ebooks at school and Isaac and I had read a digital version of the first book in the series, then he picked out another one at the library this summer.  These books are a good example of how text complexity is important when helping children choose books.  Isaac and I read these books together and while the book is technically on Isaac's reading level, I often had to explain how Encyclopedia came to his conclusions or solved the cases.  The scenarios were just a little too advanced for him to understand or they required background knowledge that he didn't have.  Isaac really likes the books though, and the format is easy to read since each chapter stands alone as a "case," so I think I will encourage him to revisit these books next summer.

For school this fall, the third grade teachers wanted the rising third graders to all read Freckly Juice by Judy Blume.  They have a beginning of the year unit planned around the book, so we checked it out of the library.  I made Isaac read at least twenty minutes most days during the summer, but I also read aloud to him.  Since this book was an assignment, I made him read it himself.  I don't remember reading this one as a child, so I couldn't tell from Isaac's abbreviated summary if he had actually read it or not.  The week before school started I decided we would read it again, together, so it would be fresh in his mind for this week.  Unfortunately, it was not his favorite story and he found it "boring."  But I am confident that the teachers will make the unit fun, and there are great themes in the book that we explore at the beginning of the year as we build classroom communities that Isaac will be able to connect to.  Maybe they will even make "Freckle Juice."  Isaac wasn't interested in making it at home and I have to admit, I wasn't too keen to try it either.

We read other books, too, this summer -- some comic books, a Ripley's Believe It or Not style fact book, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Captain Underpants, Sports Illustrated for Kids.  Isaac still loves being read to, but is less enthusiastic about reading for himself.  Third grade is often considered the grade when students are no longer learning to read, they are reading to learn.  So, it is important for Isaac to be able to read and comprehend since instruction will be heavily focused on information and non-fiction.  But it is also important for him to want to read -- to be curious and engaged.  Finding the right balance and the right fit is going to be a major part of our reading journey this year.

25 August 2013

Promoting Faith

It was promotion Sunday today at church.  Each August, at the beginning of the new Sunday School year, our church hosts a breakfast at which they introduce the Sunday School teachers and recognize students who are moving up to a new class.  Children who are changing classes receive a new Bible or a book to help them along their faith journey.

A child who grows up in our church receives seven books between their dedication as an infant and their graduation from high school.  And each time, the church renews its commitment to the children to be a community of faith which supports and nurtures them.  

Today Isaac moved up to the 3rd-5th grade Sunday School class and was given a new Bible, the NIV Adventure Bible.  He has a wonderful group of teachers who will be guiding him this year in his new class.  He has now been given four of the seven books that he will receive from the church.

These are the words the congregation said after the children were recognized this morning:

Renewal of Commitment to the Children and Youth of College Park
Children and youth of College Park, as your church family, we affirm that you are children of God, beautifully and wonderfully made in God's own image.  We value the uniqueness of each one of you, and we commit ourselves to being a place of steadfast love and support as you continue in this life journey.  We promise to teach you the gifts and stories of the Christian faith; to encourage you as you question, challenge and explore your faith; and to model for you the radical ministry of Jesus Christ, so that you too might boldly live out your faith with others.

Four years ago, when he moved from the toddler class to the 4 year-old Sunday School class, Isaac got an illustrated book of the Psalms.  I think this is one of my favorite moments ever and one I pictured today.

Once again, I was reminded how lucky we are to belong to a church that loves our son so completely.

18 August 2013

Beginning Again

It is the beginning of a new year.  Summer usually refreshes me and by the middle of August I am ready to return to the routine of the school year.  But, this year, as I looked toward the week of teacher workdays and the first day of school, I was already tired.  It has been a hard summer for educators in North Carolina.  I worried, as I prepared to work with my colleagues to get ready for our students, what the atmosphere will be like.  Will morale be low?  Will everyone be stressed out before we even begin?  The other day as I drove through town I wondered how much longer I could or would do this.  Maybe, I thought, it is time to find something new.


This morning at church our friend Daniel preached about leaving work unfinished.  Often we grieve or feel guilty that we have not accomplished what we set out to.  We focus on the result.  Daniel reminded us that we need to focus on the process of our work, rather than look for an end to it.  

Teaching is a process.  We are one stop along our students' paths and we may or may not find out where they end up.  August is not the beginning of something new as much as it is a continuation of what came before.  June does not bring an end to our work.  It is merely a pause in the process.  

I am fortunate that my position allows me to follow students through their elementary years and see how they grow from chubby kindergartners to sophisticated pre-teens.  I can follow their progress throughout the year, wish them well for the summer, and welcome them back in the fall.  Eventually they move on to middle school, but the work has not ended.  The process continues. 


We started camping again this summer.  We took weekend trips, slept in a tent, cooked over a camp fire, went to bed shortly after sunset and rose shortly after sunrise.  I left my e-reader on my nightstand and read "real" books.  On a couple of the trips I even left my phone at home.  I floated in a lake, sat in a camp chair and watched the flames dance in the fire pit, gazed at the stars, and enjoyed the sound of the crickets.

I allowed my body to set the schedule on these trips rather than the clock.  I enjoyed sitting and doing nothing.  I disconnected from the world and reconnected with my family and myself.  I didn't worry about what had to get done.  I left things at home unfinished and was okay with that.


Daniel's message was exactly what I needed to hear this morning.  I needed the reminder that I will not get up tomorrow and every day after and go to school to finish my work.  I will go to engage in a process that is valuable, if sometimes not valued.  I will not see the results of my work in a few days or weeks or months and that is okay.  

And I needed to remind myself that it is okay to take the time to recharge and disconnect, to withdraw from the process briefly so that I can more fully engage in it when I return.  


Isaac is excited about going to school.  He wishes he started tomorrow rather than next Monday.  I may not be able to muster the same level of excitement.  It would, after all, be nice to be back in the tent tonight listening to the crickets with my alarm clock far away, able to wake up with the sun, not before it.

But I will get up in the morning and I will get ready for the work ahead.  I will remind myself that my purpose is not to be finished at the end of the day, it is simply to be ready to keep going.  It's true, you know, "a teacher's work is never done."   Daniel reminded me this morning to be thankful for that.  

07 August 2013

The Games We Play

We have always been a family that plays games, board and card games that is.  Matt and I played a lot of Scrabble and Monopoly when we were first married.  I also taught him how to play Cribbage so I would have someone to play with besides my grandfather.  We periodically had friends over for game nights and have added to our collection of fun group games.

We started playing games with Isaac as soon as he was able, which we insisted was younger than the ages noted on the boxes and in the game instructions.  We went through Candy Land and Don't Break the Ice and have added to our collection of "kid" games in the past eight years.  Some we have also given away as soon as Isaac would part with it.  Hungry Hungry Hippos is just so loud!

Last year we started playing "Euro" games.  These games are more strategy based and are usually focused around economic rather than military themes.  We started with Settlers of Catan and have expanded our repertoire in the past few months.  We still like to play as a family and look for games that can be played by three players and that we think Isaac will be able to learn.

On many Friday nights you can often find us at Geeksboro Coffehouse Cinema for game night.  A local game club brings in a collection of games for people to play.  It is rare that Isaac does not ask to go.  We try to find a new game each time and also play something that is familiar.  It has become one of our favorite family outings.

I thought I would share some of the games, Euro and traditional, that Isaac has particularly liked over the years.

Stratego: We have an old version.  The box is disintegrating.  This war strategy, capture-the-flag game has been around forever.  Matt taught Isaac to play it when he was four.  Isaac likes to cheat.

Chuck-It-Chicken: This is silly kids' game, but one that I find less tedious than others.  Players try to get their hens to the rooster at the top of the henhouse while other players attempt to knock their hens down with a rolling egg.

Marvel The Incredible Hulk Smash:  If I never have to play this game again I will be happy.  The set up is a pain since you have to build your pieces out of playdo.  Then players move pieces around the board or Smash other players' pieces to keep them from reaching the finish line.  Obviously, the smashing part is where the fun comes in.

Uno:  We taught Isaac this game a few years ago.  This series is great for number and color recognition.  Our deck is a Batman: Dark Night version we found at Target on clearance.  Isaac has never seen the movie, but knows all of the characters.

Pictureka:  This is a timed picture recognition game where players are trying to win cards by spotting the picture first. Not my favorite.

Cirkus:  This is a strategic tile game where players are trying to score points by completing shapes before their opponent.  Isaac beats me almost every time.

Swap/Ratuki/Skipbo: More fast-paced card games.  These are also great for quick number recognition.  Games do not take too long so these are good to play when attention spans are short.

Loot:  In this game players are trying to win treasure by playing their pirate ships.  You have an edge if you are holding one of the captains or the admiral.

Blackjack:  Matt taught Isaac this card game to help him with his math skills.  It was scary how quickly he caught on.

Yahtzee:  More math skills.  I played this a lot with my family growing up.  It was nice to continue the tradition with Isaac.

Settlers of Catan:  Our first Eurogame.  Players try to earn victory points while building roads and settlements.  Lots of strategy involved and some cooperation is needed as players barter and trade.

Ticket to Ride:  In this game, players try to connect cities on a map by building train tracks.  Failing to connect all of your cities will lose you the game. I know this first hand.

TransAmerica:  This is similar to Ticket to Ride, but Isaac likes it better.  It is faster paced and players can piggy-back on to tracks other players have put down to help them reach their destinations.  Both of these "train track" games are good at beginning map recognition.  Isaac is not necessarily learning detailed American geography, but he is starting to recognize the names and locations of major American cities.

Flux:  This is a card game that is different each time you play.  Players try to match a goal by playing different kinds or cards.  The rules change throughout the course of play, hence the name.  A game could take ten minutes or a half hour.

Aquarius:  Another card game.  This one reminds me of dominoes as players try to connect seven cards that match their picture goal, which is one of the seven earthly elements.  The player with the longest hair always gets to go first.  Score!

Love Letters:  Matt and I flummoxed that this has become one of Isaac's favorite games.  It is a deceptively simple 16-card game in which players try to get their love letter to the Princess.  At the end, the player whose card is closest in rank to the Princess wins.  It is a game of nuanced courtly intrigue, which Isaac doesn't understand at all.  But he knows which cards beat what and don't think he won't win.

We bought a few more games this past weekend at a nice game store in Wilmington -- Smash Up, Spot It and Befuzzled.  Smash Up will be a favorite with Matt and me and I think Isaac will like it once he learns.  (It is always best to learn and play the game at least once before trying to teach an eight year old.)  We hope to try the other games soon.

Anyone want to come over for a game night?

02 August 2013

5 Conversations This Liberal Christian Will Have With Her Son

Before we went to New York a few weeks ago, I downloaded 5 Conversations You Must Have With Your Son by Vicki Courtney.  I didn't know much about it -- it was one of those that showed up as a recent upload as I was browsing through the digital library one day.  It was fairly short so I thought it would be a quick read for the plane flight.  It ended up taking me about two weeks to finish.

Courtney is an Evangelical Christian who has developed a ministry around youth culture and parenting.  I am a Christian, but not an evangelical.  You could say I am a progressive.  You could even go so far as to say that I am a liberal Christian, though I do have conservative tendencies (it's hard to completely shake your upbringing).  I have been Dutch Reformed, Methodist and now non-Southern Baptist.  I belonged to the student Christian group in college and have been to retreats and prayer meetings and study groups.

The reason that what I thought would be a quick read ended up being a two week endeavor was because I was so distracted while reading the book by the disconnect between Courtney's language and my personal experience.  I have never been comfortable with evangelical language -- terms like prayer warrior, Godly person and the like cause me to move away from a conversation rather than draw me in.  And my personal beliefs are much more fluid than the black-and-white views espoused by many evangelicals.  I am also not comfortable with Biblical quotes being used out of context to support an argument or with scriptures thrown into a sentence as an example of appropriate behaviors.  For me, the Bible is a complete work with a large message and extracting small pieces to use in a debate or to give credence to a belief without providing context within the larger work is counter to its intended use. 

I soldiered through the book because, despite the rather large gulf between my approach to some situations that Courtney uses as examples and her way of handling them, I thought there were some lessons that I could take away.  I am, after all, raising a son and there are issues that are universal for all mothers and parents as our sons grow up.  So this is my interpretation of the 5 conversations that Courtney lays out in her book as being essential when raising a boy to adulthood.

Conversation #1 -- "Don't define manhood by the culture's wimpy standards. It's OK to be a Man!"

In this first conversation, Courtney describes what it means (to her) to be a man.  Think Wrangler Man, rather than an effeminate metro-sexual (or worse if you read between the lines).  Her message is for boys/men not to follow popular culture's less-than-manly examples and be the man that God intended them to be.  While I have differing views on what I think my son needs to hear about the kind of person he should emulate, there are good points in this chapter for mothers of sons to remember.  She reminds moms that boys need adventure, they will be daredevils and more than once our hearts will leap into our throats when we hear of their latest dangerous escapade.  Boys will be boys, and we need to let them.  She also reminds us not to be "helicopter" moms.  Boys will learn from their mistakes only if they are allowed to make them.  If mom is always there saving the day, the consequences of their actions will never become real to them.

I agree with Courtney that the image of a "man" that popular culture has defined may not be the one that I want Isaac to follow.  But rather than holding up an alternative image for him, like that of the Wrangler Man, I would instead encourage Isaac to look around and define for himself what he thinks a man should be.  He has many great examples in his life to go to for inspiration.  And in the end it will be up to him to define the kind of man/person he will be.  My job is to help him explore who he is so that he will have a strong sense of self.  My prayer for him is that he will feel comfortable being himself in whatever form that takes despite the pressure he may feel to fit in with others' expectations.

Conversation #2 -- "What you don't learn to conquer may become your master."

In this second section, Courtney explains how important it is to teach our sons self-control.  Boys tend to act before they think.  Hence the times that our mom hearts will be in our throats worried about them.  She delves into brain research that shows that male brains are not wired for self-control early in their lives.  They do not naturally think through consequences before taking action.  Obviously, this is not true for all boys -- there are always exceptions to the rule.  But she does cite Michael Gurian and other brain research about boys and I have seen evidence of this trait in my teaching and in my own parenting.  So, it is our job as moms to help our sons understand that actions have consequences.  A large part of this section was centered around talking with sons about the danger of pornography and the harm it can cause for themselves and their future relationships.

I agree with Courtney that it is important to teach Isaac to be able to moderate his behaviors.  My conversations will be less about temptation and sin, however, and more about responsibility and compassion for others.  One of my issues with the Evangelical message, at least the message that I hear as someone outside the movement, is the lack of focus on our responsibility as Christians to help others.  For me, being a Christian is not mainly about what I can do or not do to get into Heaven.  It is about what should I be doing to help my fellow man, Christian or not, and what should I be learning from the scriptures as a whole rather than from a passage here or there.  My job is to help Isaac learn to think for himself -- that includes thinking through how his actions will affect his life and the lives of others.  My prayer for him is that he will think more often about how he can help others than how he can help himself.

Conversation #3 -- "Not everyone's doing it! (And other naked truths about sex you won't hear in the locker room.)"

Courtney basically has one message in this section -- don't have sex before you are married.  She goes through physical, emotional and spiritual reasons for abstaining, but her message is black and white.  No sex before marriage.  She refers back to the self-control that boys need to learn from the second conversation which will obviously be needed for boys, or girls, to follow this path.

As much as I may disagree with the way Courtney delivers this message, as a mother I would prefer that my son abstain until he meets the person he decides to marry.  But, I think I have mentioned before that I am a realist.  I don't expect that to happen.  There are aspects of Courtney's conversation that I find valuable.  Teaching boys (and girls) what sex is and is not is important.  Teaching them to have a healthy and realistic attitude about sex is important.  But teaching them that abstinence is the only way is not responsible.  My main concern when it comes to sex is Isaac's physical and emotional safety.  He will need to know how to protect himself and his partner from diseases and from pregnancy.  He will also need to know how to choose a partner that will value him personally not just physically.  My job is to help Isaac grow up with a healthy and responsible outlook on sex.  My prayer for him is that he finds a partner(s) who fulfills him emotionally and enriches his life in other (not physical) ways.

Conversation #4 -- "Boyhood is only for a season.  P.S.: It's time to grow up!"

This conversation is probably the one that I gleaned the most helpful information from.  Courtney addresses the tendency among many men (and really all young adults) to delay independence.  Some of this problem can be attributed to those "helicopter" moms who did not prepare their children to be on their own.  Some of this problem is due to the financial mess that our country has been facing.  In this section the message is to grow up, move out, and take responsibility for your life.  She also spends a part of this section discussing what she sees as the problem of people getting married later in life.  This connects back to her message of abstinence, which is a more palatable message if a young person thinks about getting married in their early 20's rather than their late 20's as Courtney encourages them to do.  For me, outside of the marriage discussion, this part of the book offered more practical, usable advice than the rest of the conversations combined.

Most mothers want their sons to grow up and have lives of their own.  But they cannot achieve that without our help.  Courtney explains some ways that she and her husband helped prepare their children to be responsibly independent -- agreements and contracts when they got their licenses and first cars, talks about finances, contracts when going to college and expectations that were individual to the child.  So many young adults get caught up in debt or have unrealistic expectations about what it will be like to live on their own.  Many are not prepared for the responsibilities of paying rent, buying food, paying bills, holding down a job.  Children need to see examples and learn what their lives may be like, good and bad, once they are not under their parents' roofs anymore. My job is to teach Isaac to be able to take care of himself and to let him go once he is ready to do that.  My prayer for him is that he will find success and happiness as he builds a life of his own.

Conversation #5 -- "Godly men are in short supply. Dare to become one!"

Courtney stresses in this section the importance of male role models for young and teen boys.  To understand the kind of person they should want to become they need to see that kind of person living out their life.  She tells moms that if they do not have a role model in their son's life to find one.  And, of course, your son's role model should be a "Godly" man who exemplifies most, if not all, of the attributes that she has noted previously in the book.  Good luck finding that!

Positive male role models are important to boys.  But I also think it is important for boys to see many different types of men.  There are men of other faiths who I think are good role models for Isaac.  There are gay men whom I think he can look up to.  There are Christian men whom I would warn him to look at critically and heterosexual men whose lifestyles I would not want him to emulate.  No role model is perfect because they are human.  And boys need to see that, too -- the imperfectness of their heroes.  Sometimes the imperfection can kill the hero worship.  Sometimes it can make that person an even stronger influence because the boy can see how his idol overcomes his weaknesses.  I want Isaac to be able to look around him and discern what examples he should hold in his heart and which ones he should dismiss.  He will only be able to do that if he is exposed to people outside our group of friends or outside our church or outside our community.  My job is to broaden Isaac's world view and bring him into contact with people who will help him grow and from whom he can learn.  My prayer for him is that he will be surrounded by people who love and support him throughout his life and that he remembers that people will see God through his actions.