‘Tis The Season . . .

The Big IdeaThey say that as one ages, memories from long ago are easier to remember than more recent experiences. In my own life, I have found this to be true. I can oftentimes remember the most arcane and trivial things from my past, yet I struggle to remember where I may have set my glasses down five minutes ago.

As luck would have it, long-term memory is an incredibly helpful tool for many reasons. We would all like to believe we learn from our previous experiences, and each of us hopes in some small way that these experiences help to form the basis for any wisdom and understanding we may have acquired over the years. In the season and spirit of thankfulness we are now in, I am especially grateful for my memories and ability to recall the many lessons I learned from some of my own teachers – oh, so many years ago.

From my first grade teacher, Mrs. Migdahl, at William F. Prisk Elementary School, I learned the joy of reading through her encouragement in allowing me anything I wanted to read. I learned my love of history from Miss Chase in the third grade, who had us tune into a radio broadcast on famous Americans each week in class – and we listened! I especially remember Mrs. Theresi in the sixth grade, who right away recognized and appreciated my sense of humor, but who also taught me that with great humor, comes great responsibility.

Mixed among the many positive lessons, of course, are the occasional individuals that allowed me to learn some powerful lessons from them by exhibiting behaviors and practices that even then I understood to be “just not right.” Among these was my seventh-grade English teacher at Leland Stanford Junior High School, Mr. Ackerman. In Mr. Ackerman’s class, your seating each week depended upon your success or lack thereof on each Friday’s spelling test. The whole world knew how well you could spell . . . In the eighth grade, Mr. Cannon believed in giving long reading assignments in class, apparently so that he could read the daily paper at his desk in peace and quiet . . .

Though few and far between, these examples of negative role modeling also served to help me learn more about myself and eventually my career in education. By teaching me how I did not want to treat my future students, I believe teachers like Mr. Ackerman and Mr. Cannon made me a better teacher – albeit probably not purposefully.

So here’s to the Mrs. Migdahls and Miss Chases of the world. Here too, I reluctantly salute Mr. Ackerman and Mr. Cannon. Even more important, here’s to my many colleagues in teaching over the years, and especially those at Holy Spirit School today. Keep up the great work and realize that someday, the students whose lives you have touched will remember your words, actions, and examples. We have each been shaped by our experiences with our own teachers, even as we help shape our students today for their own challenges tomorrow.

As parents, please join with me in this season of gratitude – or during any season for that matter – and take a few minutes to thank your child’s teacher for their work with your children. If possible, take a few extra minutes and track down that former teacher or teacher who helped make you what you are today, and thank them. A sincere note of thanks, in either case, will make their day for the next ten years . . .

‘Tis the season . . .

 

 

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Thank You For Your Service . . .

shutterstock_94846813It’s not often these days that we stop to think about the origin and meaning of a particular national holiday. Too often, we view the holiday as another day off work, time away from other responsibilities, and perhaps even a brief vacation. While each of the holidays has names of honor: President’s Day, Memorial Day, and Veteran’s Day, to name just a few – we live in busy and overscheduled times. Seemingly without time for true reflection, we instead spend the holidays driving from one place to another, fighting the usual holiday crowds, and then returning to work on Monday perhaps more tired and spent than on a normal weekend.

At Holy Spirit School, recognizing that appreciation for others and lifelong learning is a critical element of life for all of us – young or old – we made a concerted effort this year to pause for a moment and truly celebrate the holiday that is Veteran’s Day. Our goal was to help our students, faculty, and parents fully understand and acknowledge the what and why of celebrating the day. To that end, we transformed our normal daily assembly into a morning of recognition of Veteran’s Day and all that it means to us as American citizens.

The first hint that this day holds a special meaning for all of us was the Presentation of the Colors by our entire school Scouting contingent. From Daisies to Brownies, Cubs to Boy and Girl Scouts, they proceeded in quiet marching order to divide the assembled grades in two and form a pathway through the middle for the colors to follow. In solemn and respectful silence, broken only by the commands being given to the Guard, the Scouts saluted and the entire school watched as the colors marched up to the stage.

Following the crowd’s recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, our guest speaker, Commander Kevin Lavery, stepped up to the microphone. A Coast Guard veteran and current Holy Spirit School parent, he patiently took the time to explain the meaning of the word “veteran”, and that the history of today’s holiday originally meant to honor the sacrifices of the men who fought in World War I – the “war to end all wars.” For many of our students – especially those in the younger grades – this was perhaps the first time either perspective had been shared with them.

Commander Lavery went on to explain that one of our most important responsibilities as citizens and one of our kindest acts is to recognize the men and women who have served our country – not just through national holidays such as today’s, but also personally whenever the opportunity presents itself. To walk up to a veteran, to shake their hand, and most importantly, to simply say, “Thank you for your service,” are each meaningful beyond words to our living veterans. Whether they are proud of their time in the service of our country or still dealing with the wartime aspects of such service, all veterans appreciate the thanks of us as grateful individuals and a grateful nation. To accentuate his point, he asked the veterans in the audience to raise their hands and be recognized – a gesture that was met with extended and enthusiastic applause by all those present.

All of us at the assembly could not help but walk away from today’s ceremony with both a greater knowledge of the meaning of Veteran’s Day and a deeper appreciation of what it means to serve and to sacrifice for our country. As I lingered after the assembly, I could tell this by the dozens of students – and parents – in line around me waiting to greet the veterans who attended, shake their hands and honor them for their service.

Finally, the day was summed up best for me at the sight of a little third-grade girl finally at the front of the line reaching out and shaking the hand of an elderly veteran. As his large and frail hand encircled hers, she looked up and smiled, speaking barely above a whisper, and simply said, “Thank you for your service.” I’ll forever swear that through my own tears at the scene before me, that the grateful veteran was crying as well . . .

The (Traffic) Circle of Life

imagesThere are a lot of different ways you can discover the true heart of a school – what makes it tick, what its students are like, how well the learning process is played out, etc. Most would argue that the classroom itself is the best way to judge a school – how the teacher delivers the day’s lesson, the attentiveness and engagement of the students, the positive atmosphere in the room – and none of these would be wrong. For others, it may be in the hallways or on the playing fields, where the tone, school spirit, and lessons of sportsmanship and teamwork are played out every day.

While it would be hard to argue with any of these perspectives, I’ve always felt there was another place and time in the school that reveals the true nature of the school’s mission, the personalities of its students and parents, and where a school’s ability to cope with both the planned and unplanned all come together. For now, forget the classrooms, the assemblies, and the playing fields. Instead, concentrate on the one place where the day both begins and ends – drop-off and pick-up time in the school’s parking lots . . .

Where else but at morning drop-off can you see students and parents in their purest forms? As you open the car doors and greet each student, you open the door to unseen worlds and vistas for the average faculty member and administrator. For it is here – if only for a few seconds – that you see the moods, the interactions, and the behaviors between parent and child that so often set the tone for their day, and may have a huge influence on the course of that particular child’s learning.

Putting aside the always welcome and appreciated bright, chipper and ready to go child and family – there are a few, but their numbers seem to diminish a bit more each year – there are plenty of examples of families barely able to pull it together for one reason or another. These are the families whose children are still eating breakfast as they exit the car – tossing back inside half-full drink cups and barely eaten bagels as they unbuckle their seat belts and bound out. At times, I have wished I were a trained anthropologist, able to study the food debris left behind in some cars for seemingly weeks at a time – thank goodness I rarely opened doors during summer sessions . . . For others, there were daily competitions between parents and children as to who could finish dressing/make-up application first – even as the car pulled up to the curb. Often is the time the child emerged from the seemingly darkened nether regions of the back seat with only one arm in a jacket or one or fewer shoes tied . . .

Moods as well can often be picked up in an instant after the door is opened. Of course, it helps to be alerted ahead of time when you can hear raised voices from several cars away – despite the closed windows – as they line up to disgorge their riders. I will never forget the argument between child and parent that had obviously begun at home over breakfast and was still raging in the car as I opened the door. Clearly, it made no difference that I was now privy to the entire row going on. Instead, guided instinctively and robotically to the carpool line and drop-off point, neither party seemed willing to end their side of the story. As curious as I was to listen, and despite the pleading look in the eyes of the parent – a look I took to mean “please help straighten out my unruly child” – I opted for the more forlorn look of the five year old and rapidly plucked her from the jaws of an almost certain rhetorical defeat.

Of course, where else but in a carpool line can you see the slightly aberrant behavior of the child played out for all to see by the parent? As educators, we sometimes wonder why a child habitually fails to follow directions or allows their concentration to wander. No need to debate nature or nurture here. Time after time, the parent whose child frequently “goes their own way” is the same one dangerously passing others in the carpool lane or jumping out and opening the doors on the wrong side of the car – despite repeated instructions, pleadings, and sometimes confrontations to the contrary. One of my personal favorites is always the parent on the phone as they pull up, too busy to say goodbye to the child or even notice their departure. I frequently resisted the urge to replace the child in the car with myself and see how many miles it would take for the parent to notice – perhaps enjoying the remains of a half-eaten bagel while I waited . . .

Multi-student carpools also provide a microcosm of school life for all to observe. In most instances, everyone in the car was friends and got along well. Once in awhile, however, it was obvious that the carpooling arrangements were made between parents, and without the child’s input. The best way to test this theory was usually by the speed with which the “clown car” emptied. Fast and easy exits upon arrival meant everyone working together in a friendly fashion to get out and get on with the day. Slow and laborious leavings, occasionally punctuated by tussles over backpacks or lost lunches, frequently signaled forced “friendships” and temporary automobile incarcerations.

Safety is just as important in the operation of a good carpool line as efficiency. With the huge amount of traffic flowing through the school at compressed times, moving students quickly and safely from their cars to their classrooms is paramount. At a time when everyone has to pay attention to each car and student, the rogue driver failing to follow directions or errant student running back to the car after forgetting something can create real and potentially dangerous problems. Over the years we have all plucked dozens of students from potentially bad situations. Once, after grabbing a particularly active four-year-old only inches away from a moving bumper, I lifted him high in the air to signify to all who witnessed the incident that all was well. The child, happily oblivious to his near-death experience and obviously inspired by Disney’s “Lion King,” turned to me after I put him down and said “Thanks, Rafiki”. From that day forward, as part of our own inside joke, I called him Simba, and he called me Mr. Rafiki. Even he knew it was a jungle out there . . .

Morning or afternoon, rain or shine – though rain can speed up the car exiting/entering process a great deal – the events each day at drop-off and pick-up help us see students and parents in a different light, understand some of the stresses and tensions each may feel, and help lead to new and stronger levels of communication. Though sometimes tedious, “carpool duty” is a valuable part of the school experience for everyone – especially those whose classroom exposure to students is limited. For me, it has proven to be invaluable as an observational and participatory view of the school. Helping with the daily traffic, with all of its drama, moodiness, and safety issues – and most importantly, greeting the overwhelming numbers of smiling faces that cannot wait to start a new day – has definitely helped me see the school’s entire “circle of life.”

It’s The Little Things . . .

searchFor those of us with children or who work with them, it is too easy sometimes to be caught up in the maelstrom of everyday life, worrying about their future, or how we are going to explain something to them. Oftentimes, we are so involved in thinking about the big picture, that we overlook the small, simple words and acts of children that not only teach us so much, but that can actually open our eyes to many of the things that are most important in life.

The author Sharon Draper once wrote, “It’s the little things that make happy moments, not the grand events. Joy comes in sips, not gulps.” In schools, as in life, we may too often find ourselves so overly involved in meetings, lesson plans, grading, and other bits of teaching and administrative responsibilities that we miss the simple “happy moments” and “sips of joy.” In my own effort to remember why I went into teaching in the first place, here are just a few “sips” from my first six weeks at Holy Spirit School:

  • The first grader – and numerous others – who always want to show you their missing teeth by pulling and stretching their lips to the limit . . .
  • PreK students literally climbing over each other to show you their work when you visit their class . . .
  • Sleepy-faced students climbing slowly out of their parent’s cars at drop-off each morning – and by way of contrast – the chatterboxes talking non-stop to their parents as they walk to school . . .
  • Eighth graders singing and praying passionately and with conviction from the back of the assembly each morning . . .
  • The rapt attention of a Kindergartner as they are read to by a teacher or visitor . . .
  • The “too cool for school” attitude of Middle School students as they pass you by each day, but who then can’t wait to get to their favorite classes . . .
  • The joy and calm on the faces of the PreK’ers at naptime . . .
  • The joy and calm on the faces of the PreK teachers as their students nap . . .
  • The focused and faithful look of younger students as they take communion . . .
  • Teachers who arrive early or stay late to help individual students with the lessons they need extra assistance with . . .
  • The determined struggle of younger students with backpacks that oftentimes weigh more than they do . . .
  • The joyful look on a student’s face as they receive praise or recognition for a job well done or a concept understood . . .
  • High-fiving students as they exit the assembly . . .
  • Washing your hands thoroughly after high-fiving students exiting assembly . . .
  • The looks of pure contentment and friendship on the faces of the younger students as they hold each other’s hands on the way to and from class . . .
  • Finally, the students who will shout “Hi Mr. Graves!” with genuine gusto while being completely oblivious to their surroundings, setting, or peers . . .

With far too many moments left to mention – and thousands more yet to come – it behooves each of us to slow down occasionally and enjoy the smaller moments of life. Sometimes, to paraphrase Forrest Gump: “Life really is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna see” when you pause and seek out the little things . . .

When PreK Meets the AARP . . .

searchAs a card-carrying member of the AARP, getting older does have its benefits. I especially appreciate the discounts I receive at various restaurants, movie theaters, and other places in and around town. It does still give me pause, however, when the clerk or cashier at these same locales does not hesitate to give me the discount without my requesting it or even asking for the card. Which brings me to my latest adventure in feeling old(er) . . .

One morning last week, in order to relieve two PreK teachers needing a few minutes to get a flu shot that we offer each year on campus, I volunteered to step in and “substitute.” After all, this particular age group – the youngest that we offer – is always great to visit. I love the age and the joy, enthusiasm, and curiosity they always exhibit. I assumed that this time, with another teacher taking the lead, my job would simply be filling the state requirement by being the second body in the room, and therefore I would just be sitting quietly on the periphery. Never have I been so wrong . . .

Entering the classroom at the close of their group reading time, the students were still “crisscross applesauce” on the floor in front of the teacher. Just before they moved on to their next activity, they were introduced to the new centers focused on the letter “C.” With what I thought were pretty highly detailed instructions for PreK students – I got lost somewhere around the “sounds like” and “don’t forget to cross your name off the list at each station” – to my amazement, the students understood perfectly and were off to begin their rotation. My job, as it turned out, would be to supervise their transitions between stations and sign-off on their completed tasks from each by drawing a “smiley face” on the work they presented to me. A piece of cake . . .

Patrolling my assigned areas, I was impressed by the way the students jumped into their assigned tasks and the way they approached their work. From quietly checking in and crossing off their names on each station’s list, to working on their task, the students tackled each job with a focus and determination well beyond their years. Adhering to my adage of “never letting them see me sweat,” I was quietly relieved that at least someone knew the right order and sequence of tasks. Smiling and enthusiastic, the students gradually began to complete their assignments and bring their papers to me for the expected smiley face – and this is where the train began to run off the tracks . . .

Who would have ever thought that glancing at a student’s work and drawing a smiley face on it would be such work? What started as a trickle of students soon grew to a torrent. As I furiously checked for the completion of the entire path, the right word for a sentence, and a nice drawing for the camera lens – “C” for camera, remember? – the smiley faces were flying fast and furious. Throw into the mix those students who had either questions for me or wanted to show me their work – “Look at my drawing, Mr. Graves!” – and I’m certain that I started to put some smiley faces on the students themselves. I apologize for what may appear to be my crude and absent-minded tattooing efforts . . .

Finally, when the rush of students seemed about to subside and I was beginning to breathe normally again, the teacher introduced a new marker and task into the mix. In addition to the black smiley face tattooing instrument I had been wielding, I was now being told to use a white marker to place the now-infamous face on the back of their camera lens drawings – made of black construction paper. To top it all off, I also had to ask each child what their drawing was supposed to represent and write it as well. Cue the torrent again!

By the time the second teacher returned to the room, I was certain the day was almost over. Somewhere in my tattoo and titling frenzy, I was certain I had missed lunch and PreK naptime. Time had not just flown by, it seemed as though the students and their work multiplied exponentially every time I opened the marker tip. Glancing up at the clock, I was jolted from my thoughts with the realization that it had indeed been a long time for me in the classroom – twenty-two minutes to be exact. Twenty-two of the hardest working minutes I have ever spent . . .

Duly relieved of my substitute duties, I staggered exhausted from the classroom back to my office with a newfound respect for our PreK teachers and all that they do. There is, of course, much more to PreK than using markers effectively on student papers. In fact, the teachers’ work with their students takes a tremendous amount of energy to create an effective and organized learning process for our four-year-olds. From the creation of the various centers to developing and nurturing each child’s comprehension, and to fostering a joy and enthusiasm for learning – our PreK teachers do a remarkable job – as do all of our faculty and staff.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to take my well-earned AARP card and go to an early dinner at Denny’s, and afterward, get some much-needed sleep. With any luck, I’ll be tucked in bed by 8:00.

Next week, Kindergarten!

“Frozen” in Time

searchAmong the dozens of options that many of us have for spending a Friday night, few would choose chaperoning a junior high school dance. Even among the teachers, tradition has it that extra grading and perhaps waxing our own classroom floors has greater appeal than the opportunity to spend an otherwise long awaited night off with more than a hundred energetic and frenzied pre-pubescent students finally released from the confines of the regular school day. With music blaring, lyrics being shouted and rapped in unison, and profusely sweating as only overactive students their age can, who would not want to be the first to volunteer to supervise such an event?

Surprisingly, I was . . . Well, maybe not the first in line, but now having lived through the experience once again, I can honestly say that I have participated in few school events where I enjoyed myself more. Most importantly, out of all the school dances, proms, carnivals, homecomings, etc. I have attended over the years – and there have been many – I have never seen a group of students more comfortable, supportive, and attuned to their peers and as a result, more successful in personifying the true spirit of community.

At first, Holy Spirit School’s Friday Night Lights dance had all of the regular “issues” related to events that include this age group – from too many sixth graders not knowing what to do or how to dance and deciding to run around the gym the entire time; to others in different grades deciding they were too cool to participate in the early dances and hanging out at the back tables; to the occasional gorging and in at least one case, “regorging” on the snacks provided – it had all the beloved hallmarks of your typical first junior high dance of the year.

Even when – about an hour into the evening – the students started to actually dance, I couldn’t help but think back to my own junior high dances – chaperoned by nuns in those days. I clearly remember my friends and I attempting to dance as close as we could to our female partners during the all too rare slow dances – all the while having the hovering nuns admonish us to “leave room for the Holy Spirit between you.” The best response I heard for this seemingly constant admonition was my best friend’s remark to Sister Mary Elizabeth that he preferred to “feel the Holy Spirit’s presence all around him.” Needless to say, I had to find another ride home that night . . .

Thankfully, there were no “Holy Spirit” admonitions necessary at last week’s dance. In part, the wise playing of few slow songs – which I appreciate now as an adult – contributed to this. A bigger factor is that sadly; fewer students dance in pairs – fast or slow – than they used to in years past. In fact, the one couple I saw slow dancing would have made Sister Mary Elizabeth proud. There was so much room between the awkward couple’s outstretched arms and their hands perched on each other’s shoulders, that you could likely have fit the entire Trinity between them and thrown in the twelve apostles for good measure . . . Regardless, the two long-armed students seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Aimless running, indiscriminate snacking, and long-armed dancing aside, the assembled throngs came together as a whole just often enough to make me proud. As the dance entered its final hour, students joined in a group dance. Young or old (sixth, seventh or eighth grade), I saw students reaching out to each other – teaching their peers steps, helping them sing the songs, and heaven help us, even holding hands with each other! For several glorious minutes, the formerly select “too cool” students came out of their zones, the sixth graders paused in their running, and even the sweat seemed to stop beading on numerous foreheads around the room. It was quite the sight to behold.

Later, near the end of the dance, the students took it upon themselves to ask the DJ to play one of their favorite songs – Let it Go from Disney’s Frozen. Suddenly, even more so than for the group dance, all of the students came together in front of the stage to sing and dance together. Though it took a well-overused Disney song to do it – the students claimed the song for their own and sang it with genuine affection and fervor. Swaying in time with each other and the beat, it was a memorable sight to see everyone involved and singing at the top of their lungs.

In a world that seems so fractious to us as adults, and one in which we have so little time and opportunities of our own to come together as a community, it’s always good to know that our children can occasionally overcome all of their peer pressures, growing pains, and “coolness,” and show us the true meaning of community. Though they did not come together in any deeply meaningful way outside of spending some time dancing and singing together, their simple acts of joining each other, and in doing so throwing away most of their inhibitions and social labels serves as a great example for all of us.

For me, and I’m certain for the students who were there, it was a small, yet memorable experience and a moment all of us will hold forever “Frozen” in time . . .

Thanks for sharing your children with us!

It’s All Around Us . . .

imagesIn a rather obscure movie called “The Majestic,” Jim Carrey plays a Hollywood screenwriter in the 1950’s tainted by the brush of Communist affiliations during his youth. Fired from his job, he is involved in a car accident and wakes up with no memory of his past. Nursed by local townspeople miles from Hollywood, his character is welcomed by the new community and is believed to be a local war hero lost in action overseas and now gratefully returned once again to his home. Martin Landau plays the father welcoming his long lost son and trying to help him regain his memory of his town and his partnership with him in running the town’s only theater – The Majestic. Touring the empty cinema with a still-dazed Carrey, Landau offers this description of the theater and the movies within:

“In a place like this, the magic is all around you. The trick is to see it.”

At the risk of confirming my family’s lament that all I ever do these days is think and talk about Holy Spirit School, I was struck during a recent viewing of “The Majestic” with just how apt this quote is regarding our school. How often do we become bogged down in the day-to-day responsibilities and routines and forget the wonderful magic that happens around us? How reflective are we regarding the innumerable good things about Holy Spirit? How thankful are we that our children attend school in a caring, faith-based, and open environment that continually dedicates itself to excellence in all that it does for its students? I am certain that at least a few of you echo my thoughts in declaring, “Not often enough.”

As we near the end of our first month of school, I know that every day brings more magic to Holy Spirit School. From the very first small and hesitant steps away from parents that the PreK and Kindergarten students have taken; to the delight and excitement that Lower School students share in the simple act of going to school; through the joy of discovery and growing up that is characterized by the Middle School years – there is magic at Holy Spirit. Parents and families share in this magic as well through their participation and volunteer work throughout the school, and faculty and staff appreciate and cultivate the magical atmosphere of an environment in which students are fully engaged in the learning process.

Most importantly, the “magic” at Holy Spirit School does not simply appear with the wave of a wand. It manifests itself on a daily basis through the hard work and efforts of all members of the school community. As members of that community, it is our privilege and responsibility to do everything we can to ensure that the magic continues. I know I speak for all involved when I thank everyone who helps make our school such a wondrous and “majestic” place. Together we help sustain the magic that is Holy Spirit School, and as the new school year begins, together we will continue to see it – all around us . . .