Sunday, January 31, 2010

The NTOY Conference in Dallas, January 26-January 31

     What does every single Teacher of the Year from every state in the union and territory have in common? Each teacher I met in Dallas, Texas at the 2010 National State Teacher of the Year Conference has a belief in children, a sense of gratitude for being in the classroom and a contagious enthusiasm about teaching, learning and leading.
     The motto of this year's conference was "Teachers, teaching; Learners, learning and Leaders, Leading." Over the last few days, we all have been thinking about how we can improve our performance with humility and confidence by thinking about the connections between being teachers, learners and leaders at the same time.
    All of us at this week-long event have been supported by our districts and states and have been lifted up to be a voice for our colleagues. This is sometimes daunting. Though we are all proud of our classroom performance, we recognize that we learn something everyday from our colleagues.
     If I think about my school, Northern Highlands Regional High School in Allendale, New Jersey, I can think of walking down the hall and hearing my colleagues teaching their hearts out. When I hear them,  I just wish that I could learn in those classrooms too, to be a part of their jokes and stories. I walk by classrooms to hear laughter, deep conversation and active debate. It's the real deal of learning.
     At the National Teacher of the Year Conference, I am meeting people who look unassuming, but when they open their mouths, they tell you about wonderful initiatives, dreams they plan on making a reality, and rich lives where their students are the number one priority, always. There is not a doubt in any of their minds that all children can learn.
     Just one of the stories that struck me today was that of Kimberly Oliver Burnim, the 2006 National Teacher of the Year. When she completed her responsibilities as the country's TOY, she returned to the classroom to find a very active and difficult to deal with student running circles around her room. He was on his way to being classified as low functioning and nobody could figure out how to make him engage in learning.
      Here Kim was confronting a real-life challenge - a boy who everyone expected to fail, but she wouldn't have it. Here, she said, being Teacher of the Year, didn't matter to this child and all of her speaking success and accolades were of little value. But what Kim had was a rock solid belief in her student's possibilities and a commitment not to give up, ever.
      And it paid off. Her student grew and turned out to be one of the brightest children in her room who needed a teacher who saw his unique needs. Because Kim cared and never gave up, another child found their voice.
      This was the kind of inspiration I received every day at this conference. I come home to New Jersey inspired by these dedicated teachers who humbly and happily meet each day. Their optimism and intelligence give me strength. They represent the best of the teaching profession and serve as a reminder of the ways that my fellow teachers make a difference in the lives of children every minute of the day.
     Tony Mullen, the National Teacher of 2009, said, in his speech tonight, that "Teachers help students script" their lives to create happy endings and possibilities. Through perseverance, passion and persistence, teachers engage and learn from their students every day.
    I feel lucky to be one of America's teachers. What a chance we have to change the world.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Stories from Spain for the leaders of New Jersey Educational programs

     Yesterday I told some of my stories to the leaders of our NJ state education programs. I told them about how Joe and I made a pact to speak no English during our first year of marriage in Salamanca, Spain.
     What normal person does this? Who thinks it’s a good idea to stop speaking one’s native language in order to learn a new one? Joe and I have always been a little “out of the box” which is better than saying “weird” although, we’ve been called it.
    Here I was a newlywed on a journey to my new world. I had no clue what to expect. I missed my mom and dad as soon as the plane took off over the Atlantic Ocean. Getting married was one thing, but leaving absolutely everything was quite another. But, I was in love and love makes you do strange things.
     You have to remember that this was 1978 and in that time, in ancient history, there were no cell phones or Internet connections home. A letter meant a striped tri-fold piece of tissue paper sent by airmail. You’d be squeezing your last word onto the edges hoping that it wouldn’t get torn off when the recipient opened it.
     I like telling stories and this love has saved me as a teacher. In a classroom, it’s like we have this fire in the center with the students gathered around listening and taking their turns to talk and share. Together, we make a tribe.
     Well, the tribe I walked into in the Spain of 1978 wasn’t the same one I’d left behind in New Jersey. Not only did people in Salamanca speak Spanish, but they ate odd food like chorizo and other more challenging items like tripa, made from the delectable innards of the Iberian swine. I need you to know that I went to Salamanca as a vegetarian, but that didn’t last long at all.
      We moved into the Pension Macarena with Marisol and Pepe and the first meal that Pepe, our innkeeper, slammed down was Morcilla, a lovely little blood sausage.  It looked small and brown and fried. My rule before going to Spain was to be totally open to the culture, but this item did not look edible! I played with my olive oil soaked egg and sopped up the yoke. Next I ate some bread and limp salad.
     “Come la morcilla,” said Pepe, “es muy bueno - es del pueblo.” So, this morcilla stuff was right from the village. Hmm.
      I obey and pick up my fork, pierce the crusty circle and pop it into my mouth. I taste garlic and a smooth texture in the middle of the crunchy edges. If I didn’t know what I was eating, I would have liked it a lot.
    “Es bueno,” I say. “Good.”
     Pepe grins and goes back into the kitchen to rattle pans. Saturnino, the pensioner, rips off a piece of bread and Jose Miguel, the bullfighter in training, nods and gestures with his hand for me to eat more.
     Stories. Now, this little scene represents about five minutes of the four years Joe and I spent in Spain, back in its transition to democracy, but sometimes eating a bit of local food is the best way to enter into local culture. When I learned to eat with the Spaniards, the words came faster. Plus, if your mouth is full, you can’t be expected to talk!
     Yesterday, the people who represent our higher education community seemed to like my stories and were open and excited about learning. I could tell that they have quite a few of their own, which I hope to hear one day.
     Because when I hear a story, I want to hear more. What did you feel when you did that? Was it what you expected? Did you want to get out of there? Were you the happiest ever in your whole life? Why?
     When I was small, I would sit down in the living room at my father’s knee and beg him for his stories. What did your apartment in Hell’s kitchen look like? Can you draw it for me? Where was the teapot? What was your exact routine when you came home from school? Who was there in your house? What did it smell like?
    I would close my eyes tightly and see it all. I saw the bathtub where my grandfather brewed beer. I saw the metal teapot on the iron stove and the endless corridor with the boys’ bedrooms along it. I could hear my grandmother’s Irish accent as she shooed the boys into their bedrooms to change from their school clothes.
     For me, cultures are just gathered stories and traditions. We people all make up our own words and we dress in special clothes that remind us of times gone by. We agree to honor the mysteries of the universe in our own way. I think if we see things that way, it makes everything a lot simpler to understand. It also makes us more curious to listen to each other.
      Sometimes you don’t have to fly to travel far away.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Dr. King's legacy gives us hope

     Martin - I'm glad that you were born. I'm glad that something in you was so powerful that it helped people overcome their fears of action. I'm glad that every time I hear that timbre in your voice, I want to act - somehow, somewhere. I pray that this feeling, this hope doesn't die.
     It's been a week with great sorrow and great joy. Haiti. Who can fathom the anguish of these people? We see the man pacing in front of the concrete slabs covering his loved ones. He hears their voices. He hopes someone comes. So do we. An 18 month old baby is pulled from the rubble. In hours she is giving a wet kiss on the cheek to her uncle. A man and his wife dig their way out of their home. The dead are given an unremarkable grave which is no testament to their lives. Heaped humanity without an identity -no photos, no distinction. The United Nations mourns the loss of educators and diplomats. Who will build this post-apocalyptic world?
     In the street of Port Au Prince, people are singing. They walk in a circle belting out hymns. Their voices are a mixture of moaning and exultation. We are here. We sing. We will sing of the ones we lost and we will rebuild the future. A woman is surrounded by small boys around her son's age. Her own child was hit by a stone wall and is dead, yet still she has arms wide enough for these skinny boys - motherless, lost - they cling to her warmth. She has a heart for them and will lead them into the direction of water, food, love.
     Today, in Bergen County, New Jersey, my students and teaching colleagues spread their wings like doves. All around the region, they gave and received gifts. Some gathered food for the hungry, diapers, grape jelly. Others played bingo with the aged or built a block tower taller than anyone in the room. A Spanish student spoke on Telemundo in support of the humanity of the day laborers she was helping.
     They were all involved in the Martin Luther King Day of Service - "A day on, not a day off!” I watched these stories build a giant ray of hope which spread across the skies of Bergen County, New Jersey. With each child they hugged, they changed the world. With every patient conversation, they became more like Dr. King. Action feels right. We are supposed to help each other.
     Dr. King's legacy is what we need to remember at times like these. It's not just about race or the content of our character. It's about building a just world where everyone has shelter, food and the magnificent opportunity to learn.
     On the radio, I heard a report today that told the story of the first time that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. heard "We shall overcome" sung by Pete Seeger, the folk singer. "Catchy tune," he said, "I can't get it out of my mind."
     Tonight, I went to the Bergen County MLK birthday celebration. I love the part where we all hold hands to sing, swaying like an enormous wave. "We shall overcome. We shall overcome. Deep in my heart - I do believe, we shall overcome someday."
     We hear you, Martin. We’re working on it.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Such nice greetings from last year's State Teachers!

     It's so cool that today I must have received six letters from last year's "class" of Teachers of the States. They really brought this whole thing into perspective and got all of us so excited about the upcoming opportunities. In just a couple of weeks, I'll be off to Dallas, Texas where I will meet the teachers of every state in our country.

     Just to be able to meet teachers who represent such a wide spectrum of teaching and learning from so many different places is amazing. I will have the chance to hear about the unique learning and challenges in each teacher's home state. The former State Teachers of the Year sounded so positive and excited about their experiences throughout the last year. They said that they went to the White house, met our president and the first lady, went to a party at the Biden's house and much much more. Who would have ever believed that I could have such a cool experience?

     I'm trying to figure out how to work this blog better by adding images and videos and podcasts to it. I've been watching tutorials, but I plan on tapping into the talents and abilities of these educators to help improve my skills in this area so that I can bring you a more multimedia blog experience. I would also like to know how many people are on the blog, because many have told me that they are not followers, but that they do tune in. I just wish I knew how to know that.

     I hope you are all well. I want this blog to be a portal for New Jersey readers to what is happening in other states and in our own Garden State. As I live it, I'll share it. This way, when I share it with you, I'll live it more intensely and you can give me more feedback and thoughts.

      Bye for now...

Monday, January 11, 2010

Five State Teachers are Spanish Teachers!

     Well, I just found out that I am not a finalist in the National Teacher of the Year competition. There will be no Rose Garden Speech or extra family members at the White House. There will also be no more stress in the coming months about upcoming interviews and I will be able to just enjoy being the New Jersey TOY! Hey, representing 200,000 of New Jersey's finest isn't a bad thing!
     I'm looking forward to my trip to Dallas, Texas in a couple of weeks. I'll be leaving on the 26th of January to meet the other State Teachers of the Year! People talk about it like the "class" of the STOYs. In other words, folks from every state form a kind of cohort which connects powerfully during the various TOY functions. Can't wait. I've never been to Dallas and I've never been in this position.
     I admit that I wondered what it would have been like to be a National Teacher of the Year. What would it have been like to represent this whole great nation? Wow! I wrote as hard as I could and was as honest as I am, but the country is seeking a different messenger. My congratulations to them!
     For now, I'm just getting used to the week. Today, for example, was interesting. I started the day at Northern Highlands with our school principal organizing the MLK Day of Service. Then, I visited my old school - Bergen Academies - to participate in a technology workshop about error correction with the smart board technology. Next, I visited the Hackensack YMCA to arrange student service and finally, I went to my snug little cubicle at One Bergen County Plaza, where my tiny dell computer and efficient printer were ready and waiting for me. It was an interesting and productive day.
      Where does this all lead? When my mom was in the last year of her life, she was studying in college. She was in her late sixties yet she and Dad had decided to embark on a college career. Mom studied science and history and English. Unfortunately, she died too young - at 67 - quite suddenly. Even though she didn't live long, she lived well and intensely. I believe that everything we do leads to everything we do. We aren't "getting anywhere" - so to speak. We are just getting to be more like who we want to be. My parents taught me that you have to give it all you've got till you can't do it anymore and so I will. Hats off to you, Mom and Dad, you taught me well!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Classroom Closeup, Thursday, January 7th

"Do you have a poster that isn't shiny?"
"No! They're all like that!"
Rich, from Classroom Closeup, the NJEA television program that highlights teaching and learning in New Jersey, was worried about the light the gloss on my posters might create. I hadn't thought about that before.

Kids soon flooded into the room all dressed in white jackets. We were pretending to be doctors who were from Venezuela, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Spain and Mexico. Half of the kids were "doctors" who thought modern technology was just great and the other half thought that traditional medicine was the way to go. We were gathered to figure out how we could agree on a document to submit to the World Health Organization. "How much modern and traditional medicine should be included in a universal health plan?" Middle School "doctors" came in to present their research findings with their teacher. Their teacher is my daughter, Melynda - but the kids call her "Profe."

Once the students arrived and the lesson began to take shape, the Classroom Closeup team became totally engaged in our mock medical conference, all taking place in Spanish. I could tell that they were really concentrating on understanding the Spanish we were speaking.

"I kept hearing the words "pero" and "tambien" said Wendell Steinhaur, the NJEA Vice President, with a his characteristic warm smile. "What do those words mean?" The students were glad to clarify. "Pero" means "but" and "tambien" means "also," said Claudia, an 8th grade visitor.

Classroom Closeup filmed and worked all day filming segments that go with the piece they were creating on the NJ Teacher of the Year. It was interesting to see a small crew of four turn a classroom or a corner of our library into a studio.

"The light is good in here. It's natural." Hmm, I thought, I won't look at the light in my school in the same way again!

After we were all done, we took a picture of our association president, Bill Cobb, with John Keenan, our Superintendent and Joe Occhino, our Northern Highlands Regional High School Principal. Everyone had been busy when they were called for the shot, but they ran over with enthusiasm and energy.

We smiled, the camera clicked and clicked and I worried about my cowlick.

"How's my cowlick?" I asked Wanda Swanson, the show's Executive Producer.
"Fine!" I hoped she wasn't humoring me. I guess nobody will really care about that errant strip of hair but me.

The day ended and I thought about how lucky I was to have my daughter as my colleague for a day with students from my class and hers collaborating. Who gets to have this kind of experience? Plus, the kids felt really important, as well they should. They did a wonderful job and made me so proud.

 As a teacher, you can give your heart and soul and your scraps of knowledge, but the students make it come together. They do the magical learning and on some days, you stand back and can just admire them. Today was like that. I was in the shoot, teaching and interacting in Spanish the whole time, but somehow I was also watching the whole thing from a corner of the room where I could see how this all came together. Perfecto!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

A visit to the State Department of Education

     Yesterday was so amazing my head was lighting up like the fourth of July. I went to the New Jersey State Department of Education and had about six meetings with leaders in the areas of teaching and professional standards, student achievement and accountability, holocaust education, world language, social studies and academic standards.
     I need to confess something: when I get really enthusiastic about things, I begin to gesture wildly. Sometimes I will knock over a glass or swipe a table clean of papers. Yesterday, I slid my brand new business card across the table so fast that it literally popped into the hand of the wife of the director of Halocaust Education. Another time, I flipped my chrome pen into the air and held my breath as it soared into the air, plummeted to the rug and - thankfully - missed the Coordinator of Special Program's neck by a hair
     "Ouhhh!," I said, attempting an apology, "I tend to get a bit enthusiastic!" My cheeks went pink. Lukily, it was a friendly crowd.
     So what do you think about when you think about people in the New Jersey State Department of Education? These people often get a terrible rap! What I found, however, was a bunch of people intensely dedicated to taking the ideas in their head and the information in the field to create structures that will help students learn
     They create much of the paper trail of education within the confines of a labyrinth of cubicles. This maze of grey office spaces has shelves personalized with photos of children or puppies and the occasional plant or trophy. Some workers have more austere digs which clearly operate by the principals of feng shui - order, harmony and balance. If you are quiet, you can hear the murmur of keyboards - tap, tap, tap - with corresponding images bright on a series of computer screens with words like "collaboration," "rubric" and "communities." It's the real deal.
     I can hear some people saying that that stuff isn't real because it doesn't connect to the kids in the classroom. Not so! I learned of exciting pilot programs all around the state and passionate people who run them. The information gathered in these programs has a direct pipeline into professional boards that work with practicioners to create the norms we educate by. Very cool
     And where do I fit in? There are a lot of things to think about. How will my mission as Teacher of the Year come to life? Out of all the things I learned today, what will I choose to do?
     I know that I'll be running a three-hour technology and language workshop in May.
     "Is that three hours?" I asked Cheri Quinlan, Coordinator of World Languages for the State of New Jersey.
     "And how many participants would typically come?"
     "Oh, about a hundred." Gulp.
     I always say that teaching and learning are the flip side of each other. Thankfully, that workshop is in May. I thought about it in the car. Some days, I teach one hundred students - just not at the same time! If I can teach 25 or 30 students, why not 100 adults? Beginners mind is a good thing and I am on a journey.
     That's what my tech workshop will be about. The journey of an absolutely zero tech person who came to do things like, say, blogging. Technology is just a new kind of pencil that we use to tell our stories. That'll be my focus. I'll talk more about that as it comes together.
     There is more to tell about the next day when I visited my school at Northern Highlands and walked those shiny hallways. It was hard to separate myself from my classroom. I think they had to call a custodian to pry me from the walls.
     “Go home, Maryann and get some rest,” said a concerned Joe Occhino, our high school principle
     “O.K., Joe.” I left the building and pulled my car out of my special Teacher of the Year parking space. There was a line up of sports kids in sweats waiting for rides.
     “Bye, Maestra,” said one of them.
      I looked up and gave a little wave.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Day One

    It's January 4th, 2010. I'm getting ready to go down to The State Department of Education in Trenton tomorrow to meet with leaders of important initiatives. I can't really believe that this moment is here - that I am on the first day of my sabbatical for the job of the New Jersey Teacher of the Year - 2009-2010. Everything I have ever learned should come in handy. I'm hoping that you - my readers - will help me along, to give me perspective and to add your voice to the mix.
     One thing is true - I'm going to report it as I see it. I am fascinated by education and how people learn. We all have strengths and weaknesses and have to learn how to deal with them as we go through life. This sounds really simple, I know, but everyone - I mean everyone - has to deal with his or her own shortcomings. It's like this big sack of stuff that we carry. We have to learn to love it and deal with the fact that sometimes it gets lighter and other times it's darn heavy. We can’t let it drag us down. It's the human condition.
     Oh, I know - it doesn't seem fair. Some people just appear to sail on through without much to carry at all. But one thing I've learned is that we can't know what another person's challenges might be. It could be shyness. Maybe it's so much creativity and energy that it's hard to keep it all in, to sit still. For others, it's the fact that support is limited. Still, for others, it may be grinding poverty. Everyone has something in their sack to carry.
     As a teacher, I try to figure out how to lighten the load. I want to understand: What makes you tick? What burden do you have? How can we work together to make learning easier?
     This year, I'm going to try to learn more about teaching and learning by listening well to many people. Maybe to you, if you give me the chance. Anyone who knows me knows that I talk a lot. Sorry for that, but I'm bubbling over with things to say. Still, you have things to say too and I need to quiet down and give you the space to talk. Because when we listen, we learn. The cup is useful because of its empty space. We need to empty out sometimes and give ourselves time to process. We have to hear many voices and perspectives to understand.
     So, here we go, together…