Friday, April 30, 2010

A New Jersey TOY in Washington D.C.

We go to the Smithsonian to learn about the wonderful resources (4/26)

A fabulous Gala is held for all of the Teachers of the Year and to announce the 2010 Teacher of the Year, Sarah Brown Wessling (4/28)

Sarah Brown Wesstling, 2010 National Teacher of the Year

Lilly Eskelsen, the NEA Vice President and an AMAZING speaker!

My husband, Joe Murphy, is a great escort!

What a plate of food!

Wisconsin & New Jersey

The Gala was the most elegant and well planned event I have ever experienced. Jon Quam, the National Teacher of the Year coordinator and Andy, outdid themselves. Every detail - the food, the music, the range of speeches, was perfect.

We go home and try to sleep, but all end up talking in the lobby for another hour. Some of us are still wearing our gowns and others have tossed the finery in exchange for jeans. We don't seem to want to let this night go and we need to be together just a little more.

Finally, we all head up to our rooms and go to sleep. Soon, the alarm is ringing without mercy, earlier than we want to hear it.

But, the big day has arrived and we are going to the White House, but first we spend a few hours at the Dept of Education. (4/29)

A bus leaves the hotel at 9:00 a.m. I throw down a few slices of pineapple and yogurt and half of a mug of very good coffee.

To go into the National DOE, we need picture ID. We get checked in, enter a small theater and speak with the framers of the blueprint for education. They present the highlights and we ask questions.

Of course, my question refers to language. I tell them that as a Spanish teacher, I am very concerned about funding for early language programs. In our current fiscal crisis, these are the first to go. For years, I say, we have accumulated studies that say that language needs to be taught early and for many years. I mention that ACTFL has gathered information which we should be looking at.

Everyone agrees. I just wonder where the money will come from and whether the mandates that focus so much on reading and math will squeeze out language, social studies, art and music. We need well rounded children and the blueprint recognizes this, but where will the money come from?

We leave the DOE and rush back to the hotel for a change of clothes and a bus to the White House. We are going to the White House!!

We get on the bus and get to the White House. We get checked in at the gate by a serious looking, muscular guard. We go through metal detectors and walk through the hallways lined with portraits of presidents and first ladies. A hush falls upon us.

The door opens and we see green. It's the Rose Garden. We are told to line up along the Rose Garden Wall, under the portico arches. Bo, the White House dog makes a bee line across the lawn to our line up. We melt. He is black and fuzzy and one of the most polite dogs I have every seen. If our dog Wagzie were here, she'd jump on everyone's suit. This, Bo, is clearly a classy dog. Bo's trainer is right by her side. With quiet confidence he directs the First Dog. Does he use telepathy? I see no outward signs of instruction and no drippy treats. Bo has earned her First Pup status!

These five state Teachers of the Year are all Spanish teachers!

Once inside the White House West Wing, we wait in a narrow hallway for our turn with the president in the Oval Office. Before going in, we have to leave our cameras outside because only the official White House photographer will take the picture. It'll come in a month or two, but it will come. People are working in offices which line the hallway. Someone comes through with a turkey sandwich under a plastic top. Lunchtime.

On line, waiting, I hear my heart pounding. Is this real? Am I going to meet the president? The actual, real president.

Dr. Jill Biden flies up the stairs past us in a lovely two-toned suit, "Hi, Guys," she says, "It's great to see you. I got off school early today just to be here!" Then, she scoots off, accompanied by a secret-service escort.

The line is moving. I can hear a military guard announcing each TOYs name. Wait, is that the president's voice???

I can see the light from the camera flashing and some laughter. Eric Nash, the TOY from New Hampshire, is at the door and now he is in.

I see Barack Obama talking to him. Then, Eric walks to the exit of the Oval Office and Barack is looking at ME. I hear my name announced and Mr. President is reaching his long arms across the room. TO ME!!! I shake hands with him and tell him that my husband's cousin used to be on his secret service staff.

"John Ryan?" he says, "I love that guy! How is he?"
"Great, Mr. President. I was just with him a couple of nights ago."
"Well, thanks for all you do."
"It's wonderful to be here."

And then, I am at the door facing the Rose Garden. Out there, on the lawn are people. I know they were people because they move like people, but I can distinguish no features. It is a blur of color on the lawn.

"Maryann Woods-Murphy, New Jersey"

I hear my name being announced and I walk on the stage, stopping in the middle for a second like they do in graduations! I hear a chuckle. I keep moving. A soldier is waiting to help me onto the grass. I make it to my seat. My legs work. They feel sort of wobbly, but they manage to move me across the stage and to a chair, luckily situated at the end of the row. I fold into it.

One by one, I see my colleague cross the stage. I feel connected in some way to each one of them.

Then, Dr. Biden is announced and then the president. Barack Obama comes out with Sarah, who is looking lovely in her suit and beaming smile. I feel happy for her and am sending good energy her way. We all are. We are hanging on every word. Her tiny children watch from the front row.

The president speaks and is so natural with us. First, though, he must address the oil slick and the work being done. He asks if there are any science teachers among us who might have some good ideas to share with the White House.

Then, Sarah speaks and does a stunning job of celebrating teachers and the student- centered classroom. Back home in her Iowa classroom, her teacher's desk is kept at the back of the classroom as a visual reminder that the student drives the learning. Sarah has her own former teachers in the audience and her three children, who range in age from 4.5 months to six years old. Her husband, Tim, is there, proud and happy.

When she finishes, we all spring to our feet. It's like one TOY cohort standing ovation. "You go girl!" we are saying. "We are right here."

The president walks over to Sarah's family for a couple of minutes and we all mill around a moment on the grass.

Joyce Powell, from the NEA and our former NJEA president comes to offer her words of congratulations to me. I am so happy to see someone from my home state of New Jersey.

My husband, Joe, is next to give me a hug and a kiss. Ah, my anchor.

We see Arne Duncan talking to some people and decide to greet him and snap a picture.

Soon, the secret service is encouraging us to leave to make room for a motorcade, but we keep snapping pictures and walking. The music plays. We want to savor every single moment.

Joe and I just outside of the Rose Garden

We just keep walking and snapping pictures

Another one of Joe and me

We board the bus back to the hotel. My feet are throbbing, but I am incredulous. My fellow TOYs and I just keep shaking our heads. This is on the short list of most wonderful life moments.

Once back in the hotel, I check my email because I am invited to see Senator Menendez at his office. It's a very busy day on Capital Hill, but he wanted to see me and offer me some tours for tomorrow.

I get a call and we head over for a brief visit to the Senate Offices, near the Capital building. Senator Menendez is extraordinarily welcoming. We so appreciate his taking the time.

We stop by Senator Lautenberg's Office and leave my card. The education staffer is gracious and invites me to communicate any concerns or ideas that I would like to to the senator.

We say goodbye and get a quick cab back to the hotel. It's 6:15 and there is a field trip for the TOYs sponsored by Target.

Up to our room to throw off our business attire and throw on some jeans. The target people are blowing whistles and giving out special bags to us. Outside, there are two busses with "National Teachers of the Year 2010" painted on it. These people are filled with energy and very happy to sponsor an activity for us.

We are going to take a spin around D.C. to see the main monuments. Francoise, our tour guide is enthusiastic and knowledgeable. We learn, for example, that the capital used to have a canal going up Constitution Avenue and this is how the stones were carried.

I love this picture of all of the state Teachers of the Year!!!

Visiting Lincoln's memorial is moving and reminds me of the best of our country

Here commemorates the spot where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his "I have a dream" speech.

What a fitting way to end the evening. We are moved, humbled and connected to history, this day and a renewed sense of purpose.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Smithsonian & Bidens' house...

Wow! Here I am with our Vice President, Mr. Joe Biden!

The Smithsonian Castle

Well, it was no kind of normal day in the neighborhood. Got to DC yesterday and came to the Mariott, where all of the Teachers of the Year are staying. Stopped over for a nice dinner at Joe's cousin, John Ryan, in Baltimore on the way. Home cooked food and good cheer went a long way.

The Marriott is in the middle of town, blocks from the White House. When we checked in, we got a nice bag from target with a big surprise - a flip video! What a great gift!

This morning, we all had a buffet breakfast with the Teachers of the Year and families. Eggs, croissant, jam, fruit - it was festive and great to see everyone. A bus pulled up at the hotel around nine o'clock and took us off to the Smithsonian Castle.

The Smithsonian Castle looked like a reddish royal residence, stuck in the middle of a modern city. Once inside, we entered a long room with round tables and neatly placed glass goblets of orange juice, mugs of coffee & cloth napkins. At our table was a representative from the Smithsonian who told us that our group would visit the "Art of Gamon" exhibit. We were asked to write down three words that came to mind when we thought of "museums."

Our guide took us to the Renwick Gallery where we were immediately struck with a make-shift chair at the entrance, fashioned of rough-hewn wooden planks. We learned that the art in this exhibit had come from the Japanese Americans who were gathered in internment camps in the dusty deserts of our western US during World War II, at the same time as many of their sons were fighting in the war.

These Japanese Americans were given two weeks to dissolve their businesses and gather what they could in a suitcase to live in the inhospitable camps. Lost behind the barbed wire, they found shells or cloth or discarded wood to create delicate birds or baskets or furniture or paintings on the backs of cardboard left behind from packages. Children created baseball teams and women made sandals out of old pieces of wood so they could navigate the mud in the unpaved streets.

We learned about the entire process that is needed to put an exhibit like this together - the lighting people, the many shades of white on the walls, the way the objects are selected to tell the truest story possible. Whole teams of people in the museum do this for two years and then they all get together to look for consensus on how best to create an exhibit which achieves shared goals. Every word, every thread, every ray of light is organized.

The Smithsonian folks bussed us back to the Smithsonian Castle to a nice lunch and they told us how to become Smithsonian Ambassadors. This would mean that we represent the museum to our colleagues in education. The resources are inspiring, but what most impressed me was the way the activities were so carefully designed with real people in mind.

After the museum, we headed over to the Navy base. This is where the Vice President lives with his family. First, we went to an observatory and library where original editions of Kepler, Copernicus and Newton were there to see! Are you kidding???? I was floored. This was the most extensive library of astronomy in the country!

Right away, we boarded the bus and went a little ways to a large white house with a giant porch. This looked like a house that someone really lived in and sure enough, it was the Bidens' home.

Once inside and up the stairs, you enter into a living room with a dining room to the left and a living room to the right. Everything was light and airy with lovely paintings on the walls and lots of homey family pictures clustered together on the mahogany piano: Joe and Jill dancing, The children. In a back room is a plastic enclosed GI Joe from Barack, given to Joe Biden saying he is unbeatable. Great stuff.

There were tea sandwiches and lemonade and the constant in and out of waiters and waitresses refreshing the silver trays. We all clustered around and took pictures of everything.

All of a sudden, Dr. Jill Biden came in and spoke, telling us that this was her favorite event. She took lots of time with each of us to find out what we teach and where we came from.

After a while, people started to really eat the food. Of particular note were the tiny scones and clotted cream with strawberry. They were hot, moist and just sweet enough.

I noticed that everyone was clustering again into the lobby and I heard a familiar voice. It was Joe Biden who told us that Jill especially wanted him to clear his calendar to visit us. He had other state matters to attend to that he was able to put off till tomorrow. He spoke of memorable teachers and ways that we change the world. One by one, he chatted with us and told us anecdotes about his experiences in our states. Joe Biden was sincere, hospitable and charming. He made everyone feel like they had known him all their lives. It was as if he was a trusted neighbor.

Joe Biden suggested that we all go out to the ample porch to chat and take a few more pictures. He laughed out loud with us and seemed sincerely interested in our thoughts. When it was time to go he said,

"I'll walk you out." Joe Biden strolled down the driveway with us and he led us personally to the bus. I climbed into the first bus, but soon realized that it was the wrong bus.

"Oh," he said, "I'll walk you over," Without a moment's hesitation, Mr. Biden, continued his amiable chat while he walked us over to bus number two. He climbed right on the bus with us and thanked us for coming and giving us a little wave. Mary Pinkerston, Teacher of the Year from Delaware jumped up and gave him a hug and he kissed her cheek.

She touched it as we drove away. "I won't wash that," she said.

I cannot remember such a day in my life. Did this really happen?

Picture The TOY around NJ

Joe and I are dressed up and ready for the Passaic County Ed Association Gala

Sue Clark & The Gloucester County Educational Association showed me hospitality after I spoke at a meeting!

Shirley Santos, Cumberland TOY, invited me to speak at the Legislative Dinner @ Cumberland County

The week ended with a wonderful day at the "One Step Beyond" conference, held at the Mercer Community College Conference Center. This was a cross-agency event which brought together diversity educators from all around the state to share our programs and ideas. Most notable for me was the selection on youth voices where Paul Winkler, head of the Holocaust Commission for NJ, asked selected teens to talk about their experiences in high schools around the area of race, disability, gender and ethnicity. Students shared freely and were able to help educators really experience their perspective in an important and intense way. It was an outstanding day!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A Diversity Day in Warren County, N.J.

Mrs. Patty Bell and me!!

April 16th, 2010

My visit to the Brass Castle School and the Port Colden School on April 16th were absolutely moving to me.

My niece, Patty Bell, is a third grade teacher in the district. She conferred with her administration who invited me to offer three school assemblies. The night before, I stayed at the Bell's lovely home with Ms. Bell's husband, Hank and their two wonderful children, my great-nephews, Christopher and Ryan.

The next morning, I went to the two schools and I spoke to grades 1st - 6th and did three distinct assemblies and later made two half hour classroom visits.

I must confess that, as a high school teacher, I was a bit nervous about presenting an assembly to very small children.

What would it be like? Would I connect? Would they enjoy my message and learn from the day?

It seemed important to think hard about creating an experience that would engage each of those age groups. Of course, for me, stories are the basis of all learning and so I structured the presentation.

I created a Power Point presentation which wove my story in Spain into a presentation of five statements that relate to diversity.

The students and I went over each point and talked about them. Everyone had a hand up and contributed with a great deal of energy and enthusiasm. Ms. Bell had distributed packets on diversity to all of the teachers and many had read stories and done bulletin board art projects to prepare for my arrival! The whole place was buzzing with excitement.

I felt happy after talking to the 4th - 6th graders, but when I got to the 1st - 3rd graders, I wondered how that would be. I saw very small children coming into the gym and sitting on the floor. They all had eager, friendly faces and were ready to learn.

I found that my voice tone naturally changed and went into a story teller's rhythm. Again, students gave everything to the meeting and soon we were old friends.

At the end, I was thrilled that there were so many questions. I thought that we were done, but Ms. Bell said that the children had prepared a surprise.

Sure enough, they came up with posters and all one hundred or so children, broke out into "It's a small world after all!" This was beautiful and brought tears to my eyes.

As if that weren't enough, there was still another surprise. At the doorway, the Port Colden Teacher of the Year was holding an enormous bunch of flowers to give to me. All of the children clapped! Everyone was so excited!!

Later, I visited Ms. Bell's classroom, where the children had prepared cards and a great skit. I visited my nephew Ryan's classroom where I told the children more stories. At the end, they wanted my autograph!

This was truly a day of connections and a celebration of teaching and learning. The teachers and administrators in these schools deeply care about the children and it really shows.

I left the building with my gifts and children called out to me all of the languages they want to learn and the world they would dream of seeing.

"Are you coming back on Monday?" they asked.

I walked through the hallway and admired all of the art that the students had prepared to decorate the hallways as they thought about diversity. What a wonderful way to share a message of joy with the very young.

I clearly got much more from these little ones than I could ever give!

Socrates whispering in my ear

Here's a speech I delivered to the current Philosphy and Religion majors at Montclair State University, my Alma Mater. This was a career day hosted jointly by the Philosphy/Religion Department and the General Humanities Department. I gave my talk and was proud to take home an armful of lovely flowers and a mug with Descartes image on it! It says, "I think, therefore I am" and when you drink coffee, it changes to "I think not! How cool! Well, here's the talk....

Socrates whispering in my ear: philosophy and work
MSU Philosphy/Religion Career Day Event
By Maryann Woods-Murphy, April 15th, 2010

It’s my honor and privilege to talk to you today. I have long kept up my relationship with the Philosophy and Religion department at Montclair State University, Montclair State College when I attended in 1978.

This place means the world to me. Right now, I am happy to be the New Jersey State teacher of the year as well as the Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages Teacher of the year.

So how does this relate to my studies of philosophy and how does it relate to my life story? What impact did studying philosophy have on my life and how did it inform my profession?

When I came to Montclair State in 1977, I was 17 years old. I had a friend from high school whose father was the chair of the Philosophy & Religion Department, the late Dr. George Brantl. Mary, his daughter, told me to go find him so he could help me register for classes.

I came from a family where I was the first one on this side of the ocean to get a college degree so the very process of registering for college classes was daunting to me. In those days, we got on long lines to register in the gym after getting approval in department offices.

When I first got to the college, I thought that I might major in communications since I like to communicate, but when I went to the communications department and saw lights and cameras everywhere, I understood that this was a media program, not some kind of program to help us “communicate” better.

Lost and alone on campus, I remembered Mary Brantl’s advice. “Go see my father!”

This is how I entered the philosophy department office to meet Dr. Brantl in his trademark green shirt and effusive gestures.

“Oh, Maryann,” he said, “I’ve been waiting for you.”

“Really?” I thought, “Mary really told you about me?”

Dr. Brantl sat down at his desk and proceeded to outline my academic program. He told me as well about a new program in General Humanities, “you’ll love it,” he said. “I want you to do a double major: Philosophy and General Humanities.”

“I’m doing a double major?”

“Yes,” said Dr. Brantl, rubbing his cheek, “You’ll have to start early so you can fit in all of your general education classes with your major classes. Maybe you can double up.”


“Then you’ll pick your concentration for your thesis.”

“My thesis?”

“Yeah, your undergraduate thesis.”

My heart was pumping with nervousness, but also with excitement. Here was this fine sounding man taking care of my first semester schedule and all I had to do was learn the names of the classes he signed me up for.

“Contemporary Aesthetics?”

“A wonderful course, Dr. Lipman teaches it, a good start.”

“You wouldn’t recommend an introductory class, Dr. Brantl?”

“Introduction? No, You had philosophy in high school – Mary told me – so we’ll just move you along to the right level for you.”

Gulp. Dr. Brantl passed me the form with narrow lines where he had written my classes down with their corresponding numbers and his approval signatures.

“I’ll be your advisor,” said Dr. Brantl, “this way I can help you register every time.”

That first semester of college, I studied a junior level Contemporary Aesthetics class. I confess that I really didn’t know what such a class would be about and that I went home to quickly look up the word to see if it related to anything more than “good taste.”

In the college bookstore, I bought thick, five-section notebooks, which I filled with notes about readings that I was only beginning to understand. It was rigorous learning and at night, my brain seemed to hurt.

From my Montclair State professors, I literally learned the words that would accompany me throughout my entire intellectual and professional life. I learned to think critically and could see things from a wide variety of perspectives. I understood logical fallacies and was able to sniff them out in reading, media and in conversations. I understood that the mind of the world is developed though a series of conversations that take place in our own heads as we engage in our reading and in conversations with each other.

I learned to write clearly and to make every word count. I understood that different sorts of writing applied to each field, that if I was studying social science, I needed to bathe in the words used in that field to have meaningful conversations with professionals in a language they could hear. My General Humanities major trained me as an interdisciplinary thinking. I have the unique ability to connect themes and topics across fields. My brain can connect the dots.

A study of philosophy gave me the ability to see that how we think is the most important part of the work day and that when we analyze problems and seek solutions with others in collaborative projects, we need to use the skills of intense listening, careful understanding of language, the ability to logically construct our argument and the courage of our hard-won convictions.

This is what I have always done in my classes and, as a teacher; I have been able to affirm my own student’s nascent intellectual moment. I can say, “No, you are not crazy. Great thinkers have been working on this problem that is keeping you up at night for centuries. Here, let me show you a book.”

A study of philosophy has taught me to be intellectually brave. Many a time in my professional life, I have been in a sea of colleagues – all quite intelligent and able in their fields. A presenter is speaking and has said something notably awry. It just doesn’t add up. I have looked around, hoping that someone might differ with the point of view expressed or at least ask a clarifying question. Time and time again, though, I have been the only one to raise my hand, with the utmost respect, to share a concern or thought.

Why me? Because I studied philosophy. Because when you study philosophy, Socrates is always whispering in your ear, telling you that finding answers is hard and that it is our job as humans to do it. We can never become complacent and never let the tendency for “group think” to take over our minds and actions.

This can mean that we are sometimes annoying, but I must say that I have learned to respectfully articulate an opposing view in such a way that the speaker welcomes the point. The words I have learned here at Montclair State University have served me well. Some say that the pen is a sword, but I would add that clear words forged in an open mind are also weapons that we take into our social arenas.

My work in the world is that of a Spanish teacher. How can Philosophy and General Humanities help me there? As a student at Montclair State University, I was engaged in learning by listening and writing, but also by discussing matters of importance with my teachers in and after class.

My students do the same. I am happy when they get that slightly worried look, that edgy discomfort which tells me that we are getting ready for some good discussion. Some call this a teachable moment. I call it the reason we are together. My classroom is shaped like a horseshoe of chairs and desks to encourage such engagement and if things get too quiet, I get the students out of their seats to speak in pairs and small groups so that they can hammer out their thoughts and beliefs.

Because I studied philosophy, I’m not afraid to venture into the realm of diversity work, empowerment and dialogue facilitation. In our increasingly global society, this is a skill that is sorely needed in many fields. Nowadays, in our complex and multidisciplinary world, we need to have these cross-disciplinary abilities to be highly effective.

Studying philosophy was the most practical thing I could ever have done. By learning how to reflect, use language, think clearly, analyze and discuss the most important matters of the our time, I have developed a fearless approach to work and intellectual life which has served me, my students and colleagues well.

Never doubt that it will do the same for you. Your hard-won skills will set you apart. Never apologize for them or feel that you were luxuriating in intellectually frivolous pursuits. The world needs what you have, more and more each day.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

2009-2010 Gloucester County Teacher Recogniton

It was my pleasure to be invited to the Gloucester County Teacher Recognition program! What a lovely event to honor the educators of distinction in this district. Ann Hill, the Goucester County Teacher of the Year was thrilled to celebrate her colleagues and I was happy to see the pride on all of the educators and administrators faces.

The students at the Gloucester Tech have a tradition of lining up in colorful blazers long the hallway and clapping for the teachers as they walk by. I have never seen anything so wonderful! What a great idea!

Here's Ann Hill, the fabulous Gloucester County Teacher of the Year with a "Walk of fame" student guard.

Here I am pictured with G.C.I.T. culinary arts student Liz Roantree

After the recognition ceremony, the culinary arts students created a feast for all participants that was worthy of kings and queens!

Are you ready to have your mouth water?

We started with fried green tomatoes, with a sweet, tangy buttermilk dipping sauce. Our bread was a basket of hush puppies, warm buttermilk biscuits and sweet corn bread. Salad was Alabama greens with crispy cayenne nuts. The entree was Memphis style baby back ribs, Texas beef brisket with sides of grilled sweet corn, collard greens and macaroni and cheese. If we weren't full enough, the meal closed with peach cobbler, sweet potato mousse and praline sauce.

Wow!!! My clothes fit when I came, but when I left, it was harder to fit in the car!

Here are the students responsible for this feast for the eye and palate!They all came out to accept a much-deserved round of applause!!

Diane Cummings, the Gloucester County & New Jersey Teacher of the Year was there to cheer her teaching colleagues on! It was great to see her and share TOY experiences!

As I left Gloucester County, I saw the lovely natural setting and was happy to see yet another beautiful place in our great state of New Jersey!