Monday, December 06, 2004

Grief-filled Christmas

Marianne Siroka walked into my classroom, just in time to catch me starting to doze off in front of my computer screen, as I was waiting for the old dinosaur to download a PDF.

She wanted to tell us about a collection the faculty was taking up for one student's family.

Mike is one of the 10th grade boys in my Art 1 class. A tall, quiet, red-head, he mostly keeps to himself.
We knew that his dad had been very ill for quite some time. Hospitalized.
Today, Marianne spoke with Mike's mom. She informed us that the father's condition had deteriorated considerably, he might not live until Christmas. They had just lost their home to bank foreclosure, and were to be moving this week to a nearby apartment. If matters couldn't be worse, the dad's truck broke down, and they had no money to fix it. This was the only vehicle in the family.
Mom, of course, is concerned about the kids and the Christmas holiday. No home, no husband, no car, no money.

We know that this family will be in need of more than we can ever hope to collect. We will try to get them in touch with all of the social service programs that are available. In the meantime, perhaps we can do our part to make a little bit of Christmas for them on what is sure to be a greif-filled holiday.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Season of Love

What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has the eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like.

Saint Augustine.

I am rapidly becoming overwhelmed by the Christmas advertising blitz in their attempt to convince us that we need to spend lots of money to show our love. This year I am determined to devote less time to the the shallow materialism of the American holiday season. Instead I will focus more of my energy on the gifts that come from the heart.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Plain Dealer Article

Today's Cleveland Plain Dealer carried an article about the Max Hayes High School/Cleveland Soapbox Derby Sculpture project on the first page of the Metro section. Pictures too! Check it out!

Saturday, November 27, 2004


"One can't believe impossible things."

"I daresay, you haven't much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why sometimes I'd beleive as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

Lewis Carrroll

There comes a time in a man's life when to get to where he has to go--if there are no doors or windows--he walks through a wall.

Bernard Malamud

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Parent-Teacher Conference

She was at her wits end.
The mother of three sons, one a high school drop out at the age of 19.
Her second son stood about ten feet away from his mother in the school office while the principal searched through the stack of report cards for her youngest boy's records.

"F's and D's" she fumed "F's and D's. I send you to school every day, and these are the grades you get? Look at all of these absences. Cutting classes? What are you doing when you cut? Where do you go? Are you hanging around with that girl with raggedy tennis shoes? "

The dejected young man stood silently eyes cast upon the ground.
The boy's younger brother was in my afternoon art class.
I introduced myself.

"This is kind of embarrassing isn't it?"

Glancing up quickly, the seventeen year olds face grimaced momentarily, and he scuffed his shoe against the tile floor.

Her voice softened.
"They have watched me struggle to support them. I got my GED. I go to Cleveland State at night. I want to get my master's. I try to be a good role model. Yet my son's ignore me. They come to school to hook up with the girls. They cut classes, don't study, no homework. They think they know it all already. I'm ready to give up on them. I have a grandchild to raise now."

Turning again to the uncomfortable boy, I queried,
"Do you know how lucky you are?"

The look he shot me said "Are you crazy?"

"Look around this place tonight." I continued. "Only a handful of parents showed up to talk to the teachers tonight.. You mother came, because she cares. She's not here because she want's you to feel humiliated. Many of your classmates have parents who don't give a damn. They never set foot in this school. You mother is here. She want's desperately for you to grow up to be a good man. Your mom knows life is hard, but she's got your back. You're one of the lucky ones."

The mother's grateful face encouraged me to continue.

"We have excellent programs here, and teachers who want to help you, but nobody can force you to learn.
We want all of the students here to succeed. We can't do the work for you though. I get angry at the kids who say they never got anything out of this place, when they never put anything in. The desire must come from you.
I guarantee, if you walk up to any one of your teachers after class and ask them to help you, they will work with you. You have to be sincere. Nobody's going to chase you around to make sure you go to class and get your assignments done. You are responsible for yourself.
In another year or two there will be even fewer people around to help you."

"I'm afraid for you" whispered the boys mother.

I could see the tears beginning to well up in the young mans eyes as he looked past me into the face of his mother.

I nodded good-bye and turned to walk out of the office.

"Thank you." The mother reached over and touched my arm.

"I wish it were so easy." I thought.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

When the Student Outpaces the Teacher.

When the student outpaces the teacher, it can be confusing, disconcerting, or intimidating. Or sometimes, it can be downright exhilarating.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked my Art 2 class if anyone would like to volunteer to take a few pictures for me, documenting one of our projects. Two students raised their hands. I directed them to our technology specialist, who hooked the boys up with a couple of digital cameras.

My background in photography is very limited, a couple of college courses back in the day when 35mm's ruled. I have no real experience with the digital stuff. Looking at these new cameras, without a users guide was enough to drive me to distraction.

Once I set Chris and Joe loose with the cameras, marvelous things began to happen. Both boys had an innate sense of composition and an understanding of their subject matter. The picture that they took made you want to look at them more closely, repeatedly.
Joe knows how to make objects and landscapes tell a story. Chris can capture a narrative in the human face and form. Each day i send them out on a new mission with the cameras, and they come back to experiment with photo editing.

My regret is that I don't know enough to teach them anything.
What I do know, is how to find someone who can.

Thursday, November 18, 2004


Mea culpa, mea culpa.

I feel awful for neglecting my journal.
I cannot even give a good reason, like my computer crashed, or I was called out of town to attend to matters of health, wealth, or adventure. Truth is, I just didn't feel like writing...or even thinking too much for that matter.

Some really exciting things have been happening here at Max Hayes too, and I promise to fill you in.

But.....not right now...

I promise

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Project Update

My parents always taught me that I could do anything I wanted, and I always believed it to be true. Add a clear idea of what inspires you, dedicate your energies to it's pursuit, and there is no knowing what you can achieve, particulaly if others are inspired by your dream and offer their help.

Pete Goss


That tinge of doubt.
The little voice that whispers insidiously, "Something will go wrong."
Thank goodness my inner child grew up to be a smart-aleck teenager with an attitude.
As Doubt cautions, the Smart-aleck responds, palm raised and head turned away, "Whatever".

This week about 70 students in the building construction program worked with, and watched, as artist and contractors, masons and brick layers, began the first phase of construction at the entrance for Clevland's Soapbox Derby racetrack. So many people came together to make this happen.
....And the weather was good.
I can't stop smiling.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Who is Not Participating?

I am often guilty of distracted listening...Especially at meetings. I hear and focus on the speaker, but there are always so many other thoughts and ideas racing around in my mind. I can only describe this distraction as analogous to the "picture within a picture" feature on many television sets. Kind of a mental multi-tasking.

Today's meeting in the Peter B Lewis building at Case University was no different for me. Ed Morrison and Jack Ricchiuto were reviewing the agenda for a group of discussion moderators involved in REI's "Making Change" symposium scheduled for November 15th at the Ritz Carlton in Cleveland. The conference will discuss various issues affecting the revitalization of the economy in North East Ohio.
Jack had been reading aloud from a page of questions that we would be asking break-out group participants next Monday.

"Who is not participating in these (economic development) conversations, and why?"

Suddenly all of the screens in my mentalvision were flashing that same question.

Cleveland Municipal Schools are NOT participating in these discussions about Regional Economic Impact.
The question is: Why?

The public schools are recognized as THE key component to workforce development (or lack thereof) We are more than 6,000 employees serving more than 70,000 children in this country's most impoverished city. Yet I am the only Cleveland teacher I have ever seen at REI.
Again: Why?

The answer to this question should be enlightening.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

The Voice

I finally had to replaced my defective cell phone.
Dropped calls and missing words had increased to the point where they'd become the norm, and a "No Service" message was now being displayed on my screen.
The technician at Verizon said he couldn't fix my phone, and told me it would cost $50 to replace it.

I was incredulous.

I had been waiting in line for about 20 minutes and the room was crowded with customers.

This poor, unwitting man was going to force me to pull out my secret weapon...The Teacher Voice.

With a smile on my lips, and a glare in my eyes, I stared at the man wearing the polo shirt with the company logo.
First,I assumed the attitude: Very calm.
Then,The Voice: Rather loud. Very firm.

"Let me understand this.
I am paying for your company's service.
This phone, which came with my service plan, through no fault of my own, stops working.
I am losing business calls, which I am still paying for through your service.
Now you want to charge me fifty dollars to replace my phone because you can't fix it."

I smiled sweetly, turned around and looked back at the room full of customers, waiting for service. They had fallen silent. All eyes were upon us. I turned to face the technician. My sweet smile broadened into a grin.

"Sir, I think I'm getting screwed."

Coughs and snickers replaced the silence in the room behind me.

"Excuse me." The man mumbled.
He immediately went into the back room and came out with a new charge.

Sometimes it's just so good to be me.

Friday, November 05, 2004

It may be that your purpose in life is simply to serve as a warning to others


Thursday, November 04, 2004

Death Knell

The mood in the teachers workroom was somewhat somber. I could easily compare it to that of a wake. Not the wake of a person suddenly cut down in the prime of life, rather like that of a long-ailing relative. The death knells, having been expected, were finally beginning to play.

No one really expected the school levy to pass, yet while it was on the ballot, there remained that sliver of hope. Today we look around at the bare bones of an educational system in the poorest city in the United States and wonder, what else can be cut? Rumor has it, hundreds more teachers will be laid off in the next couple of weeks. From where? Class sizes are already huge. We have had no money for supplies or materials or programs.

We understand how this happened, what we don't understand is why it continues. How can the rest of Ohio, the rest of the country continue to look away?

Is it because these 70,000 children are the children of the poor?

If their parents had been more ambitious, they would be in a suburban district.
If those parents would have stayed off of drugs, would have gotten a good education, would have kept a job, would have not gotten sick, would have married the fathers of their children...then they could send their kids to private schools. Then they could move away from Cleveland. Why should anyone who has worked hard to become successful have to support the children of those who did not?

We have been abandoned

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Joke of the Day

My son's friend Brandon told me this joke, which I then passed on to my students.
It is so corny, I know, but it made them laugh.
Yesterday I overheard the joke being retold as I plowed my way through the halls between classes.

What do you call a deer with no eyes?

I have no eye-deer

That's one of the things I love about high school; we are so simple.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Too Liberal?

I woke up in the middle of the night still mulling over the department chairs meeting of yesterday afternoon. The topic was clarifying the new attendance policy which was put in place by the discipline committee at our school this summer.
The new criteria disturbed me from the start, and now that it will be implemented I felt that I really must organize my thoughts and express my concerns.
Since I spent the last hour typing up this letter, I figured I would also post it here for my readers.
Sometimes I am afraid that my colleagues consider me too liberal in my views of education. I think I am simply applying common sense.
Let me know what you as former students, parents, and teachers think.

Re: Max Hayes new attendance policy

My understanding of the new attendance policy put in place by the discipline committee this summer is this:

Tardies in excess of 10 minutes equal an absence.
with a pass - excused absence
without a pass - unexcused absence
10 or more excused or unexcused absences a semester equals an automatic failure.

*Failures due to excused absences may be appealed.

I have some concerns.

According to this policy, a student could be 10 minutes late to class 10 times during a semester, (missing 100 minutes out of the 3,600 scheduled) earn an A (according to points earned on the grading scale for the class), yet get an F on his report card and have to make up the class in summer school or night school.
Another student might be absent for 9 days, (missing 360 minutes from that class) and pass the class, perhaps even also earning an A.

Now, of course, the grade may be appealed before a committee of the principal, school nurse, and UCC chair.
A time consuming process, but I'm sure in line with professional responsibilities. These appeal meetings will certainly be scheduled after school, so that the student will not be absent, yet again, from class.

My question is philosophical.

When we grade students using this attendance criteria, what exactly are we assessing?
I was under the impression that a grade was an assessment of learning.
The attendance and tardy records are intended to speak for themselves.

We require attendance to facilitate learning. If a student has learned despite poor attendance, should he be required to relearn the material in summer school or night school? (At a rather substantial financial cost to himself or his family)

What is the difference between an excused absence and an unexcused absence with this policy, other than allowing a student to appeal a failing grade, thus requiring the formation of an appeals committee?
(My personal observation is that our administration is already a bit overscheduled, but...I could be wrong)

The district policy is:
5 unexcused absences a year equals an automatic failure.
Excused absences are determined by parents and teachers. Individual teachers are entrusted to use their professional judgement to determine whether or not a student has exhibited sufficient learning in order to pass his or her specific course.

Max Hayes in the attempt to raise our standards, by disregarding excused absences, may have unwittingly instituted an attendance policy that may simply serve to raise our failure and dropout rates, as opposed to enhancing any real learning.
In addition, it places policy ahead of professional judgement.

My graduate coursework on Assessment in Education and Education Philosophy stressed the necessity that any policy set by a school must, first and foremost, advantage the child.
Is there any advantage to the child with this new attendance criteria?
I am hard pressed to see how this attendance criteria will result in more learning than the one that has been put in place by the district.

Can we change it now?
If it will help our students succeed, I think we should.

I do appreciate your comments.

Monday, November 01, 2004


Lord, make me so uncomfortable that I will do the very thing I fear.

Ruby Dee

The thing that we are used to is comfortable in it's familiarity. We are reluctant to let go, when we know that change will bring us face to face with...? What? ...Something different.

We can live with the constant dull ache, but when the ache becomes pain, we are moved to do something about it. Nothing will move us forward faster than pain.

My survival is dependent on making changes. Therefore, I need to anticipate the pain, welcome it's arrival, and quickly get past it. I simply cannot survive the status quo.

Sunday, October 31, 2004


For the first time I won't be passing out candy.

I'm having a new driveway put in, and it is blocked off. I really hate it when people stomp through my flower beds, and they do, even when the driveway is accessible.
We get literally hundreds of trick-or-treaters on my street in Cleveland Heights. Van loads from Cleveland and East Cleveland. Occasionally I will have one of my students or former students come to my door, and when I ask what brings them to my part of town, I'm told they come here because it is a safe neighborhood, and we give out lots of candy.

I normally have three different baskets of candy. Big candy bars for the kids who actually live on my street. Trick-or-treat size candy (Snickers, Reese's etc.) for kids in costumes, and gumballs and pixie stix for the teenagers and adults who come to the door with no costumes and a gimmme attitude.
It seems like each year there are more and more adults who just haven't been able to let go of the trick-or-treat thing. You'd think they would be embarrassed.

I don't chastise...that's not my place...I just wonder, raise an eyebrow, and hand them a pixie stick.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

The Political Right Acting Ethically Wrong

My oldest son, Ben, called to tell me about a letter he received from the board of elections in Summit County saying that his right to vote was being challenged by a woman from Copely whom he had never met. The challenge stated that he did not live at the address listed on his registration (he is registered a a Democrat). Ben has been living at the same address in Cuyahoga Falls for two years now.

What is happening here in Ohio?

Who are these people who will let themselves and their names be used by a political party to deny other Americans, whom they do not know, the right to vote? Were they tricked, or did they fully understand their part in these political shenanigans? Are these people issuing challenges simply because they have been told to with out asking why?

I want to believe in the fundamental goodness of Americans.
I want to believe that common sense is not rare amongst the common people.

What I see happening in Ohio frightens me.

Bill Callahan post his comments about the Summit County voter high jinks this week in his Cleveland Diary with good links to other news stories about this season's election mischief

Friday, October 29, 2004

Potential Targets?

In the interest of keeping our children safe, we limit access to school buildings. Many schools have buzzers at the entrances, security guards, and even the occasional metal detector.
Yet we use these same buildings, when they are full of children (voting always occurs on a school day), as polling places.

Whenever there is an election, we open the doors of our schools to hundreds of strangers. They walk through the buildings from dawn until dusk on the most politically charged day of the year.
Am I a little paranoid, or does this seem rather reckless in a day and age of terrorism? Especially in the light of the horror which occurred at the Russian school a couple of months ago.

Just a thought...Wouldn't it be prudent to close our schools on election day if we are going to use them as polling places?

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

What Do You Tell a Cutter?

Oh boy!
This is a topic which never came up in any of my teacher education classes while I was in college:
What do you say to a cutter?

I'm not talking about the kid who occassionally skips a class to go catch a smoke in the restroom. I'm talking about the kid who rolls his sleeve up and you see the marks. Scabbed over slices, or patterned scratches, occassionaly words, cut into a young arm... or arms, or chests, or faces, or necks.

Each year I meet them.
The kids whose lives have been so very painful to them, who repress anger, who have spent a short lifetime trying to kill feelings, whose lives feel out of their control.
These kids discover one type of pain they can control. Self-inflicted.

The technical term for this behavior is Self Injury (SI) in the pysch books. If you look it up online you can find all of the medical descriptions, case studies, and therapies. Most informative are the message boards and the SI chat rooms. Here people with SI share their stories, and give each other support and tips on how to deal with this disorder.

Although I have known and taught kids who cut themselves throughout my entire career, It wasn't until I discovered the message boards that I truly began to understand what is going on in the minds of the kids who manifest this behavior.
They are not typically suicidal, in fact most suicides don't cut, and most cutters don't attempt suicide. But they are in pain.
They have just found an unusual way of dealing with it.
The cutting brings relief.

So what do I say to the kid who shows me his cuts, either purposely or accidentaly?
I say. "Makes you feel better doesn't it?"

The kid is always so amazed that I understand. I don't tell them they are doing something wrong. I don't presume to judge them.
They start to share their stories.
We talk about safer methods for dealing with the emotional pain. Creative outlets; painting, poetry, music, writing.
The arts can be such good therapy.


To laugh is to risk appearing the fool.
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.
To reach for another is to risk involvement.
To expose your feelings is to risk exposing your true self.
To place your ideas, your dreams before a crowd is to risk their loss.
To love is to risk not being loved in return.
To live is to risk dying.
To believe is to risk despair.
To try is to risk failure.

But risks must be taken, because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.
The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing.
They may avoid suffering and sorrow, but they cannot learn, feel, change, grow, love, live.
Chained by their attitudes they are slaves; they have forfeited their freedom.
Only a person who risks is free.

Anonymous Chicago Teacher

Ground Breaking to Begin on Public Art Project

Well folks, I think it's finally going to happen. At last we have set a date for groundbreaking!

The Max Hayes/Soapbox Derby public art project, more than two years in planning, will start to become a reality. Footers are scheduled to be dug and concrete poured next week. The block and sandstone will be laid the following week.
Work on the stainless will take place over the winter, final installation is scheduled for spring, and the dedication will take place in June.

The concept of arts integration, although becoming accepted methodology in academic subject areas in education, has taken a very different twist here at Max Hayes Vocational High School.
Several years ago, we began integrating art into teaching the trades classes by inviting sculptors to work in the shops with the welding classes and the building construction students.
I was able to get funding to pay the artists through an ICARE grant sponsored by Young Audiences of Greater Cleveland.

We established a partnership with the Cleveland Institute of Art, and brought numerous artists/professors to the school to work with the trades students.
At the same time we were coordinating with the City of Cleveland, the Detroit Shoreway Neighborhood Development organization, various neighborhood block clubs and businesses, the Soapbox Derby Commission, the Cement Mason's Union, the Brick Layers Union, and last but certainly not least,(in fact, most importantly)the Steven Tatar Studio. The result is going to be a beautiful new entrance to the Cleveland Soapbox Derby Park, featuring an elegant sanstone wall and two stainless steel, art deco styled, soapbox derby racecars.

I will try to post the project drawings done for the planning commission later this week, as Steve told me had digitized them.

This is gonna be sooooo cool!


As a little P.S. to all of Cleveland's chronic complainers who like to whine and say,

"Nothing ever gets done in this city"
"People have no vision here"
"Clevelanders don't know how to work together"
"It's all just a lot of talk"
"New ideas don't stand a chance."
"The Cleveland Schools suck."

At Max Hayes, we refused to get caught up in all of that negativity...We're makin' it happen...Ha!


First quarter grades are due this week, and I may not have time for a press release. Know anyone in the media? Please have them e-mail me or call the school. Thanks.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Test of Courage

Often the test of courage is not to die, but to live.

Vittorio Alfieri

One cannot answer for his courage when he has never been in danger.

La Rochefoucald

You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face....
You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Terror and Tragedy, Horror and Healing

Flipping through radio stations, searching for a tune to fit my mood, I paused as the voice of a newscaster announced a breaking story from Cleveland's near west side. "Seventeen year old girl escapes from burning house. Father killed."
"Please..Not one of my kids" I silently mouthed the plea I've murmured each time I hear about a tragedy involving teenagers in Cleveland.
Too many of my kids have made the headlines.

That day I prayed to no avail. The child was one of my favorite students, and this time the headlines would last for months.

Hour by hour the details of the story were announced by the reporters:

In the early hours of the morning a man broke into the house off of Fulton Avenue. He silently crept up the stairs, to a bedroom where the owner of the house slept. With a hammer he picked up from the man's toolbox downstairs, he pummeled the sleeping man to death. Next, he entered an adjacent bedroom, and awakened the teenaged daughter.
Brutally, he raped her, finally dragging her into the bathroom. He slammed the young girl down onto the hard tile floor, beat her, then tied her wrists to the plumbing with shoelaces.
To cover up his crime and eliminate the witness, he poured gasoline throughout the house, lit a match, and walked away.
The fire accelerated rapidly. Soon the blaze spread into the bathroom.
Determined not to die, the teenager strained toward the flames as they spread into the room where she lay. Using the fire, she was able to burn through her bindings, all the while screaming for her father.

Battered and bleeding, naked and terrified, she ran out of the house calling for him, just as the structure was engulfed in the inferno.

Soon my phone began to ring.
"Damaris. The girl in the news is Damaris."

My heart sank. That such a tragedy would befall anyone is unthinkable.
But Damaris!
Sweet and gentle and beautiful, Damaris was an eleventh grade building construction student at Max Hayes. She was in my 9th period class, taking a second year of art.

Emotion became entity that Monday as students gathered in hallways and classrooms at Max Hayes. Disbelief entwined with grief. Anger mixed with hatred and fear.
The killer was still out there.

Damaris had identified her assailant. She knew him from the neighborhood. A friend of hers had dated him a couple of times, and he had come by the house a week or two earlier to ask her father about getting a job.

The police issued an APB.
His mugshot glared from the pages of the newspaper. It was broadcast during the news reports on every television station.
Surely he would be caught soon. Very the police, we all hoped.
A number of the boys from Max Hayes took on the role of vigilante, as the days began to mount without a capture. Rumor had it, the Max Hayes boys were carrying guns. The potential for the tragedy to escalate rose with each passing day. He had been spotted in the neighborhood.

Finally, he was captured. Thankfully, by the police.
He had been hiding out, like a rat, in a tunnel that ran underneath the shoreway.

Damaris returned to school after several weeks.

A very different young woman sat at the table in the art studio now. The chatty, happy, giggling child, had been replaced by a silent, staring, wounded woman.
My gift of empathy proved both blessing and curse in her presence. The intensity of her pain, weeping spirit, bleeding soul, was difficult to witness.
There were days when distress immobilized her.
I could see the tears well up in her eyes, and I led her into my office.
"I can't draw." She whispered. "There are things I need to say, that I want to express, but I can't draw them."
"Do you think you could write them down?" I asked.

The following day I brought her a journal; 300 pages, hard bound, fabric cover. Later that week she shared three poems with me... pain-filled and powerful releases.

Over the summer Damaris continued to write. She steadfastly worked toward her own healing.
The winter of her senior year reopened wounds that had begun to close. Her attacker was going to trial. It was a death penalty case, and as victim, Damaris would have to testify. Due to the strength of her testimony, her father's killer sits on Ohio's death row today.

Damaris began to tell her story of horror, hurt, and healing, reaching out to other victims of crime. She was even interviewed by Montel Williams on national television.

Eventually she filled the three hundred pages of that journal with her poetry.
When she came to Max Hayes to visit with me a few weeks ago, she told me of her conversation with a publisher about making her chronicle of pain available to a wider audience of readers.

I shall look forward to reading about her journey.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Brain Drain

Occasionally I get out and rub shoulders with the corporate crowd. Upon introduction, people inevitably respond with either sympathy or awe. The resultant conversations will usually focus on how brave I must be, and how hard my job is.
This week, during the course of one of these discussions, the question was asked, "What would you say are the biggest frustrations you have as a teacher in Cleveland?"
My answer was not the one that was expected.

My biggest frustrations are the smart kids.

I just don't have the time for them.

Years ago the practice of tracking students according to their ability was abandoned in favor of classes containing a mix of diverse aptitudes. The rational was fairly logical. By eliminating the stigma of being in the "slow" class, low achieving students would be challenged by higher expectations and motivated to work harder, essentially being pulled up by the high achievers.

The problem in Cleveland is this. For a variety of reasons, we are a system with a disproportionate number of low achieving students. We are so bottom-heavy, that it is impossible to expect the masses of low achieving students to be buoyed up by the high aptitude kids...After all they are just kids.

As teachers we are often forced to practice a type of educational triage in our classrooms.
First we attend to the "noisy-needy", those in-your-face personalities who will become disruptive unless attended to.
Next, we are pulled to the kids who are stuggling with basic comprehension of the subject matter. With large class sizes of 30-40 kids, in a 40 minute class period, these kids will easily demand all of a teachers time, when they make up about 60-70% of the class population.
The smart, quiet kids that "get it" are low maintenance. They don't demand immediate attention, so they usually don't get much. Rarely are they challenged, often they are bored. In many cases the street is much more interesting than the classroom, and if the student comes from a family without a history of academic success, one that doesn't place a high value on education, we lose them.

The media talks about the "Brain Drain" from the greater Cleveland area, referring to the exodus of college graduates from the region, as they move to other cities in search of jobs.
Cleveland Schools have their own version of a "Brain Drain", as our students with the most potential desert our rosters for the street in search of new challenges.

Friday, October 22, 2004

A government which robs Peter to pay Paul, can always depend on the support of Paul.

George Bernard Shaw

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Student Teaching Revisited: A New Teacher's First Day in the Classroom

This past spring I received an award from Young Audiences of Greater Cleveland naming me the Northeast Ohio Arts Educator of the Year. Upon recieving that distinction, Cool Cleveland published an interview with me. One of the questions asked about any mistakes I ever made during the course of my career.
I am going to repost my answer namely because I've been thinking about student teaching since I am getting an intern from Cleveland State University next week.
Secondly, I'm reposting it becuase it is just a darn good story...and every word of it is true.

My student teaching assignment was eighth grade art at Glouster Middle School. Glouster is located in southern Ohio, a depressed coal mining town, buried in the Appalachian foothills.
Back in those days, the student teacher came in to the school, worked with the cooperating teacher in the classroom for a few days, then the cooperating teacher took off to the teachers lounge, and the student teacher was on her own.

This was to be my very first day teaching classes alone.
I said goodbye to my Co-op teacher at the door of the lounge, and headed to my class. When I walked in the door, there was the entire class in a crowded circle at the center of the room, yelling at two big ol’ boys trying to beat each other senseless.

Hey, I grew up with brothers, no problem!

I convinced a few of the bigger kids to pull the combatants apart. I then put on the meanest, craziest face my 21 year old, little 110 lb. self could muster grabbed a heavy wooden chair by the teachers desk, and slammed it up against the wall. I pointed at red-faced Jimmy and said, "You! Sit there."
To my secret surprise, he sat. I grabbed a second chair, and slammed it into the wall next to the first. The other boy, Billy, a hulking 16-year-old, crumpled to the floor weeping.
"My foot! You hit my foot!"
I wasn’t going to fall for that ploy. Remember, I had brothers.
"Get up, you big baby. You're not hurt. Go to the office!"
The boys limped off, everybody sat down, and I started class.

I was sooooooo cool.

That afternoon, there was a knock on the classroom door. It was the principal. He looked very serious.
"Miss Miles, there was a fight in your class this morning?"
I nodded.
"We had to take Billy to the hospital. He has a broken foot."
All my mind could do was scream "SSSSHITTTT!!!!!!"
Four years of college down the drain.

"Billy’s father would like to speak with you."
What little blood was left in my face drained completely when I saw the man who was coming around the corner. He looked like a tattooed mountain wearing a wife-beater undershirt and a ZZ Top beard.
"Hey !" he drawled, extending his hand. "My boy got in a fight in your class?" My "Yes sir." was barely audible.
"Now listen" he said, and grabbed my hand, "if that boy gives you any more trouble you just go ahead and break his other foot. You got my permission."
His face broke into a big smile and he pumped my arm in the heartiest handshake of my life. Then both men turned around and headed back down the hall to the school office.
I could hear them chuckling.

I can recall standing there for a long time, amazed and bewildered by what had just happened. I had always considered myself lucky, but this went beyond being lucky, to the realm of the bizarre.
My career has maintained that tenor throughout the years, and I have received somewhat twisted satisfaction in the knowledge that as long as I continue to teach, I will never be bored.

The Intern

It's official...Finally after a few phone calls and faxes, Alice, my student teacher from Cleveland State will begin her internship with me Monday. She will be the 10th "rookie" I will have had the pleasure of working with directly since I began teaching in Cleveland.

She is coming to me from an eight week stint at a K-8 building in the Cleveland School District, and she can't wait to start in a high school.
My kind of attitude...We are going to have fun.

Many veteran teachers won't take an intern, because they are a lot of work, (paperwork, time, discussion) but I love working with student teachers.
I like to be able to have them experience that a learning environment can be focused on creativity, tolerance, and respect, as opposed to rules, rules, and more rules.
How can we ever teach people to "think outside of the box" when we haven't climbed out of it ourselves?

Yep, we're gonna have fun....I'll keep you posted.

Monday, October 18, 2004

If a blade of grass can grow in a concrete walk, and a fig tree in the side of a mountain cliff, a human being empowered with invincible faith can survive all odds the world can throw against his tortured soul.

Robert H. Schuller

How Many Students Really Graduate?

I thought I would share this posting from Bill Callahan's Cleveland Diary


I looked at the Cleveland school levy campaign's new website yesterday, and was shocked to see a claim repeated in several places that the CMSD's 2004 graduation rate was 47%. (The site actually says that this was a near-doubling of a 28% grad rate in 1996, which raises its own big questions, but that's another story.) So I went to the Ohio Department of Education site and found their current report card numbers for the CMSD.
Lo and behold, they're showing a graduation rate of 49.4% for the Class of 2004!

As far as I can tell, this is the only way to find the number... it's not on the 2003-2004 District Report Card, which lists the Class of 2003 grad rate (about 41%... hence my mistake in the chart here, for which I must now apologize.)

The campaign's use of 47% instead of 49% may betray some nervousness about ODOE's figure at the School Administration Building. And I'd still like to know where Byrd-Bennett is getting that 28% figure for 1996, since the last published version of the grad rate for that year was ten points higher. But neither of these points matters much compared to this: After losing 60-70% of every graduating class since the mid-90's and before, has the School District actually managed to get diplomas into the hands of almost half of the kids who started high school four years ago?

If so, the district -- and the kids -- deserve a loud, sustained round of applause. This would undeniably be major progress that should give a significant boost to the levy campaign

My comment to Bill was:

I am not positive about the source for that number, but I will venture a guess. Figures for graduation rates in past years have had numerous flaws in data collection. For example; Any student who left the district was listed as a nongraduate, even if they did graduate from high school in another school district. Because CMSD's student population is so transient, this may have accounted for a large percentage of students who were listed as nongraduates. A while ago I heard that these issues were being looked at by the state auditors. This could very well be the reason for the big jump in the percentage rate

There are many other flaws in the data collection for figures concerning high school graduates in Cleveland.
In the same building that houses Max Hayes High School, is a program for high school students over the age of 18 called Cleveland Extension High School. This school schedules classes to accommodate older students who are also holding jobs. If a Max Hayes student turns 18 and opts to take the adult classes to finish their diploma requirements, the fact that the student left the regular high school program is counted AGAINST the graduation rate for Max Hayes High School, even though they take classes in the same building and receive their diploma from the same principal.

The GED program for Cleveland is also located in our building. GED recipients are also not factored into Cleveland Schools graduation rate, although passing the test does signify graduation equivalency.

Gives you something to think about eh?

Sunday, October 17, 2004

PBS/ McNeil Lehrer : 'By the People'

The small alcove overlooking the lobby of Case University's George Dively building was filled, as fourteen strangers gathered together, seated in a circle on couches and easy chairs, to discuss one of societies most controversial topics...Politics.

We were one of ten groups scattered around the building Saturday to participate in a type of social experiment sponsored by PBS and McNeil Lehrer. Cleveland was one of 18 cities to host these discussions, which will be broadcast both locally and nationally October 21st.

At the behest of Betsy Merkle from REI Weatherhead at Case, I was acting as moderator for the group as they voiced their opinions on national security, the war on terror, global economics, and personal income tax. The goal of the conversation was to frame several questions that we would like to ask a panel of experts in those particular fields of security, terrorism, global economics, and government, later that afternoon, as a part of a larger group discussion involving 120 randomly selected people from northeast Ohio.

My group was diverse. We were small business owners , students, retirees, accountants, teachers, technicians, executives, salesmen, and housewives. Democrats, Republicans, and independents.
The discussion was informed and enthusiastic. We were serious and we laughed. We were respectful of one another's opinions, yet felt free to voice friendly disagreement. The three hours in our small groups flew by, and by the end of the second session, everyone felt as if we had made some new friends.

It will be interesting to see the results of the final survey.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Stress Management

I read this article. It said the typical symptoms of stress are eating too much, smoking too much, impulse buying, and driving too fast
Are they kidding? This is my idea of a great day!

Monica Piper

Nothing is more destined to create deep-seated anxieties in people than the false assumption that life should be free from anxieties

Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen

What...Me worry?

Alfred E. Newman, Mad Magazine

Friday, October 15, 2004

Learning the Trick

The mouth, typically in motion, was still. His eyes, focused on the paper in front of him, shifted to my face as I stood next to the table.
"I never knew I could draw."
The warm beginning of a smile, started moments ago in my heart while watching this boy work, spread to my eyes, as I said, " See how easy it becomes once you know the tricks?"

So many people believe they have no talent. They will say to me,"I'm not an artist."
To which I respond. "You don't have to be an artist to draw. You just have to learn the tricks"
Once my students think there's a trick to it, they aren't afraid to try. What I'm really teaching is technique, but if I call it a trick, they think I'm teaching them a special, easy way to do something...Like I'm making them privy to the artists "cheat sheet"...Now, suddenly, they're game.

You see that's my trick.

I know that once I can get them past the fear, the fear that they have no talent, and get them to participate, it won't be long until they discover their creativity. Tap into those creative spirits and all of the sudden ...BAM...I've tricked them into becoming artists.

Yep, there are lot's of tricks to teaching, and one of them is discovering the right spin.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Cleveland's Future

Yesterday evening, I attended an event at Key Tower called the Connection Series with three of the Senior Class officers from Max Hayes. The evening involved networking, discussion, and a hands on activity creating a collage/mural. The topic was future visions of Cleveland, and the participants were Clevelanders with civic concerns and etrepreneural spirit.

I love being able to give my students the opportunity to interact with community leaders in activities where they are participants as opposed to observers.
I was so proud of them.
They dressed professionally, conversed easily and made a great impression. Although they were young, they did not seem out of place.

I felt just like a parent at a child's coming-out party. These kids have a very bright future ahead of them.

Do not follow the path. Go where there is no path to begin the trail.

Ashanti proverb

Monday, October 11, 2004

Portrait Project

My Art 2 classes are beginning a unit on self-portraits. We will be drawing in charcoal, and so we are taking digital pictures and printing them in black and white as references.

Since I cannot show you pictures of my students online, you get to see my headshots.
I was told the first pictures that I posted of myself weren't very good. Maybe these are better?

As I play around with photo-editing, I am reminded once again of how much I love black and white photography.
So distractions.

Next Picture

I lost the cheesy smile in this picture....Even looks like a good-hair-day.

This is the Picture

This is the picture I will be using for my charcoal portrait unit demonstration. It's really simple, especially after I cleaned out most of the gray tones.
I'm sure I can complete the demo in about twenty minutes.

I love technology! It took me just a few quick key strokes to to adjust the composition and contrast instead of fumbling around with filters and chemicals.
Of course, there was a certain romance to processing black and white pictures in the darkroom back in the day...ahhh...but I probably shouldn't go there.

A Lesson in Honesty

I rarely sit down at my desk when I am in my classroom. That would be unthinkable with studio classes of 28 - 45 students. I buzz around from student, to storeroom, to computer, to student, to get the picture.

With large numbers of teenagers in one space I'm constantly watching out and listening for "something stupid". I define something stupid as the little pranks and bone-headed stunts kids do (remember?) that, when allowed to escalate, will trigger chaos.
I've gotten pretty good over the years at spotting the kid who is just about to bean a classmate with a broken crayon, or sensing when the good natured jibes about "your mamma" are about to get really nasty.

Friday, I looked up from the student's project I was discussing, just in time to see a folded paper missile fly across the room from its rubber band launcher, and smack a ninth grader in the arm. When I called out the shooters name, he looked at me square in the face and said,
"I didn't do it."
The rubber band was still in his hand, a little pile of the paper missiles was stacked in front of him, and I had, with my very own eyes, witnessed the attack.
Yet this boy had the nerve to keep insisting that it wasn't him.

I could feel a teachable moment coming on.

I took the opportunity to talk to my class about honesty and respect.

Most people can relate to the experience of being caught doing something negligent, or stupid, or just plain wrong.
In order to avoid embarrassment, or a reprimand, they lie.
Some people will lie in order to gain something.
To gain admiration they make up a story. To land a job they fabricate a resume. In search of adventure they remove a wedding ring.

At first glance, lying seems to be a rather positive experience.
It works.

Unless you are the person being lied to.
I asked my students how they felt when they discovered they'd been lied to.

"Angry", "Hurt", "Like they think I'm a fool.", "Disrespected", "Unable to trust."

"How do you feel about the person who lied to you?" I asked.

"They aren't really your friend.", "You can never believe them."

Throughout the discussion the boy with the rubberband sat silent.

Finally I asked him, "So, what do you think?"

"What do I think?"
He paused, "I think I'm sorry."

Good answer.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

For Love and Money

Here Is an update on the poster contest that was held at Case Western Reserve University for the Vice Presidential debate this past week: (Remember the post 'Keeping Expectations High', where I described my frustration with the quality of the work my student were producing?)

Maximo Martinez a 12th grader at Max Hayes won a third place award in the high school division. His work was picked by the RTA to be reproduced and displayed on the outside of buses throughout the city of Cleveland. I am very proud of him.

Max is one of a group of boys here at school who I've half-jokingly dubbed "The Sons I Never Wanted"
These are the kids who always seem to be in the art studio.
They skip lunch to come up to the art room, spend their study halls here, and get passes to my room from other class teachers. Some of them took my class a couple of years ago, but still hang around even though they have no art course on their schedule this semester.
Let me correct myself...'hanging around' isn't allowed. If they are going to be in the studio they must be making art.

Some of the school's best artwork comes from the kids who are not taking an Art class. They like the vibe of the space and their motivation to work is the threat of being kicked out for not working.
I don't allow them to "work on an idea" That, too often, can be an excuse for fooling around and doing nothing. The idea has to exist before they walk in the door.
In the studio, they must be producing.

These are usually the kids I can get to participate in contests. Since they aren't taking the course, they don't need to follow the curriculum.
They like to compete for cash, and so I post all the calls for entries outside the door to the art studio.
Max won a fifty dollar savings bond for his winning entry.

One of the life lessons I talk to my students about is choosing a career.
"Find the thing you love to do, and discover how to make it pay." is a phrase I repeat to the point of redundancy. Each time one of the kids in my class wins a contest, or gets a paid commission for artwork, I point to the entrepreneurial opportunities made available by their creative efforts.

Occasionally one of my students will ask me,
"So if you love art, why aren't you working as an artist?"

To which I respond,"There was something I loved even more.
You see, I grew up with brothers. As a young girl I discovered that I really loved to pick on boys, make fun of them, and boss them around. Eventually I became really good at it, and now I get paid for it. Working here at Max Hayes is truly the perfect job."

...And they think I'm just kidding.

Thursday, October 07, 2004


My friends know that the "H-word" is rarely in my vocabulary.

I always find it easier to do things by long as I know what I'm doing.

However, I am smart enough to recognize my limitations. I know when I need help.

My city has a problem, and my school has a problem. I have an idea but no experience, so... Here it is:

Cleveland needs to build a skilled workforce in order for it to maintain or attract business. The mission of Max Hayes High School is to build a skilled workforce. We have been working very hard to develop new programs, and raise academic acheivement levels.

This year, the district is broke. By now you are all familiar with the stories. Fewer teachers, bigger classes, no money for textbooks, materials, transportation, substitutes, field trips. You name it, we don't have it.
To fix the problem,the district is running a levy in November, pinning all of their hopes on an issue that begs more money from the poorest population in America, the residents of Cleveland. I recall an old saying my grandfather usd to say, "You can't get blood from a turnip".

So what will happen to the great programs we've begun at Max Hayes without the money to sustain them?
Hmmm...How does the private sector solve this problem?
They raise the money.

I've been to many benefits for various arts organizations and charities. These organizations seek patrons and ask for support. Why can't we do that at Max Hayes? The Cleveland School of the Arts does it.

What if we could get financial help from the corporate, business, and manufacturing community?

I've decided I would like to organize an event or benefit which would taget the business community and raise money for tools in the shops and materials for academic classes.
We desparately need money for things like nails and lumber in the construction classes, and gas and metal for welding. Money is needed to replace broken tools, and pay for paper and copying. We also need to replace missing textbooks that cost $60-$100 apiece.

Trouble is, I've never done anything like this before, and I could use some advice.
If any of you have some experience with event planning, or know someone who does, and wouldn't mind spending a little time sharing your expertise, let me know. I am sure the community would support a fundraiser like this, and I really want to do it right.
Any suggestions?

Thanks Jay

I would like to publicly thank Jay Miller for the article he wrote about me in Crain's Cleveland Business.

I was so surprised. Jay, I thought that after we spoke, you would just use the information I gave you to support a story about the financial crisis the school district is facing, I would never guess you would mention me personally. I am beyond flattered.

My boss copied the article and passed it out to the staff. What a nice pat on the back.

Thanks again Jay.

Monday, October 04, 2004


"I think the purpose of life is to be useful, to be responsible, to be honorable, to be compassionate. It is, after all, to matter, to count, to stand for something, to have made a difference you have lived at all."

Leo Rosten

"Keep in mind that the true meaning of an individual is in how he treats a person who can do him absolutely no good."

Ann Landers

"Kindness is never wasted. If it has no effect on the recipient, at least it benefits the bestower."

S.H. Simmons

It's easy to like the quiet kids. I'm inspired by the smart kids. The funny kids and the friendly kids are irresistable.
But in the microcosmic sample of the world that is my classroom, I also teach mean, stupid, loud, and creepy kids. My first instinct is to recoil.

Then I pause, as my mind listens to the quiet voice of my mother, a Cleveland teacher in the 1950's; "The children who are the hardest to love, are the ones who need love the most."
So many of my students live their lives in survival mode. For some of them, nasty is all they have ever known.
It must be difficult, nearly impossible, to be kind if you are rarely treated with kindness.

So I take a deep breath, quickly pray for fortitude, and try to model compasssion.
Even if the student never appreciates, or even notices my efforts, I will at least look upon them as helping to build MY character.
Thanks Mom.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

A New Year

Last night I was out until the very early hours of this morning with a group of friends, celebrating the end of one successful year of very positive changes and accomplishments. This morning, I am taking a little time to set some 12 month goals, both professional and personal.

As a teacher I have spent my life planning, writing out goals, forming measurable objectves, aligning activities, and developing pacing charts. It wasn't until recently that I saw the correlation between my classes and my life.
Hey, if I can use my organizational and planning skills to effect positive change in the lives of one hundred and seventy teenagers each year, what could happen if I applied those same learning tools to my own life?

Lo and behold! Those parts of my life that for so long existed only in chaos, began taking a direction. In areas where I had been merely a participant, I gained control.

Birthdays used to be a date to bemoan the fact that I was not as young as I used to be. Now they have taken on a new signifigance.
October 3rd has become like the first day of school. Today, I begin a new twelve month cycle of learning and accomplisments.

I look out of my window and see the sun is shining in a cloudless sky.
In Cleveland, Ohio; that is a very good omen.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Growing a Workforce

A few of my students had completed the day's exercise on light, shadow, and geometric forms. As I walked around the room checking the work, one of my bright ninth grade girls, looked up at me and said,

"Hey do you want to see the homework I finished for my MEMS class tonight?"

"Of course."

"What's a MEMS class?" a boy at the table asked.

"It's a class Ms Matthews told me about. It teaches us about Microsystems, tiny little parts for computers."

"Night school? With homework? You fail something?"

"No, you idiot! It's about learning something new so I can get a good job, and it's really cool. They're even going to give me $75 dollars to pay for the bus to get there. My mom drives me though, and she's going to let me keep the money."

"Ms Matthews, I want to be in MEMS" the boy at the table pleaded.

"Keep talking to Shenandoah. She can tell you when the next session will be starting."

The smile that started on my face was spreading through my entire being.

I just wish that Bob Schmidt, Colin Drummond, and Fred Lisy could have seen the excitement on Shenandoah's face, and heard the pride in her voice. I wish they could see the interest on the faces of her classmates. These men are not only growing a specialized workforce for their companies right here in Cleveland, but they are changing lives. Three of my students are attending the fall session of the Microsystems Academy.

This is a group of business entrepreneurs who GET IT. They see and understand the connection between education and the economy in Cleveland. They have identified a gap, and figured out a way to fill it so that everybody wins. Hopefully more businesses will follow their lead.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Haves and Have-nots

There were two types of teachers seated at the large oak table this afternoon: The haves, and the have-nots.
The haves were the suburban teachers from various districts around the Greater Cleveland area. The have-nots hailed from the Cleveland Municipal School District.
The group was the Teacher Advisory Board of the Western Reserve Historical
Society, about 15 members, each representing a different school in the region that used to be known as the Western Reserve.
The question was: What is going on at your school that you would like to share with the group? The teachers represented every level of public and private education, kindergarten through high school.

The Cleveland teachers were the first to share.
Every teacher told similar tales of massive staff cuts, with layoffs still occurring, and more to follow next week after the ADM census data is in. More than 30 children in elementary classrooms, no money for basic supplies, no books, transportation cutbacks, and certainly no money for field trips.

When the suburban teachers reported on the programs at their schools, they began with confessed embarrassment. Exciting new programs, new equipment and software in the classrooms, (one teacher complained about a Smart Board being delivered to his classroom before he received any inservice on using it) and yes money was available for distance learning and field trips.
A stranger would think we were teaching in two different worlds.

I guess we are. Two different worlds, minutes away from each other.

How did this happen in a country founded on equal opportunity?

Each time I read the phrase "No Child Left Behind" and look upon the faces of my students, in my mind, I hear a mocking tone followed by the laugh of our political leaders. It has taken on the air of a mean-spirited taunt:

"No child left behind...psych!"
Followed by a sucker punch.

Bully Beat-down

A bully was suspended from school last week for threatening several students.
To their credit, they were not intimidated, and went through the established proceedure for handling these situations. Because they stood up for themselves, a number of other students came forward and told their stories of intimidation and sexual harrassment to the administration.
I have a feeling this big boy may not finish out the year at our school.

Over the past couple of days since he has been gone from my class, I can see a marked difference in the atmosphere amongst that particular group of students. Quiet kids are participating in discussion, smart-aleck comments (from the students) are nearly non-existant. The tenor of the clasroom is relaxed and the kids now seem eager to learn

What really intrigues me is the power of that boy's personality.
I wonder if he was always like that. What if he used his power for good instead of evil? What if he could become a leader instead of a future resident of one of our fine penal institutions?

Now there's a project.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Teacher as Parent

Last night I recieved a phone call from one of my son's teachers. This is the second call I've gotten from her, and I am going to confess my feelings are mixed.

On one hand, I am happy for the contact. Too often in the past I would not recieve any communication from a teacher until the report cards came out, and by then it was too late to address the problem.

On the other hand, this teacher was very attitudinal on the phone. She even had the nerve to say that perhaps my son's long hair was preventing him from hearing, and that he sould push it behind his ears.

I will be making an appointment for a conference this week. It will be much easier to decide a course of action after I meet her face to face.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Keeping Expectations High.

"Not failure, but low aim is the crime."

James Russell Lowell

"Good is not good where better is expected."

Thomas Fuller

I recieved some feedback on my last post about expectations.
(E-mails are very nice, but please feel free to post comments as well.)

Thanks for the encouragement.
I will not succumb to the whining. I will not lower my standards. But I will have to re-remind myself that many more of these kids are coming from a place far behind where the rest of their high school peer group is, developmentally and academically.
The September deadline definitely threw me for a loop.

Today I start my drawing fundamentals workshops with my classes. This is really the fun stuff. This is where they catch-up.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Realistic Expectations

After twenty-some years of teaching high school, I am surprised that I continue to struggle with the question of expectations.
Am I expecting too much from my students, that I feel disappointed so often? Do they feel challenged or frustrated? Or are they simply lazy?

I understand that many, many, of my students come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and 30 to 50 percent of the pupils in each of my classes are classified as special needs. Yet some kids are very bright, and quite talented. The disparity in abilities, both cognitive and eye/hand coordination is immense.

We finished the posters for the art show to be held during the Vice-Presidential debates in two weeks. I know many of my students were frustrated. We critiqued twice, I pushed for revisions. Several students complained that I expected too much. Even still, I was disappointed in the quality of the work. Perhaps I am not being realistic about their capabilities. I only accepted ten pieces. They should have been better. When the district posts them on their web site I will provide a link and see if you agree with me.
I think I may have to work very hard to earn my salary this year.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Did you know that America ranks lowest in education, but highest in drug use? It's nice to be number one, but we can fix that. All we need to do is start the war on education. If it's anywhere near as successful as our war on drugs, pretty soon we'll all be hooked on phonics.

Leighann Lord

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Found: One knife

When I turned to head down the stairs from the third floor hallway, a glint of light flashed in the corner next to the heavy door. The gleam came from the open blade of a shiny steel pocket knife.
"Oh boy!" I sighed and I picked it up. It was a cheap knife with a long blade and painted handle. I headed down to the cafeteria, where the security guards were stationed during the lunch periods, to turn it in.

These are tough neighborhoods the Max Hayes students come from, and I know for a fact that more than a few kids carry a weapon back and forth to school. They see it as a type of street insurance against the assortment of creeps and weirdos they encounter enroute to getting their education. I've walked the streets and ridden the busses in some of those neighborhoods. I've been approached by the perverts and catcalled by the punks. As an adult it is disconcerting; as a kid, it would be downright terrifying.

The schools have a zero-tolerance policy toward carrying weapons, as they should.
I wonder, though, what "insurance" I would be tempted to carry if my trek to school took me, on foot, through the seedy-side of town.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Beating the Odds

How curious.

If asked to name three young women from Max Hayes who, based on strength of character, I believed would grew up to be wonderful, without hesitation, I would name Tracy, Damaris, and Liz.
Each girl struggled with with personal and family crisis that would defeat most people. All three beat the statistical odds for young people in Cleveland, and graduated from high school. Today, each one is in college.
And finally, although none of the three knew each other well, since they graduated in different years, all of them came to see me yesterday.

Tracy walked through my classroom door first, carrying the laminated visitors pass picked up from the clerk in the office. She was at school to check up on her younger brother, who is a ninth grader at the school. Her eyes still sparkled as if looking for mischief, and her ready laugh filled the room immediately. Tracy is finishing her bachelors degree at Cleveland State, and preparing to enter law school next year.

Liz pulled into the school parking lot just as I was leaving the building. I never saw her , so she called my cell phone. "Guess what! I'm back in college and I don't have any babies!"
Not all of my preaching falls on deaf ears.
"Ladies, it doesn't takes brains to have a baby. The smart girls don't."
Two-thirds of the girls in Liz's class dropped out of Max Hayes in their junior year because they were pregnant.
Liz got married the day after she graduated from high school, and a couple of weeks before her new husband left for bootcamp. She is living with her in-laws and going to school at Tri-C.
Her parents moved back to Puerto Rico with her little brothers during her senior year. Her early marriage was a means to stay in the US and further her education.

Damaris stood at my door and for a moment I was speechless. Always a beautiful girl, there was something different about the woman who smiled at me there. She was radiant, confident, stunning. I 'd been thinking of her often lately. She is on of the most amazing people I've ever met, and I would like to include her story in the book I am writing, but I wanted to get her permission first. Her story is terrifying and tragic, hopeful and inspiring. The stuff of Hollywood horror, her life is a tale of murder and rape, abuse and courage. When I asked if I could write about her, she said "Of course. If my story can be of help to anybody else, please use it."
I am so lucky that Damaris came up to visit. She will be leaving next week to attend college for two years in Puerto Rico, after having worked for 2 years with the Ohio Department of Transportation.

I will tell you more about Damaris later this week when I get some more time to write. I promise.

Now, back to my original thought...What a curious day.
There were other odd coincidences too. ESPish things and groups of three.
Very, very metaphysical. I may have to investigate.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Discipline Problems and Parents

An article in this month's American Teacher states the obvious to those of us who work in the public schools.

This excerpt from Class Notes: Discipline problems take a toll relays, rather succinctly, a nationwide concern in the classroom.

...while parents echo many of the solutions expressed by teachers, sometimes parents themselves are a big part of the problem.
Teachers and parents overwhelmingly agree that failure to teach children discipline at home is the top cause of behavior problems in schools. However almost 80 percent of teachers say students are quick to remind them that they have rights, or that their parents can sue.
Nearly half of the teachers say they have been accused of unfairly disciplining a student, and 52 percent say behavior problems often result from teachers who are soft on discipline "because they can't count on parents or schools to support them"
Not surprisingly student discipline problems take a toll on teachers. More than one third report having seriously considered leaving the profession because of intolerable student behavior, an many know colleagues who have done just that.

Behavior Problems
Percent of teachers who say item is a "very" or "somewhat" serious problem

  • Talking out loud and horseplay. 69%
  • Students treating teachers with lack of respect. 60%
  • Cheating. 55%
  • Students showing up late to class. 57%
  • Rowdiness in hallways, lunchrooms. 51%
  • Truancy and cutting class. 45%
  • Illegal drugs. 45%
  • Physical fighting. 36%

As the November election draws near, I anticipate the public admonitions of the teacher bashers this coming month when discussion of the school levy begins in the media. I would like to get a little jumpstart on the faultfinders and extend an invitation. Come and visit...see what we really do all day.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Teachers are expected to reach unattainable goals with inadequate tools. The miracle is that at times they accomplish this impossible task.

Haim G. Gonot

Thursday, September 16, 2004

It was the Wrong Question.

The Cleveland School District is so broke this year that we cannot even afford to hold an Open House in the evening; the time when most working parents can come to the schools. There is no extra money to keep all of the buildings open at night.
Open House this year will be held during the school day.

At Max Hayes however, we are open until 9:00 every night anyway.
Because we house the district's night school program, we would be able to hold our Open House in the evening. This is, by far, the one school event with the most parent participation.

I am going to take a risk here, and share with my readers what I perceive to be a multi-leveled bungle on the part of our administration and the union leadership.

At some point it was determined the faculty should be given the choice of whether to hold our Open House during the school day on Monday, with the rest of the district, or on the traditional Thursday evening. A straw poll was taken by a union member, verbally asking; "Would you rather have Open House during the day on Monday, or come in Thursday night from 6:00 - 8:00?"

My first reaction was, "Cool, no extra hours."
But then I thought, "Oh..that would make it just like all the other daytime functions, where hardly anyone shows up."
I cast my vote in favor of Thursday night.

We learned the result of the poll at yesterday's department head meeting.
It was 2 to 1 in favor of Monday.
Both the administration and Union leadership were disappointed.
I was shocked.
I couldn't believe so many of my colleagues would be so selfish.
Never known for holding back an opinion, I commented that I found it hard to believe, with all the complaining we do as teachers about the lack of parental involvement in the schools, we would shut the door in the faces of our parents when we have the opportunity to invite them in.
After the meeting, three department heads told me that they originally voted for Monday, but my comment changed their minds.

This made me pause and think again.

Maybe my colleagues aren't all that selfish.
It was really just a bad question.
Had the question been phrased differently, referencing the fact that parents who worked would not be able to attend, I am certain the majority of the staff would have chosen the Thursday night open house.
Had I gone with my initial reaction of night vs day, without considering the consequences, I too would have picked the Monday option.
Combine this observation with the fact most people will not give as much thought to a question asked orally as they would a written question; Well, no wonder the response was self-centered.

I think I need to have a little chat with the boss tomorrow morning.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

"I know you love me."

The relationships we build as teachers are far more important to learning than the subject matter that we teach.

Each day we are given the opportunity to influence a decision, and perhaps change a life by what we say or do. Mostly these occasions silently become available, and we may not notice or take advantage of the chance to make a difference.
Other times they will arrive with a fanfare that loudly proclaims, "This is a Teachable Moment."
Today's opportunity came, like a gift, in a lovely package.

Every once in a while a student will wrap themselves around your heart, simply because they choose to love you. Last year a very beautiful Puerto Rican girl in the ninth grade, picked me to be her favorite teacher. She was having some trouble at home, and in fact, even ran away several times that year.
She shared many of her misadventures with me, and I listened. She would say, " I like that I can tell you things, and you don't scream at me or hit me. Sometimes I wish you were my mother."

Who could resist? She had me by the heartstrings.

This year she is not in any of my classes, but will stop by and visit the art studio. Today, when I saw her in the hallway after school, she gave me a hug.

"Where are you going now?" I asked.

"To my fiance's."

"What?...Who?...When?" I stammered.

"This summer...I got engaged."

"Come, take a walk with me. We need to talk."

She smiled and slid her arm around my waist as we turned to walk toward my classroom.

"Who is this boy? Do I know him?"

"His name is Carlo, he doesn't go to school."

"How old is he?"

"Twenty seven."

"Are you...?"

"No. I just want to be with him."

"When do you plan on getting married?"

"In the spring."

"What about school?"

"I will still go to school."

"What does your family think?"

"My mother likes him."

"You know I think you are too young. I will try to talk you out of this."

"I know you love me"
She smiled and leaned her head on my shoulder.

It carries so many responsibilities...and challenges. How will I convince this child to wait? To savor her youth and not rush into the world of adults?
This time, I will not only trust my instincts, but also pray for guidance.
I dare not make a mistake.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004


"Your butt called me about an hour ago." Susan informed me. The smirk on her face exuded through the phone.

"Really? Again? I wasn't sitting on my phone. It was on my leg. I was wearing cargos."

"Well, you were talking to somebody...blah,blah,blah...You weren't talking about me so I hung-up."

"Ohhh! I know...That wasn't my butt calling, it was Max.
I was taking him for a walk and he got scared.
A kid's wheelchair frightened him. He was leaning on my leg, hoping I would protect him.
I'm sorry I really should lock that keypad."

"That's okay. So now I'm getting phone calls from your dog. Who were you talking to?"

"A kid named Joe. He wanted to pet Max, but Max was terrified of the wheelchair. He was shaking.
Pretty ironic, my guard dog is cowering behind me."

"So, did you save him?"

"Actually Max made a new friend. Joe climbed out of the chair and Max warmed up pretty fast.
The three of us sat on the sidewalk and had a nice long chat."

"Where were you?"

"On Mayfeild Road."

"Now that must have been quite the rush-hour sight. A woman, a kid, and a huge Doberman, sitting on the sidewalk with an abandoned wheelchair.
Did anybody stop?"

"No, but we were getting quite a few stares."

"That's what I like about you. You are sooo not normal."

And I'm so lucky to have friends who understand me.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

A Different Perspective

So much of my time is spent in the gritty realities of Cleveland's classrooms, among the hardscrabble working class and the disillusioned poor, that it is easy to forget the other beautiful city whose aspect and spirit reside in the same location as the struggling rustbelt metropolis.

This weekend our region was blessed with clear blue skies and perfect temperatures.
I was blessed with two afternoons on the lake in a sailboat with good friends, good conversation, and the unsurpassed view of my most lovely hometown.

For those of us who deal with the disfunctional details of our work and lives, every now and then (for the sake of sanity) is is good to step far enough away to see the big picture.
Just like a Monet painting...what looks like a big mess up close, becomes truly beautiful from the perspective gained by a little distance.
It is not impossibilities which fill us with the deepest despair, but possibilities which we have failed to realize.

Robert Mallet


Looking at the faces of Cleveland's youth, I can't help but see the truth in these words.
So much potential is being sacrificed to the ravages of poverty and neglect. We have abandoned our city's future.

Saturday, September 11, 2004


me Posted by Hello

Thanks to Douglas, a reader and fellow blogger, I've begun to untangle the confusion enveloping the picture posting mysteries. Here are my first attempts.

In the Art studio at Max Hayes Posted by Hello

As I look at this picture I notice that it is backwards, or rather a mirror image. This is a huge studio space, 80' x 40', with 80 feet of windows facing Lake Erie ( and the Tillmam Avenue townhouses).
Lots and lots of light.
A painter's dream, an Art history teacher's nightmare. (No shades = no slides)

Okay, so I realize I'm lookin' kinda mean here...but hey, it comes with the job
The better you are with the mean-muggin the less you have to yell.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Confessions of a Technotard

Yes, that would be a pretty apt description of me.

At school we have several digital cameras.
I love to take pictures, but I can't seem to get my pictures to go to the desired destinations. They keep getting lost, or stuck, or they are just plain ornery and give me error messages.

Reminds me of a road trip through northern Kentucky many years ago.
My boyfriend and I somehow got lost in an Appalachan holler. When we stopped at a little general store/gas station, the three local checker players laughed at us and shook their heads.
"Ya can't get there from here."
That was it. That was all the help we got from the old-timers.

Likewise, my pictures are lost in the holler of a file. Each time I try to get them to go someplace, like my blog, they seem to laugh at me and say "We can't get there from here."

Once I get all this technology figured out, I'll try to show you where I work and what I do.
I won't be able to post pictures of my students, though, since they are minors.
I will try to get some shots of the building and the neighborhood.

Wish me luck.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Problem Solving

It happened again.

What started out as a big pain in the butt, has become the equivalent of an educator's "Ah ha!"

Before classes began this year, we received an urgent request from the Fine Arts administrators, downtown at the East 6th Street address, to submit artwork for the Vice Presidential debate extravaganza, at Case University on October 5th. The work needs to be submitted by September 24th.

This gives me exactly nineteen 40 minute class periods to get kids, who have never taken an art class, to produce quality work from inception to delivery.

How does this fit into my course syllabus for the first quarter?
It doesn't.

My class usually begins the semester with the question, What is Art?
Then we discus Why do artists create?
Followed by art vocabulary, art criticism, and aesthetic judgment.

Suddenly, this year, I had a dilemma.
I had next to no time to complete quality work, with inexperienced students, without a plan, during a critical period of time (the start of the school year) when the tone of the class is being established.
Damn..this was going to be a problem...a problem...a problem...

This year I would begin my classes with the concept of artist as problem solver.

Last week I presented my problem to the students, and now we are approaching the task as teams.

First we brainstomed slogans.
Next we picked the best ones out of the hundreds submitted.
Now we are brainstorming again, this time it's images.
Each person on the team is responsible for three thumbnail sketches.
The team will choose a composition and decide on the best way to produce the image and graphics.
ie: Traditionally, using technology, or a combination.
We have computers, printers, copiers, digital cameras, and stencils. We can use collage, markers, paint, pastels, ink, or any other 2-D medium.

I'm so impressed with the way these kids are working...just the way one would expect creative teams to work on a real job.
Yep...we jumped into the water and came up swimming.
I'll let you know in a couple of weeks how the products turn out.

* PS.
I decided to write on this topic today since a friend of mine, who reads my journal, did not understand I actually TAUGHT classes. He was under the impression that I was an administrator or counselor.

In case anyone else out there in cyberland is confused, let me clarify;
I am a classroom teacher with a full load of classes (150 students). I serve as department head. I've been elected as a union delegate for our building chapter. And finally, I facilitate an arts integration program (ICARE) for which I received major funding through Young Audiences of Greater Cleveland. This is where the public art projects and partnerships with various cultural institutions come in.

I hope this helps with the confusion. mb

More Layoffs

Our building is feeling the brunt of the district's financial crisis once again.

Today we are down to only one secretary, (from three) and one cleaner (from four).
These are all very hard working people.
Max Hayes Vocational School is a huge facility, filled with shops that generate a lot of dirt, and over 650 teenagers. As bad as I feel for my friends who've been laid off, I almost feel worse for those who are still here, left to do the work of three and four people.

Saturday, September 04, 2004

Saturday Night with Nothing to Do

I found the phone after the fourth ring.

"What are you doing?"

"Nothing...reading a magazine...not really reading...actually, I'm looking at the cartoons in the 'New Yorker'."

"Get dressed. I 'll pick you up at 8:30."

"Where are we going?"

"I don't care. I have to get out of the house. We'll know when we get there."

I looked at my reflection in the mirror...Great. The humidity had wreaked frizzy havoc on hair I carefully smoothed with the blow-dryer early this morning. There was just enough time to spritz my head with a little water, hoping the frizz would revert back to its naturally curly/lumpiness, before I heard Susan's horn beckoning from outside my window.

"What direction? " Her eyes looked up and down the street as she backed out of the driveway.

I thought for a second.

In a couple of minutes we were sitting at a cafe table on the sidewalk in front of Gusto's in Cleveland's Little Italy, sipping martinis and enjoying the Saturday night sidewalk show that parades up and down Mayfield Hill on warm summer weekends.

"There's your boyfriend."

"No, that's your boyfriend...I got the last one, remember?
The comb-over with the red plaid slacks."

"Oh that's right...I'm kinda diggin' the no-neck look anyway."

"Now there's an odd looking couple."

"They're holding hands...must be a date."

"She's cute, (except for the flowered pants). He looks like a gorilla."

"I wonder if they met on the internet?"

A mini-van/taxicab rolled slowly by, looking for a fare. A pile of stuffed animals decorated the dashboard and hip-hop from the speakers filled the street, overpowering the various strains of Italian folk music, opera, and Frank Sinatra, provided by the restaurants. The driver smiled and waved.

A few tables down, in front of Nido's, an argument was erupting. The scene could have been taken out of the HBO series "The Sopranos".
A handsome middle aged man dressed in an expensive dark suit had been sitting alone at the table. A couple of burly men in golf shirts eventually joined him. The conversation was low and we paid no attention until...

"I'm not putting up with no fucking disrespect!"
The big man stood up.

"Fuck you. Sit down." His partner responded.

In a moment the "F-word" accompanied by a few "mother"s were flying fast and furious and several people from inside the restaurant came outside to join the discussion.
All the while the elegant man in the dark suit remained calmly in his seat.
The excitement died down, the group split up and our waitress asked if we would like another cosmo.

"Of course."

Pity, there are only a few more weeks we can enjoy this kind of street entertainment before the cold Cleveland weather confines us to the indoors.

Friday, September 03, 2004

Living in Poverty

I had this conversation 2nd period today.
It is not any more unusual than hundreds of others I 've had with Cleveland high school students over the years, but I thought I would share it with you, given the recent headlines affirming the fact that 47% of Cleveland's children live in poverty.

"Hey, Ms. Matt! Know what?
I talked to my dad…He’s getting out of prison this year. He said I could live with him."

"Really? How long has he been in prison?"

"My whole life."

"Have you ever been there to visit?"

"A few times.. He said he’s gonna buy me a car, and we are going to live in a big house.
The place I live now is too crowded. We have two beds and five couches in two rooms. It’s my mom and her boyfreind and five kids and me.
It’s never quiet. Sometimes I just like to be someplace quiet…ya know?"

"I know"

"He said we will live in the country. I can't wait."

"I'm sure your mom will miss you."

"She don't care. There's too many little kids."

Hmmm.. I thought.
I wonder what the job market looks like for a man who has been incarcerated for fifteen years?

Some thoughts are best kept to oneself.

Tuesday, August 31, 2004


I really shouldn't be writing when I 'm ticked off...but I have developed a very low tolerance for incompetence, especially when it comes to jobs that impact peoples lives.

The issue today is scheduling.
The class schedules in our building look like somebody threw students names, like conffetti, into the air, and they were assigned to whatever class they happened to land on.
I have students scheduled into classes they have already passed.
Some students are scheduled to be in classes for only two days that meet five days a week.
There are numerous teachers in major academic subjects, who are teaching one section of a class with more than 50 students, and the same class the next period with less than 5.
Students were placed in trades classes they have no interest in studying instead of the ones which drew them to this school in the first place.
We have teachers assigned to teach classes they are not certified to teach, while there are other teachers in the building who hold the required certification.

These problems are not due to a lack of staffing, rather they are due to a dearth of common sense, and the basic knowledge necessary to get the job done. All of this I could forgive if the people responsible for this fiasco would say, "We're sorry, we have made some mistakes and we will resolve them as quickly as possible."
But NO, we only get "It can't be done."

Would this be tolerated in the suburbs?
Where are the parents, demanding their child's schedule is changed?
Why aren't they pounding on the principal's door?
Don't they talk to their kids?
Don't they know what is going on at school?
Don't they understand, they have the power to get things fixed?

Excuse me while I go someplace to scream.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Send Cleveland to College

As promised boys and girls, (see previous post) I'm gonna add my two cents to Bill Callahan's great idea:

So let's assume Cleveland decides to send 2,500 Cleveland residents to college a year.

Tie strings to that money--keep it in the city.

  • Residents could be any adult who has lived in the city for at least two consecutive years. Do you know anyone who would move to Cleveland if it meant a free college education? I do.
  • Scholarship money must be spent at a college located within the city limits. How long would it take for Kent State, Ashland, Baldwin Wallace, etc. to open Cleveland metro branches?
  • Residents who received scholarship money must continue to reside in the city of Cleveland for 4-8 years after graduation (depending on the amount of scholarship money received) If the recipient moves out of the city during that period of time, the scholarship must be repaid as a student loan. Hmm.. in that amount of time many of those young, college educated people might even get married and want to start families. Developers might have to start building family-friendly residences.
  • College educated young parents would want to make sure their children were getting a good education. They would probably get involved with the schools....see where this is going?

In ten years, 25,000 college educated Clevelanders would change the core of Northeast Ohio.

What would happen after 15 years? 20?