Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Lessons Recalled

A week of fun-in-the-sun, spent laying on the beaches of the British Virgin Islands, left a colleague of ours tanned, relaxed, and ready for the envious ribbing he knew he'd be receiving from the partners left behind in cold, cloudy, Cleveland. After lauding the merits of SPF 30, he finally admitted getting a little sunburn on his back, which already was beginning to peel. Soon we were all recounting the somewhat twisted joys of peeling sunburned skin.
I smiled as I recalled a similar conversation some thirty years ago, with my ninth grade algebra teacher. How funny it is, after all of the lessons suffered, problems discussed , and equations solved, the information I remember most clearly from that class was a casual commentary about sunburn.
As teachers, we spend countless hours preparing our lessons. We research, we write, we gather materials. We pre-test, present, practice, apply, quiz, test, post-test, and re-test. Yet, studies have shown, almost 80% of the actual content taught in high school is forgotten in a few years, if it is not applied in a student's day-to-day life. What will be remembered are the things we spend little or no time thinking about. Our attitude, our enthusiasm, our sense of humor (or lack of it), the way we treat students. Were we rigid, were we fair, were we forgiving? Did we take time to listen, or were we impatient? Our students will remember for a lifetime casual conversations that we will forget that day as we drive home.
It is almost daunting to realize that some of our most influential lessons come not from what we teach, but from who we are.

Monday, March 28, 2005

A New Easter Tradition?

My best friend, Susan, and I will use any excuse to concoct an adventure. Easter was approaching, and we found ourselves bemoaning the loss of several candy stores in the Heights area. These stores had been great places to shop for unusual treats to fill the kids baskets. Next to the traditional jelly beans and bunnies, one could find wax lips, black-jack gum, and the ever-so-politically-incorrect candy cigarettes and bubblegum cigars. Oh dear! We were going to have to venture out of the neighborhood to find new sources of sugary entertainment.
Hmmm...Perhaps not.
Didn't that Asian grocer on the corner of Mayfield and Belvoir have an assortment of candy from the orient at the check-out counter? How about the new Mexican grocery on Mayfield past Brainard? Isn't there a Russian deli around there? There's the Italian grocery, and then the plaza with the little store that has signs in the window reading "FRESH VAGETABLES" and "Desi food and Movies sold Here". Although we were quite familiar with Italian goodies, "Desi food" left us clueless, and eager for an afternoon of exotic exploration. We found all of these little stores along a two-mile strip of Mayfield Road between South Euclid, and Mayfield Heights.

We spent the remainder of the day gathering up Japanese Poky, Mexican chili pepper candy, Russian chocolate with vodka centers, tamarind candy from India, Turkish Delight with walnuts, and Italian Easter biscotti.
We bought things in beautiful wrappers, with labels written in alphabets that we couldn't decipher. Thank goodness none of our children have allergies. Most of the clerks in the shops didn't speak English, so we didn't bother asking what is was we were buying.
By late afternoon our bags had more than just the intended Easter treats. We viewed so many foreign "delicacies" with feet, lips, suction cups, and eyeballs, Susan and I decided to purchase a little snack for our 13 year old sons. One that would elicit some "Fear Factor" bravado, and leave the indelible impression in those young minds that their mothers were indeed "Whacked". Dried whole shrimp (eyeballs intact) from Mexico, with hot sauce, fit the bill.

Needless to say, this Easter morning was memorable.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can't find them, they create them.

George Bernard Shaw

Monday, March 21, 2005

Why I Blog

Last week I spent a couple of hours talking with Chris Sepher, a reporter from the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Chris was writing an article about blogging, and I was flattered that he asked me to talk about my blog and what motivated me to start writing.

I began blogging for two reasons:

First, was the reason I give in my profile. (See column on the right) I truly felt that CMSD teachers are, for the most part, misunderstood. We are perceived as either insane or saintly, money-grubbers or martyrs. The general public imagines the city schools to be disfunctional hell-holes of miseducation. I felt it was important to open up a window, and share an insider's experience of day-to-day life inside an urban classroom.

My second reason was self-discipline. I wanted to train myself to write better by writing often. For a number of years I have wanted to write a book. My audience would be young people, new teachers, rookies or interns, who where considering teaching in an inner-city school.
You see, many teacher education programs, and the professors who teach them, have no clue as to the realities of teaching in an urban school. Fact is, many of those folks have spent little or no time teaching in the inner-city. My own experience found way too many educators who left teaching, to become administrators or college professors, because they couldn't cut it in the classroom.
My book would tell the story of my own education; what I've learned about teaching from my students.

I started my blog nearly a year ago, and I think I have accomplished some of my goals.

I am certainly getting a lot of writing practice, and although I have taken a few pauses in my journaling, I have not ever considered abandoning it.
I know by readers comments that the message is being heard. What I never expected was how many people have been following my blog. I am often amazed by the letters I get. They come from all over the country, and even some from readers as far away as India and Australia. Many ask questions or share information, while others offer words of encouragement.
Here are some excerpts from a few of letters that have kept me motivated:

This is just brilliant, enlightening stuff. Your blog gives me the best possible window into what teaching in an urban school is really like. If Hollywood had any brains, they'd simply turn your life into a movie.
But thank god for teachers like you. They keep civilization going, and give me reason to hope for the best despite all the problems and challenges. Keep fighting and touching those kids...
Keep doing what you're doing, it sounds like you're doing it right.
Brought tears of frustration and sadness to my eyes to read this. As a parent of grade school children, I'm amazed at the changes in the public school system since I was a kid -- or even since my stepson was in grade school a dozen years ago. We're spending $50+ a year per student on supplies that are fundamental to the education process; I know the teachers are having to make up the shortfalls when some students cannot bring supplies. I don't know how teachers do it.
If I can make a suggestion, please consider putting a PayPal button on your site for donations -- or even an Amazon button for donations of books.
More rules => less critical thinking
Less critical thinking => increased "go with the flow" mentality
"go with the flow" mentality + impoverished surroundings => more of the same

It's almost as if that's what they want...
Your postings are inspirational. I was especially moved when you wrote that you and your students and fellow teachers felt abandoned by the greater community after the failure of the levy. The problem is so very big and many of us feel so small when trying to help. Thank you, thank you, thank you for having the fortitude to stay and work with your students when so many have left the city for other opportunities. I worry and pray so often about the kids just 3 - 4 miles from my own home who are living as if in another country from my children and me. I will also pray for you as you continue your work. Please keep writing - your words prod us to keep trying to make things better for these kids.
--MB, as I read about the public art being constructed for the Soapbox Derby group, I was wondering if your next project could be the Cleveland Rowing Foundation? We'll teach the kids how to row, you included. As a non-profit I think we could help with funding...
Thank God for teachers like you.
"The uncreative mind can spot wrong answers, but it takes the very creative mind to spot wrong questions."

Anthony Jay

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Keeping My Cool

"zzzz..zzzz..ZZZZ... DING!" The third floor bell on the west end of the corridor issued its anemic warning. The latest repair had reduced the authoritative ring to a sound that could only be described as a bastardized hybrid, the illegitimate offspring of schoolbell and alarm clock buzzer.

"Hurry up you guys!"
I called to three ninth graders gathered at a locker outside my classroom.
"Shawn, If I didn't know better I would think you had no destination." The tall boy turned, grinned, and began a slow trot toward my classroom door. His friends began a slower saunter in the opposite direction.

"Yeow!!!...What the?...You bitch!"
The sound of a scuffle grabbed my attention and brought me quickly inside the art studio just in time to see three chairs fly across the room. One after another they crashed against wall, floor, and table-top. Students jumped out of the way, hands over heads, ducking for cover.

Launching the attack, was a pretty 15 year old girl, still a tom-boy, tall and athletic. Very hyperactive. One of the type of students my colleagues call "The kids who make us EARN our salaries".

Shaking my head I called to her. "Come here, hon'"

She looked up, smiled and reached for another chair.

"No...Put that down. Come here please. You know we just can't be throwing chairs across the room at each other. Come over here, honey."

Shooting a backward glance to her still cowering classmates, she ambled over to my desk.

"What is going on?" I asked quietly.

"He knocked my bottle out of my hand!" she shouted, and started to laugh.

"She dumped water down my back!" came the response from the middle of the room. Her victim was a bright serious student who normally kept to himself, concentrating on his assignments.

"You need to step into the hall. I can't have you in my classroom today. I am going to call security, and you will have to go to the office. Stand right here hon' and wait for the security guard."
My voice was low, the tone somewhat conversational, almost casual.

When my attention returned to the other students, to my great pleasure and surprise, they were all at their tables working, as if nothing out of the ordinary had just happened.

While filling out the office referral form, I marveled at my own response to the situation, and how I've changed over the years.
As a rookie, I often felt the need to assert my authority. A loud clipped voice, occasional yelling, and flashes of anger were the means of gaining control. Losing my temper could always get the students attention.
It also let the class know that they could rattle my cage. That was lot's of fun...For them.
As my career progressed I've come to understand that adding negative energy to a situation only makes it take more time to diffuse. Over time, I've learned to keep my cool.
Would I be called unflappable?...Hardly.
Patient?...With teenagers, definitely.
With adults who should know better, definitely not!

But, I'm working on it.

New Project

I have a good excuse...Really.

I know, I've heard you, I realize I've not posted anything in over a month.
But c'mon folks, you do understand that there are only 24 hours in a day, don't you?

Well, to exhonorate myself, please take a look at how I've been spending my time.
Click on this link, we call it RAMTEC

I know what you are thinking...quite a stretch for a high school art teacher. But, after all, this is me we're talking about.
Here's how it all got started:

The idea for RAMTEC was the result of conversation between friends about the state of the manufacturing industry. The following excerpt is from the March 2nd presentation by members of the RAMTEC team at a forum held by REI at the Peter B Lewis building at the Case Weatherhead School of Management. This is a portion of my speech which tells the story.

Since the spring of this past year, I have been attending the REI Tuesday discussions. My interest in regional economy stems from my work with Cleveland kids, the poorest demographic, living in the most impoverished city in America. I’ve especially been concerned with workforce development in the industrial trades and manufacturing, since I am currently teaching at Max S Hayes Vocational School in the Cleveland Municipal School District.
Topics at REI Tuesdays were always thought provoking, and I made certain to take full advantage of the networking opportunities. Through REI, I have been able to bring people and ideas back to Max Hayes that are now instrumental in the development of new projects, and providing new opportunities for our students. Already, lives are being changed.
As mentioned before, I’ve had a special interest in workforce development in the area of industry and manufacturing. Throughout the year, a recurrent theme at REI discussions has been the importance of educating the region’s workforce for tomorrow’s jobs. Other themes have included, building the area’s manufacturing base, encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship, and appreciative inquiry.
I began to apply this information, as well as the appreciative inquiry method of making and sustaining change, to the dilemmas that face my students and colleagues each day. One of the very apparent problems is the employment paradox facing Cleveland. The city has vast numbers of unemployed persons, yet the manufacturing industry is facing a worker shortage. Many area manufacturing companies have "Help Wanted" signs posted 365 days a year.
Max Hayes is a vocational school that trains people for manufacturing, yet very few of our students are looking for jobs in the industry. I witness the problems first hand, each and every day. There is a huge gap that exists between the needs of the manufacturing industry, and the programs in our vocational schools and community colleges. State-of-the-art equiptment that is used in the industry today is quite pricey ($200,000 - $1,000,000) and most schools can't afford to put so much money into a program that attracts very few students.
The other big problem facing the manufacturing industry is the outsourcing of jobs to China, attributed to the rising costs of manufacturing here in the United States. The high costs are due, in large part, to the standard of living in the US, and the cost of heath care benefits. Automation and robotics easily address the outsourcing problem by making production costs of American products competitive with the Chinese. One robot can do the work of 3-5 employees...no breaks...24/7...364 days a year...no insurance benefits...no salary...average lifespan...15 years.
Yet, they are being underutilized in the manufacturing industry, jobs are going overseas, companies are closing their doors, and the skilled-worker shortage remains.
I approached friends in the manufacturing industry with my questions.
What is needed to fill the gap? What can be done to save the industry?
Their answers were immediate and simple.

What is needed is a new approach to education. A manufacturing education center focusing on the specific needs of the industry, as opposed to general manufacturing job training programs. A teaching factory that could provide companies with complete automated systems and robots, as well as the operators, programmers, integration specialists, and maintenance technicians to support them. A production, training, research and development facility that would sustain itself financially. A manufacturing showcase which would attract people to the industry. And just to show that it could be done…..It would be green.
Is anything like this being done anywhere? We searched the internet…..Nothing like it.
Could it be done here in Cleveland? There could be no better place to build it.
We outlined a proposal, RAMTEC (Regional Automated Manufacturing & Technology Education Center) and are now seeking support from various sources that might be served by this project.