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Teachers!

2011 March 10
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by prgiff

Here’s more on teaching in an article in the New York Times on March 3rd by Trip Gabriel. I was so happy to see it on the front page. So little has been written in defense of teaching. Gabriel writes that “education experts say teachers have rarely been the targets of such scorn from politicians and voters.”
Placards are mentioned: “You are glorified baby sitters who leave work at 3 p.m. You deserve minimum wage.”
“You feel punched in the stomach,” said Ms. Parker, a high school teacher…”
I feel that, too. How can one begin to refute something so ridiculous, so uninformed? Is that what people want for their children: glorified babysitters?
As long as I can remember, our three o’clock dismissal, our “free” summers, were suspect. The truth is that it’s rare for teachers to leave at dismissal and even if they do, there’s work at home: teaching plans to write, homework to correct. In an earlier blog I’ve mentioned M.J. who tacked envelopes on the bulletin board and wrote notes to each child several times a week. What about the home visits? The evening parent-teacher meetings? What about the book groups at lunch time? It would take pages to mention all that teachers do in addition to the daily teaching routine.
And there are classes to take. Year after year, teachers go to school at night, attend summer school, learning their craft, perfecting their knowledge of the curriculum.
Governor Chris Christie accuses teachers of greed. But Ms. Parker, a second-year teacher makes $36,000 a year; her student debt is $26,000. She can’t afford a house, or a car. My grandson is an intern at a middle school; he wants to become a math teacher. He’s studying for his Master’s Degree after school. I believe that his college debt is much higher than that; it will take him years to pay it off. As a teacher, I always made less than my detective husband. I wonder if Governor Chris Christie has taken a look at what the sports figures are making.
I hope teachers will begin to speak out. I hope that the students who have loved teachers, who remember the differences they made, will speak out, too.

Last In, First Out

2011 March 8
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by prgiff

On the first day I taught, my father said, “Be a good teacher. There’s nothing more important.”
I’ve never forgotten that. How can it be that so many politicians, so many people, have forgotten how important our profession is? I wonder whether they ever remember teachers who changed their lives.
I began to teach in Queens, in New York City. I had attended kinder-garten in the same school, P.S. 136. My teacher was still there, a master teacher. I loved my first class, and like all first year teachers, my enthusiasm was boundless. But how many mistakes I made! And how grateful I was for the advice I received from some of the more experienced teachers, advice I remembered through the years; advice, years later, I could give to new teachers.
I’m talking about last in, first out, of course. It’s a cause for anger, for sadness for teachers who have worked so hard for so many years. I was gratified when Jim waved a piece from the newspaper in front of me on Sunday. A writer named David Barkin wrote: “Why is teaching the only profession in which the more experience you have, the worse you supposedly are? Why would anyone become a teacher in the future knowing that the reward for hard work and dedication is to be fired once you’ve become a master of your trade?”
Well said. How frightening to think about it.

Leaving Home

2011 March 3
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by prgiff

On Sunday, a week ago, we pulled out of the driveway, the plowed snow high on each side of our circle. We left it all to our near and dear: Jimmy to water one-hundred-forty-six plants. (Yes, I counted the other day.) He’ll feed the geese, the ducks, the birds, and the squirrels. Dave will repair the damage from the ice dams that collected after four feet of snow covered the roof; he’ll redo the bedroom ceiling that collapsed, the walls in the bathroom, and the entire laundry room. Alice will do errands for us. “Don’t worry, they say, just go.”

I love you, house, but I’m so glad to leave you, I muttered, glancing back at the ice covered bushes, the partially frozen pond, and the narrow shoveled path to the front doors.

We drove easily, no need to hurry, three-hundred miles a day to reach Lake Mary where I was speaking Thursday night and Friday morning. What a blessing to write and to read in car…reminding me of my childhood where I’d find a hidden spot to dream over a book.

I read A WIDOW’S STORY by Joyce Carol Oates first. I kept thinking about her wild and savage grief as I read, reaching over to touch my Jim, so immeasurably grateful that he came through his hospital stays in January, that we still have time. I wanted to reach out to her, to put my arms around her. But no comfort, I know. This book will be with me, fresh in my mind and heart, for a long time.

The second book I read was A RED GARDEN by Alice Hoffman. I lingered over her story, and the words she chose to write it. You can see the characters… Hannah’s pale freckled skin, Rebecca taking off her dead child’s boots so that Amy could walk into heaven in her bare feet. True Alice Hoffman!

I told Jim I could have driven forever, the two of us, as I read and read, and formed scenes for my own book.

His answer? “Watch, you’ll be homesick in a couple of days.”

And he’s right. Here I am on my way back, thinking that the year’s two worst months are over, thinking about my children, my grandchildren, the wildlife on the edge of the pond, thinking about the house I love. Hurry.

Test Taking

2011 February 24
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by prgiff

It was final exam time. My sister Annie, in second grade, had an art test. Annie drew beautifully; she labored over the paper, drawing infinitely small squares of black, green, beige and yellow. In the center, was a small oval circle.

“I can’t imagine,” her teacher told my mother. “She cried the whole time she was drawing.”

My mother knew immediately; she pointed out the linoleum floor, the cat in the center.

“Ah, ah,” the teacher said. She and my mother had tears in their eyes.

Down the hall, my fourth grade test was an English essay. I wrote what Annie drew. Our beloved cat Mittens with the six toes, had willfully stayed out all night. He must have been hit by a car, and waited on that cold night until my mother opened the door for him. Mittens’ ending was the saddest Annie and I had ever experienced. And my paper was so streaked with tears I wonder how Sister Raymonda ever read it. It was only then that I thought I might get a bad mark on the test.

I do remember what Sister said: “Mittens was a lucky cat because you and Annie loved him.” I remember telling Annie that.

All these years later, I feel the warmth of Sister’s hand as she held mine. “Take the test home,” she said. “It’s only a test. Not important. But you might want to save what you said about Mittens.”

I think of the tests the children take today…on any day, children have lost beloved pets, have sick mothers, stomach aches, terror over the test. So many variables. Yet, teachers can’t dismiss tests anymore…at least not those standardized tests, that cause such stress in teachers and children…and that mean so little.

What is happening in education?

Promise

2011 February 22
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by prgiff

It’s still winter, still cold, and the wind has blown so fiercely that the table on the balcony lies on its side; plows have left over five feet of snow along the paths.

Still if I look hard enough I can see that winter’s back, while not broken yet, is beginning to bend.

Every day the band of moving water on the pond grows wider. The ice on both sides is marked with myriads of prints, delicate bird tracings, squirrels, of course, but there are others, too. Certainly those of the fox who hightails it back to his den after a night of hunting. And although I can’t identify their prints I know that raccoons and possums cross.

The willow trees that bend over the pond are yellow and a large triangular of green grass has appeared on the sunny side. No, the grass isn’t really green, it’s more khaki, but the geese love it. They peck away, humming. We have only the pair now; others have come and gone during the winter. These two will begin to defend their property with stretched out beaks and loud honking (this pond is taken!)as mating season comes close.

The garden room shows promise, too. This endless snow has brought its own bonus; light. I keep the temperature at sixty degrees so along with that blessed light, the camelias are beautiful, the geraniums are in bud, and surprisingly, the impatiens that came in last fall are all in bloom.

Hold on, I tell myself, spring is coming, it really is. Daylight Savings Time begins on March 13th. We can plant pansies outside on March 23rd, and begin flats of seedlings anytime now.

I write best in that garden room. In a few days, I’ll be able to move the couch next to the window and work out there again in the early mornings.

Bliss.

Speech Writing

2011 February 15
by prgiff

It’s the time of the year when children’s book writers crisscross the country, talking to teachers, librarians, and school children.
I do some crisscrossing, too. And before I do, I tell myself, I’d better know what I’m talking about; I’d better prepare.
Spread around me, this morning, are boxes of essays I’ve cut out of newspapers, letters I’ve loved from the kids, quotations, ideas scribbled on the backs of envelopes, and old speeches. It’s daunting to go through all of it searching for nuggets to talk about. I get caught up reading Andy Rooney’s talks, I pull out the books that go with my scribbles, Celtic Fairy Tales, Harriet Arnow’s THE DOLLMAKER, for example, and I’m lost, caught up in other worlds and forget about speech writing.
One of these days, I’m going to swoop up all my notes, throw them away, and start over.
Can I really imagine doing that?
But here’s something from A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN. (I must have read it a dozen times; I imagined myself as Francey Nolen as a young girl. I would have loved knowing Betty Smith.) Francey’s mother tells her mother:”…I do not want this child to grow up just to work hard. …What must I do to make a different world for her?”
And the answer speaks to me: “You must tell the fairfy tales of the old country. You must tell of those not of the earth who live forever in the hearts of people—fairies, elves, dwarfs and such…. Because the child must have a valuable thing which is called imagination. The child must have a secret world in which live things that never were. She must start out by believing in things not of this world. Then when the world becomes too ugly for living in, the child can reach back and live in her imagination.”
More, I think of all the books, all the stories…my family stories, for example, stories that have been added to and changed a little as the years go on, stories that connect me to the past and help me write.
I think of all the new things that have been added to the world since I was a child—huge breakthroughs in the medical field, in space exploration, in the comfort of our everyday living. And all of it began with someone’s imagining those possibilities.
So there’s the beginning of my talk next week. How valuable that thing called imagination is. It’s something to be encouraged, fostered. But how lovely it is that somehow children find the time to imagine, no matter where they are, no matter how they’re scheduled.

Thinking about…

2011 February 8
by prgiff

…Pablo Casals who wrote:

“Each second we live is a new unique moment of the universe, a moment that never was before and will never be again. And what do we teach our children in school? We teach them two and two make four, and that Paris is the capital of France. When will we also teach them what they are? We should say to each of them: Do you know what you are? You are a marvel. You are unique. In all the world there is no other like you….You have the capacity for anything. Yes, you are a marvel. And when you grow up, can you then harm another who is, like you, a marvel? You must cheish one another. You must work—we all must work to make this world worthy of its children.”

This is from JOYS AND SORROWS (Simon and Schuster, 1970) and quoted in LET THEM BE THEMSELVES by Lee Bennett Hopkins, 3rd Edition, (Harper Trophy, 1992) p. 207.

I’ve had this quote on my desk for years. How relevant it is for all of us and especially for those of us who teach.

Revising Zigzag

2011 February 3
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by prgiff

 When I was a new writer, I read that Beverly Cleary loved to revise. I pictured her sitting on her couch, a yellow pencil with sharpened point in her hand, putting the last perfect touches on one of the Ramona books. I despaired of ever knowing how to revise, or what to revise.

So here I am, years and books later, loving the revision stage, too. I wish I were as good at it as Beverly Cleary!

First, the esthetics. I clean my office. I don’t mean dusting. I mean getting rid of the papers that drift across my desk, the table, the chairs, and I have to confess, even the floor.

When the room is blank, as my granddaughter calls it, I can concentrate on the revision.  And yesterday I was revising the sixth ZIGZAG AFTERNOON series book.

The theme of the book is creativity. The word is difficult for young readers but I’ve surrounded it, I hope, with enough context clues so they’ll understand.

I made a list of each character, and almost every one of them has to do something creative, even if I don’t point it out to the reader. Because the book belongs to Destiny and her friend, Charlie, they’ll be the most creative. Gina, the opera singer, won’t like that, so I’ll have to give her something to be proud of, too.

I read each page slowly. I strengthen the verbs and delete as many adjectives as I can. Because this is a book for young readers, I have to be sure that the sentences are short and most of the vocabulary easy.

After all this time, it still isn’t enough to read my work on the computer. I print out each page…revise…print out…and so my office ends up in its previous condition with a sea of papers. I don’t feel too guilty; if Jim comes by, he’ll gather them up and use them for all kinds of lists.

Nice. They don’t have to be revised!

Think Spring

2011 February 1
by prgiff

     Tiffany from Minnesota commented on my blog Snow Day. She wrote, “It’s all summer talk here in Minnesota—talk of bike rides and canoeing on the lake and days spent barefoot in the grass.”

     When I was worried, or sad, or even bored, my mother would say, “You can think of only one thing at a time. Choose to think of something wonderful.” And isn’t the feeling of being barefoot on the grass wonderful?

     So this morning, with Tiffany and my mother in mind,

     I promised myself that I wouldn’t agonize over the ice on our shallow pond. There’s only the narrowest black inlet of water and not much room for the huge catfish that live underneath. I wouldn’t grieve over the young evergreens I planted whose branches are bent and will never be straight and true again when the snow finally leaves.

     Instead I throw cracked corn out for the ducks and sunflower hearts for the birds. “Think spring,” I whisper.

     I search through my shelves for OUR LIFE IN GARDENS written by Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.) It’s my favorite of all the gardening books I’ve read. Eck writes: “This book is a mixed bag, a gypsy trunk of this and that.” He talks of garden design and particular plants. But for me the loveliest part is his memory of how their garden evolved.

     I remember my first garden. My mother gave me a tiny plot at the side of our house, so small I could put my arms around it. I still remember the verbena that bordered it and its heady scent early in the growing season. It was my mother who gave me my love of gardening.

     But what I’m thinking of most this morning is a book I found in the library, called GARDENING FOR A LIFETIME by Sydney Eddison (Timber Press, 2010.) Because of her age and the loss of her husband, Eddison has realized she can’t garden as extensively as she did when she was younger. And so this is a book about using lower maintenance plants and accepting imperfection in the garden.

     I wish I’d had this book when I was a young teacher with three children. It’s as perfect for that age as it is for older gardeners. I remember going outside after dinner to garden, to sow and weed until it was dark. It was never enough. I’d like to put this book into the hands of all the people who love gardens and haven’t enough time, or enough energy to make their efforts perfect.

     So there. I haven’t thought of snow for an hour. As I write I think of planting day lilies as Sydney Eddison did.

     And I’m thinking too, it’s only about seven weeks until I plant pansies again. Lovely thought.

Creativity in the Classroom

2011 January 27
by prgiff

“I don’t dare think about creativy in the classroom,” a teacher said recently. “I’m worried about the tests, I’m worried about accountability.”

And someone else told me, “Focus. These teachers have to focus on what’s important.”

So what’s important?

We all know that teaching reading is vital.  But as a reading teacher, my goal was to give kids the love of reading, the joy of story. I felt that I’d succeeded when I saw a child hide a book under the desk, or when one of them bubbled over telling me what he’d found in the library. (“Library,” a teacher told me. “Who has time for the library?”)

It’s a little difficult to believe that love of reading can be fostered when a teacher has to spend two months preparing for the standardized tests the children have to take. It’s sad that teachers who have spent years learning how to teach, who still trudge to classes at night, are often not trusted to know what kids need, or what makes a classroom alive and vibrant.

It’s sad that they can’t practice the art of teaching without fear of the numbers on a test.

And what about creativity in the classroom? What about spontaneity? No one would deny that children need exposure to the world around them. And so often opportunities present themselves unexpectedly.

I remember the first lovely warm day of spring one year. I took the children outside to watch a bird building its nest, to see the daytime moon.

I remember the first snowy day, standing at the window with the kids…catching the flakes…then drawing what we saw.

I remember looking for those moments.

And so, this time, as I write a new book for the Zigzag series it will be about creativity in children’s lives. Never mind that Destiny thinks the sign on the Center’s wall says, “Be a creature.” Never mind that Charlie is not allowed to invent anymore.

Somehow I’ll make it come out right, I hope; the kids will learn that there isn’t much more important in a day than being—of course—creative!