Stress at the end of the school year.

Six more weeks of school to go. For me this is one of the most stressful school year endings of my career. Some of the factors:

  • Teacher bashing is prominently featured on the news at least once a week. Some of it, like the amazingly resilient idea that somehow teachers and other public employees are not taxpayers, is laughable. Much of it, though, is just disheartening to those of us who spend days, evenings, weekends, and “vacations” trying to meet  the needs of every student in our diverse classrooms.
  • In the national and state legislatures’ version laws are passed that require us to take weeks of instruction time each year to test our students. Then, when they don’t do well it is obviously because of poor teaching. Now we are designing ways to assess teachers to ensure that they are performing at a superhuman level. Denver’s new teacher evaluation system (LEAP) is a case in point. Though it has some good features and many good intentions, my experience of participating in the first pilot year is that it is unrealistic on many levels. First, every teacher is to have four formal observations each school year, two from a school administrator and two more from an outside observer. Though we are asked to focus on two major areas, in each observation we are scored on 28 pages of detailed “Best Practices” observable behaviors. Several of our best teachers have scored below “Effective” by this measurement, even teachers whose students have exceeded their expected progress on the state tests. Would the legislators like to be held accountable in the same way? This process is also unrealistic for the administrators. Since the program began in January I have only had one of my four observations, partly due to my principal’s lack of time. When we made budget decisions for next year we cut our RTI coordinator, who has been instrumental in helping teachers plan instructional interventions for students who are not progressing, in order to hire an assistant principal to help with the teacher observations.
  • As the end of the year closes in regular curriculum is pretty much out the window, which makes me wonder what my last three observations will be like. Besides end-of-year field trips and practicing for the  “Continuation” event, we are trying to fit in Young Ameritowne (a great program, but it requires almost two months of daily curriculum), Family Life (aka sex ed), We the People (a U.S. Constitution curriculum culminating in a mock legislative hearing), and of course more formal testing.
  • As if all this weren’t enough, we were just informed that our principal is not returning next year. Two days later we learned that one of our fourth grade teachers, who has been battling cancer for two years, passed away.

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The worst times make the best stories.

In his first letter of April, 1943 Gerry relates one of those days that is no fun to live through but makes for good storytelling after the fact. After a long frustrating day on K.P. they are called to roll out in full field gear to evacuate the camp. His description gives us some idea of the kind of training that was finally taking place, relieving the boredom he had experienced at first at Camp Hale, though he is still hoping to transfer out. His alternate plan is to become an instructor, in which case he would stay at Camp Hale when they are deployed. He has begun urging Ann to join him in Colorado, though he thinks she would stay in Canon City, not Red Cliff where she actually stayed.

I have delayed starting to add the April letters because there is a drawing in the first one and my scanner is currently not functioning. I like to include the actual drawings and diagrams from the letters, but for now I have just inserted a description in brackets.


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Classroom Community

This year I have been blessed with one of those classes that has a strong core of friendly hard-working students who get along well and are able to take in stride the shenanigans of those we call “high fliers,” students who are always on the radar, getting attention in negative ways. However, as is common in the second half of fifth grade as emerging hormones collide with spring fever, the classroom dynamics are beginning to fall apart. Students who never get in trouble are starting to argue instead of discussing their group work, a student acting like the class clown gets a laugh instead of being ignored, and a new student coming in has turned the social dynamics topsy-turvy. Last week a guest speaker from the Denver Dumb Friends League told the starfish story that ends, “It matters to this one.” (One version of the story is found at I had been struck by one line of Obama’s speech at the Tucson memorial service which I also played for my class: “We may not be able to stop all the evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another, that’s entirely up to us. And I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.” It is at about minute 29 of his speech.  We talked about the meaning of these two messages, about how we, too, can make the world a better place, making a difference one small action at a time. I hoped that the class could get back to being a friendly caring community of learners. It didn’t happen.

After a very frustrating day yesterday in which I seemed to spend more time putting out fires than effectively teaching I decided to try again. In the process I gained a valuable insight into two of my students. I started by having the students fold a paper in fourths. I told them that we were going to think about our day yesterday, and that no one would look at this paper so they could write freely. In the first box I had them write at least one specific time they made a positive difference to someone yesterday. In the second box I had them write at least one specific time someone did something yesterday that made their day better. In the third box they wrote about a specific time they saw someone make a positive difference to someone else. As they worked I drew a symbol in each box of my model using stick figures and arrows to help them remember what each box was about. In the final box I drew an eraser and asked them to write at least one thing they did yesterday that they wish they could erase and do differently or do better. Then I told them to fold up the paper and stick it deep in a pocket. Throughout the day they could reach in their pockets and touch the paper to remind themselves to make choices that make a positive difference and to be aware of all the positive things happening in the world around them.

To close the morning’s exercise I had them write on an index card one specific example of something someone in the class did yesterday that made a positive difference to them or to another person. I told them that they had to think until they remembered something. “Nothing” was not an option. This card did not have the author’s name on it, but they handed it in.

In the afternoon we talked about the kinds of things they had written on their index cards. Then I had them repeat the entire exercise using things that happened today. The only change was that the person they wrote about on the index card had to be someone different from the person they wrote about in the morning.

Two students were unable to come up with a single time, either yesterday or today, that they had seen anyone making a positive difference, even after the thinking and discussion we had done. Every other student was able to write an example in the morning and  fill their papers with positive observations in the afternoon. Both of these students have trouble interacting with their peers. They aren’t my “high fliers,” who have really strong behavior issues, but they are the students who aren’t in trouble, but who aren’t chosen for teams, the ones who occasionally receive mean notes or are ignored on the playground. Having gone through the same day that all the other students went through, in the lunchroom, in gym, on the playground, and in the classroom, these two students didn’t notice a single time when someone was nice to someone else. Wow! Not only did this exercise give me an insight into these students’ personalities, but it gave me a clear place to start helping them change their attitudes in a way that does not judge them but that will help them see the world in a more positive way. This change in their perspective will, I hope, help them approach their interactions with others differently, and others will respond.

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Posted by on January 28, 2011 in Education and Teaching



March 1943 WWII Letters Complete

I have now completed transcribing the March 1943 letters my father wrote my mother from the 10th Mountain Division at Camp Hale, Colorado. (See link at right.) In the second half of March the postal service is still delivering letters in bunches with gaps in between, causing Ann to worry that Gerry has been deployed. Meanwhile he copes by becoming philosophical: “The best I can do is try & get interested in what I’m doing at present & the fact we may be moving this summer makes our daily training rather vital. As I said before it’s just a case of fooling myself. I don’t dare think how really much better everything would be if we were together.” Then he continues trying to change over to the Air Force for the present and planning for his and Ann’s idyllic life after the war, living off the land in a high alpine valley. In these last few weeks he also writes about designing better camping equipment, in this case a pack that more evenly distributes the load. He meets the man who will become his new tent-mate and lifelong friend, Bob Swartz, and mentions the imminent arrival at Camp Hale of another lifelong friend, Pete Hurst.


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More WWII letters coming soon

For those of you who have been reading the Camp Hale letters, I plan to start posting more during 2011. To keep myself on track I am participating in WordPress’ Post-a-Week program. Thank you for your patience and interest. I was amazed when I logged into my dashboard for the first time in months to see that a small but steady stream of visitors has continued to find this blog.


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Home as Self-Expression

Winter vacation this year was a working vacation, helping my two brothers and my sister-in-law Jeanne finish getting my parents’ Patagonia (AZ) domes ready to sell. The three of them have been working almost 24/7 since August to bring out the best in this home. The homes my parents lived in, most of which they have built themselves, have always been an expression of their lifestyle and values, starting with the sketches they made at Antioch College of their dream home, a log cabin in the wilderness. The Patagonia domes were their final creation, encompassing their love of the natural world, their love of light and color, and their determination to tread lightly on this earth.  My brothers and Jeanne dedicated these months to making sure that this last expression of our parents’ life together would be preserved and appreciated by just the right buyer. My daughter and I spent about ten days helping them put on the finishing touches: painting, building a retaining wall, and stripping and re-waxing the kitchen floor. Now it’s officially on the market, and somewhere out there is just the right buyer. Just like a job search, it only takes one–the trick is finding that one.

Our real estate agent has produced a virtual tour that does the dome much better justice than the pictures I have here. Check it out at

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Posted by on January 14, 2011 in Domes, Uncategorized


Help Us Find a Cure!

Once school starts I barely have time to  come up for air, but here I am again. We only have two more weekends before the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training hike in Zion National Park on October 2nd. Training for the hike is the easy part. It’s the fund-raising that is my biggest challenge, and that of course is the most important part. That is what moves research forward and supports patients and their families. We have made so much progress since I was young. Back then leukemia was a death sentence. Now most of the 3000 children diagnosed with leukemia this year are expected to become  five year survivors. However this year over 54,000 people will die from cancer this year, and each death will affect a large circle of family, friends, and co-workers.

I am raising money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma society because my first encounter with cancer was watching the struggle of a 5th grade student, an only child, and her parents as they rode the roller coaster of hope and fear that is leukemia. We at her school helped the family raise money for a bone marrow transplant, and then for a second one, and in the end attended her funeral and gave what support we could to her parents as they learned how to be the parents of a child who would never attend high school, never walk down the aisle, never give them grandchildren. The school where I currently teach lost one student to cancer last year, and another student and one of our teachers are still undergoing treatment.

Whether your life has been touched by leukemia or some other kind of cancer, or whether you have been so blessed that you have not had a close encounter with this disease, please help by visiting my fund-raising page. (See the link to the right.) Research for any cancer helps combat all cancers. Every donation, large or small, helps new research that builds on the success of research funded in previous years. You can be part of this long chain of hope.

Yesterday was one of those beautiful Colorado days where the sky is such a deep blue that people who have never seen it think photographs have been doctored. Friday night’s winds had cleared out all the smoke from the Fourmile fire, and everything–plants, rocks, and distant hills, glowed with intense color. A few of the aspen on Twin Sisters Peak, near Estes Park, were just beginning to change color. Here are a few pictures–undoctored–to enjoy before you click that donation button.

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Posted by on September 12, 2010 in Uncategorized