Wednesday, March 31, 2010


Today marks my wife's and my 10-year wedding anniversary. Each year, I try to come up with something better than I said the last year. This year, it's about perspective.

My wife is my guide. Whenever I'm not sure of what I should do in a given situation, I try to think about what she would do. Sometimes I don't do what she would do, but I have come to believe that I almost always know what she would do. We've had health scares in the past ten years, the worst being when she developed a pulmonary embolism. Pulmonary embolisms have killed a lot of people, more than you're probably aware of. They usually get diagnosed post-mortem, so we know we were lucky. And thinking on how I would raise Sera without her, I know that I would be a better father to her because I know how Magi thinks. Even now, my reactions to things that Sera does are tempered because my first thought, as is natural, is how I was treated as a child. And I almost always override my initial instinct before my mouth opens. It would be the same even if she wasn't there. Her presence is that powerful.

She's with me at work, even though we work in separate buildings, a few miles apart. We always exchange emails during the day, and it's a comfort knowing that she's going to be able to answer any question within an hour, at any time. She teaches business at the high school that my middle school feeds, and I know that if I don't do my job correctly, it will make her job harder.

Even when I go out with my friends, we often hang out at Border's in Mishawaka, where Magi worked when she first moved here so long ago. It's impossible to even look at the cafe without thinking of her there, and all the time I spent just hanging out at the bookstore because she was at work while I was not.

Books that I read and music that I listen to will remind me of her, as well. I will always think of my favorite author, Pat Conroy, as her influence. I read Gone with the Wind while shuttling her back and forth to Goshen College while she finished up her teaching requirements. I would listen to a Journey CD that she brought while waiting outside her classroom. One of the songs from that CD became the song that we would dance to at our wedding reception.

It's funny how morbid these thoughts sound when I read them back. It's almost like a eulogy or something. But it's better, I think, to measure the effect that someone has had on your life while they're alive. The problem is that there's no adequate measure for how my wife has changed my life. She makes me a better teacher, a better father, and a better man. I can only hope that someday, I'm good enough to deserve her.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Outside the Box

I am often considered by my colleagues and friends to be well outside the mainstream. I'm okay with that. I like to consider what I do to be thinking outside the box. When I walk into my school's conference room for lunch, I more often than not will be carrying a grilled New York strip steak and a baked potato. Some of my colleagues (the ones who are not my friends) look at me like I'm crazy or a spendthrift ("Who are you, Howard Hughes? Bill Gates?" followed by raucous, yet one-sided laughter), but the economics of my lunch are rather simple.

School lunches are outrageously expensive for what they are and moreover for what they taste like. As a teacher, I'd have to pay $3.25 per day for a school lunch. A couple of weeks ago, I bought an entire New York strip for $3.99 per pound. I had the guy at the meat counter cut it up into eight-ounce steaks, and when I got home I sealed each one up in its own freezer bag at a cost of $0.20 each and dropped it into the freezer. I bought a 10-pound bag of Yukon Gold potatoes for $4.00, which yields me 20 potatoes at a cost of $0.20 each. Throughout the morning, my steak thaws in my lunch bag. At 11:05 I use my garage sale George Foreman grill to cook up my steak while the potato bakes in the microwave. In five minutes, I have a healthily grilled New York strip steak and a plain but tasty baked potato, which costs me a grand total of $2.40.

And the best part of it is, my lunch is always outside the box.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Comic Book Villain Attacks Minority Whip

From the Washington Independent:

"The Richmond Police Department is investigating an act of vandalism at the
Reagan Building, 25 E. Main St., Richmond, Virginia. A first floor window
was struck by a bullet at approximately 1 a.m. on Tuesday, March 23. The
building, which has several tenants including an office used by Congressman Eric
Cantor, was unoccupied at the time.

A Richmond Police detective was assigned to the case.
A preliminary investigation shows that a bullet was fired into the
air and struck the window in a downward direction, landing on the floor about a foot from the window. The round struck with enough force to break the windowpane but did not penetrate the window blinds.
There was no other damage to the room, which is used occasionally for meetings by the congressman.

The Richmond Police Department is sharing information about the
incident with appropriate law enforcement agencies."

The only reasonable explanation is that the bullet was fired by master marksman Deadshot. Who else could have fired a bullet upward into the air, and have it hit its intended target on the downward arc? We can only hope that Batman is on the case.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Sugar Camp Days

Each year at Bendix Woods Park in western St. Joseph County, Indiana we have Sugar Camp Days. It's a weekend where there are tours of the sugarbush, complete with lectures and lessons on how European settlers learned from Native Americans how they tapped sugar maples and made maple sugar and syrup. There's a pancake breakfast with all-you-can-eat pancakes and sausages. And the best part of the whole thing is that they use real maple syrup made on site. There are also demonstrations of ice sculpture, as well as making kettle corn in a real cast iron kettle. Guess who liked that?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

I Can See Clearly Now...

...the train is gone!
I don't know for how long, but the grafitti-covered train that has sat idle behind our house for the better part of a year is now gone. We still miss our treeline, of course, but at least we can look at a wooded area across the tracks without seeing George Carlin's seven words you can't say on television.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Fire the Doctors!

Paraphrased from USA Today:

Under President Barack Obama's new plan to reform health care, the USA's lowest 5% of hospitals — about 5,000 — will be required to take drastic steps to improve, including firing their chief administrator and, in some cases, at least half of their doctors, as happened last month at a Rhode Island hospital.

Shocked? Now replace the words "health care," "hospitals," "chief administrator," and "doctors" with "education," "principal," "schools" and "teachers," respectively. Does it sound acceptable now?

If you base the hospitals' performances on survival rates, where do you suppose those lowest 5% are going to be? I would guess that they'd be in the same neighborhoods where the lowest 5% of schools are.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Worrisome Things

"But there is also worrisome things, as I understand in the blueprint." --Former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, commenting on President Obama's new education plan.

Monday, March 08, 2010

The 2010 Academy Awards

Michael Giacchino won for Best Music (original score). That's all I cared about. This guy's music is simply the best. The first ten minutes of "Up" was one of the most beautiful sequences I've ever seen put on film. It made me cry and Giacchino's score was a big part of the emotional impact.

His original score was the best thing about the new Star Trek movie. And his music from "Lost" plays a huge role in conveying the drama in my favorite television show. His soundtrack from "The Incredibles" was the one of the first CD's I put on my iPod. It's evocative of John Barry's James Bond music with some 60s Batman thrown in.

Congratulations, Michael!

Thursday, March 04, 2010

A Lesson from Mark Twain

"Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail. What you gain at one end you lose at the other. It's like feeding a dog on his own tail. It won't fatten the dog."--Mark Twain

If I Were a Rich Man...

...I'd have one of these.

But since I'm not, it'll be the superhero team headquarters in the next RPG I run or play in.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

NCLB Not Working? You're Kidding!

This article from NPR tells the story. Former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch changed her mind about the law, saying exactly what teachers have been saying since the passage of the law: "The basic strategy is measuring and punishing."

Give me accountability. Test them when they come in and test them when they leave. If they don't gain a year's worth of growth, I'll tell you exactly why. If you have data that proves me wrong, fire me. That's accountability I can believe in. But don't come in and think that a kid who can't reliably multiply 8 X 7 in his or her head when entering 8th grade is going to magically be able to graph and manipulate quadratic equations just because you threaten to close my school, transport all the students elsewhere and fire the whole staff. And that's what I've been hearing since 2002. Yes, I'm mad. It's about time someone with a platform was heard on this matter.

Monday, March 01, 2010

No More

“Why you talkin’ shit?”

That’s what one of my students said to me when I reprimanded him for throwing paper at another student. It’s not the worst thing ever said to me in school. It’s not even close. That would be, “Get your goddamned hands off me before I break your fucking glasses.” I had told that particular student to report to the office and he walked the other way. I had audaciously placed my hand on his arm to gently guide him in the right direction. Before I tell you what was done to these students, I want to you think carefully about what would have happened to you when you were in 8th grade if you had spoken to a teacher in that way. Do you have it in mind? Good. The paper thrower was suspended for one day. The would-be glasses breaker was sent to class (not mine) without punishment.

This isn’t a recent development. In my career I have seen things that would make the average person cry. Once, in my first three years of teaching, my colleagues and I were coming back to school from lunch. We were walking from our cars to the front door, when we found a student lying between cars, bleeding profusely from his mouth, his nose, his ears, and his eyes. He had been “beaten into” a gang. At that same school, I often encountered evidence that students had defecated in the stairwell. Students would have to walk through puddles of urine to get to class because someone had relieved themselves in the hallway. I remember a mother coming in to my classroom to find out where her daughter had been after school every day. When she found out that the daughter was taking an after school class to get an extra math credit, the mother punched her daughter in the face. Two students, both innocent bystanders, were shot at graduation because they happened to be seated between two thugs who started shooting at each other on sight. There was one time when an assistant principal’s voice came over the intercom, calling for a student who had been shot to death earlier in the school year to report to the main office. I sometimes joke that I called security once in 1989 to come get an unruly student who refused to leave the classroom. When I left that school in 1997, I was still waiting for the security guard to show up.

This is an example of what teachers face today. These are our clientele. Sure, we have good kids. Sure, we have students who are going to be doctors in our classes. Those kids do well under our tutelage. But some days, we face an uphill battle maintaining discipline and motivating students to take a more active part in their learning. How do you appeal to the hard core banger, the kid with 13’s drawn all over their notebooks? What’s that? You don’t know what that is? Google “Sur 13” and come on back. Aren’t you glad you looked? What can a teacher do to change that kid’s mind about the horrible situation that is his or her life? What can I, an individual who has clearly won the education game, offer this kid when ALL of his peers pressure him to not do well in school? Oh, yes, the pressure is there. It is a violation of protocol to do well—heck, to do anything in class. And yet, I keep hearing about how 51% of my evaluation is going to be based on my students’ test scores. If I lose my job over that, good luck finding someone who wants to replace me. This isn’t a picnic.

In 23 years, I have broken up at least 100 fights. I have been personally attacked and have had to defend myself. I have had my property destroyed, stolen, marked with graffiti, and my car has been vandalized in the school parking lot. Despite this, I have put thousands of dollars of my own money into my classroom, with the purchases of dry-erase boards, markers, computers, document cameras, VCRs, DVD players, LCD projectors, and last but not least, batteries for an insulin pump. No, I do not have diabetes. One of my students did and I didn’t want her to have to report to the nurse and miss class just because her pump needed a new battery, which happened frequently. I have given out my home phone number so that students could call for help if their parents were not able to help them. I have volunteered my time in innumerable committees, such as the school improvement team, the homework committee, the climate committee, the PL221 (look it up) committee. I have coached sports, sponsored events, hosted talent shows. You name it, and I’ve done it to help my students learn and to help my school improve. And I, by the way, am far from unique in my building.

I am sick and tired of the constant teacher bashing I see in the press and on television. You want to assign blame for the failure of students in today’s public schools? Look somewhere else. I’m not having any. Not today and not ever.