Little Brothers

We all have one. That one friend from our childhood years who’s family was our 2nd family. You used to spend the nights at each other’s houses every weekend and all the time in the summer. Their parents had just as much control over you as your own parents. Their siblings were like your own siblings, and they treated you like one of their own. You knew all of their grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and have been to all of their houses many times. You went to church with them, went on family trips with them, ate dinner with them more times than you can count. I met that friend of mine at the beginning of my 8th grade year. We bonded over a project and became best friends almost over-night. Before long we were constantly at each other’s houses and quickly got to know each other’s families. She has 3 siblings. Her older brother was a year older than us in school. Like most older brothers, he found us to be very annoying. We liked all of his friends, tried to follow (or spy) on them constantly. The only sentence he generally uttered to me was, “Why are you here?” Typical big brother stuff. My friend often referred to him as “The Perfect Child” due to the fact that he could do no wrong in his parents eyes. Then there was the baby of the family, the only other girl. She was a lot younger than us, and other than occasionally having to babysit her, she wasn’t around too much. Her last sibling was the 3rd in line, about 4 years younger than us. I know you are never supposed to have favorites, especially when you are dealing with children, but this sibling was my favorite. Good thing – because he was ALWAYS around. He followed us everywhere and we didn’t even care. He was so sweet, and so funny. I wasn’t allowed to walk past him without a hug. He would block doorways to get one, even if you had already hugged him 5 times that day. He was goofy and happy and had a giant heart. You couldn’t help but be happy with him around. Back in the day, when you had to call a person’s house to talk to them (instead of a cell phone) and he answered the phone it was always the same – He wouldn’t give my friend the phone until I talked to him for a while first. He completely drove us crazy, but we loved him anyways. He was my “little brother.” They were my 2nd family.

As things often happen after high school, my friend and I went off to our separate schools and started separate lives. Several times over the years, we came back into each other’s lives again. She was at my wedding. So were her parents. At one point we lived close to each other again and visited often. I had a child at that point, and she would come and hang out. I few times when I traveled back “home”, I visited her parents with my daughter. I went on a weekend trip with her to visit her older brother in another state (he no longer hated me – lol). We ended up living about 12 hours apart, but thanks to social media, she has watched my child grow up, and I have watched her family grow with the birth of each of her beautiful children. And of course, I’ve also watched that “little sister” become the wife and mother of a beautiful family and that favorite “little brother” become a VERY TALL grown man with the same little boy in his eyes. He had a giant dog that was his very best friend until the dog sadly passed a few months ago. How funny to see the 2 gentle giants in picture after picture. I watch all of her cousins go through life with their families as well, often sharing congratulations and memories. My friend and I have always chatted through the years, sharing memories, venting to one another when major family events happen. She’s that friend that no matter how much time goes by, you pick up where you left off, simply because you are just like family to each other. You have a friend like that too, I’m sure.

About 2 weeks ago, I got a phone call. That “little brother” of mine was dead. His dad found him on the living room floor. He had a syringe in his pocket. No one knew.

I am having a hard time accepting this. To say the sentence, “He died of a heroin overdose,” is the most foreign thing that I have ever uttered. I have talked to my friend at length. I drove home to go to the showing. I went to the funeral. I know the story. But I still can’t accept it. This happens to other people’s families, right? I will be the first to admit to you, prior to 2 Fridays ago, I was completely ignorant to this. People who overdose on heroin look like those people on the mugshots on TV – not my little brother. They don’t come from families like my 2nd family – right? WRONG. So, so wrong. It’s everywhere. It can affect ANYONE. If can happen to people who are happy and LOVED. It can happen to people who have families who would do ANYTHING to help them – if only they knew.

We have a problem in our country. It is killing our children, aunts, uncles, moms, dads, friends, sisters, and even our little brothers. If you look up the statistics of heroin use and overdoses in this country in the last 10 years, you would be appalled. It touches every gender, race, and socio-economic group. The person next to you on the subway could be doing it, people on your Facebook page could be doing it, one of your co-workers could be addicted. The scariest thing of all is that you would most likely never be able to guess who. I wish I could give you a magic sign to know how to spot it. As my friend said as she spoke at her brother’s funeral, he wasn’t perfect. He had some struggles in life. ALL of us do. None of us are perfect. But no one could have ever imagined this. At his showing, his mom told me that he was “the little brother I never had.” My “little brother” would never do heroin.

What is the lesson in all of this? All I can offer at this time is just to be aware that it is out there and that it can get anyone. I have my own theories on why he left us so soon. I have shared these thoughts with my friend on why some people can live in this world for so long, using these drugs and allowing it to take over their lives completely, and do bad things to others and live to see each day. I’m not saying that others deserve to die from this, but this doesn’t make sense to me. This was a guy that was full of love and joy. He lit up a room. He loved his family and was a great uncle, son, and brother. He didn’t look like heroin.

RIP “Little Brother”. I’m glad to know you are now free from every struggle you had. I hope someone else will hear your story and be brought back to their families before it’s too late.

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Magic 

I have not posted in a few days because I have been experiencing magic. My daughter had a lead role in her school’s musical. I spend 4 nights watching a stage that magically transported the audience back in time. I watched high schoolers magically turn into kings,wives, and brothers and Egyptians. I watched in awe as my daughter magically changed from a teenager who is over-critical of herself to a shining star with confidence while giving an amazing performance that blew me away.

There is something magical about musical theatre. There is an electricity that fills the air when the lights come up on the stage. You can feel the music rush through your veins. Your face hurts from smiling and your skin gets stained with tears. You connect with the story on such a deeper level than watching a movie.

There is also something magical about watching your child realize her destiny right before your eyes. To watch her passion explode through every movement on stage. To understand why this is her purpose for getting up each day. To have her exceed your own expectations, which were already pretty high. To watch her receive well deserved accolades and accept them to be true. To see her confidence grow before your very eyes.

The stage is a magical place.

PSA – School Etiquette

I’m a teacher, so I always feel the need to share information with others when I can. A former principal of mine once said that I was a “see a need, fill a need” kind of person, and today I saw a need that needed to be addressed. It was a need that I didn’t know even existed, but now that I know, the teacher in me must teach.

I bring this lesson to you as a public service announcement (PSA), so it can be shared with others.

Parents, Aunts, Uncles, Grandparents, babysitters, and any other adults: There may be a day when you have to enter an elementary  school.  Maybe you will be dropping off a snack to your child’s classroom, or coming in to pick your niece or nephew up early for a doctor’s appointment. Maybe you are just running inside the building for a quick second to drop something off in the office. Whatever the reason may be, you must realize one thing – most of the children in the school can read. Therefore, please refrain from wearing sweatpants that have the words, “Bye B*tch” printed across your backside.

I feel that it is my fault for neglecting to realize the need for this message to be out there. But this teacher saw the need for this lesson today.  So, like my old principal said, “See a need, fill a need.”

You’re welcome.

An Open Letter to an Absent Father

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Dear Absent Father,

​I used to be angry at you. I had so much resentment towards you for making me pick up the pieces of the child that you broke in pieces every time you broke a promise or failed to call. Now I just feel sorry for you.

​You see, at one time in your life you had a human being who put you on a pedestal. You had a person who loved you unconditionally and in her eyes you could do nothing wrong. You had a best friend for life, a supporter, someone to fill you with joy and pride. But for some reason you decided that these things were not important to you. You started cancelling visits, you stopped calling as much, and when you did call you would only talk about yourself. She would ask, “Why doesn’t daddy want to talk to me?” or, “Why doesn’t he want to see me?” and I would polish that shining armor with excuses for you, hugs, and special activities to make up for it. As she got older, it became harder for me to polish that armor and soon your pedestal came crumbling down. By that point you had created a broken relationship with a person who you barely knew because you hadn’t ever taken the time to find out. When you were faced with the truth of what you had created, you chose to walk away completely because working to fix the problem was something that you “didn’t want to deal with.”

​Now I feel sorry for you. You are missing that little girl grow into a beautiful young woman. You are missing the pride of seeing her be inducted into academic clubs of honor. You are missing her shine like a star on stage. You are missing her sing like an angel every moment that she is awake. You are missing the sound of her laughter when she is with her friends. You are missing the opportunity to bond over Algebra 2 homework and the kitchen table, and to feel proud of her when she passes the test that you help her prepare for. You are missing the conversations about life where you find out that she has an even better head on her shoulders than you thought she did. You are missing the chance to burst with pride, when you realize she has stood up for the morals and values that have been instilled in her. You are missing the chance to help her plan for her future. You are missing the chance to laugh at her wit that always takes you by surprise because it is so great. You are missing the chance to hug her each morning and night with that huge hug that she gives. You are missing the chance to teach her the tough life lessons that you hate to teach, but you know are for her own good. You are missing the chance to wipe her tears that happen often because she feels things so deeply because she has such a big heart.

​I have no doubt that this child is going to become something great. When she does, I will be right by her side. She has many people who love her and support her every single day. They are the people who have been by her side when you were not. They are the people in her life that bring her joy and are fortunate enough to experience the gift that comes with being around her. You have chosen to walk away from this gift full of love, pride, and joy. What’s worse is that you have hurt her heart. Those wounds may never be healed, and if you decided to walk back in the door tomorrow, she may not be willing to share all the wonderful gifts that she has with you anymore. I wouldn’t blame her. If you were fortunate enough that she would give you a glimpse of what is in her heart, you would truly know what your are missing. However, you saw it when she was just a little girl, and you decided that you didn’t want that gift. It’s the greatest gift I have ever been given, but you decided it wasn’t good enough. And for that, I feel sorry for you.

​​​​​​​From,
​​​​​​​​A Lucky Mom

Nerd Problems

I am a nerd. Yes, I admit it. I am and always have been a big ole’ nerd. As a child, I was one of “those kids” who was excited when school was about to start, because that meant new school supplies. There was nothing more exciting than the aisle of Trapper Keepers. The smell of new pencils and crayons. To this day, a new pack of markers makes me giddy. Yes, I was that nerdy kid who LOVED getting my hands on my brand-new-to-me textbooks that we would be using for the year. The cool pictures in the science books, finding out which reading group I would be in and seeing what the book looked like. The height of my nerdyness was sometime around 2nd grade, when my reading level was so high that I was in my own reading group and my teacher had to get a reading book from a teacher in another grade. It was my first super thick, real-looking textbook. It was called Kaleidoscope and it was teal blue, with a picture from inside a kaleidoscope on the front. It was chocked full of wonderful short stories, and I could not have been any more excited. I even remember my earlier reading books, with the canvas type covers, one of which I remember having stories with a character named Jimmy. I remember so many little things – making “Stone Soup” after reading the story (and someone spilling it everywhere). I remember listening to “Fifty Nifty United States” over and over so we could perform it at Grandparents Day. I remember every single Science Fair project I did, and that feeling of going to see if I got a ribbon. I remember making books for Young Authors. I remember getting Pizza Hut coupons for participating in “Book It”. I remember how my 5th grade math teacher “taught” his class like nothing I had ever seen – we all worked through the chapters of our math book at our own pace, using the book (and going to him for questions as needed) and checking our assignments back at the answer table. Then when we were ready, we could take the test and move on to the next chapter. I still can’t decide if he was lazy or a genius, but the satisfaction of turning in all of my assignments stapled to my checked-off sheet was glorious.

 

All of this nerdyness and love for school supplies eventually led to one obvious career choice – teaching. I could not wait, to create those same memories for my own students. I wanted to give them learning experiences that they would also look back at and remember. I quickly became a more specific kind of nerd, a project nerd. When the students complete projects that allow them to show their knowledge in unique and creative ways, they excel. They remember information on such a deeper level when it is tied to a visual memory or experience.  Sure, these projects take a lot more time, but at the end of the year these are the experiences and the material that the students remember. It is easier to apply it to other areas. The retention of the material goes far beyond taking a paper/pencil test at the end of the unit. Oh the joy on their faces as they share with their peers. The determination they show as the plan and create. The creativity that they use to express their ideas, and the work that you get out of students that you otherwise wouldn’t. Oh my nerdyness is oozing out just thinking about it. Once I got my teaching sea-legs, I starting increasing the amount of project-based learning that I did in my class. But it wasn’t easy. Oh no. I had a bit of a bully problem. Oh yes- the dreaded bully. This bully was trying to prevent me from taking this time to allow my students to enjoy their learning process. This bully had the nerve to try to prevent me from doing what I love and what brought so much joy to my classroom. Who is this bully, you ask? Well this bully goes by one name – testing. High-stakes testing 3 times a year (NWEA – I say high-stakes because our raises were dependent on the test results), in addition to the state standardized test in the spring. About once a month, we were giving practice versions of the test, and test prep questions every week. We purchased testing materials from a company that gave us about 4 tests to take throughout the year to prepare for the spring test. We were to do progress monitoring in between the testing and the practice for the testing to be sure that they were progressing from the practice. What?!?! When am I supposed to teach? It became nearly impossible for my project based learning to happen, as I needed every available second to race through my state standards.

 

Now I know what you are thinking, “Please tell me this story has a happy ending!” Well, I eventually left that school. But not before I wrote and carried out some pretty awesome projects(if I do say so myself) and learning experiences. Some of which I still do! I created, wrote, and organized my schools very first Science Fair (K-8), wrote a project on the U.S. regions, which ended with an Open House and was then shared with other schools in the area. I still had the project bug, and I took my ideas with me, excited to work with an older grade level in a new state. Before I even got my boxes unpacked, another bully showed up. This one was bigger, and it effected everyone around it. It’s name was the Common Core.

 

Now, before you Common Core lovers come at me with torches and pitchforks, let me explain my true feelings about the Core. I think the idea is good. A common set of standards across the U.S. is not a bad idea. Granted, they are a bit broad and wordy, but the idea was good. The problem then, can best be illustrated by taking a little tour of my 4th grade classroom. At first glance it looks like a regular classroom, maybe even resembling a classroom you once sat in. You will see colorful bulletin boards, an ABC line in cursive, desks and chairs arranged in groups. You will see table baskets with pencils and other school tools. You will see that kidney shaped table set up where I conference with small groups, and beanbag chairs sitting in our classroom library. But there is one major thing missing. Textbooks. I teach 4th grade and I have not one single textbook in my classroom. No basal reader filled with a variety of stories from different genres that we can read, discuss, or comprehend together. There is no math book that the students can use as a resource when they are stuck on a problem or to do extra practice work from.  There are no science books that are filled with the text features that help aid in their understanding. There are no social studies books that allow students to read the stories from our past or explore other lands and cultures through accounts and pictures. Nothing. Instead, we are using “programs” that were written to the Common Core, but only contain part of the material. They may supply us with endless amounts of worksheets to print off and stick in front of our students, but no valid, useful assessments to use to monitor the understanding. They include a portion of the ELA curriculum, but miss major parts like grammar or spelling. That leaves the teachers all scrambling to fill in the holes on their own, which leads to no consistency among schools. Teachers are relying on a variety of Internet sites to print off leveled books and short stories for the students in their class so they can practice the skill of comprehension, another skill that rarely shows up in these “programs.” If that doesn’t sound difficult enough, these “programs” get completely rewritten constantly, making it difficult to determine which is most up to date or making us start from scratch again. While teachers are busy trying to figure all of that out, they also need to remember to prepare for and administer the endless amount of testing that happens starting from the first weeks of school. There’s NWEA, and then DRA, then reading fluency testing, and writing fluency testing, and spelling inventories, and writing pre-tests. As soon as you get that done and scored, then get ready for any report card testing. Then you will have a few weeks of no testing before the next round. After Christmas, add in the preparation for the new state standardized testing, which was nothing short of a nightmare. This gem required my 4th graders to type essays into a computer. These are students who have 2 computers classes a week to teach them basic typing skills, and they are NOT proficient typers.  For extra fun, one of the essay topics was a genre of writing that we don’t even cover in 4th grade.  The students were not allowed to take breaks and there were some 3rd graders that were testing still at the end of the school day.  There were lots of tears and the students were overwhelmed. And for what purpose? To get a score sheet from the state 10 months later with a number on it. No explanation, no feedback of how they specifically did on different questions. No feedback to the teachers on the performance of our individual students to help us prepare for this year. Nothing except the message to start practicing for this year’s test.

 

The problem is that the Core was rolled out before anyone was ready. There was no curriculum to go with it. We are now in this educational culture that revolves around the idea that somehow more testing is going to make our students smarter. That I will know more about my student if I have more numbers next to his name.

 

Here’s what I think. I think first of all, most of this testing needs to be thrown out. Any teacher in this country will tell you that one test on one day is not an accurate representation of any of the students in their class. Neither is 14 different tests. How they handle a challenge, how they work through solving a problem, how creative they are at displaying their ideas, their attitude and participation in the classroom, how they help a classmate who is struggling – that is the information that represents who they are as a student.  It’s things that you can’t put a number to. Those are the things that will help them throughout the educational experience and beyond. Right now we are creating stressed-out over tested students who aren’t enjoying their educational experience as much as they should. I think about my memories of school and those learning experiences that I remember most.  None of them involve testing. I remember taking that one standardized test in the spring. I was never stressed about it, and that’s the only time we took one. The rest of the year was spent actually LEARNING. With books in my hand.

 

I try so hard to create those learning experiences for my students. I don’t do nearly what I would like to.  There is no time. I have all these constant testing deadlines of data that needs to be collected and typed into a computer by a certain date.  A bunch of numbers that are supposed to help me teach my students. But it doesn’t help me. It’s sits in a database and it doesn’t tell me anything that I don’t already know.  I know that many of my low readers are low because no one reads to them at home. I know that this student would benefit from tutoring, but won’t be able to come because their parents don’t have a car or work 2 jobs. I know that this student isn’t passing their multiplication facts because they have moved 4 times in the past year and have lots of holes in their education. I know that this student is low in every subject because they have a history of truancy and just got out of a juvenile detention center. I also know that none of these students are going to learn by me shoving testing down their throat constantly. They will however thrive in a classroom where they have the time and resources to explore things.  I know their confidence will grow as they are taking pride in creating something that is their own. To do that – I only need one thing. Time.

 

Somehow, our education system has gotten off course. In an effort to get better, we are becoming more of a mess. Stress rates are high and teachers are getting burnt out. People are making decisions for our children, that don’t know our children at all. I wish I had a magic wand to fix it. To go back to a simpler time when the students had time in the day to enjoy education. That they had the resources to make it happen. That they had teachers who were not over stressed. It makes me sad, because there are many days that I think, “I just don’t want to teach anymore.” But I know that this is my path. I love learning too much. I’m a nerd. I’m a nerd with a bullying problem.