Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Something Greater Than Teaching?

This week's post is from Matt Lane, a social studies teacher at Riverside Junior High.  He responded to the question, "Which author has influenced your life?"  We think you will be challenged by and enjoy Matt's response--which is the same impact Matt's favorite author had on him.

From Matt Lane: A Chance Meeting in Charleston

When I was in the seventh grade, my older brother read The Lords of Discipline, by Pat Conroy. He told me I should not read it because there was “a lot of cussing in it.”  Having been raised in a conservative family, I said I never would.

Plus it was really thick.

South of Broad

Over the years, as my tolerance for colorful language increased and my aversion to thicker books subsided, I discovered the voice of Pat Conroy. My introduction came through a novel called South of Broad, which tells the story of social life and class struggles in the city of Charleston, South Carolina. It was the first book I read on my new e-reader, quite honestly because it was one of the few titles available to download from the public library. 

Little did I know that the selection of that ebook would forever change my views on life.  Conroy inspired me as a writer, motivated me to take my family on a week-long vacation to visit Charleston, and more importantly, confirmed my belief that teaching is as much a calling as it is a profession.

The Water is Wide

After reading South of Broad and recommending it to everyone I knew, my next Conroy book was The Water is Wide. This memoir tells of Conroy’s year of teaching on Daufuskie Island off the coast of Charleston.  Conroy recounts how his students, all descendants of former slaves, were so embedded in poverty that education was of little importance. He tells how he resorted to unconventional teaching methods to get his students engaged, and how he often butted heads with the school’s administrator.

His teaching had a positive impact on his students’ lives.  From simple things like personal grooming to taking a field trip off the island—the first time on the mainland for many of his students—he taught that life was much greater than what they had previously experienced. For me, this memoir was a confirmation of what one teacher can do when he is committed to kids.

My Reading Life

Another of Conroy’s memoirs, My Reading Life, furthered my admiration and established Conroy as my favorite author. In this book, he recounts people who inspired his own writing.  Specifically, he tells of Gene Norris, a teacher Conroy describes as “a great man.” Mr. Norris was great not for what he knew, but rather for how he treated his students.

Conroy’s personal life growing up was tumultuous, and he had no respect for his own father, who was the inspiration for his book The Great Santini. Gene Norris was an English teacher but became a father figure and friend to Conroy at time when he needed more than just an English teacher.  He needed someone to listen to him. He needed to know he had value and worth. He needed someone to see good in him. Mr. Norris saw something special in Conroy’s writing and inspired Conroy to climb out of his personal tragedy and turn it into his own victory, his own triumph.

I still get emotional as I read near the end of the memoir when Conroy writes: “If there is more important work than teaching, I hope to learn about it before I die.”

These are strong words from someone fired from his first teaching job and who struggles to this day with issues of self-esteem. Conroy knows the importance of good teachers and his words remind me to be the very best I can be every day.

Lords of Discipline

How can an author change your life?  Just ask Matt, shown
here at The Citadel.  He swears by Pat Conroy.
If we fast-forward a few years, I finally broke my promise and did read that book my brother told me about in seventh grade—the cussing book. The Lords of Discipline is a fictional account of Conroy’s experience at The Citadel, a military college in Charleston. When I read Pat Conroy books, I cannot read them fast. It is not because they are difficult. It is because I simply do not want them to end. Each page has something to ponder and process. Each character is a new friend. If I read too fast, I might miss something.

When I finally finished The Lords of Discipline, there was no doubt that it would top my list of favorite books.  When it came time to plan our family trip over Spring Break, I convinced the family to go to Charleston. Because of Conroy’s writing, I had fallen in love with a place I had never visited.

After spending almost a week there, I discovered Conroy had written the truth: the houses, the food, and the people were just as described. I visited The Citadel twice, bought a coffee mug and t-shirt, and took a few thousand photos. I had little interest in military universities but I suppose this is what good writing does. It makes us love places we have never seen and become passionate about subjects in which we previously had no interest.

As a teacher, Pat Conroy has helped me to understand that my job is to inspire the uninspired and to reach the ones who want to be left alone. To paraphrase Conroy, if there is something greater than teaching, I, too, hope to discover it before I die.

Respond to Matt at

Have a great week, HSE!

Your HSE Teaching and Learning Team
  • Jan Combs, Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning
  • Stephanie Loane, Director of Elementary Education
  • Tom Bell, Director of Special Education
  • Jeff Harrison, Director of Educational Technology
  • Phil Lederach, Director of Secondary Education

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Human Piñata

This week, we continue on the topic of influential authors.  In the entry below, Jeff tells a story about his son's experience last week, and how the experience brought back memories of a book that changed the way he taught and continues to inform his parenting.


From Jeff: My Son, the Human Piñata

I was reminded this weekend of the power of natural consequences. My son was attending a birthday party where, at one point, there was a piñata involved. Imagine 8 seven-year-olds being blindfolded and being told to use a 3 foot dowel rod (1-inch in diameter) to knock at an object hanging in the air; you probably know where this is going.

It looks so innocent just hanging there, but put the club in
the hand of a 7 year-old....
The piñata was hung in the middle of the garage, and all the kids were told to remain outside of garage until it was their turn or until we allowed them to swarm the candy. At one point, the piñata was knocked from the string and went to the ground, where my son quickly dove in after it.

Needless to say the blindfolded kid, not realizing the piñata was on the ground and my son on top of it, took a swing and knocked him upside the neck. After a few tears, we were able to have a conversation about why it is best to wait until the blindfold was off the person swinging. (He is doing well and enjoyed showing the battle wound off to his peers.)

He used a band-aid in the evening, but wore his
battle scar proudly at school the next day! 
Early on in my college years, Maria Ging (Fall Creek Elementary), gave me a book entitled Teaching with Love and Logic by Jim Fay and David Funk. This was a great book to start me thinking about classroom discipline and management and, in a way, how I deal with my own kids at home.

The book focuses around several key concepts:
  • Building relationships with our students
  • Teaching students to think about their actions and decisions
  • Giving choice, when possible, for consequences
  • Consequences do not need to be immediate but have empathy
  • Consequences should be a natural fit

Jim Fay and David Funk say this: "Do I want to control kids, or do I want to obtain their cooperation?"

As we enter the last few weeks of the semester, our students may start to push the boundaries just a bit more. Hang in there, and think about using love and logic as part of your classroom management plans.

The break will be here soon!

Have a great (short) week, HSE!

 Your HSE Teaching and Learning Team
Jan Combs, Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning
Stephanie Loane, Director of Elementary Education
Tom Bell, Director of Special Education
Jeff Harrison, Director of Educational Technology
Phil Lederach, Director of Secondary Education

Friday, November 13, 2015

Hairballs and the Growing Edge

This week's blog continues on the topic of anchor texts and touchstone experiences.  As you read, consider your own experience.  Which authors or mentors influenced you the most?  What ideals and ideas do you hold dear because of these people?

It is a beautiful thing to read and hear great ideas, especially when they help us become better educators.  And, as Jan points out, sometimes it is also a great deal of fun!

From Jan: Orbiting the Giant Hairball

When Phil first came with the idea that we write about authors who influenced us, I truly did not know where to begin.  So many authors have inspired (the art) or informed (the science) my views on life in general and on education specifically. 

One of my favorite books, however, is Orbiting the Giant Hairball, by Gordon MacKenzie.  I find myself referring to it a lot lately.   It is a book filled with short stories that contain powerful lessons. 

Illustration from MacKenzie's book Orbiting the Giant Hairball
One of the stories is called “Pool-Hall Dog” and it is about the power of letting go.  MacKenzie closes this chapter by saying: “If we do not let go, we make prisoners of ourselves.”

Excerpt from “Pool-Hall Dog” in Orbiting the Giant Hairball:

To be fully free to create, we must first find the courage and willingness to let go:
Let go of the strategies that have worked for us in the past….
            Let go of our biases, the foundation of our illusions…
            Let go of our grievances, the root source of our victimhood….
            Let go of our so-often-denied fear of being found unlovable.

You will find it is not a one-shot deal, this letting go.  You must do it again and again and again.  It’s kind of like breathing.  You can’t breathe just once.  Try it:  Breathe just once.  You’ll pass out.

If you stop letting go, your creative spirit will pass out.

Now when I say let go, I do not mean reject.  Because when you let go of something, it will still be there for you when you need it.  But because you have stopped clinging, you will have freed yourself up to tap into other possibilities – possibilities that can help you deal with this world of accelerating change.”

Creativity requires letting go....
In HSE, we say we value creativity.  We want it for ourselves and for our students.  The first step, and perhaps hardest step, toward creativity is giving ourselves the freedom to let go and try new possibilities.

Respond to Jan:

From Stephanie: Lilian Katz and the Growing Edge

Lilian Katz makes me bristle!

She pushes me to the limit of my growing edge, and I can always count on her to offend folks.

Dr. Katz pushes Stephanie to the limit.
Learning and growing isn't always easy, but it is
what we do in education.
When I first read Engaging Children’s Minds I was struck by the insane amount of reflection her words required of me. My breathing became a pattern of deep inhaling and exhaling as I realized that I may have been unintentionally valuing teaching over learning.

Her publications, keynote speeches, and biting coaching sessions offered a case study on the value of the intellect. She challenged me to value the conscious disposition that should be brought to instruction each day and to consider the impact we have on the intellect.

Take seven minutes to watch this video of Dr. Katz speaking about the "Project Approach," and consider how we can teach academic skills in pursuit of the intellect.  

Click here to watch the video: Dr. Lilian Katz

Stephanie with her students....

Respond to Stephanie:

Have a great week, HSE!

Your HSE Teaching and Learning Team
  • Jan Combs, Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning
  • Stephanie Loane, Director of Elementary Education
  • Tom Bell, Director of Special Education
  • Jeff Harrison, Director of Educational Technology
  • Phil Lederach, Director of Secondary Education

Friday, November 6, 2015

Anchor Texts and Touchstone Experiences

Mixed in with my other favorite books, I have a stack of three written by Jonathan Kozol.  On top of the pile is Savage Inequalities, which I read for the first time quite a while ago, when we were living and teaching in Hesston, Kansas, a small rural community and my childhood home. 

The books I keep close to my desk: Each one changed me in
some way and continues to influence me.
In the first chapter of Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol describes the conditions of public schools in East St. Louis.  His words have stayed with me over all these years, partly because they are as profound as they are disturbing, and partly because I have an indelible visual memory of East St. Louis, even though I have never visited it personally. 

Having a memory of a place I haven’t visited, may seem contradictory, but stay with me on this for a bit because it involves a story—and I promise I’ll get to my point before it’s done.

I have seen the St. Louis Arch at midnight
more often than during the day!
Rear View Mirrors and Interstates

When our oldest children were just toddlers, and we were living and working in Kansas, as soon as school let out for the holiday break in December, Lisa and I would load up the kids and start the journey from Central Kansas to see our family in Northern Indiana.

Since we were young and energetic, on those sometimes snowy or icy treks north, we would drive straight through night.  The first major city on the trip was Kansas City, and soon after midnight, we would come to St. Louis, which marked our halfway point.  Late at night the traffic would be light, so I would take I-70 straight through town, past the Arch and over the waters of the Mississippi.  Just after crossing the river, we would pass exit-ramps to East St. Louis.  From the raised interstate, I would look down into the darkened streets and recall what Kozol had written about the schools of the city below. 

Rear view mirrors allow us to look back while moving forward.
Even now, many years later, I can remember looking through the rear view mirror at our children sleeping in the back seat and recalling bits and pieces of what Kozol described in Savage Inequalities: the lack of funding, the lack of qualified teachers, the woefully inadequate facilities, and the stories of teachers and students who lived in the city below the interstate. 

The juxtaposition of what I knew my children would experience in school and the experience Kozol described was startling and has stayed with me over time.

A small sampling of Kozol’s words from Savage Inequalities:

The crowding of children into insufficient, often squalid spaces seems an inexplicable anomaly in the United States. Images of spaciousness and majesty, of endless plains and soaring mountains, fill our folklore and our music and the anthems that our children sing. “This land is your land,” they are told; and, in one of the patriotic songs that children truly love because it summons up so well the goodness and the optimism of the nation at its best, they sing of “good” and “brotherhood” “from sea to shining sea.” It is a betrayal of the best things that we value when poor children are obliged to sing these songs in storerooms and coat closets.

I credit Kozol with awakening in me an awareness that schools are very different across our nation, that things I take for granted and assumptions I have for my children are not universally true for all children and for all families. 

Anchors and Touchstones

Since those early years of teaching, many other authors and experiences have impacted my thinking and beliefs, but Kozol’s words still resonate and make up a part of who I am and what I believe as an educator. 

The reality is that certain authors and experiences are more important, more formative, more foundational than others.  Those of you reading this certainly have anchor texts and touchstone experiences that you could identify as pivotal to your growth as an educator.  These authors and experiences have informed, challenged, enlightened, and developed you as teachers and/or as administrators.  

They never go away.  Rather, they build on each other in sometimes contradictory ways, but eventually weave together to form rich understandings and deeply held beliefs.   Furthermore, anchor texts and touchstone experiences are used to filter, evaluate, and adapt new readings and experiences.

The Legend of the Touchstone calls for us to be reflective and
thoughtful about our past and present experiences.
I find it helpful to think of learning this way.  Each new learning is not something disconnected from previous knowledge.  It is not one new thing after another.  Rather, each new author or experience is layered over previous learning, blended into the larger picture, and contributes to building a richer and deeper understanding. 

Essential Questions

Take a few moments to reflect on those authors and experiences that have shaped who you are as an educator.  How would you answer these questions:
  • Who are the authors that changed the way you think about education?
  • What are the experiences that shaped you as an educator? 
  • What have you learned from these anchor texts and touchstone experiences that forms the foundation of your beliefs about teaching and learning?

These are essential questions we hope to explore in the coming weeks or months.  Feel free to join the conversation and add to our tapestry of understanding.

Have a great week, HSE.

 Your HSE Teaching and Learning Team
  • Jan Combs, Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning
  • Stephanie Loane, Director of Elementary Education
  • Tom Bell, Director of Special Education
  • Jeff Harrison, Director of Educational Technology
  • Phil Lederach, Director of Secondary Education