The Pyrenees---Southern France

The Pyrenees---Southern France

Thursday, March 26, 2015

What IS Behind the Curtain?

Man dates used to be what teachers (mostly female, in the 1950's) only dreamed of. If you were a single woman and a teacher, a good man--as Carson McCullers wrote--was hard to find back then. The pickin's were slim (or more accurately, paunchy and bald).

However, nowadays, mandates are every teacher's nightmare.

Gone are the days of leisurely lunches in the smoky teachers' lounge. (I usually gobble down my lunch at my desk, hoping I don't choke in my haste as I work while I chew.) Gone are plan periods that can be used for actual planning or grading papers. (Instead: Data. Data. Data.) Gone is the luxury of having a little bit of our plates left empty for the little extras we want to teach. These days, our plates keep getting heaped with more and more every year, and nothing is ever scraped off.

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D. A. Russell, the author of Lifting the Curtain: The Disgrace We Call Urban High School Education, graciously agreed to answer some questions. Initially I asked him if he had ever started teaching a class wearing a black and a brown shoe when it wasn't "tacky day." (I have.) I also asked him if he had ever dumped a blueberry smoothie all over his shirt right before the start of a school day. (I have.) Since he liked neither one of those questions and since I was hoping to bat at least 0.33, I was glad when the third question ended up a winner.

The question:  What advice would you give to someone who is considering going into the teaching profession? Read his answer below, along with some tidbits about Russell and his book.

Advice for a new teacher – don’t, unless teaching is as much your passion as it is for so many us who still teach.

It is hard to answer the question “…what advice would you have for a new teacher?” The problem is that all teachers, even the most passionate about teaching among us, have a love-hate relationship with teaching.  We love the children, and the look of pride on a child’s face when they master a topic, and treasure those times we can engage and challenge some of the children despite the educational system and mandates.  But we are so deeply frustrated and hurt by all the mandates that prevent teaching and force us to dumb-down instruction, and by the atmosphere of cronyism and intimidation by administrators, that most of the joy of teaching has been sucked out of the process.

That is why 46% of new teachers now quit the profession within five years, and overall we are losing a staggering 20% of our teachers each year to all causes – including early retirements, career changes, and movement to private schools.

Still, if your passion is teaching, as is mine, then you have to go for it!  Here are the five things rarely discussed in college education classes that will be the key to your ability to engage and reach some of the children despite the system, and to get the most joy possible out of your career.  The first three are absolute requirements to be a great teacher, and the final two are for your own mental health during the process!

Vital for all “great” teachers:

  • You must have a passion for teaching and the topic that is clear to the children
  • You must have the ability to challenge and engage children in the learning process
  • You must genuinely like children, and enjoy them – even those horrible teenagers!

Mental health:

  • You need a sense of humor.
You cannot take yourself too seriously. Here is a critical fact in today’s teaching:  children can only learn from a teacher they like and respect.  Children are street smart.  They can tell if you are going through the motions, or really care.  When they figure out that you do, they start to listen and believe in you.  The system, and a numerical minority of parents are so bad today that you will never be able to get through to all of the children.  But with genuine passion and engagement you will get through to some of them, and even to many in a good year. 

 I cannot overstate this:  without that passion, engagement, and caring you will fail as a teacher, no matter what training you have and no matter how skilled you are.

The last two are for your mental health, especially if dealing with high school teenagers!  Teenagers are still teenagers.  They do dumb stuff.  They say completely inappropriate and whacko things.  If your natural reaction is going to be anger or “discipline” rather than a smile and a quiet laugh, you will burn out within months as a teacher.  And more importantly, you will never earn the ability to change those views and statements.  Since teasing and “insult humor” is the nature of the teenage beast, if you have a thin skin you are doomed.  Only if you can learn that such teasing is an act of affection (even though it occasionally crosses the line and must be reined back) can you connect with the children in your class.

So, bottom line – it will be a love-hate relationship for you, as it has been for all those of us who went before you during the education mess of the past 5-10 years.  The wins, when you get through to children and see pride on their faces will have to carry you through all the losses when you have to deal with the career DoE bureaucrats and their destructive mandates, and with administrators who raise cronyism and intimidation of teachers to an art form.

For me, those smiles of pride make the rest bearable – even on those many nights I drive home muttering and clenching my teeth at the system!

Lifting the Curtain takes a serious, impassioned look at what is going on with education today. For those outside the inner sanctum of the school system, some quick fixes might be demanded. Fire the teachers and replace the whole lot of them. More money. More technology. Merit pay. State tests with more rigor/less rigor. More inclusion. Less inclusion. The suggested remedies go on and on... 

I've been a public school teacher for 24 years. There have been days when I've laughed on the drive home. There have been days when I've sobbed. But throughout, it's remained a job I love... and hate at times.

However, it's never the kids I hate. My students are what make the job worth it. They keep me plodding to work every day.

So, if you want to know what is really going on with the screwed-up educational system, if you'd like an insider's view into teaching... buy D. A. Russell's Lifting the Curtain. It's informative and is a book that's easy to dive into.

About the Author: D. A. Russell has spent the last ten years as a math teacher in one of the urban high schools that is the subject of Lifting the Curtain. He is an honors graduate of Dartmouth College, and has his master's degree from Simon School, where he was valedictorian of his class. Russell is a decorated Vietnam veteran. He has two children that he treasures, and four grandchildren. His son is a police officer who served in the US Army in Afghanistan, earning a Bronze Star for valor. His daughter is a lawyer and his most passionate fan and honorary literary agent. Russell has a passion for children that dominates his life. He has taught and coached children for decades. Few things are more important in Russell's view than to cherish the children who are our real treasures in this world. He is a contributor for education matters to the Huffington Post, and runs a personal blog at: dedicated to letting teacher voices be heard in the real problems with education.

Visit Russell online at:




Monday, March 16, 2015

A Brilliant Author

        I finished this novel yesterday morning. It was a supreme sacrifice. I had a choice. Either I worked on started working on my report cards for an hour before heading to an all-day meeting, or I could finish Doerr's book. Choosing the book made sense, since I knew I would have trouble concentrating on anything else if I was still wondering how the book ended.

       This is a gem of a book. Anthony Doerr writes like a poet. There are jewel-like lines on every page.  Every single page. I'm not kidding. Here are just a few:

*     He practices concentrating only on blinking. Pulse in his neck. Tock tock tock tock. Others, he thinks, would do this with less finesse. Others would use scanners, explosives, pistol barrels, muscle. Von Rumpel uses the cheapest of materials, only minutes, only hours.
      Five bells. The light leaches out of the gardens.

*    "How about peaches, dear?" murmurs Madame Manec, and Marie-Laure can hear a can opening, juice slopping into a bowl. Seconds later, she's eating wedges of wet sunlight.

*    A corner of the night sky, beyond a wall of trees, blooms red. In the lurid, flickering light, he sees the airplane was not alone, that the sky teems with them, a dozen swooping back and forth, racing in all directions, and in a moment of disorientation, he feels that he's looking not up but down, as though a spotlight has been shined into a wedge of bloodshot water, and the sky has become the sea, and the airplanes are hungry fish, harrying their prey into the dark.

        This is a story of war. Of resistance. Of succumbing. Of refusing to succumb. Werner is a young German orphan who becomes one of the Nazi's assets. Marie-Laure is a young French blind girl. As you read the story, you know they are going to meet... but you have no idea what the outcome will be.

       Doerr (wisely) has written his novel in short chapters. Most of them are 2-4 pages long, and they alternate between Werner and Marie-Laure. The short spurts ensure that the reader doesn't get burnt out by the intensity of either character's events. We are sitting on the edge our seat with Marie-Laure, biting our nails, and then get a break from her as we read about Werner. The intensity of what is going on with his character builds up... and then we're back to Marie-Laure.  

        I would highlyhighlyhighly recommend this book. You get a window into what happened with the Nazi schools for young boys. You're privy to some of the things the French did as they resisted the Nazis. You're able to travel to a different country and a far different era...

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Very Beginning...

        I got great news yesterday about the upcoming Listen to Your Mother show. Although a friend and I both got a "no thank you," we did get a free ticket for the show. And, the librarian at my school was one of the 13 writers chosen. Dr. Jenny Gray is one of the 2015 cast members, which makes me so excited.

        What's that? You didn't even know I submitted, much less auditioned? I kept it on the down-low because I knew that, given a pool of writers who have not been a part of the Listen to Your Mother experience, my chances were slim. Laura, Ellie and Naomi--I was sure--would give first priority to first-time performers. Fresh meat. New blood to run in the LTYM veins.

         One reason why I submitted was because of my story last year. In 2014 I was one of the cast members, and my story was a sad one. I don't usually do sad. My natural arena is funny, or at least I think what I write is funny, so I wanted to give the LTYM ladies a taste of Sioux's silly side.

         Submitting... sharing... getting rejected. It's all a part of a writer's life.

         However, for my friend Jenny, it's only the beginning. (If you're old like me, perhaps at this moment you can hear Karen Carpenter singing, "We've only just begun..." I can, because I wore that 45 out until the grooves were no longer groovy.) This is is her first foray into the writers' world. She's working on a collection of stories, she's optimistic, and she's only just begun.

         I have my first rejection letter (and it's a real letter. It's not a form letter) and I have my first check that I received as payment for my writing (it was only $10). Both of them are framed. Both of them are reminders of where and when I began.

         What was the beginning for you like? What was your first validation... your first rejection? Rejected minds want to know.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Trader Joe's Teaches Writing (and Life)

          My life was fine ten or fifteen years ago. On my rare trips to Berkeley, California, I'd get my Trader Joe's fix. I'd load my suitcase up, and pine away for the next year or two (since I gobbled down my goodies in a matter of minutes) until my next trip to Berkeley. But then, they built two Trader Joe's in St. Louis... and now, the temptation is just a thirty minute drive away...

           Since for me, it's all about the food, 'bout the food, 'bout the food--no lyin'... I figured I'd weave a little bit about writing into this fanfare about a few edible things.  

Less is more.

                    These mints are divine. And although if you eat a whole bag on the way home a few, they're still not good for you, but they're not as bad as some other candies... 'cause they're made from only three ingredients: mint, honey and chocolate liquer.

                And sometimes less is more when it comes to our writing. Does the reader really need to know "My crusty-heeled feet, ending in yellowing thick raptor-like nails, sank into the dark salmon-colored carpeting--with miniscule flecks of moss-green and glints of gold--which was quite comfortable, with a sumptuous pad underneath"? Sometimes we don't mean to, but we nonetheless occasionally overload our readers' senses with way too many details... details our readers often don't care about. 

               Keeping it simple works most of the time. Say it the way you mean it. Don't spend a bunch of words prettying it up. Pure things are way more valuable than imitations or wannabes.

Do it when you can.

              Sadly, Trader Joe's discontinued one of my favorite treats: milk chocolate cocoa almonds. They still carry the dark chocolate ones, but the other ones were the bomb.

                    If you're in a store like Trader Joe's (or their cousin, Aldi's) and you see a product you like, you'd better buy it... because it might be gone for good the next time you're cruising down the aisles.

               We should write when we can. If we have 15 minutes before we have to head to work... couldn't we spend that time writing? Shouldn't we? And shouldn't I practice what I'm pretending to preach. (Of course I should.)

Know what you're made of.

               This nectar-from-the-gods comes from just one thing: honey crisp apples. It doesn't pretend to be a juice "cocktail" or a blend. It's plain ol' juice from honey crisp apples. It's simple and unpretentious.

                What are we? If we say we're a writer, we shouldn't spend all our time creating excuses about why we don't have time to write. If we say we're working on a novel, dadgummit, we should be doing serious work on our manuscript. 

                Writers write. It's as simple as that.

What tidbit about writing (or life) can you connect to a food item? Carb-loving minds want to know...


Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Seven Things You Won't Be Able to Unthink

       Yesterday I was surprised. Upon checking out Cathy C. Hall's post, I saw I had received an award. It involves lots of money. Lots of photo opportunities. Lots of whirlwind press tours. I cannot wait.

        In the meantime, here is the lowdown:

The Very Inspiring Blogger Award rules are:
• Display the award on your blog
• Link back to the person who nominated you
• State 7 things about yourself
• Nominate 15 bloggers, link to them, and notify them about their nominations.

First, here are the 15 handful of bloggers I am nominating. (Hey, Cathy didn't follow the rules. I am going to maverick it up just like she did and be a follow-the-trailblazer.)

Val--She has a small but fierce following. Seinfeld's show was about nothing. Her blog posts are also about nothing... and the hilarity is real and it's spectacular.

Shay--All you have to do is check out her poetry, and you know why people follow her with their mouths all frothed up...

Pat--Her posts about her dog and her cat always make me smile... or make me go "awww."

Mama Zen--MZ does more with less. She writes powerful poetry in just a few words.

And here are the 7 things about me:

* I really love high heels, but my family forces me to wear Crocs. (Okay, I love the look of high heels... on other people... while I sit there smugly, wearing my comfortable Crocs. And my family doesn't force me to wear them. Instead, they beg me to ditch the Crocs. Not gonna happen...)

* I'm an expert donkey basketball player. Actually, I've only played it once, but it was a huge hoot. Everyone sits on a donkey (instead of acting like a donkey, which I sometimes do). It's done in a high school gym. The donkeys stand there, completely still, which makes you get all cocky, until the trainer walks by and smacks the donkey on the rear. Then, the donkey goes from standing still to 53 mph in 4 seconds... and while you're careening around the gym, you're also supposed to try and make baskets. (This was done as a fundraiser for the school district I used to teach in.)

* One of my all-time favorite books is Too Late the Phalarope by Alan Paton. If you want to read a heartbreaking novel about what apartheid did to one family, this is the book for you.

* I've been skydiving three times. All tandem jumps. Someday, I'll do a solo jump.

* I was a tomboy growing up. I wore overalls every day my junior and senior year of high school, played tackle football when I was a pre-teen, and never even wore lipstick until I was in my 40's. Seriously. (And you all thought I was a Glam Queen...)

* In reality, I look just like Halle Berry--at least once a week, someone stops me and wants to get their picture taken with me--but I frump myself up so everyone around me doesn't feel like they're in my shadow. Okay, in actuality, people see me and without me even telling them, they know I'm a teacher. Maybe it's the BUS (butt-ugly shoes)? Maybe it's the Samsonites under my eyes? Maybe it's the downtrodden spirit I (sometimes) stink of? Who knows... 

* I belong to the best writing critique group there is. The WWWPs--there's five of us--and we laugh so much, it sometimes tests the absorbency of our pantyliners.

There you have it. If you don't have to gouge out your mind's eye after envisioning me riding a donkey with my Crocs on and my frumpy hairstyle all in a swirl... well, you've got a stronger constitution than most...

Monday, March 2, 2015

When Poetry and Prose Intersect

       I am currently reading All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I'm a little more than a hundred pages into it. As its central characters, the novel has a blind girl living in France and an orphan boy living in Germany. The boy is being groomed by the Nazis because of his genius when it comes to radios and anything else his mind grasps. Somehow the two are going to connect... I'm not sure how.

       It's slow reading because I'm savoring the lines. Doerr writes prose like a poet. The images, the lines--they're so well crafted, and if the reader rushes, some gems will be overlooked.

       Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine is like that as well. I could just imagine Bradbury--like a diamond cutter--turning each phrase this way and that way, chipping away bits until the brilliance of his words was allowed to shine. Don't we all want that as writers and what we all hope for as readers? Don't we all love when the words just drip off the page and flash their brilliance?

      What is a fine line or phrase you've encountered (or crafted) recently? A writerly mind wants to know...