Tuesday, June 21, 2016

How to Make a Teacher

Two weeks ago, the current issue of the Economist arrived at our house one afternoon and when my husband saw it, his immediate comment was, "Ah, the article that will irritate my wife in a thousand different ways!"  I chuckled and wondered what the Economist magazine would have to say about the state of teaching in America and the world today.

So, later in the evening I sat down to read the article.  I knew a couple of things it would probably say because of the title--1)  The issues with education are because we have bad teachers and 2) we need good teachers.  That was actually exactly what the article said.  There was a second article that expounded the idea more in-depth that good teachers are made/taught, not innately formed natural teachers.

The premise of the second article is one I partly agree with, but as with most things the picture is a lot more complicated than it seems and it can't be simplified as much as people would like.  Politicians want to blame teachers--the system.  We live in a world where people don't want to take responsibility for their own actions.  Who is willing to blame parents for why kids struggle in school?
No one.

There is a faulty assumption underlying all of this.  That assumption is that if I can just reason and show someone else why my vision is better than theirs (better economically, emotionally, or socially) then they will agree with me.  I used to believe this.  Teachers are indoctrinated with this idea that in education programs across the country.  I was.  I believed it whole heartedly.

Until this year.

I thought that if a middle school kid understood that I wanted the best for them, if I was engaging as a teacher, if I didn't embarrass them in class, if I explained to them and showed them that writing was the crux of all communication from this point forward in their scholastic careers, then they--would believe me.  And they would do their work.  They would value what I was trying to give them--how I was trying to help them.

But, I learned something that my best friend, who is in her 60s, told me years ago.  Home trumps daycare.  The discipline and rules at home trump what a daycare worker tries to teach the children in her daycare--even if she has them for a greater percentage of their waking hours than the parents do.  And the same is true of school.  Home trumps school.

There are exceptions of course, but those are just that--the exceptions.  Two of my favorite movie scenes are from "He's just not that into you."  At one point, a bartender tells the girl that every girl wants to believe that they are the exception--not the rule.  At the very end of the movie (spoiler alert!), she reminds him of this, to which he responds that she is his exception.  Ah, the exception.

We want to believe that the exception can become the rule.

The article addressing how teachers should really be taught said several things that caught my attention.  One was that parents were never talked about.  And the schools they sited--well those schools talked about in the article are charter schools.  A significant, very significant factor that is unmentioned.  Why is it significant?

Children go to charter schools because their parents care about their education.  Therefore, the kids care more.  They see a value in it.  The parents care.

Why don't I teach in public schools anymore?  The honest answer is that I, like a large number of teachers burned out before the three year mark.  Three years!  I didn't make it.  I substitute taught, I taught K-5 computers at a school for a year, taught middle school for a full year, and then taught one more semester at a horrible middle school.

It was a combination of the administration, parents, and kids that made me want out--out as fast as I could get out.  I'll never forget having a parent berate me for 45 minutes in front of a assistant principal and the assistant principal telling me afterwards that "sometimes you just need to let parents get it off their chests".  I still remember calling to speak to a parent about her manipulative teenage daughter and the daughter lying to me that her mom wasn't home while I heard the parents in the background.

Yes, middle schoolers can be manipulative.

My first middle school was tough, but I had the administration's backing and support.  We had a teacher on staff to help the teachers with materials and to improve their teaching.  We had counselors on staff that had been teachers and parents so they understood both sides and could help parents and teachers understand and listen to each other when conflict arose between students and teachers.  (At the other school, the counselors had never been teachers which made a huge difference.)

But, I digress.  I met an art teacher at the pool yesterday.  My question for her was whether she had a curriculum dictated to her as other teachers now have where I live.  She explained that that was why she wanted to teach art.  She works with a set of objectives and concepts she must cover, but she gets to be a teacher--design her lessons, teach to her students where they're at.  She gets to be a teacher.  She recognized that content teachers don't get to do that anymore with the introduction of common core (but honestly it was already happening in the county I live in).

The biggest problem I have with the Economist's article is that it doesn't realize that in most schools' teachers don't get to teach.  There's a variety of reasons--it isn't as cut and dried as the two page article would have you believe.  For many, it is because the curriculum is being dictated to them.  High school teachers in my county lost a whole month (plus another week or two in some cases) of instruction because of testing.  When I was a teacher, I spent 25-50% of my time on classroom management.  My kids didn't care about being there and they didn't want to work.  Why?  That's the real issue.  This was the case across the board at my first school.  Education policy is written by politicians without taking into account that kids aren't robots and won't just do "what you tell them to do".  When it comes to kids, plugging in "x plus y" won't automatically get you "z" every time.

I learned a lot in my teaching program.  I earned my degree fifteen years ago and yet I can say that it was challenging and difficult.  The Economist was still operating under the assumption that my dad had when I was a kid--that teachers only teach because they can't do anything else.  That's not true.  It is really tough to be a good teacher.  I wish the people who had written those articles had done some hands-on research and had substitute taught at non-charter public schools for a week in lower socioeconomic schools.  I think it would have given the writers a much more accurate view of the state of teaching...

Here are two articles about the importance about parents and education :)
References: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3020099/

Monday, June 20, 2016

Books, Books and More Books

Today a friend asked me if I buy a lot of books.  My answer was, "Yes."  I do.  I have found places and ways to make money stretch, but, yes, I buy a lot of reading books for my kids.  I save on curriculum and spend it on reading books.  The main reason is that my library doesn't carry a lot of the books my kids want to read.  So, when my kids find an author they like (and that I like) I try to collect the books.  When they grow out of the books, I don't hold onto them.  I pass them on or donate them back to the library book sale.  I used to try and find people to give them to, but now I give them to the library.

In any case, when you have children who read a lot (like mine), I have found there are two big issues.
#1  Finding good books to read.  The WHAT to READ

#2  Getting those good books to read.  The WHERE ARE THOSE BOOKS question.

Here are the answers I've found:

For #1...
Every parent I know has websites, books, and lists they turn to for ideas.  Here are mine (not in a particular order):
1.  Honey for a Child's Heart and Honey for a Teen's Heart, both by Gladys Hunt (most recent editions)
2.  Sonlight reading lists from www.sonlight.com   Look under readers and under the grade appropriate history curriculum.
3.  Heart of Dakota Reading Lists from www.heartofdakota.com
4.  Veritas Press Reading Units from www.veritaspress.com (I don't actually use these curriculums because I use a Harcourt Reader for grades K-6, just their book suggestions)
5.  Friends' suggestions
6.  New York Review Books Children's Series  You can find a full list of their series on the site: www.nyrb.com
7.  I latch onto favorite authors and then go searching---  Edith Nesbit, Dick King-Smith, Lois Lowry, Brian Jacques (Redwall), Cynthia Rylant (younger), Roald Dahl...  I have also found, though, that I often only really like one book by an author, as in the case of Flipped by Wendelin Van Draanen (my favorite book for middle school girls).
8.  I keep my own list here:  https://lovetopaint.wordpress.com/favorite-childrens-books/

For #2...
1.  Library Book Sales (25 cents a book at my library twice a year)
2.  Garage Sales (I pay 25 cents a book usually)
3.  Good will or thrift stores (I don't pay more than 50 cents a book)
4.  Amazon.com
5.  Better World Books   When you subscribe to their email list, you get notified when they have a sale on the Bargain Bin Books.  I try to keep a running list of the books I'm looking for.
6.  AbeBooks.com  Often a book will be cheaper on Abebooks than Amazon because the shipping is cheaper, BUT the problem resolution process is not as easy and isn't guaranteed like it is on Amazon.
7.  Half.com  I use Half.com when I'm going to purchase several books from the same seller--this saves me money on the same shipper.  But, to save money on half.com takes me a lot of time and going back and forth between sites.
8.  Used Book Stores.  We have an awesome one in our area called 2nd and Charles.  The kids section is very organized.

Notably not on my list is-- Ebay.  A few years ago, I ran into an issue with Ebay and waiting for notification that the shipping had been recalculated.  I learned that one can get banned from Ebay (for a given period of time).  I was.  I did honor my commitment to the seller, of course, and buy the books outside the site.  But, it was crummy and stressful.  Ebay has always bordered on gambling in its mentality and my husband has preferred for me to pay a little more for a straightforward price on another site.  Most of the time the price on the other sites ends up being less, not more than Ebay actually.

So, those are my lists!  Where do you go to find book suggestions?  Where do you purchase books?

Sunday, June 19, 2016

A Different Kind of Mystery

I always chuckle when I read reviews of mysteries that say, "I knew it the whole time."  The funny thing about mysteries is that readers are caught in a catch-22--we want to figure out "who did it", but we don't want it to be too easy to figure out.  In the case of a mystery that I read this week, I had figured out "who did it" early on in the book.

The book was AH Gabhart's new book, Murder Comes by Mail.  This is the second book in Ms.
Gabhart's Hidden Springs Mystery.  It's not her usual genre.  I feel that the first book in this series was more enjoyable than this one.  This second book felt dry, slow, and plodding.  I hate to use words like those, but that is how I felt as I read the book.  I was more annoyed with more characters than is usual for most books I read.

The story is about Michael Keane and the town of Hidden Springs.  In the beginning of the story, he saves a man from jumping off a bridge and becomes a hero.  Shortly thereafter, trouble ensues.  Many of the characters from the first book are here ready to be a part of the story.  This book makes much more sense if you've read Murder at the Courthouse first.

As for the book itself...The plot continues at a steady pace.  The writing is very competent, though not surprising or unusual.  I suspect that many readers will be surprised at the twists and turns in this story, but for some reason I wasn't.  What disappointed me in the book was Alex and Michael's relationship/friendship.  As a reader, it was a strange relationship.  Awkward.  Not quite what I'd hoped for.

Overall, the book is really just fine. It's just not my favorite.  I enjoyed the first one much more.  I hope the third book in the series will remind me more of the first than the second when it comes out some time in the future!

(Angel Sister still remains my favorite book by this author!)

Please note that I received a complimentary copy of this book for review from Revell Books.

Being a Mom

When my kids were younger, I read so many, many parenting books.  When they came across my desk for review, I read them.  Some were good, some were strange.  Some were on the mark, and some were way, way off the mark!  Over time I found a few that I love.

1.  The Journey of a Strong Willed Child by Kendra Smiley
2.  Growing Grateful Kids by Susie Larson
3.  The Bible Study that goes along with Shepherding a Child's Heart (it walks through all the Bible verses about parenting)
4.  Little Lamb Who Made Thee? by Walt Wangerin Jr.

For parents of infants and toddlers:
1.  Super Baby Food by Ruth Yaron
2.  Healthy Sleep habits, Happy Child by Marc Weissbluth

But, every once in a while I read a new parenting book out of curiosity.  That's the case of the book in front of me, The Mother Letters:  Sharing the Laughter, Joy, Struggles, and Hope, edited by Amber C. Haines and Seth Haines.

This book is the compilation of letters that Seth Haines collected for his wife from friends, relatives, authors, and bloggers she enjoyed reading.  

I didn't expect to like this book.  But, I do.  

I can open to any of the letters and recognize that each of the women who have written a letter have had their own experience being a mom.  God made each of them differently.  They have different challenges, different strengths.  They have found different pearls amidst the muck and mire.  I found the letters to be good reminders of many things I've learned and want to remember.  The letters themselves are pretty well written and easy to read.

Sometimes as moms we don't have time to get the encouragement that we crave and even need.  Having a book like this is a little like talking to a friend for two minutes or eating a piece of chocolate.  Think, savor, and then keep on going.  

I'm not sure that it will make the list of my favorite all time parenting books, but it is good.  And if it's the kind of book you're looking for--a book of short devotions on being a mom, then this would be a great book!

This book reminds me of the song, "Nobody's Got It All Together" by Jill Phillips...

Please note that I received a copy of this book for review from Revell Books for review.  

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Young Adult Fiction

There is a young adult novel sitting on my desk right now waiting for a verdict. The author of the novel, Nan Willard Cappo, has written an interesting story.  

Cheating Lessons is about a high school student named Bernadette Terrell.  She’s not a very likable character actually—not someone I would have been friends with at the beginning of the story.  She’s sassy, overconfident, and sees herself as better than other people.  The relationship between her and her mom is one that made me cringe each time they interacted.  The plot of the story centers around Bernadette and three other debate students who qualify to take part in the classics bowl.  Their goal is to beat their biggest rival, a private school named Pinehurst.  

Not only does the main character’s attitude and actions make me cringe, but the story does as well because it broaches several subjects that I am uncomfortable with—cheating, teachers lying, and inappropriate relationships between students and teachers.  But, then the question I am faced with is—would I choose to have my tween daughters read this book?  I realize that just because I am uncomfortable with some of the hard parts of the world we live in, doesn’t mean that it isn’t important for my daughters to know about those parts of the world.  The question isn’t if or yes/no—it’s how and when.  

Over the years, I have come to conclude that there is a fine line between exposing students to ideas and planting ideas in their heads.  For a middle school girl to read this book, I think it would plant ideas about identity, friendship, teaching, how it’s appropriate to view teachers (giving permission to lustful and disrespectful thoughts).  But, in the case of high schoolers, I think an older girl would be able to filter out the stuff that made me cringe about this book.  I realize, too, that many teenagers relate to their parents the way Bernadette does in this book. I don’t relate this way to my girls and I didn’t relate this way to my mom when I was a teenager.  Our culture assumes this is normal across the board and it isn’t.  Teenagers don’t have to view their parents the way Bernadette does.  I believe that the seeds are planted in tweens' minds that parents are against their kids—not for them.  What we read and what we feed our minds shapes our thought life and ultimately how we treat and react to the world around us.  

In my mind, this book is appropriate for high schoolers—not middle schoolers.  I read one review which declared this book not to be YA fiction and to be appropriate for children.  NO WAY, JOSE!  This is not a book I would give my middle school daughters.  I might give it to them later in high school, have them read portions of the book and talk to them about it.  

This book is one I’d recommend to public school students in high school.  I feel that the writing is good.  The plot flows and the author is descriptive in her writing.  The characters are very flawed, but easy to imagine.  I realize the kind of books that public school language arts classes are reading these days and this book would fit.  Many students will resonate with parts of the story or some feelings the characters have towards adults in their lives and towards their peers.  

Would I give it a blanket positive recommendation?  No.  I’m not comfortable doing that.  Do I think some teenagers would enjoy reading this book?  Yes.  If you’re considering this book, just read the preview on Amazon.  You’ll know right away whether this is a book you (if you’re a teenager) or your teen (if you’re a parent) would enjoy reading it.  

Please note that I received a complimentary copy of this book for review from the author.


Watching movies and tv has changed drastically in the last few years.  I grew up watching public television--the main networks.  We never had cable.  It wasn't even on my radar as a kid.  Cable was an extra expense.  But, then public television went away.  ABC, NBC, CBS... they've all privatized their services for folks wanting to watch via the internet.  Yes, you can still watch some things, but not as much as you used to be able to.  The lone network I can still watch for free that I watched as a kids is PBS.  I am thankful that I can Masterpiece Theater online and other shows.

Many families have digital cable today via their internet provider or DishTv.  The other substitutes are subscription services and the outright purchasing of movies on DVD or via iTunes and Amazon. It's strange to realize how much the world of entertainment has changed in the last five years alone.

One of the companies selling movies online is FishFlix.com.  Their focus is on selling "Christian Movies to Inspire and Entertain".  I'm always looking for ideas of movies that I'm comfortable watching with my kids.  I enjoy watching things with them!  This might be a site to check out if you're interested.

If you join their email list, you do get a $5 coupon by joining here:  www.fishflix.com/5gift or you can text 5-GIFT to 44222.

Independent Films

In our culture, it seems like we get used to the glamorous films of Hollywood.  Everything's professionally, smoothly done.  The acting is believable.  The lines flow.  So, it's interesting to watch independent films that aren't as professionally, smoothly done, where the acting is sometimes stilted, and the lines don't always flow.

How does one judge these films?  Are they good?  bad?  worth watching?

I watched one of these films yesterday.  Ashes of Eden.  The movie is about an 18 year old boy--he's really a boy in a man's body.  His mom is a cop and he's gotten out of the joint.  He returns to high
school to find that he's been expelled.  All he's got is the ability to sell drugs.  And a girlfriend.

This is a Christian film, but it isn't as heavy handed as many I've seen (like The Princess Cut).  The filming is clearly independent film quality.  The acting is okay.  The plot's okay.  The credits were well done and remind me of the projects my brother in law worked on when he was in college.

If you enjoy crime dramas and want something a little less violent than a lot of what's out there, this would be an option.  It does have some cussing and some violence.  It is a redeeming story filled with tough decisions--the stuffings of life.  To some people, this film might not seem realistic.  But, it is to me.  I know several families who've had to make very tough decisions about their children's involvement in drugs.  This story tells some of their stories.

One of the big questions that I find parents like me have about movies like this one is: What age is this movie appropriate for?  This movie is not rated and that sometimes makes things tough.  In the world today, it would probably get a PG rating, but as a parent I would give it a PG-13 rating.

If you're interested, you can read other reviews about this movie online at FishFlix, an online Christian retailer for movies, HERE.

Please note that I received a complimentary copy of this movie from FishFlix.com for review.