Sunday, February 20, 2011

Compartments vs. Collaboration: Be More Like Bees

I had just come from a union rally yesterday where union employees of many professions came together in opposition to Governor Scott Walker's "budget" bill that would not only cut retirement benefits for state employees, but also eliminate collective bargaining rights of target groups like teachers.  At the rally there were state and county employees, maintenance crew members, educators, steelworkers, etc. Despite all of us working in separate areas, we are able to come out of our compartments into a collective ideological place: a place where a parties know that an injury to one of our compartments is an injury to all and that we all benefit from the services those in the other sector provide.

This idea of "compartments" is borrowed from Dr. Steve Feldman who spoke on NPR's program The People's PharmacyDr. Feldman, a professor of dermatology, wrote a lecture on how this idea of compartments affects health care professionals.  Often as a dermatologist he would see patients who came from family doctors who were treated for a rash but with unsuccessful results. This gave him, as a dermatologist, the perception that those physicans in the compartment of family doctors were either uncaring, unprofessional or ill-informed on rashes. This became his perception, because doctors and human beings are creatures who function on probabilty. He never saw the success in treating rashes from those family doctors as these patients had no reason to refer to him.   Dr. Feldman gave another instance of this when he and his fellow dermatologists are criticized by plastic surgeons for doing "hack" work on some surgeries. The plastic surgeon gets the perception from his/her own probabilty that no dermatologist knows how to properly perform surguries, where they never actually see all of the dermatologists successes.

Our brains are wired from little on for probability: to retain the results attempts at day to day tasks. This occurs when a baby babbles "mamamamama" for the first time and sees her mother's face light up, the baby registers this mouth and sound formation as a success for signaling her mother. Conversely, brain research has showed that in some instances of learning disabilities, it isn't necessarily that the student is having a hard time retaining the correct or successful information, it is that their brain is making and retaining unsuccessful connections that are eliminated in typical learners, but impede the correct or more efficient connections in that students' brain. The right stuff is in there, it is just getting it well-connected through schema, and strengthening those connections, perhaps through probability with more instances of success. This is why students with learning disabilities need extra support, to have things modeled for them in multiple, successful ways. They should never be overlooked as they are often times those who can think of creative solutions for complex problems, as their thought processes take different paths.

I was listening to The People's Pharmacy on NPR as I was driving to visit one of my favorite people for a party he was hosting. He happens to be a physician and avid amateur apiculturist. I began to think about how Dr. Feldman's idea of compartments fits in other aspects of our lives. We all live and work in our own compartments of parent, teacher (or specialized teacher), health care specialist, firefighter, plumber, student, etc. that through our own probability of experiences we fail to connect outside of our compartments. As Dr. Feldman said, there isn't a physician working that doesn't ultimately care for and want the best for his or her patients. We all want to do well at our jobs.  I believe we all must care for the greater good.

This week we have faced endless criticism against teachers from those who support Walker's "budget" bill.  I am appreciative to all of the open-minded people who have come out of their compartments to listen to our concerns. I am frustrated though by those in the private sector who refuse to budge out of their boxes to see what the reality is for teachers.  We have been accused of "riding the gravy train," laziness, etc. Dr. Feldman stated in his lecture that the only thing to improve service to all patients would be that physicians need to minimally empathize with the challenges their colleagues face in their own compartments, if not see them for themselves.

Coming out of my compartment, I understand that times are tough economically. Teachers have already felt budget cuts. For the last two years in my district we have not been filling vacant positions, and we declined wages increases in lieu of strong benefits packages. As parts of our benefits packages we are taking wellness measures to lower our premiums overall. I understand that everyone is fighting for anything they can keep, and that means not wanting to pay taxes. We all benefit from free public education, and a true democracy requires it. It also requires an informed public and I find it odd the the first things Republicans want to do is eliminate the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that funds public TV and radio (unbiased, uncorporate news information) and pillage educators and the entire educational system. Where is the informed electorate? Very un-democratic if you ask me.

While my honey was looking at apiary equipment catalogs, he showed me how the bees live in separate compartments and frames, and within those frames in separate combs.  All of those bees: drones, workers and the queens have different roles and face different plights. The drones don't do much other than fertilize the queen, but they are also the first to die on the outside of the broodnest in case of a coldsnap. The worker bees provide the honey for the hive and the queen propogates the hive and can change the hive simply with her phermones. That is a much over-simplified analysis and probably slightly inaccurate of how a hive works (at least of what I know, I'm only on like page 13 of Beekeeping for Dummies), but despite having different compartments, overall every bee in the hive serves a purpose for the health and properity of the hive. 

As a macrobiome of a beehive, Wisconsin has been hit by Scott Walker with a smoke bomb, and now we are swarming. Our hive is threatened, our prosperity and our way of life is threatened. A honeybee will sting if it's food source or queen is threatened to the ends of losing its own life. The working class in Wisconsin is standing up as individuals and ready to take blows if it means protecting our prosperity and way of life of our people.

We must be empathetic. We must find our common ground or we will fall as a state. I see our common ground as strong public servants for good public services and infrastructure, quality education, and strong community values.

Family Values: For My Parents

I came home today from our All-member union meeting. Once my son Andy and I got home I started to think about what I was going to do in protest of Gov. Walker's "budget repair bill."  This bill would elminate the right to collectively bargain for working conditions and benefits for a majority of public employees including teachers.  It would also limit compensation to nothing greater than that of the consumer price index. This means that as I stand, I would never stand to earn more to improve my own standard of living and that of my child's. Tens of thousands of Wisconsin educators are feeling the same way today (well, at least the informed ones).  I looked at Andy and felt an instant of despair for us.  This bill must not pass as it stands, not for my own personal benefit, but for that of all public employees, the working class, and the future for the children in our classrooms.

I thought of Andy and that I want him to know that when it counted most his mom stood for her convictions.

I thought of my parents. My dad took me to his union meetings when I was young and didn't know why we were there, but I would listen. My dad stands for his convictions even when we wish he would just sit down for a little bit.

I thought of my first lesson in empathy when I was in fourth grade and it was a presidential election year. While my parents were talking about the election over dinner, we got on the topic of Welfare. I asked them, as I had heard one of my classmates say at school, "Why can't people on Welfare just get a job and work too?" My mom looked at me and said, "If something happened to me or your dad and we couldn't work for a living, wouldn't you want help for us too?" I was quiet after that. I understood that my parents were willing to pay slightly higher taxes out of their modest wages for this security, then there was good reason for it.  This is the value of taking care of each other and not poo-pooing another person's misfortune.

Unions are representative of what matters most: the value of family. Family values. No matter what religion, politics, sports team, etc. your family follows, the idea of a family is knowing who will be there for you when you need them.  The idea that even though we bickered at home constantly, my sister was the first to defend me to a playground bully.  In the 1990's and early 2000's the conservative movement hijacked the term of family values to mean either something vague and reminiscent of the two-parent nuclear, Norman Rockwell / Leave it to Beaver family that goes to church, or the antithesis of President Clinton's indiscretions with an intern.  President Clinton is still standing up for the poor today. Ken Starr? Newt Gingrich? Smears on the bathroom wall of relatively recent American history.  Normally I would say "my union" but I know now that this phrasing is wrong.  AS a UNION, WE bargain for our rights and working conditions as teachers, knowing first-hand what we need as educators to do our jobs to the best of our capabilities.  Our policies and contracts protect every single one of us from being bullied.  I myself have been guilty of not being active in my union at times while reaping the benefit of what my fellow educators who also served in our union did for the rest of us (be it settling the contracts or just making sure to be informed and informing other teachers when changes in the district are made). There is a reason why union members refer to other members as brothers and sisters. We stand or fall together.

I always remember my dad being active in his union. He understood this. Experience taught him that you can never turn your back on the man with your paycheck in his hand because he may push you under the train and pocket it.  When it comes to our working rights (and those of all working-class people) we need to be ever vigilant.  At least Gov. Walker has thrown that icy water on our indifferent faces this winter. We are awake now. If organized labor is a movement, Scott Walker is a bottle of Exlax now facing a shitstorm of his own making.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


This last Saturday was Abe Lincoln's birthday (and my belated grandmother's, who always joked she was soon going to be nearly as old as Abe Lincoln. She almost made it, passing away at the age of 89 back in 2004).  This post is in the spirit of unity, which for me is a running theme this week of Valentine's Day, Abe Lincoln's Birthday, my grandma's birthday, and recent political turmoil.

A hundred and fifty years ago President Lincoln faced much greater adversity than we do today.  The nation was distinctly divided and enemies made within our own shore. Today's political climate often feels this way as well: Conservative vs. Liberal, Left vs. Right. However, we often find that there is much more common ground when we open ourselves as individuals representing these parties to discourse.  With the recent "Budget Repair Bill" proposed by Wisconsin's newly elected Governor Walker, some Conservatives are realizing the value of unions, and "tax and spend" Liberals know that somewhere we will have to give up some social services, or pieces of what has created the comfortable and stable standard of living Wisconsinites have grown to know and love throughout our progressive history.

I love Wikipedia as it is the resource of the people. Since truth is what is accepted as being so, Wikipedia is the resource that the majority holds as being true, despite any Joe Schmo being able to go in and edit it.  Wikipedia defines politics as "a process by which groups of people make collective decisions." So many people turn and run at the mention of politics or political issues, but that is wrong. The people that (some of us) we elect make decisions from the collective values of the people as a whole. These are the decisions that pertain to ALL of us. We all benefit from paved roads, sewer and water services, police and fire protection, and public education.  I've heard so many people say, "I'm retired, my kids aren't in school anymore. I'm sick of paying high property taxes"  or something of the like.  In these conversations I find a huge disconnect with people from their communities. Don't they see that the physician that stitched up their hand last week after the nail gun incident was publicly educated? Don't they see that the mail carrier who brings them their blood pressure medication from Advocare is a public servant as well?  What about the guy who picks up the garbage at the end of the driveway? We all work for a living. We all benefit from strong public education that minimally enables us to fill out the application for our employment.

Currently in our state-wide budget crisis educators are the target as we not only benefit from a state retirement plan, but our salaries come out of property tax pools (as well as some other government programs).  My district has over 3,000 employees that benefit from our union-negotiated benefits and wages, but also turn around and invest that right back into our community.  Walker wants to cut taxes, but for whom? His personal history is that of a business man and Milwaukee County Executive.  I wonder what his truth is and where his values lie in connection (or disconnect) with the values of Wisconsinites as a whole (for those who need a reminder, Wisconsin has a history of strong schools and a progressive spirit). His actions speak much louder than the words tens of thousands of people shouting in the streets this week in support of public employees. I hope our legislators realize their check in power when it comes time for them to decide.

Today teachers and public servants are uniting to protest the usurpation of our rights to collectively bargain and the overall degradation of the services we provide to society as a whole. I feel stronger in unity with them, and hope the connection we make with the rest of the public is electric.

So often teachers give the perception that we are whiny and "get three months off." I had the enlightening experience of filing my taxes last night with my soon to be ex-husband.  Without any attempt to publicly defame him (he does that well enough on his own) he asked the tax preparer how much money I made in 2010. She told him flat out that he made nearly $10,000 more than I did, and I also had more tax withheld from my check.  For those of you who know little of my ex, he is an immigrant machine operator in a private company without even a diploma that had been recognized in the U.S. yet in 2010. He didn't have any more questions for her after that. This really put things into a personal perspective for me, as to how public sector employees compare with private sector in terms of wages.

My grandmother valued unity with family above all else in her life. She never had money, but worked hard.  Sometimes three jobs when her children were growing up.  She also valued unity among working class people.  Honest Abe Lincoln needed unity among the people in his presidency or the nation would crumble into chaos. As he famously said, " A house divided against itself cannot stand." This took a monumental effort to bridge a huge divide in the principles of our nation. On Valentine's Day I felt unity and connected with people I care for (which is what Valentine's Day is about - Saint Valentine uniting couples in the face of adversity).  I hope you did too. I hope you find unity today easily, and if you don't, look for it. Sometimes it takes standing on a corner picketing with hundreds of others dressed in red, working out with a friend, or getting home and hugging your loved one and knowing exactly what they are thinking without saying a thing at all.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

On-time to count

Today I went home for lunch. As I was zooming back to school through busy Green Bay streets I approached an intersection where the light was red.  I merged left to be the first car in the left turn lane thinking, "I hope I am on-time to count," meaning that I hope my car hit the sensor before the light was already in the process to turn green for the other cars going straight. I promptly got the green arrow. Whew.

That phrase stuck with me in my comtemplative drive back to school (which one of the reasons I go home on occasion during lunch - the other reasons are: to escape the work place, drink soda out of a glass, or eat a reasonably healthy lunch that I didn't make time to pack).  There are so many times when we simply hope that we are on-time to count, or soon enough to make a difference. I made it back to school right on time.

For those who follow the political sphere (and some who are engulfed in it) are surely aware of the political embroiling of teachers in the state of Wisconsin. Currently anyone who benefits from a state retirement plan or who is a public-sector unionized employee may be subject to our newly elected governor's "Budget Repair Bill" in which not only will certain benefits (like health insurance and retirement) or wages be cut, but also the right to collectively bargain for unions of public employees would disappear. For teachers this means planning time, lunch (half) hour time, and responsibilities that fall outside the hours of the school day. This bill doesn't just affect teachers, but police officers, highway patrol, custodians, public radio, transportation, administrative buildings, etc., including the person cleaning the governor's office.  It is as if the solitary rug the working class stands on were trying to be legally pulled out from under us. Also, if unions for public employees are hurt in this bill, it weakens the pull and the voice of private unions as well, like those factory workers, plumbers, electricians, pipefitters, etc. Did I leave anyone out?

So often we do not look out for the rights of others until it affects us close to home, and then we care. Those who voted for Walker in the last election may have supported his idea of balancing the budget, but at what cost? This attack on unions is an attempt to usurp the voice of the working class people so that in the future we might be powerless to protest when our working-conditions are lowered to the point that no educated person will want to serve the public sector. As Elie Wiesel said, "There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest." However, I do not believe that in a democracy we are powerless to protest. Therefore I will be contacting my elected officials after school, hoping I am on-time to count.

Many people who work in service positions deal with this struggle with timing. Did the emergency room physician act on-time make a difference with the patient who was bleeding from trauma? Did the teacher intervene with the struggling student on-time for him to reach proficient standards before the end of the grading period? Did the pizza delivery man get there before the 30 minutes were up? As part of my professional development I am trying to learn not to procrastinate, but be proactive. Perhaps I should have campaigned more in the political season. I know I should spend more time planning, or better yet the same amount of time but in a more prioritized fashion. I struggle with this, but I am the only person who can correct my haphazard priorities. My problem is I feel that sometimes EVERYTHING is important. Prioritizing is a struggle for me. I hope that no one can ever accuse me of indifference.

One fault I find in the general American political climate is indifference. We have it good here (all of us for the most part) and thus do not see suffering like in other countries.  Our standard of living is the warm incubator of eggies of indifference. As Elie Wiesel also said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference.” I hope that when it comes to the well-being of others I will never be indifferent. I hope the same for my loved-ones, because indifference means a life devoid of passion and purpose.

I hope that today you are on-time to count. Whether it be improving your health through diet and exercise habits, going to bed earlier, balancing your checkbook, finishing homework, calling your representatives, protesting on the street, or telling someone you love them, it all matters, it is never too late to count.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Status Quo

Tonight's theme of status quo came on rather inanely (and grossly) in my hockey game today.  As I was skating and waiting for the faceoffs my nose started running and my ears started popping. My ears popped all the way home and after a good game of hockey, my head suddenly felt clearer. It felt as though I had a headcold for months that I had gotten so used to that I didn't even notice it anymore.  Stuffiness and dull-headedness had become my status quo, as it does for many teachers who have a cold or sinus infection from about early October to mid-May.  (Perhaps you didn't think you'd be reading about bodily fluids in a teacher's blog, but as a Kindergarten teacher it is hard not to blog about boogers sometimes.) 

Anyways, back to the theme.  I came to realize that the status quo either stays unnoticed or accepted until we find something better, sometimes by accident, by fate, or sometimes it was sought out.  All I know is that after a week of frigid temperatures, my head felt like all the grimy snowbanks were melting right out of it, like they were this beautiful February day in Wisconsin with near 40-degree temperatures.

Tomorrow is Valentine's Day, and my 1-year anniversary of being single.  I came to a point a year ago exactly that the status quo in my marriage was simply unacceptable, unfair and unsustainable.  I have found a better life, and I know now that I will never let myself fall into a self-destructive status quo in my personal life again. Happy Anniversary, ME! Thanks everyone who helped me get on track to a better place! This past year has been one of gratitude, overcoming some hardships, and other new adventures like single-parenting,  playing hockey again and doing some other athetic events.

In the long 10 months that we teach for a school year, it is really easy to fall into a status quo.  It IS good to have routine, but it isn't so good to do the same-old, same-old, especially if it is just so-so.  Now that we have made it through the brunt of a beastly winter, I am going to make it a point to do something to break the status quo. Some of these lessons might not go really well, but I find that the kids react well to trying something different.  It can be the same content presented in different ways just to attract their little Kindergarten attention and watch their beautiful eyes light-up when they get to do something new and different.

While looking for pictures online regarding the idea of status quo I found  that there was a 70s band sharing the name.  I am kind of in a 70s heavy guitar, rocking mood today so I listened to a bunch of their songs on YouTube. Their song Is There a Better Way is maybe not instrumentally one of their best hits, but the lyrics and title fit smashingly with this post.

Is There A Better Way by Status Quo (Lancaster/Rossi)

Is there a better way? Is there a better way?
Is there a better way ahead or just another day?
There's got to be a way to make a better day
I'm gonna find away to make a better day

You're never gonna be the one to hold me down
You're never gonna be the one to hold me down
There never was a better way with you around

No matter what I do, do what you got to do
But do it now because the time is running out on you
You've got to find a way to make a better day
You've got to live and learn to fight another day

I'm never gonna be the one who put you down
I'm never gonna be the one who put you down
You never know there may be someone in the crowd
There may be someone in the crowd

Is there a better way? Is there a better way?
Is there a better way ahead or just another day?
Maybe you'll never know a better way to go
I've got a feeling you don't really want to know

I'll never let you be the one to hold me down
I'll never let you be the one to hold me down
There never was a better way with you around
There never was a better way

I'll never let you be the one to hold me down
I'll never let you be the one to hold me down
There never was a better way with you around
There never was a better way

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Morning Glory

Today was fantastic, maravilloso! It wasn't a Wednesday, and we made Valentine's Day cards with our reading buddies this morning. The kids were taking their time and doing a nice job.  We had indoor recess (as we did due to the below zero temperatures all week) and gave the kids a little extra play time to burn their excess energy off inside. I don't know if it was the Valentine's Day cards, or that the sun was shining, or that it was Thursday, but I was smiling all day. The kids were fun, funny, and sweet, but then again they usually are.

I have found that in my fifth year of teaching, something I really feel like I lack is the time to focus on our students, enjoy them and get to know their needs as the small people that they are.  From the very beginning of the year we are pushing our little 5 year-olds to reach high academic standards without really asking them what their standards for their teacher are.  I'm guessing it probably has something to do with hugs and good snacks. Today there was less focus on the structure and more on the kids.  It was an unintended but welcome break.

Following their excitement with the Packers winning the superbowl, we had a math lesson with a little clipart running-back and a field with 0 to 10 yards.  The running back would "run" forward a number of yards and then the students figured out how many yards were left to get to 10 for a first down. It was really simple to put together, but the students loved being able to manipulate the football player but not necessarily have to write down answers. I was amazed at how quickly they began to understand the concept of "10s Friends."

After school we had a meeting and we were presented with more resources as to how to develop the students' ability to form and decode words in Spanish.  Sometimes I look at these new curriculum pieces that are hundreds and hundreds of pages long in disbelief.  I am supposed to know them well, but I simply feel that I am missing out on knowing my students. There isn't enough time in the day (let alone paid time) to do it all. My students only have one shot at Kindergarten (well, in MOST cases) and I only have one shot to make them love school, feel valued, and teach them real life and learning skills. If the curriculum materials are valuable enough I will learn it through using it with the students.  Otherwise it seems as though the trend is to replace it with something else after a few years. I know I sound a bit jaded on this already, but no one loves my job more than I do. It simply takes time to learn students, their capabilities, and then later to find materials that appropriately match what the students are capable of doing.

In Kindergarten it seems like all our little morning glories are expected to blossom, and they usually do. This is the idea of "No Child Left Behind." Their parents provide them with the soil (some richer and darker than others), the teachers are the gardners that provide the trellis, and those little flowers reach for the sun on their own. There are always those stunted ones and you get to a certain point where you simply cannot put anymore fertilizer on them or your burn them out and possible damage the soil for the rest of the plot.  If we keep over-watering them with information they won't even look to the sun anymore, but feel like they are drowning where they stand. This is what "developmentally appropriate" means to me: room to grow on the trellis and the right amount of sun and rain to do so.  They simply won't photosynthesize any faster than nature lets them.

Monday, February 7, 2011

China Beach & Growing Pains

Two shows I remember from my youth...This blog is going to serve as the wall in the kitchen where I mark how much I'm growing - hence "Growing Pains." It isn't as measureable as getting taller, and there won't be other marks to compare it to, but it is out here for anyone who cares to see. "China Beach" is in reference to the theme song (see link) and the reflective purpose this blog serves.

This year is really the first time I have forced myself to reflect on my career. I have finally started to figure out my own personal situation. It is my fifth year teaching, so before there wasn't a lot of material to really reflect on. Every year my job seemed to change a little bit. Now I am in my second consecutive year as a bilingual kindergarten teacher, teaching all the content areas. Hooray for continuity! 

For the last three to four years my personal life was infringing  on my professional growth. Last February I finally made the decision to get out of my (sham of a) marriage.  The experience of the relationship was like being caught in a rip-tide. It came on so quickly and that in order to keep afloat with the circumstances I found myself in I kept swimming towards the shore, reaching for solid ground. I finally came to the realization that I had to swim straight perpendicularly out of the current altogether and get out of the pull of the past because I wasn't getting any closer to shore.  I am finally back on the beach, exhausted from swimming, but happy to feel the sun and sand in my toes again.  I found someone else crawling back on the beach after being sucked on in a similar (and possibly even worse) rip-tide.  Knowing he is a strong enough swimmer to get back on shore after that makes me feel comfortable enough to get back in the water and wade around a bit. Plus he looks great in swim trunks.

Since I am safely back on dry land, I have decided to move forward with my professional development through a professional development certificate and graduate courses.  It has been a challenge to finish things between working full time, my son (who is two and a half) and other commitments. My lack of organization and time management have been pulling me under from making progress, but after the events of the last few years I think I am tough enough to manage it and become a more organized person as a result. Sometimes it is hard to remember how to reprioritize objectively after being through an experience that was nearly all-consuming. My new professional goals are going to force me to ultimately look first at personal goals I have always had: to prioritize more effectively in order to manage my time better and actually complete projects.  That last sentence is completely uncharacteristic of me.  It is almost a little scary. I want to be that person, but I don't know her.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


As part of my professional development and lack of organization therein, I have decided that a blog is the best place to reflect on my teaching practices. Not only can I access it from anywhere for whenever a thought worth documenting might occur in my overcaffeinated brain, I hope this blog will also provide a way for me to share (as we all learned to do in Kindergarten) as a collaborative colleague. Truly, everything you ever really needed to know, you learned in Kindergarten. I must have not done very well the first time through because now I am back and still learning a lot.

Here I will be posting and consolidating reflections from the present and a within a year back. Thank you for your attention.