Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Wasted Wednesday: Education Consideration Pt. 2

In the very beginning of this month I wrote a blog post that basically summed up the most memorable moments of my education until third grade.  I had planned to continue the post the next week but with all the work I had to do at the end of the college semester, I was finding it hard to find time to blog at all!  I found it hard to do much of anything other than school work to be honest.  But I am back now and going to finish up my post.  Let me recap really is a topic that is extremely important to me.  After reading a book by Diane Ravitch titled The Death and Life of the Great American School System, I have come to realize that I am in fact no expert when it comes to figuring out how to fix schools.  While I can't offer solutions to the failing American public education system, I can offer my good experiences from my education in the hope that it will teach people what good education looks like.  Since I ended at third grade, I will start with my fourth grade year.  A warning, much of this post will be me rambling about my school experiences but my hope is that you, the reader, will forgive me since I'm writing late at night and have to work early tomorrow. 
Fourth grade was a big year for me.  Third grade was obviously a huge stepping stone in my elementary career but now we were officially the big kids and there was more expected of us, especially when it came to math and reading.  My teacher, Miss Methlie, read us so many books during the school years.  No wonder I love to read so much.  I looked up to Miss Methlie as a kid and continued to for a long while after I left her class.  She read us Holes, the Bad Beginning (Series of Unfortunate Events), Top Secret, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Sarah Plain and Tall, and much more!  After reading Sarah Plain and Tall as a class we watched the movie as a special treat.  I can't tell you how much I enjoyed watching Glenn Close, the woman I had always believed to be Cruella Deville, play a nice character!  The story was beautiful and still continues to fascinate me to this day.  I can see where my love of literature started to grow!  In fourth grade Miss Methlie had a red bean bag chair and each week someone would have a turn during reading time to sit in it.  I remember how excited I was when my turn came around!  I read much of the first Harry Potter book on that bean bag chair!  Another fun thing about fourth grade was the Methlie money store.  Miss Methlie would hand out Methlie money's during the week and on Friday's her store would open where we could spend our dollars and buy books, small stuffed animals, photo albums, key chains, and more!  I also learned a lot about writing in fourth grade and I can remember writing many stories!  Fourth grade was also when our school introduced a knitting club.  My friends and I joined and learned how to knit and I still have many of the things I made to this day.
I was sad to leave fourth grade but fifth grade came along and with it, a whole bunch of new experiences.  Fifth grade was the year I was diagnosed with scoliosis, a curvature of the spine.  My case wasn't severe but something had to be done.  I was required to wear a back brace every day except during gym class.  The experience scared me at first.  I remember I cried, mostly because the doctor told me I couldn't jump on the trampoline anymore and that was what my friends and I did everyday after school.  Now you are probably wondering, what does this have to do with education.  For a while I didn't think fifth grade had been all that great.  I could hardly remember it.  But then, my dad told me he ran into my fifth grade teacher, Miss Watson, at the post office.  I suddenly remembered coming into homeroom early one morning and helping Miss Watson set up the desks.  She knew my situation and told me that she too had a minor case of scoliosis.  I don't remember exactly what else she said but looking back, I have to appreciate having such a wonderful teacher to reassure me at that time and for that I'm grateful for having Miss Watson as a teacher.  A lot of fun things happened in fifth grade.  Not only did we switch class rooms for math but we also switched for science sometimes.  I remember my science (and math) teacher Mrs. Sweeney and I remember we made ecosystems using two empty two liter bottles of soda.  One bottle was an aquatic ecosystem, the other was a moss (?) ecosystem.  Math was also a lot of fun for me that year.  We always played a game called 24 where you had a card with four numbers on it and you had to come up with combinations to equal the number 24.  In Language Arts we read Bridge to Terabithia, a book I only came to appreciate a few years ago.  We also did a heritage project and I made a video about Russia with my dad which was a lot of fun!  The PSSA's were that year and Miss Watson had us prepare by getting in a group of two and making up a song.  My partner and I used the lyrics from I Like It, I Love It by Tim McGraw..."I like it, I love it, I want some more of it, I try so hard, on my PSSA...".  Yes, it is corny.  I know.  But we had a good laugh.  Fifth grade was also the year of 9/11.  I have to be one of the few kids who hardly remembers that day.  All I can remember is that I was afraid a plane was going to crash into our house or our school.  Because of the attacks, one of the third grade teacher's named Kelly Cook decided to write a song and record it.  The entire school gathered in the gym and sang the song for a digital recording studio.  The song was played over the radio and is called America's Calling You.  I feel very blessed and proud to have been apart of that experience and even more blessed that my school had a huge role in talking about 9/11.  To listen to the song, CLICK HERE.
Now we move on to sixth grade.  This paragraph will be very short, mostly because in 6th grade my family moved and I had to experience my last year of elementary school at a new school that I didn't care for very much.  The only good thing about sixth grade, as I remember, was the gym teacher named Mr. Irvin.  It is hard to explain when you know a teacher believed in you even when you didn't believe in yourself but this guy was it.  He chose me, out of all the kids in my grade that would have been better fit, to carry the torch on Olympic Day.  He chose a student from every grade.  It was such a honor to be able to do that and even though I don't remember it much, I will always be thankful for the experience.
Now we are at the middle school years.  I'm going to bunch all three years of middle school together because there are only a few good things I can remember.  I guess school just became worse and worse as I grew older.  Anyway, I had quite a few teachers who believed in me and my writing in middle school - Miss Fischer, Miss Cripzuck (sp --- sorry!).  Our school colors were blue and gold and at the end of every school year we had blue and gold day which was always a blast!  In 8th grade the most amazing substitute teacher arrived.  His name is Mr. Mike and he came to sub our English class.  At first, we all hated him.  He was a military man and we thought he was strict, uptight, and mean.  Eventually my history teacher had to take a week's leave and Mr. Mike subbed our class.  He ended up being an awesome guy.  He doesn't put up with all of the teenage BS that goes on.  He tells it how it is and is actually really funny and nice.  I don't know how else to say that he was the best sub I ever had.  Another teacher I loved in middle school was Mr. Bovel, my business teacher.  Mr. Bovel was such a kind man who really encouraged us to learn in a modern way.  We watched Back to the Future in his class and visited the Harley Davidson factory and the Phillies Stadium, which was brand new at the time!  In ninth grade, we took a class trip to Dorney Park, an awesome amusement park about an hour away.  Need I say more? 
Now on to high school.  Once again, I am limiting this to one paragraph.  Let's do it!  So high school, like middle school, had a few ups and I enjoyed it but it was no where near as great as elementary school.  One great thing about high school was summer reading.  I know, I know, everyone usually hates summer reading but I enjoyed it.  I hated having to read so many books so fast during the school years.  Having one book to read in three months was actually fun and I genuinely enjoyed every book that was assigned to me (All Quiet on the Western Front, To Kill a Mockingbird, the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time).  There were a lot of awesome field trips like the Philadelphia Zoo and...oh, I guess that was it.  But it was a lot of fun.  10th grade was the first and only year I made distinguished honor roll.  I just missed straight A's, receiving a B+ (88%) in geometry.  The math support teacher, Mrs. Marino, is by far the coolest teacher I have ever known.  Math support was held during lunch period and my friends and I often went there to visit Mrs. Marino, for math or for chat, and she was always so down to earth and friendly with us.  She didn't lecture us.  She just talked to us.  Other awesome teachers I had in high school include Mr. Vizza (who always believed in me despite my struggles in his class), Mrs. Rachwall (my creative writing teacher who expanded my horizons about reading, writing, and creativity), Mrs. Schmidt (my 11th grade English teacher who always had a smile on her face and made learning about literature fun), and Mrs. Weinblatt (my journalism teacher who pushed me to think about things in a bigger context than the world expected of me and who, like Mrs. Marino, talked to her students as people).  Other enjoyable books I read during high school include (the Great Gatsby, Ethan Frome, Catcher in the Rye, Macbeth [not a book but oh well], Things They Carried, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, In Cold Blood, A Raisin in the Sun [again, not technically a book])...though I didn't appreciate all of these books when we read them, I sure appreciate them now.  In high school I took on the famous project, Baby Think It Over, where you bring a fake baby home with you and have to feed it, change it's diaper, etc.  It was an extremely fun experience.  My high school principle also gave me the opportunity to write my novel that I am still working on to this day by letting me have extra study halls since I had enough credits to graduate.  When I finally finish writing that novel, I plan to dedicate it to him.  Most adults would have shrugged off my desire to drop Marine Science to write a book yet he read my letter asking to do so, personally called my home, and arranged a schedule that allowed me to write every single morning.  That experience was truly a blessing and one I will treasure forever.
So there you have it.  That is years of my schooling in a few paragraph's.  I hope that reading through my experiences has allowed you to remember the good experiences from your school years and what those experiences mean to education.  After observing my own experiences, it seems as if I came across quite a few teachers who genuinely cared about what they did and who their students were.  Of course, I am apart of a large school district and have that opportunity, but it seems like I got the most out of the teachers who stepped up to the plate and didn't just bunt to get on base but hit home runs to get us students excited about learning!  Teachers, though, are not the only solution to education, nor are they the only problem in a lot of cases.  There are many problems in education which is why I can't claim to be an expert as I stated above.  I hope you enjoyed this fairly personal post of mine and hope it challenges you to think about your own education and where education is going today.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Reading: Mariette In Ecstasy by Ron Hansen

Set in the first decade of the 20th century prior to the Second Vatican Council, Mariette in Ecstasy is the haunting story about 17 year old Mariette Baptiste who joins a convent at the Church of Our Lady of Sorrows in upstate New York.  Her being there has a profound affect on the usual quiet of the convent because of her intense devotion to Jesus.  She is young, pretty, and full of life and brings a breath of fresh air with her to the convent.  What also differentiates Mariette from the other postulate's is that she goes into frequent prayerful ecstasy and her sisters are either in awe of her, jealous of her, or annoyed with her.  Some yearn to be close to Mariette because of unique demeanor while others tend to stay away because they feel she is threatening the harmony of the traditional convent.  Mariette's ecstasy soon turns into a series of stigmata's and with these stigmata's comes havoc.  The convent, and the reader, are forced to discern if Mariette is all faith or fraud.  
“God is there before me in the being of all that is not him” page 179
Author Ron Hansen writes rich naturalistic prose in Mariette in Ecstasy.  He has the power to take the ordinary and convert it into an extraordinary passage.  From the blades of grass to the arches of the church, Hansen describes it all with ease.  Hansen also does an excellent job at combining the ordinary with the divine.  He makes it clear that God is there in everything and everywhere.  

The story itself is very enriching one for anyone of faith or not of faith.  Hansen does not shove his spiritual beliefs down the reader’s throat but gives the church and the convent a realistic and inviting feel.  Each character is fleshed out perfectly through body language and dialogue.  The book is a quick read and is refreshing, like Mariette is to the convent, in that it takes Christianity and makes it literary.  So often Christian “literature” can hardly be called literature but Mariette in Ecstasy deserves to be on the shelf next to other literary classics.  The book also takes many dangerous turns much like Jesus himself does in the Bible.  It jumps from talking about prayer to suddenly discussing sex and this intrigues the reader very much.
“Sister Honoré polishes the fall board on the grand piano and looks out a haustus room window at northern winds and storm clouds in ferment and their postulant happily wading in a purple flow of maple leaves.  Mariette stoops and puts her hand down in them and they froth up to her chin like sudden pets.  Sisters Pauline Geneviève join Mariette as Sister Honoré sits on the piano bench.  She hears their high giggles and hectic talk as she plays one measure of a Chopin étude and steps on the damper pedal” page 76
This book, while at first leaving me skeptical, ended up surprising me.  It's dangerous topic and naturalistic language was comparable to a love story and very much mirrors the risky narration like the Bible, unlike many Christian "lit" books out on the market.  My only complaint about the novel would be that the beginning left me a bit confused but it becomes easier to read with every page.  Overall, I will give this book 4 out of 5 stars. 

Monday, May 20, 2013

Reading: What's Eating Gilbert Grape by Peter Hedges

What's Eating Gilbert Grape by Peter Hedges is the story of Gilbert Grape, a 24 year old grocery store employee who finds himself stuck in his hometown of Endora, Iowa because of an elaborate affair with an older married woman, his dangerously overweight mother and his mentally retarded brother Arnie.  The Grape family is preparing for a big celebration because Arnie is about to turn 18, something the doctors said would never happen.  Meanwhile, Gilbert can't decide what he wants or who he is.  He is just Gilbert.
Something is eating at Gilbert but he can't quite decide what it is.  The novel plays heavily on the idea of the American Dream and that the dream can more often times trap us than set us free or set a standard to strive towards and be happy about it.  As the novel progresses the reader sees how Gilbert is being sucked further and further into this mold society wants but isn't him.  At the start of the novel we meet Gilbert who works at Lamson Grocery, the stereotypical small town grocery market.
"[Lamson Grocery] is composed of only four aisles - each one only twenty-one feet long.  Lamson Grocery contains everything that a reasonable person requires.  But if you need the trappings of technology to think you're getting a good bargain, than I guess you better mosey your brainless body down to Food Land.  We at Lamson Grocery price every product by hand.  We talk to our customers, we greet them without faking a smile, we say your name....If a person wants to write us a check, we don't take down all kinds of information or make you prove that you're you....We say without saying it that your word is good." (pg. 16-17)
The Lamsons, the family Gilbert works for, are like the parents Gilbert never had.  They love him and care about him and his well being, as well as his family's.  They represent a people that don't need the American Dream to be successful or happy.  They have strayed from the American Dream like Gilbert and he can relate to that.  At the same time, it is what he wants to get away from.  He doesn't want to be stuck in the small town of Endora forever.  He doesn't want to end up like his friend Tucker who's life goal is the work and someday manage a franchise of the popular fast food chain, Burger Barn.  To slap the icing on the cake, Gilbert also looks and acts exactly like his dead father who committed suicide by hanging himself in the basement of the house he built and still houses the family in the novel.
"If [all the kids are winners], then please tell me why we even bother having prizes and ribbons.  If everyone is a winner, then what is the point?  I will tell you what the point is - and I will tell you because I think you might be able to understand.  The point is that the man making the lying.  Not all of the costumes were good....We should be embarrassed at our attempt at patriotism.  My brother's costume is the exception.  He looks like an American.  In fact, he behaves like one.  When he tried to pick up the first kid he knocked down, he smashed into several others, it snowballed, chaos ensued.  My brother very much resembled America today in pretty much all things." (pg. 175)
The novel is truly a literary refreshment.  The coming of age story combined with the American Dream is something we can all relate to.  Each character blossomed though none better than Gilbert himself.  Hedges does a fantastic job mapping out a character who really has no idea who he is or what he wants and gives him a unique spirit and relatable factor.  The plot is very rich in subtle flavor and reminiscent of Catcher in the Rye.  It was a very enjoyable and thought provoking read and I will give it 4 out of 5 stars.  I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Wasted Wednesday: Education Consideration Pt.1

It was during my junior year of college that I began questioning the American education system.  I was an okay student stuck with a terrible teacher in one class, a bunch of tests I could barely slide by on in another class, and a huge paper due in a format that was frowned upon despite the fact that the same format was drilled into my head since late elementary school all the way through high school.  I found that I would rather read a book of my choice than read a book assigned to me and that I learned more by listening to music and watching YouTube videos sometimes than when sitting in a classroom listening to lectures, taking notes, taking tests, or giving presentations.  When looking back at my education before I entered college, I can see that there were a lot of things wrong with it.  There were a lot of terrible teachers and there were a lot of terrible rules and systems.  I can honestly say that I have a lot of bad memories from school, especially in the later grades.  It is not that I hate learning.  I love learning.  But as a kid/teenager I never seemed to understand that learning isn't always in a classroom.  Learning happens everyday and can't be boxed up.  I would constantly wonder why my shyness wasn't going away because I could never seem to make a presentation without getting nervous.  I would constantly wonder why I hated studying because my grades weren't all too great.  I consistently would feel bad about myself because I was being judged for my shortcomings.  It was when I got to college that I learned I did love to learn, just not in the context our society prizes.  I loved reading and hunting for themes in books like Harry Potter and I loved watching YouTube series like Crash Course and Blimey Cow -  a channel that frequently critiques the American education system.  College isn't much different than high school though.  Besides the obvious differences, I find that they are very much similar in teaching methods and beliefs.  Both high school and college, in the end, fall into the category of a one size fits all system.
After I discovered my new found interesting in studying education, I decided to go online and find some further readings on the subject.  The first book that came up on Amazon was titled The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch.  My interests lay more in college critique but I figured why not give the book a shot and I bought it, unsure of when I would actually pick it up to read.  A few semesters later, my friend began taking a class called Democracy and Education which was a class that specifically was meant for critiquing America's education system.  When it was my time to schedule, I immediately selected the class to take during my final semester as an undergrad college student.  When the book list was posted, Diane Ravitch's book was on there.  I couldn't have been happier to be able to read a book I actually wanted to read for class.  I just finished the book yesterday after basically having to read it nonstop for the past week.  It was a lot of work but the book was good and I can't wait to review it.  To give you a broad summary, the book is basically all about No Child Left Behind.  It touches on the topic of accountability while also smaller issues such as classroom size.  The book also offers answers to where our country has gone wrong with education reform.  I was a child from the No Child Left Behind generation.  I took all the tests and hated them as much as the next kid.  It really hits you how pointless the tests are when you are in 11th grade and you have to take a test about agriculture even though you never studied it in science class.  The only time I was recognized for being proficient was in 7th grade.  Our school spelled it "profishent" to make it seem more fun and I ended up receiving a shirt with Nemo on the front from Disney Pixar's Finding Nemo.  They did a good job with making me special for my job well done on my tests. 
While I can't offer a solution to education like Ravitch does in her book, I can attempt to contribute to the conversation.  Despite my obvious dislike of our education system, there were a lot of things my school district did right with my class and I figured I would share my experiences on this blog.  By looking back at my educational highs from kindergarten to 12th grade, I hope my experiences can be learning tools about what my teachers and my school district did right when educating us kids.
Kindergarten was my entrance into the world of elementary school.  I went to a school called Oak Park.  It was one of 13 elementary schools in the district and not one of the cleanest schools.  I don't remember this but my mom has told me about how one year our class caught a cockroach and kept him as a pet.  My mom was not too pleased about that.  But that says more about the school's figure than how well it took care of us.  Despite the occasional cockroach we saw once a year and the school that was older than some of the other elementary schools, I loved Oak Park.  I loved the teachers and I loved my friends and I never wanted to go to any other school.  I can't say I can remember much from my first year.  I know we had bus buddies, show and tell, and we watched Disney movies while waiting for our buses to arrive.  My bus driver in the afternoon was Mrs. Wolfgang, bus 115.  Mrs. Wolfgang was my bus driver for the entirety of my Oak Park career.  She would always bring us goodies around the holidays and never yelled at us.
First grade I can recall a bit more.  My teacher's name was Mrs. Hamlet.  I loved her so much.  Reading was of great importance that year and I remember I read out loud a lot in her class.  I remember we did a lot of arts and crafts too.  The playground was my favorite spot because on the warm autumn days I would go on the swings and sing to myself.  During the cold winter days my friends and I would hide under one of the play areas and pretend to make a fire with sticks to warm our hands and our beanie babys.  The reason I used to sing so much on the swings was because of the Disney show our school held that year.  Our music teacher designed a collaboration of Disney music for the 1st-3rd graders to sing in front of our families.  It was a huge deal for me.  I practiced all the time and performed the show multiple times in front of my parents and my grandparents.  We even got to decorate our own shirts in class.
My third grade picture
Second grade rolled around and was a big step for us because now that we were growing up, we had the possibility of switching to the other second grade teacher for math class.  In math class I specifically remember learning about odd and even numbers.  We even learned a song to help us remember them.  Second grade was also the first year we were able to have penpals.  That was a lot of fun...though my penpal moved before I could meet her so our special penpal day wasn't very fun for me.  One of our projects that year was to write a recipe and illustrate our recipe so that my teacher could put all the recipes in a book for us to keep.  There was a special day set aside where some students actually cooked their recipes and brought them in for us to taste.  That was the day I tried cheesecake for the first time and I have loved it ever since!  Another fun thing about 2nd grade was when we were able to watch caterpillars grow into beautiful monarch butterflies!  We made special butterfly shirts and had a day set aside to set the butterflies free!  At the end of the year my teacher, Mrs. Kurnik, gave us a Cam Jansen book which I still have to this day!
Moving onto third grade...I can honestly say this was the best year of elementary school for me.  To start off, I have to acknowledge my amazing teacher Mrs. Grabner who was always strict with us but made a point to also make us laugh and teach us that learning is fun.  I will always remember her telling us a story about her daughter who played basketball and fell down during a game on her butt, thereafter claiming she broke her butt bone.  In third grade we learned how to remember the points on a compass (Never Eat Soggy Wheaties -North East South West).  Fractions was our main focus in math class which was very fun for me.  We worked with frogs, crabs, and snails one month and the next month we learned about the Native Americans.  One of our projects was to make a working light-bulb and a working fan during our electricity unit and I remember we had small dollhouses to personalize our project!  Another project we did was using shoe boxes to make arctic dioramas.  Mrs. Grabner read to us frequently.  The books I remember the most were the Magic Tree House books and a series called My Father's Dragon.  As much as Mrs. Grabner pushed us to read, she also had us write too!  Our writing assignments were graded by oreo cookies...double stuffed being the highest grade and crumbs being the lowest!  We each had a "my thoughts journal" where we could write anything we wanted!  Writing in my "my thoughts journal" is what inspired me to write my own stories!
As much as I want to continue this post, I have to stop here and make it a two part blog.  It has been fun so far to write about my beginning years in education and I can't wait to continue.  I hope that through the little snippets of my experiences I just presented to you, you will be able to identify where my teachers went right with my education.  I will finish off this post next Wednesday and also conclude the blog next Wednesday as well!  Thanks for reading!