Slice of Life #8

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Today it was 65 degrees.  Today the sun was shining and the sky was blue.  Today was the perfect day for a long hike.

After school I changed into hiking clothes (my spring hiking clothes!  Not flannel-lined pants!) and packed up the dogs.  The days are getting longer so I decided to try to get a few miles in at Thompson Park.  Because I wanted to avoid the crowded side of the park I ended up driving around a bit in an effort to find a parking lot that didn’t bring us into the middle of the main, paved trail.  Because my dog hikes are also birdwatching hikes I prefer to stay on the unpaved trails and in the woods.

Eventually I found a parking lot that was across the street from the county park.  This lot did not have a gate so I didn’t have to worry about the possibility of getting locked in the park.  By 4pm we were on the trail, feet squishing into the mud.

We walked up and down the hills of the park for about 90 minutes and 3 miles.  I spotted common mergansers, savannah sparrows (lifer!), mute swans, bluebirds, red-winged black birds, robins, a red-tailed hawk, and some deer.  We didn’t leave until 5:50pm and I didn’t need a jacket or a hat.  I love spring!  Now I just need the spring bird migration to start….

Slice of Life #7

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Today it was beautiful.  Sun shining, birds singing, flowers blooming beautiful.  After school I came home, changed, grabbed the dogs, and headed to the park.  I threw my pack over my back and we set off down the trail in search of the elusive pileated woodpecker that I’ve seen and heard over the last few months.  Pileated woodpeckers don’t usually live here, thanks to habitat fragmentation, but this guy (or guys) has been around for a few months.  Of course, the only time I see a pileated woodpecker is when I don’t have my camera with or when it is too far away to get a decent picture.

It’s been about a month since I saw my last pileated, though I do think I’ve heard him/her/them a few times in the last few weeks.  I’ve only gotten a few terrible pictures, but they represent my current goal:

I didn’t have any luck today.  The dogs and I walked about two miles, including off the trail and a little deeper into the woods.  No pileateds, but we were pulled off the trail when I heard what I thought were ducks.

Turns out I was hearing wood frogs in the vernal pools.  The first sign of spring! Then I saw skunk weed starting to pop up out of the ground.  Spring really has sprung!

 

Slice of Life #6

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After I got home from tutoring this morning I made my way to the window on the far side of the house  Outside that window I can see my bird feeders (all eight of them).  Saturday and Sunday are my Project Feederwatch days so I make sure to spend a few minutes each day observing the feeders and writing down the species I see. I always keep my camera nearby so that I can photograph any new or exciting species that visit the yard.

As I settled in to spend a few minutes relaxing and watching my feeders something caught my eye.  Under the feeders, mixed in with a flock of blackbirds (grackles, starlings, and red-winged blackbirds), I caught sight of something different.  Something the color of a burnt orange crayon and about the size of a female cardinal. It hopped around, in between the blackbirds, and I suddenly realized what it was.

I turned to grab my camera and it wasn’t there!  Ahh!  That’s right, I had taken it on the field excursion yesterday.  It must still be in my field bag!

I flew out of the room, rushing past Chris.  “New bird!  Need the camera!” I explained. He didn’t even blink.  He’s pretty used to my bird antics at this point.

I grabbed the camera and rushed back to the room.  No!  The bird was gone!  I scanned the tree line and tried to see into the bushes.  Nothing.  Arg!

I was pretty sure I knew what I had seen but without a photo to get a closer look I felt guilty  counting it and adding it to my Project Feederwatch data. With a sigh, I packed up  the camera and headed out to run errands with Chris.

We returned about an hour later and I figured I’d give it one more go.  Not expecting to see the bird again, I sat down and started to count the juncos flitting about the feeders.

Then I saw it.  Red.  Orange.  Grey.  It was back!  I grabbed my camera and began clicking away through the window.  The bird hopped around, cracking sunflower seeds and safflower seeds, ignoring the other birds doing the same.  After taking a lot of pictures I grabbed my phone and opened up the Merlin app.  After inputting the size, color, and location of the bird I was vindicated.  My rare sighting was confirmed!

Meet the fox sparrow.  A first of the year, a first in the yard, and a lifer for me!

Slice of Life #5

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Happy Friday!  It’s been a long week and because I’m working on Saturday and Sunday I spent this afternoon relaxing.

My favorite part of every Friday is when I sit down on the couch, cue up DVR, and settle in to watch that week’s episode of Law and Order:SVU. I’m a huge fan of SVU!  I’ve been watching for years and I never miss a new episode. It’s one of my go-to chill out shows. It may not seem like a relaxing show but I love how each episode contains it’s own narrative arc while still advancing the overall plot of the show. It’s one of the shows I can turn on and watch regardless of the episode currently airing. It’s perfect!

For the record, this week’s episode was incredible. Kudos to the writers who had me gasping and on the edge of my seat. Unfortunately, it’s a two-parter and the next episode won’t air until March 23!

Good thing Netflix released season four of House of Cards today….

Slice of Life #1

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And we are back! The Slice of Life Challenge is my favorite time of year because it helps me get back in the habit of writing.  I’ve lost track, but I believe this is my 9th year of participating in the challenge (which is coordinated by Two Writing Teachers). Stacey of Two Writing Teachers helped me confirm my longtime commitment to the challenge.

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And as I mentioned in the above tweet, I also challenge my students to participate in the challenge in order to help them build a habit of writing.  All 73 of my 9th graders will write at least 10 blog posts during the month of March.  The real “tryhards”, as my students say, will write one blog post each day for a total of 31 posts at the end of the month.  It requires commitment but will result in improved writing skills for my students.  My favorite day of the year is when I get to read their reflections on the slicing process at the beginning of April.

I just checked our class blog account and it looks like many of my students are determined to complete all 31 blog posts.  Wish us luck as I am making the same commitment!

Happy slicing!

#neverforget

(A version of this was originally written on 9/11/03, on my personal blog. It has been edited and revised for this posting. I have reposted some version of the original post every year since 2003.)

It still seems like just yesterday.

I had moved into my dorm at Douglass College (Rutgers) just days earlier. As I sat in the dining hall on that beautiful morning with me best friend Erin and chatted about our schedules, I remember hearing the morning radio show talking about the Twin Towers. I remember Erin and I wondering aloud why the talk radio station was being broadcast in the dining hall and why were the hosts talking about something that had happened in 1993? We tuned out the radio and it became nothing more than white noise in the background. We were college students and it didn’t seem important. Quickly, we finished breakfast and headed off to class.

I went to my Women and Public Policy class; it was a class of about 50-60 students and I think I was the only freshman. As my classmates settled into seats in the small lecture hall, our professor, Jen, apologized as she placed her cell phone on the podium. She explained that she had to keep it turned on because she a had flight out of Newark later that day and she needed to keep up on any delays due to the incident in the city.

That was the first that I heard about a plane crash.

This was college in 2001.  I had a TV in my room but it wasn’t hooked up yet. I hadn’t heard about a plane crash but everyone in class seemed fairly calm. We talked about what had happened for a few minutes, but most of us assumed it was just an errant pilot; a tragedy, but nothing too life-changing for the majority of us. There were no details available.  We didn’t have smartphones or wi-fi available.  All of our news came from television or our wired internet access and neither were available in the lecture hall. So from 9:50-10:30am we continued on with our normal class schedule, discussing women in the current political system. I packed up my bag at the end of class and followed a group of students out of the building. I remember walking back to the dorm, over the Hickman Bridge, listening to people around me say classes were cancelled for the rest of the day. It seemed strange but I figured I would get details when I made it back to my room.

I walked back to my dorm on the other side of campus planning to turn on the news while I got organized for the rest of the day. Then I remembered that I didn’t even have a tv (stupid no cable in the dorms). But I quickly realized it did not matter.

As I walked into the building, you could sense the panic. The stress and tension in the air were palpable.   I walked up the three flights of stairs to my room and immediately saw that my answering machine was blinking wildly. Each message was from my mother, trying to get in touch with me. I grabbed my cell phone, which had been turned off in class, but the call would not go through.  “All circuits are busy” was the only response I got when I dialed.  Cell phone lines were jammed.

As I kept hitting the redial button I watched my floor mates pace up and down the hall. One of the girls walked past my door no less than twenty times in 2 minutes. She was trying to get ahold of her father, who worked in the Twin Towers. Others were just trying to find their parents even if they didn’t work in the city. We all just needed the reassurance of talking to family.

Unable to get through to anyone on the phone, I took my cell phone and walked back downstairs to the lounge and sat on the couch with my dormmates, staring at the images that were being flashed on every station on our common room TV. No one spoke.

After a few minutes I couldn’t watch the news anymore. I headed back upstairs to my computer, sure that I would be able to find more information on the internet. The news anchors were so unsure and so frightened; they kept showing the same clips over and over and they didn’t have any answers.  I knew I could find out more on the internet.

At 11:00am I finally got through to my mother (while reloading news sites over and over) and she was relieved to hear from me. She told me you could see flames from the beach by our house and that there was a huge cloud of smoke and a smell enveloping Middletown. She asked if I wanted to come home, and while I considered it,  I chose to stay.  I wanted to be with my friends, and I admit that the idea of driving home was frightening.  None of us knew what was happening or what would happen in the next few hours.  It felt safer for us all to stay in one place.

It wasn’t easy, though. The panic in my dorm just increased all afternoon. My friends and I sat in stunned silence watching the television coverage and reading each other updates from the internet. At one point, military planes flew over campus, and people ran for the basement. No one knew what would happen next. That sense of terror was something unimaginable only hours before.

We watched the news for hours on end. I IMed and received IMs from friends who were at school in the city. People I hadn’t talked to in months came to mind. I went to a tiny high school, 60 students in a graduating class, and our network of students was reaching out to one another. We just needed to know that everyone was all right. I remember the anxiety we all felt while we checked on all “our” Maryland people, friends who went to school near the Pentagon and Washington, DC. Eighteen years old and we were frantically searching for people just to make sure they were still there. Messages popped up on my screen continuously because the internet was the only way to get in touch with anyone.  Phone lines were still down and we were being told not to use them in case emergency responders needed to get through.

AOL Instant Messenger was our lifeline. Emails were sent back and forth.  And I will never forget signing on to our high school email network and reading the the public announcements, a forum usually reserved for messages about upcoming school dances and PTA fundraisers.  The tragedy began to hit home as some of my peers posted messages asking for the readers to look for names on lists- parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins. As each new manifest was posted by the media it became more and more apparent that some of those who were missing would not be coming home that night.

This wasn’t supposed to happen to people you knew…

Only a few minutes later my mother got through to me again, telling me that my brother’s best friend’s dad was missing. That’s when I made the decision. I went home.

And I stayed home. School was cancelled for days. We weren’t sure when classes would start again.  Most of my floormates went home, too.  We didn’t know if we were at war, if terrorists would strike somewhere else in the coming days.  Suddenly college didn’t seem that important.

At home, my mother told me how on the morning of September 11th, ferries came from the city to the our harbor. Ferries that were based all over NY just packed with passengers from NYC. People who just had to get somewhere besides Manhattan. Ferries would load up and sail to any dock available outside of Manhattan.  Passengers stumbled off the boats- people covered in ash, people in shock. They were hosed down immediately by men and women in hazmat suits, for fear that they were carrying biological agents.

Over the next few days the newspapers talked about how my town, Middletown,  was the town in NJ hit the hardest by the tragedy. We lost so many. So many people from my church, people I knew from middle school and high school. Parents, siblings, friends, colleagues all of them. We were a commuter town and every family was touched in some way.

We all grew up that day. My current students don’t have any memories of this day in history.  September 11th is history to them, something they read about each year. For my entire teacher career I’ve had to be careful of what I’ve said on 9/11 because there was always a student in the room whose life was touched by the tragedy.  But this year?  My students were only a few months old or were not born when the tragedy struck.  If their family lost a loved one my student most likely never met them.

That’s hard for me to comprehend because 9/11 is such a huge part of my life.  But for my students it’s something their parents and other adults talk about.  The visual of a plane hitting the towers live on television isn’t part of their life; that’s something I can’t imagine.  But for my students toay is September 11th “capital letter because it’s a month” not September 11th “a day that changed our lives forever so it has forever been ingrained in our minds”.

For me, it is hard to fathom not being able to articulate exactly where I was that day, that hour, that minute.  While I am glad they have no memory of the terror our nation, especially the tri-state area, experienced that day, it still leaves me stunned.  It’s such an integral part of my life that I can’t imagine it not being a cornerstone in others’ lives.  Yet I am grateful for that blessing, too.  September 11th will always be a day that stops me in my tracks but I am glad that it’s history for my students.   hope they never experience anything like we all did on that day. But I also hope that they never forget.

We will never forget.
God Bless all those lost on 9-11-01……

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Appalled and Disheartened. Governor Christie, How Dare You?

Governor Christie Speaks about K-12 Education (NH, June 8th, 2015)

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Let me start by getting something out of the way: I do not get paid a full-time salary for a part-time job. I am a teacher, not a leech on the rest of the state.

How dare you? Do you know who does seem to get paid a full-time salary for a part-time job? You do, Mr. Christie. Please remind your constituents where you are during this conversation. It’s NOT in NJ, is it? Exactly how much time have you spent in NJ this year? Last year? Are you giving back your salary? Because that would be “a victory for the taxpayers”, as you are so fond of saying.

This is such a highly offensive conversation. I recognize the satire in the original speaker’s questions, but Governor Christie? Feel free to follow me for a year. Follow my colleagues. I am not “off for four or five months a year”. ln fact, my summer “break” this year is from June 23-Sept 2. That’s not four or five months; it’s approximately 10 weeks.  Secondly, during those hours after 3:30pm and during the summer? I’m often working. I plan, I attend PD on my own time and my own dime, I email parents, I teach PD, I purchase supplies, I update our class webpage, I speak with students over email and social media, I grade. I grade a lot, Mr. Christie. A LOT. I just finished grading a set of almost 80 poems. I have 80 3-4 page self-evaluations to read and grade. I will have almost 100 exams to grade in the next few days. I have to complete the data analysis for my SGO. But I guess I have to make time to get all of that stuff done from 8:30-3:30 while I’m teaching and interacting with students.

And that long summer break you talk about?  Not really a break. I will spend most of my summer working in order to continue paying my bills.  I will also do the following:

  • take classes for my advanced degree.
  • teach other teachers and informal educators at the “Teaching and Learning with Monarch Butterflies” workshop.
  • plan for my new schedule- next year I will change my freshman focus and take on two new senior units.  That means rereading books, drafting assignments, writing assessments, setting up our online spaces, finding resources, planning Skype sessions with experts, rewriting my syllabi, co-planning with colleagues, and much more.
  • complete the summer-long Roots & Shoots Turning Learners into Leaders: Empowering Youth Through Service in Education course offered by the Jane Goodall Institute.
  • organize and sort my thousand+ book class library (most of which I have purchased myself and continue to supplement on a monthly or even weekly basis).
  • read at least a book a day in order to be able to share new and exciting books and authors with my students next year.
  • pre-plan the first National Honor Society outreach with my student leaders so that they are ready in the fall.
  • organize and set-up my classroom, prior to the first teacher work day, as I will have meetings and mandatory professional development in the days leading up to the students’ first day.
  • meet with my state board for NJCTE to plan our fall conference, fall outreach, and spring conference in order to bring more PD to my colleagues who teach English across the state.
  • complete my presentations (yes, multiple) for the NCTE National Convention in the fall.

I don’t know about you, but that seems packed to me.  And many of my colleagues have similarly packed breaks, with professional commitments and learning engagements that run through the entire summer.  Why?  Because during the school year we are in the building for 7, 8, 9, 10, maybe even 12 hours each day.  Then we bring work home with us to continue working on late into the night. Please understand- I love my job.  I love my students with a fierceness you obviously don’t understand.  I can’t imagine not teaching every day, reaching out to students and guiding them.  But I abhor the politics that now surround my profession.  And I’m tired, we are all tired, of teachers being the sacrificial lamb at that altar of some politician’s attempt to climb to the top.

We are tired, Governor, but we keep working.  We keep inspiring, motivating, and teaching our students while doing all of the other “stuff” that comes with teaching. Do you or your wife ever email your child’s teacher and get a reply that same night?  That’s a teacher who is working outside of contracted hours.  Have you had a child sit with a teacher during lunch, before school, or after school for extra help?  That’s outside of contracted hours.  And do you know what?  Most of us do that almost daily because we love our jobs and our students more than we hate the system we are stuck in.

So no, I do not want to work longer hours for no pay (or less pay), as you suggested in your rant. Do you? And how dare you suggest that when 24 hours ago you “won” the appeal allowing you to skip pension payments for MY pension? My check gets smaller every year, I am not permitted to cash out my pension and invest in my own retirement, and now you think I should work longer days and more days in the year? Perhaps teachers should just work for free. We don’t need homes. We don’t have families to provide for. Right?

The good news is that I do agree with you on some points, Mr. Christie– many of our schools in NJ are doing well. In fact, we have some of the best students, schools, and teachers in the country. Consider my school, which is ranked #1 in the country. It’s right here in central NJ but it’s a school you have never acknowledged or visited during your tenure in office. That saddens me.  That’s not fair to my students or my colleagues because you continue to say our students are not succeeding when outside sources disagree.

You and I also agree that some schools in NJ struggle.  They do a disservice to the students they serve in some cases. That’s a fact that we can all recognize. Schools in Asbury Park, Camden, and Newark absolutely struggle and  it’s wrong; the students in those schools deserve the best education possible. But guess what? All three cities you named, Mr. Christie, are state-controlled and/or monitored districts. Isn’t their “failure” a reflection of your tenure in office and your leaders and not the teachers in the trenches?

Also, the schools that are ranked the lowest in our state are ranked the highest in a few big categories.  Where are they ranked #1?  In poverty, Mr. Christie.  Study after study has proven that the biggest hurdle for children is poverty.  We will never “fix” a single school until we start to fix the cycle of poverty.

Also, stop citing that community college statistic. The vast majority of community college attendees are not traditional students. In fact, the mean age of students at Mercer County College, about 20 minutes west of me and the community college serving the Drumthwacket area, is 22 years old.   This is true across the state! These non-traditional students have been out of high school for a number of years so yes, they might need remedial classes. Could you walk into an Algebra II class or a college writing class tomorrow and succeed without a bit of review? I doubt it. I doubt most adults could. Let’s be real- we all watch adults struggle to answer questions on “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?”!  It’s not because they can’t do the work but rather because they haven’t done a trigonometry problem in a number of years.  Mr. Governor, that statistic is nonsense so please stop using it.

You are not a teacher, Governor Christie. Stop speaking authoritatively about all the things wrong with schools and what you would do to improve them. It’s insulting to those of us who work with our students every single day.  It’s insulting to the teachers you had, the teachers your children have, and the taxpayers in this state who trust their children to the care of schools each day.  You talk about teachers standing at the front of the room and lecturing to students for hours at at time and that tells me just how out of touch you are. I haven’t seen desks in rows with a teacher lecturing in the front of the room for many, many years. That has not been a best practice for decades!  Oh wait, you know when I see that? When my students have to take the PARCC test! I see it when schools force their teachers to use a scripted curriculum, often endorsed by the state, in order to encourage increases in test scores. Stop mandating nonsense like PARCC and let us teach our students. We know more than you do, I can promise you that.

You know where else I see those dreaded rows? In charter schools. In fact, I see that in your friend Eva Moskowitz’s Success charter schools, where students are routinely humiliated and the teacher turnover rate is astronomical. You know what I do not see in her charter schools? Students with disabilities and students with behavior issues. Charter schools like Success usually achieve their test scores because they do not serve our neediest populations, while our public schools do.

Mr. Governor, I implore you to take a step back and listen to yourself.  Listen to your constituents.  Listen to the nation.  You are tearing down our teachers on a daily basis and we are tired of it.  We are exhausted.  Eventually most teachers won’t have the energy to fight anymore or to teach anymore.  Maybe that’s what you want, but it’s not what’s best for the future of this state.  You might plan to flee New Jersey and head to Washington, DC the first chance you get, but I’m here for the long haul.  Maybe you should start seeking out great teachers (they aren’t hard to find) instead of berating us, demeaning us, and embarrassing us.  What will you do when no one wants to teach anymore?

-Sarah Mulhern Gross is a National Board Certified Teacher at one of the nation’s top STEM schools.  She has been named Teacher of the Year, NJCTE Teacher of the Year, and NCTE Secondary Teacher Award winner.  She is a contributor to The New York Times Learning Network, Scientific American, The Washington Post’s Answer Sheet, Edutopia, and more.

*Edited 6/11/15 at 5:08pm to reword the charter school paragraph as the blame for not serving special needs populations falls on the schools and the way I worded it before was flippant. I also clarified that I am speaking specifically about Eva Moskowitz’s Success network of schools, which Christie supports.

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