Conquering the Jiu Jitsu Gender Divide

From mount, I scrambled for her loose arm, throwing my head down on top of it to secure

it in what I hoped would be an Americana. The ref knelt down, knowing a submission was near. I rehearsed exactly what I had learned at class, pin the wrist down, lift the elbow up, slide the wrist toward the hip.

She wasn’t tapping.

And in my hesitation, she wriggled and got herself safely to her side.

I learned an important lesson that day. I had been training for a few months alongside the men in my gym. But the reality was that they weren’t as flexible as the women I faced at that first tournament. I loved the guys and had no qualms with being the sole

Competitors at Grappling Industries

woman for that first year of training. However, there is value in rolling with a diverse group of training partners. That diversity may manifest itself as differences in strength, flexibility, gender, skill level, age, or speed.

It isn’t uncommon for gyms to be disproportionately, or even completely, male, but as the sport of Jiu Jitsu evolves, there are more and more women coming up through the ranks. And as a female practitioner who has gym surfed from time to time, I have found that there are environments where women are more likely to converge. These “hot spots”” have commonalities that other gyms can emulate.

Welcoming New People

People who train Jiu Jitsu tend to be fanatics. It is easy to get so absorbed in the Jiu Jitsu that you forget what it is like to be that brand new person trying out class. How you choose to greet new people matters. And if it is the lone woman walking into a room full of testosterone, it matters even more.

Go out of your way to greet newcomers. Make it part of your gym culture. Knowing simple things like where to leave your shoes, how to bow on and off the mats, or where to get dressed can take some of the anxiety out of trying something new.

And when the class begins, someone has to be there to explain the nuances. It doesn’t have to be the instructor, but even during the warm-up someone needs to monitor how she is doing and explain the intricacies of movement. These details help someone to feel welcome and also help them to realize that it isn’t unusual to struggle, especially in the beginning.

Train to Get Better Not to Get the Tap

Yes, women come in all shapes and sizes — all training partners do. How you set the tone for training will help to build the mindset of your students and will help students of many different body types feel comfortable training in your gym.

Jiu Jitsu is a unique art, one where technique can conquer size differences. However, when we are all learning together, it is not okay to pretend that size and muscle don’t matter.

I weigh 125 pounds and have been training for about two years. Of course an opponent who outweighs me by 100 pounds and has been training as long as I have can smash me into submission, but doing so isn’t making the most of his training. He should be taking advantage of rolling with a smaller opponent to work on speed and technique. At the same time, I can work on not letting myself get trapped on the bottom and on getting out of compromising positions.

What keeps a student coming back to a gym is the feeling that she is learning and growing alongside her partners. For that to happen, egos need to be set aside. You can’t learn if you aren’t allowed to move. Helping bigger, stronger students understand how to roll with people lighter them will help everyone’s game.

That being said, never underestimate the power of a lighter female opponent. It is just as wrong to take the opposite approach and roll “lightly” with someone because they are female. I’ve rolled with men who have treated me like I am going to break and have apologized at every turn. It is demeaning and a good way to end up in my triangle. Women are there to roll, just like men are.

So, let us roll.

Class at CTA Madison

Rolling is for Everyone

I recently encountered a woman who had tried out a new gym. After only a single visit, she was completely turned off from the gym.

The problem was a rule, and the rule only applied to women. Not only were the coed classes referred to by the instructor as the “men’s classes,” but women were not allowed to roll in these classes until they had a stripe on their blue belt. He said it was for “their own safety.”

A rule like this is a red flag. It sends out the message that women are a liability, and not welcome there. If an instructor is not able to create an environment of safety and inclusion, he is doing something wrong and everyone, male and female, is at risk.

This is an extreme case, but it brings up an important question. Are there unspoken (or in this case spoken) rules that apply to women differently than men? If so, get rid of them. Rolling is for everyone.

Mix It Up

While rolling is for everyone, it also works differently for everyone. There are techniques that work better for larger opponents, and others that favor someone who is smaller or more lanky.

One of the many things I love about my instructor (and the Caio Terra Curriculum) is that he teaches a diversity of techniques. And he doesn’t keep it a secret from his students that some techniques will work better for certain body types.

Take the head and arm choke (Kata Gatame) as an example. You have everything in position, your head and shoulder pressuring their arm across their neck, everything cinched up super tight. If you are significantly bigger or stronger than your opponent, you can walk your hips up, pressure down, and finish. That’s not me though, and luckily I work with a curriculum that honors my smaller size. I have been taught to set this up the exact same way, but to then walk my hips away from my opponent, getting closer to perpendicular to my partner as I close that space around the neck.

Both techniques are correct. Both can end in a tap, but the latter is more suited to my body type. A good instructor will point out those fine details and differences, regardless of which works best for him.

The Value of Female Teammates

It takes a little extra to submit some of my more flexible teammates like Liz.

Rolling with women has taught me unique lessons. When executing a choke on a smaller opponent, you have to use better technique. A triangle I successfully land on a larger partner can leave a vast amount of space around a thinner opponent’s neck.

Doing a kimura on someone with flexible shoulders can show you flaws in your performance. “Why aren’t you tapping?” is a question that frequently accompanies my training sessions with women.

Women also quickly learn that when you cannot out-muscle someone, you need to compensate with precision and speed. This is exactly what makes women amazing teammates and formidable opponents.

Promote Networking

It may well be that you don’t have women at your gym right now, but you are working on it. If that is the case, it is even more important that you promote networking with your female students.

I’ll never forget that day I was talking at the water cooler with a teammate. At the time, I was the only woman at the academy and that was the topic of our conversation. I asked him how he thought we could get women to come train. He said, “We’ve taken the first step. We have you.”

Women in Jiu Jitsu have a desire to share their experiences with others. Helping them find outlets for that can make them more satisfied with their training experience, regardless of whether or not women are well represented at your gym.

If women are well represented at your gym, consider hosting an all female event or having a weekly women’s class. While some women are completely comfortable rolling with men, it may help bring in those who are hesitant.

Putting up a poster or mentioning events such as Girls in Gis or Queens of the Mat are simple ways to hook women up with others in the sport. Another option is to promote online forums such as the Women’s Grappling Network. These are all incredible resources that provide athletes a space to discuss what it is like to be in a sport where women are still underrepresented and to share experiences that are unique to women.

Queens of the Mat event at Red Schafer MMA

Put Women in the Forefront

If your academy really wants to grow their female clientele, take a closer look at how women are representing your team.

When I am surfing gym websites, I notice when all the pictures are of men. When I am at a seminar or visiting a gym, I am aware of it when an instructor only demonstrates techniques on men and dismisses higher belt women.

If the women are always on the sidelines or in the background, it becomes more challenging for female teammates to maintain their inspiration.

When women are training with a more experienced female partner, they are getting a glimpse of their future. The first time I rolled with a female brown belt, I was giddy. I saw where my hard work, effort, and time spent training could take me. We all need a taste of that inspiration from time to time.

Just Ask

If you have women at your gym, don’t take my word for it, ask them.

After that first class and periodically thereafter, instructors will gain a lot of insight from asking the women at their gym how things are going.

There can be differences with how women and men experience class. The truth of the matter is that you will not know how anybody else is experiencing your class without asking. Feedback is important. It validates the feelings of the person giving it, and helps the person receiving it grow.

It is that simple — it goes something like this. Pull her off to the side and say, “I notice you are training really hard and progressing. How do you feel like things are going?”

And then listen.

Come Train With Us

At Caio Terra Academy Madison, we are inclusive of all abilities and have many female practitioners. Come check out a class and train with me!

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Why Competition Matters

It was still dark when my teammates and I converged at Caio Terra Academy Madison. There was an air of nervous excitement as we wiped the sleep from our eyes and loaded our gear into vehicles.

The chatter on the journey alternated between normal car trip banter and Jiu Jitsu stories. Some of us would be returning athletes, others competing for the first time, and a few were along to spectate and cheer on the team.

The moments leading up to a competition are akin to climbing a hill on a roller coaster. So much of the ride is in the anticipation, but once you have made the decision to step into that car, you really just need to enjoy it.

Fear is not a reason to avoid competition; it is a reason to embrace it.

Compete BECAUSE it is Scary

The  beginning of every tournament starts with weighing in and then waiting… and waiting… and waiting some more.

During that waiting, my mind is active with anticipation. The biggest questions are usually, “Why did I sign up for this?” and “Am I ready?”

When I am waiting to compete, I reminded myself of what it feels like to step onto the mats. I remind myself that once I shake hands and engage, my training and my love of Jiu Jitsu kicks in.

This mental game is just as important as the competition itself. Controlling your mind and overcoming fear can be one of the biggest challenges in this sport. And learning to do so is part of strength training — control over the mind.

Competing to Train

Coach Jordan Wilson, CTA brown belt

As fun it is to capture submissions and medals, the heart of competition is challenging oneself and finding areas in need of improvement.

When my coach first told me that some people train to compete, but that we compete to train, I didn’t completely understand. Following any competition, you will find social media full of pictures of people on podiums celebrating their gold, silver, and bronze accomplishments. I now understand that these pictures are not an endpoint, but a beginning.

This tournament was no different, but some of my lessons were unique. I managed to capture a few triangles and lose others. The triangle has been my “go to” submission for almost as long as I have been training, but somehow after reviewing my coach’s comments and videos, I also know it is one of my areas most in need of refinement. Catching it is one thing, keeping and finishing it is another.

And sometimes it is the strength in your competitor’s game that helps you find a weakness in your own. For the first time in a competition, I tapped to an Oma Plata. In training, we frequently rep this technique and we have definitely also trained for the escapes. However, when it comes to live rolling, it is a submission that I’ve never felt particularly threatened by. Yes, my instructor catches me in it, but he can catch me in anything.

So, when I realized I was in an Oma Plata, I was unprepared mentally for what followed. First, I sat up, but I did so with poor posture, landing me right back down on the mat. Next, I jumped and tried my best to roll out of it, but I was caught in her snare. My last ditch hope was to rely on the flexibility of my shoulders, but even flexible shoulders are susceptible to submission. In the end, I tapped and shook the hand of my competitor with a smile. She had earned her win, and I had found a new focus for training.

Win or lose, competition is a source of growth, growth as a competitor, a person, and as a team.

Shared Success and Shared Passions

One thing that makes Jiu Jitsu unique is the camaraderie between and among teams and competitors. One minute I’m on the mats battling it out with a competitor, and the next I’m on the sidelines with her laughing and cheering on a mutual friend.

The more competitions I go to, the more I expand my Jiu Jitsu network and community. I love walking into a gymnasium and greeting familiar faces. After all, we are all there because we love what we do.

The successes I share with my teammates feel more important than my individual accomplishments. For two of my teammates at this tournament, it was their first time on the mats in a competition. There is nothing that distracts me from my own fear and ego than being able to scream my head off for a teammate who is escaping or catching a submission. What we do and accomplish, we do and accomplish together.

Sharing a vegan feast at Pig Minds with my team after the tournament


This particular tournament was a great success for Caio Terra Academy Madison. Yes, we took home a gold, 5 silver, and 2 bronze medals. But more importantly, we grew closer as a team.

The highlight of my day was not found on the mats, but in the bond that we bolstered. It was a long day, but we still took time to enjoy its end by sharing a meal at Pig Minds Brewing and enjoying each other’s company.

We sat around the long, rectangular table and passed our appetizers around family style, it was clear that we belonged in that space in time together. We reflected on our day with many smiles and much laughter.

Monday, it would be back to hitting the mats and reviewing our mistakes, but for now, this moment was ours.

One Team, CTA Strong

Come check us out at: Caio Terra Academy Madison

Read my guest blog about our academy here.

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Attitude is Everything

It was the end of a rewarding class. We were lined up in order of rank after an evening of learning, drilling, and rolling. As was the custom, we all awaited the instructor’s closing remarks. These words were interrupted by a gently spoken, yet somehow jolting, question.

“Karen, could you step forward?”

My mind whirled and the room blurred as emotion and tears took center stage. There was a moment of hesitation before I willed my legs to take those few steps from the line of my teammates toward my instructor. I knew what came next, but was I ready for it?

It wasn’t my decision to make. This was not a moment for me to take charge or to control. If I had learned anything the past few months, I had learned that.

I hadn’t just learned to omoplata or triangle, I had learned to be a better person. No two journeys are alike, but we can find lessons in sharing our stories. It is my hope that writing about what I learned as a white belt will make somebody else’s path more clear.

You are where you need to be.

Jiu Jitsu is hard, so it is important that you are not hard on yourself. As I reflect back on ways I held up my own training, comparing myself to others is at the top of the list.

Each athlete is on their own path and their own timeline. What makes sense for one does not make sense for another.

This thing we do where we compare ourselves to others does nothing except inflate or deflate our egos. Either is equally harmful to our progress.

Recently, a new member joined our team. He is young, strong, and athletic. But even more importantly, he has eight years of wrestling experience under his belt.

I remember my internal monologue the first time I rolled with him. It went something like this:

“Why am I so uncomfortable? He just started, how come I can’t catch a submission? Oh no, maybe I actually suck at this.”

Looking back, a healthier attitude is to embrace this new challenge as a way to test and strengthen myself. I was being provided a partner with whom I could test knowledge and skill against youth and strength. More importantly, it was an opportunity to learn, and I was letting it pass by because I was caught up in self doubt and meaningless comparisons.

Win or lose, I would learn.

And I learn more from losing than from winning. I love winning! I love the medals of my accomplishments that adorn my walls. However, greater growth is found in my mistakes than in my triumphs.

My first tournament made a great impression on me. I took home silver and felt pretty good about my accomplishments.

In the days that followed, my coach picked apart every move that I had made when I lost, but what surprised me is that he pointed out more mistakes in the matches I had won.

I had this false notion in my head that I had won those matches, because I had been at my best. In this case, that simply wasn’t true. Yes, I had capitalized on the mistakes of my opponents, but I hadn’t fought any better than in the rounds I lost.

It is clear to me now that, win or lose, competition is a source of growth.

Let it be about others.

If you have ever rolled with that one person who has to win at any cost, you will understand what I mean by this.

Sometimes you just have to get out of your own way and think about your teammates. We grow the most when we grow together.

When someone less experienced gets paired with me, it is up to me to decide how I respond. I could see how many times I can tap him out in five minutes, or I can try to pick a pace that helps us both grow.

In pointing out a mistake my partner is about to make, I learn more about my own Jiu Jitsu. It may be more fun in the moment to take advantage of his lack of knowledge and catch that triangle, but that isn’t always where the learning is.

In the end, being patient and helpful with my teammates leads to more enjoyment of the process and higher skilled rolling partners.

Yes, it feels good to catch a triangle, but it feels even better to catch a triangle on someone who knows how to defend it.

Attitude is everything.

I train no matter what. Life can be hard and painful, but no matter what it dishes out, you can find me on the mats.

This is perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned. You can take your pain out on the mats, but don’t take it out on your team.

Recently, I found myself in a world of hurt. I wasn’t able to see things clearly through my pain and the suffering my family was enduring.

That pain seeped into my training in an abhorrent way. I didn’t train away the loathing I was feeling for my situation, I brought the hatred into my Jiu Jitsu. I complained about the techniques. I berated my partners. I doubted everything and everyone, and I did it openly and without tact.

I was lashing out at the one thing that could save me from myself.

Yet somehow when I got through the training and to the rolling, my love for Jiu Jitsu took over. It was only in that time that I finally smiled and lost myself in the movement.

Be forgiving.

And through all of that, nobody left me behind. I’ll never forget the day my instructor pulled me into the office to talk before class. My walls were up. I was mad as hell that he wanted to talk to me.

He started listing what he was witnessing from me on the mats. As he did so, my vision started to clear.

“You are acting like you hate it here,” he asserted.

It was then that I realized that he was right. I was acting like that, because I was caught in a vicious cycle of self-loathing and striking out at what I held closest to my heart.

“You are holding yourself back.”

It was then that I realized he was talking to me out of concern. He was being more than a Jiu Jitsu coach in that moment. He was being a mentor… a teammate… a friend.

I needed to return the favor.

I dried my eyes and joined the class in progress. Immediately, a teammate ushered me over to ask for advice on the technique they were working.

I knelt down with genuine interest and offered my thoughts. Another duo ushered me over and invited me to work in with them.

I was home.

Since that day, I have vowed to be a leader on the mats. I’m not claiming perfection; we all have our rough patches, but I know that I want to be the example, not the exception.

Sometimes that means sucking up my ego. Other times it means shutting up and listening.  And it always means demonstrating my love of learning and asking questions, not to doubt, but to grow and learn.

Pass it on.

A year ago one of my best friends joined me on the mats. Watching her grow has been inspiring.

I spend a great deal of time promoting Jiu Jitsu to just about anyone who will listen. I do so without pretense.

My Jiu Jitsu journey has helped me to grow and learn so much. Sharing it with others makes sense. I am giving back to the art that has already given me so much.

The start of a journey.

All of these lessons are what caused the deep rooted emotions to surface on the night of my promotion. I had just undergone the  most grueling five minute round with my instructor, tapping and diving in again and again in a manner of total abandon, losing myself in the Jiu Jitsu.

I lined up alongside my teammates, sweaty and content.

“Karen, could you step forward?”

My instructor tossed aside my well-worn white belt and wound the blue belt around my waist, securing it with a double knot and a hug.

My blue belt journey was about to begin.

Come check us out at: Caio Terra Academy Madison

Read my guest blog about our academy  here.

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Never Too Old to Train Jiu Jitsu

I sat across from him, nervously clutching my cup of coffee, hoping the first date wouldn’t be too incredibly awkward. When he turned to the side to adjust his chair, I got my hopes up.

Cauliflower ears.

“He must be a wrestler,” I thought. “A wrestler is way more likely to understand my obsession with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.”


Not only did he wrestle, but he was also a referee for local meets and tournaments.

Eagerly, I leaned in and told him about my current Jiu Jitsu training and an upcoming tournament.

I got more and more animated as I explained my progress and my goals. It was all going so well, until he responded with a question.

“How long do you really think you’ll be able to keep doing that?”

His question jolted me back to reality. As I answered him, I simultaneously made my plan for a quick escape.

I will never be too old for Jiu Jitsu.

The cause and effect is reversed. Quitting the activity that causes me to celebrate, learn, and grow is what would age me. I am not old, because I train.

Use It or Lose ItImage may contain: 12 people, people smiling, people standing, child and indoor

Look around you. The majority of people are losing strength and flexibility as they age, but it isn’t inevitable. Jiu Jitsu practitioners stay strong and flexible, because they are using their muscles and stretching into new positions constantly on the mats. It is when we give in to age and remain still that our body begins to decline.

When I am moving and training, I find myself eating healthier, hydrating more, and getting in higher quality cardio. With Jiu Jitsu, I get all of this without the monotony and boredom that used to accompany me to the gym.

The longer I train, the easier it is to engage in healthier habits. I train 5-6 time a week. Not only do I not have time to go out to the bars or chomp on movie popcorn, I simply do not want to. Doing so negates my training. When I falter, I feel it. This pulls me right back to a healthy lifestyle.

People who train find themselves getting stronger, healthier, and more flexible. As they gain endurance and put in time on the mat, it pays off in muscle gain, increased stamina, and weight loss.

I see the effects of Jiu Jitsu around me. I love watching my training partners’ bodies be transformed by the sport.

Image may contain: one or more peopleA Mind is  a Terrible Thing to Waste

You can’t read a book or listen to someone talk about Jiu Jitsu for long without the chess analogy surfacing.

Jiu Jitsu is a mental game. It is a game of knowing how to counter a move and of knowing the counter to your opponent’s counter. The possibilities are endless, and the best Jiu Jitsu practitioners know how to strategize and bait their opponent.

When training, my mind is constantly reeling. Changes aren’t just in my thoughts, but also in the brain itself. As I play, the brain activity stimulates and connects nerve cells, increasing neural plasticity and staving away memory loss.

Each move my opponent makes stirs bits and pieces of knowledge. Each submission or tap adds information to the growing Jiu Jitsu database in my mind. It is an infinite puzzle, one that will never grow old and one that will never be solved.

Jiu Jitsu is my Meditation

For the longest time, I failed at meditation. Every time I sat down to still my body and calm my thoughts, it would have the opposite effect. A meditation coach tried to correct me by letting me know that I shouldn’t fight it.

“Let the thoughts in. Acknowledge them. Then let them pass by,” she explained.

Easier said than done. Those thoughts would linger, build up, and take over. Shortly after sitting down to meditate, I’d be planning lessons, ruminating on my day, or making grocery lists.

But not on the mats.

On the mats, I live in the present. My focus is narrow and clear. I’m thinking about exactly what is in front of me — my body, my partner, the technique.

Jiu Jitsu is my reprieve; it makes everything else in my life more manageable.

After the longest days of teaching and fighting to make the world a better place, I feel heavy. My shoulders hunch inward and my posture collapses. But when I step out onto the mats, I leave all of that behind. I am lighter and more free.

I am in the present. I am neither my gender nor my age. I am the best version of myself.

The Great Equalizer

It is only off the mats that I think about the ages of my teammates. Some of us are in school, others have houses and families. A few of my training partners are close in age to my own son.

But Jiu Jitsu relies on technique. Technique beats youth, speed, and strength. With Jiu Jitsu, a much smaller person can control and submit her larger opponent.

When a teammate is struggling to free himself from the grips of my triangle choke, he is not thinking about my age. He is thinking about survival. (Or tapping, sometimes he is thinking about that.)

Image may contain: 1 person, sittingNever Too Old

The longer you wait to start training, the older you get. I started my journey almost two years ago, and I am a baby in the art of Jiu Jitsu. However, I am at least two years younger than when I started, and I am two years closer to achieving my dreams.

Jiu Jitsu is a journey — one that it is is never too late to start. No matter what I learn, there will still be those who are farther down the road, and others who are running to catch up with me.

No matter where YOU are at, it is never too late to jump over to this path and start training.

Come join us on the mats.

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My Life in Tattoos

I recently received Tools of Titans as a gift from a friend. This book is a compilation of the great thoughts, habits, and ideas of successful people. Each person’s chapter is accompanied by a thumbnail of their spirit animal.

While there is no phantom animal guiding my way, each period of my life has been accompanied by a totem. I have a tattoo marking those gateways; my skin is a canvas that tells the story of my progression into the person I have become.

Many decisions in my life have not been made in the face of opposition, rather have been a result of the opposition within myself. My first tattoo was no exception.

I was young — too young to be engaged to be married, but trying to tell me anything during that period of my life would only give my decisions teeth and sink them in further.

I wasn’t really considering a tattoo, but I mentioned getting one to my fiance  in a random fleeting thought. His reply, “If you get a tattoo, we aren’t getting married.” And all of a sudden, that thought lingered and took hold.

Within a week, I was sitting in a chair looking out over the passersby, donning their Birkenstock sandals and carrying home treasures from the coop. The image of a Pegasus was etched onto my ankle. It was more than a symbol of defiance; it represented the survival mechanism used as a child and into my years as a young adult — escape.

Escaping into my imagination, reading books, writing stories, and most recently drinking alcohol — in many ways fantasy seemed easier to control than my actual life.

Years passed with that solitary Pegasus marking my skin and becoming a symbol of identity and inner struggle, until I discovered education.

Now, as a single parent, I went back to school to take control of my life and to dream of something better for my son. The years that followed were adventurous, sometimes lonely, but always focused on my wolf pack of two. Cody and I were in it together, and it was up to me to lead the way.

Required reading in my Environmental Science coursework, “Of Wolves and Men” opened my eyes to the struggles of a noble animal, and I could relate. The wolf has been both persecuted and revered, forced to live a double life of survival in the real world and in lore. It is a social animal that has an air of strength and independence. I had found my next tattoo.

My life evolved and as it did my pack grew. I accumulated friends and family along my journey to become a teacher. I became established in the school community and was no longer that lone wolf. As a teacher, I was able to pursue my dream of giving back to the larger community by implementing change within my classroom.

The 2011 Wisconsin Act 10, also known as Governor Walker’s Budget Repair Bill, hit hard. Our governor was taking direct aim at teachers, public schools, and labor unions. I could no longer believe that simply working hard within my school building was going to be enough. I felt compelled to get involved, to fight for something larger than myself. To do so meant adapting.

And as I adapted, I found myself back in the tattoo parlor.

We can learn a lot from animals. They live in the present. When a fox chases a mouse through the snow, it dives in head first. There is no room for hesitation, rumination, or self doubt. The fox knows when the time is right to make its move and doesn’t hold back when it does.

What makes the fox even more remarkable is its incredible ability to adapt. A fox is a fox, whether it is in the city or the country, but it does not go about survival the same way in each environment. It uses its surroundings, whether that be making a den underneath an underutilized porch or in a hollowed out tree.

With this amazing animal running along my forearm, I knew that I needed to also adopt its motto, “no excuses.”

The next several years were full of political battles, speeches, and many calls to action. I went from being someone who kept to themselves to a person with an intense social network. I ran campaigns, knocked on doors, and was jolted into a life of activism. As the world shifted underneath me and public education found itself under attack again and again, I fought back.

I had found a purpose, but something was still missing. Long hours working, knocking on doors, writing, and engaging in political discourse left me drained. I needed something for myself, something to set all else aside and allow me to exist in the moment. I needed to refuel.

That was when I found a new passion — Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Jiu Jitsu taught me to be tough both on and off the mats. It taught me to think ahead and not to underestimate myself. On the mats, everything else goes away, but it isn’t escape. It is being fully present, living in the moment. Most importantly, I realized my own value, the need to do things for myself, to learn, to struggle, and to grow.

For the first time in my life, I shrugged off the need for a spirit animal and began believing in myself. With this in mind, I crafted my last tattoo. It is a symbol of my own strength, no longer needing to draw it from an outside source. An impossible triangle, my Jiu Jitsu submission of choice, perched atop a chessboard showing infinite possibilities.

My journey has not always taken the simplest or the shortest path, but every leg has strengthened me. That is what life holds for me, infinite possibilities.

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Un-slumping Yourself

Next episode in 10, 9, 8…

I hit the play arrow quivered in its red target, committing to another 48 minutes of living my life through the eyes of an internet detective while my own is placed on pause. How did I get here and how long will I stay?

My journal hasn’t seen an entry in a few weeks, my running shoes sit discarded by the door, and a layer of dust encases the kettle bells on the floor at the foot of my bed.

To be sedentary in thought or action is my Achilles heel.

“It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than it is to think your way into a new way of acting.”

I find the ‘x’ in the upper right hand corner of my screen, and click my way through the fog. Scowling, I shove reluctant feet into my well worn pair of Brooks and lace up for liberation.

My legs move hesitantly at first, complaining of their sudden jolt back into motion. But a few blocks later I find my stride, and with it a smile. The cold, winter wind bites at my cheeks as my feet pound the pavement. Once again, I am alive.

Today’s lesson is an important reminder of what it takes to maintain my mindset and ambition. Indeed, there is no such thing as a free lunch. To gain energy, I have to expend energy. Just as to be efficient and useful to others, I have to first care for myself.

The times when I am at my drowsiest and most hopeless are when I have come to a stop. The best evidence for this is Friday nights. After one of the hardest days teaching, I am exhausted. It would be “easy” to go home and crawl into bed, or mull over my day with a glass of wine. However, when I give into that urge I end my day on empty.

My usual Friday routine, no matter how tired I think I am, is to head to Jiu Jitsu. After time spent on the mats exercising my body and brain by doing what I love, I am energized. I go home feeling fresh and awake, having shaken off the buildup of tension from the day.

When I am in a slump, it is because I’ve stopped some aspect of self-care. I am stuck, and the key to bringing myself back is to act as though I were already there.

It sounds easy, but only if I can get out of my way. Self doubt has to be ignored, and I have to recognize my own intelligent, yet damaging, ways of rationalizing staying put.

“I’ll start running again tomorrow.”

“Nothing I write today will be worth reading.”

“Everyone needs rest. Why shouldn’t I?”

“Some people sit and watch Netflix every day. I do too much.”

This kind of self talk is dangerous, because of its endurance. One Netflix episode can easily turn into five. A month could pass before I’d accidentally stumble upon something about which to write. Rest makes me crave more rest. Laying around is what makes me feel most tired.

When in a slump, fighting these thoughts feels nearly impossible, and frankly I’ve learned that it isn’t a battle worth fighting. The thoughts will be there — what matters is what I do about them.

“When you’re in a Slump,
you’re not in for much fun.
Un-slumping yourself
is not easily done.” – Dr. Seuss

The battle worth fighting is one toward action — getting out my journal, swinging  a kettle bell, or sprinting until life catches up with me. That self talk may be there at the onset, but it is to be ignored. Action is the enemy of fear.

With 2017 just around the corner, I move another step closer to a happier, healthier me. I have all the knowledge and skills I need to make the choices necessary to live out my dreams. Happiness is a decision, but motion is needed to secure it as a destination.

My New Year’s Resolution is to spend less time “un-slumping” myself, and allow myself to be happy. I’ve already discovered what makes me happy, but after years of building up bad habits, sometimes I keep my  happiness at bay. The old, familiar path is more defined after years of wear, and I am skilled at tricking myself into taking the “easy” way out. Unfortunately, the path isn’t a way out. It is a way further into self denial and destructive patterns.

The path I now choose to create is one of self respect and growth. I choose to eat healthily, exercise daily, minimize distraction, and close out each day with writing.

How I eat defines my lifestyle. Fresh vegetables, low levels of carbs, and plant protein guarantee me the energy I need to do the things I love, like running or Jiu Jitsu. Avoiding too much sugar helps me to maintain a stable mood and avoid energy crashes. Staying away from meat and dairy, while filling up on healthy greens helps me to diminish the effects of asthma and arthritis. Maintaining my hydration and minimizing alcohol intake ensures productive nights of sleep that leave me feeling rested.

Choices about how to spend my downtime impact my clarity and peace of mind. Social media, television series, and text messages create mental clutter. My mind is skipping from one topic to the next, never really resting on anything of value. Replacing an hour on the computer with time spent reading a book trains my mind to attend to a task emphasizing depth, not breadth.

Writing is in this same vein. Nighttime journaling is a healthy way to end my day. Based on recommendations from Tim Ferriss’ review of the “Five Minute Journal,” I choose to keep my journal positive. Each entry includes three items for which I am grateful, an affirmation, three awesome things that happened that day, something I would change if I could do the day over again, and goals to make tomorrow even better.

I am not limited by the format; I frequently add random musings, provocative quotes, and a dash of humor. But what is most important is to train my brain to find the positive in each day and always move toward growth.

To make this happen in 2017, I will become more aware of when the negative self-talk seeps in and breaks up the routines that keep me mindful. Recognizing that they are there, I resolve to “fake it until I make it.”

I shall never again be my own oppressor.

When that voice says to stay in bed, I will rip the blankets away and plant my feet firmly on the floor. This forward motion gets me out of my head and into my healthy routine.

I will remember that the days when the gym seems the farthest away are the days I need it the most.

And if my day feels too long, too busy, or too frantic to write, I will clutch my pen like a lifeline and use it as a tool to expel the clutter from my mind.

I will keep myself moving forward, always.

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With the flick of a switch, my life changed forever

light-switchI strode into the darkened room and reached for the light switch. I groped around and tried again. Then, I stopped myself. Months before, I had moved into a new place after living in my previous apartment for five years. I was reaching for a light switch that did not exist. This simple action stopped me in my tracks. How many other non-existent light switches were there in my life that I was still trying to utilize?

I once read a piece of research that  showed the human brain is hardwired to say “no” as a  first response. This makes evolutionary sense; it is self preservation, much to the dismay of youngsters asking their parents for the newest piece of technology or a later curfew. But somewhere along the line, my brain was rewired. My default response is “yes.”

This may seem harmless enough from the outside. I give. I take on responsibilities. I help others. These are all positive actions, until the end of the day comes and I haven’t carved out enough time for myself.

This “yes” light switch served a purpose in my younger years. I was insecure. I didn’t feel a sense of belonging. I filled those holes and pumped myself up by giving to others. My purpose and sense of self came from what I  could do for others, rather than what was inherent inside me.

I have a new found sense of my own value, but to break this pattern, I need to think before instinctively flicking the switch to “yes.”

Sharing time with people I love.

Sharing time with people I love.

People who view me as kind  and giving may be surprised to know that if we sit down to share a plate of french fries, I am gauging whether or not you are taking more than your fair share. Or that if you come into my apartment and open my refrigerator, I raise my metaphorical hackles. Or that if you  invite someone new to our longstanding plans, it takes some self talk to assure myself that it will be okay.

After a tumultuous time in my life, I was in foster care as a teenager. Sharing shelter, food, and attention with seven other teens meant hiding food in my dresser drawer on grocery day, barring the door to my shared room to steal some privacy, and plotting up schemes to get some alone time with my foster mom.

At that time in my life, being territorial helped me to fulfill  my childlike needs. Now, those same behaviors run counter to my dedication to human services and create internal dissonance.

And then there is the light switch I reach for when my feelings are hurt. People who cause me pain frequently become the target of a quick, angry statement that cuts to the core. It is a protective instinct, built up  over years of covering up my disappointments. The second a quip escapes my mouth, I am embarrassed by my inability to default to these simple words, “That hurt me.”

In the past, those words would have made me vulnerable — made me the target. Having a toughened exterior was how I protected myself.

But no more.

These instincts built up over time can only control me if I let my life run on autopilot. The beautiful thing about being sentient is that once I recognize patterns and habits that no longer have a place in my life, I have the power to change them.

And the good news is, it is simple.

Step one, check.

Step one, check.

I can make a list of all the times I say “yes” in my week, along with the impact it has on my life. This teaches me to learn to balance the time for myself with the time spent on others. I can be giving, and offer someone the opportunity to have that last french fry. I can stop, count to ten, and say, “that hurt me” before saying something I will regret later.

To be human is to grow and change, to learn from my mistakes, and recognize old patterns that no longer serve a purpose in my life.

Today, I choose to take control over my actions and reactions, and to stop  reaching for switches that no longer create light.

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Be a Lady — No Acting Required

Going to the gym is the equivalent of engaging in a sociological study. Today, my lens was gender. I glanced around the changing room and cringed at the curling irons, make up, hair spray, and accessories. Women were in many different stages of preparation, but the intent was the same — to make themselves “presentable” for the outside world. Some were preening to look good for their workout, while others were prepping to leave the gym. I put my hair in a quick ponytail, laced my shoes, and headed out to the main floor.


As I grabbed my kettlebell, I heard a singsong voice off to the side, near the racks of free weights.

As I grabbed my kettlebell, I heard a singsong voice off to the side near the racks of free weights.

“Am I doing this right? Are you sure it isn’t too heavy?,” a young woman asked as she smiled and lifted her dumbbells for a shoulder press.

She was clad in pink spandex and matching eye shadow. The man at her side immediately took charge, first guiding her weights, and then placing his hands on her waist to adjust her stance. As I started my kettlebell swings, I couldn’t help but think I was watching some elaborate performance, man and woman each playing the part they had been auditioning for since birth.

But was it since birth? Where and how exactly do young girls learn that it is attractive to be frail, helpless, and senseless? When do they realize that they are expected to play it safe, but also to play the role of the sensitive nurturer? That giggling, crying, or being in distress will bring positive attention from the men in their world?

And more importantly, how do we break this cycle and teach our young girls to stand on their own and bask in their strength?


They play with dolls, wear ribbons in their hair, and are encouraged to decorate their lives with flowers and rainbows.

Early on in life, girls are given toys that promote their sensitivity. They play with dolls, wear ribbons in their hair, and are encouraged to decorate their lives with flowers and rainbows. At the park, they are told to be careful, and parents quickly run to rescue their little girls when they encounter obstacles. Crying girls get picked up, held, and nurtured. They are seen as beings who need protection and as a result their adventures are limited in scope.

As they grow, they are protected from new dangers, such as dating and boys. Protective parents interrogate boys that arrive at their doorstep and send out the message that they need this level of interference for their safety.

In effect, our society is teaching our girls to be frail, to need protection, and to shy away from adventure. And later in life, it should be no surprise when they seek out careers that capitalize on their nurturing or helpful personalities; nurses, teachers, and secretaries continue to be female dominated professions. 80% of these professions continue to be held by women. Sadly, while new technology creates new jobs and opportunities, this statistic has changed very little over the past 50 years.

Okay, this isn't Amelia Boone, it is me.

Okay, this isn’t Amelia Boone, it is me.

Our girls need to be exposed to new experiences and heroines. They need to know that when they fall down, they are perfectly capable of picking themselves up and dusting the dirt off of their knees. That isn’t to say that there won’t be someone there to kiss their wounds or dry their tears, but once that business is taken care of, they will be sent back out with a wave and a smile for their next adventure. Athletes like obstacle course racer and endurance athlete, Amelia Boone can show our young girls that it is okay to be strong, to outrun the boys, and to get dirty — that power is attractive.

Girls are explorers, problem-solvers, builders, and scientists. They can choose to help and nurture society by being lawyers, doctors, and engineers. They no longer need to play at being helpless or stupid to garner the attention of the boys around them.

A change in what it means to be feminine is on the horizon. I am inspired knowing that our daughters may soon witness the first female president of the United States. Organizations such as Girls on The Run or the Association for Women in Science counteract some of the gender stereotypes that surround our girls.

Our young ladies are taking charge.

Our young ladies are taking charge.

My dismay of seeing the gender rituals played out at the gym is lessened when I see a girl in a gi competing at a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Tournament, a budding female scientist trying out her new invention, or a young lady taking charge of a group project, because she is seen as a natural leader. Women today outnumber men in colleges and our girls are now on par with boys in the areas of science and math. Our young ladies are taking charge, making the transition from passive to assertive, from home-bound to adventurers, from damsels in distress to conquerors. We simply need to step out of their way and let them rise to the top.


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James Street Footprints

Sitting among half-packed boxes and the rubble of moving, I find my mind and emotions vacillating. Transitions are hard; they are full of goodbyes and half-closed doors. Just as we leave our mark on each place that we visit, it also leaves a mark on us. And aSuper Mechanics for James Street, it will forever be the place where we outlived the storm — the place we lived when Jeremy died.

Jeremy was more than just my son’s best friend; he seemed to hold Cody’s connection to this world in his 17 year-old hands. His love for the outdoors, fishing, camping, canoeing, music, cars, motorcycles, and anything mechanical kept the two moving from one adventure to the next. You never saw one without the other. And if you ever doubted they could do anything, such as travel miles upstream with three boys in a one man kayak, Jeremy would be the first to remind you that he had “mad skillz.”

3 Boys in a 1 Man Kayak

Need something done? This ingenuitive genius would always find a way. I came home one night to a parking lot of teens, each with their own car. The boys knew the lot should be cleared, particularly my own space. Jeremy immediately saw my unhappiness and promptly made an announcement, “Alright guys, race car parking only! Get your cars out of here.” Within minutes, the parking lot was clear, and I was able to pull my “race car” into its spot. No grumbles or complaints, Jeremy was a master at diffusing situations, and somehow in the process you would manage to forget that he was likely the person that caused the situation in the first place.

Jeremy's Crash Site MemorialJeremy left the world on July 10, 2012 doing what he loved most — riding his motorcycle. And for almost four years of my life here on James Street, it seemed that he had taken my son with him. These four years were marked by sleepless nights, crying, shouting, late night phone calls, police sirens, and immeasurable pain. The world without Jeremy was protested and then set aside as if it were not enough in his absence.

Yet here I sit on the other side of that storm, packing boxes. I said goodbye to one boy, but clung ardently to the one who was left behind. The waters have calmed, so it feels fitting that we will be moving on, leaving Jeremy’s memory in our wake.

Goodbye James Street. You left a footprint on my soul, and it has made me stronger.

(Goodbye Jeremy.)

Nothing Gold Can Stay

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Never Again “Just a Girl” (Why I train Jiu Jitsu)

IMG_2115I stepped off the mats on Friday night with a grin on my face and my head held high. I paused in surprise as I passed the locker room mirror. The person looking back at me had an unfamiliar glow. She exuded energy, confidence, and happiness. In that moment I realized that training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) had created a new strength in me both on and off the mats.

I have learned a myriad of life lessons in my first six months of training.

Jiu Jitsu is an equalizer. Politics, gender, occupation, and race don’t matter on the mats. Our sparring partners may have little in common, but there is colossal strength in our community — bonded by our love of the art.

BJJ Girl

I love this patch from BJJ Girl, Emma Valdez

BJJ empowers women to step beyond traditional gender roles. Too frequently our girls are taught to be sensitive, gentle, and afraid. They are asked to take care of others and oftentimes to step out of the way. The world is seen as dangerous and the average woman is too often portrayed in the role of victim. Being a woman on the mats erases all of that. I am taught to be the aggressor, move with confidence, and to survive. There is no time for my training partner to worry about gender when I snake my arm around his neck. In Jiu Jitsu, it is a mistake to underestimate anybody because of their gender, size, or strength. It is one of the most beautiful aspects of the art.

You may be on the bottom, but it doesn’t mean you are losing. I’m little. I end up on my back a lot. I spent months on my back before realizing that this did not mean that my opponent was in control. A close friend of mine who doesn’t know Jiu Jitsu watched one of my matches recently, and remarked, “I only knew you had won by your smile.” Power and control takes many forms and isn’t limited to any one position. My attitude changed the day I realized that guillotines, arm bars, triangles, and other submissions could be executed from my back – a position that most people correlate with failure.

Tapping isOn The Back not an ending. Many people can be stubborn about tapping, which is a dangerous game to play when air is restricted or joints are locked. But after the tap, something great happens. You smile, slap hands, and begin again. This starting over, rather than sitting back in defeat, builds character. Tapping is letting your opponent know that they got you… this time. Diving right back into the game is energizing; this persistence and consistency is what leads to growth. It is what defines a warrior.

King Chess

Like chess, Jiu Jitsu is a two person game. The greatest champions of either game are actually playing against themselves. When I’m on the mats, I’m not thinking about my opponent. I’m not worrying about my life, my job, or my future. I’m living in the present, working to improve myself. When I see the moment for a submission pass me by, I learn. I may not get it the next time, or the time after that, but each time I see it, I respond quicker than the time before. And when that happens, I don’t see it as a loss; it’s a gain. Each time, my opponent fades into the background as my goal comes closer into view.

As my goal looms closer, I recognize a familiar mistake – forcing something that isn’t
going to happen. As I fight for an Americana submission, my opponents’ other arm may flail within reach. When an opportunity presents itself, I am recognizing the time to let go. I won’t get the arm bar if I hold onto the Americana. To practice the art of Jiu Jitsu is to go with the flow, not just to move from one opportunity to the next, but also to use these lessons to create your own opportunity.Buddha Cling To

Practicing the art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a commitment to never stop growing. It is an exciting, yet humbling feeling to know that there is no end to my learning. It is like reading a good book. When I near the end of a great read, I sometimes turn the pages slower, not wanting it to end. BJJ is a book with infinite possibilities, pages, and chapters. I can turn the pages as quickly as I want, with the reassurance that there will always be more to come.

BJJ has brought me peace of mind. I’ve learned to leave ego behind and just train. This has led to an unmatched happiness. Yes, I’m prone to letting out a feminine giggle on the mats – sometimes when I surprise myself with a successful move and other times when someone sneaks one in on me. It is the most authentic of sounds, because it is not contrived, nor was it learned behavior. The giggle escapes of its own accord. In these moments, I am truly myself. It’s just me and the mats. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Come train with me at Caio Terra Association Madison


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Live. Write. Grow.

Write something every day. These are words I live by and it is a message that I feed my students. These words are met with resistance, occasionally by myself and regularly by my students.

In my classroom, each class starts with quiet writing time followed by sharing. The optimist in me hoped that this action of setting valuable instructional time aside for writing and sharing would be enough to prove the value of writing. Instead, the classroom is plagued with that age-old complaint that generally comes in the form of a question, “Why do we have to do this?”

My answer has varied as my frustration level and own thoughts about writing have ebbed Write something every day.and waned, but I usually begin with, “We write to become better writers.”

In an academic setting, time spent on practicing a skill matters. Time spent reading books (at the proper difficulty level) makes students better readers. Time spent practicing math skills leads to mastery of a skill. Time spent on the court, makes students better basketball players. Writing is no different. When students complain that they aren’t “good writers,” I remind them that this is why we practice and I let them know that my own path as a writer is far from complete.

Understanding the role of writing in becoming a better writer answers the question at the surface, but there is something very important missing from this explanation. It is the underlying question, “Why is writing important?” that isn’t addressed.

I have not spent nearly enough time answering this question, for myself or for my students. In my own life, I write for so many different reasons. I write in my journal to ground myself in reality and to set goals for my future. I use my blog both to inform and to explore ideas. I write to uncover pieces of humanity and to grow as a person. Each time I write, I place a piece of myself, my unique fingerprint, out into the world.

Reggie and CodyRecently, when we were writing memoirs in the classroom, I began the lesson with reading a memoir of my own, “Old Faithful.” This story, included at the end of this post, is about the greatest dog of all time. As I read my memoir to the students, I lost myself in the words. My eyes welled up with tears and my voice cracked, remembering my furry companion. When I got to the end, it felt as though I had not just remembered, but also relived a portion of my life. I paused in that vulnerable moment of having shared something so personal, and something amazing happened.


My students who are so quick to verbally jab at me, protest every direction given to them, and put on general airs of being too cool for the rest of the world, were applauding.

That moment reminded me of why I write. I write to remember. I write to forgive. I write to display my humanity and to experience life to its fullest. I write to keep memories alive. I write for myself, but frequently bring others along for the ride.

They say that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” but also know that a thousand words can ignite the heart.

Keep writing.

Old Faithful

I remember that last day so vividly. My heart ached with every tick of the waiting room clock. When they came to take him back, he used all the strength he could gather to prick up his enormous, pointy ears. Reggie looked back at us longingly and made an attempt to leap off the stretcher and land all four padded feet on the waiting room floor. The green lab coats held him back with reassuring pats.

“Easy boy. That’s a German Shepherd for you. He is still looking out for his people.”

The scene, glimpsed through hot tears, was a blur to me. He had always known he belonged with us. My mind wandered, with an aching need to go back to day one.

Trees whizzed past as the truck jostled down the rutted gravel road. Atop the hill, a small white farmhouse came into view. It wasn’t the house, but what was in front of the house that made a squeal escape from Cody’s lips. “Puppies!” There they were, as advertised, six German Shepherd pups. I stepped down from the grey Toyota 4×4, and swung Cody through the air, placing him gently on the ground.

“Come on sweetie. Let’s find us a precious baby girl to take home with us.”

And there she was. She was perfect. Her tiny puppy tongue lapped at my bare legs, as her frantic paws tried to find some part of me to scramble up. She lost her balance, round tummy now exposed to the sweltering summer sun. I scooped her up and took my furry treasure over to the small, grey haired woman.

“I’ll take her,” I smiled triumphantly.

“Are you sure,” she asked with a quick wink of her eye. “The master doesn’t always choose the dog. Sometimes the dog chooses the master.”

Confused, I looked up to where her wrinkled, tan hand pointed. There was Cody rolling in the grass. Alongside him was a dark, fluffy ball, mirroring his every move.

“Mama! Look!”

Cody came running toward me excitedly. Right after him ran his new companion, squeaking and whining, because his little puppy legs couldn’t keep up.

“Sorry girl,” I said as I set down the puppy that was still cuddled lazily in my arms. “It looks like we already have a dog.”

And from that day on, our Reggie played the part perfectly.

“Mom, will he be okay?” Cody’s voice jarred me back to the present.

“Oh honey, I’m not sure. I can see he’s holding on, but I’m afraid that he is only doing  that for us.”

“He’s always been there for me, Mom. I can’t live without him. Reggie’s the best dog in the world. He has to be okay.”

The reality of the matter poured from Cody’s heart — marking the bond and the moments shared between the boy and his dog.

What we wouldn’t give now for one of Reggie’s patented whisper barks. Nobody had taught him that trick. Like most of Reggie’s skills, he had picked it up because of his own intuition and an eagerness to please us.

It was Cody’s third grade year and he had developed an intense fear of the dark. Reggie and I would camp out on Cody’s floor, reassuring him until taken over by sleep. Afterward, I would stay up, frantically typing up the papers that would eventually earn me my master’s degree. The nights were long and excruciating, until Reggie took matters into his own paws.

I don’t know how he did it, but I’ll never forget that first night when he figured out his new occupation. Reggie escorted Cody to his room. There they were — Cody had one hand on Reggie’s collar, as the other hand rubbed his puffy, tired eyes. I watched them go down the hall and into the bedroom, wondering which one of them would reemerge first. The seconds passed, followed by minutes, but neither boy nor dog came out of the room. Relieved, I peeked in quickly at the sleeping boy. Reggie looked up knowingly as I gently clicked the door shut.

I lost track of time that night, because I was up to my neck in textbooks and papers. An odd sound disrupted my studies — part whisper, part bark. The intent of Reggie’s “whisper bark” was clearly to get my attention without waking the peacefully slumbering boy. It was the first of many nights to come — Reggie playing the role of nanny and household hero.

It was not a whisper bark that now caught my attention in the waiting room of the emergency pet clinic, but a piercing wail. With his family out of sight, Reggie gave in to his pain. It was then that I knew; we had to let him go.

“I’m sorry Cody.”

“Mom, I just don’t want him to hurt anymore. I want to say goodbye.”

They carried him back in to us. Somehow he looked smaller and more fragile, swaddled securely in a fleece blanket. The tender look he gave us as he glanced up said, “I love you.”

We loved him too; more than he could ever know. Reggie was a part of me. He was a part of all of us. His soft brown eyes, loyalty, and gentle demeanor will never fade from my memory. He was my old faithful.

Live. Write. Grow.

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The Perils of Conjecture

We all have shortcomings. Mine tend to come in the form of emotional tantrums. Thanks to Isabel Briggs Myers, I can explain away this personality deficit as being INFP. After all, these deep thoughts and feelings can be a lot to digest.


Seeing the tremendous path ahead is part of the excitement.

Training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu normally brings me a sense of exhilaration and growth. Being a newcomer to such an extraordinary sport adds a sense of humility, but seeing the tremendous path ahead is part of the excitement.

This week was an exception. I walked out of the gym Friday night with both my bag and a chip on my shoulder.

The negativity started on Monday as a few inconsequential thoughts. “I’ll never get this right” and “Nobody takes me seriously.” Negative thoughts tend to feed each other, so it is not a surprise that by Friday they had taken over.

As a part of that takeover, these thoughts were no longer just speaking for me. I had myself convinced that my training partners were bored rolling with me and that my instructor felt he was wasting his time as he explained a technique to me for the third time.

And the thoughts continued to feast on each other…

“He’s taking it easy on me, because he thinks I’m weak.”

“My skills aren’t progressing quickly enough. He’s given up on being able to teach me.”

“He’d rather have a different partner, because I’m not at his level.”

This snowball of negativity was suffocating on the ride home, so much so that I convinced myself that I would not be back the next day. I sent my instructor a quick message, and that was that.

Only it wasn’t.

His honest response seeped in and broke up some of those negative thoughts. He reminded me to have fun and learn, that getting better would follow. So, I woke up the following morning and threw myself right back down on the mats.

What I learned that morning stated with Jiu Jitsu and extended to my life.

Everything looked different, and as a result those thoughts changed…

“He’s slowing down, because he really wants me to learn this.”

“Breaking things down for me certainly helps develop his own understanding of the technique.”

“It’s great to be in a gym where people are at so many different levels.”

Class was over. I was sweaty, happy, and I knew that I had grown. I slung my bag over my image1shoulder to exit the gym. As I did, I interrupted a conversation.

One of the guys smiled and turned to me, “Are your ears ringing?”

My spirit trembled a bit in anticipation. Had they really been talking about me?

What followed was a genuine dialogue with my instructor and training partners about my performance — both my areas of growth and weaknesses. At the end of the conversation, I knew exactly what the guys thought of rolling with me and of my ability. It was no longer scary or unknown.

If I wanted to know how I was doing, or what the guys were thinking, why didn’t I just ask? Somehow, assuming the worst was easier than finding out the truth. I had let my ego get in the way.

My feelings had been unnecessarily hurt by my own thinking.

As I continue to train, this story and the lessons I learned from it will stay in the forefront.

When your self-talk is harmful, don’t let it speak for others. Live your life; don’t live in your head. Enjoy the journey, especially when the destination is not yet in sight.


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Bike MS 2016: Join the Fight

Tri RideHelp fight for a world free of Multiple Sclerosis (MS).

I’ve signed up for the Bike MS: Toyota Best Dam Bike Tour with the goal of working toward a world free of MS. Please support me as I prepare for this worthwhile endeavor.


I’ve seen firsthand how MS affects the families of my students and friends. The amount of strength and perserverence of those affected by MS is incredibly inspiring. I would like to add my own contribution to this strength and work to find a cure.

I’ll go the distance for MS; I will be training and preparing for a 150 mile bike ride, as well as fundraising to reach my goal. Thousands of cyclists all over the country will be joining me.


Please support my efforts by making a donation.

With your support, I hope to exceed my fundraising goal. The money raised will help fund MS research, as well as provide programs and services that ensure people affected by MS can live life to its fullest.

MS has been coined, “the silent disease,” but with your help,  we can help to make some noise and spread the word.

Please support me and help put an end to MS.

My personal donation page

More about Multiple Sclerosis 

  1. MS is a chronic disease that affects the central nervous system.
  2. More than 2.3 million people world-wide are affected by MS.
  3. The symptoms of MS can be manageable, but are also unpredictable.
  4. Symptoms are different for those affected, but MS can cause numbness, tingling, slurred speech, loss of control over bodily functions, fatigue, memory problems, and issues with balance and mobility.
  5. Women are more likely to be affected by MS than men.
  6. Most people who are being treated for MS have periods of remission, as well as relapses.
  7. The cognitive component of MS can lead to bouts with depression and mood irregularities.
  8. There is currently no cure for MS.

For more information on MS, visit the Multiple Sclerosis Society or the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation.

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Reverse Resolutions 2016

Resolution season is upon us. Soon, people will be flocking to the gym, picking up temporary hobbies, giving up venerated vices, and swearing in new diets.

But, not me.

I no longer make New Year’s Resolutions. Instead, I resolve every day of the year to make myself a better, healthier, and more grateful human.

This is not a blog about what I resolve to do in 2016. It is something much better — it is a blog about my 2015 discoveries and accomplishments that are enthusiastically hoisting me into the new year.

journalsRead and Write Something Every Day

One of the practices that has most changed my life is my nighttime routine of reading and journaling. I have read novels for adolescents and for adults. I have perused pages about diet, social justice, exercise, economics, science, current events, and history. I have filled a stack of Moleskine notebooks with my ambitions, accomplishments, regrets, and gratitude.

Recently, I changed the format of my journal to be more positive, which has greatly changed my mindset. The catalyst for this change was Tim Ferriss’ review of the “Five Minute Journal.”

I modified Ferriss’ recommendations slightly to suit my needs. Each journal entry includes three items for which I am grateful, an affirmation, three awesome things that happened that day, something I would change if I could do the day over again, and goals to make tomorrow even better.

I am not limited by the format; I frequently add random musings, provocative quotes, and a dash of humor.

Because I choose to journal as a bedtime ritual, I reread my entry in the morning to serve as a mini-meditation and start my day off on a positive note.

Sink or Swim, but mostly swim

The key to getting good at something is not an enigma, nor is it innate talent. This year, I found what I consider to be the recipe for gaining a new skill set. I found this recipe in an unlikely location — a swimming pool.

I used to sit on the sidelines and watch people swim lap after seemingly effortless lap. I’d think that I’d like to be able to swim like that, but when I attempted it, it was a disaster. I’d swim a little and then hang out on the wall. I was awkward while I was swimming, and I was certain everyone was looking at me.

This year, I mastered the down and back and am now an Energizer bunny of the swimming pool. Swimming went from being a frustration to becoming a time for peaceful reflection and meditation.

How I learned to swim can be applied to any kind of learning.

Recipe for Mastery:

1. Have a goal! It doesn’t have to be a triathlon, but if you don’t know why you are doing something, why do it? Make a goal, set some dates, and then get to work.

2. Read. To learn something, you need to know something about it. For me, it was the book, Total Immersion. Once I connected the principles of swimming to my knowledge of science, it changed the game for me. Websites work for information as well, but I sure do love books.

3. Get a coach. This can be in the form of a mentor or a teacher; it doesn’t matter, just find someone who knows more than you. Rebecca was my swim coach. Just when I thought I knew what I was doing, she was there to correct me and put me in my place. I lucked out with Rebecca, because she imparted more than just knowledge, she pushed me.

4. Practice! An instructor once told me, “Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” This is why number three and four really should be listed together. Drill. Drill. Drill. Some days will be frustrating, but it is worth it for those moments when things just seem to click into place. For me, it was that moment when I went from floundering to gliding through the water. I could feel the difference, but I wouldn’t have gotten there without the struggle.

There’s No Such Thing as Too OldFullSizeRender (10)

There are so many things out there in the world to try, yet so many people confine themselves to comfort and complacency. The older I get, the more I realize that life is for living. Don’t believe the adage about old dogs and their inability to master new tricks. Learning new tricks is what keeps me young.

People who know me aren’t surprised when I pick up a new hobby, nor are they surprised when that hobby becomes an invigorating driving force in my life. 2015 was no exception. This year’s find was Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

I love to be challenged, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) brings me an endless stockpile of trials. In the first couple of months of BJJ, I have basically learned that I don’t know anything. I don’t know how to breathe, how to move, or how to fall. Well… actually, I know how to fall. It is that I’m not supposed to fall. “Keep your base, Karen!” is a frequent exclamation in the gym.

It may sound disheartening, but it is the opposite. BJJ is full of heart.

BJJ is a guarantee that I will never run out of things to learn. When I am on the mat, 100% of my energy and my focus goes into working to get it right. And those moments when I almost do are miraculous. There is never a “That was good” that isn’t followed by an “except, next time…” but that is the beauty of BJJ. My mind, body, and spirit get a complete workout.

No matter how my training goes, I leave the gym feeling like the strongest woman on earth.

Keep it Simple: Drink Coconut Water

I am a healthy eater. I steer clear of meat and dairy. I keep a watchful eye on my consumption of caffeine, sugar, and alcohol. A lot of my calories come from farm-fresh produce. I invest in Community Supported Agriculture and spend my share of time in the kitchen.

Yet, when it comes to refueling during or after athletic challenges, I have been known to hit the gels, sports drinks, energy cubes, or latest packaged protein products.

As an athlete, being properly nourished and hydrated means improved performance, more restful sleeping patterns, and speedier recovery times.

This year a simple discovery has changed my hydration practices — coconut water. I admit that it was an acquired taste, but I’m glad I stuck it out. Coconut water has been deemed “nature’s Gatorade,” because it is full of calcium, magnesium, potassium, and other electrolytes in their natural form. On top of all that natural goodness, it is also low on calories and easy to digest, which make my late night trips to the refrigerator guilt free.

Some evenings, I drink my coconut water out of a wine glass as a reminder that being healthy is a festive event. It also keeps wine out of my glass, which is a bonus.

Be Someone You Would Look Up To

With increased exposure to sporting events, books, and podcasts, I have found many new role models in my life. Athletes like Ronda Rousey and Amelia Boone are women who have demolished gender barriers. Activists such as Amy Tan, Azar Nafisi, and Malala Yousafzai have written books and given speeches that inspire the world.

The WallIt is not happenstance that great women inspire me. The most important lesson I have learned this year is to find that inspiration in myself and take action.

Look at all that I have done. I have competed in countless races: marathons, ultra marathons, triathlons and even a Tough Mudder. I have taught myself new skills while maintaining the humility to rely on the expertise of the people around me. I hit the mats every week with men who are well ahead of me in both weight and experience. I have run a successful political campaign, been appointed to a county committee, started a blog, been quoted in the newspaper, and have even saved a life.

And look at all that I am. I am a leader, an activist, an athlete, a mother, a writer, and a friend. I am loyal to a fault, and I am an amazing teacher.

Rather than making a New Year’s Resolution for 2016, I will look back on all that I have accomplished and look forward to the new journeys and friends that are sure to follow. I will do this with both gratitude and pride.

Happy New Year 2016!

Kiera is my co-author.

Kiera is my co-author.


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What the Right Couldn’t Take

The present condition of politics in education is gloomy. School workers report high levels of stress, health problems, and thoughts of abandoning their career. Many pinpoint the source — a lack of respect for the profession that has become the new normal. However, on September 28th, a ray of hope broke its way through the malaise. The Madison Metropolitan School District Employee Handbook is evidence of what the right couldn’t take. The right couldn’t take away our voice or the spirit of our collaborative nature. Act 10 may have limited our legal scope, but there is still power in a Union.

The employee handbook was a result of workers and employers sitting down at the table together to map out a path for the future of our students, our schools, and our workers. One of the most powerful aspects of this handbook is that it outlines a grievance procedure which mandates a mutually selected independent hearing examiner. Due to provisions in Act 10, decisions made by the examiner can be appealed to the Board of Education (BOE), but even that process is limited. When making a decision, the BOE may only review the current record created during the original hearing. This clause respects the authority of the independent hearing examiner to the greatest extent possible under Act 10.

Also within the handbook is a process for its modification. The handbook cannot be modified without the joint employer/employee committee coming back together to make a recommendation to the board. This follows a procedure similar to the process used to create the original handbook. It honors collaboration and emphasizes the importance of workers’ voices in the workplace.

While the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) employees’ contracts will expire in June of 2016, the benefits and security contained within will not.  4700 employees will maintain:

  • Weingarten Rights: the right to be represented by a union when threatened with discipline
  • Current salary schedule, benefits, and sick leave
  • Planning time that is essential to serving our students
  • Teachers’ Emeritus Retirement Program (TERP)
  • Seniority during times of surpluses and layoffs
  • Just cause and due process

Our Corner of the CapitolThis 304 page document defines common language for the five Madison Teachers, Inc. (MTI) units it represents, as well as for AFSCME and workers in the Building Trades. While the document is lengthy, it also encompasses school district policies and procedures.

During the 2011 protests and the occupation of our state Capitol, there was a sign in the teachers’ corner. This sign listed what Collective Bargaining means for teachers. When I look through our handbook, I cannot help but smile. Comparing this list to the items protected by our new handbook gives me hope for our future.

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Expect the Unexpected

First off, let me apologize to my political followers. This post is not about education, politics, elections, or unions. I should also apologize to my fellow writers out there. I do not plan on editing or making a final product of this blog. It is not a matter of quality writing; it is a matter of the heart. Matters of the heart are raggedy and oftentimes uncertain. This is a blog that I am writing to purge myself of some demons — to attempt to make some sense where there is none.

This is a blog that I am writing for me.

I love hiking trails and the woods feel like home. Forests are a place of beauty, serenity, and rejuvenation. Whether I am hiking, running, or backpacking, my quests through the trees are oftentimes of a spiritual nature. I leave feeling more myself  than when I started out on my trek.

Currently, the woods are tainted with heartbreak and tragedy for me. I am looking for an emergency around every corner and inside any abandoned vehicle. It is for this reason that I write; I need an outlet to redefine what was once my paradise — to make room for this imperfection.

Starting off on our trekIt was a week before school started. Mary Ann and I were hiking the length of the Northern Kettle Moraine State Forest as a consolation prize. We had set our sites on a backpacking trip in Washington, but failed to win the permit “lottery.” Since our route was not approved, we decided to make the best of it and get in a mini vacation closer to home. Had we won that lottery, we would not have been out on the Ice Age Trail. Had we “won” that lottery, this story would have a much different ending.

We were on our third and final day of hiking. We had endured running out of water, miscalculated miles, and blistered feet. We had enjoyed campfires, jokes, stories, exercise, simplicity, re-hydrated delicacies, and laughter. Our trip was winding to a close, so we hiked rigorously, taking very few breaks that day. It was just us and the trail.

Loving uninterrupted trail, we quickly crossed over a road and made our way back into the woods. I led the way at a brisk pace, but slowed to a halt when I noticed a vehicle. It was backed into the forest and it seemed so out of place.

“Mary Ann, why would there be a vehicle in the woods?”

We looked at each other, changed our course, and crept closer.

“I think it is running,” I observed aloud.

Mary Ann, being an oldest child, has this way of taking charge in a situation. She does it in such a confident manner that not many people tend to question her. So, when she replied, “See if there is someone in there,” I approached the vehicle.

There he was, reclined and covered with a blanket.

“I think he’s sleeping,” I said, though something just felt wrong. The woods seemed too quiet and the situation just felt wrong.

It was then that we saw the taped-on hose protruding from the car’s tailpipe and snaking its way alongside the car, and into the back window.

Mary Ann spoke the words that validated my sense of uneasiness.

“He’s not sleeping. He is killing himself. Open the doors.”

At this point, I’ll admit that I was afraid. I didn’t know this man or what sort of situation he was in. I immediately wondered if he had a gun. Mary Ann whipped off her backpack, fumbled for her cell phone, and dialed 9-1-1 as she made her way back to the road to figure out where we were.

I started by opening the back doors, but as I made my way to the passenger side, I ripped the hose out of the window, off the tailpipe and threw it. All of the doors were now open, but one.

Was I putting myself at risk if I opened the driver side door?

Mary Ann came back from the road with the intent of checking the man’s pulse. I was relieved to have her at my side as she opened that final door. Whatever happened, we were in this together. Given my choice of anyone in the world to have at my side at that moment in time, I would choose my selfless, brave friend hands-down.

“Mary Ann, how do we know this man is safe?”

“We don’t,” she replied matter-of-factly.

We peered in. The man stirred slightly. Mary Ann said a quiet, “hello there” and reported back to the 9-1-1 operator that he was alive. She went back out to the road to retrieve a map and figure out where to direct help.

I was left with the man in the car.

“Please just stay put, sir,” I pleaded, hoping that we weren’t too far from emergency services.

The man rolled his head to the side and looked up at me.

“What did you do? I was almost there,” he said, as he started to half fall, half stumble his way out of the car.

“I’m sorry. I know you must be mad at me, but this is what I had to do. I didn’t have a choice. I believe your life has value.”

Once again, he set his gaze upon me. I wished at that point I could see his eyes, but they were shielded by sunglasses and I wasn’t about to make any requests.

“This isn’t between me and you. This is between me and God,” he replied.

“Are you religious, sir?”

He shook his head. “I just don’t know any more.”

I wanted him to understand so badly that things wouldn’t always be this way, but I could feel his desperation as he rested his unstable body on a nearby rock. I told him that I knew that he must be hating me right now.

“I don’t hate you, but you ruined everything. I was almost there.”

I sat down between him and my discarded pack. Funny, I didn’t remember taking it off.

“Do you have any family?” I asked.

He looked at me, but this was not a question he was ready to answer.

“You know that I can just leave. What are you going to do if I just go?”

I worriedly scanned the car for his keys. They had been pulled out of the ignition. His driver’s license was sitting up on the dash, ready for whoever found him. Instinctively, I committed his name to memory.

It dawned on me that to get him to open up and stay put, I would have to give him a piece of myself, and somehow this felt like a fair exchange. I knew how he felt, but I also wasn’t sure how much of my life I wanted to share with a complete stranger.

rock“You may not believe me, but I know how you are feeling. I know what it feels like to be depressed and hopeless. I too wanted my life to be over at one point, but a girl found me passed out at a picnic table in a park shelter and called the ambulance. I was mad at her for years, but now I am grateful, and I know the world is a better place because I am here.”

His posture changed; he uncurled his body and turned toward me. “How did you do it? What did you do to try to end it?” he asked.

I summoned strength from within as I gave him a synopsis of the story of me as a teenager. It isn’t a story that I recount very often, since it is such a distant part of myself.

“I know this sounds stupid right now, but do you want to talk? I can’t do much to help you, but I can listen and I will understand.”

Before he began, he reached out his hand. “My name is David.”

“Hi, David. My name is Karen and I’m really glad we got the chance to meet.”

He began to tell me about what brought him to this point in the woods. He was jobless, homeless, and penniless. All he had left was his car and what he thought was just enough gas to “finish the job.”

While I listened, I forgot all about Mary Ann, who was out in the road on her phone. At this point, she walked back to us and leaned down toward David.

“Help is on its way,” she offered.

I knew this was the last thing David wanted to hear, but it was also not wise to let him be shocked by the impending sirens.

He looked at me in panic. “They are going to handcuff me. I don’t want to be handcuffed,” he nervously asserted.

Again, I drew from my experiences. I told him about the people in my life that I had loved who I had seen handcuffed. I let him know that I was not going to let them do that to him. I had no idea whether or not this was a promise I could keep, but I was certainly going to do my best.

Then the sirens came. We could hear them from both directions. Apparently, we were between townships, so would get two of everything.

I stayed with David as the paramedics approached. They were busy and loud, which clashed with my own tone.

“Hello sir. What’s going on?”

“Gentle please,” I admonished. My sense of protectiveness heightened as I turned over David to the experts.

Out on the street, a second set of paramedics arrived. Now, there were also two squad cars. Mary Ann was busy recounting the events to a deputy.

I stood between the two groups, unsure of my place in the current situation. The paramedics were asking David a barrage of questions and checking his vitals.

Finally, one of the deputies approached me, notebook in hand. He got my side of the story and wrote down my contact information. He explained that he needed it in case we were subpoenaed.

At one point, the other deputy came walking up, interrupting my story. “You mentioned a hose. I couldn’t find a hose.”

“Oh, yeah. I was upset. I threw it pretty far. Look for it in the woods.” The anger I had felt as I ripped the hose from the tailpipe came back to me at that point and that’s also when I realized that David was right. He did break the law and he really may have to leave the scene in handcuffs.

The deputy asked if we had any further questions. Mary Ann asked him what would happen next.

He explained that they would admit David to the hospital, keep him under observation for three days, and that professionals would help him to come up with a plan. At the end of the three days, he would have to appear before a judge and agree to follow through with the plan.

My metaphorical hackles went up. I was worried about how David would be treated.

“Are you going to handcuff him? He does not want to be handcuffed.”

“If he leaves in the squad car, yes. We have to handcuff him. If he leaves in the ambulance, then no. Do you have other questions?”

Mary Ann looked up at the patch on the side of his uniform. “Sheboygan County. What kind of resources do you have for homeless people in Sheboygan County?” she asked skeptically.

For the first time in the past hour, I was amused. Leave it to Mary Ann to stick it to the man.

The deputy assured her that they did indeed have resources and that David would be connected with people who could help. He then offered us a ride back to our car.

“No, we are backpacking,” Mary Ann and I practically shouted in unison. Without consulting each other, we knew that we needed that time on the trail to decompress. This is one of the miracles of our nine years teaching together. We didn’t usually need words.

We hoisted our backpacks onto our backs and proceeded to the trail. As we walked by David and the paramedics, I wasn’t sure if I could just leave this to the professionals. I hesitated.

One of the paramedics noticed.

“You girls did a good thing today,” she assured us. “You should feel proud.”

My eyes watered up and she gave me a compassionate hug.

“Can he please leave in the ambulance,” I asked.

“His oxygen level is below 87%. He is leaving in the ambulance. You two got to him just in time.”

Relieved that he would not be handcuffed, I patted David’s back and said my goodbyes.

We hit the trail with a fervor, both of us fighting back tears of disbelief.

Mary Ann put what I was thinking into words, “It’s hard to feel good about saving someone’s life when they didn’t want to be saved.”

I knew exactly what she meant, because I was feeling it too. We had just been in exactly the right place at exactly the right time to save David’s life, but all I could feel was sorrow.

Those last few miles went by quickly. When we came out of the woods and into the parking lot, it was as if the whole world had shifted. I wasn’t sure what to say, what to do, how to act. The world was continuing around me, though for a moment it had seemed as if everything should have stopped.

Mary Ann offered her maps to a woman in the parking lot who was waiting for her husband to come off the trail. I shook my head and smiled. Mary Ann never seems to miss a beat and doesn’t ever hesitate to offer her assistance.

And now, I was ready to give something back. I triumphantly pulled a bag out of the car and raised up Lay’s Sour Cream and Onion chips and a family sized bag of Twizzlers. Mary Ann smiled at our tradition as she got into the driver’s seat.

“Let’s eat.”

I won’t mention how much of the chips and licorice we ate on the way back to my car, but I can tell you it was consumed in unparalleled camaraderie.

One month later, I continue my weekly ritual of running in the Kettle Moraine, but I have not been able to leave David behind. A card from the Sheboygan County Sheriff’s Department still sits on my nightstand. For some reason, I am unable to discard this last proof of David’s plight. Periodically, I type David’s name into my search engine, nervously looking for an obituary that I am hoping never to find.

It hits me the hardest when I am running. I cannot run past abandoned vehicles on the trail without looking. A sense of panic fills me when anything is out of place. My idea that there is a place on this earth where sorrow cannot be found has vanished. The woods remain my cathedral for running, but I now know that  no matter how fast or how long I run, the world is never far behind.

Suicide Symptoms and Warning Signs

Learn more or get help

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1 (800) 273 – 8255

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Miss Nelson is Missing

Coming Soon Certified Teacher

Photo Art, Courtesy of Kati Walsh, Madison Teacher

Last week marked the first week of school for students in the Madison Metropolitan
School District (MMSD) and across the state. Those first days of school are filled with excitement for many – shopping for back to school supplies, gathering with friends, comparing notes about the summer, and meeting new teachers. However, as the district races to finish its hiring, some of this excitement has to wait.

Students at Sherman Middle School started the year without a choir or general music teacher. These students were ushered back into homerooms as a place holder until this position is filled. Teachers at Schenk, Marquette, Spring Harbor, Emerson, Black Hawk, Lowell, Chavez, and the Work and Learn Center also report unfilled positions in the areas of general education, music, instructional resource, dual language immersion, Spanish, and special education. As in recent years, calls for substitute teachers to classrooms are already being left unanswered. (Note: This was an informal request for data, and is by no means to be considered a complete list.)

This teacher shortage may come as a surprise to some, considering that Madison recently revamped its hiring process. As a part of this process, the school district moved 50% of its applicants on to the interview process. This increased the pool that principals had to hire from by the hundreds. In collaboration with Madison Teachers Inc., the district also moved up its hiring timeline in an effort to be more competitive, compete for minority applicants, and improve the overall quality of hires.

Despite these efforts, many positions remain unfilled and minority hires continue to hover around 13%, which is consistent with demographics of the current workforce. Of the new teacher hires this year, only 4% were African American, while just under 20% of our students identify as African American.

Job ApplicationThis problem with hiring is not unique to Madison. Districts such as Janesville, Waukesha,  Portage, West Allis, and La Crosse reported a decrease in teacher applicants, and an increase in “last minute” hiring. In fact, as of the end of August, WECAN (Wisconsin Education Career Action Network) still reported about 1,000 open job postings. Special education positions are among the hardest, and arguably the most important, to fill.

It wasn’t very long ago that the teaching profession was extremely competitive. At the time when I was hired into the MMSD,  only 10% of applicants received a job. There was a sense of pride at being hired on as an educator. With the passage of Act 10, stagnant wages that don’t keep up with inflation, and political attacks on teachers and public education, this sense of pride has been greatly diminished.

UW MilwaukeeThe pool of new teachers in training is also on the decline. The UW – Oshkosh has one of the largest teacher education programs in the state. Its enrollment in this program has dropped 25% over the past four years. UW – Milwaukee’s enrollment in education programs dropped a startling 23% over five years. The UW – Madison has also seen a drop in education enrollment over the years, but at a much more modest rate.

Some point to provisions in the state budget as a makeshift solution. One provision calls for the Department of Instruction to lessen the requirements of teacher licensure by allowing teachers who have taught in other states for at least one year to acquire a Wisconsin Teacher License. Another provision allows people with valuable life experience to become teachers, outside of the core academic subjects. Opponents of these provisions worry that diluting the requirements for licensure will only work to further dismantle our public education system, undervalue skilled educators, and undermine the quality of education students receive.

While administrators, politicians, and community leaders grasp for a solution to this shortage, students across the state are missing out on beginning of the year relationships. Whether this loss is with a missing case manager or music teacher, our students are certainly paying the price.


School Districts Scramble to Find Teachers for Open Positions

Wisconsin’s Growing Teacher Shortage

Madison overhauls the way it hires teachers, seeking high quality and increased diversity

Number of teachers in training down statewide

Posted in education, labor, politics | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

The BEP: Better on Paper than in Practice

MMSD/MTI Joint Committee on Safety and DisciplineLast week,  a report made public by the Joint Committee on Safety and Discipline concluded that only eighteen percent of the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) staff have seen a positive impact on student behavior under the Behavior Education Plan (BEP). This report came as we near the close of the first year under this newly implemented plan. Tonight, the MMSD Board of Education met to discuss changes to the BEP.

MMSD Superintendent, Jen Cheatham, kicked off the meeting by reminding the Board and public about the background surrounding the district’s BEP. The BEP was created to address the disproportionate number of minority students represented in suspensions and expulsion data under the former discipline code. However, a report on behavior indicated that under the new plan, black students now account for 62% of the district’s suspensions, up 3% from last year.

How this BEP will become a model for other districts, as Cheatham claims, remains to be seen.

The current effects of the BEP were heard resoundingly throughout tonight’s meeting.

Broken Safety Glass at Cherokee

Erin Proctor showed the MMSD BOE this picture of broken safety glass from Cherokee Middle School.

Erin Proctor, a staff member at Cherokee Middle School, told a revealing story of broken safety glass. Prior to being broken by a student, this glass had toted the school’s behavior agreement, “Be Responsible. Be Respectful. Be Safe.” According to Proctor, this was the 4th window that has been broken this year.

Kati Walsh, an art teacher at Midvale and Randall Elementary Schools, disclosed details about three fights that she had broken up earlier today. Those three fights all took place in the same hour and were in a second grade classroom. Nobody on the behavior team at her school responded to her calls for assistance when she called about the fight, which ended in Walsh placing herself between the fighting children.

Behind each of these compelling stories, there was a recurring message. The BEP is understaffed, the severity of behaviors in the schools is increasing, and safety risks are imminent.

The Joint Committee on Safety and Discipline also found that more teachers agree than disagree that their “values and beliefs align with the approach to behavior outlined in the Behavior Education Plan.” This fact should not be overlooked, as it refutes some skeptics claims that the ineffectiveness is due to a lack of staff buying into the plan.

Board member Dean Loumos agreed, “It is not the paper that bothers me — it’s the practice.”

The superintendent and Board members suggested that the problems could lie in staffing, professional development, or fidelity of implementation, but nobody refuted the claims that the plan was not producing positive results.

Does the answer lie in technology or with our staff and students?

Does the answer lie in technology or with our staff and students?

An interesting twist came later in the meeting when funding for the BEP was juxtaposed with funding for the district’s technology plan. While district support staff is moving from incident to incident, trying to put out fires with students rather than offer them the interventions the BEP promises, our district is moving forward with $1.2 million spending in technology. This technology plan will provide five (all elementary or middle level) of its 53 schools with one-on-one student devices. Initially, this plan was meant to spread to other schools throughout the district. However, implementation beyond the pilot schools has been put on hold due to recent state budget cuts in education.

An important question was raised. Should the district continue to put money into a technology plan without a clear future, while schools across the district suffer due to an underfunded, understaffed behavior plan?

This is a question that went unanswered tonight, as the BEP changes were put on hold until the Board can look more closely at the data. However, they are on a quick timeline. Cheatham urged that a decision be made by June 1st to ensure time to plan for professional development around the BEP.

As a member of the Joint Committee on Safety and Discipline, I have thoroughly analyzed the symptoms that our district faces: frustrated students, threats to safety, loss of staff morale, and chaotic learning environments. Educators hurt when our students are hurting; tonight’s testimony was a tale of district-wide pain. It is time for the district to take a closer look at the causes behind its failing BEP.

Send your thoughts regarding the MMSD BEP to

Links to Materials:

MMSD Behavior Education Plan 

Final Copy of the Joint Committee’s Report on the BEP




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The Um and Yang of Spring and Public Education

Um-YangWith Spring comes a time of renewal. Bitter winds give way to rays of sunshine, flowers begin their ascent out of barren soil, laughter reverberates in area playgrounds, and the songs of birds once again fill the air. In Eastern theory, Um categorizes this soft, circular energy, which cannot exist without the hard, linear energy of Yang. (Referred to as Yin and Yang in Chinese.)

SpringThe current reality in our schools creates a stark dichotomy to this time of newness. Rather than a time of starting new projects or realizing reawakened energy, springtime in our school is a time of loss, doubt, and uncertainty. When summoned to the principal’s office, there is fear of surpluses, layoffs, or program cuts. No matter how steadfast their grip, with all of this stress and tension, public educators may not be able to hold on for long.

In the fifteen years I have been teaching, each year has meant doing more with less. The district’s budget has been stretched increasingly thin. Every year the same question arises, “How can we continue serving our students with less than we had before?”

This year, schools were hit with deafening blow. Walker’s budget cuts 127 million dollars from public education next year. This leaves the Madison Metropolitan School District with a twelve million dollar budget gap for the 2015-2016 school year. To make the situation worse, the budget includes no increase to the revenue limit. While this formula will mean property tax relief for the wealthy in our society, it increases the damage to our public schools, at a time when our government paves the way for private school vouchers and independent charter schools.

TESTIn addition to the monetary deficit, the current budget also calls for an unrealistic and unfair assessment of our public schools. The Smarter Balanced Assessment will be eliminated after its first year of use, leaving educators to wonder why we are jumping through the hoops of administering the test this year. Schools will be offered choices of assessments, making comparisons among schools inaccurate. Ranking systems utilizing letter grades will be publicized, but will in no way paint a true picture of our schools, students, or the work taking place. This hits schools with a diverse student body and high poverty levels the hardest, due to the effects of testing bias and the correlation between income and performance on standardized tests.

As our public education system is devalued, schools are mislabeled as “failing schools, and educators lack the proper resources to serve their students,  it is no wonder that teachers are leaving the profession. Between November 1st, 2013 and October 31st, 2014, 74 teachers retired from MMSD and in that same timeframe an alarming 140 resigned. This is a trend that will continue if we do not see changes in our current political climate, initiative fatigue, and budgetary decisions.

Chart Created by Erin Proctor, MMSD SEA

Chart Created by Erin Proctor, MMSD SEA

UWAccording to Eastern philosophy, you cannot have heat without the cold. There is no sunshine without the darkness of night, and the hope of being reborn must accompany death. During a time when I am ready to run and play outside with my students and speak of hope for their future, Governor Walker is eradicating public education – an institution that is the cornerstone of our democracy. It is no wonder that it is so hard to appreciate the beauty of spring.

MMSD Budget Information:

Walker proposes state budget with tax cut, school choice expansion:



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Public Schools are Already Accountable

Public school teachers are continuously improving their practices.

Visitors are greeted with a smile and students no longer skip a beat, because this is the new reality of teaching in a public school.

With all this talk of accountability in the air, one would think that public schools were void of checks and balances, that teachers had free reign. That could not be further from the truth.

Since the start of the school year, my principal, superintendent, students’ parents, school improvement partner, the district’s positive behavior support coach, district AVID coordinators, the site based leadership team and many others have visited my classroom. Visitors are greeted with a smile and students no longer skip a beat, because this is the new reality of teaching in a public school. The days of closing my classroom door to the outside world are through, and I embrace the transparency.

In addition to opening up their classrooms for constant feedback, educators also jump through many hoops of accountability. After making it through three years of probation, new educators must submit a Professional Development Plan (PDP) to the Department of Public Instruction every five years to renew their teaching license. This plan, which includes goals and a plan for growth, is submitted to a PDP Team consisting of peers and administrators.

Meme courtesy of Madison teacher, Kati Walsh

Meme courtesy of Madison teacher, Kati Walsh

If you still aren’t convinced that teachers are accountable, stick with me – enter the Wisconsin Educator Effectiveness System, complete with more shiny accountability hoops than ever before. Under this new system, teachers create a Professional Practice Goal (PPG) and Student Learning Objectives (SLOs) to show that they are effective and making growth in the four domains of the Charlotte Danielson Framework for teaching. A detailed analysis of current level of performance, areas for growth, and evidence of reaching defined targets is tracked using Teachscape. If you think this sounds rather complicated, you are in good company. For this reason, DPI has developed an 86 page instruction manual to assist educators in this journey. (And if this is stressing you out, you are also in good company. Consider watching this parody, SLO Song, by Linda Kinnison Roth. It made me feel better.)

Ms. Forward

With all of this accountability storming through public schools, I have to stop and question what is going on with our state legislature.

With all of this accountability storming through public schools, I have to stop and question what is going on with our state legislature. (In our current political state, questioning of this sort is strongly encouraged.) The first bill of the 2014 legislative session, Assembly Bill 1, once again put public schools on the chopping block. The original version of this bill called for an “Academic Review Board” consisting mainly of appointees by the majority party that would not be democratically accountable to our superintendents or elected school boards. This proposal reinvigorated a letter grading system for our schools that would not account for economic conditions or pressures from outside the school walls. To make matters worse, testing for charter schools would be different from testing for public schools, creating a system that would make comparison impossible. Perhaps the most upsetting component of this bill is what would happen to “failing” schools – they would be converted to charters. On January 14th, over 100 educators testified at a twelve hour hearing on AB1.

Some of the most compelling testimony came from educators and parents of children in public schools. Amy Mizialko, a teacher out of Milwaukee, explained that public schools are being “forced through the cracks” by dwindling budgets and an increased move toward privatization. Retired Milwaukee educator, Sheila Plotkin, reminded listeners that our public schools accepted all learners from all walks of life, while private schools underwent “education by exclusion.” The message was clear; Assembly Bill 1 takes direct aim at public schools that have already taken too many hits.

For more on this hearing, see the thorough coverage by Monologues of Dissent.

Not long after this hearing, on January 16th, the Wisconsin State Senate followed suit and introduced its companion bill, Senate Bill 1. A public hearing on this bill was held on January 27, 2015. This bill sets up two distinct “accountability” boards, one for public and charter schools and a separate board for private voucher schools. These boards separately would have the power to identify failing schools and implement improvement plans. Under SB1, state aid could be withheld from districts that include “failing” schools.

Both AB1 and SB1 will penalize and defund the schools that contain our neediest students. In a time when schools and teachers are striving to meet the needs of all students, these bills would add increased pressures without any regard for the daily struggles students and teachers face. Our public school teachers are already accountable. The legislature’s irresponsible use of the word “accountability” perpetuates the dangerous myth that it is our schools that are stagnant and failing. As I spend my weekend reviewing lesson plans, grading papers, making contact with students and parents, and reviewing my PPG and SLO, I encourage the state legislature to take a look at the reality of our public schools.

I believe in you

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Where is the Plan in the BEP?

According to the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) website, the Behavior Education Plan (BEP) that was approved in March of 2014 “moves our district away from a code of conduct based on a punitive model in favor of one that provides students with an opportunity to learn positive behavior skills.” As a veteran in the district, I embrace the philosophy behind this shift. Providing students with a means of learning from their mistakes and maximizing the time that they spend learning is in line with teaching our students to be responsible citizens. However, a philosophy in itself cannot teach our children. Without consistency, direction, and increased resources, the potential of the BEP cannot be realized.

It was with this dream in mind that educators filed in to the McDaniels Auditorium to share the current reality in our schools with the MMSD Board of Education. Many stepped up to the podium to give public testimony, while others sat in the audience with heads nodding and eyes tearing up. It was an emotional evening, and a reminder that the best intentions can go awry.

Andy Waity and Anthony Brown prepare to give testimony.

Andy Waity and Anthony Brown prepare to give testimony.

In a letter from Crestwood Elementary, read by Andy Waity and Anthony Brown, the current reality of our schools was described as full of challenges that “impact our staff’s morale, emotional, and even physical health.” Brown described a school climate where learning is constantly disrupted and putting out virtual fires takes priority over restorative practices.

The Crestwood staff also extended an invitation to the Board of Education to come out and experience the school climate under the BEP for themselves. This invitation was met with agreement and applause by those gathered in the auditorium.

Kristen Voss, Memorial High School, seconded this invitation and asked Superintendent Cheatham and the Board to “recognize that by questioning these initiatives, it does not mean that [teachers] are not part of the mission. It means that we just want to be able to understand what we are doing.” Voss also reminded listeners that teachers are on the front-lines, working to close the opportunity gap. To support our teachers and provide them with training and resources is to support our students.

Kati Walsh, an art teacher and former Positive Behavior Support coach, spoke up about incidents such as “a second grade student [becoming] violent, throwing objects and refusing to leave class when class ended.” Even with PBS training, teachers like Walsh are unsure of where to go for help when violence happens in the classroom and many report that when they do call for help that response time is slow. Staff are concerned that this could endanger both staff and students.

Staff member after staff member told gut wrenching stories about being sworn at, kicked, bit, and punched on a daily basis. At no point did speakers advocate for students to be removed from the classroom — quite the opposite. Teachers pleaded with the Board to bring more resources to the classroom, for social work and guidance positions to be reinstated. It was a clear cry for help in implementing the new Behavior Plan.

Conversations with educators throughout the district have made it clear that the BEP is being implemented inconsistently throughout the district. Some report that students are being “sent home” as a way around suspensions. Others have yet to receive training on OASYS, the new system for documenting behaviors, so behaviors are going undocumented. One speaker reported that teachers at some schools have been told directly not to document low level behaviors and at other schools documentation is still done on paper.

For Katrina Ladopoulos, Crestwood Elementary, this is not a problem with training or staff leadership. Ladopoulos spoke of her love of Crestwood Elementary and listed her ongoing training in positive behavior supports, responsive classrooms, and culturally relevant teaching. As an English Language Learner and special education “cluster classroom,” Ladopoulos asked for increased support in the classroom. “We can’t do it alone. It’s a whole community. We need to work together.”

The conversation at Monday night’s Board meeting and others throughout the district is causing educators to wonder what the the plan is with the BEP. The vision of the BEP looks good on paper, but the paper does not match the reality of our schools — schools where classroom climate makes learning difficult for even our most motivated students. Superintendent Cheatham responded to speakers by reassuring them that their voices were heard, “loud and clear.” Moving forward, the district’s response to the ongoing crises in our schools will be evidence as to whether or not Monday night’s message was truly received.

Watch the Public Testimony here. (Public testimony begins at 2:11:00)

Email your feedback to the MMSD Board of Education at


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Make me a Match

TeacherMatch sounds like something straight off the cover of the Onion, especially when eyeing up the price tag, but it could be the new reality of the Madison Metropolitan School District. It is enough to make Yente, the matchmaker from Fiddler on the Roof, turn green with envy. The Madison Metropolitan School District purports to be stretching its dollars in the upcoming budget cycle, so what guarantees does this $273,000 venture promise?

$273,000 closer to a business model for education

$273,000 closer to a business model for education

A Chicago based company, TeacherMatch, claims to use algorithms to predict the effect that a teacher candidate will have on value added student test scores. Whether this is plausible or not, in an era where we are looking at testing bias and social-emotional learning standards, the very definition of a good teacher being measured only by students’ standardized test scores is faulty.

Last week, I was called over to a student’s computer while administering the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test. He was doing a reading test, so I was surprised that this talented reader was stuck on a question so early on in his test. I soon found out what was causing the looks of frustration. In order to answer the question, he had to know what was meant by the “Touch of Midas.” This information could not be found in the passage he was being tested on; it wasn’t even hinted at. This was simply a piece of background knowledge the test assumed when asking questions. Of course, I could only encourage the student and remind him to “read carefully,” but it was disheartening, knowing that the answer was not actually there. Am I a less effective teacher, because I hadn’t told my students the story of King Midas? Where exactly can you find King Midas in the Common Core State Standards?

The creators of TeacherMatch have boiled down a teacher’s value to four distinct categories: where the candidate went to college, a candidate’s drive or ability to work through challenges, content knowledge, and teaching skills.

Having attended the University of Wisconsin – Madison, a top school in Teacher Education, I feel fairly confident that I’d score okay in this first category. However, most of my tips and tricks as a teacher were picked up from actual classrooms, working with real students in diverse settings or were picked up from my mentor teachers along the way. The University did get me ready for this challenge, but it wasn’t the end of my journey. My grade point average as an undergraduate was 3.84 and as a graduate student my 4.0 remains in tact, but in no way do these numbers indicate my own level of perseverance in obtaining a bachelor’s and a master’s degree as a single parent against incredible odds. Nowhere in these numbers is it obvious that I was once labeled an “at risk” student myself, which is the strongest motivator imaginable. As for testing teacher skills, the best indicator of my effectiveness as a teacher can be found by watching me in a classroom. That is where I shine, no matter what shows up on paper.

Data does not define me as a teacher.

The University of Wisconsin, My Alma Mater

The University of Wisconsin, My Alma Mater

Incomplete or faulty criteria aside, TeacherMatch’s assessment methodologies are also cause for alarm. As a means of arriving at a rating, a candidate must answer 100 questions. Each of the question must be answered within 2 minutes or the score is invalidated. So much for think time!

As a teacher, I have learned that arriving at the truth takes time and follow-up questions, but there is no room for this type of authentic interaction with TeacherMatch. The learners who benefit most from “think time” or extended answer time in my classroom are English Language Learners. For this reason alone, it is obvious that TeacherMatch comes complete with its own testing biases.

Seeing my student teachers interacting with my students gives me a window into who they will become as educators. Talking with teacher candidates about classroom community, their individual successes and failures with students, and their own journey of personal growth offers me insights into their humanity.

TeacherMatch moves schools another step closer to a business model and abandons the heart of teaching.

The Madison Metropolitan School District should leave the matchmaking to the administrators, teachers, and, of course, to Yente.

Matchmaker, Matchmaker,
Plan me no plans
I’m in no rush
Maybe I’ve learned
Playing with matches
A girl can get burned

Write the school board at to tell them your thoughts about TeacherMatch.

There will be an open Board meeting with the vendor of TeacherMatch and MMSD BOE members available to answer questions on June 9th at La Follette High School, 702 Pflaum Road. The meeting will commence at 5:00 and will be followed by a public hearing on the budget at 6:00.


Photo courtesy of Erin Proctor, EA-MTI president

Banner photograph courtesy of Erin Proctor, EA-MTI president

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Ready, Set, Bargain!

I Address the BOEApproximately 250 people filled the McDaniels Auditorium in the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) Administration building last Thursday night to advocate for the teachers’ right to a place at the bargaining table. Thirty people signed up to speak, including Representative Melissa Sargent, Representative Dianne Hesselbein, Representative Chris Taylor, former Board member Marj Passman, and MTI president Peggy Coyne. Congressman Mark Pocan could not be present, but submitted a letter of support to begin the bargaining process.

While collective bargaining was at the heart of Thursday night’s discussions, many felt a wiser approach would be to extend the bargained 2014-2015 contract an additional year. This would ensure the matter was settled in a timely manner and it would prevent the teachers from potentially slipping back further in the event that negotiations went awry. As Kathryn Burns pointed out in her speech Thursday night, teachers have lost tremendously over the past few years under Act 10.

The security of my collective bargaining contract being Kathryn Burns addresses the BOEextended and negotiated under duress since Act 10, and under great sacrifice on my part in salary and working conditions, it is the only thing that has kept me here. But, I do not look at the district the same way anymore. I used to trust you to care about and value your staff, but the changes you made to our contract that went above and beyond what was necessary for Act 10 seemed like an assault, like kicking someone when they were down. Now, I have nothing left to give you in exchange for collective bargaining.

The last speaker to address the crowd was Luke Gangler, who read the following resolution put forth by the MMSD Student Senate.

MMSD Student Senate Resolution to Recommend the

Extension of Employee Contracts

WHEREAS, The first legislation allowing public sector collective bargaining was signed into law in Madison, Wisconsin in 1959; and

WHEREAS, International courts and human rights organizations have since identified collective bargaining as a fundamental right of workers; and

WHEREAS, The right of school staff to collectively bargain has a direct impact on the learning environment of students; and

WHEREAS, The Wisconsin Legislature passed 2011 Wisconsin Act 10, dismantling long-held collective bargaining rights on dubious grounds; and,

WHEREAS, Judge Juan Colas’s September 2012 stay of Act 10 allows MMSD to extend employee contracts and the MMSD Board of Education has been presented with Memorandas of Understanding; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, That the MMSD Student Senate recommend that the MMSD Board of Education approve extensions of employee contracts with MTI, AFSCME, and the Building Trades Council through 2015-2016; and, be it

FURTHER RESOLVED, That the MMSD Student Senate recommend that the MMSD Board of Education take additional steps to protect and expand employee rights regardless of any future legal restrictions on collective bargaining.

Thunderous applause filled the auditorium as the crowd gave Mr. Gangler and the rest of the Student Senate a well-deserved, standing ovation.

Luke Gangler reads a resolution from Student Senate

The Board then voted 6-1 to convene in closed session to discuss entering into negotiations with AFSCME, MTI, and the Building Trades Council. Board member and teacher advocate, TJ Mertz, was the nay vote, showing his own value for transparency in politics.

At about 9:45 pm, school board president, Arlene Silveira, put out the following statement:

The MMSD Board of Education voted unanimously to direct our Superintendent to commence good faith collective bargaining with all of the district’s represented units for the purpose of negotiating successor agreements for the 2015-16 school year.

This affirms our belief in collective bargaining. We look forward to sitting down at the table with our employees to negotiate agreements that provide stability for our staff and meet the needs of all of our students.

As teachers and other public employees await a decision from the Wisconsin Supreme Court, expediency in the bargaining process is essential. It remains to be seen whether or not the Madison Metropolitan School District will do the right thing and restore some of the damage highlighted by Burns and other speakers Thursday night, or once again, try to take advantage of the contentious political climate.

One thing is clear; the teachers and other MMSD employees are ready to bargain in good faith, but they are equally ready to stand up for their students and for what is right and just in the workplace.

To watch Thursday night’s testimony, please visit:

Email your thoughts to the MMSD Board of education at

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Respect for Workers Means a Place at the Table

Full HouseAs the MTI red and AFSCME green packed the meeting room and the halls of the MMSD Administration Building Monday night, I couldn’t help but think that we’d been here before. The budget was on the work committee’s agenda, but the primary focus of attendees was a new  contract.

Thursday, the Madison Board of Education will meet in closed session with the focus being the possibility of bargaining a 2015-2016 contract for AFSCME and MTI employees. However, no meeting for public appearances was scheduled prior to that closed meeting. Clearly, this did not dissuade the 75+ attendees from descending upon Room 103. The attendance was so great that the Board had to reconvene the meeting in the auditorium to make space. As more people filed in, this space, too, was quickly filled with signature red of MTI and green of AFSCME.

As the meeting got underway, newly elected Board president, Arlene Silveira announced that public testimony was to stick to the item of the budget. As compensation, the Board would agree to hear public testimony regarding the contract on Thursday at 5:30.

Special Education Assistant and EA-MTI President, Erin Proctor, was the first to give her public testimony. Due to the restrictions, she craftily related her speech to the confines of the budget. Proctor stated that while technology was important, we also need to consider the stress that staff is under, given the numerous changes being made in the district and the impact it has on employees’ health. She went on to explain that the Board was in a position to alleviate some of this stress by ensuring contracts with employee unions.

Dane County Alder, Sharon CorriganWhen Dane County Supervisor Sharon Corrigan took the podium, she briefed the Board on how collective bargaining can create flexibility and solve budgetary issues. Speaker after speaker spoke of the value that must be placed on employees, the ones who will deliver curriculum and District standards. After all, a curriculum does not teach itself.

Former School Board President, Carol Carstensen, illuminated the financial hit that our staff has already taken and how they continue to deliver for our district even in the most challenging times. Carstensen emphasized the impact Act 10 has had on salaries; she explained that since 2011 staff have not been made whole, given their loss of wages due to the 50% contribution to the WRS deposit.  She said that the district is dependent on the staff and that they need to be rewarded financially and with new contracts.

Another former Board President, Barbara Arnold, spoke for the GRUMPS (Grandparents United for Madison Public Schools) advocacy group asking the Board to renew the energy in our district and show dedication to teachers. She assured the packed auditorium that this was how we would get the best results for our kids.  Former Board President Bill Keys, who also served as MTI President, said negotiating new Contracts would show the community that the Board is accountable to their wishes.

Art teacher, Kati Walsh, advised Board members that the best way to attract and retain a qualified working staff was to put a fair contract in place. She also potently reminded the Board members that most of them had campaigned on the issue of supporting collective bargaining. Now was not the time to be complacent.

As speaker after speaker took the podium, there were promisesMMSD Board of Education to return on Thursday when speech would not be limited. After public testimony, Union advocates gathered outside for a retelling of our history by MTI President Elect, Mike Lipp. He spoke to the crowd on the years when obtaining a contract was nearly impossible, and the years where “winner takes all arbitration” resulted from the legislature mandating arbitration as the means of resolving impasse in negotiations.  Sadly, we reminisced over the cost controls of the QEO and how long teacher salaries had remained stagnant. However, according to Lipp, the greatest tragedy came with Act 10. In spite of this, MTI had endured and secured a contract through the 2014-2015 school year, one of the few in the State.  Due to the current judicial window, Lipp assured the crowd that the time was right to bargain for another year.

Collective bargaining brings with it no set formula, but it does come with some guarantees. It comes with the security of knowing that the workers have a voice at the table. It is what has brought teachers their planning time, sick days, health care, and working conditions. Perhaps most importantly, it means that when a teacher disagrees with his or her principal about a decision being made or feels a decision will be detrimental to our students, that the teacher can stand up for what is right without fear of retribution.

After Meeting Rally

Attend the the Board meeting on Thursday, May 15th and secure the workers’ place at the table. It is in the best interest of our students, our district, our schools, our employees.

BOE Meeting, 545 West Dayton Street, Room 103

Email the Board your thoughts at

Solidarity in Room 103



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Michael Flores – the candidate with heart

Flores FamilyWhen a candidate runs for public office, their entire family is running alongside them. Schedules are rearranged, conversations changed, and there is nonstop traffic in and out of the house.

There are so many reasons to support Michael Flores for the MMSD Board of Education. But one really needs to look no further than his family to be convinced. His family’s enthusiasm and commitment to this campaign are evidence of Michael’s own commitment to make a difference in our public schools. 

The message below was written by Michael’s wife, Nichole Flores. These words come from a place of truth, but most importantly they come from the heart. In the words of former school board president, Juan Jose Lopez, “Que Viva Michael Flores!”

I Support Michael Flores, by Nichole Flores

Flores FamilyI support Michael Flores for Madison school board because as a father, he understands that parents of ALL colors, rich, poor, or in-between, want to see their children succeed in school (and in life), and there is no one-size-fits-all path to achieving that.

As a boy that grew up never knowing his own father, he became an incredibly devoted and involved dad to his own children, and a role-model for other children, never taking for granted what the presence of a father-figure means in their life.

Growing up without consistent parental guidance and financial support enabled him to understand the circumstances and frustrations that many of our city’s children face.

I support Michael Flores for Madison school board because a bilingual Spanish-speaking representative on the board is needed to bridge the communication gap that exists between policy-makers and an often politically under-represented segment of our community.

I support Michael Flores for Madison school board because I’ve never known anyone that’s more approachable, enthusiastic, or who genuinely cares more about other human beings than him.

I support Michael Flores for Madison school board because he supports teachers, who are often expected to do the impossible against all odds.

I support Michael Flores because he understands and supports the concerns of children and parents, and strongly supports the arts, music, athletics, and many other extra-curricular activities that provide a well-rounded educational experience for children and promote academic and social engagement that are crucial to life-long success.

To contribute, volunteer, or learn more about the candidate, visit the campaign website.



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~ Unity, Commitment, Action ~



Flores FamilyCity of Madison firefighter and paramedic, Michael Flores, has announced his candidacy for next spring’s MMSD Board of Education election. Flores seeks to fill the seat being vacated by Marj Passman, who announced last week that she would not seek re-election.

Flores, who was a candidate for the Board of Education in 2012, states that his “commitment to supporting the students and teachers of MMSD is as strong as ever, and the need for collaboration of the talents, resources and ideas within the district and greater Madison community is more important than ever – to serve the needs of all Madison students in these fiscally challenging times.”

Flores explains that Madison is fortunate to possess such racial, ethnic, cultural, and even socioeconomic diversity. While many of the city’s residents are highly politically active, others remain disengaged from the political arena. Yet, one issue that can bring us all together is concern with ensuring that our children receive a high-quality education, as well as opportunities for personal growth and development outside of the classroom.

As he stated in his 2012 grassroots campaign, Flores can identify with the experiences and struggles of many children in this city. Flores knows first hand what it means to grow up in poverty with two cultures, two languages, and without consistent parental support.

Flores and his wife have three children in Madison schools and believe that all children, from those identified as talented and gifted to students with special education needs, can thrive in the district. This belief coupled with his life experiences will make Flores an invaluable member of the Board.

Want to get involved? Send an email to:

Or to learn more about the Flores campaign, visit:

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Route 31 to Owl Creek – Worth the Wait

Author’s Note: this article was written by Karen Vieth and Susan De Vos for Madison Commons.

La Follette senior, Nancy Garduno, uses Route 31 to attend school events.

La Follette senior, Nancy Garduno, uses Route 31 to attend school events.

While it has become rather standard practice for Metro to tweak its routing and scheduling every year around the end of August, the changes this year were major.  One of those changes was the addition of a route 31 to the relatively new but isolated Owl Creek neighborhood, a housing development on Madison’s far southeast side near McFarland.

Route 31 now runs at peak times in the morning and afternoon during the work week (roughly 6:45-9:30 a.m. & 4:00-6:45 p.m.Mon-Fri) and hourly during the day on weekends.  For La Follette High School senior, Nancy Garduno, the addition of bus route 31 to the Owl Creek neighborhood has brought with it a vastly improved quality of life.

The addition of the route marked the end of a year and a half long crusade by area teenagers, bus advocates, and community groups.  Teenagers such as Garduno spent endless Saturdays knocking on doors with a petition, talking with government officials about their need for transportation, and testifying in front of the Transit and Parking Commission. The effort and persistence paid off, not just for this group of teenagers, but for future generations.

“I’m happy my brothers won’t have to go through everything I went through,” Garduno said.

Garduno was surprised that their efforts paid off.

“As much as I wanted a bus, I didn’t think it would actually happen,” she explained.

The previous victory of route 16 advocates was something that kept the local teen motivated. When LaFolletteHigh School students agitated for a direct bus to the South Transfer Point back in 2003, what ultimately became route 16, they encountered refusals all the way to a final budget hearing in front of the Common Council.  In contrast, Garduno recalled a visit from Madison’s Mayor Paul Soglin during their advocacy. The responsiveness of city government and Metro Transit showed this group of teens the importance of voice in local government.

Persistence seems to be a way of life for Garduno. When asked about life before the bus route, she described her own trials as an athlete geographically separated from the high school. On the weekends, Garduno would ride her bike to and from practice, an hour round trip. She laughed recalling that when her bike broke down, she’d have to run there and back.

The addition of route 31 to Owl Creek opens up possibilities for the previously isolated neighborhood. Teens missing the school bus in the morning, now no longer have to miss a full day of school, an issue which had caused students to face truancy charges in the past. It also offers teenagers a way to visit friends and engage in an assortment of recreational activities.

Residents in the Owl Creek neighborhood will now have easier access to jobs and businesses. Before the bus route, options were limited, because the neighborhood is logistically cut off from the city.

Initially envisioned in 2005 by the Nelson brothers, the neighborhood sits among the wetlands, an issue of concern itself. As Schneider explained in a Cap Times article in 2011, the original plan included 69 single-family houses, 15 duplexes, and four 4-unit apartment buildings. However, the plan did not include a means for residents to move around, a problem that has become all too common these days. The development was constructed, in spite of its inaccessibility to a bus line, because people were supposed to have automobiles.  However, shortly after the development was approved, the housing market took a turn for the worse, causing builders to begin walking away. This left the Nelson brothers with 50 vacant lots.  So, plans changed to create a pocket of affordable housing, still without an apparent appreciation that affordable housing requires affordable transportation. As one resident explained, “it is like the city created our neighborhood and then just forgot about us way out here.”

Route 31 is a good first step in alleviating the community’s isolation and reconnecting residents to the city. It is a route that only runs once an hour, but Garduno says that it is “worth the wait.”


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6th Annual Sennett Family Picnic Inspires Hope

Holly Kanvik (Family and Consumer Education teacher) knows it isn't a picnic without the watermelon. Her after school Catering Club also cooks for the event.

Holly Kanvik (Family and Consumer Education teacher) knows it isn’t a picnic without the watermelon. Her after school Catering Club also cooks for the event.

On Wednesday, September 18th approximately 300 people filled Southdale Park for the 6th Annual Sennett Family Picnic.  Sennett staff, students, families, and MMSD’s assistant superintendent of secondary schools, Alex Fralin, were in attendance.  It was an amazing sight. Shortly after 5:00 p.m., families could be seen filing into the park from all directions. The atmosphere was one of festivity and celebration, as staff and students kicked off the school year “potluck” style. The diversity of the attendees was represented by the wide array of food served, with everything from macaroni and cheese to enchiladas.

It was heartwarming and enlivening to see so many families and staff sitting out on the park lawn sharing a meal over laughter.  Kids of all ages reveled in the common joys of face painting, eating ice cream, blowing bubbles, playing ball, and spinning on the merry-go-round.

Sennett teacher, Amber Hanrahan, tries out her skills at face painting.

Sennett teacher, Amber Hanrahan, tries out her skills at face painting.

Talking to the neighborhood kids that night was a true delight. They felt proud to be the hosts for the evening and immediately started talking about what the picnic would be like next year. While families came to the picnic from all across Sennett’s attendance area, many commented that they were only able to attend because the location was within walking distance of their home.

SouthdalePark is in the heart of apartment complexes that are isolated from the school by the Beltline Highway and inadequate public transit. Mika Oriedo, a Sennett Middle School teacher and former student, has first hand experience with this commute. Oriedo grew up in the neighborhood; he ran and played in SouthdalePark as a kid. These fond memories were mixed in with the challenges of being at the farthest corner of Sennett’s attendance area. Oriedo explains, “I was the first person on the bus route and the last one off, daily for my three years of middle school.”

The success of this event and the choice of an under-served neighborhood as the venue is a symbol of Sennett Middle School’s dedication to their students and families. Six years ago, the idea for a family picnic was a dream brought about by Sennett’s Equity Team.  This group is dedicated to closing the achievement gap that persists between minority students and their white peers.  As a part of this mission, the team analyzes school practices and how to better serve all of our students. They also work to increase parent engagement. The picnic fell right in line with this mission.

Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream is an event sponsor.

Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream is an event sponsor.

The picnic is also an opportunity for the surrounding community to connect with the school in a meaningful way. Many area businesses and organizations donate to this event. This year’s picnic was made possible by generous contributions from The Chocolate Shoppe, Cranberry Creek Restaurant, Copps, Fraboni’s Delicatessen, Gardner Baking Company, Huntington Learning Center, Ken’s Meats & Deli, Kraft/Oscar Mayer Foods, and McDonald’s- Fish Hatchery Rd. Many Sennett staff members also donate their own time, resources, and expertise to make this event possible.

Vice-Principal, Dr. Kendra Lowery, helps out her husband at the grill.

Vice-Principal, Dr. Kendra Lowery, helps out her husband at the grill.

Wednesday’s event was a tribute to the Sennett staff’s ability to adapt as they encounter the unexpected. Ten minutes prior to the picnic’s start, organizers realized that they were without electricity. Within minutes, Sennett’s computer teacher, Beth Hawker, was plugging the sound system into an adapter on her van. Karen Vieth was on the phone with the Town of Madison Police Department, calling for a back up plan. Due to the kindness of the police officer and the generosity of the Public Works Department, electricity was soon restored. The Sennett staff never skipped a beat.

Oriedo says that it is truly a “harambee” event. Harambee is a Swahili word that signifies people pulling together to work for a common goal. That is the true nature of Sennett’s picnic. Every year, hope is ignited by this event. It builds enthusiasm in the students and connects them with their school and community. The hard work continues back in the building as the school staff build upon that hope.

Peter Trail (Sennett Security Guard) and Jackie Saad (SEA) lend a hand and smiles at this “harambee” event.

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Stapler Not Included

Public schools have faced a decreasing budget for more than a decade. Yet, the effects are not always obvious to the outside observer. Teachers rush in to fill the holes as quickly as they are created, sometimes asking for help from the parents and community. Unfortunately, these holes are forming faster and faster. After years of teacher pay being stagnated by the Qualified Economic Offer (QEO) under Governor Thompson, followed by a new decrease in take home pay under Governor Walker’s Act 10, the teaching profession has taken a hit. Will teachers be able to continue donating enough time, money, and resources to make up for budgetary deficits?

Benjamin Franklin warned a young tradesman, “Time is money.” Critics of public education are quick to point out that teachers get their summers off. This is a half-truth. Many of these summer hours are spent gathering new materials, taking classes to improve instruction, teaching summer school, working a second job to stay afloat, reading children’s and professional literature, preparing the classroom for a new year, modifying curriculum to meet the needs of special education students, or dreaming up new ways to reach students. In fact, if you talk to a teacher lucky enough to have gone on vacation, she will more than likely show you the items she brought back to share with her students and explain how they connect to the classroom curriculum. The truth of the matter – the best teachers never stop teaching.

For the past six years, I have taken time out of my summer to organize our annual school picnic. As a school, we host this yearly event in a park that is in the heart of low-income rental units where many of our families live. Organizing includes reaching out to area businesses for donations, gathering supplies, recruiting volunteers, inviting the school community, planning recreation, and preparing the park for our arrival. Other staff members at Sennett volunteered hours over the summer selling concessions to pay for our annual camping trip to Upham Woods, where students learn from outdoor, educational experiences.

It isn’t just time that teachers donate during their summer. As teachers prepare to dive into a new school year, they also plunge into their pocket books.  On the average, teachers spend $485 on their classrooms annually. Ten percent of teachers report that they spend more than $1,000. Schenk Elementary School teacher, Leslie Walsh is among this ten percent.

Where are teachers spending their money?

Walsh states that she does what many teachers do. She gives healthy food to hungry kids, buys school supplies, and pays for field trips. In addition, she has created a classroom fundraiser for field trips that involves buying paper to print note cards that feature students’ art work. She prints these note cards and envelopes from home and sells them to generate funds for field trips. “I want to be generous and do anything I can to support students. I see what a difference these actions make every day and it is more than worth it,” Walsh explains.

Stapler image from Wikipedia Commons, author: Tim Collins

Stapler image from Wikipedia Commons, author: Tim Collins

First year teachers can be expected to set up an unequipped classroom on as little as $50. This is the amount that academic teachers receive at Sennett Middle School. Over the summer, I was approached by a new teacher who wanted to know where the supply closet was, because she needed a stapler for her classroom. When I explained that there was not a supply room and that she could use a requisition form to order $50 worth of supplies, her eyes grew wide. When she realized that she was further limited by being required to place this order from an overpriced catalog, her shock increased. I quickly explained to her that when her $50 was exhausted that she should look for deals at “Back to School” sales. Relief took over her face as she inquired about reimbursement. With a solemn shake of my head, I welcomed her to the world of an underfunded, public education.

Special Education Assistants (SEAs) like Jackie Saad, also rush in to fill the needs of our students. Saad spends about $150 at the start of the school year for supplies and snacks for students. Throughout the year, she continues to buy pencils, pens, and notebooks when supplies run out. Saad also volunteers eight to ten hours of her time to help teachers set up their classrooms. The contributions of our Special Education Assistants carry extra weight, considering their starting base wage is $13 per hour and that this rate increases to only $15.95 after seven years.

Poverty also plays a part in the increasing need for school staff to increase personal contributions. Many of our students come to school empty handed. Teachers recognize the stressed look on students when they don’t have the required supplies and they discreetly find ways to fill that void and ease their tension. Schools with students experiencing homelessness come up with creative ways to help out, such as creating a community closet, where staff donate clothing, food items, formula, and toiletries to families in need. Special education students with significant needs may need a change of clothes or access to a washing machine within the school day. School staff shop at thrift shops or browse Craig’s list when a family is not able to provide this extra clothing. Teachers have learned to repair items, utilize duct tape, and find innovative solutions to a lack of supplies. One high school teacher even used the proceeds from a summer garage sale to buy scientific calculators for her class.

Parents too have felt the pinch of a decreasing school budget. Some student supply lists now contain items to stock the classroom, such as Clorox wipes, dry erase markers, Kleenex, reams of copy paper, and even Band Aids. Elementary school parents are frequently asked to bring in snacks for the classroom. With unemployment on the rise, jobs that do not pay livable wages, and less take home pay for public sector workers, many parents are struggling to fill this additional need. In schools with a high percentage of low-income students, supply lists are set aside for rent or groceries.

Elvehjem School, 4th and 5th Grade Supply ListSchools cannot be expected to base their survival on donations and volunteerism. Teachers, parents, and the community can provide Band-Aids, but this is neither a complete nor enduring solution. Education has been and will continue to be the cornerstone of our democracy, but to maximize its potential, we must first make a genuine investment in our public schools.


Photo courtesy of Leslie Peterson

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Speak Out, No Permit Required

Today marks the last day of summer break for Madison teachers. I was at school preparing for next week’s arrival of students, but at 11:30, I found myself glancing up at my classroom clock more and more frequently. It felt like there was some place else I ought to be. Two recent events motivated me to postpone my work and head down to the Capitol for the noon Solidarity Sing Along.

Nora Cusack is placed under arrest for observing, photo courtesy of Erin Proctor, MTI

Nora Cusack is placed under arrest for observing, photo courtesy of Erin Proctor, MTI

The first of these events occurred on Thursday, August 22nd, when Nora Cusack was arrested for observing the Sing Along. She was not singing; she simply watched from above with an 8 1/2 by 11 sheet of paper that said, “I am observing only.” The Wisconsin Department of Administration (DOA) had declared earlier in August that people would not be arrested for simply observing the goings on at the Capitol. Cusack did not clap, tap her feet, hum, or participate in any way other than standing and holding her message. She was told this was participation and was handcuffed and taken down to the basement to be processed. Cusack was the only person arrested that day

Cusack’s testimony was reason enough to wonder what was going on in our State Capitol, but events got even more out of hand on Monday, August 26th when the Capitol Police took their policing to an unprecedented level of aggression. The Capitol Police held CJ Terrell in a compliance hold that inflicted significant pain as he remained passive in a seated position. But, the video that was even more shocking was the take down of CJ’s brother, Damon Terrell. As Terrell backed up in a passive stance, he could be seen waving his hands and saying, “No, no. This isn’t illegal.” The video then shows the Capitol Police tackling Terrell to the marble ground.  The finishing blow came later that day when JS Online reported that Terrell could potentially face felony charges for battery of a police officer.

As I made my way to the Capitol, I had time to reflect. For more than two years, people spent their noon hours singing songs about justice and freedom, but peace was maintained. This changed as Chief Tubbs, who managed protesters and his police force in a reasonable, respectful manner, was replaced by Chief Erwin, who uses militaristic and strong-armed tactics. This was the obvious beginning of this storm.  At the heart of this storm, is the unconstitutional permit policy itself.

Bert Zipperer and Amy Noble leaving in handcuffs, photo courtesy of Erin Proctor, MTI.

Bert Zipperer and Amy Noble leaving in handcuffs, photo courtesy of Erin Proctor, MTI.

“Why don’t they just get a permit?” is a question frequently asked by opponents of the Solidarity Sing Along. In fact, on August 1st, NBC 15 even took out a permit to make a point about just how easy it is. However, not only should a permit not be required of the singers, a permit could actually open the group up to even greater trouble.

The First Amendment reads,

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

It is clear that a law requiring a person to get a permit to exercise their freedom of speech is an abridgment of that right. Logic dictates that a right is not a right if permission has to be asked. The First Amendment also guarantees that people have the right both to peaceably assemble and to petition their government when they have a grievance. This, by definition, is the Solidarity Sing Along, who has been peaceably assembling as a means to express their discontent with the current state government.

After 10 arrests, the rotunda is still full, photo courtesy of Leslie Peterson.

After 10 arrests, the rotunda is still full, photo courtesy of Leslie Peterson.

Even without these Constitutional guarantees, a permit is not the answer. Under the permit policy, any group seeking to congregate in the rotunda must get a permit 72 hours in advance of the event. With the Solidarity Sing Along, many questions immediately arise. There really is no designated group. It is an informal collection of individuals that varies from day to day. Not only do participants come and go, but the person leading the songs is flexible as well. The answer to who belongs to this group is both simple and complicated – whoever shows up. So, exactly who is required to get the permit?

Even more problematic is the question of liability. On page fifteen of the Wisconsin State Facilities Access Policy is a section on “Liability Insurance and Bonds.” It reads,

“As explained in sections II-(D) through II-(F) of this policy any individual or organization using any State facility, including the Capitol or Capitol Lawn (State Capital Park) will be responsible for all suits, damages, claims, or liabilities due to a personal injury or damage to or loss of property and for the cost of any damages incurred as a result of its event or exhibit.”

These are not words to be taken lightly, especially since it is the DOA determining those damages. While the Solidarity Sing Along has taken place for two years without serious incident until recently, there have been some close calls. An example of this happened on June 21st, 2011, when singers were harassed by Tea Party members, including former State Senator, David Zien. One tea party member punched a Solidarity Sing Along member and Zien wheeled around the rotunda floor without regard for people’s property or toes. Or we could use Terrell as an example of things that can go wrong. An officer was allegedly injured during this incident and Terrell could have easily been injured as well as a result of police intervention. In each of these cases, the access policy would hold the permit holders liable. This policy puts the permit holder at risk for the behavior of any person who enters the Capitol doors during the time of the permit. With a group as fluid as the Solidarity Sing Along, this presents an incalculable risk. To put it simply, the permit policy makes freedom anything but free.

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Me, Bert Zipperer, and Amy Noble prior to their arrests, photo courtesy of Leslie Peterson

It was with this in mind that I spent my last, precious summer moments in the Capitol rotunda among friends. The first song began as I entered the rotunda. I linked hands with my MTI brothers and sisters as Chief Erwin came on the loud speaker and declared the assembly an unlawful event. My mind went immediately to a police state, but the singing continued. When the MTI members to the left and right of me stepped out in cuffs, I stepped in and tightened the circle. I did my best to stand proud and raise my voice peacefully in song, because it was the right thing to do. The freedoms guaranteed to us in the United States Constitution will only be ours if we continue to fight for them.

“First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a communist.

Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

-Martin Niemoller

Please continue to speak out. No permit required.


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Union Women Step Up with a Boost from Emerge

Union Women from the Emerge Graduating Class of 2013. From left to right: Julie Jansch (AFSCME Council 40), Pat McPartland (WEAC, retired), Karen Vieth (MTI), Julie Allen (AFSCME Council 40), Catherine Myers (IEA), Kati Walsh (MTI), Sequanna Taylor (WEAC). Not Shown: Paula Cooper (Ironworkers Local 383)

Union Women from the Emerge Graduating Class of 2013. From left to right: Julie Jansch (AFSCME Council 40), Pat McPartland (WEAC, retired), Karen Vieth (MTI), Julie Allen (AFSCME Council 40), Catherine Myers (IEA), Kati Walsh (MTI), Sequanna Taylor (WEAC). Not Shown: Paula Cooper (Ironworkers Local 383)

Saturday, July 20th marked the graduation of the Emerge Wisconsin Class of 2013. With unparalleled confidence and eagerness, eight women of labor took an important step forward for their unions and the state of Wisconsin. As State Representative Melissa Sargent (EmergeWI, Class of 2012) embraced graduates, they were handed a formal Citation of Commendation ceremoniously marked with the great seal of the State of Wisconsin. In a flurry of hugs, words of recognition, and smiles, graduates were awarded certificates of completion and were proudly pinned with the Emerge insignia by former State Senator Jessica King (Class of 2007), Wendy Strout (Emerge WI, Executive Director), and Bethany Ordaz (Emerge WI, Board Chair).

Emerge Wisconsin is a training ground for Democratic women aspiring to run for political office. The intense seven month training unwraps the mysteries behind running a successful campaign with topics ranging from fundraising to messaging and everything in between. Emerge is much more than a curriculum, the program connects women with a cohort, increases their networking capacity, and ignites the confidence necessary to take that next step and run for office.

Our union sisters, who now act as role models and mentors for the current graduating class, are testimony to the effectiveness of this training. Mandy Wright (Class of 2012) stepped directly from the classroom into the Wisconsin State Assembly after defeating conservative talk show host and GOP candidate Patrick Snyder. Wright is now a strong advocate for the people in the 85th, as well as for women and education advocates statewide. Another 2012 graduate, Mary Arnold (WEAC, retired) has taken her place as the Columbus School Board Director. Arnold has fought tirelessly for public education and also campaigned on jobs, health care, and the environment in a 2012 run for Assembly.

As a nurse and public employee, Dane County Board Supervisor, Erika Hotchkiss is a strong member of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE). Hotchkiss (Class of 2012) is a strong voice for all citizens, including working families, people with disabilities, veterans, seniors, and our homeless populations.

AFSCME members, Ellen Lindgren and Carol Beals have also been forces to reckon with; both women are Emerge Alumnae from the Class of 2010. Lindgren is now the Middleton Public Schools Director and Beals is a Grant County Board Supervisor. Beals is also Chair of the Grant County Democratic Party and President of Wisconsin State Employees Union Local 1622. Beals held her opponent’s feet to the fire when she ran for State Assembly in 2012.

Emerge pin received by graduates

Emerge pin received by graduates

These are tough acts to follow, but keep your eyes on the Emerge Class of 2013. Teachers Karen Vieth and Kati Walsh (MTI) both claim Representative Mandy Wright among their role models. As public education faces attacks, Walsh understands the increasing need for teachers to have a voice in the political arena, “I just finished my 5th year teaching and it breaks my heart to watch politicians make decisions for our students and teachers who really know nothing of what is best for them. It is essential that teachers start to have a real voice in education policy.”

Julie Allen (AFSCME) has been president of her local for eight years and has served on the Council 40 Executive Board for the past three years. Allen has also served as the King Town Treasurer for the past sixteen years. Allen will clearly put her ambition and the skills she gained at Emerge to good use in LincolnCounty.

Julie Jansch (AFSCME, retired) has been a union member for 31 years. During this time, she served as a Union Steward, Vice-President, President, Secretary, and an Executive Board Member. She was on every contract negotiation for 25 years and currently serves as the President of the Green Bay Area Retirees Union. Jansch understands the connection between the success of labor unions and having strong representation in public offices. She also understands the timeliness of electing more women to office.

With legislation on equal pay, reproductive rights, and domestic abuse, women are clearly a target of the current Republican agenda. Jansch states that it is nothing less than abusive, “It is about control. They need to control women in every way they can.” But for these Union Sisters, Emerge is an opportunity to fight back. “And what better person to run for office to help win the fight then a woman who has been putting fires out all along in her capacity as a Union member, Steward or Officer,” Jansch concludes.

All of the Emerge graduates have strong memories of the 2011 Wisconsin Uprising and each has risen to the challenge of the current political environment. Past and current history has shown union leaders and Emerge sisters that, “If you are not at the table, you are on the menu.” Emerge Wisconsin is helping women find that place at the table; they have trained over 100 Democratic women to run for public office at every level – village trustee, school board, city council, county board, and state legislature. In the words of Emerge Wisconsin Advisor, Senator Tammy Baldwin, “Politics is not a spectator sport; you must get involved in order to help make the change that you want to see.” The time to make that change is now.

Emerge Wisconsin, Graduating Class of 2013

Emerge Wisconsin, Graduating Class of 2013

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Teach-in Rally: The Future of Education in Wisconsin

Yesterday, as the Senators were inside the Capitol debating the budget, public education supporters stood in solidarity outside our State Capitol and hosted a teach-in.

Speaking on behalf of Public Education. (photo courtesy of Donna Fogell, MTI)

Speaking on behalf of Public Education. (photo courtesy of Donna Fogell, MTI)

Thank you to our knowledgeable and passionate speakers:

  • Bringman, Sara
  • Carstensen, Carol
  • Chern, Laura
  • Coyne, Peggy
  • Fiene, Jerry
  • Jonen, Jina
  • Juhnke, Joanne
  • Silveira, Arlene
  • Statz, Bambi
  • Underwood, Julie
  • Uphoff, Charles
  • Vieth, Karen
  • Weiland, Andy
The following link is to WisconsinEye’s video coverage of this event:
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Budgeting Away our Tomorrow

A sea of MTI red in the Assembly parlor. (photo courtesy of Rebecca Kemble)

A sea of MTI red in the Assembly parlor. (photo courtesy of Rebecca Kemble)

The last locker has been cleaned out, the last grade entered into the computer, and teachers have locked their classroom doors for the summer. In the ever changing Wisconsin way, teachers kicked off their summer break at the State Capitol. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers and legislators who support public education held a press conference in the Assembly parlor surrounded by a sea of MTI red. The purpose of this press conference was to inform citizens about the drastic proposals in the state budget and to ask other legislators to take a stand for the state of Wisconsin.

Chris Larson gives his opening remarks. (photo courtesy of Michele Ritt, MTI)

Chris Larson gives his opening remarks. (photo courtesy of Michele Ritt, MTI)

Senator Chris Larson opened the press conference and immediately made it clear that this budget takes aim at the middle class. In this budget, Governor Walker has rejected federally funded Medicaid expansion and will in effect kick 88,000 people off of Badger Care. In addition, the budget calls for statewide expansion of private school vouchers which channel public dollars to private, unaccountable schools. Income taxes are to be cut by $650 million, the majority of these tax breaks geared toward the wealthy. The harmful reaches of the budget also extends to the gutting of our unemployment system and a bail “bondsmen program” which allows corporations to profit off of people in our judicial system. It is no wonder that Senator Larson made a request for one more senator to stand up and be “an agent of moderation.”

Superintendent Evers addresses the crowd. (photo courtesy of Michele Ritt, MTI)

Superintendent Evers addresses the crowd. (photo courtesy of Michele Ritt, MTI)

Evers opened his speech with a reminder that our public schools are currently among the best in the country. However, historic cuts to our public education system would come at a significant cost. Evers also shed light onto the significance of people being able to include private school tuition as a tax write off under this new budget. Evers concluded that even if he was a billionaire, which he joked was a title he was nowhere near, then he could get a tax break for sending his students to private school. This attack on public education is a threat to the “core of our democracy.”

Also among the pro-education legislators was Senator Lehman from Racine, Wisconsin. Racine is an area in the state that currently has the voucher program. Lehman confidently asserted that this model was not working. Not only are the models in Milwaukee and Racine not working, the voucher system does not have constiuency support. Representative Sondy Pope-Roberts stood and reported that not a single person she has talked to has asked for statewide expansion of the voucher program. MMSD School Board Vice-President, Arlene Silveira, read a letter of opposition from Madison’s new Superintendent Cheatham which also mentioned the lack of support for vouchers in the community.

MMSD School Board VP, Arlene Silveira, reads a statement for Superintendent Cheatham. (photo courtesy of Michele Ritt, MTI)

MMSD School Board VP, Arlene Silveira, reads a statement for Superintendent Cheatham. (photo courtesy of Michele Ritt, MTI)

The Superintendent of Baraboo schools, Crystal Ritzenhaler, echoed these concerns for rural districts. Their schools are making gains on closing achievement gaps and bringing up student achievement. She explained the need to continue funding the schools, especially at a time when 50% of her teachers are new and inexperienced. Training and professional development needs are on the increase due to a younger staff. Her remedy was to remove voucher expansion from the budget and increase the per pupil budget by $200. This proposal was met positively by applause in the parlor.

The audience energy increased when a spectator posed a question about creating two separate and unequal school systems. Milwaukee Private Schools are currently capitalizing on the draining of our public schools. Their advertisements promote art, music, and other essential experiences that the public schools are having an increasingly difficult time funding. The audience member explained that with private school vouchers we are creating one system of private, wealthy schools and another system of public, underfunded schools. In doing so, we are feeding the disparities that are already present in our society between the wealthy and the struggling and in doing so are going against the democratic ideal of a free, quality public education for all.

The budget will be taken up by the Assembly tomorrow morning and will likely be voted on by Wednesday. This means that the Senate could take up the budget as early as Thursday. Now is the time to contact all legislators and make a final plea for public education, Badger Care, and our middle class.

Many of our legislators have continued to make requests for proper hearings and public testimony to make the lack of public support for these budget items obvious and to add transparency to this process. Opponents of this budget share an ongoing concern that once the budget is passed in the Assembly, it will get pushed quickly through the Senate without enough attention spent on debate and consideration of amendments.

Larson stated that we are “rolling out the red carpet” for those who would like to show their support of public education by opposing the controversial components of this drastic budget. The future of Wisconsin public schools depend on other legislators stepping up and doing what is right for our state. After all, as Representative Peter Barca so eloquently asked, “At a time of surplus, if we won’t invest in our public schools, when will we?”

Representative Peter Barca takes the podium. (photo courtesy Michele Ritt, MTI)

Representative Peter Barca takes the podium. (photo courtesy Michele Ritt, MTI)


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Upham Woods puts Learning where your Heart is

The Upham Woods sign, always a welcome sight.

The Upham Woods sign, always a welcome sight.

Ask a former Sennett Student what their most memorable experience was in middle school and they will undoubtedly give you two words – Upham Woods. Their enthusiasm is genuine. Lifelong memories are created from the time they take that final turn off County Highway N into the parking lot until the moment their tired arms reload the school buses. Upham Woods is not just a field trip, it is a formative journey.

Students spend three days at Upham Woods with environmental education as a focus. Their teachers instruct them in archery, canoeing, camping skills, aquatic life, and crafts. Students are also led in team challenges, such as safety catches and taken on hikes where they might find themselves cheering their classmates on as they squeeze through caves. During recreation time, laughter can be heard as students work to capture the other team’s flag or sit on an uncooperative balloon in a team relay. Running, investigating, and playing while learning is what makes outdoor education a success.

With all that learning, students need frequent refueling at Upham Woods. Each meal is an event in itself. Some students arrive to the meal early with a designated job of either “hopper” or “scraper.” Surprisingly, this is done without mumbles or groans. It is an important part of being in the Upham community. “Hoppers” and “scrapers” are the hosts of the dinners and listen carefully to their duties before everyone else files into the cafeteria. Hats and bandannas are hung neatly in the hallway upon entrance and students seat themselves. All meals begin with appreciations. Students stand to give praise to others for being supportive, succeeding in a challenge, or for being a good sport. These appreciations are given some time to sink in during the moment of silence that follows. As the meal gets officially under way, students can be seen passing dishes of food around, striking up conversation, and practicing their table manners. “Hoppers” get up and get the food to be served, serving others before they get a chance to eat. When it comes time to clean up, dishes are stacked and our “scrapers” are armed with rubber spatulas that are their namesake. This “family style” eating brings diners even closer together.

Toilet Paper Relay

Each night ends with a campfire in the lodge, where student leaders amp up the participation by leading their peers in song, teachers put on skits that make them look quite ridiculous, and stories are told. The second campfire night undoubtedly leads to tears as students participate in a candlelight ceremony. One by one students light a candle and tell their story about how Upham Woods has changed them and given them refuge. Students talk about how they hung out and got to know people in their class in a new way, a way that couldn’t have happened back at school. New friendships were formed and old ones strengthened. Students are just different at Upham Woods, more open, accepting – more themselves.

I will never forget my first candlelight ceremony. It had been my first year teaching and it had been a trying one. I had replaced a strong, African American teacher who is now one of my heroes. However, taking over her classroom meant that I had my young, inexperienced hands full. The kids had tested me at every turn, yet one by one, they got up and gave eloquent recollections of not only Upham Woods, but their school year. Many candles were lit with apologies for the hard time they had given me. One of my Latino boys who hid his books and only turned in his homework secretly, stood up to speak. His words are engraved in my memory, “The thing about Ms. Vieth is that she has heart. You can hear how much she cares in her voice with everything she says.” At that point, I was the one crying. My students had acted so tough all year. Until that moment, I had not realized that I had gotten through.

Sunset RockIt is the spirit of Upham Woods that makes this trip so important. It couldn’t be done without the teachers. Prior to Upham Woods, Sennett teachers and parents work selling concessions to bring down the cost of Upham Woods. With over 60% of our population on free and reduced lunch, scholarships are necessary. Teachers write letters to obtain scholarships and students even participate in some events, like Scoopie Night at an area Culver’s.

During the trip, teachers spend time away from their families to be with their students. Some staff, including our Learning Coordinator, stay up at Upham Woods from Monday through Friday to ensure that everything runs smoothly. And when it comes down to it, the staff who go to Upham Woods work hard to ensure a successful trip. One Sennett teacher describes her day as follows, “On Tuesday I was awake and talking with students from 6 AM until 1:00 AM the following day (19 hours without a break). After I fell asleep at 1:00 AM, I was awoken 2 hours later (3 AM) to help a student who had wet herself. I am not trying to brag; I amazed even myself that I could give for this long straight.” While it is truly the marathon of field trips, every minute is worth it.

Students return to Sennett with what staff refer to as the “Upham Glow.” They have learned a lot about each other and a lot about life from the trip. There is a new sense of camaraderie and a new way of being together as a class. There are stories of wildlife they viewed, campfires started without a match, amazing accomplishments, and hysterical failures. The rainy days or frozen fingers are soon forgotten as they seek out a new friend at lunch to reminisce. Upham Woods puts learning where your heart is.

Sleeping on the Bus


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Experience, Collaboration, and Advocacy: Vote Dean Loumos on April 2nd

Dean Loumos, an advocate for our public schools

Dean Loumos, an advocate for our public schools

Dean Loumos is the best candidate for Madison School Board Seat 3. This is a unique time for our schools. Budget cuts over the past 20 years continue to take their toll and affect services to our students. Teachers have to do more with less and must defend public education in the process. The proposed expansion of public school vouchers is evidence of further assault on our public education system. These issues make the outcome of our April 2nd Madison School Board election even more critical.

Dean has a long standing history of making changes within our Madison schools. His ten years of teaching experience included working with some of our most challenging populations. Three of these years were spent teaching at La Follette High’s “school within a school” alternative program. Dean’s seventeen years as the executive director of Housing Initiatives, Inc. show that Dean understands how to work within our community on important topics such as poverty, health, and homelessness. His experience in finding creative solutions and forming community partnerships will be an asset to our district.

Dean will be a strong advocate for improving our schools while keeping them public and accessible to all. While his opponent has stated that his response supporting publicly funded, private school vouchers on a January 2013 questionnaire was a mistake, Dean’s own stances and actions have stood the true test of time. Join me in voting for Dean Loumos on April 2nd.

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Two Dimes, a Rural Route, and Postal Alchemy

Me, as a child, at Grandma's farm.

Me, as a child, at Grandma’s farm.

My son, Cody, continuing the tradition at Grandma's farm.

My son, Cody, continuing the tradition at Grandma’s farm.

I can’t ruminate on the United States Postal Service (USPS) without also conjuring up happy childhood memories. Having grown up in a small rural town in Wisconsin, the postman was more than a familiar face; he was friendly and generous.  My own motivation for returning to the mailbox again and again was to keep in touch with my grandmother who lived on a farm a couple of hours away. It was pure magic. At the time, she didn’t even have a street name, yet the letters still found their way to “Rural Route 4.” No stamp? No problem. I would simply scotch tape two dimes to the empty place where a stamp should be. Somehow, my postman would perform a bit of postal alchemy and my envelope would safely find its way to Grandma’s farm.

On February 6th, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe made a startling announcement. The plan for “saving” the postal service was to close 200 additional processing plants (200 were closed total in the previous six years) and put a stop to Saturday delivery as of August 12th, 2013.

However, these plans were stymied.  Currently, Saturday delivery cannot be stopped without an act of Congress. On March 21st, The House of Representatives approved a continuing resolution (CR) that maintains six day delivery. Amendment 68, proposed by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) would have removed the six day delivery language from the CR. However,  this did not come up for a vote. Some legislators claim that the wording in the current legislation is vague and, in spite of Congress’ resolution, are asking to move forward with a plan to limit or end Saturday deliveries.

Congressman, Mark Pocan (D-WI), co-sponsor of H.R. 630

Congressman, Mark Pocan (D-WI), co-sponsor of H.R. 630

Ironically, it was Congress that got us to this point in the first place. In 2006, Congress implemented a requirement for the postal service to set aside money to pay for the its retiree’s benefits for the next 75 years. This pre-funding of the benefits was to be done in the course of just ten years. Since 2007, this has cost the postal service $32 billion dollars.

In spite of this financial hardship, the post office has surplus funds available, but they are currently unable to access these funds to repay their debt. Between the years of 2007 and 2010, the operational profit of the USPS was $611 million. In fact, since 1982, the USPS had not directly accepted any tax payer dollars. The only exception to this is the subsidy that pays for the costs to send voting materials overseas or to voters with disabilities. The USPS has relied solely on the sale of stamps and services as its primary funding source.

These are services that many seem to take for granted, but that are accessible across this country. Many rural areas rely more heavily on the postal services for goods and services. The postal service does not discriminate; a 44 cent stamp can reach any household in the United States. Six days a week, the postal service delivers thank you notes, letters from loved ones overseas, and prescription medication. It does so at a price that is remarkable low compared to other non-subsidized postal services worldwide. According to a British study, the USPS is also rated first for efficiency. Remarkably, it successfully delivers 160 billion pieces of mail per year.

Dropping Saturday delivery and continuing to close processing plants could be the Preserve 6 Day - Delivering for Americabeginning of the end for the United States Postal Service. In addition to jobs being lost, this would also cause disruption to the system and a slowing of delivery. Good business people know that limiting services turns away customers. Slowing down our postal service is yet another push toward privatization of services, a push that has become all to familiar to workers in many different fields across the United States.

Citizens and legislators have begun pushing back. Bill  H.R. 630 (S. 316), The Postal Service Protection Act of 2013, was recently introduced in an effort to preserve and strengthen the postal service. In this piece of legislation, Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR) goes a step beyond maintaining Saturday delivery and delves into criteria for closing postal facilities, authorizes use of the surplus funds for debt repayment, authorizes the expansion of services, and eliminates the criteria of pre-funding health benefits.

SCFL President, Kevin Gundlach, at a Postal Service Rally (Milwaukee Street, Madison)There has also been Solidarity found in supporting postal workers. This was evident on March 24th, the Postal Service Day of Action, when SCFL president, Kevin Gundlach, took the megaphone. The crowd cheered with him as he bellowed, “An Injury to One is an Injury to All.” Other area leaders such as John Nichols, U.S. Representative Mark Pocan (co-sponsor of H.R. 630), Brian Austin, and John ‘Sly’ Sylvester braved the cold to deliver stirring speeches about the importance of supporting and strengthening our postal service. From California to Tennessee, from Wisconsin to New Jersey, demonstrations of support took place across the country.

During the 2011 Wisconsin Uprising, the National Association of Letter Carriers stood alongside teachers, iron workers, electricians, police officers, and other private and public sector workers from all walks of life. Now, it is time to stand with them. Take action now to save six day delivery and in effect the United States Postal Service. And next time you turn on the computer to shoot out an email to your grandma, brother, sister, or friend, consider grabbing an envelope instead. Not only will that support the USPS, it will also make someone run to the mailbox and smile.

Take Action

Write to your legislators in support of 6 day mail delivery.

Sign the petition to support H.R. 630





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Awake, Engaged, Inspired

Photo Courtesy of Erin Proctor, Special Education Assistant and member of Madison Teachers, Inc.

Photo Courtesy of Erin Proctor, Special Education Assistant and member of Madison Teachers, Inc.

For the first ten years of my teaching career, I thought teaching and voting were enough. I was doing what I loved and I was fulfilling my civic duty. I will never forget the day that all of this changed. It was February 11th, 2011. Like clockwork, a student brought in my classroom copy of the Wisconsin State Journal and set it on the table beside me. As I was saying my “good mornings” to my class, I picked it up and read the headline, “Walker to propose stripping collective bargaining rights from state workers.” I looked again, assuming that I had misread the title. I carefully set the paper back down and looked out at the hopeful faces of my students. I was now fully awake and I knew the protection of these students had to extend beyond the walls of my classroom.

The action taken by Wisconsin’s Governor Walker in Act 10 forever changed my life. The following weeks were filled with protests, public hearings, and nights spent at the Wisconsin State Capitol. In the months that followed, I would knock on over a thousand doors throughout the state to assist with the Senate recall campaigns. In passing, I heard female leaders like Kathleen Falk and Tammy Baldwin promote Emerge as a powerful training program, but I saw my place at the doors, having one-on-one conversations with the people of the state I love.

Photo Courtesy of Erin Proctor, MTI

Photo Courtesy of Erin Proctor, MTI

By August of 2011, I was completely engaged in politics. That summer, when I wasn’t on a road trip with area activists, I would stop by the phone banks at Madison’s LaborTemple. I would research the candidate I was making calls for and locate the district on the map before donning a headset. One evening, I was told that we would be making calls for Emerge graduate, Jessica King, who was working to unseat Senator Randy Hopper. When I read her bio, I was inspired. Jessica King’s life had been anything but typical. She had overcome many obstacles including becoming a ward of the state at a young age and putting herself through school. In addition to feeling inspired, I felt validated. I saw a piece of myself in Senator Jessica King’s story. Perhaps my own life experiences could some day empower others.

It was at a DaneCounty Board meeting when I finally found my voice in politics. The budget was up for discussion and I was one of many citizens there to give testimony. There were services on the chopping block that had helped me as a teen and as a young adult. These were services I wanted to protect for my students’ families, yet I was nervous getting up in front of a room that was packed with hundreds of people. I was wearing my bright red Madison Teachers, Inc. (MTI) Union T-shirt as a symbol, but also to boost my confidence. Once in front of the Board, I spoke my truth. I shared pieces of myself and my virtues with complete strangers. I did this to preserve the path I had taken and strengthen it for others. As I stopped talking and turned to go back to my seat, an audience member yelled out, “Go MTI!” I was taken aback by a brief showering of applause. The “me” from a year ago would not have been standing in this spot. Again, my own path had shifted.

Proudly standing with my Emerge sister, Kati Walsh, and Representative  Melissa Sargent

Proudly standing with my Emerge sister, Kati Walsh, and Representative Melissa Sargent

Months later, I found myself at a local political fundraiser. I had accepted the invitation out of curiosity; this was a world that was new to me. I smiled and greeted people, but felt largely out of place. A friend of mine turned to introduce me to Emerge graduate and DaneCounty Supervisor (now state Assembly person), Dianne Hesselbein. An amazing thing happened, catching me completely off guard. She didn’t need the introduction. Supervisor Hesselbein shook my hand with a genuine smile and said, “I remember you. You spoke at the DaneCounty Board budget meeting.” She went on to explain that my words had moved her. This moment made me give Emerge a second thought. Perhaps, there was a larger forum for my voice and my passion for issues that affect our community.

As I pondered Emerge, I stayed engaged. I spoke at School Board Meetings and for the Chicago Teachers Union when they were out on strike. I worked on political campaigns, spoke on the radio, and began my own blog. All of this was fulfilling, but the idea of Emerge kept surfacing in conversations, followed by assertions of, “you should run for office.” I turned to people I trusted, like Emerge graduate and State Assembly person, Melissa Sargent. With each person I talked to, my resolve heightened.

Now, I am officially a member of Emerge Wisconsin’s Class of 2013. I know that other great women, many of them mentioned in this blog, paved the way so that I can stand where I do today. Walking into my Emerge classroom on the weekend, I see the power and potential in each of my Emerge sisters. And when they smile and welcome me into the group, I now see that same potential in myself.




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Vouchers Threaten our Schools, our Community

Courtesy of Erin Proctor, Special Education Assistant, Madison Teachers, Inc.

Photo Courtesy of Erin Proctor, Special Education Assistant, Madison Teachers, Inc.

On February 11th, 2011, teachers across this state received startling news. The Wisconsin State Journal headline on this date read, “Walker to propose stripping collective bargaining rights from state workers.” Just a little more than two years later, daily headlines show signs of further turbulence. Governor Walker’s current budget proposal includes the expansion of taxpayer-funded, private school vouchers to several districts in Wisconsin including Madison. The scope of the latest attack is not limited to schools, but extends to every student, family, labor Union, and community. It is an attack on the prosperity and well-being of the state of Wisconsin.

Our Schools

Our public schools have spent the last two decades doing more with less. Kerry Motoviloff (Madison Teachers, Inc. president) explains, “Teachers have been advocating for and offering creative responses and programming ideas for the many and complex issues we face daily in the schools. Simply put, they have not been funded.”

Both the Kenosha Unified Board of Education and the Madison Board of Education passed resolutions against voucher expansion. These resolutions lay out the damaging effect that vouchers have on our public schools. The unanimously passed resolution by the Madison Board decrees, “the implementation of a voucher program that takes any financial resources away from public schools is unacceptable.”


Our Students

Voucher programs have not raised student achievement. In fact, because of lack of accountability and necessary measures of progress, charter schools and other private voucher schools are less likely to provide students with complete school experiences that serve the students’ needs.

According to John Wedge (Director, Capital Area Uniserv North, WEAC), “Voucher supporters say their goal is providing successful options, but there is no evidence to back them up. Studies consistently show that students in voucher schools perform about the same or below their public school peers. Accountability should be the first priority for students.” He follows up with a critical question, “How does it benefit Wisconsin’s students to pour nearly $100 million in additional tax dollars to fund private schools that the Governor has himself admitted are unaccountable?”

Voucher schools are also less likely to provide students with experiences that focus on the arts and kinesthetic learning. According to a report by the nonpartisan group, Public Policy Forum, one-third of schools in Milwaukee’s voucher programs do not have art, music, or gym classes.

Tracy Hedman introduces her husband Peder and son Cyril, a 3rd grader at Parkway Elementary School in the Glendale-River Hills School District. Cyril has Down Syndrom. -Photo courtesy of Rebecca Kemble

Tracy Hedman introduces her husband Peder and son Cyril, a 3rd grader at Parkway Elementary School in the Glendale-River Hills School District. Cyril has Down Syndrom. -Photo courtesy of Rebecca Kemble

The Governor has also proposed $21 million for special needs vouchers. This money can be handed out to any student legally receiving special educations services, regardless of their family’s income. “Special needs vouchers are a false choice for parents of children with disabilities,” explains Lisa Pugh, an MMSD parent. “Not only do parents lose essential rights to a quality education – like the right to qualified staff, therapies and assistive technology- but this proposal is extremely harmful to local public schools. We know voucher schools will not be equipped to educate students with the most significant disabilities who will remain in public schools that are further drained of resources.”

Voucher schools do not operate under the same rules and guidelines as our public schools. MMSD parent, Anna Moffit understands this difference. “Although my son is not able to share with me how his day goes at school, I know that when he is in his public school there are legal protections and a constitutional guarantee that he must receive a free and appropriate public education. This promise or protection does not exist in a private or parochial school. Under the special needs voucher plan, our son’s only “school choice” is to keep his constitutional rights or forfeit them for a reduced tuition at a private school.”

Charter and private Voucher schools can reject special-needs voucher students or students who do not meet their academic or behavioral criteria. In this way, the students with the most significant needs are turned away and funneled back into our public school system.

The students most likely to benefit from an expanded voucher system are those who are already enrolled in a private school. When vouchers were expanded to Racine, almost half of the students who accepted public money for a private education were those who were already attending a private school.

Our Community

According to Board of Education candidate, Thomas J Mertz, “Vouchers remove public control and destroy the very idea of the common, as in ‘common schools’ and ‘the common good.’ This is the ideological purpose.” It is a purpose that has ramifications in our community, a community that relies on our public schools to provide knowledgeable citizens and a skilled workforce.

Photo Courtesy of Rebecca Kemble

Photo Courtesy of Rebecca Kemble

Our public tax dollars are earmarked for this purpose, because our public schools provide a service for the betterment of our community. Not only would the expansion of vouchers channel public money to private schools, it could undoubtedly increase our taxes. The Madison School Board laid out the numbers, using Madison as an example, in a recent statement.

“If the Governor’s proposal had been in effect this year and 50 students from Madison schools had transferred to private schools using vouchers, the private schools would have received between $7,000 and $8,000 per student, but Madison’s state aid would have decreased by about $900,000, or nearly $18,000 for each of the 50 voucher students. To avoid cuts in programming, our property taxes would have to go up in order to pay for parents to send their children to private schools.”

Wisconsin has a long tradition of excellence in education. Its graduation rate is second in the nation. An investment in our public schools is an investment in our community as students become business owners, workers, and local leaders.

Our Unions

Public voucher advocates do not simply argue for vouchers, but they argue against Labor Unions. In a recent Capital Times article, Kevin Chavous, executive counsel for the American Federation of Children, declares that “the political arm of the teachers union is self-protecting.” The organization Chavous speaks for is strongly pro-school choice and has contributed heavily to Wisconsin politicians. Claims like this are dangerous to all Unions. This anti-Union sentiment creates a false dichotomy in which the voice of Labor is pitted against the greater good. Chavous ignores the discernable fact that teachers Unions are democratically run by the teachers themselves, whose obvious goal is to create first-rate public schools that serve all of our students. Allowing teacher Unions to be the scapegoat, moves us farther away from the true mission of all Labor Unions, to create better working and learning conditions for all segments of our society.

Our Future

Two years ago at a public hearing, former teacher and current School Board member, Marjorie Passman painted a compelling choice for the future of public education. Our future could include “a mass of private Voucher Schools filled with uncredentialed teachers and staff, unrestricted in curriculum and educational philosophy,” while those turned away from Voucher Schools “return to the dying embers of our public schools that have had essential funding drained from them.” In this system, you would have “the poor paying for the rich to attend private school.” Or, by investing in our public schools, we could have the alternative – schools that “unify a diverse population” and “improve social conditions.” For public school advocates everywhere, the choice is obvious. A stance against voucher programs is an investment in our public schools, our students, and our community.

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Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

By Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

By Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

As we mark the 40 year anniversary of Roe versus Wade, I am reminded of how easy it is to become hyper-focused on our own slice of the globe. Yet, while turning the pages of Half the Sky, I am awakened to the reality of how important it is to focus on women’s rights globally. The facts presented in this book are a wake up call to women activists everywhere. “As many infant girls die every week in China as protesters died in the one incident at Tiananmen” (pg. xiv). At this fact, I am struck by the injustice and saddened by my own lack of knowledge on the subject. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Babies are dying, specifically female babies, because they don’t receive equal medical care. As I turn the page, my sadness turns to outrage.

Authors Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn have made their life out of fighting oppression through spreading truth in print. Half the Sky tells the story of women all over the globe who are not only fighting for power, but are fighting for their lives.

The book opens with the startling story of Meena, an Indian Muslin, who was kidnapped and trafficked at age nine. “I wasn’t even allowed to cry,” Meena remembers. “If even one tear fell, they would beat me. I used to think that it was better to die than to live like this” (pg. 5). Yet, live she did and the world is better for it. Meena is now a community organizer in Forbesgunge, Bihar. Meena works with other parents to advocate for educating their daughters and not fall into the trap of prostitution.

Education is a central theme in Half the Sky, with an emphasis on empowering local women to be the agent of change in their communities. The book highlights women like Mukhtar Mai who was bold enough to report her rape, without bowing to the threat of humiliation commonplace in her Punjab village. When offered financial compensation from Pakistani President, Pervez Musharraf, Mukhtar used the money to create a school in her village. At this school, messages against young marriages and abuse are commonplace. Mukhtar believes that the way to change a society is to educate young men and women.

When Kristof and WuDunn tell first-hand accounts, the result is numbing. In Chapter 7, Why Do Women Die in Childbirth, the authors are confronted with maternal mortality. Prudence received no prenatal care and arrived at a hospital after her birthing attendant “jumped up and down” on her stomach because her cervix was obstructed. When they encountered Prudence at the hospital, she had been left untreated in the hospital for three days. Prudence was being denied an emergency cesarean, because her family was refusing to pay the $100 for surgery. Kristof not only agreed to pay the remaining fee, but donated his own blood for a transfusion. Kristof and WuDunn eagerly awaited the results, but none came. The doctor had gone home for the night, leaving Prudence’s surgery for the next day, a careless act that would end in fatality.

With the heartbreak comes hope. Half the Sky repeatedly breaks a reader down and masterfully inserts a call to action into the empty space. And some of the advice is as shocking as the statistics. “One of the most cost-effective ways to increase school attendance is to deworm students” (pg. 171).  “Another tantalizingly simple way to boost girls’ education is to iodize salt” (pg. 172). Heroines are also contained in the pages, such as Edna Adan who opens a maternity hospital in war-torn Somaliland and Jane Roberts whose noble goal is to get 34 million people to each donate $1 to the United Nations Population Fund.

Half the Sky winds its way through issues affecting women worldwide, from trafficking to maternal care to misogyny.  Accompanying each startling story or statistic is an equally strong message of hope and change. Authors Kristof and WuDunn educate and inspire their readers to prompt global changes in the treatment of women. The book fittingly concludes with Four Steps You Can Take in the Next Ten Minutes.

Half the Sky is not just a “must read.” It is an inspiring call to action.

Related Links

Global Giving: donations to grassroots projects

Plan International: sponsor a girl or a woman

Email updates via

Care Action Network

TED talk with Sheryl WuDunn

Half the Sky at

Nicholas Kristof’s blog

Film: Half the Sky (note, the film covers different stories from the book)







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My New Year’s Wish, a school for every child and a community for every school

Snow Day Photo: Courtesy of Kati Walsh

Snow Day Photo: Courtesy of Kati Walsh

My first snow day of the season began with a phone call just before midnight. Having an adult-child in the house frequently means answering the phone in my sleep. This night, it meant putting on my snow boots, shoveling out my car, and trekking out to retrieve him so that he would not endanger his life on treacherous roads. Anyone who knows me knows that I will do anything for my son. However, this didn’t prevent me from composing a lecture en route.

As I pulled up in front of the address in my phone, my headlights shone on a series of snowballs and laughter. The car doors opened and not one, but three young gentleman jumped into the car. My rehearsed lecture was shortened to, “Seriously!?” Six eyeballs pleaded with me as I learned that one adult-child needed a ride home and another needed a place to sleep for the night.  As my son pled their case, I was convinced that he must have been either a lawyer or a social worker in another lifetime. I pulled away and decided to make the best of it by making conversation with the new arrivals. Of course, my conversation turned quickly to education.

I learned a lot in my short, snowy drive. My son’s friend, in this post referred to as Devin, was currently enrolled in Madison Area Technical College’s (MATC) High School Equivalency Program after dropping out of a local high school. Unfortunately, the story was one I had heard before. He hadn’t bought into his high school education. He had begun skipping school and found it impossible to keep up. At the time, Devin hadn’t seen himself as a learner and didn’t relate to others.

But, what really caught my attention was what he saw as the defining moment in his decision to walk away from school. He explained that he had been caught up in a pattern of skipping classes, but he had gotten up one morning and decided to turn things around. On his way to class, he was greeted by a teacher in the hallway. She asked him where he was going and his reply was, “I’m going to class.” Aware of his truancy issues, Devin remembered the teacher smiling and saying, “You’re not going to class.” He felt his efforts were being met with disbelief. So, Devin got angry, swore at the teacher, and walked out the door. He says that at the time, he thought that this would hurt the teacher, that he would save face. Now older and more mature, he sees that this action only hurt him. By attending MATC, Devin is now planning on getting his future back. He understands the need for an education.

Teachers have an impact on their students. For this impact to be positive, they first need to meet the students where they are. The teacher that day did not know where Devin was, or she clearly wouldn’t have made light of his efforts to get himself to class. Our high schools have gotten to be so big that too many students are falling through the cracks. So much so, that the Wisconsin State Journal recently reported one out of four black students are chronically absent from high school in the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD). We need to make some changes; the following is where we should begin.



Stop Blaming Teachers (button by Northern Sun) 

Stop Blaming Teachers

Teaching is a profession grounded in self-reflection. Teachers go into this career to make a difference in the lives of children and a difference in larger society. However, the current political climate has made this self-reflection extremely challenging. Due to privatization, the expansion of school voucher programs and charter schools, attacks on teacher unions, and a focus on standardized testing as a means of evaluation, teachers find themselves increasingly playing defense.  To honestly evaluate and criticize ones work takes a safe environment and a healthy dose of courage. While teachers continue to take these risks, decreased morale and a hostile political environment act as barriers to change.

Create Small Learning Environments

With 1 out of 4 black students chronically absent in MMSD and increasing alarm over the achievement gap, it is obvious that teachers must employ culturally relevant teaching practices. These practices begin with getting to know your students and their families – a practice that necessitates smaller learning environments. According to UW professor, Alice Uldvari-Solner, “Teachers who uphold the dynamics of culturally relevant pedagogy are practicing inclusive education as they impart influential messages that each child brings value to the classroom and that each child is powerful in directing his or her own achievement.” (Creating an Inclusive School, pg. 100)

Unfortunately, as our students grow, the learning environments become larger and less-personalized. A primary teacher spending most of the day in a SAGE school in a classroom of 14 can get to know his students quite well. Contrast that to a high school teacher teaching five sections of 30+ kids. Individualizing the education process is seemingly impossible. Students need to feel a sense of worth and belonging. Reestablishing smaller learning communities that focus on relationships and team-work will create safety nets for students feeling lost in the crowd.

The traditional high school structure arose at a time when many people would seek jobs in labor or agriculture rather than secondary education. The first high schools were built in wealthy areas. The high school model was created in an environment that meant to cater to the upper class and academically elite. At the start of the 20th century, it became commonplace for high schools to have entrance exams as a means of weeding students out. The majority of students were expected to take on a trade after completion of junior high. Simply put, the traditional high school model was not created to serve all learners.

By the mid 1900’s, advances in science and technology brought about the need for a larger, more skilled work force. This made attending high school a necessity. Comprehensive high schools became common, which gave more students access to a free education. Yet, the original structure of the high school itself changed very little over time.

Honor All Learners

We live in an increasingly diverse society; it is one aspect of our societal wealth. With groupings that span ages and abilities, students are opened up to a wide array of opinions, ideas, and perspectives. This sort of learning environment mirrors the possibilities in our communities and work places. We grow through exploring our differences and carefully examining our own thinking. This is what it means to be a student in the 21st century, or at least it is what it should mean.

Exhaust Assembly (in the ilving room?)

Exhaust Assembly (in the ilving room?)

We have a diversity of learners, but the only pathway that is typically valued in our schools is a one size fits all, academic course sequence. Students who are tactile learners, good with their hands, and thrive in courses such as metal work or automotives are only offered these courses as electives. Some students who could be drawn in by careers and internships in the trades get lost in the mix, because their pathway is less clear and less valued in a traditional setting. These students rarely see the connection between their academic coursework and these “electives” and honors courses tend not to be offered in their own area of strength.

Sadly, tracking still exists in our schools. We’ve simply renamed it as AP or Honors coursework. MMSD students enrolled in honors courses are on an entirely different track from their peers. When my former students come back and talk about their high school experiences, this is obvious. Those in honors courses face rigor and feel challenged. They see themselves as learners and are surrounded by peers with a similar focus on academics. On the other hand, students not enrolled in honors courses share their frustration with boredom, isolation, feeling undervalued, or are distracted by the misbehavior of their peers. If we are truly to honor all learners, why do we continue to only nurture some of them as honor students?

Engage Our Community

Schools do not operate in isolation. Many of our families face homelessness, joblessness, and poverty. Kids spend nearly 55 hours a week watching television, texting, and playing video games. During this time, they are bombarded with negative images which some take on as part of their identity. As time with media increases, the time spent outdoors and with family decreases. Kids arrive at school tired and unavailable for learning after late nights with video games. Even worse, today’s student expects instant gratification and entertainment at the tip of their fingers.

Building Healthy Communities

Building Healthy Communities

Whether it is working in a community garden or learning a new skill, students need more opportunities in the community to make a difference and interact with others. It is up to us to combine the efforts of teachers, community centers, families, and area businesses to offer these opportunities.

When a family hurts, the students feel it. It is no longer okay for businesses and community leaders to merely sit on boards and fund initiatives. They must also be a part of decreasing unemployment and homelessness and fighting for all families to earn a living wage. Lifting everyone up to a level of dignity and respect in our community sends a powerful message to students and makes everyone more able to contribute to the education of our youth.

Never Give Up

It is time to stop the cycle of blame. We can blame teachers, society, families, or the students. But this won’t bring us closer to making my New Year’s wish a reality. Each of us must put our best foot forward every day for our kids and for their families. Rather than asking what someone else is or isn’t doing for education, we need to ask ourselves what we have to offer. Solutions only come through hard work, commitment, and dedication. There is nothing more important than educating our youth, building a strong workforce, and creating global citizens. Never give up; children are a lifetime investment.

Links to Further Resources

Principles for Culturally Responsive Teaching

Culturally Responsive Differentiated Teaching Strategies

Schools We Can Envy, by Diane Ravitch

Small Learning Communities in 5 Boston High Schools

In Madison high schools, 1 in 4 black students chronically absent (Wisconsin State Journal)

Parent, Family, Community Involvement in Education

Starting a Community Garden

Posted in education, Social Justice | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Emerging as a Candidate (and hoping for your support)


Please see the bottom of this blog for directions on how to donate to my tuition.

On Christmas day, I anxiously retrieved the envelope waiting for me in my mailbox. My hands trembled with excitement as I immediately sent out my electronic tentacles in search of encouragement. A fellow teacher coached me through the opening of my letter from Emerge Wisconsin. The first word was enough to initiate my celebration, “Congratulations!”

Emerge USA is a Democratic training program for women pursuing a position in an elected, public office. Emerge Wisconsin’s Board of Advisors is a “who’s who” list of many of my own political heroes, such as U.S. Senator Elect Tammy Baldwin, State Senator Lena Taylor, and Former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk. This is a program that will set me on a course toward my own political candidacy, where it is my dream to widen the scope of my political impact. I am hoping that a few of my readers may be willing to support my future candidacy. While my blog makes my political idealogies fairly obvious, read on for a more complete view of my political platform.

Wal-Mart Protest

I believe that my experiences with community outreach, education, and environmental issues make me a viable candidate for a future political office. My vision for the city of Madison and the state of Wisconsin includes residents working alongside volunteers, workers, Union, organizations, and businesses to make the city and state a better place for everyone. Teamwork and civic action are necessary to a thriving community. Too many of our residents have become disengaged and have turned away from politics. Because of this, we all lose out. As an active member of our community, I will reach out to everyday citizens and get their input on the issues. In doing so, I will not only gauge the needs and values of our community, but I will also open the lines of communication that will empower others to become involved.

As I’ve been out in the community, knocking on doors and listening to people, I have found many aspirations that we all share. People choose to live here, because they want a quality life for their families. Issues such as safety, equal rights, recreation, the environment, employment, and education are central areas of concern. This is where we can find common ground. My vision for our future is rooted in these issues and the desire to make this a strong community for our families.


Education has always been my passion and it is my primary area of expertise. Our current battles in education are with funding, family involvement, privatization, and achievement gaps. Throughout my teaching career, I have shown the ability to be creative with seeking out donations and funding sources. I have refined my ability to talk with families and seek out parental involvement. My own focus on keeping up to date with culturally relevant teaching practices, reading about other districts’ successes and attempts at narrowing achievement gaps, and being a long-standing member of our school’s Equity Team ensures that I will bring a fresh, knowledgeable perspective to a political office. After all, it is public education that creates our future citizens and protects our city’s future.

University of WI ArboretumHaving grown up in Black Earth, Wisconsin and also having spent a lot of time on our family farm, I understand the value our environment plays in the health and well being of our city. This is why I chose Environmental Science as my minor in college. The importance of clean lakes and safe drinking water are obvious, but the residents of Wisconsin also rely on the health of our environment for lifestyle and recreational purposes. Many people use our bike paths to commute and our area parks for relaxation. Fishers, boaters, bird watchers, hikers, and runners seek refuge in our parks and on our waterways. Preserving the environment is also preserving a way of life for our residents.

Many feet make light work.

Many feet make light work.

The Madison area is unique in its diversity of small businesses.  Our state must continue to welcome visitors and businesses that add to our culture and diversity. I believe that we should form partnerships with area businesses and involve them in our community. That will not only bring in business, but it will also bring in employment opportunities and events that will benefit our residents. Community outreach must extend to include area businesses, so that business owners see that the people’s interests coincide with their own.

The foundation of my vision is working together. My ability to listen, advocate for others, and identify where our goals are congruent makes me an ideal candidate for office. As I engage in learning and training through Emerge, I know this vision will morph and grow, but the strength of my ideals will always remain.

Help Fund My Tuition By Donating to Emerge

If you would like to support me on my path to public office, please consider making a donation to help offset my tuition.

Step One: Go to and click on Contribute.  (Checks can also be made out to Emerge Wisconsin and sent to PO Box 2369, Madison, WI 53701.)

Step Two: Email me at with your name and donation amount. This is how the funds will be attributed to me.

Emerge is a 527, which means that your contribution is not tax deductible.

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Relationships are Fundamental at Sennett Middle School

Friday afternoon, I was bustling around my classroom rushing to get everything ready to go so that I could meet up with my friends to celebrate my birthday over dinner and a play. Anxiously, I glanced up at the clock when a coworker called me over to her room to help her with technology. Now, I was in an even bigger hurry, but stopped on a dime when I reentered my classroom. Standing in front of me was the adult version of a former student with a big grin on his face. Immediately, everything else was set to the side as I listened to updates on his life. Everything else could wait, because these are the moments that make teaching at Sennett Middle School so precious to me. I have a lifelong commitment to learning and lifelong relationships with my students.

I have taught at Sennett Middle School for eleven years, but I never tire of telling people about our amazing, multi-age model. Sennett Middle School has six teaching teams that we call “houses.” Sixth, seventh, and eighth graders make up each homeroom class and they stay with that class for most of their academic classes. Math continues to be taught by grade level, as each year builds on the skills from previous years. Every year in my homeroom, we say goodbye to our eighth graders and welcome in sixth graders to take their place. Building relationships with these sixth graders is the most important part of my job, because it is a relationship that will be the foundation for the next three years of their learning with me. Sennett continues to be a diverse, rigorous environment where relationships are the key to success.

The first question that people generally have upon hearing about Sennett’s model is, “How does that work?” This is generally followed by a lengthy question and answer session. The basic idea is that students belong to one of six “houses” within the school. Each house has four (or sometimes five) homerooms. The students tend to identify themselves by what house or homeroom they are in, because this is the smaller group that they travel with from class to class.  Each homeroom is made up of about 9 sixth graders, 9 seventh graders, and 9 eighth graders. That group stays together for three years, with the exception of the 8th graders moving on to high school and the 6th graders arriving. Once people get over the logistics, the more important question arises. “Why?” In answering this question, I remind myself of why I have chosen to spend my career at Sennett.

Stability. Ask anyone who teaches or is the parent of a middle school age child. Middle school is a special age, because it is a time of transitions. This is true for all students, but even more so for students who are experiencing other types of changes in their lives, such as homelessness or the separation of their family.

Sennett’s multi-age model provides students with continuity. They have an established peer group in their homeroom that stays consistent for three years. Their teaching team also provides them with a sense of stability. Teachers make a strong effort to get to know students as sixth graders and these efforts continue for the three-year period. Neither student nor teacher has to start over every year. Each year builds on the previous year. Students with disabilities also experience a continuity of service, as they not only keep the same teaching team each year, they also have the same case manager.

For students who have challenges learning routines or building relationships, this can have a serious impact. For example, from my experience, a student with autism may take four to six weeks to really feel comfortable with adults or programming as a sixth grader. This same student entering seventh grade will fall right back into the routine of learning from week one.

Relationships. With so much talk of the achievement gap in the school district and larger community, there is a renewed interest in parental involvement. Many parents of struggling students have grown skeptical of the school system. Building relationships with parents takes time and means establishing trust. This too is an effort that teachers at Sennett do not have to start over fresh with each year. In fact, many parents request to have their students in classrooms where they have already defined their relationships with the staff when siblings attended Sennett. In my own classroom, this was evident when more than ten parents made requests last summer to be placed on our teaching team. Once a relationship is formed, it becomes an asset in communicating around even the most difficult situations. Teachers

Inclusion. For students to learn, they must feel safety and belonging. Learning means taking risks, especially if it isn’t coming easy to a student. A multi-age model makes inclusion work. When you have the diversity that exists between sixth graders and eighth graders, differentiation is a necessity. A classroom teacher must look at each individual student, assess their knowledge, and plan their lessons accordingly.

This is very different from a traditional model, where teachers often aim for the middle of the class in hopes of reaching the majority. In these traditional settings, a wide range of abilities still exists, but it is often treated differently, because it isn’t owned as part of the classroom culture. When listening in on curriculum planning at Sennett, you are likely to hear, “But how will Bobby make meaning of this lesson?” or “How will Clarissa be challenged?” In planning for a wider variety of learners, students are less likely to fall through the cracks.

As a part of this inclusive model, where students are able to experience successes and find a place among their diverse peer group, a stronger sense of self-concept is fostered. This may not always be evident from test scores or report card data, but it is obvious in the classroom climate and the daily successes witnessed by the teaching team.

Student Leaders. Prior coming to Sennett, I taught for one year in a traditional middle school. In this setting, eighth graders were at the top of the ladder and the sixth graders clearly at the bottom. Issues of harassment and hazing frequently came from “the top down.” One of the first differences I noticed between this environment and Sennett was the lack of this type of hierarchy. Instead, eighth graders are seen as student leaders and mentors to the sixth graders. Fostering this type of nurturing environment works for kids.

In my classroom, at the end of each year, students write letters to the incoming sixth grade students. Their letters introduce themselves to the incoming students and contain tips to being successful at Sennett. The letters get mailed in the summertime when existing eighth grade students are paired up with an incoming sixth grade “buddy.” Their role with their buddy is to show them around the school, acclimate them to Sennett, and even make sure that they have someone to eat with in the lunchroom. These types of relationships are definitely symbiotic. As the sixth grader gains their footing in the school, the eighth graders gain confidence and leadership skills.

Another example of this can be viewed in my Reading Enrichment course. Currently, seventh and eighth graders are paired up with a sixth grade students to do a book project. As I sit and listen to the students read books around the theme of “Struggles for Justice.” I hear seventh and eighth graders trying to put their own views into context for the sixth grade students. As the sixth graders reflect and question, the seventh and eighth graders are challenged to defend or modify their own ideas. Because of their engagement level in this multi-age project, discipline is not an issue and I find myself free to have meaningful discussions with students and am able to assess their individual comprehension skills.

Teams. Due to the rigor of teaching in a diverse multi-age environment, our team is in a continuous state of collaboration. Our whole team meets once a week to do generally planning and problem-solving. We also meet every other week to problem-solve around individual student needs. In addition, we meet weekly on our various curricular teams. This is a huge time investment, but it pays off in how we work with each other and how we meet the needs of our students. Collaboration is essential to success, because our ideas change and grow as we work together. My teaching team has put in an incredible amount of work to meet the needs of our students and to push ourselves as educators. This type of team-teaching is not possible in systems where educators are separated out by department specialties. Instead, we become specialists in our children and serve up a curriculum to meet their individual needs.

With a move toward the Common Core State Standards and a plethora of district initiatives, the effectiveness of Sennett’s multi-age model is again under scrutiny. Unfortunately, not all of our strengths can be measured on standardized tests. Currently, the data shows we are neither better nor worse than other Madison middle schools with similar demographics. In fact, when the school report cards are plotted according to poverty level, the relationship is nearly linear.

What we do have is a strongly knit community that is dedicated to our students. We have teachers who advocate for a small group of students whom they get to know well over the course of three years. Even more telling is that we have teachers at Sennett who once attended the school. They were so strongly connected to the model that they could not imagine going on to teach anywhere else. “I think it really does foster that sense of family,” said former Sennett Principal, Colleen Lodholz in a article.  It is an effort to maintain a small learning environment within an increasingly large and complex school district.

Does it work? My former students would argue that it does. As for my current students, the answer may be as simple as the inscription inside one of my Birthday cards.

“Dear Ms. Vieth, I wish you the best birthday you could ever have, and that you spend it with the people that love and care about you. I think that our class is really lucky to have a teacher like you. You’re one of the best teachers I’ve had. You always know how to make something fun, even if it is, say a test. I also love the fact that you give us time to be with groups or to be independent. Well, I hope you have a great birthday!”

The time is right to make our schools more community based and student-centered. I believe that Sennett Middle School’s multi-age model was 37 years ahead of its time.

Related Links:

Promising Practices that Foster Inclusive Education

Critical Issue: Enhancing Learning Through Multiage Grouping

Making Big Schools Seem Small

AMLE Research Summary: Multi-age Grouping

Multi-age Teachers’ Beliefs and Practices

Multi-Age Teaming: A Real-Life Approach to the Middle School A Sense of Family in Classrooms


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I’m Not “Waiting for Superman.” Why is MMSD?

In 2010, an anti-public education documentary made its debut. Waiting for Superman features Geoffrey Canada, a controversial education “reformer” who promotes anti-union sentiment and charter schools as a solution to the struggles that face our public education system. The documentary largely appeals to the heart, as it uses weak data and a faulty premise. For this reason, another documentary made its debut in 2011. The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman features the New York City teachers and counters the position taken in Waiting for Superman.  With this documentary shedding light on the true nature of charter schools and faux reformers like Geoffrey Canada, I would hope this matter is settled, at least for those of us who rely on real data and results to drive decisions.

Why then is the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) listed as both a sponsor and partner of an upcoming event featuring the “legendary” Geoffrey Canada? Geoffrey Canada is the creator of the Harlem Children’s Zone. The two Charter Schools included in this zone are called “Promise Academy I” and “Promise Academy II.” Students win a spot in the schools based on a lottery. Canada believes that money is the answer for these children. The Harlem Children’s Zone invests $16,000 per student per year for expenses in the classroom, and thousands more per student for expenses outside the classroom. These expenses include student incentives, such as a trip to Disney World or the Galapagos Islands.

The Harlem Children’s Zone has an operating budget of $84 million, two-thirds of which comes from private donations from businesses such as Goldman Sachs. Two billionaires are counted among the members of the board. This gives the group easier access to funding. In 2009, the Children’s Zone had assets that equaled almost $200 million dollars.

If money, invested business people, and Charters are the answer, then many wonder why Canada’s plans have not proven to be successful. In 2004, the Children’s Zone dismissed their first class, because their performance wasn’t high enough to guarantee the results of the proposed high school. In spite of class sizes of less than 15, an extended school day, and an 11 month year, all students are not making substantial gains. In 2010, only 15% of the Children’s Zone 7th grade students passed their English test. In true Charter fashion, this resulted in the firing of teachers without delving too far into the true causes of the inadequate results.

What Canada has shown is that even with a budget that exceeds other schools, his Charters still struggle with the same issues. Is this what we want for the future of Madison schools? The upcoming event is cause for alarm.

Even the ticket packages hint at Canada’s idea that schools are to be run like businesses and by businesses. With a $1,000 package called the “Graduate Degree,” there is less than subtle message that money is what leads to an education. If you can’t afford the Graduate degree, $500 can buy you a College Degree package. Both packages offer some extra time with Geoffrey Canada and John Legend and proceeds go toward current Urban League of Greater Madison Programs. After all, just because Canada has not been successful in New York, does not mean that the doors are closed to him here in Madison.

Listed among the forum’s sponsors and partners are MMSD, United Way, CUNA Mutual Foundation, Target Corporation, and Planning for Greatness. Recent emails by the orgnizers state that “sponsorship packages are still available” and tote this forum as a way for businesses to be a part of the Urban League’s initiative to close the achievement gap.

What exactly sponsors are investing in remains to be seen. The promotion of charters? The downfall of public education? The ability to fire and hire teachers based on whims and standardized test results? The act of investing millions in unproven, philanthropic methods?

Rather than supporting and partnering with people like Canada, who make their name known by attacking public education, MMSD should be looking for real solutions for our students. These initiatives would include all students, not just those who win a lottery, are void of special education needs, or can “pad” our standardized testing numbers. Charters are not the answer; that is the only thing that our district can learn from Geoffrey Canada.

Keep Public Education Public! Write the MMSD School Board and ask them to withdraw their sponsorship and partnership with this event:

Contact the United Way and ask them to withdraw their partnership with this event:

Update 11/29: A spokesperson from MMSD now reports that the school district was mistakenly listed as a sponsor for the fundraiser. He stated that MMSD will be removed from the list of sponsors in the program for the Canada/Legend event.

Related Links

Lauded Harlem Schools Have Problems of Their Own

Link to the Forum Details: Educate to Elevate

NYC Teachers Counter Waiting for Superman


Posted in education, politics | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Placing “Community First”

One of the criticisms of politics is that it lacks heart. Too frequently, campaigns and political activity are driven by the numbers, rather than by ideals. Neighborhoods or people are ranked according to their likelihood of voting and voting the right way. During signature collection, leading up to the recall election of Governor Scott Walker, a few of us decided to take a different path. We had done the drive-up signature collecting, where many of us had braved the snow to stand at crowded intersections waving our “Recall Walker” signs. But, as the collecting started to slow down, we looked for a meaningful way to gather the signatures of people who had been overlooked.

There was an area surrounding Deer Valley Road in the Town of Madison that had personal and professional significance to me. I was fairly certain that nobody had been out in this neighborhood gathering recall signatures. I had hosted our school picnic in this low-income neighborhood for the past five years, so it was familiar territory. We chose Southdale Park, the community’s center as our meeting location and hit the doors. It was clear after going through the first apartment building that we had chosen wisely. Residents welcomed us inside. They asked us what had taken us so long to find them. Many grabbed the clipboard enthusiastically to add their signature before we even had time to offer up an explanation. The people in this community fully understood the impact Governor Walker was having on our state. It was a cold winter in Wisconsin, but I found myself refreshed at these doors. These residents had been overlooked due to their location and socio-economic status, but they had not given up on taking action.

During the recall election, a new program was born under the We Are Wisconsin umbrella. The mission of “The Doors Less Knocked” program was to go into under-served communities, educate people about their rights, register new voters, and connect with people regarding the recall election. Volunteers bought into this program from the start. People saw it as their chance to form new connections and to empower the communities that they cared about. It was clear that the impact made at the doors would extend beyond the recall election. For this reason, a small group of faithful volunteers sat down with the South Central Federation of Labor (SCFL) President, Kevin Gundlach, the night before the recall election to discuss the future of “The Doors Less Knocked.”

We were all certain that this movement needed to expand beyond the electoral. We wanted to form more meaningful bonds that would result in true partnerships. To do this, we needed to be doing more than just campaigning. Our answers would only come at inviting these residents and community leaders into the conversation. In doing so, we would truly be placing community first.” With this expanded mission came a new name, “Community First.”

Though we are a young organization, our group is diverse. Operating under the South Central Federation of Labor, draws in a lot of Union representation. There are teachers, social workers, nurses, and a sheet metal worker. However, our group also includes private sector workers, clergy, School Board and County Board members, and retirees. The diversity of the group’s experiences is our greatest asset.

Since the recalls, our team has been busy. We have been out in communities talking to the people about what matters most to them. We have used literature, surveys and personal connections to guide us toward our next steps in the neighborhoods we serve.  In doing so, we have educated ourselves on employment, housing, and transportation needs. It was through “Community First” that I recently found myself speaking at a City Council meeting.

Our work has only just begun, but every step on this journey’s start has been inspiring. Our work in the communities reconnects us to a world where people are distanced by fear and assumptions. Every door that is answered with a smile and a friendly greeting lets me know that we are on the right path, a path that will continue to follow the needs of the community.


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Building Bridges (or Buses) to Owl Creek

Photo from the Capital Times, 2011October 13th marked my third visit out to the Owl Creek / Great Gray neighborhood. My quest this time was different. I was not attending a Parent-Teacher Conference or advocating to recall a governor. This time, I was out in the neighborhood, not to talk, but to listen. I was genuinely interested in the tale that they had to tell. I cautiously approached Great Gray Drive, as I knew there would be children playing in the streets ready to greet me upon arrival.

The neighborhood is on the edge of Madison, very close to the border of McFarland. It appears to be its own island, as there are no community services out in the area. It contains two streets that contain the majority of its residents: Great Gray Drive and Horned Owl Drive. A block away are the streets of Owl Creek Drive and Eagle Summit Court.

The neighborhood was initially envisioned in 2005 by the Nelson brothers. Its location is isolated from the rest of the city and sits among the wetlands. The Nelson brothers’ original plans included 69 single-family houses, 15 duplexes, and four 4-unit apartment buildings. However, after the neighborhood’s planning approval in June of 2005, the housing market took a turn for the worse. The properties had been sold to a variety of builders, but many began walking away. This left the Nelsons with 50 vacant lots and was one of the reasons that Great Gray Drive and Horned Owl Drive became Section 8 Housing.

The new, spacious duplexes and homes are one of the first things residents of Great Gray and Horned Owl Drive point to as a perk for living in this isolated neighborhood.  The neighborhood contains rows of houses and duplexes, some four unit-buildings, and many, many empty lots. The empty lots are often neglected and as a result are overgrown. This gives a rugged feel to the terrain of this neighborhood and it limits the amount of space that there is for the neighborhood to call its own. It is also the reason my neighborhood “greeters” are playing in the streets on my arrival. There is simply no place else to play.  Residents quickly point out that there is plenty of space out here to make this a great place to raise kids. There is a lot of open land that could be used for gardens, parks, and playing fields. Many would like to see a basketball court and a community center.

The city put in a small structure at the end of Horned Owl Drive, but it is too small to accommodate the over 100 children that call this neighborhood their home. The structure is small. It contains a slide and two swings that are clearly meant for very young kids. It was built among a small, forested area with no room to play. When asked about this “park,” residents roll their eyes and shake their heads. They tell me to go look at it carefully and decide for myself whether or not this is a park. I take their recommendation and then join the people shaking their heads. I am told stories about how the older children will walk over three miles to use the equipment at La Follette High School or other area parks.

Perhaps most alarming to me, is just how isolated the Owl Creek residents are. As a teacher at Sennett Middle School, I know that kids living in this area often opt out of after school clubs and activities. If they don’t get on the school bus, there is no other way for them to get home. The bus service does not go out to Owl Creek Drive, the closest it comes is the Park and Ride, located along a busy highway. The high school age kids also grumble, because they are unable to get a job or visit friends. One resident explains to me that “it is like the city created our neighborhood and then just forgot about us way out here.”  They are an island.

But, there is hope. The city is now talking about changing its bus routes and expanding a route to reach Owl Creek Drive. The city seems to be pinning a $.25 increase on Madison residents for this change. The two do not need to go hand in hand. There are other funding solutions. This is a problem that should have been thought through years ago when the neighborhood was first created. Increasing bus fares in the name of this neighborhood is not only inaccurate, it is unjust.

Now is the time to support these Madison residents; they have lived in isolation long enough. I think about the eager children who greeted me in the streets and on the sidewalks. One girl even took me by the hand and urged, “Come with me, I’ll show you where my mom is. She’s over talking to the neighbors.” These children and their families deserve to be reconnected with the city. Help build a bus route and create a bridge to the residents of Owl Creek.


Important Update (10/21): Two supporting budget amendments will be discussed at the Board of Estimates meeting on Monday, October 22nd at 4:30 p.m. Budget Amendment 24 would pay for the route without a fare increase. Budget Amendment 27 would expedite the process, so that the route change would happen by June, 2013. Please come to the meeting and speak in favor of these amendments.

Upcoming Meetings to Speak out for Owl Creek / Great Gray

  • Board of Estimates Mon 10/22/12, 4:30 PM, Madison Municipal Bldg 215 Martin Luther King Jr Blvd. Rm 260
  • Metro Transit: Wed 11/07/12, 6:00 PM, City County Building 210 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. Room 201
  • City Council Tue 11/06/12, 5:30 PM City-County Building 210 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. Room 201 (Date for Budget Deliberations)

Send a message to the City Alders supporting this busing change at

Submit comments to You can also write a letter and send it to: Metro Transit Public Hearing Comments, 1245 E. Washington Ave., Suite 201, Madison WI 53703 or email your opinion to

Related Articles

Proposed Bus Fare Increase Would Benefit Troubled Neighborhood

On the Fringe: Isolated Owl Creek Neighborhood Tests City, Residents



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Wanted: Courageous Defenders of Public Education

Courtesy of Erin Proctor, SEATeachers continue to be the greatest defenders of public education. It is not an accident that groups wishing to under-fund or privatize public education are the same groups attacking educators. Unfortunately, these public school “deformers” have found their way onto school boards and into administrative positions. They have made it extremely difficult to keep hidden agendas out of the decision making. This year’s contract negotiations between the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) and Madison Teachers, Inc. (MTI) are evidence of that. Luckily, there are still those on the MMSD Board of Education (BOE) who stand strong for public education, or the outlook would be even more dire. Without these advocates, we may not have made it to the bargaining table at all this time around. But, one thing remains certain; we need more people to take a stand for public education, or we will continue to slide backward.

One of the “fall back” positions of groups who aim to privatize is that the proposed changes are all about the children. In fact, in an email on September 27th, 2012, Belmore wrote

“As a district, we’ve been thoughtfully reviewing our responsibilities when it comes to our employees. Through the employee handbook process, we developed guiding principles. These principles put student learning in the forefront, with a respect for the fact that our employees are the people who directly or indirectly impact that learning.

As we thoughtfully and deliberately begin negotiations, we will continue to focus on these principles. We intend to negotiate in good faith in as timely manner as possible.”

However, when looking through some of the changes in our now ratified Collective Courtesy of Google ImagesBargaining Agreements, only one modification seems to have the potential to help our students. This is the hiring timeline. In the past, districts surrounding Madison have hired earlier. The rationale has been that since other districts hire earlier, they get their first choice of the new teachers, thereby picking up the best and the brightest, and perhaps some minority recruits. (Note that this theory does not take into account the many reasons it may be more desirable to teach in Madison, such as the salary schedule or the quality of the educational programming.)  In the 2013-2014 contract, the hiring window is tightened up, so that MMSD can hire externally as early as June 15th. If executed correctly, this change does have the possibility of affecting MMSD’s recruitment, thus impacting students. However, many of the other changes in the newly ratified contracts fall short of the mark.

The most radical change to the contract is found in the work preservation clause. MMSD will now be able to contract out work that in the past would have been filled by current MMSD employees. Any position that affects ten or more students will need Board of Education approval, before being filled by non-Union, non-MMSD workers. This decision puts the fate of privatization in the hands of the Board and opens the district up to non-instrumentality Charter schools that compete for public money, but lack the accountability and Board oversight of our public schools. As has been witnessed in Chicago, Charters can be used by right-wing groups as a means of draining public schools of their funding, decreasing enrollment, and ultimately stripping them of their merit. The contract changes don’t necessitate this path for Madison, but the Board is now, even more than before, the gatekeeper for these types of privatization measures.

Courtesy Google Images

Another change that moves MMSD in the wrong direction is found in the EA-MTI Collective Bargaining Agreement. This bargaining unit is composed of support staff, such as the Special Education Assistants (SEAs) whom I have written about previously. These workers are overworked and unappreciated, yet our schools could not function without their expertise. People in these roles directly affect student learning as well as the climate of the building, yet they do not make a livable wage. In fact, some of the district’s SEAs who are the head of their household are living below the poverty level and their families qualify for public assistance. This is shameful. But, what is even more shameful is what played out in the bargaining process. Written into the EA-MTI contract is the following, “The District has the discretion to require employee contributions not to exceed 10% of premiums” for health insurance. MTI’s bargaining committee fought relentlessly to preserve the pay and benefits of the EA-MTI bargaining. The decision allowing these workers to pay up to 10% of their premiums was made even after the largest bargaining unit, MTI’s Teacher Bargaining Unit, agreed to willingly pay into their own health insurance and absorb the extra cost, so that the EA-MTI unit would not have to carry this burden. I cannot imagine a situation in which underpaying SEAs and then taking more money from their paycheck would bring about a better outcome for kids.

There are other changes of this nature, such as the changes made to the USO-MTI Bargaining Agreement. In this contract, substitute teachers newly hired to the district will no longer get sick leave, unless they are in long-term subbing position. In addition to this, the substitute teachers’ salary schedule was flat-lined, or in effect removed completely. Whereas a quality substitute teacher used to be rewarded for experience, now they will get the same daily rate of pay, regardless of years of service. Is it best for our students to have inexperienced, unknown substitute teachers in their classrooms when their regular teacher is away at a training?  This change clearly has nothing to do with improving the quality of education; it has the opposite effect.

The list  of irresponsible changes continues with the removal of student per teacher ratios at the high school level and doing away with the five class maximum at the middle school level. At the heart of these changes is saving money and devaluing the tremendous workloads professionals in the schools endure. These are changes that would not have happened if it weren’t for the uneven playing field that Governor Scott Walker’s Act 10 created.

Yet, thanks to Judge Juan Colas, our MMSD professionals have a contract. Many of our rights and benefits remain intact. The teachers maintained their salary schedule and retirement benefits were safeguarded district-wide. Because of a few strong warriors on the Board, all was not lost. This year, there will be three seats on MMSD’s Board of Education that will be up for reelection. This happens at a time that is critical to the future of our public schools. What we really need for the future of our students and our schools are elected officials that will not give into the pressures of a political environment that steals resources from our education system and then uses it as a scapegoat. What we need now more than ever are three more courageous defenders of public education.

 Complete Details on 2013-1014 Contracts

Madison School Board Approves New Agreements

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SEAs Open the Doorway to Learning

Photo Courtesy of Official Website of Sharon DraperMy sixth grade students leaned forward as I read to them, almost as though they would better be able to capture the words in the book. We were reading “Out of My Mind,” by Sharon Draper. This book is about a bright student named Melody who has cerebral palsy. Melody uses a wheelchair to get around, gets assistance with eating and bathrooming, and relies on a communication board to talk. When we got to page 52, Melody explained that her aids, “do stuff like take us to the bathroom (or change diapers on kids like Ashley and Carl), feed us at lunch, wheel us where we need to go, wipe mouths, and give hugs.  I don’t think they get paid very much, because they never stay very long.  But they should get a million dollars.  What they do is really hard, and I don’t think most folks get that.”

At this point, a sixth grade girl quietly raises her hand and patiently waits to be called on. Encouraging thinking while reading, means stopping to discuss questions and thoughts my students are having. I pause to call on her and she asks her question with concern in her voice, “Does Mrs. Saad get more money than the teachers, because she does a lot of extra work for the students she works with?”

It was one of those eye opening moments that occur when kids are allowed to express themselves openly. I carefully skirt around the issue of how much the school’s Special Education Assistants (SEAs) get paid, but her question remains trapped in my thoughts. What started as an innocent question from a sixth grader gave me a heightened awareness of the role SEAs play in students’ lives.

The truth of the matter is that our SEAs work extremely hard. Their extra work does not usually get recognized verbally or financially. The SEAs that I interviewed make around $20,000 per year. As a general rule, two SEAs cost the district about as much as one teacher. SEAs work with our students with the greatest needs, but on the average make about $4 an hour less than our security guards. The group as a whole is frequently passed over for raises, which has left many of them working two or three jobs just to make ends meet. When employees began contributing to their pension last year, it hit the SEAs harder than other groups, because they already have such a limited income. Yet, they fill one of the most important jobs in the school.

According to one SEA, “Without SEAs the children I work with would not be able to Picture Courtesy of Google Imagestake part in many of the day to day activities of their classrooms.” However true that may be, our current arrangement with SEAs leaves a lot to be desired. The SEAs that I talked with do not receive planning time to meet with classroom teachers. Because of this, they walk into classes not knowing what to expect on any given day. No matter what is planned by the teacher, they not only have to go along with it, but they also have to be able adapt the curriculum for our neediest populations on the fly. In addition, all the SEAs I interviewed expressed concern that kids are entering our school system with needs that are different from past years. “Because of  budget cuts on a broader scale in social service agencies, we at West have had to work with kids who do not live with their family, but are in foster homes, group homes, solo support homes,” reported an SEA at West High School. She went on to describe that for “kids whose moms and dads are not part of their everyday life, the SEA that they work with is sometimes  the only person who has remained the same that they have daily contact with.” Jackie Saad, an SEA at Sennett Middle School has also recognized changes in the populations she serves. When she was first hired, she described the kids that she worked with as mostly having learning disabilities. She now works with students who need “a replaced curriculum, frequent breaks, support at lunch, during encore classes and bathrooming. In short, they require my full support. At the same time the students with learning disabilities are losing out. One SEA in a classroom simply is not enough to support the diverse needs of all students.” The common thread through each of the responses I received to my question was the same, an increase in the needs of our students without the necessary increase in people resources.

But, in spite of these challenges, the reality is that SEAs keep pushing forward in the Photo Courtesy of Google Imagesbest interest of the students they serve. They are the ones hunting down disposable undergarments, wipes and changes of clothes. Many times, they figure out how to get school supplies and backpacks for kids in need. And, no matter what, they are there when things fall apart. It is our SEAs who are spending time with kids one-on-one when events frustrate the students to the extent that they need a break from the classroom. As one SEA described, she “will walk for as many blocks or miles needed to help a student calm down in order to get back to being able to deal with whatever frustration life has thrown at them today.”  Melea Richardson is also an SEA at Sennett Middle School. She recognizes that with all these new challenges, it takes a passionate professional to do this job. According to Richardson, “I can confidently say someone hired off the street cannot do what I do! Most of my students have been very low cognitively so they depend on me to be calm and smile and help them through all the chaos of the day as well as help them develop skills they can use as they get older.”

Richardson wants the same things for her students that I have frequently heard classroom teachers express. Unfortunately, due to limited Special Education resources, she does not feel like it is working.  “What I want most for my students is the best quality education they can get. Unfortunately I know they all are not getting it! How can they be if they all don’t have the support and resources they need to learn?” she asks. And her sentiments are echoed by Saad, “Over the last few years I have felt less than successful because there are so many students that need my help but not enough of me to provide them with the support they need. My day often ends with the thought “if only I could have helped this student just a little more.”

Saad is not alone in this thought and the voice of our SEAs must be considered as the Madison Metropolitan School District moves forward. To bring about success for our students and our schools, we need to take a closer look at how we staff our buildings and fulfill our students’ needs. In addition, SEAs need to be included in professional development opportunities and be given time to meet with teaching teams to plan for their students.

SEAs choose to stay in a career where they are often sworn at, kicked and challenged. They do this, because they care about our children and they understand the importance of their role in our students’ lives. We need to start rewarding SEAs both financially and by treating them with the professionalism they deserve.  Most importantly, we must create school conditions that foster success for the students they serve.


Email the Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education and let them know how important our SEAs are to student success:


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Write the BOE and Ask Them to Collectively Bargain

TJ Mertz did a wonderful write-up in AMPS, so there is no reason for me to redo his work. Please read his post and write the Madison Board of Education at to ask them to engage in fair contract negoatiations for our public school employees.

The following is my email to the Board:

Dear MMSD Board of Education,

On Thursday night, the Dane County Board led the way by voting on negotiated contracts for AFSCME county workers for the year 2015. Friday, the City Council followed suit and reached a tentative agreement with AFSCME Local 60. The City Council has also secured contracts for police and fire through 2014 or 2015. In these cases, the elected officials involved took action because it was the right thing to do for the city and the county. According to Dane County Executive, Joe Parisi, “We are showing yet again that in Dane County we get more done by sitting down and working with people. This agreement proves again you can protect both taxpayers and the people who go to work for them everyday and plow roads, care for kids, and keep our community great.”

It is time for Madison Teachers Inc. (MTI) and the Board of Education to sit down at the bargaining table. Collective bargaining is a fair process that is best for our teachers, our students and our schools. Since February of 2011, our teachers have taken some painful hits to their paycheck, their voice in the workplace and their professional dignity. With Judge Colas’ ruling, the door is opened up and we can set some of this straight. Negotiating was always the right path, both before and after Act 10. It is through negotiating that teachers as a group have a voice in the workplace and a voice in the education of their students. There has always been a level of mutual compromise in these negotiations, which is a critical component in a truly collaborative system.

In April of 2012, an advisory referendum on the ballot read, “Should all Wisconsin workers have the right to seek safe working conditions and fair pay through collective bargaining?” In Madison, the response was overwhelming; 76% of Madison voters voted “yes.” As elected officials, I urge you to listen to the people of Madison and engage in bargaining. Settle contracts for our school employees early on and engage in a process that is both familiar and successful. MTI and the BOE have a long history of working together to do what is best for our schools. Let’s move forward and continue that tradition.


Karen Vieth

Teacher, Sennett Middle School

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What I Learned from Today’s Loss (or Win?)

Photo Courtesy of Debra WuksinichAs I made my way north to the Big Eau Pleine Park Trail Run, I had a lot on my mind. I had just come from delivering a speech at the CTU rally and the news that Act 10 was ruled unconstitutional was all over the airwaves. It was plenty to occupy my mind, but I couldn’t help but think back to last year’s race. The plaque with “9 Mile Female Winner” is still proudly displayed on the wall in my bedroom right next to my autographed picture of Dean Karnazes. I had won the race in an unusual turn of events that I will save for another post. The bottom line was that I was heading north to defend a title I never truly felt was mine.

The weather for the race was perfect and the trail could not have been more beautiful. I managed to beat last year’s time, but it was not enough to defend my title. I ran steady, but the other runners were faster. Yet, I learned so many amazing lessons out on the trail that I still feel as though I pulled off a win.

Don’t Run for the Beer  The words, “Go!” were bellowed over the crowd of runners and my feet began moving on their own. It felt comforting to be moving and I looked forward to the race ahead. The man next to me struck up a conversation, “I wish someone had told me there is beer at the finish.” I politely asked him why. “Well, because I would have run the 4 instead of the 9 mile,” he answered. I smiled and promptly took off. I was not here for the beer.

Don’t Get Caught Up in the Frenzy  My first mile and my last mile were the fastest. This is not how I run. For the first time in a long time, I had positive splits in the race. Why? Because people took off and I took off with them! I use that first mile or two to get into my run for a reason. It puts both my mind and body in the right place. Go slow to go fast.

Who You are When You are Alone on the Trail speaks Volumes  This year, it was just me and the trail for the majority of the run. There is nothing like being alone on the trail, especially at Big Eau Pleine. Almost the entire run is among trees and puts you right down by the water. This sort of peacefulness is the reason I run. It is also where I do my best thinking. It is was a great time to get my mind focused and renew my connection to the world.

Though Others May Have Cleared the Path, Look for yourself. There may still be some poo. At the start of today’s race, Jay Punke, the race organizer, clearly stated that rocks had been painted and horse poop removed. Jay Punke either overestimated his help or underestimated the horses. Clearly, there was poo. My distrust in this case served me well, as I made it to the finish line manure free.

Stop and Say “Thank You.” About 3 miles into the race, I heard cheering and the clanging of a bell. I was excited, because I assumed there was a crowd up ahead. Feeling confident, I picked up my pace. When I turned the corner, I grinned from ear to ear. It was one woman and her young daughter, but they were filled with energy. I stopped to take my water and let them know how well they were executing their responsibilities. The volunteers may not be running, but they are clearly important members of my team!

Run for What is Important to You  After that water stop, I was smiling and feeling alive! I felt so great that I found myself singing the tune “Union Maid” while I ran. As I sang, my mood was elevated by the current court ruling and my own feelings about my Union. I looked down at my watch and glanced at my pace; I was soaring! Maybe I’d catch up to those two women who had passed me a mile back. I ran harder. Now, I was focusing on my time and began moving my feet with effort. The thoughts in my mind changed as I focused on the race. A few minutes later, I checked my pace again. Thirty seconds per mile slower and a huge lesson learned. Don’t run just to win. Run for what inspires you, run for what fills you with hopefulness and truth.

Don’t Get Distracted by Dead Mice Okay, this isn’t really a lesson, but why were there dead mice on the trail? The first one surprised me, but when I nearly stepped on a second one, it was simply bizarre.

Don’t Beat Yourself Up. Defeated People Don’t Run  I had my share of negative self-talk out on the course. When someone clearly in my age group hustled past me on a hill, this negativity reached its climax. I asked myself why I was running. Told myself I was slow and reminded myself that I couldn’t possibly win now that I’d let several women take the lead on the trail. I doubted myself and I beat myself up, but luckily it didn’t last. Defeated people don’t run and I found that I was defeating myself. Running is a mental game. Training helps, but what you tell yourself out on the course can make or break your run.

If You Can’t Smile, You are Running Too Hard  The Tararhumara tribal athletes featured in Born to Run teach the author this mantra. Whenever I near the finish line, my smile grows and my feet step lighter on the ground. It is my fastest pace in the race and I quickly figure out that I still have some energy to burn. Today was no exception. I knew it wasn’t a win, but the clock read one less minute than last year’s time. Besides, I’d be back.





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