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.

Applause.

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.

mountain-path-1119909_960_720

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.

Resources:

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

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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 board@madison.k12.wi.us

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: https://budget.madison.k12.wi.us/budget-2015-16

Walker proposes state budget with tax cut, school choice expansion: http://www.channel3000.com/news/politics/Walker-proposes-state-budget-with-tax-cut-school-choice-expansion/31078030

Asimov

 

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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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