Diverse Students United in Bowl Goal

For the 29th straight year, Glendale Unified will host the Scholastic Bowl at Glendale High School on Monday night.  Televised locally, this is the biggest academic competition among the district’s four high schools:  Clark Magnet, Crescenta Valley, Glendale, and Hoover.

Having a night that showcases the talents of bright students is welcoming.  Smart kids often get the short end of the education stick; gifted education receives the least funding of any ability-level group.  Yet these high-achieving students are the ones who make their schools shine.  Most aspects of a school that principals brag about have a large amount to do with the contributions of these fine young people.

The first part of the competition takes place a week before the main event when all five-member teams write a one-hour timed essay.  Points earned from this writing are added to each school’s score the following week when the teams converge on stage to answer 25 questions in a group round where collaboration is allowed, then another 50 questions in a buzzer round when only individuals answer.  Two points are awarded for correct answers; one point deduction for incorrect responses.

Each member of the winning team wins $500, second place $250, third place $150, and fourth place $100.  Knapp, Peterson & Clarke, Oakmont League, Kiwanis Club, Rotary Club, Dan Levin Trust, Parker Anderson Enrichment, and Sylvan Learning Center contribute to the awards.

Most years Channel 4 weathercaster Fritz Coleman has served as quizmaster.  This year the emcee will be Channel 7’s weekday anchor Phillip Palmer.

When I was asked by the principal to coach the Hoover’s team back in 2008, I had no idea that I would still be doing it 11 years later.

While I have had the good fortune of having two teams win the competition, for me the joy of being involved with this program is the opportunity to work with some of the brightest young people.  They enjoy each other’s company and have fun showing off their knowledge.

The lowest point occurred two years ago when one of my students forgot to save the essay on the computer which ended up costing us another championship.  This was especially bitter since I was the coach who championed transitioning from handwritten papers to using laptops.

As coach, my main job is selecting the team.  I hold tryouts where I seek five students who collectively are able to answer questions in the five main categories of art, literature, history, science, and math.

For months, we hold after-school practices twice a week where the team watches past Scholastic Bowls, answering the questions “live.”  One team member tracks correct and incorrect answers for each category so we can figure out which students will be stronger in the group round versus the buzzer round (only four students are allowed on stage at any one time).

We even practice using buzzers.  I also give them practice essays which we later evaluate according to the Bowl’s writing rubric.

This year’s team happens to be all-male, comprised of three seniors and two sophomores, each student a different ethnicity—a delightful coincidence.  Their collegiality proves that students from various backgrounds can work well together pursuing a common goal:  to win the Bowl.

It is an important reminder to those who only know Hoover from recent negative headlines that positive experiences also happen on campus.

If you want to see another side of Hoover, come to the Scholastic Bowl this Monday at Glendale High School at 7:00 p.m.  The future will be present on stage representing all 1,600 of their fellow students.

 

Reflecting on Joys of Teaching

Sometimes one has to admit that life’s glass is half-full not half-empty.

This week I was asked to participate in a promotional video for Hoover High School.  I reluctantly agreed to do it, reluctant because for years I have been an outspoken critic of my own profession.

Playing the cheerleader role is not typecasting for me.

However, the more I thought about being on camera to talk about the place where I have worked since 1989, the more I realized how proud I would be to talk about what makes my job meaningful.

When I first became a teacher, I never thought I would be in the classroom this long.  After doing computer work for 12 years, I figured I would teach for about 10 years, then go on to do something else.  I assumed that was going to be my life’s pattern—changing careers every decade.  Never did it cross my mind that I would devote the bulk of my adult life working with children.

In the blink of an eye, here I am, one of the oldest teachers on campus, not knowing what happened to the past 30 years.

I did not recognize it much back then, but as I approach the sunset of my career, I can see how blessed I have been to work with young people and have the opportunity to help them in their life’s journey.

To prepare for the video interview, I was given a couple of questions to think about.

“If you were a parent of a student, why would you be excited to send your child to Hoover?”

For the non-academic classes.

While there’s nothing wrong with our English, math or science classes, taking marching band, culinary arts or journalism enriches the day for students where instead of sitting in a chair passively, they have the opportunity to do, to get involved, to make learning come alive through playing an alto saxophone, baking a bundt cake or posting a video to Instagram called Humans of Hoover

In my journalism class, I give students the responsibility of running a business.  They create the work, manage the work, publish the work.  They teach each other desktop publishing and editing programs that enable them to do their jobs.  Such independence reveals what matters most to them and their peers.

Being self-reliant is something all parents desire, and being self-learning is something all teachers desire—both happen at Hoover.

“What do you love most about coming to school every day to teach these students?”

In short, not knowing what questions or comments students will have.  Some may view such unknown variables as nerve-wracking; I find them stimulating.

There is a duality to teaching:  spending hours developing lesson plans timed to the minute, but being prepared for the spontaneous reaction of students.

You never know what provocative question or profound connection a student may formulate.

Then there is the student work—the writing, the speech, the video—that reveals their thinking and learning.

Yes, some students fall short demonstrating their knowledge, but many succeed.  Especially gratifying are the non-A students who hit a home run once in a while.

Just the other day, a boy who has struggled most of the year gave a moving speech, better than everyone else in the class.  I was so proud of him knowing that he was the same young man who had tears in his eyes last semester when he botched his first oral.

Doing this interview gave me pause to reflect.  When you work day after day, year after year, you lose track of the big picture.  Stepping back to look at the large mosaic built over time is quite illuminating.

Once in a while it is okay to view life’s glass as half-full; in fact, right now, the cup runneth over.

GUSD Supers Not So Super

Ask any student to name the most influential person in their education experience and most likely the student would name a teacher.   Rarely a principal.  Never a superintendent.

Which is why when GUSD announced that Dr. Winfred B. Roberson, Jr. would no longer be in charge of the district, the news generated more of a ripple than a tsunami.

Roberson now joins the ranks of recent GUSD supers who seem intent on not staying very long.

Since I began my career in GUSD, there have been 9 superintendents including 4 interim appointees.  That averages out to a new one every 3 years.

Looking at the past three decades, each successive superintendent leaves Glendale earlier than his predecessor.

Robert A. Sanchis’s term ran 14 years, James R. Brown lasted 8, Michael F. Escalante 6, Richard M. Sheehan 5, and Roberson 3.  It is getting to the point where whoever becomes the next superintendent might as well hold the title of “interim.”

The Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution found that the average tenure of a superintendent is between three and four years, concluding that “hiring a new superintendent is not associated with higher student achievement.”

With changes in superintendents comes shake-ups in other upper management positions.  The instability is alarming.  If a school had as many teachers coming and going, the education of children would be negatively impacted.

This begs the question:  how important is a superintendent, the highest paid employee in the district at a quarter of a million dollars?

New superintendents tend to establish their authority via some new cockamamie education program that is mandated for implementation in all classrooms without teacher input.  Veteran teachers know to ride such fads out and don’t get too riled up about it because it will last as long as the superintendent remains in office.

When Sheehan was here, he persuaded GUSD to sign a five-year contract worth $3.4 million with Massachusetts-based Curriculum Associates to use their i-Ready diagnostic testing program.  The edict:  evaluate each kindergartner through 12th grader three times a year. One year later, Sheehan left.  Not soon thereafter, the massive endeavor was quickly downsized.

In its hunt for the next super, GUSD has a list of seven employee search firms expected to submit proposals.  Often the cost is around $25,000.  One of those is McPherson & Jacobson, hired by GUSD in 2016 who found Roberson.  Since he did not work out, why is this firm even in the running?

And with the high turnover rate, one wonders if it might dissuade a quality candidate from coming here.

I understand the importance of hiring an experienced superintendent, but since the recent ones came outside of the district and didn’t have a prior stake in the community, the school board should consider hiring a fresh face from those who currently work at district headquarters, especially those who taught in Glendale schools.  They would be less likely to leave thus offering stability, something this district desperately needs.

Meanwhile, the portraits of GUSD’s superintendents keep decorating the wall in the Board Room.  Roberson, Sheehan, Escalante and company (including the 10-month legacy of 1937’s Norman B. Whytock) will forever remain memorialized, while the faces of teachers who have devoted 25, 35, 45 years of service are nowhere around.

But here’s the thing—despite the maneuvers of the school board and the high turnover rate of upper management, Glendale students still receive a quality free education.  Unfortunately, the people responsible for it remain invisible in the halls of district headquarters.

New Year’s Resolutions for Inconsiderate People

The new year is typically a time when people make resolutions.   Here is a list of my resolutions, not for me, but for those among us who never learned about showing consideration for others.

As a teacher, I have a front row seat to bad manners.  Students regularly yawn uttering a large roar, never covering their mouths.  I’ve lost track of how often a student walks in the middle of two people having a conversation without saying, “Excuse me.”

When teens talk to one another in person, they should remove all ear buds; otherwise, it looks like the person is not giving his full attention to the speaker.

I wish people would resurrect the saying “you’re welcome” instead of “no problem” when someone says “thank you.”  “No problem” gives the wrong impression that whatever act was performed was a difficulty—not a pleasure.

Sometimes I feel I must be the last man on earth who feels that swearing in public is not okay especially when children are present.

I still recall a family vacation a decade ago when my wife and two young boys were strolling the streets of Golden, Colorado past a group of men sitting at an outside table, their discussion peppered with vulgarities.  As we passed, one of them said, “Pardon us.”  The reason this has remained in my memory is because it is the only time I have ever heard such an apology coming from another human being.

After unloading groceries, return the shopping cart to the proper corral; the parking lots have several.  Think about the next driver who won’t be able to park in the space without hitting the cart left behind. Is it that much effort to walk it back?

Try not going to See’s Candies for a free sample without any intention of buying anything.  Too many selfish people take advantage of a kind gesture.

During the holidays, I saw an elderly man get free candy for himself, his wife, and granddaughter.  Then when his granddaughter said she did not like chocolate, he went ahead and asked the employee for another choice of candy.  Loyal customers end up footing the bill for these freeloaders.  Plus, what lesson is the grandfather teaching?

At the gym, wipe down the machines after using them.  Most members don’t even wipe them before using them.  I’m stunned watching people put their bare hands on equipment not knowing whose hands were previously there and what bacteria was on those hands.

Enough with people taking their dogs everywhere they go.  Latest crazy sighting?  At a Starbucks.  No, not at an outside patio, but inside . . . with the cocker spaniel sitting on a stool.

People in recent years have been sensitive about nut allergies which affect about 7% of the population, yet allergies to dogs and cats are nearly doubled that at 15%.  So why aren’t more merchants and customers complaining about the dogs?

I wish bicyclists would at least slow down at stop signs. Why someone riding a bike feels emboldened to run through stop signs at the risk of being hit by a 2-ton motor vehicle is beyond me.  Too often people count on the consideration of other people without exhibiting that behavior themselves.

People think nothing of using their hands to text or talk using a cell phone while driving, yet for some reason using their turn signal requires too much effort for their fellow drivers.  With everything automatic in cars these days, surely car companies can program signals to automatically go on as soon as the driver turns the steering wheel a specified number of degrees.

Funny how drivers blow through stop signs and red lights, but delay going on green lights due to using their cell phones.

For 2019, let us keep in mind that we live in communities.  Showing consideration for others makes us all safer . . . and nicer.

Old Grades, New Parades

One benefit of having winter break in the middle of the school year is that it provides an opportunity for fresh starts.   And those of us who work at Hoover High School sure could use a cleansing of last semester’s turmoil that slammed our campus like a tornado:  the student brawl, the walkout, the negative press.  A feeling of unfinished business hung over us like a fog for a good part of the fall.

With this in mind, I began the first day back by passing out neon red squares of paper to my students and having them write last semester’s grades along with a short reflection.  I told them this would not be shared with anyone including me.

Once students finished, I had them fold the paper in half twice into tiny squares.

“We are locking away the past forever and . . .” I said, as trash cans were distributed down each row, “. . . throwing the grades and any negative feelings out.  Not the lessons learned just the grade itself.  It’s a new year and a new semester, time for a new beginning.”

I dimmed the lights.

“First, let’s get reacquainted with Room 11202.  Did you miss this room during the break?  It’s been a while, so in your new seat, place your hands in front of you on the table to have a physical connection to the environment, close your eyes, and think positive thoughts.  In order to give you ideas on what to think about, I will share mine.”

“Dear Room 11202.  Thank you for being here for my students and I.  For being a sanctuary of learning.  We look forward to wonderful memories the rest of the way.”

“Now I’m going to ask you to close your eyes for at least one minute.  You may begin.”

I played meditative music at low volume.

Once most students’ eyes had opened, I passed out pastel blue squares of paper.

“Write down a favorite memory you have from winter break that brought you joy.  It could be a gift, a song, a text, a sunset.  Write down what the memory is and why it brought joy to you.”

“Fold it once and put it inside a safe place in your binder.  Now you have something that makes you feel good each and every day.  Some of the approaching days will be pleasant ones, but some will not.  For that darkest day that may surface, when it seems everything has gone wrong, open up your binder and look at this piece of paper and be reminded of what gives you joy.”

By happenstance, principal Jennifer Earl walked into my classroom right at the time I was beginning this lesson.  Usually she stays for a few minutes then continues on to other rooms in making her rounds.

This time I asked her to stay for the entire lesson because I wanted her to experience this for herself.  She even threw away her own red piece of paper with great enthusiasm.

Well, she was so inspired by what she saw, she asked me to do the lesson with the entire staff at that afternoon’s faculty meeting.

When I demonstrated the activity with my peers, I sensed a calmness in the room.  Reconnecting with our workplace felt like the right thing to do coming back after the break.  We all needed closure. How serendipitous that Dr. Earl walked into my room when she did as if it was meant to be.

And all of this happened in just the first day.  I can’t wait to see what will unfold the rest of the year.

 

 

“Christmas Carol” adaptations include Rich Little playing Edith Bunker as Cratchit’s Wife

While preparing lessons in recent weeks as I teach Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” for the first time, I have absorbed myself with all things Dickens’ re-discovering why this book has remained a classic for 175 years.

I also wanted to have my students examine several filmed adaptations of the story, determining the faithfulness to the text, and comparing interpretations of Ebenezer Scrooge.

The first one we viewed was the MGM version made in 1938 starring Reginald Owen as Scrooge.  If you are unfamiliar with Owen, one of his last film roles was as Admiral Boom in “Mary Poppins” who would fire a cannon on his rooftop.

As a kid, I always liked this version not knowing how much it diverged from the source material.  A key scene in the book is when the Ghost of Christmas Present reveals under his robe a boy and a girl representing ignorance and want.  You won’t see it in this version.

The famous last scene in the story of Scrooge pretending to be angry at his clerk, Bob Cratchit, for arriving 18 and ½ minutes late to work on the day after Christmas has been replaced with

Scrooge going to Cratchit’s home on Christmas armed with food and toys.  He informs everyone present, including his nephew Fred, that he will raise Cratchit’s salary.

June Lockhart, the actress best known for the TV series “Lassie” and “Lost in Space” (and is currently 93), made her screen debut playing a child of the Cratchits, both portrayed by her real-life parents, Gene and Kathleen Lockhart.

The 1951 British version was originally called “Scrooge.”   Clive Donner who edited that film would later direct the 1984 TV version starring George C. Scott.

For me, this is the version that best replicates the spirit (no pun intended) of Dickens’ original.  Scott portrays Scrooge as a troubled man not an irritable ogre.  In a scene not in the book, Scrooge laments out loud and alone, “What have I done to be abandoned like this?”

There is much to admire in the 2009 Jim Carrey film directed by Robert Zemeckis.  However, the motion capture computer technology overwhelms the story, must as it did in Zemeckis’ “The Polar Express.”

One version I did not share with my students must rank as the strangest adaptation.  “Rich Little’s Christmas Carol” from 1978 has the impersonator playing all the roles himself.  Since most of the personalities come from the 1970’s and earlier, anyone under 40 would have to access a who’s who of famous people in the 20th century in order to understand it.

Little is President Nixon as Jacob Marley’s ghost with reel to reel tapes replacing the chains.  Watching this with my sons, I had to frequently stop not only to explain who Nixon was, but the significance of the tapes as well.

Yet where do you begin to explain to a 15-year-old who Paul Lynde was and what made him famous (I struggled with this while he was still alive).  Then the quandary of explaining Rich Little dressed as Jean Stapleton playing Edith Bunker who is playing Mrs. Cratchit.   Pause and insert a whole lesson on Norman Lear sitcoms.  Never mind Truman Capote as Tiny Tim.

Well, no matter which version of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” you watch, the notion that an old man full of hatred can transform into a man of goodwill seem improbable, but it is an idea that has kept this book alive for nearly 200 years.

What would the scenes from your past look like, the regrets, the heartaches, the people who touched you and those who you hurt?  If you could become a nicer person, what images would get you to change for the better?

Yes, “A Christmas Carol” is a work of fiction.  In reality, change does not come overnight, if at all.   But what is wrong in believing it is possible, even once a year?

 

 

Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” Not a Children’s Story

This year marks the 175th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” first published on Dec. 19, 1843.

I am teaching the Dickens classic for the first time in my career.  When I planned this out back in the summer, I thought how apropos it would be to finish the fall semester with a holiday story, one most of my 10th grade students knew from films but likely never read.

I usually end the school year with “Oliver Twist” so adding “A Christmas Carol” would serve as bookends to the spring semester.

However, when re-reading the book as preparation for teaching it, and imagining it through their lens, reality hit me.  I am teaching to teenagers who, for the most part, don’t like to read and whose primary language is not English.

Studying “A Christmas Carol” in some ways is more challenging than “Oliver Twist.” While only about 60 pages, the novella is full of antiquated terms related to jobs that no longer exist, sayings that no longer make sense, and a highly descriptive and complex writing style that firmly cements the work to 19th century literature.

Here is Dickens’ Preface:

            “I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which

            shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the

            season, or with me.  May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay

it.”

The first problem will be explaining the difference between American English spellings and those overseas as in “endeavoured” and “humour.”

The idioms “ghost of an idea” and “out of humor” would have to be clarified.

“Haunt their houses” does not refer to a literal house but the reader’s soul and mind.  And “no one wish to lay it” is a joke by Dickens that a reader would not want to put the book down or away.

Once we get past the comprehension hurdles, we can focus on connecting the story’s themes to their lives and times.

For example, health care and living wage issues remain current.   The main reason Dickens created Tiny Tim was to call attention to the need for better health care for the poor.  Back in the first part of 19th century England, nearly half of all funerals were for children.  Tim represents the child that is doomed to die because his father’s boss, Ebenezer Scrooge, doesn’t pay Bob Cratchit enough money to sustain his family.  Employers were perceived as greedy.

The concept of giving to those less fortunate permeates the novel, and is the ultimate lesson Scrooge learns through the three ghosts.

While the word “scrooge” has come to mean a miserly person, “ebenezer” symbolizes one who helps, a word from Hebrew, according to Merriam-Webster, “used by Samuel to the stone which he set up in commemoration of God’s help to the Israelites in their victory over the Philistines.”

In other words, Scrooge’s name represents the before and after aspects of his character in his transformative journey through the story.

Upon finishing “A Christmas Carol” we will attend a live theatrical performance of it at A Noise Within in Pasadena to further extend the students’ understanding of the story.  Then, as a culminating activity, students will present to the class their own 15-minute versions of it.  By that time, hopefully, students will have gotten something meaningful from the book.

So, if you romanticize reading aloud “A Christmas Carol” to your family on Christmas Eve, you had better preview the actual text first and pass out some handouts.  Or choose Dr. Seuss’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” instead.