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.



What Happens When You Have Too Much Time on Your Hands

Writing a blog post right between the end of one year and the start of another is tricky.   Typically writers come up with “the list of the [fill in the blank] of 2014.”   I thought about selecting the top education stories of the year but got a bit depressed.

So before we continue examining challenges of public education for 2015, allow me to share how I spent part of my winter break.

While I am not a fan of starting school in early August, I do like finishing the semester before Christmas.   Students take final exams in middle and high schools so when they return on January 7 they don’t have to turn in projects since a new semester will commence (though a few of my students did mention work assigned by some teachers over vacation).

There really are only two times when my mind is not “on” when it comes to my job: winter break and summer break.   Since spring break occurs in the middle of the semester, it feels more like a pause in learning, rather than a true mental vacation.

Over the years I have noticed that it takes a few days for my body and mind to work at a slower more natural pace.   When I am in work mode, it is difficult even on weekends for me not to think about lessons or students.

So when I am at rest, one of the pleasures I indulge in is to allow my mind to wander, sparked with curiosity, on a number of topics.

In the past week, I read Billy Crystal’s memoir Still Foolin’ ’Em and Jane Leavy’s biography on Mickey Mantle, The Last Boy. How are the two connected?

It started with Crystal discussing his friendship with Mantle in the remaining years of the ballplayer’s life.   In fact, Crystal attended Mantle’s funeral in 1995.   I double-checked this by watching the video of the ceremony on YouTube and there is Bob Costas pointing him out in the audience.

Coincidentally in 2001, Crystal ended up directing the film 61* about Mantle’s and fellow New York Yankee Roger Maris’s pursuit of Babe Ruth’s record (at the time) of 60 homeruns in a season.   This sparked an interest to watch again the Ken Burns’ 1994 PBS documentary series Baseball, a first viewing for my baseball-loving teenaged son.

I then read Leavy’s book on Mantle.   I found myself interrupting my reading in order to view aspects of Mantle’s life online such as a local television video of his retirement ceremony at Yankee Stadium on June 8, 1969.

This exploration of Mantle led me to the ESPN 2007 miniseries “The Bronx is Burning” exploring the tumultuous year of 1977 for New Yorkers through the dual stories of the Yankees’ World Series season with the Son of Sam serial killings. One of Mantle’s closest friends and fellow drinking buddy was Billy Martin who managed the team that year.

And as I watched the TV show, I found out that the lead New York City police detective on the Son of Sam case, Timothy Dowd, who is prominently portrayed in the program, died last week at age 99.

Whether the connections mean anything or not, they do mean that life can be quite fascinating once your mind isn’t preoccupied with regular daily duties. Or maybe I need to return to work before I began exploring other New York crime waves.