What If’s.

Occasionally, I feel like I have been hoodwinked. I knew becoming a parent would have both of its challenges and rewards but no one prepared me for this! Who can I be mad at for not preparing me for this? Curse you Doctor Spock- you left out this chapter. Yes, as a parent I have all of the usual worries, concerns, doubt and fears. Am I doing a good enough job? Was I too strict? Was I not strict enough? Did I hug them enough today? Did I smother them? What is that bump on his head? Will it be okay? These questions and a myriad more invade a parents mind at random times throughout the day. But it’s okay, these thoughts are typically balanced with the fact that being a parent is wonderful and that I wouldn’t want it any other way. The pride and proudness usually outweigh the What Ifs. Usually I said. This is 2020, the only thing usual is that everything is unusual. As I glance at my peacefully sleeping children I am caught off guard by the What Ifs- the balance is off, the scales are tipped and I am unprepared. As I watch them drift into a sleep I am unprepared for  imagining children being raised in a pandemic. I was not prepared for picturing my children wearing face masks throughout the day. I was not prepared that hugging a friend would be a cause to pause, I was not prepared for having Worry be a constant state of mind for me or them. There are so many What ifs that tug at my heart strings that it is a challenge to not let the What ifs win. But as I have said before PARENTS ARE SUPERHEROES. That is not what we do, for our children- we can’t let the What Ifs win. There is no magic. We educate without alarm, we hug more often and do what we can to give our children a sense of normalcy in a world that has flung normalcy out the window. We keep them as safe as we can while still letting them act like children. 

Work Play

Years ago I started this blog post as a simple way to record my history, an online journal chronicling my teaching career- all parts of it, even memories from my earliest days working with children. I kept up for a while but I eventually lost steam and the weekly blog post took a back seat. In the last two months I have run into folks I haven’t  seen in years, one of their questions was how come I stopped writing my blog? 

Now I will try again. I often write letters home and emails to parents. They are thoughtful and I  think about what I am writing. That became part of my issue with the weekly blog. I began to weigh the content, this time around I am going to try to write for myself and share it without worrying about the audience.

Many, many things about me and my life have changed since I started my teaching journey and it has been a journey. I didn’t simply find a position, apply and get hired. I surely took the path less traveled. I have experienced success followed by utter failure and a momentous collapse which lead to taking a break from teaching all together. Eventually I found my way back to working with children, it is in my bones, I am good at it, it comes naturally to me and most of the time, it doesn’t feel like “work”.   

I have been thinking about the word Work and the word Play. Are they opposites?  As I usually do I have been thinking about these words and how they relate to children. Lately I have been spending A LOT of time with our two boys and I find myself getting frustrated with them while we are outside. It baffles me sometimes. We are a lucky family, we have a yard, trees to climb, places to ride bikes,  it is safe and yet I often have to urge the boys to “just play outside!” Sometimes I feel like it is Work getting them to Play outside and then I realized. Children need to be taught how to play. Let that sink in. Do you agree? Children need to practice playing outside. Maybe too much freedom has its own challenges? Since we currently have a lot of family time, maybe more than we want but.. If you can, try adding a little structure into Outside Time. Join in, wrestle, play chase, be silly, it is good for the soul and will help you and your children. 

Chess=Math

It has always been my belief and practice that teachers should find ways to introduce material without the children realizing that they are learning. The basic approach is simple, spend time working in groups and figure out each child’s interest. If they like reading books about the ocean chances are if you use books about the ocean to support reading development there will be success. Today’s model for education is to disregard the needs and wants of children and attempt to teach them by sheer repetition and testing.

Over the years I have noticed that many children are interested in the game Chess. Not all play by the rules. For some children the King, Queen, Rook, Knight and Bishop are all just characters in a well created story and the chess board is the kingdom. A perfect time to introduce and focus on creative writing. Other children pick up the complex game of Chess quickly.

….and here is today’s story. There was a very shy boy in my class, not only shy he was clearly socially awkward. His mom told me that he really loves playing Chess and asked if she could bring in a Chess set so that he can play during the day. I sat down to play a match. My goal was not to beat this six year old, the goal was simply to get to know him better. He beat me in about four moves. We played again and he beat me quickly. I am no Master but I can usually hold my own while playing chess. So we played once more and I tried this time and I lost. I did notice that his classmates started to realize that the teacher was losing to a six year old. He started teaching other children how to play and before we knew it the room had five Chess sets and a handful of children learned how to play. Chess requires the children to use a wide range of math skills not to mention the ability to think ahead and remain organized. I was playing with my six year old challenger again and this time, in the middle of the game I knocked the board off the table. I wanted to see how he would react. I was expecting a meltdown of epic proportions. I said that we could just start over. He said “we don’t have start over, just help me pick up the pieces”. I watched in awe as he put every piece back on the board in the same spot they were before I knocked over the board. He memorized the layout of the board. He couldn’t recognize the alphabet or spell his name but clearly he had a fantastic ability to learn. I used chess as the jumping off point for most of his formal learning.

The progressive philosophy is not rocket science, in fact, it is education in its purest form. The focus is in on helping children learn to love the process of learning and not demanding that they learn what we have to teach them.

I played countless chess matches with him in the course of a year and I only won a handful of matches. He once walked in on Monday morning with a trophy. He came in second place at the local high school chess tournament.

Papa and Teacher- flashback

7 DAYS AGO..
One week ago today I watched and held my wife as she pushed with all of her might to bring our son into our home. One week ago today I heard my son’s first cry. One week ago today I held my son for the first time. One week ago today I fell in love for the second time in five years. One week ago today I realized what it means to feel a sense of connection that can only be felt between parent and child. One week ago today I became a better man and that will make me a better teacher. One week ago today an eight pound being changed my life.

I have seen how hard it can be for parents to leave their children on the first day of school, especially if there are tears. I have hugged crying children assuring them that their parents will be back at the end of the day. They cry huge tears simply because they don’t want to leave their parents. Soon, everyone always calms down but for that moment in their life, all they want is to be with their mom or dad. I always feel for the parents that leave their children with me as they go to work and some leave with tears. Both parent and child know that everything will be alright but I don’t think that makes saying goodbye easier, even if its just for a school day. And now I understand.

I have always been honored and thankful that parents trust me with their children. Above all else I have always tried to make sure that children feel safe, nurtured and comfortable while in my classroom. While interacting with children I always try to imagine that their mom or dad is behind me, listening to what I am saying making sure I am genuine, honest ,fair, and heartfelt. If someone falls down, gets a splinter or loses a tooth it is important to take the time to comfort and sooth them. Thunderstorms are never easy in kindergarten. Children need to know that they are safe, loved and free from judgement before they can truly begin to learn.

So here is my Thank You to all of the parents that have had faith and trust in me to take care of their children. Thank You for trusting me to be a good man as well as a good educator. And now I join you in that trust, this past weekend I became a dad. I now understand why saying goodbye in the morning is hard. I now understand the bond that only parent and child share. The other day I left my wife and son at home for the first time and all I could think about was how I wish were back home with them. I want nothing more than for him to be safe and joyful and I imagine that is how all parents feel when they trust another person with their children. For years I was and am the person that parents trust and I never take that lightly. Now, I have a new understanding, I see my profession with new eyes and I have no doubt that becoming a dad will make me a better educator and a better man.

Parents have all the answers??

As a parent I take pride in being able to answer most of the questions my sons have for me. If I can’t answer the question with my 43 years on earth I can at least let them know that we can look up the answer. Until a few nights ago. I was sitting with my back to my son and with a clear and direct voice I heard this question, “Papa, what are you scared of?”  I thought about answering quickly and then I decided to tell him that I would need a day or two to think about this one.

Through the eyes of a child a parent is larger than life, a shoulder to cry and lean on. Parents are the strong ones. I decided not tell him that as a parent I spend a great deal of time being “scared”. I decided not to tell him that I was scared 3 seconds after you were born that your head would stay cone shaped forever.  I was scared while I was at work that something may happen to you or your mom while I was away. I was scared when I was home and holding you and trying to stop your chollicly tears. I was scared when you were asleep. I was scared of so much crying and scared of silence. I was scared that I was not going to be a good dad and more scared that I was not going to be a good husband and partner to your mom.

And that time passed- you grew, your tears from a constant tummy ache stopped, you began to use words, sign language, your started growing but that did not stop me from being scared–just as you are changing ever day. I am scared of different things now. I am scared with each decision I make- am I too strict, am I too much of a pushover. Am I giving you the tools you will need to be a Good Man as you grow. Am I pushing you too much- am I not pushing enough? Am I still a good partner and husband to your Mom- who deserves the very best I have to give. There are some nights when everyone else is asleep that my chest hurts with questions. Am I giving you a good life- have I left a enough money in the account to buy you not just the things you need but ocassionally the things you just want because that what kids do. Have I upset you and not realized it- have you gone to bed happy with your day. Did I lock the backdoors before bed, did I leave the stove on (your mom is much better about that), are there batteries in the smoke detector and I hope we all wake up happy together.   Alone, at night is when I am scared, sometimes tears run down my face and I can’t even tell anyone why- not because I have no one to tell but because I have no idea why- I can not explain it.  I am scared that there are times when I can not keep you safe. There are times when your feelings will get hurt, times when your heart will get hurt and I will have to let you learn and grow ON YOUR OWN when this happens. I am not scared about the cuts, scrapes and broken bones you may get as you become more adventurous but I am scared that I will not be strong enough to hold you up when your heart gets hurt. Remember I almost cried when you got your first shots and your cried. Your mom can tell you. Just last week you cried during your first soccer practice, your mom and me knew you were crying but had to let you decide how to handle it.  That was hard.

“What am I scared of, you ask?”  EVERYTHING about being a parent is a mix of scared and joy, success and doubt, easy and yet the hardest thing I have ever done.

“What I am scared of Papa?” asks my 5 year old. After two days I think I have an answer fit for a Papa answering a 5 year old son. I am scared of trying New things–this does not mean I won’t try new things but I am always a little nervous about trying. The first time I was Guiding my first White Water Trip I was scared, it was new but I tried it and now our family enjoys our White Water trips.  Imagine if I never tried?

READ REPEAT START NEW

September sure does bring a great deal of change. School is back in session, that means our entire house has to be A.I.S (Ass in seats) so that we can make it to school by 8.   It also means back to my blog, it sort of acts as a school year journal for me. To get inspired to write again I reread a few older posts and discovered this one. It was written when Sparks (son1) was born and I would begin my life as both parent and teacher- a new perspective, a tricky balancing act. I hope you enjoy and stay tuned for new posts.

 One week ago today I watched and held my wife as she pushed with all of her might to bring our son into our home. One week ago today I heard my son’s first cry. One week ago today I held my son for the first time. One week ago today I fell in love for the second time in five years. One week ago today I realized what it means to feel a sense of connection that can only be felt between parent and child. One week ago today I became a better man and that will make me a better teacher.  One week ago today an eight pound being changed my life.

I have seen how hard it can be for parents to leave their children on the first day of school, especially if there are tears.  I have hugged crying children assuring them that their parents will be back at the end of the day.  They cry huge tears simply because they don’t want to leave their parents.  Soon, everyone always calms down but for that moment in their life, all they want is to be with their mom or dad.  I always feel for the parents that  leave their children with me as they go to work and some leave with tears.  Both parent and child know that everything will be alright but I don’t think that makes saying goodbye easier, even if its just for a school day.  And now I understand.

I have always been honored and thankful that parents trust me with their children.  Above all else I have always tried to make sure that children feel safe, nurtured and comfortable while in my classroom.  While interacting with children I always try to imagine that their mom or dad is behind me, listening to what I am saying  making sure I am genuine, honest ,fair, and heartfelt.  If someone falls down, gets a splinter or loses a tooth it is important to take the time to comfort and sooth them.  Thunderstorms are never easy in kindergarten.  Children need to know that they are safe, loved and free from judgement before they can truly begin to learn.

So here is my Thank You to all of the parents that have had faith and trust in me to take care of their children.  Thank You for trusting me to be a good man as well as a good educator.  And now I join you in that trust, this past weekend I became a dad.  I now understand why saying goodbye in the morning is hard.  I now understand the bond that only parent and child share. The other day I left my wife and son at home for the first time and all I could think about was how I wish were back home with them.  I want nothing more than for him to be safe and joyful and I imagine that is how all parents feel when they trust another person with their children. For years I was and am the person that parents trust and I never take that lightly. Now, I have a new understanding, I see my profession with new eyes and I have no doubt that becoming a dad will make me a better educator and a better man.

So Full of Sap

If you have been following my blog, you may have noticed a recent trend. The classroom has been immersed in making Maple Syrup. Yesterday we pulled out the last of the taps and as I am typing, the last pot of sap is boiling down.

A sight not commonly seen on an Elementary Playground.
Three sap seasons ago the Founder and Director of the school asked me, “How come you have not tapped the Sugar Maples along the driveway?” For one thing I thought that this process was a bit too dangerous to take on with the Lower School and secondly I knew nothing about how to go about this process. I proposed making syrup to the class and not to my surprise, they were very eager to begin this process. We read books, watched videos and I talked to people that could help us start this process. Our first year, we put in ten taps along the driveway and boiled the sap using a propane burner in the parking lot and the electric stove in our classroom. I soon realized that this was an intense process-there were many days when our room felt so stuffy due to the steam. During our first year, we even got to practice “Fire Drills”. I soon learned that sap can go from almost done to done and burned very quickly. I also learned that if the pot was too small the sap will boil over, land on the electric burner turn to sugar and catch fire. Lesson learned. We were also swimming in sap, who knew that it would take forever to boil down sap in lobster pot? To solve this problem, we simply roped off a portion of the faculty parking lot and added two more propane burners. It was going great, I could peek out the windows and look across the playground and see the steam rising from the pots. There was one day, when I looked out the window and there was no more steam, it looked more like smoke. I ran across the playground to discover the all of the sap had boiled away and there was no longer a bottom to the pot. The pot got so hot that it melted, the entire bottom of the pot was in a pile of liquid metal on the ground. Fear kicked in, what if the liquid metal dripped back down the propane valve and in moments, I would have an exploding propane tank in the faculty parking lot of our school…not good press. Thankfully, my mind got too carried away and that did not happen. What did happen is that we were done for the year- way too stressful. Propane burners and elementary school aged children do not mix well. The first year we made enough syrup to send a small portion home with each child, give a small jar to our Founder and have a pancake party.

As the snow melted, we were ready to start our second year of making Riley Gold Syrup. The name stemmed from an incident where one of the children spilled a bucket of sap and another child said, “Don’t you know it takes 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup, that stuff is like gold.” For the second year I was pretty sure that there must be a better option than propane. I searched the internet and found a photo of a home made boiler using a 55 gallon drum. The photo facilitators husband said that he could make one of them for the school. Now we had 25 taps and a safe way to boil. We turned our sandbox into a make shift Sugar Shack minus the actual shack. The children took turns wearing fire resistant gloves and kept the fire going all day long. I loaded up the wood stove and it would boil all night. We made enough syrup to have an ice cream party, a pancake party, send a bit home and raffle off 5 pints. A great success and at the end of it all I thought that next year we could do more.

Starting in September I joined the Maple Trader website and read a great deal about how to be more efficient. I decided that to take this sap experiment one step further. Every third Sunday in March sugar houses across the state open their doors for Maine Maple Sunday. I contacted the Maine Maple Producers Association and asked if our school could be on the tour. Despite not having a Sugar House, we were on the tour. They were pleased to know that children did most of the work using very primitive methods of sap collection and boiling. Now the pressure was on. We had to make enough syrup to give plenty of it away and we had to have enough sap stored so that people could actually watch the process. We tapped our first trees in late January since there was a January thaw. We also put in 50 taps, our most ambitious year! One of the families also donated an old wood stove so that we could boil more at one time. I also found two giant steel cooking woks- each one of them could hold 7 gallons of sap. Now our sandbox was filled with a giant 55 gallon drum wood stove, a small kitchen wood stove and two open fire pits made from cinder blocks for the woks and the perimeter of the sandbox was surrounded by chords of wood. Everyday the class went out with their five gallon buckets and hauled in the sap. Once there was snow on the ground, it got a bit easier to haul the buckets using our sleds. And then the snow was gone and we were trudging through mud with a Civil War Ammo cart with giant metal wheels. The kids in my class worked hard! They hauled and stacked the firewood as well as kept the fires going all day. I bought a child sized ax and many recess were spent with children taking turns splitting firewood. Every morning I would arrive at school at 7 and start the fires. When we were not out collecting sap, we were in the classroom filtering sap or making labels for the pint sized mason jars. As Maine Maple Sunday approached, the kids got excited and I got so nervous. What if no one showed up?

As part of our Math Cooking Class the children prepared food to give out during Mane Maple Sunday. They made Maple Cookies, Maple Bread, Maple Roasted Root Veggies and everyday they made sure that we would have enough ice cream for the visitors. Needless to say that we made sure to sample everything! We also started to paint Fact Signs about maple syrup around the campus and we used a software program to make a map of our taps. Everything was falling into place nicely- the sap was flowing, the children were excited and I thought- Oh damn, what if no one shows up? I had live music lined up, my family was coming from New Jersey, my wife’s family was coming and “I hope people show up.” We had about 6 gallons of sap made by the time Maple Sunday rolled around.

One of the wok boilers..makes a nice smokey flavor.
I arrived on campus at 6 30 in the morning with a giant to-do list in my head. My support team (my family, in-laws, wife, brother and nephews) all started to arrive around 9. Everyone had a list of chores; put up Fact Signs, start building the cooking fire for a cookout, spruce up the place, make an art project, get the ice cream and syrup ready, go to the grocery store and Shit…what if no one shows up? At 10:30 a few people started to arrive and then HOLY KRAP….there was a non-stop line of cars pulling in the drive way. It was all becoming one blur. One of the parents from school had to make two runs to the grocery store because we ran out of hot dogs, burgers and ice cream. People just kept coming! There were kids everywhere..all over campus. I encouraged people to take a tap map and a five gallon bucket and tour the grounds collecting sap along the way. At one point, all of our five gallon buckets were full of sap and so were all of the pots and woks! There were a few families that stayed on campus for the entire afternoon. We gave away all 6 gallons of syrup (with a suggested donation) in no time. We had to take syrup orders. We went through 8 gallons of ice cream, three dozen cookies, three loaves of bread and a countless amount of burgers and dogs for a dollar each. It was a whirlwind and thank goodness people showed up.

Maine Maple Sunday 2013..and we thought nobody would come.

Everyone I talked to prior to Sunday said that we could maybe expect 40 – 50 people. By the end of the day we estimated that over 300 people visited our Riley Gold Syrup operation. We kept collecting and boiling until the sap slowed down and frankly, we got very tired of emptying sap buckets. In the end, we made close to 12 gallons of syrup. Children ages 4 -9 did most of the work- we hauled approx. 480 gallons of sap using sleds and a metal wheeled Civil War Ammo cart. We boiled 480 gallons of sap using an old wood stove, a home made drum wood stove and two woks boiling on open flames in the sandbox. Next year…who knows what will be next, but there are a lot of Maples on our campus.

Hopefully next year we will have a sugar shack and an evaporator in addition to our Sandbox Setup -this way we can put in more taps and make more syrup and raise more money. More people will visit our campus and more families can come to Maine Maple Sunday and celebrate with us.

The Fact Signs…helpful, informative and a great way to practice writing.

Here is the our Map of the Taps.

Truth

I have been thinking a lot about children and how they tend to bend the truth in certain situations. For example, it was the end of the day and all the children in the room were doing their part to help accomplish all of the daily chores.  With 12 children each doing their part, our room looks great in a matter of minutes.  I glanced around the room as everyone was buzzing around and I noticed one child was hiding in the cubbies.  He was not hiding near the cubbies, his entire body was crammed into a square box about two feet off the floor.  I didn’t say a word, at the time.  The end of the day chores were done with time to spare, the children asked if they could go to the block room.  As they ascended the spiral staircase to the block room I stopped the boy who had been hiding in a cubby.  I reminded him that he still had to do his part to help clean the room.  A few tears ran down his face as he asked, “Why can’t I go upstairs?”  I told him that I watched him hiding in the cubbies instead of cleaning, so before he could go to the block room he would have to do his share of cleaning just as everyone else had done.  He looked me straight in the eyes and said, “I was not hiding in the cubbies, that was your imagination.”  Although he was real cute, I was insistent that he do his share before going to the block room.

This interaction really got me thinking about how children respond to consequences and the nature of fibbing.    My first thought was that this is a hilarious thought for me because I am sure my dear Mom and Dad have countless stories of my fibbing as I am sure I will have a few about my son.  But as far as the classroom is concerned I started to think that maybe I was focusing on the wrong detail. The only clear thought I could come up with is that children fib to teachers because they are trying to avoid the consequence.  I decided that I would focus my conversations more on the decision making process so that children associate a consequence with a poor decision rather than the actual behavior.  I will let you know how it goes.

go find them.

                     to be able to know a place in the woods so closely, I can tell when branches are out of place, recognize where gusty winds have left their trail.  Notice where leaves are overturned or out of place. To sit quietly enough to hear a dangling page from a paper birch skim it’s trunk. To hear the “foof,foof,foof” of crows wings against its body a chipmunk sound like a giant building a fort.

                                      This is a gift–a reminder.    thank you

If you look closely, you can see me in the trees.

Our world is faced paced and electric. The daily news clips are scary- I worry for my children both in school and my own. But, but, BUT,   beyond our electric lives there are gifts that I overlook everyday.  THERE ARE BEAUTIFUL THINGS THAT SURROUND ME/US .  Go find them.