Alex or Huck?

I am trying to save all of my original posts–here is an older post from 2012.

The topic and post is still very relevant to my classroom today, 2017-2018.

Throughout the school year I try to read books that will help me out with my approach regarding children and their unique behaviors.  I noticed a long time ago that it is easy to get stuck in a rut, it is easy to expect the best behavior from everyone and then I realized that this is just laziness.  I believe that every child is 100% unique in all areas of development and to expect them all to live up to the same expectations regarding  behavior is just ridiculous mixed with two parts lazy.  For me reading books, articles, chapters, sentences and even quotes reminds me that every child requires a different approach concerning behavior and academics. It also helps that I was one of those kids that was a bit challenging to work with.  Currently I am reading the book, In Defense of Childhood by Chris Mercogliano.  In the introduction he references an older book, Huck’s Raft, A History of American Childhood by Stephen Mintz, this introduces the idea of the “Huck Finn” child and the fact that we are trying to tame that type of “inner wildness” that embodies Huck.

As I was reading this book and watching my one month old son I started to think about this idea of “inner wildness” in different terms.  I think the polar opposite of Huck Finn is Alex P. Keaton from Family Ties.  Do I want a classroom of Huck’s or a classroom of Alex P. Keatons?  For one thing, I am sure that Huck could kick Alex’s ass but Alex has the money and planning to hire a body guard.  I think for me, balance is the answer.  I love seeing kids getting muddy and covered in dirt.  I take the class outside every chance I get.  There is endless value in the process of exploration and discovery.  I encourage the children in my class to ask questions- I appreciate it when children make adults explain themselves.  One thing you will never hear from me is “because I said so”. When it pours, we always go down to the stream hoping there is enough water rushing over the rocks so that we can take out the kayak. Huck would approve.  On the other hand, the Alex P. Keaton hand, children live in a very different world than Huck.  Huck would not able to Google without an Alex showing him the basics.

So my goal is to create an atmosphere where Huck and Alex would both thrive.  To create an atmosphere where children can learn, explore and discover like Huck then write a presentation and make a graph like Alex. A classroom that fosters independent thought like Huck and can articulate their thoughts like Alex. A place where children learn all the names of local plants and trees like Alex and knows the practical uses for them like Huck. And most important, I would like to create an atmosphere where Huck and Alex both realize they can help each other. It is good to know how to play along the river banks on the weekend and dress for the office afterwards. A place where Huck can teach Alex P. Keaton how to run a river and Alex P. Keaton can teach Huck how to most effectively pack for the upcoming adventure.

Wilderness Education as a part of school?

Read any article about child development and one of the most popular themes is that children need to spend time outdoors and yet children across the nation are deprived from time outside, exercise and the reward that comes from discovery and exploring our natural world.  My theory is that children need to spend MORE TIME outside.  Education and learning  does not have to take place surrounded by the walls of a classroom.

Have you ever just gone into the woods to do nothing but sit? Once a human enters the woods it takes at least 30 minutes for the woods to get back to normal. Although you don’t realize it once you enter the woods you have disrupted the flow of the minute aspects of nature. A human enters the woods and the bird calls change, the messengers have sent the call. Once the birds are alerted all other creatures great and small are on alert. It takes practice to master the art of entering the woods and walking in the woods without alerting or disturbing everything around you.

A significant aspect of the Lower School Program at Riley is dedicated to learning about our natural world and our place in it. We venture out to the woods many times during the week but Tuesday’s are dedicated to Outdoor Education. Over the course of the year the children will be introduced to track identification, learning about the four directions, using a compass, cartography, basic primitive skills and learning how to be a part of nature, not simply walking or playing in the woods that surround our beautiful campus. The children will be begin to see the woods come alive around them. This past Tuesday was our first Outdoor Day of the school year. Here is a short clip of the children sitting in their quiet spots. Since it was the first time, the spots were close together but as time goes on the children will spread out so that they can’t see each other. After sitting in silence for 10 minutes we meet back as a group to discuss what children may or may not have observed in that time. I am delightfully surprised by their ability to sit quietly and their observations. Next week we will begin making entries in our Wilderness Journals.

Reminders in the isle.

I have been at my current teaching position for roughly 10 years, I bought a house nearly three years ago, I have two healthy young boys, a beautiful wife, reliable vehicles and decent health insurance.  To me, this is an impressive list of accomplishments and a list I am proud of and yet every once in a while I find myself taking it all for granted.  Wondering what will come next instead of being thankful for what is  in front of me.  I have a pretty solid belief foundation but sometimes the sign has to be blazing neon before I read the sign and the other day I was blinded.  The sign as bright as a snow covered field on a sunny spring day.

I ran to the local grocery store during my lunch break to grab some ice cream and green food coloring for a St. Patrick’s Day treat with my class. The children always get a kick out of green toilet bowl water.  And since I was in a rush ,the 14 items or fewer line curved like a snake around the sale bin of Kraft Mac and Cheese.  In front of me was a kind old man wearing his World War Veteran Hat with pride, as he should. We quickly struck up a conversation.  Our conversation about our odd snow patterns this winter were punctuated with moments of silence.  I knew he wanted to chat more but my casual conversation skills are not up to par. So in an awkward attempt to strike up a conversation I commented on his cereal choice. “Frosted Flakes, those were my favorite growing up”.  “They make them with marshmallows now” was his reply, “but at my age I am allowed to eat whatever I want.” And here was my window to open our dialogue to a man who clearly wanted to share. He told me that he was 92 and since taking a bullet in the war he tired to balance exercise with eating well with occasional treats such as Frosted Flakes for an evening snack.  “You were shot? Did you get to go home? Do you remember being shot?” I asked. For one second, I thought maybe this was too personal and then he began his tale. I was all hears. Anyone that would risk their life to protect our freedom is already a hero in my eyes and this man had a tale.  He told me that he was walking through an abandoned town in Germany and they heard shots so he crouched with his head down behind a pile of rocks.  He then heard a shot and felt a sting- since his head was down the bullet entered his neck and traveled down his body lodging near his lungs. And then he woke up in the hospital. “I still have the damn bullet hanging on my wall” he said proudly.  I asked if he got to go home.  He gave me a big chuckle and said, “they didn’t send you home they just hoped you got better so you could go back out but I got lucky, the war ended while I spent four months in the hospital. Horrible food, no family and not one person to visit me the entire time. It took me a long time to heal and I still can’t use my right arm. ”

His voice got a bit solemn as he told me his next thought, “that one sniper shot me and sent me off the battlefield,  I am 92 now and that guy who shot me probably died not to long after he fired. His bullet is framed on my wall now.”  And then he checked out and at 92 proudly carried his Frosted Flakes, milk and chocolate chip cookies to the car. I was a little in awe and felt like an ass for complaining  about how busy my day felt so far.

And as if that were not enough of a reminder to be thankful for all that I have, the second sign was seconds behind the first. I was walking to my car after buying St. Patrick’s Day party supplies and the man collecting the carts followed me out the door and then quickly passed me, rushing to gather that lonely carts strewn all over the snowy parking lot. I have seen this guy a number of times before and it is clear he has a disability of some kind. It was not a warm day but not freezing.  I commented on how quickly he was moving and how efficient he was.  He proudly took off his baseball cap and showed me his head, pouring with sweat. ” I move fast to get these carts. I have been doing this for many years. I am the best at it.” And he ran off to bring the grocery carts back inside- pushing nearly 20 at a time back to the store.  And again I realized  that I have so much to be thankful for- stop looking to what I don’t have or how hard a day maybe and stop- be thankful for all that I do have and acknowledge the good around me.

The Vet who was shot and the best grocery cart collector in the mid-coast would think of my complaints as luxuries.

Reflecting on Maple Season’s from Years Past.

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.

The yesbutno.

photo cred. click on image.

I have been working with children in some form or another for a long time.  They are remarkable creations.  They are intricate and simple all rolled into one.  At times  I think of children as living, breathing oxymorons.  They say one thing and do something else or vice versa.  They are easy to understand and yet entirely complicated at the same time, especially before they master the R sound.  And this why I love them, they keep me on my toes, they consistently challenge my patience and yet I find them calming, most of the time.

The one thing that I have noticed over time is that children under the age of 6 lack the ability to live in the grey area.  I notice this most often when a child asks to do something and they get the common adult response, I call it the YESBUTNO.  Try and say that sentence, I dare you- google it if you have to, try to understand it. Impossible!  Yes, no, but  is a grammatical nightmare and yet I have heard it and I have said to my own children. Guilty.  Here is what I mean.  I am in the middle of doing a task or a chore and my son asks, “Papa can we go play outside?”  My response is an emphatic “Yes!”  He gets a huge smile on his face and is clearly excited at the upcoming outdoor adventure.  Then I return to my task or chore and catch a glimpse of my bewildered son.  Upon reflection I imagine what is going on his tiny, large, simple and yet complex brain- my papa said yes we can go outside and yet he is not getting ready nor is he helping me to get ready-maybe I should ask again. “um Papa, I thought you said we can go outside.”  and my response is the stuff of legend, “I said yes, but not right this second, I have to just finish my task/chore.” I gave him the yesbutno.  I asked him to wait in limbo.

photo cred. click on image.

I know we are busy and as adults, we have stuff that must get done.  I am just sending out a reminder- children respond better to a yes or a no- I am not saying that parents and teachers should refrain from saying no- I am just saying, be aware of the yesbutno combo- its confusing.


Curse you Travolta

This post dates all the way back to the start of my teaching profession.  I debated posting this one but in the end it is real funny.  This truly reflects the phrase that hindsight is 20/20. And once I again I was enlightened at the end of my day.

As you may already know, music plays a large role in my daily teaching practice.  It can rowdy a mild crowd and sooth a rowdy crowd.  It supports all areas of learning and no one can resist an impromptu dance party.  Put on a dance tune in my room and a joyful chaos erupts.

Have you seen Grease? Do you remember the Hand Jive?  I thought it would be fun to teach the class the Hand Jive.  I had the right music playing and eventually the kids loved it.  We had a blast for a little bit and then it was back to the books.  It was a great break in the day.  I went to school the next morning and was quickly greeted by a parent.  She asked me if I had time to meet with her after school.  Anyone that has had this interaction understands that this is what I thought about all day.  What could it be? What happened? I hope everything is okay.  It was an uneventful day as far as the classroom goes and then it was meeting time.

(Keep in mind that at the time of this conversation I was a new teacher, just getting started.)

Parent- “Ummm,(silence,throat clear) yesterday my daughter came home from school and said that she learned how to do the hand job.”   AWKWARD SILENCE,  I quickly saw my career, degree, EMT license flash before my eyes. My heart skipped three beats.  In my head I just kept thinking that I am going to jail, I am going to jail, I am going to jail. 

“WWWHHHHAAATTTT?”  I quickly and confidently and nervously said “No, it was the Hand Jive, you know from Grease.  Do the crazy hand jive.”  I am sure I stuttered a bit as I chose my words. And yes, I proceeded to go through the motions of the hand jive.  Slowly she began to smile and I was thankful that she was a fan of Grease.  Again I was enlightened.

Now I stick to Kidz Bop and playing my guitar for freeze dance.