Increasing Staff Morale . . . through Dance: An Unlikely Tale

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If everything seems under control, you’re not going fast enough. – Mario Andretti

Plain and simple, I’ve got a brilliant staff. I call it the Dream Team for good reason.  It’s full of men and women who get it done and make the journey one epic ride. But perhaps their primo attribute is that they’re willing to try anything . . . at least once.  Last year at our middle school’s annual variety show, a vaudeville-style escapade long on ambition and sometimes short on actual talent, one middle school teacher launched the grand idea to moonwalk our way across the stage in form of a teacher “Thriller” act.  We worked for weeks and weeks to perfect our zombie moves, unzipped the make-up bag to paint on the requisite grunge and brought the house down with our inaugural faculty act.

As fun as it was to coordinate and perform, and as much as the act played to roars from the crowd, how much did novelty factor into crowd approval?  If we had surprised the crowd with a tone-deaf ensemble sure to get gonged by anyone with a sliver of musical talent, would the shock factor still have caused cheers?  This year’s act had to bring the awesome and thus, the planning started early.

Keep in mind that many of my staff members have visited the Ron Clark Academy and know the epic routines unhatched by members of RCA, such as this first-day-of-school choreography that undoubtedly mesmerized those students:

Considering that we’ve got the collective rhythm of toadstools, mastering a step routine could prove injurious to our bodies, not to mention our psyches. One all-star teacher, who’s never met a challenge she wouldn’t embrace, threw down the gauntlet: bring the awesome by bringing the Barnum. With a common love for The Greatest Showman, we latched on to making the title song from the musical come to life. Knowing that the degree of difficulty in such a routine was akin to a blindfolded triple Salchow, Friday mornings before school, starting way back in January, found us gathered in the school’s multi-purpose room, walking through the steps in between fits of laughter.  Each Friday we progressed, both in the routine and in the enjoyment of the act, until three months later, the curtain rose, and it was showtime:

With a few weeks to reflect on the event, here are a few of my takeaways from the experience:

  1. Having Fun Together Boosts Morale – Don’t underestimate the value of laughing as a staff.  Every Friday morning when we practiced, Laughter waltzed in the room with us.  Perhaps the guffaws stemmed from our limited rhythm, but laughing at yourself often proves the most beneficial.  Indeed, after conquering this routine, we all felt ready to go to war together.
  2. The Harder the Task, the Greater the Satisfaction – This is the takeaway that I’d love for my students to learn.  Pulling off this act proved difficult, requiring lots of practice and repetition, but undoubtedly the satisfaction gained is directly proportional to the effort exerted.
  3. Awesome Begets More Awesome – “What’s next?” That’s a question that’s been floated at least a few times by a few staff members.  What are we doing for an encore next year?  With this type of Dream Team of a staff, the hunger will be there to go bigger and better, even if it requires starting earlier in the year.  Maybe Friday mornings just need to become dance/therapy sessions as a staff.
Greatest Show

The Dream Team (Photo courtesy of Brooke Barton)

Hmm, maybe that Bolshoi company could use a few aging yet willing dynamos to add some camaraderie and team spirit to its troupe?

 

 

On Finishing Well – Tips for How to Close the School Year and Still Keep Your Sanity

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(After an extended hiatus, The Write Project is returning to the blogging world. Coincidentally, the original vacation from routine publishing corresponded quite chronologically with my taking an administrative position.  In no way should this reemergence be indicative in any way of my having finally figured out that gig. Rather, I simply have greater need for compositional therapy, and thus, this post.)

About twenty years ago, I started a new job in the Windy City and found my classroom situated across the hall from someone I learned more about education from than most of my college professors combined.  Mr. Powers simply got kids, got student engagement and revolutionized the way I approached each day as a teacher. For some reason, his email tagline sticks with me: “Keep the Faith and Finish Well.” Perhaps because at this time of year, both urgings are timely and crucial.

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No matter how long the journey this year, the station named School’s Out is the next stop. (Photo by Hefin Own, Creative Commons)

No matter the relative crucible in which you dwell with your child’s schooling, whether as benign as a walk in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood or as anxiety-ridden as a high stakes trial, faith is essential to keeping perspective, but what of finishing well?  It’s something we all aspire to, but we often settle for a white-knuckled, desperate “hold on for dear life” until summer arrives M.O., hopefully emerging from the educational rigors with all limbs and kin intact.

Perhaps there’s a better way, or a different path to take during this last month.  Thus, here are 5 helpful, and perhaps controversial, tips to finishing the school year well:

  • Bring the Gratitude – Take out a card and write a note of gratitude to someone in need of a little cheer.  Maybe it’s your child’s bus driver. Maybe it’s the lunch lady. Maybe it’s that friendly barista who’s filled you with so much caffeine this year that your left eye permanently twitches.  Take 4 ½ minutes (a decent, well-written card can be penned in around 250 seconds) and pen a hand-written note. Make sure you do it before the last week of school. Part of the beauty of this action plan is the euphoria of receiving unexpected gratitude.  Plus, according to Psychology Today, purposeful gratitude fosters better sleep, improves physical health and lowers aggression. (Perhaps I could prescribe some gratitude for the angry parents in my milieu.)

 

  • Break the Routine – Routine, especially when dealing with the Type A, soccer mom-folk, often gets elevated to the level of a Fruit of the Spirit. Making lunches, packing the bag and tidying the bedroom get done with military-like precision, in hopes that following the established plan brings order out of the morning chaos.  If you’ve been postal-like steady all year, it’s time to zig where others zag. Make it a family bike ride to school tomorrow. Eschew the brown bag lunch for Subway. Wait to open the blinds and go candlelight for breakfast, if for no other reason than that it’s fun to play with our kids’ minds.

 

  • Skip Something – As hinted at above, here’s the controversial item stuck right in the middle of the list.  The Write Project is officially giving you the okay to skip something in the next month. Yes, Parental Guilt always wants to pummel you like a punching bag, but honestly, Timmy will survive just fine if you don’t show up at the 1st Grade Art Show in order to see him standing next to his Picasso-inspired take on Spring Tree #1. No, this doesn’t apply to the big ones, like commencement or graduation or the solo that Lola’s crooning at the state choral festival.  But giving yourself permission to skip something will not only restore a bit of coveted sanity, it might just feel liberating enough to make the air seem lighter.

 

  • Go Down Memory Lane – My daughter Kenna loves home movies; me, not so much, but every time we sit down to watch as a family, smiles, laughter and “aws” fill the room.  Why not fuel on some Nostalgia and make a simple slide show with some pix of your child’s school year, filled with a few poignant quotations and some sappy, tear-jerking tunes.  Pick a morning, herd everyone into the living room and simply say, “I’m so proud of all of you for what you’ve accomplished this year. To celebrate, let’s take a look at all that you’ve done.”  Chances are they’ll be so touched by the effort, you’ll get a few write-in votes for Parent of the Year.

 

  • Pop the Balloon. – During the drudgery of studying for finals before Christmas break, my wife gave my HS daughters the idea to decorate a balloon for each exam, then blow them up and hang them in the play room.  With each completed exam, the girls popped the balloons, with, I might add, a special measure of both fury and delight. Apply the idea to the end of the school year. Countdown the days, blow up the balloons and get to exploding.  The side benefit is the stark, unexpected terror it causes in unsuspecting siblings.

 

That’s it, the guide to finishing the school year well.  If you’re so moved by the Write Project’s tips, pick five friends to invite to become followers of this blog.  If you’re less than enthused, pick five enemies to invite.

Haunted by Ron Clark

In some regards, this post makes no sense, not so much the content of the piece, but rather the timing. It’s crunch-time, go-time, D-Day- whatever particular flavor of end-of-the-year-and-I’m-a-teacher-type metaphor that you’d like, and that’s where I’m at. It really makes no sense to spend the last half hour of my morning clicking keys before getting ready and heading off to school. Many other items on the to-do list require attention. There are objectives and Really Important Last-Minute Things to accomplish. But I guess if you’re reading this post (and not clutching really important arteries in shock that the Write Project is putting out something in 2017), you’re likely someone who values the written word, just a little, and it should come as no surprise that inspiration or desperation, depending on how one looks through the lens, nudges me toward the keyboard, eschewing other important matters.

Okay, with that disclaimer/apology out of the way, I’ll start by saying that I’m haunted by Ron Clark.  To the uninitiated, he’s a former national teacher of the year, and about 10 years ago, he founded the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta.  It’s a demonstration school, meaning that classrooms are outfitted with seats for the students but also as many as 100 stadium seats, depending on the classroom, for visiting educators to witness educational brilliance.  I happened to be one of those visiting educators in February, and the visit still gnaws at me.

Here’s a selfie with Willy Wonka himself.

It’s one of those places that make you wonder if it’s indeed real. From the Hogwarts-like magical appeal to the 5th graders able to converse like talk show hosts to the two-story slide greeting guests at the front door to the way Innovation has emeritus status on the faculty, it’s an educational wonderland, one I can’t stop thinking about.  Ron Clark, and perhaps the noble pursuit of building a culture of academic excellence, haunts my daylight hours. Thankfully he hasn’t invaded my dream life; I’ll save that for Tiger Woods.  (An explanation of that facet of my REM world should probably be inserted here, but I’ll just suffice it to say that in my nightmares, Eldrick and I have plenty of rounds, usually ending with him getting disgruntled postal worker-like angry and uncorking all manner of 100-proof expletives.)

Perhaps daily, perhaps weekly, I think about how to incorporate much of RCA into the fabric of the school where I work.  Though the Ron Clark Academy is obviously a Shangri-La of its own, without close comparison, there are a number of takeaways that I carried home, eager to infuse into the Happiest Place on Earth, my classroom:

  1. The Rules of Engagement – Technically in educational warfare, only one rule exist: make sure students are engaged.  One of RCA’s pillars is high student engagement. From teachers climbing atop desks to students singing the rules of grammar to Ron Clark teaching a 15-minute math lesson using only music and hand signals, there’ are no apathetic, slouchingly-unendearing “Why do I have to learn this?” torpedoes being launched from the cheap seats in the classroom. Wide-eyed gleams adorned student faces as they theorized and worked. I want my classroom to be one needing a permanent, “Students Hard at Work” sign.
  2. Rigor Non-Mortis – Sure, the students at RCA do academic life in a Disneyland-like environment.  One teacher’s classroom celebrates the inspiring genius of Lewis Carroll in majestic and awe-inspiring ways. But one pillar of the school is academic rigor. Yes, school can and should be fun, but if that’s all it is, we’d call it summer camp. High student engagement needs to be paired with academic rigor in order for students to truly achieve. Yes, I want my classroom to be a Wonderland in its own regard; I’d just like to produce future Nobel Prize winners in the process.
  3. Do You Believe in Magic? – Teachers at RCA speak of spellbinding more than attendees at a David Copperfield Convention. Whether it’s in a room transformation or a whole-school makeover, they constantly unveil some pedagogical sleight of hand. One teacher explained a whole Power Rangers room re-do, allowing students to mastery academic concepts in “Morphin’ Time.” It leads me to think, “If such novelty doesn’t compromise educational objectives, why not have some fun while learning grammar? (That’s not to say that grammar isn’t inherently fun; it is.  Some folks are just a little misguided in that regard.)

There is more I could say, and probably will at some point.  For now, I’ll just simply tell Ron Clark that he continues to haunt my thoughts, and considering the Willy Wonka of the educational world that he is, I’m sure he’s fine with that.

The Beauty of 3 Dots

In the quiet of  pre-dawn, with the only sounds in the house being the clicking of my fingers on the keyboard and the promise of a day that doesn’t need to be spent digging out from under a stack of essays (I don’t do physical labor all that well, even in the metaphorical sense), I’m able to sit for a few minutes and wax contemplative. It’s a habit I generally enjoy, albeit one that generally becomes a waif-like wallflower when Responsibility and Duty come to the dance, which they generally do about every day, even making multiple trips some days. For now though, I’m able to sit and think in a compositional type of way.

As providence would have it, yesterday flipped the calendar to November and at school we had an administrators’ meeting and turned our attention to the Thanksgiving break and what was going to happen. While my designs of pilgrim costumes for my fellow administrators made it only 3 feet up the 33-foot flag pole, the meeting turned my thoughts forward about three weeks to the time of Thanksgiving and the general season of gratitude. Even as I sit here at the kitchen table typing, I can see my wife’s handiwork on top of the hutch, Pinterestingly proclaiming the one line that seems to characterize much of one’s Thanksgiving melody: “I am thankful for . . .”

thankful-for

What strikes me this morning is not so much the words but the beauty of the ellipsis. (Perhaps there are other similarly-minded folks in this world who take delight in the beauty of punctuation marks?) Though the chorus of the four words gets repeated ad naseum the world over, the ellipsis stands for the myriad ways folks finish off that line in their own personal dialect, flavored by their own experience of blessings. While a crew of folks might all be thankful for the same general things, it’s the arrangement and distinctiveness of each one’s dots that gives a beauty all its own.

Let me explain.

Though coffee might make the top 10 list of many a caffeine-a-holic’s thanksgiving litany, few folks outside of Italy nurse quite the gratitude I have for the cappuccino I make every morning and for the caressable mug that simply forms to my hand while I sip it. Though a life coach might raise the question of addiction in the general direction of my mug, I’ll simply clench the steaming beverage a bit more tightly. It’s a part of my life and my thankful list in a way that’s different from everyone else on the planet.

That’s the beauty of the ellipsis. Each person’s three dots are as unique as fingerprints. And perhaps the real beauty of Thanksgiving gratitude is not the quantity of items on humanity’s unfurled scroll, but rather the subtle, nuanced hues of each person’s dots.

And then sometimes God just places the perfect wrap in your lap. As I’m sitting here writing this morning, it’s 6:03 A.M. My phone just buzzed with a text from my wife on the other side of the house. Though it could be a “good morning” or a “Hi Sweetheart,” it’s flavored with a general, virtual reality theme. In the mass of pigskin-loving folks on this planet, football, and especially fantasy football are items that might work their way towards the top of the totem pole of gratitudinal items. For me, my three dots look like this today: “I am thankful for . . . the fact that my wife plays fantasy football and greets me with a text that speaks to her earnest quandary about her roster and says, “What do you think about Dak Prescott?” (the QB for the Dallas Cowboys).  It may not mean much to you, but to me, it flavors my dots in a distinctive, utterly Hiemstra type of way.

What does your ellipsis look like?

Not So With You

We all know the situation well. About 25 long minutes into a chemistry lesson about the wonders of covalent bonding, a student sporting a mischievous, wry grin raises his hand.  Other students catch the hand floating above their heads and nod their heads, not because of their concern for their comrade’s grasp of chemistry, but rather because they know that what’s about to be uncorked, if the instructor choose to let it pop, is a question that’s off-topic, rude, arrogant or, at the very least, intended to disrupt classroom order.  Faced with the track record of the student and the smirk adorning his face, how will the teacher handle this interruption to classroom business as usual?  The answer is what today’s passage is all about.

Student Desk

Photo by Robert S. Donovan, Creative Commons

The Rabbi’s ministry didn’t leave him immune to such questions from his students.  Walking along the road, James and John came to Jesus and seemed to launch a question both audacious and out of place.  “Can we sit at your right and and your left in your glory?” It’s question a middle schooler might ask, both self-centered and irrelevant, except that when looking at the previous section of Scripture, it makes sense in an adolescent type of way.  In the previous passage, Jesus explains how the future is going to unfold.  “’We are going up to Jerusalem,’ he said, ‘and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, 34 who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.’”   The average onlooker might hear Jesus’ words and focus on the utter agony and anguish he would face, but perhaps James and John make like average teenagers . . . and they hear the last thing Jesus says: “Three days later he will rise.”  With this nugget in mind, maybe their question seems to fit.  In their adolescent way of thinking, “Jesus is going to rise to glory. How can we get in on this?”

Ever the master teacher, Jesus doesn’t dismiss the question as being off-topic, but stops to consider and answer the request.  He explains that they really have no clue about what they’re asking, that they’re maybe not really sure what this involves and that the seats of authority are not royal privileges that Jesus has the right to dole out.  It’s noteworthy that Jesus doesn’t squelch their question, nor carry on with his own agenda.  He answers them.

It’s not the end of the story of course. There may not be an “I” in “team” nor in “James” or “John,” but there certainly is one in “selfish.” The other disciples hear about Zebedee’s sons’ self-centered request and become hopping mad. This is what selfishness does to pure community; it causes a team to fracture.  When one person puts selfish pursuit ahead of the team, internal combustion ensues.  Mark says they became “indignant,” but could have used plenty of other words at his disposal: “ticked,” “angry,” “betrayed” or “ livid” are just a few.

Though he already gave one answer, Jesus, the master teacher, realizes that in the face such indignation, it wasn’t enough. Aware that the classroom teetered on the edge of collapse, Jesus intervened and pulled the team together, giving them four words likely to stick in their minds as the antidote for self-centeredness.  Four words to remember.  Four words to ask the Holy Spirit to whisper in our ears when selfishness threatens.  Four words that raise the standard.

“Not so with you.”

The world, Jesus says, does things one way.  People jockey for power. Folks rule others.  The haves dominate the have-nots. And that may be the way much of the world operates.  But not us.  “Not so with you.”  Jesus explains that the way of the righteous follows a different path. We do things differently.  Our M.O is one of service, one of putting the needs of others in front of ourselves.

It’s a nugget to carry with us, a phrase to repeat over and over again.  When the temptation to put down a classmate behind his back seizes us? “Not so with you.”  When clicking “send” will vault us ahead of a colleague in the latest public opinion poll?  “Not so with you.”  When the promise of a weekend tempts us to leave the after-practice locker room a mess? “Not so with you.”  When a service opportunity lines up perfectly with an open spot on the calendar but the thought of some “me-time” looks so inviting? “Not so with you.”

And why should we follow the “Not so with you” orientation?  Because the phrase’s author lived it.  He made himself nothing.  In the 1st-century world of rulers lording it over others, the Lord of all life took a different path.  “Not so with you.”  And not so with Jesus.  The King of Kings chose the path of service.  He chose the path of others.  “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as ransom for man.”

Book Review Type of Monday: Death by Meeting

I think God has a sense of humor.

Such a line in itself could stand quite capably, allowing everyone to nod collective heads and smile, keenly aware of those situations in life that have testified to the truth of the statement. For me, though, I’ve become acutely aware of its truth in my first year as a school administrator.

Let me give a little bit of background. For years, perhaps even decades prior to this present year, I’ve been an avowed hater of meetings. With the summoned yet tenuous righteous indignation of an 15th century explorer trying to defend a flat-earth world-view, I used to metaphorically pound my fist and gesticulate wildly about the trivial nature of faculty meetings. It was as if I had the market cornered on Effective Use of Time, and if I, in my self-righteously deluded frame of mind, deemed a collegial gathering as not worthy of neither my attention nor energy, I became forlorn, apathetic and well, pretty much a jerk. I’m not proud of the cocky arrogance that I doled out to anyone within earshot or anyone within the virtual neighborhood of my email address book. Perhaps a person with a high degree of sanctification might have simply kept quiet, endured the mundane matters of business and simply stewed in silence. Unfortunately, my needle still trends towards the neophyte end of the sanctification spectrum.

And then somewhere along the time that spring sprung towards summer last year, I became a principal. In my mind, such a career move carried along with it a desire to shape policy, to effect education change, to inspire teachers to greatness, to empower student learning and in essence, to do all things for the educational good of all involved. Delusions of pedagogical grandeur collided with the reality of essential tasks that make up the job of being a middle school principal: making sure the teachers are in their rooms, ensuring the gates are locked and attending meetings on a weekly, if not, daily basis. Oh, and the bit about God having a sense of humor . . . I should mention that this was an accreditation year for our school, and I was a member of the school improvement team. Thus, the refrain in our home that the children got used to hearing was “I’ve got to go to a meeting,” whether it was before school when they were playing in my classroom or after school or even as soon as the dinner dishes were cleared.

In his infinite wisdom and in response to my desire to read a number of professional-type books as a principal goal, my superintendent first gave me a copy of Patrick Lencioni’s Death by Meeting as a book to read.

Death by Meeting

The Book:

The book is written in a pretty gripping format. Instead of being isolatingly heavy on theory, it’s written as a story. The author actually calls it a “leadership fable.” It explores the business and social climate of fictitious company Yip Software, and some of the trials that it faces in solving problems. The lead character, a young intern named Will, successfully transforms the nature of teamwork and the dynamics of company interactions in the way he conducts meetings.

The Takeaway:

If there’s one snippet of truth (among many in the book) that I’ve carried with me, it’s the simple idea that conflict is healthy for an organization. Or, maybe said a better way, healthy conflict is healthy for a healthy organization. Meetings that are simply about covering material that is better communicated with a simple email should be avoided, but when there’s opportunity for gripping engagement, even with differing opinions, that’s where healthy organizations thrive. I’m an avowed avoider of conflict. I dislike it. I’d rather just have all of us get along and think along the same lines. The world would be a bright, happy place in that regard. But in order for positive change to happen, people (teachers) with divergent points of view need to come to the table with their collective concerns and allow those concerns to play red-rover with each other.

Lencioni compares the process a bit to watching movies. What makes a movie engaging and gripping is not the cinematography or the musical score. It’s the interplay between opposing forces, the conflict, and the wonder of how such a conflict is going to be resolved. Conflict creates interest, engagement and involvement.

It’s my main takeaway from the book. I need to present opportunities for my teachers to engage meaningful issues in healthy ways, whether that creates some conflict or not. The extent to which I allow passionate discussion and avoid triviality in meetings is likely the extent to which teachers will come to enjoy and value meetings.

Hopefully they’ll arrive at a degree of MM (Meeting Maturity) much sooner than I reached that destination.

Home Improvement = Self Destruction

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It started as such a happy day.

After a busy first week of school, Saturday dawned with the chance to collectively exhale and clean the house without the tyranny of an agenda ruling our time. The kids began by cleaning their closets. This seems like a simple chore, but realize that with the older house that we have, the kids’ closets are roomier than some NYC studio apartments.

Feeling inspired by the kids’ cleaning and tidying, Carla and I started trolling our own cupboards and purging our excesses. Carla unveiled her stores of jewelry and began doling it out to the kids, well, the girls anyway. One of the girls took her new silver earrings and ran to our bathroom sink to use the silver cleaner and rejuvenate the jewelry. Apparently the euphoria of receiving Mom’s jewelry prohibited certain neurons from firing properly and the jewelry-cleaning frenzy was not preceded by a plugging of the drain.

Photo courtesy of Josep Ma. Rosell, Creative Commons

Photo courtesy of Josep Ma. Rosell, Creative Commons

A frantic call to Dad ensued . . .

Now let me pause right here and acknowledge a couple of truths. First, home repair or improvement projects cause a rash to break out over exactly 4/7 of my body. Second, on the Pritchard Scale of Handiness, I’ve routinely scored a negative 81 or below. Third, if I was Catholic, handyman-type projects would need to be followed in quick succession by two trips to confession, one for the projection of weighty invective emanating from my lips, the second for the full quiver of thoughts about how I’d like to strangle Bob Vila. Fourth, my children know all of this about me. Most home repair projects begin with Carla loading up the kids and taking them to a bunker somewhere to avoid the nuclear fall-out. In fact, last summer when Carla was working and I was home with the children, I attempted to hang some mini-blinds in our son’s bedroom. Seeing as how Carla was working and our eldest is not yet at a legal driving age, no safe de-militarized zone existed for the kids for this project. Thus, they just strapped on the flak jackets and huddled in the basement, far from the line of fire.

The project actually went pretty well. I used an electric drill to “pre-drill” (a handyman term I’ve become acquainted with) some holes. With relative ease I hung the blinds in a quasi-level manner. I pulled the string and the blinds retracted in unison, falling into their pre-determined places like a synchronized chorus line. Everything went swimmingly well . . . until . . . dizzy with giddiness, I stepped off the ladder . . . and into the path of . . . the ceiling fan spinning around at full speed.

The blade caught me square on the side of the head, right on the temple, knocking me to the ground and causing me to bellow a cry of anguish that surely put the kids in a quandary. Should they come and see what happened or stay out of sight and hope for a medic helicopter to miraculously appear? Perhaps out of morbid curiosity or simple love for their forebear, they came running and discovered me on the ground, clutching my head and trying to stop the blood from escaping too rapidly from my open wound.

To be honest, I’m not sure whether the episode scarred them or me worse. Thus, when my daughter sounded the jewelry alarm, I hauled quite a bit of emotional and Black and Decker-themed baggage into the bathroom with me.

The happy day turned into a long day . . .

Book Writing Reflections

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The writing of any kind of book requires Talent for sure, but in getting from Opening Day to Finished Project , only one seat is occupied by Mr. Talent. The rest of the seats in the van are filled with Perseverance and his many brother synonyms. It takes the ability to not quit and to daily click keys in the hopes of bringing the project to completion, even when Desire & Inspiration are hiding.

Rooted Front Cover

Now that nearly six months have elapsed on the calendar since the finished product graced my desk and enough emotional distance has flooded the gap in time, I’m able to look back on the process of writing Rooted: The Story of CVC, and see  how it impacted both my life and my role as a teacher. As I think back on the past 18 months of research, writing and formatting, a few dominant thoughts stand out to me:

  • Writing is a gift. The ability to put words together on the page in some semblance of order and harmony is simply a gift from God.  And, like most gifts, it comes with a  responsibility to use it well, and use it to build others up.  Certainly I can make my pen samba across the page for my own personal enjoyment. I can amuse myself with words, but the nature of a gift is that it’s supposed to be used for others and for God’s ultimate glory.  Hopefully this book was one written for the benefit of others, to inspire gratitude for the blessing of Christian education.  The more I can show my students that writing is a gift designed to make the world a more beautiful  place, the more I’m preparing them for their role in that center of beauty.
  • It’s a small sandbox. In the world of authentic community in which it’s my pleasure to dwell, it’s really a small world.  By the web of relationships that criss-cross this spot of earth where Christian education is done well, it seems that everybody is related to everybody else.  And, in a sense, they are.  One person’s story is necessarily influenced by the stories of hundreds who’ve come before.  I had it numerous times during this writing process in which I interacted with a student in my class and realized, in a grace moment, that I had spent the previous evening writing about his uncle who had passed away in the early days of this school or his grandmother who originally served hot lunch to the very first students to call this school home.  Those realizations sure made me realize again how true John Donne’s words are: “No man is an island.”
  • Christian education is a treasure. It’s a priceless gift that noble, God-following folks are willing to sacrifice their lives for.  Many people gave their time, their money, and, more importantly, their hearts for the cause of Christian education.  It’s a sacrifice that continues to be written every day in the life of this school. If the writing of this book taught me nothing else, it taught me that the cause of training young men and women to be servants of the King is a noble aspiration indeed, one worth dedicating my life to as well.

Whether this very well could be the last book that I ever author, it surely was one of the more enjoyable ones to write.  And I hope it keeps paying dividends in my teaching and writing life in the months and years to come.

A Book Review Kind of Sunday

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Book Review: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

I’m a sucker for a good book on the craft of writing. I have two copies of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I devour anything by Brian Doyle that speaks to the art and whimsy of writing. Check out this example of his prose from a chapter in the book Leaping entitled “Why Write?” If it’s a writer’s credo, then I’d gladly take the pledge:

“Many time, most times, my essays are not the finely tuned works I wanted them to be. Sometimes they are good enough to convey my point, and in them are several shapely sentences, and some humor, and a witty sally or two, and some novel points to provoke thought. Yet I can count on one hand the essays of mine that I think perfectly wrought, and my ambition as a maker of perfect essays is modest: I’d like to use both hands before I die.”

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I crave the perfect sentence. I yearn for putting words together on the page as if their union unlocked some secret in the universe. I desire dynamic diction. I, like Brian Doyle, want to employ both hands in the perfect essay counting process

And I want the same for my students so I picked up Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft out of dual desire: to hone the edges of my own ballpoint and fill the quiver of advicely arrows to launch at my students. (In a kind, gentle, peace-loving way of course). I did so upon the advisement of the good folks at Google, as I discovered that King’s writing on writing to be one of the premier primers for the compositionally inclined.

The Good:

As much as I’d normally flagellate horror fiction as a lesser prose, the domain of disturbed psychopaths or grown video gamers hermited in the confines of their mom’s basement, I enjoyed the look inside King’s head. His title proved apt. No matter the particular genre one favors, ultimately writing is a “craft.” Though taking apart the apparatus, if you will, of writing seems to demystify it a bit, to make the wonder of a shapeless treasure a bit less wondrous, I found it helpful to parse the craft and separate the different weapons in the writer’s toolbox into their own corners and examine each with the keen eye of an antique dealer. In fact, the second half of the book is simply entitled “Toolbox.” King picks up each anvil and jackhammer in the writer’s bag, things like Setting or Vocabulary or Description, and spins them around in his fingers, explaining the best way to wield, or why to employ them in a certain way. For example, regarding a writer’s vocabulary, he says the following:

“Put your vocabulary on the top shelf of your toolbox, and don’t make any conscious effort to improve it . . . One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed adn the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed.”

As someone who finds exotic words intoxicating, this was a good reminder that a writer’s wealth does not consist in the abundance of his adjectives. Writing ultimately works when it communicates truth effectively, not because it adorns cheap imitations in fancy clothes.

I also found the section on his writing modus operandi instructive. No matter the talent or wild success that any Grisham or Baldacci might enjoy, each writer works. Novels don’t just fall out of the sky into their laps, attached with million-dollar advances. Writers work. They draft and plan and outline and rewrite. Well, and rewrite again. And again and again. And just when every ounce of blood, sweat and tears has been squeezed out of them in giving birth to something show-worthy, an editor calls for a dozen more rewrites. Regardless of the joy that penning a book involves, or maybe because of it, putting together coherent, entertaining thought on the page takes work. King explains the process of how he went from a high school teacher earning $6400 a year to selling the paperback rights to Carrie for $400,000. It didn’t come easy. It took work, work that threatened to unravel the thin fibers holding life together for him. Yes, nothing compares to the shrill joy of clicking the keys in just the right cadence, but the cost of such bliss is labor indeed.

The Takeaway:

As a teacher of writing who wants his pupils to love the written word and who wants to simply grow professionally as an educator, the experience of reading this book gave me a few parting prizes to share with my students. First, there’s the beauty of reciprocity. Readers write; writers read. King explains the indispensable necessity of reading. Nothing prepares and deepens and hones a writer quite like a continually replenished reading list. At the end of the book, King unveils a couple of different reading lists, books that he has read in the last couple of years. In addition to arming book lovers with new prey to hunt for at second-hand shops, it reinforces the mantra that writers read.

Second, it deepened my reservoir of examples of good prose to share with kids. Granted, being a morally responsible instructor of impressionable teens at a Christian school, I’m not able to use all of King’s mature fiction examples, but he gives enough examples of setting or character or pace or dialogue to be able to flavor my instruction with examples beyond those coming from my own pen.

Third, if one of my main goals as a teacher is to show kids the beauty of Reformed Christian thought, the process of reading this book reinforced its necessity. From the moment Adam and Eve went apple-munching, falling characterizes our existence in this world, with brokenness the de facto descriptor of this planet. To heed God’s Cultural Mandate is to take the shattered shards and play puzzle solver, putting the pieces back together in a way that re-beautifies creation. To take this secular manual on a craft and use it to help reveal truth in a more purposeful way is exactly what I want my students to be able to do.

To that end, I hope this book pays dividends in their lives in the years to come.

A Teacher’s Tears- Often the Best Words He Can Say

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It’s all good, except for the crying, of course.  Or maybe the crying is what makes it good.

For a couple of weeks now, I’ve been reading through Gary Schmidt’s Okay for Now to my 7th graders. If I have a literary hero, it’s Schmidt.  He has the ability to position words squarely, neatly, like a lexical mason.  Well, and pull on the heartstrings at the same time.

Never underestimate the power of a few key strokes to move a person in power ways.  (Photo by Carla S. Hiemstra)

Never underestimate the power of a few key strokes to move a person in powerful ways. (Photo by Carla S. Hiemstra)

Though I hate the term “spoiler alert” because if someone wants to read a story or watch a movie, he or she should just do it, regardless of whether someone’s going to spoil the fun for them, I should give a fair warning about the plot detail that I’m going to unveil. But then again, if you have no idea who Gary Schmidt is and if Okay for Now has been out for four years now and you haven’t read it, you’ve got much deeper problems than simply dealing with spoiler alerts. Stop right now.  I mean it. Stop reading this blog and go to Amazon and order The Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now without thinking.  As soon as they come in, block off a couple hours and enjoy the blessing of story as well as the skills of someone who knows how to tell a good one.

So in this story that I’ve been reading in class, Doug Swieteck moves to a new town and endures the whole stupid place, and a loud-mouth father with a heavy hand and a gym teacher who squelches any threat to his alpha dog status.  And in Coach Reed’s PE class, what he says goes, no matter what, without discussion.  When Doug refuses, through deceit as well as through outright defiance to be on the “skins” team, Coach Reed doesn’t take kindly to Doug’s rebellion, even going so far as to take a swipe at Doug, missing Doug’s person but grabbing his PE shirt which rips right off, shocking the adolescent masses with what’s on Doug’s back.

Let me pause right there and admit that we never read a piece of literature in a vacuum.  Each time a book fills the gap between our hands, we come to that encounter with a context, a situation, a series of Events and Interactions that shape our relationship with the text.  To today’s reading I brought some Coach Reed-style leadership from yesterday’s class. I exploded at a student. I used words like “asinine” and “galactically stupid” and other much-too-mature vocabulary to belittle the student in both tone and degree of difficulty. Never mind that the student had it coming or that the student managed to put a vise grip on a nerve quite close to home or that the student’s belief system resided in a neighborhood a few miles shy of Christ-like Village or that I’m simply human. The fact is that I chose anger. I chose rage.  I chose to recreate Vesuvius, even though I don’t teach history.

That’s the baggage I lugged to my reading of Okay for Now today.  Following Doug’s embarrassment in PE class, he faces the tyranny of whispers and hushed, muffled laughter. He feels the stares.  He hears the thoughts.  And just before another class, he runs towards the front doors of the school.  And his teacher, Mr. Ferris, runs after him. He doesn’t let Doug leave. He doesn’t let Doug live in silence. He drags him to a quiet room and simply says, “Tell me what happened.”

And Doug does.  The whole, naked truth spills out of him. The Family Secrets and Horrible Atrocities. The Unmentionable.  (Okay, I could tell you all about it, but it turns out that I don’t have to in order to make this post work, plus I don’t have to use that asinine “spoiler alert” warning. And, regardless of whether I tell you or not, you still should read it. I wasn’t lying about it earlier; in fact, if you haven’t read the book yet, your eyes shouldn’t have even wandered this far down the page.)

Doug lays bare to this teacher the wounds he’d never uncovered to anyone else. Ever.  And then Schmidt follows Doug’s confessional with these simple words:

“Mr. Ferris didn’t say anything the whole time. He sat next to me and listened.  And when I finished, I looked at him.

“He was crying. I’m not lying.  He was crying.”

And by the time we finished reading that section, Doug and Mr. Ferris weren’t the only ones crying.

Sometimes a piece of literature has the power to convict a person, to help him see the error of his ways, to deepen the wells of empathy.

And to cause a few tears.

And maybe those tears are the best words a teacher can say some days.