Sep 22, 2012

The Best Year Yet

Three of my 8th grade students raise the flag on the first day of school while the rest of  Columbus Adventist Academy looks on.

For the first day of school this year I put together a brief PowerPoint slide show that I set to play while the kids were coming in that morning. The show contained instructions for the day, some choice song lyrics from the two songs--"Lifetime" and "Set the World on Fire "-- that played along with the show, and a joyful welcome that promised this to be "the best year yet!"  That was the plan, that was the goal, and so far that is the reality is I've plunged into my fifteenth year as a professional educator.

The best year yet first began to take shape weeks before classes began at the North American Division teacher's convention in Nashville, Tennessee from Sunday, August 5 to Wednesday, August 8, 2012.  Every six years the Seventh-day Adventist church brings together all of its teachers in a massive gathering to teach and inspire:  big-name keynote speakers from the world of education, a dizzying array of breakout sessions to give teachers "use-it-now" ready to go out of the box ideas for the coming school year, exhibitors from all over hawking all manner of pedagogical products, and worship sessions designed to give us the spiritual fuel to go with practical tools.

Facing Math vendor in the exhibit hall. I bought a bunch of these books that combine art and math into a single activity.  They make great  practice activities.

 This was no ordinary skip-the-seminars-and-sightsee convention.  The four days I spent in Nashville were rich and invaluable on every level.  The Highlights:

A view of the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention center where we stayed and where the  convention  was held.  The venue itself was a highlight!  In the months leading up there was much discussion about who would stay in the Gaylord this year (apparently six years ago the entire Allegheny West Conference was farmed out to lesser hotels nearby and the teachers had to commute to the convention events).  I didn't really get what the big deal until I saw the Gaylord for myself.  The place is amazing--the Disney World of hotels.  I was indoors for three days straight--never left the building.  But it didn't feel that way with acres of indoor space dotted with trees, fountains, quaint shops, taverns, and cafes, and even a winding river where visitors could take a boat tour of the resort  The vast glass ceiling let in the natural light adding the illusion of being outside.  Walking from seminar to main session to my room to exhibit hall I felt like I was outdoors on a cool autumn day (I can't imagine what the electric bill for that place must be, with the amount of air conditioning it takes to keep all that indoor "outdoor" space comfortable)

Life-changing general session:  Todd Whitaker's "What Great Teachers Do Differently."    I first came across Whitaker's ideas during principals meetings in Hawaii four years ago where his seminal book What Great Principals Do Differently was the organizing basis for the principal's in-service.  What I thought then, was confirmed now:  this guy is a genius.  He upends some of the most common assumptions in education--"lectures are bad", "always start with something positive" among others--with the kind of commonsense wisdom that is both revolutionary and so simply true you can't believe you didn't see it before.

A sample of the practical genius Todd Whitaker has to offer:

If you're a teacher or a principal, I strongly urge you get his book right away.  Click on the links above.

Revolutionary Seminar: Tom Clark,the founder of VideoText Interactive completely destroyed and rebuilt how I teach math in the space of about an hour and a half.  He delved into the "whys" behind a lot of the concepts I've struggled to get my students to grasp.  There are concepts like why multiplying two negatives equals a positive that I always accepted as true but never understood--or could teach--the reasoning behind until that seminar.  I'm still processing what I learned in that seminar.

Spiritual Mountaintop:  There were many.  Pastor Carlton Byrd's powerful call to higher ground on the opening night for example.  And Pastor Dwight Nelson's incisive and insightful devotionals each morning (As a result of his talks I've revamped my private devotional practice once again, returning to the first principles of "A New Way to Pray" that I first learned from Pastor Nelson in the spring of 1994).   But for sheer spiritual uplift it was hard to beat the concert by Committed on Monday night. It started out as an ordinary showcase of the a cappella stylings that made them champions of NBC' The Sing-Off.  But when they shifted to a time of praise and worship, the atmosphere was electrified as we all joined our voices with theirs.  It was one of those rare times when you feel sure you can hear the angels singing with you.  The rest of the concert was nothing short of heavenly.

I left Nashville energized, fired up, and ready to go into the year full-tilt; ready to make this the best year yet.
Old friends Kevin and Vicki Wiley who I hadn't seen since 1998.  It was funny, they didn't recognize me at first until I said "You were at our wedding!"  For both Kevin and Vicki that seemed to do the trick. An added extra-curricular highlight of the convention was seeing long-lost friends.  There were so many people I knew there.  It is no exaggeration to say you  walk from one point in the convention center to another without every five minutes bumping into someone you hadn't seen in years.

Jeanie Drake (now, somebody else. . .I didn't catch the new last name).  She was one of our first  friends when we moved to Saipan in 1998.  She taught 3rd/4th grade at Saipan SDA School and was our next-door neighbor.
Kathy Stair Anthes, another Saipan teaching alum from the 2000-2001 school year with her husband and son.  As a student missionary in Saipan, Kathy taught kindergarten and co-founded REAL Christian Theater with me and Aaron Knowlton.  In fact, the name REAL was her idea!  It was so great to catch up with the legendary K-Stair.

My grandmother and me.  Several of my family members from my dad's side of the family including my Uncle Antoine, Aunt Adrienne, and my grandmother drove up from Huntsville on Tuesday, August 7 to visit me and another cousin at the convention.  I spent a pleasant afternoon catching up with them.

The first day of school set the tone.  It was probably the best first day I've ever experienced in my teaching career.  Our principal had the idea that we should welcome the students with a kind of red carpet experience complete with cheering fans and paparazzi photographers.  So we got a couple of eighht graders to come early to act as greeters, lined up at the front door with our cameras in hand and gave the students and parents a first day welcome they'd never forget.  It was so much fun, and you could see on the faces of each person that arrived what a special experience it was for them.
Awaiting the arrival of the students.  Our red carpet was hardly big enough to roll out, but the love behind it was more than big enough.
Welcome back everyone!
One of my 8th grade stars, "The Voice" makes his entrance.

Hamming it up for the photogs

One of my heroes this year, the ever-faithful Ms. Pat arrives

This year marks the culmination of a four year journey with my 8th grade class--a journey towards a different way of classroom management--one that asks the students to take ownership and responsibility not just for their behavior in class but for their lives as a whole. Since they've been fifth graders I've been working in fits and starts with this class to empower them.  I've incorporated elements of Jim Roy's Soul Shapers and Stephen Covey's "Leader in Me" (which our school is seeking to make part of our school culture this year) among others.  Some methods have worked, others haven't, and for others the jury is still out.  We've spent more time in discussion--instead of me telling students what they've done wrong and what the punishment will be--we talk it out, and they tell me.  I've urged the students to think about "changing the culture" of their classroom, and by extension the school and setting a high standard for themselves, and by extension for the younger students coming behind them.

This year all of my students are involved in some kind of classroom leadership--much of the classroom tasks I used to do, I've passed to them.  I have an IT supervisor who checks out all the electronics for student uses and sets up the computer and projector for class presentations.  I have a secretary who does the daily lunch count, classroom managers who keep the room clean and organized, and even a praise and worship team that leads song service every morning (and often presents the entire worship program for the day).  I can't say for sure whether it's "working"--after a pretty solid first three weeks some of the old problems and issues began popping up again.  Bu at least t they're not any worse with the changes I've implemented,  than they've been before.  One thing that helps is that I have hard-won relationships with these kids, relationships that I've worked for years to build.  The kids know me, and I them, and there's a deep level of trust and good will in place even when it comes time to deal with disciplinary issues.

It's nice to finally be back in my groove again.  After having to start all over again when I arrived at CAA three years ago, I finally feel like I know my way around--that the kids know me and that my reputation once again precedes me--doing a lot of the work for me of establishing the classroom tone that I used to have to do myself.  This year may not be perfect in the classroom, but so far it does appear that it will be the best yet.

Teacher worship in the morning continues to be church in the best sense of the word. Our time of reflection, praise, and prayer is shorter than last year as we've committed to being at our doors when the students arrive--but more powerful than ever.  The deep sense of camraderie as strong as ever, and our new 5th/6th grade teacher, Tamaria Kulemeka, replacing the irreplacable Renee Lee, has blended seamlessly with our team.  Each morning is a rush of Spirit-filled energy, and there have been days when we've been moved literally to tears by His presence.

CAA teacher's pray over the desks of the students on the afternoon of the second day of school.

In a larger sense I feel like I'm in a really fertile time in my spiritual life.  There's more vibrancy in my journey with God than there has been in many years.  There have been many things that have fueled this spiritual re-awakening--the aforementioned teacher's convention and the worships with the teacher, and also an inspiring seminar on prayer by Ron Halvorsen that Babs and I attended last month in Dayton. But life itself has presented numerous opportunities of late for me to learn to trust Jesus more.

When we returned from our summer trip to Oregon, we found a letter in the mail from our son's preschool abruptly informing us that the CAA discount on tuition for our son had been reduced from 50% to 15% off the regular cost.  Suddenly preschool had become completely un-affordable.  This was the first several events that led to some serious economic challenges for our family.  For the first time in a very long time--perhaps the first time ever, we were facing a household budget deficit--more month than money.  That might seem like an odd time to consider that Barbara stop working, but ironically it was these financial challenges that led us to the radical notion that we get Elijah out of regular preschool and at home with mom.  My friend J's wife Evelyn stopped working to stay home with their son when they moved to Chicago, and when they came to visit while J and I went to Nashville, Barbara got to see what such a life might look like up close.  And it didn't look bad at all.

Things moved quickly during the month of August.  Opportunities arose and evaporated as quickly as they came.  We were on a roller-coaster journey that gave us the choice: either be terrified out of our wits or sit back and enjoy the ride.  We chose, by the grace of God to trust in Him, and enjoy the ride.  And what a ride it's been!  Babs' last day at her job at the preschool where she worked for almost three years was September 14.  Elijah is home with her now and their days are busy with visits to the library, free classes at the Columbus Metro parks, trips to COSI, and gymnastics class plus the little art, language and math lessons she prepares for him at home. She also has a new job teaching art one and half days a week at my school and at Worthington Adventist Academy.  I've also taken on some private after school care in my classroom watching a pair of students  after the school day is over until their parents can pick them up around 5:30 or 6.  Together we have been able to replace Barbara's old income and even increase by a little more.

It gives me great joy to know that on most days my son and his mother are together doing something wonderful, and I'm always excited to hear about the day's adventures.  And I'm so happy for Babs that she gets to do something she really enjoys.

Babs and The Feller come out to wave good bye to me each morning when I leave for work.  I love the new family traditions we have now.  I get up early with Elijah every morning while Babs gets a little extra sleep.  I make breakfast and we all sit down to eat breakfast together.  Then we have a short family worship together before I leave for work.

The ends aren't quite meeting yet, and we still don't know what we'll do on vacations and next summer when our income from our little side jobs will disappear.  We're also still sorting out exactly where Elijah will go when Barbara teaches (The latest roller-coaster drop was when the plan we'd had for him fell through the day before Barbara's first day of teaching--he ended up coming to work with her that day, but that clearly won't work for the long term).  But if I've learned anything in these past two months it's that God is in
control, and that we can never go wrong trusting in Him.  I've spent most of my life trusting more in the gifts than the One who gives them.  If I can learn to reverse the focus of my trust, I will achieve that peace that passes all understanding, peace that exists independently of circumstance and cannot be shaken.  If I can trust God at that level. this truly will be the best year yet whatever the future holds.

1 comment:

Mai said...

Thanks for such a spiritually inspiring and educationally motivating post! I can't wait to get & read a couple of the books that you mentioned. And we should chat again soon, because I'd like to hear some of your ideas of what you've been doing with your 8th graders for the past 4 years - I have a particularly challenging class this year, and could really use some new ideas!

Did you not get to see Grant at the convention? Reading about how great the convention made me really sad I wasn't able to be there :( Six years ago, the whole Canadian union who also got put into a different hotel as well, so apparently there was a big uproar about that because the Canadians didn't feel welcomed since they were shipped off to a lower end hotel!!

It sounds like your school is already doing a lot of the "Leader In Me" things like greeting at the door each morning & talking through problems rather than just assigning consequences & giving all students leadership roles - I'd like to hear more about how all that is going for you guys, too!

Also, I'm so glad that it worked out for Barbara to be home with Elijah! That will be such precious time for the 2 of them, and soon the 3 of them!! I know that the Giver will continue to pour out His blessings and bless your beautiful family!