Monday, June 30, 2014

Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind. - Henry James

When I was a classroom teacher, I would sometimes take a few minutes away from a lesson if I felt that something in the media or on social media or a school situation was presenting a “teachable moment” that needed to be addressed immediately in order to make the biggest impact on the students.  I was thinking about some of those moments, and one came to mind that I would like to share.

First, I must tell you that I taught Introduction to Theater (grades 9 and 10), Essential English II (grade 10, for less-than-average achievers who needed a bit of extra help), and Academic English II (for the college-bound student.) Although the curriculum was broad and heavy, I have always believed that life lessons were just as important, perhaps more important, than grammar and literature.

When mainstreaming of students was introduced, I suddenly had a new hat to wear in the classroom – “Queen of Special Education”, as the guidance people would place all the “specials” on my roster, knowing that I would include them, love them, and make sure they were assimilated into the social side of the classroom.  I was privileged to have many students with special needs, and I always looked at them in a different way from how others saw them.  Instead of looking for and focusing on their disabilities, instead I searched for their abilities.  And, of course, I always found many hidden abilities and talents in each student!  It is very unfortunate that our society does not react to those with special needs in a positive manner; instead, choosing only to see the disability.   You all know that, very often, people are judged on how they look, or how they act, or by what they say.  This is especially true for those on the autism spectrum.

When Susan Boyle became a sensation on “Britain’s Got Talent”, I saw the clip on Youtube, and I knew that it would make a fabulous mini-life-lesson.  I introduced the clip by talking about how some people judge others.  Students gave some great examples, about clothes and hair and cliques, and everyone could identify with that feeling of both being judged and judging others (some heads were hanging during this discussion.)  I told them I wanted to show them a short clip of a television show that might make them think about judging others.  (Although it had not been disclosed at that time, I had the feeling the very first time I saw the clip, that Susan Boyle was on the Asperger’s-Autism spectrum.  Several years later, she would admit this.) I turned the white board and computer on and I told them to watch the body language of the judges and the audience, including the eye rolling.  I said we would discuss it after they saw the clip. At that point, they viewed Susan Boyle’s song “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miz.  Their eyes stayed on the screen. (If you have not seen it, here is the link:

When the clip was finished, every hand in the room went up, all voicing the opinion of how “mean” the judges and the audience  were to Susan.  I reminded them of what we had just discussed before seeing her performance, and the point was made.  They recognized that they, too, had sometimes made errors in judgment when just looking at a person on the outside, and that being judgmental was both hurtful and disrespectful.  I mentioned that some students who were “different” had to deal with these kinds of judgments every day.  We all agreed that being kind was the best policy.

And so, a 20 minute lesson involving a 47 year old woman who was not famous turned into a life lesson.  Because of a solid anticipatory set in which every student was involved, a short visual clip (most of my students were visual learners), and an honest post-viewing discussion, they learned a lesson about judging others on their own.  I only had to guide them through and to the learning.

Teachers, you never know when a great idea will present itself.  Use your imagination and give your students a mini-lesson about life.  After all, I may have been teaching English and Theater, but more importantly, I was teaching human beings.  And I wanted them to be kind.

Rittman Publishing, LLC

Sunday, June 22, 2014

A tribute to a colleague, Joe Wissinger "As a general rule, teachers teach more by what they are than by what they say." Unknown

Every day, I think about what I would like to write about for my next blog, and the next one, and the next one,  and you see where I am going with this thought. I loved being a teacher for so many years, and I do have so many stories.  However, sometimes, material presents itself and I know that if the subject touches me, I will write about the topic with feeling and depth, thus making you, the reader, react to my words.  (After all, isn't that what writers do?)  Such a topic presented itself this week. 

Last Sunday, I received an email message from the daughter of one of my longtime teacher friend, Joe Wissinger.  Joe and I have been friends since I began my teaching career at North Allegheny in 1976.  In many ways, he was a mentor for me, as well as the rest of the faculty, as Joe was a true veteran teacher, with a career span at NA from 1953-1986.  Many of my former colleagues actually had Joe as their tenth grade Biology teacher. The retired teachers from  NA are a tight group, as we continue to see each other at social events and correspond through emails.  We let each other know when something wonderful happens, or something tragic. We continue to support each other as friends and former colleagues, doing whatever we can when called upon.  Joe was an important part of our group.  For his 90th birthday last November, he received over 200 cards from his NA friends.  When he became ill in January, the cards from friends kept him going.  That is, they kept him going until June 15, Father's Day, when the spirit was willing, but the flesh could no longer go on.  That was the information in the email message I received from Joe's daughter Linda:  that Joe had passed on.

I attended the funeral on Friday, and by listening to two eulogies, one by his daughter and one from his son-in-law, I learned something really important.  Even at the age of 90, Joe's influence as a teacher did not stop.  He was still teaching people how to tie flies through Trout Unlimited; he was still carving birds and showing his work, and he was still influencing past students who continued to send him birthday cards and Christmas cards- even at the age of  90.  I have used this quote before:  "A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops." -Henry Adams  -but never before has it seemed as appropriate to use as it does right now.  I knew Joe was beloved by his students and the staff, but who knew at age 90 former students would continue to write cards and letters to extol the influence of a good teacher? As I sat at the funeral and listened with my heart, I thought of the thousands of students Joe taught, always engaged in the classroom, and sharing his passion for the outdoors, especially fly fishing, and making biology as intriguing as a mystery novel.  He literally "hooked" his students through his three passions of science, teaching, and fishing, making his class as magical as Diagon Alley and Harry Potter.  Joe's quiet and passionate demeanor and his high expectations made his class a favorite, especially for the naturalists and outdoors-men, many of whom became teachers of science and other interesting subjects.  I really do believe that the highest compliment that can paid to any teacher happens when the student is so enamored with learning, that he/she, too, becomes a teacher.  Many of Joe's later colleagues were his former students. 

So, back to the quote.  "A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops." -Henry Adams. Joe's influence is not even close to stopping.  He has many followers actively involved in life, tying flies, fly fishing on Spruce Creek and other venues, carving hand crafted birds that are so beautiful they seem they will fly away, and teaching others to love the things in life that Joe loved.   One teacher's influence . . . so many lives touched.  Such a beautiful man.  Such a wonderful friend.  Such an eternal legacy.  My friend, a great teacher, Joe Wissinger. 

Rittman Publishing, LLC

Monday, June 16, 2014

A tribute to Chuck Noll: A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops. ~Henry Brooks Adams

A piece of Pittsburgh history vanished when “The Emperor Chaz” Chuck Noll died in his sleep on Friday night, June 12, 2014.  Known for his great coaching skills and turning a losing team into a winning team in the span of a few short years, I think Chuck Noll was so much more than a coach. 

This past weekend, I watched television interviews and read many complimentary articles about Coach Noll.  As a young person in the 70’s, I remember what he did for the Steeler football team, which impacted the entire city of Pittsburgh.  The success of the Steelers made every Pittsburgher feel successful.  We became proud of our city again as we Pittsburghers were thrust into the national spotlight, even if Coach Noll shunned the spotlight for himself.  In reflecting upon all of the media coverage of his passing and my own recollections, I have come to the conclusion that Chuck Noll was not “just” a coach; he was a teacher.  In my opinion, he was a really great teacher.  Chuck Noll was a man who believed in his players, and made them believe in themselves, as individuals and as a team.  He set his expectations' bar extremely high.  Just like any great teacher, he knew that whether he set his expectations high or low, his players would rise to meet them.

Coach Noll also taught the importance of being well prepared.  One of my favorite quotes from Coach Noll is "Pressure is something you feel when you don't know what you're doing."  His team was so prepared that there was no need to feel pressure or panic.  Another great quote from him which illustrates the importance of preparedness is this one:  “Leaving the game plan is a sign of panic, and panic is not in our game plan.” He was truly a man with a vision; his vision became the shared vision of the entire team; success followed.  This quote from former linebacker Hall of Famer Jack Ham sums it up.  "He was the glue.  He was the guy that got all of us to buy into how to win a championship. He took the lead. Preparation. He always felt you don't win games on Sunday at 1 p.m., you win games in your preparation on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at practice. I think we all bought into that."  Yes, Chuck Noll was a great teacher.

As a teacher, I also loved the way Coach Noll taught and made the team practice the concept of true teamwork, a concept easily translated to every classroom in the country.  Sharing responsibilities and working together in the classroom or on a team are key elements for being successful in life. Here is Coach Noll’s opinion of teamwork:  “I can’t tell you how much you gain, how much progress you can make, by working together as a team, by helping one another.  You get much more done that way.  If there’s anything the Steelers of the ‘70s epitomized, I think it was that teamwork.”  When I think about the most successful classes I taught during my long tenure, I know that the classes in which the students worked together were the best for everyone, both students and me.

Finally, Chuck Noll was a wonderful teacher not just because he taught preparation and teamwork, but he knew that the life of a football player was short-lived at best, so he taught players how to move from football to “their life’s work”.  Coach Noll did not just teach in the present tense, he prepared his students for the future.  When you think of the big names from his teams, the men have moved on, contributing positively to society, becoming successful businessmen, and being involved with charity work, serving others.  Perhaps this was his greatest success as a teacher:  to be able to influence the lives of others in a positive manner, helping them to become better people. I feel sure that Coach was proud of his boys. 

I am not a big football fan, but I am a huge Chuck Noll fan.  I admire and respect his accomplishments as a coach, but I revere him for his teachings.  Chuck Noll will always be remembered as a great coach, but I will always think of him as one of the best teachers I have ever known.  His influence continues today, just as the influence of a good teacher is a small ripple in the lives of many, washing over the souls of students in ways they do not even realize.  Goodbye, Emperor Chaz. You were the "Mr. Chips" of an era. 

Rittman Publishing, LLC

Monday, June 9, 2014

“One's destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” ― Henry Miller

June means so many different things to people:  June brides, graduation, summertime, vacation, moving, a new job, the beginning of summer school, lazy afternoons at the pool, hitting the links, sleeping in, and for teachers, the end of another school year.  I always hoped that last day of school would be warm and sunny, so I could put my convertible roof down and drive away from school with a complete sense of freedom. There really is nothing quite like the feeling of the last day of school.

As many teachers use the summer to relax and unwind, many also travel to learn new things to present to their students.  Many of my Latin teacher friends have been to Rome and Italy several times; my Spanish teacher friends have been to Mexico, Spain, and Central America; my German and French teacher friends have spent months in Germany and France; and my World Cultures friends have traveled all over the world, all looking for that first person point of view to add interest and spark to their teaching presentations.  One of the things I loved the most about being a part of the North Allegheny staff was the teachers, and how they continually used their personal time to enrich their professional lives, thus enhancing their students’ lives.  Students absolutely love the personal stories about travel!  I went to Rome many years ago and had some pictures taken at the rostrum where Mark Antony gave his famous funeral oration in Julius Caesar.  I distinctly remember reciting the first 20 or so lines while standing there, trying to grasp the fact that I was standing where Antony spoke, and I was seeing the spot where Caesar was murdered and walking on the Appian Way, where Caesar walked.  When I told these stories and shared my feelings of awe and wonderment with my students, I remember how many of them said they, too, wanted to travel to see such sights.  Many did, and for years, I received letters from former students telling me they finally got to Rome to stand in those sacred spots I had talked about.  These students grew personally because they were seeing things through new eyes.  What was just a play by Shakespeare that we studied in tenth grade, about a man who lived from 100-44 B.C., suddenly became important, as students remembered that the American justice system is based on Julius Caesar’s code of law; that Caesar was unrivaled as a war strategist; that he was a real man, in love with Cleopatra and having a son with her.  My former students were suddenly reading articles and biographies about Caesar and Rome and the Roman government, even though they were no longer in school!  Can any teacher give a greater gift than the love of learning?  And the love of learning, combined with the scope of travel and having new experiences, can be a life changing force.

For all of the teachers and parents and students who read this blog,  I would love to hear how travel enhanced your life and changed you, making you see your world in a new way.  Happy summer vacation!

Rittman Publishing, LLC

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Most great learning happens in groups. Collaboration is the stuff of growth. -Sir Ken Robinson Ph.D.

Have you ever thought about the difficulty of teaching in a one room schoolhouse?  I have several elderly friends who live in Potter County, PA, and their educations were completed in a one room schoolhouse, grades 1-12.  They have talked about the old days and the lessons they learned about sharing and helping and forming friendships that lasted a lifetime.  I happened to be at home on Sunday morning, June 1, and I was fortunate enough to see a terrific piece on CBS Sunday Morning News – all about the 200 one room schoolhouses which still exist in America.  Did you know so many still exist today?  Most of the one room schoolhouses closed after World War II, but in some rural areas, the school is still the center of the community.  (I will include the link at the end of my blog for the story.  It runs about 7 minutes, and it is well worth your time to watch.)

Just because a school building only has one room and one teacher, no state standards or costs per pupil are lowered.  I believe after seeing this story that teacher expectations are even higher for that one teacher than the teacher expectations of our suburban and city schools.  And talk about a teacher having to be self-sufficient!  The teacher is also the guidance counselor, the principal, the nurse, the secretary, and the curriculum specialist.  Can you imagine teaching the same students 180 days per year for 9 years, kindergarten through eighth grade?  Everyone would certainly get to know one another very well.

I enjoyed seeing this story because it reminded me that every student is an individual.  With small class sizes, the teacher can prepare individual lesson plans for each student.  In the larger classes, the older students work with younger kids on reading and other skills.  An interesting fact presented involved eavesdropping.  Today’s teachers often expect students to work in silence.  Students in a one room schoolhouse almost never work in silence, as the teacher is constantly talking with other students or groups of students.  The story showed one young man who wanted to learn what the older kids were learning, and his interest was sparked through eavesdropping!  

I found a segment of the story to be especially interesting.  In one school, every student has to help to clean the building every day of the school year, thus promoting a solid work ethic and responsibility to oneself and to others.  With such a small group of students, everyone has to learn to get along with others.  Perhaps those life lessons are two of the best lessons anyone can teach or learn.

I hope you have time to watch this story.  As teachers, we constantly strive to be better.  Maybe some of the lessons in this CBS Sunday Morning piece will give you some ideas for your own classroom.

Rittman Publishing, LLC