Motor Mouth

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As Daddy backed the car out of our short driveway and headed it up the dirt road, Mama twisted around from the front seat to face me. “Tell me about school. Do you like it? Do you have friends? What’s Mrs. Bost like,” she asked.

We were going to school—my new school—for the first open house with my new teacher in my new classroom. I had attended Christ Lutheran’s church school for kindergarten, first, and second grades, but, now that we had moved far out of town, I had been moved to the county public school, Startown Elementary.

I didn’t really know how to answer her questions. I didn’t like this new school. It scared me. The classes were bigger, and the boys meaner. The only friends I had were girls, but I didn’t want to tell Mama and Daddy that. Mrs. Bost seemed okay, but I still got in trouble for talking too much. At Christ Lutheran, my teachers took care of my talking too much by punishing me in class and simply noting that “Alan talks too much” on my report card. That was all about to change.

I led Mama and Daddy into the building where my third-grade classroom and Mrs. Bost awaited, a new one-story structure built next to the imposing original three-story building that housed the principal’s office and upper grades of elementary school. We only went in there for a weekly visit to the library and for lunch in its basement. Mrs. Bost was busy talking with other parents when we entered, and Mama asked to see my desk.

All our desks had little folded tents made of cardstock with our names neatly written on them by Mrs. Bost. We weaved our way through the classroom, and I pointed out different students I knew, pretending to have more friends than I did. As we approached my desk and its little folded tent, I noticed that it looked different, and my heart began to pound in my chest. By the time I realized what was written there, it was too late—Mama and Daddy knew it was mine. The tent read “Motor Mouth,” neatly written in Mrs. Bost’s hand. I flushed from fear and embarrassment; Mama and Daddy flushed from anger. And, here was Mrs. Bost, walking across the room to explain how my talking too much disturbed her class. I was silent on the ride home, while Mama and Daddy discussed how to handle me and my Motor Mouth.

In my junior year of high school, I had occasion to call my mother at work one afternoon. She worked with several other women in a kind of secretarial and administrative pool above an auto parts store in town. Mary Jane, who answered the phone when I called, didn’t put me on hold. Instead she yelled across the upstairs office for my mother, “Jet Jaws! The phone’s for you!”

Jet Jaws! Mother of Motor Mouth. If only I had known.

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“Coming Out for Owen” . . . Coming Out on August 25th!

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I am very excited to announce that my story “Coming Out for Owen” has been published in Kevin Jennings’s book One Teacher in Ten in the New Millennium. The book will be released on August 25th. (You can pre-order it now on Amazon!)

“Coming Out for Owen” is my story about coming out to my sixth graders in my eighth year of teaching. Up to that point, “I never saw the need to tell [my fifth- and sixth-grade students] about my sexual orientation. The word sexual in that descriptor gave me pause in coming out to them: “Fifth or sixth graders don’t need to know who I sleep with,” I thought.” But, when the parents of one of my students complain that he’s being picked on because “he was perceived to be gay,” I have a change of heart.

Recalling the humiliation I felt when my fifth-grade teacher sent me to the guidance counselor to be evaluated with a note that read, “Alan is a sissy and seems to enjoy being that way,” I realize that I can’t remain silent any longer. My students’ reactions were nothing short of amazing, making us a real community, and “it made me a better teacher–and a better person.”

This third edition of One Teacher in Ten includes “voices largely absent from the first two editions–including transgender people, people of color, teachers working in rural districts, and educators from outside the United States– . . . providing a fuller and deeper understanding of the triumphs and challenges of being an LGBT teacher today.”

While “Coming Out for Owen” is my story, it also reflects the story of gay and straight allies, from the teachers and administrators at School of the Future, the public school I taught at in Manhattan, to the group of teachers with whom I workshopped the story at the Hudson Valley Writing Project. No teacher, straight or gay, should feel alone in her or his classroom.

If you are in New York City on Thursday, September 10th, come to the book launch for One Teacher In Ten and hear our stories as we read from the book! The event is from 6:00 to 8:00pm at the Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School at 40 Charlton Street between Sixth Avenue and Varick (the high school’s location). Please RSVP by clicking this link by Tuesday, September 8.

Been There, Done That, Got the T-Shirt

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This is to be an occasional series of posts about . . . t-shirts! I seem to be one of those people who feels the need to buy a t-shirt every time I go somewhere or do something. When we moved last summer, I donated 56 t-shirts to charity! It wasn’t easy for me to donate them, even though most of them no longer fit me anyway—each one of them is a memento of some milestone in my life. I finally made peace with getting rid of them by taking a photo of each one. So, now I have a record of them. As a matter-of-fact, I got so into it, that I took a photo of every t-shirt I own, even the ones I wasn’t getting rid of! And, now I’ve decided to use them as writing prompts.

My first t-shirt is one that I didn’t get rid of—even though it no longer fits me. It is the oldest t-shirt still in my possession, dating from my senior year at UNC-Chapel Hill:

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Although I started out as a philosophy major at UNC, I switched to nursing when I realized that I would actually need to get a job after school. Plus, I kept falling asleep in my philosophy classes. I wasn’t a good student, but I was a guy, and I think that UNC wanted to get more men into nursing.

In retrospect, majoring in nursing was one of the best decisions I ever made. As I had hoped, it allowed me to get a job upon graduating in 1984, in a really bad economy—unemployment was 9.6% in 1983, equaling our own Great Recession’s highest rate in 2010:

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Furthermore, it gave me a skill that I could take anywhere, including Peace Corps Guatemala in 1985 and on to law school in 1992.

Most importantly, however, my nursing degree changed me. Carolina was the crucible that formed me, but the nursing school was the fire. I came from a rural high school that sent around 10% of its graduates to college. I didn’t know who or what I was when I arrived at UNC the week before classes started for Freshman Orientation. I didn’t really know how to be a student or think critically. I’m not sure that I even knew how to be a friend yet! UNC taught me all those things and so much more. I wasn’t the best student, and it took me five years to graduate, but those five years shaped me in ways that still astound me, 30 years later.

So, yes, UNC Nurses Hit You With Their Best Shot, but . . . UNC hit me with its best shot. Good medicine indeed.

Oh . . . I also have a picture of me wearing that t-shirt in 1984:

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It did fit, once upon a time!

Do you use online lesson plans?

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Let’s start this week with some information from YOU!  Teachers, please let me know whether or not you use online lesson plans:

I am interested because both the NEA and the AFT have launched new online lesson sharing networks for lessons that are linked to the Common Core.

If you have used any lesson plans from the internet, whether it be the NEA’s, AFT’s, or any other site’s, please message me about what you thought about the site, how you used the lessons, how they worked for you, and if you would use online lessons again. 

Please forward this post to any and all teachers you know!

Support the Common Core!

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As a teacher, it concerns me that the New York State United Teachers union has withdrawn its support for the Common Core standards.  According to  Politico and the New York PostNYSUT doesn’t simply oppose the Common Core standards, but it is the way that they have been implemented that they oppose.  Admittedly, the implementation of the standards in New York State has been botched, but I disagree with the union for pulling its support for the standards.

Common Core standards began as an initiative of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, and were developed with the input of teachers through their major national teachers unions, the NEA and the AFT, in addition to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the National Council of Teachers of English.  The standards were designed to reflect “the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers.

Much has been made over the years about how far behind our students lag other countries, especially in science and math.  The latest Program of International Student Assessment results show that the US average score in mathematics is lower than 29 other nations and higher than 26, putting us right in the middle, and “that pattern has not changed much since the PISA test was first given in 2000” while 18 other countries saw their scores increase between 2009 and 2012.  The results are much the same for science and a little better for English, although there still has been no movement in our English test scores.  Obviously, this is not the time to be withdrawing support for more rigorous standards.

So, why would NYSUT pick this time to withdraw its support?  As noted, the implementation of the standards has not gone well in New York.  The state realigned its testing last year to the Common Core curriculum, and, as expected, student scores went way down.  As an ELA teacher, I sat in many meetings with parents warning them that student scores would go down while promising to do the best I could to prepare students for a test we knew little about.  In fact, our scores did go down, but remained above the state median.  The test was difficult, but it was not out of reach for good teaching with good professional development and preparation for teachers.

NYSUT would like to see a three-year moratorium on the high-stakes consequences of these tests so that all teachers can be brought up to speed.  So far, New York State Education Commissioner John King has not agreed to this, although he did say that “he would work with the legislature, governor and Board of Regents to “make necessary adjustments and modifications to the implementation of the Common Core“” after NYSUT voted “no confidence” in King and called on the Board of Regents to remove him.

Whether King stays or goes, this is no time to withdraw support for the more rigorous Common Core standards. Instead, this is the time to work to implement those standards so that our students’ standing in the international community improves.  When New York State implemented a law requiring seat belt anchors in all cars in 1961, not all car manufacturers provided them.  Should the state have backed off its law?  How many lives might have been lost if it had?  Regardless of the problems with the implementation of the Common Core standards, we must not go back.  Work on fixing the implementation issues, but don’t throw the standards baby out with that bathwater.  Our children’s future depends on their ability to succeed at college and compete in the global economy.