What Do I Expect from Elementary School? Not this.

Laura Eberhart Goodman has captured the essence of our problem in U. S. education. She speaks for the parents and children who are currently impacted by our “race” toward something no one appears able to define or validate. I have been in her shoes and am thankful to now be addressing this problem from the side of academe. Though still mind-numbingly frustrated, I am trying to attack the stupidity and hubris by continuing to practice the kind of teaching I know works. As Goodman states: “academics follow naturally if the proper environment for learning is there…it’s not rocket science.” This statement does not diminish the preparation for and hard work of teaching. It exemplifies teachers’ superiority in the education discussion; the simple part is paying attention to the true experts.

Boils Down to It

When I put my children on the bus in the morning, the wish I call out to them after kissing their heads, is, “Have a good day!” Pure and simple.

Now, I know that not every day can be a birthday party, and not all things in life should be made into a fun activity. My wish is not overly naïve or idealistic, it is simply that they enjoy their day at school.  It is my hope that even if there are moments of the day when things don’t go well, or times when they are frustrated, or they find something to be particularly challenging, the overall feeling when they return home is not negative.

I want them to have had enough positive experiences, enough moments of engagement, enough creativity and fun built into their day that “good” is the predominant mood descriptor.

That is not currently the case.


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Stories – spores waiting to propagate knowledge

books on shelf

I think about stories all the time – if fact, I think in stories – after all, what is more transformative than a good story? I came to this thought while on my daily walk, listening to Bram Stoker’s Dracula via audiobook. I find I am not just intellectually following the plot as Harker climbs down the castle wall into the vampire’s room; I am viscerally reacting to his terror with heightened perception. And then the steam-of-consciousness thoughts begin firing: How did Stoker come to his editorial choices? Did he mean to imbue his female characters with feminist qualities? That line by Van Helsing on perception is perfect for my lecture on folklore’s multitude of stakeholders. My brain is in critical mode. And that’s exactly where I want my students’ brains; so how do I facilitate this transformation from passive to active learner?

For me, it is story that is the trigger. Give me a good story and I will ask questions, empathize with the author or the characters, form alternative scenarios, leap to subjects that seem disconnected, but are merely extensions of a thread that has been teased from the narrative. I began to intentionally apply this supposition to students years ago, but in unstructured ways that had hit or miss success.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to embed some of my practices in a course called Finding Ourselves in Folklore, a writing intensive, freshman seminar that is driven by content of the professor’s choosing. I use a selection of folktales, fairytales, ballads, and critical readings to engage students on issues of perspective and applying a critical lens to what they think they know.  As I refine the course activities and assessments, it is clear that I get students’ best work when they are personally embedded. This epiphany is stunningly obvious, but the difficulty has been in finding the connector points into the content. I can’t always read folklore relevant to each and every student. Some students don’t even want to be there; they took the course because it was in a good time slot! What to do?

This semester, I began by forcing them back into their childhood cultures. We ended our first class meeting with a group song. I had them stand with me and ask that they join in where they could. So, most of us sang and performed the accompanying choreography to “Head and Shoulders, Knees, and Toes,” a preschool song that most of my 28 freshman students knew. It was my foray into connecting them to our new community – the one in this class, at this liberal arts school, in a small Southern town – with something both endearing and silly.

As we debriefed the next class on how so many of us came to know the same song, though few students were from the same geographical regions, they began to talk about their lives. I have several international students who did not share this common experience with the song, but spoke of similar experiences within their culture’s domain. Most students participated in the discussion and the exercise gave us a point of entry to the complex topic of folklore and culture.

We went on the next day to shore up their geography skills (a deficit noted in earlier semesters) with an activity that had them pin point their hometowns or birth places on a world map. We noted the “neighbors” and those who had travelled great distances to be here. We each said something about these places, revealing bits about ourselves in the process. I say we, because I joined them in these activities. To remain aloof and separate from this class culture is artificial and detrimental to my goal: that all will find their identities represented in the course in one way or another and this connectedness will serve to connect them to all the course goals, including the improvement of their writing skills.

Each set of course readings has a corresponding writing component in which they have the opportunity to connect their experiences with the discourse. No – not all students are doing the homework – but almost all are. And no, not all are reading critically – but we are working on that skill as well. Along this line, I find that immediate feedback on their efforts is imperative. Once they knew I was invested in what they had to say, I found they were willing to invest more of their time and effort in the work. Again, not true for all, but for most.

The feedback I value most is their interest. They are staying after class to continue a discussion or to ask questions about a thread that has become personal for them. To have such positive rapport early in a semester is invigorating and makes me a more engaged instructor. I hope my engagement translates into enhanced effectiveness.

Post Script: As I reflect on this story, I realize that I have inadvertently teased out one of those lateral threads and found a way to attack a manuscript about using maps that had me stymied.  Woot!

edTPA is a horror story. Why we can’t find people to teach.  

Why are our legislatures going in a direction that removes assessment responsibility from the most logical and cost effective source – college faculty and clinical supervisors?
Follow the money.
Pearson pays PhDs $75 each for these assessments, so how much time do you think is being spent here? And who’s getting the other $225?

Fred Klonsky

– By a teacher who knows

This is the third year I’ve been forced to put my student teachers through this test, and it was $300/per person this year, and next year it’s $300 and high stakes.

It takes weeks to write, mostly because the questions are long and strange, and everyone is student teaching full time, on a cart, 30+ kids per room, first time ever, at the SAME TIME!

Art teaching on a cart, when you have 800+ kids a week and 3 preps, it is completely unrelated to edTPA. You have to write all this stuff from experience you do not even have yet as a pre-service teacher.

CPS does not do anything to support this requirement, so my puny department of 3 ft teacher licensure faculty must explain and justify 5 days of video recordings in classrooms to each assitant principal, cooperating teacher, and to some…

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Fossil Friday – Carboniferous plants

I love adventuring beyond my own discipline! Had a great time fossil hunting with this group of friends who bring so much diverse knowledge to the table. I’m thankful that this English Education academic made the acquaintance of people who love to share their domains. I hope to blog about this association more extensively soon. For details of the day, here is Alton Dooley’s paleontology blog entry.

Valley of the Mastodon

 Last week I made a short trip back to Virginia for my son’s graduation from Patrick Henry Community College. This also was a perfect opportunity for some fossil collecting, so Brett, Tim, and I met DorothyBelle Poli and Lisa Stoneman from Roanoke College for a day trip to Beckley, West Virginia.

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Dormant Wanderlust Awakened

How can you miss a place that is not your home? Such a phenomenon is strange to me. I live in the same city I was born in. I have always been here and am happy with my town. So why do I miss the Loch Ness, the coast of Cornwall, the banks of the Wye River, so? 

I am enjoying a Virginia spring. Getting the yard ready for flowers and a vegetable garden. Seventy degree temperatures in mid-March are nothing to sneeze at! Southwest Virginia is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been and I’ve recently seen much of the USA and a few foreign places as well.  

Yet, I am drawn to a place I have only visited for a few weeks. I miss the smell of the damp forests, the bite of the coastal wind, the beauty of a sometimes harsh landscape. What’s up with that? I expected to love Scotland, Cornwall, and Wales. I did not expect to fall in love with them, to seek ways to return sooner than later, to ponder a much longer stay. 

I have discovered a years dormant wanderlust, lying in wait for the right catalyst. Is this a response to the death of my mother, my foundation, a little over a year ago? Is it that my children are grown and forging lives of their own that need only peripheral interaction with me? Is it all of those things that are releasing me from tethers I secured to my hometown long ago? 

I think it is freedom – the freedom of losing those you love to death and to growing up. We don’t like to call it freedom. I feel treasonous calling it that. The ones I speak of have been, and continue to be the blood of my life, but they no longer need that depth of time commitment from me. So, I am free, free to pursue the newer callings. 

Happily for me, I have a husband who has always tuned to his own wanderlust. I think he has been patiently waiting for me to find mine. I always thought that getting older was a slowing down and a pulling in. But it feels just the opposite for me and for us. It is an opening to, a seeking of, the unknown. I feel Dunkeld, Fort Augustus, Crail, Cornwall, and the north of Wales in our near future. 

The World is a Dimmer Place

My family is close geographically and emotionally. I live in the town I grew up in and am accustomed to speaking with family, particularly my mother, every few days. It’s been 365 days now, since Mom and I spoke. A year ago, she sat, agitated, in her hospital bed waiting for her nicotine patch, a private room, and relief from the breathing difficulties that had worsened over Christmas. The kids and I were trying to take her mind off of her discomfort and chat a little before they returned to school and work the next day, but, she was too distracted to follow the conversation and eventually told us to go; not to waste all of our time together hanging around at the hospital.

So we went to dinner, promising to return shortly – we were gone for less than an hour. During that time Mom had a stroke and/or heart attack, and though she did not die for 9 more days, she never opened her eyes or spoke to us again.

I, who pride myself on communication skill, am haunted that I did not give or receive the vital information my mother needed that last conscious night among us. I conveyed no important parting words beyond that we loved her and would be right back. The only significant communication was Mom’s. She absolved me of the responsibility to stay and attend to her, telling me to go and take care of myself and her (grown) grandchildren. Typical – my mother’s final act was in keeping with her life – thinking of others and acting for them with no expectation for herself.

I aspire to such nobleness, but fall far short. And it is too late to be sorry.

In memory of our final day together and in tribute to her, I include the eulogy I wrote the day after Mom died and delivered at her funeral on January 10, 2014.

Mom - Christmas 2009

Mom – Christmas 2009

Betty Jean Hodges Stoneman

August 10, 1939 – January 6, 2014

“Time to Rise and Shine”

These are the words my sister and I often awoke to in our childhood – Mom calling us to get ready for the day – usually earlier than we liked and with less enthusiasm than she had.

I find a much deeper meaning now; a particularly poignant one on this day after Mom’s passing.


Rise to meet the challenge of the day – a feat Mom accomplished many times over 74 years.

She survived infancy, though her mother succumbed to illness. She grew strong in the loving home of her grandmother though they faced many hardships. She built a close relationship with her only sister though they spent many of their childhood years apart. She worked hard at her job, but never put her family and friends second to it.

She was the bedrock to my sister, Hannah, Nick and me even as ill health pursued her.

I share 2 tales, 50 years apart:

Mom told the story that her father came to visit one day when I was very small. He found Mom sitting with me in the floor amid the Saturday morning clutter of a working mother’s home, playing paper dolls. He chastised her for doing nothing with so much housework waiting. She told him that she was doing something – she was playing dolls with Lisa – and the work would always be there, but Lisa would only play paper dolls for a little while.

Almost two weeks ago, Mom came to our house for Christmas Day dinner. She was so weak she could barely get from the car to the house, but she was festively dressed and loaded with gifts and food. She had looked forward to seeing Hannah and Nick and refused to allow her obvious frailty to impede the family gathering. And Christmas Day was spent as usual.


Shine with the passion of your convictions.

As Hannah wrote in Mom’s obituary – the world is a dimmer place without her. From the depths of Mom’s soul, her light shone with love, honesty, and fidelity. The unconditional love she bestowed on her family and friends is something we will carry with us all our lives, making us better people for having known her. Her truthful nature allowed complete trust in her motives and actions, for they were never false.

Once you belonged to her, she was always on your side – faithful – standing and fighting with you against any challenge.

I have so many anecdotes to illustrate this point that I couldn’t choose just one or two. Instead I will share a poem that captures the depths of Mom’s sacrifices and reflects my small attempt to Rise and Shine to her standard:

“The Giving Tree,” by Shel Silverstien

Once there was a tree….
and she loved a little boy.
And everyday the boy would come
and he would gather her leaves
and make them into crowns
and play king of the forest.
He would climb up her trunk
and swing from her branches
and eat apples.
And they would play hide-and-go-seek.
And when he was tired,
he would sleep in her shade.
And the boy loved the tree….
very much.
And the tree was happy.
But time went by.
And the boy grew older.
And the tree was often alone.
Then one day the boy came to the tree
and the tree said, “Come, Boy, come and
climb up my trunk and swing from my
branches and eat apples and play in my
shade and be happy.”
“I am too big to climb and play” said
the boy.
“I want to buy things and have fun.
I want some money?”
“I’m sorry,” said the tree, “but I
have no money.
I have only leaves and apples.
Take my apples, Boy, and sell them in
the city. Then you will have money and
you will be happy.”
And so the boy climbed up the
tree and gathered her apples
and carried them away.
And the tree was happy.
But the boy stayed away for a long time….
and the tree was sad.
And then one day the boy came back
and the tree shook with joy
and she said, “Come, Boy, climb up my trunk
and swing from my branches and be happy.”
“I am too busy to climb trees,” said the boy.
“I want a house to keep me warm,” he said.
“I want a wife and I want children,
and so I need a house.
Can you give me a house ?”
” I have no house,” said the tree.
“The forest is my house,
but you may cut off
my branches and build a
house. Then you will be happy.”

And so the boy cut off her branches
and carried them away
to build his house.
And the tree was happy.
But the boy stayed away for a long time.
And when he came back,
the tree was so happy
she could hardly speak.
“Come, Boy,” she whispered,
“come and play.”
“I am too old and sad to play,”
said the boy.
“I want a boat that will
take me far away from here.
Can you give me a boat?”
“Cut down my trunk
and make a boat,” said the tree.
“Then you can sail away…
and be happy.”
And so the boy cut down her trunk
and made a boat and sailed away.
And the tree was happy
… but not really.

And after a long time
the boy came back again.
“I am sorry, Boy,”
said the tree,” but I have nothing
left to give you –
My apples are gone.”
“My teeth are too weak
for apples,” said the boy.
“My branches are gone,”
said the tree. ” You
cannot swing on them – ”
“I am too old to swing
on branches,” said the boy.
“My trunk is gone, ” said the tree.
“You cannot climb – ”
“I am too tired to climb” said the boy.
“I am sorry,” sighed the tree.
“I wish that I could give you something….
but I have nothing left.
I am just an old stump.
I am sorry….”
“I don’t need very much now,” said the boy.
“just a quiet place to sit and rest.
I am very tired.”
“Well,” said the tree, straightening
herself up as much as she could,
“well, an old stump is good for sitting and resting
Come, Boy, sit down. Sit down and rest.”
And the boy did.
And the tree was happy.