Sorry I’ve been so quiet all spring and summer. I’ve been busy — state testing, prom, honor society induction, professional development, graduation, finals, ducks (shoutout to our ag teacher for taking the noisy, destructive little SOBs off my hands), travel, side hustles, curriculum writing, and last but certainly not least, painting an elaborate mural on all four walls of my classroom.
I finally wrapped up the mural on Monday. It was a long process that began last spring, when I wandered into my superintendent’s office and asked how much trouble I’d be in if I painted literary characters all over the walls of my classroom. She basically gave me carte blanche and waited to see what would happen next. About 103 hours of actual work later, this was what I came up with:
I still have a truffula forest made out of pool noodles and tissue paper to mount on a particle-board stand, a couple of giant IKEA leaves to install near my desk, and a few more strings of fairy lights to hang on not-quite-finished bulletin boards, but I’ll post all that when I do an official classroom reveal in August.
My goal with this project is to remind my kids of how they felt about reading when they were little — back when they were exploring the Hundred Acre Wood and having wild rumpuses and sneaking through Hogwarts under an Invisibility Cloak instead of being assigned a million pages of stuff they didn’t really care about. I want to recapture some of that joy and maybe get them excited about reading again. We’ll see how it goes.
P.S.: In case you’re interested, here’s an update showing the finished room.
1. I started my morning feeling a little groggy after a recurring dream in which I kept trying to listen to a Led Zeppelin album but kept waking up a split-second before the needle actually touched the vinyl. (This was considerably more stressful than it sounds. In retrospect, I think it might have been an omen.)
2. Got to school and literally had to put out a fire. Not a big fire, mind you — just a little grease fire that flared up when a kid spilled bacon drippings on a burner while preparing the FFA’s annual faculty breakfast — but exciting enough to shake off the grogginess, anyhow.
3. Met with the outside evaluator who visited my class Monday. Got a good score but was told I needed to set up a “mindful classroom” with a “social contract” involving some kind of hand signal the kids could use whenever someone failed to use “the language of peace,” because I was at a tipping point, and “the energy in [my] classroom could go either way at this point.” Was also advised that I might want to consider “cleansing the room” of the last teacher’s “negative energy,” because she could still feel it in there. (When I ran this suggestion by the kids, they told me to call in an exorcist, because a little sage wasn’t gonna do the job. X______X )
Got that? During my professional evaluation, the evaluator’s ONLY criticism was basically that I’M NOT A BIG ENOUGH HIPPIE.
(Yep. That weird Zeppelin dream was definitely a sign.)
I can’t shake the nagging suspicion that somewhere, Bob Waldmire is disappointed in me tonight. Or laughing his arse off. Or both.
In case you’re wondering, my plan for improving my score next time involves burning patchouli incense, schlepping around the room in Birkenstocks, and playing the Dead’s “Europe ’72” album on vinyl while the kids munch on homemade brownies and discuss that Kerouac quote about how “the only people for me are the mad ones.”
Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it’s been.
The day I was offered my first teaching job in 1997, I was introduced to “the best teacher in the building” — a lovely woman in her late 50s whose students sat in neat rows and quietly filled out worksheets all hour.
I’d just spent four years listening to my professors tell me students should never sit in neat rows and quietly fill out worksheets, because they need to talk, teach, create, collaborate, move around, and engage in lessons that appeal to as many of their senses as possible, so after politely observing The Best Teacher in the Building and her woefully outdated methods, I proceeded to spend the next year rearranging my classroom about three times a week to accommodate poetry readings, mock trials for Shakespearean characters, mock episodes of Jerry Springer featuring dysfunctional families from Greek mythology, Lord of the Flies-themed scavenger hunts, and similarly noisy, active lessons that made it abundantly clear I was never going to be The Best Teacher in the Building.
At the end of the year, my contract was not renewed, mostly because my principal saw my kids out of their seats every time she walked past my room and concluded that I must be The Worst Teacher in the Building.
My current superintendent’s office is next door to my classroom. The walls are thin enough that I can hear her every time she laughs or speaks in an animated tone, so I know she can hear us every time we laugh, speak in animated tones, have a spirited debate, act out a scene from a play, listen to music, play a game, celebrate a success, or watch a movie.
Today, I wandered over to her office during my plan time to sign some paperwork she had for me. While I was there, I apologized for today’s noise level and explained that the kids were taking their test over Hamlet, which involves watching the movie Strange Brew and identifying all the similarities they can find between it and the play.
She told me I never need to apologize for that or worry that we’re bothering her with our noise, because she likes to hear the kids having fun in class.
I wish my 22-year-old self could have heard that. She wasn’t The Worst Teacher in the Building. She was just ahead of her time.
I mailed her a letter yesterday explaining why. One letter won’t make everything all better, but I’m sure she’s getting a flood of them, and I hope the outpouring of support makes her smile. Here’s the one I’m adding to the pile:
Dear Ms. Clinton,
The year was 1992. I was 17, a senior in high school, and I was feeling conflicted. After two months as editor-in-chief of the school newspaper — a position toward which I’d worked diligently for years — I was beginning to suspect the job was more trouble than it was worth. I’d already had run-ins with a condescending school superintendent who assumed I was incompetent simply because I was young, and with several friends who didn’t understand why I couldn’t adjust deadlines to suit their whims. I was tired, burned-out, and ready to walk away from the whole mess.
I awoke one cool October morning to hear my mom’s voice floating into my room: “The Southern Illinoisan says Hillary Clinton is coming to SIU for a rally on Saturday.”
After a moment or two of Kermit-flailing and incoherent fangirling, I pulled myself together, picked up the phone, and made arrangements to attend the rally and subsequent press conference.
That press conference was life-altering.
From the time I was little, all I’d wanted was to be treated like a grownup. As a young reporter, I was rarely afforded that courtesy; most adults talked down to me, pressured me to violate my ethical standards, or exchanged patronizing “isn’t-she-cute?” smiles over my head.
You didn’t do any of that. I wasn’t even old enough to vote, but when I asked you a question, you looked me in the eye and answered it in exactly the same tone you’d used with all the other reporters. You treated me like a grownup. You made me feel respected. You gave me confidence. And in that moment, you renewed my enthusiasm for journalism.
With the exception of a few years spent teaching high school in Oklahoma, I’ve been at it ever since.
Without our brief exchange, I’m not sure I’d have stuck with it. When deadlines get too hectic, or editors get on my nerves, or the economy hiccups and I wonder whether it’s worth the low pay and the constant uncertainty, I close my eyes and remember a sunny autumn afternoon when the most powerful woman in the United States saw a kid doing a grownup’s job and treated her with respect and courtesy.
I adored you for that. You became my personal hero; I wanted to be just like you when I grew up. I studied endless articles about you. I bought myself a green suit and matching headband “just like Hillary’s.” I even showed up for senior pictures in an “Elect Hillary’s Husband” button.
I have never been more proud of you than I was Wednesday, when you stood, resolute but gracious, and addressed your supporters, still on your feet despite the vicious sucker-punch you’d just absorbed for all of us: the Suffragettes; the Second Wave; the girls who grew up watching Geraldine Ferraro and dreaming; the little girls my niece’s age; my mom; my former students; and all the 17-year-old girls trying to be grownups in a world that prefers to treat women like perpetual children, whether we’re 17 or 41 or 69.
I’ve long since lost that green headband, but 24 years later, I still want to be just like you when I grow up.
I had occasion to call a former employer today and chat with one of my favorite editors ever. Long story, but a homicide investigation involving a victim from my area resulted in a couple of arrests in my old paper’s coverage area. I was having trouble sorting out some conflicting reports and putting my hands on a document I needed, so I called my old newsroom to see what I could rustle up.
Some things never change — like the fact that you absolutely cannot trust a St. Louis television station to get even the most basic information correct in a story about anything that happens on the east side of the Mississippi River. The fact that the public information officers in Illinois State Police District 11 are more helpful than the PIOs pretty much anywhere else in the state. And most of all, the fact that the editor who taught me to cover crime stories back in 1999 is still my favorite person to hear on the other end of the line when I’m chasing down details and trying to wrangle information out of reluctant sources.
I don’t miss that town’s ridiculous city ordinances. I don’t miss the corruption of its local government. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the incredibly talented people who populate the newsroom of its daily paper. That newsroom isn’t big, but the amount of talent it harbors is truly spectacular, and I’m awfully glad I got to spend my first few years as a full-time journalist there.
I have no idea why, but for as long as I can remember, the middle of March has been insanely busy.
I think it started with junior-high science fair, continued into high-school musical rehearsals, grew into magazine design projects of epic proportions, and snowballed from there.
This year, after the Oklahoma Route 66 Association president earned my undying loyalty and affection by constructing a beautiful, shimmering Somebody Else’s Problem shield around the Trip Guide for the first time in nine years, I assumed I’d get to find out what March looks like to normal people.
Yeah, I don’t know what I was thinking, either. I know better than that.
With a reporter out on maternity leave and staffing issues reaching critical levels, I volunteered to cover for a designer who’s out on vacation this week … right before my editor decided to move up the deadline on a largely hypothetical project that of course began spinning wildly out of control the second it became real … and just when I thought I might be able to reel that all in and keep things from getting too complicated, I remembered I had a murder trial to cover this week.
The upshot of all this is that by 11:30 p.m. Tuesday, I had already worked nearly 40 hours this week, and I’ve got another 40 or so ahead of me before the week is out.
After all these years, I’m not even pretending to worry about it, because an 80-hour week full of utter madness is as much a sign of spring as the crocus blooming next to the front porch, the flat of tomato plants growing in the dining room and the ballplayers warming up in Arizona and Florida. I don’t know why or how it happens, but I’d probably freak out if it didn’t.
As soon as I get through this week, I’m going to treat myself to some new lawn ornaments. I’ve got an utterly hilarious idea for a little garden tableau involving a handful of concrete angels and a lawn gnome in pinstripes and Chucks….
As an old math teacher, I was more than a little concerned by some of the comments I saw on a stats-driven story we ran in the paper today. Because the misconceptions I saw in the comments are fairly common — and because some of my former students read this blog — I thought it might be worthwhile to address a couple of the more egregious examples here, for the benefit of anyone who has slept since freshman algebra.
Misconception 1:If you don’t have data for the full year, any conclusions you draw based on that data are statistically invalid.
Reality: Full-year stats are nice to have, but as long as you’re comparing apples to apples, you can draw meaningful conclusions without them. If I compared an 11-month period in one year to full-year data for another year, my conclusions would be invalid. But if I compare an 11-month period in one year to the same 11-month period for several preceding years, I can make valid comparisons even if I don’t have that twelfth month.
Misconception 2:If numbers look bigger, they are.
Reality: Not necessarily. Remember fractions? Ratios? Decimals? Let’s look at some examples:
1/2 is bigger than 1/3, and 1/3 is bigger than 1/4.
If your odds of something happening are 1 in 14 (which can also be expressed as 1:14 or 1/14), then that thing is more likely to occur than if your odds of it happening are 1 in 18 (1:18 or 1/18).
At least one reader didn’t understand that. He was convinced that even though the number of crimes in a given jurisdiction had gone down from one year to the next, the crime rate — expressed in the article and accompanying chart as a ratio of crimes to population, reduced to lowest terms — had gone up. I assume he drew this conclusion by looking at the second number in each ratio. Since that second number got bigger, he thought that meant the crime rate was going up.
These folks aren’t alone in their confusion. A lot of people don’t understand how stats work — which makes them easy targets for unscrupulous people who do.
You shouldn’t trust stats blindly, because they can be manipulated, and people can make mathematical errors. But you don’t have to be afraid of them, either. Statistical data can be incredibly useful, but it’s hard to use a tool if you don’t know how it works.
I really thought I’d have time to finish tinkering with the decorations and swapping out the wallpaper here by now, but I’ve been up to my teeth in homicides and kidnappings and insurance scams and cops and lawyers and unfortunate accidents and conspiracy theories and cold cases and bad coffee and editors and accident reports and fast-food wrappers and probable-cause statements and all of the ten thousand other details that make the life of a crime reporter unlike any other (and one I wouldn’t trade for anything).
Every now and then, I get a minute to catch my breath. I usually spend it listening to vinyl or sneaking up to Makanda for cappuccino on the Boardwalk. But I had a hand free tonight, so I sat down and worked up the photos I shot Sunday and put together what I think is a little more accurate representation of my world at the moment.
The background is a picture of downtown Cape. We have an awesome downtown full of historic buildings and interesting businesses. I love it. The new header is the Bill Emerson Bridge across the Mississippi River, which replaced an old through-truss gem that was demolished 10 years ago. I would like the record to show that I shot the photo in the header at 1/4 of a second without a tripod. Don’t act like you’re not impressed.
I’m going to pull another vanishing act for a few days, but I hope to be back with a bitchin’ new project to unveil and some photos to share soon. Stay tuned.
So we’re throwing a Halloween party at work for all the local kids, and my boss informed me that I would be expected to wear a costume.
I hate wearing costumes.
Ron suggested I just show up in my bee suit, but I’m in charge of the popcorn, and I am pretty sure the health department would shut us down if an inspector walked in and saw me scooping popcorn in my pollen-and-propolis-stained gloves and honey-smeared suit.
This was what I came up with instead:
Janis Joplin. Or, as I like to call it, “Casual Friday.”