because life doesn’t fit in a file folder

Ringtones Adults Aren't Supposed To Hear

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Texting & the rocket summer, originally uploaded by racheocity.

As a general rule, unless someone has an Individualized Educational Plan, I require students to turn off all electronics for the 50 minutes they are in my class. iPods and MP3 Players? Off. Laptops? Off. Cellphones? I don’t even want them on vibrate as I find the buzz distracting. No one has ever balked; however, this past fall I did have a weird experience that caused me to learn about something new in the ever-evolving world of technology.

In this one particular classroom, students generally sat in straight lines facing front: Not my favorite configuration, but we didn’t have many options in our tiny, sterile, windowless space. One day, for no apparent reason, several students looked sharply to the opposite side of the room at the exact same moment while other students covered their ears. Thinking nothing of it, I simply continued my lesson. After class, a most loyal student told me about The Mosquito Ringtone, a tone specifically designed to ring at a decibel that is not easily detected by adult ears. This student also told me that some students use it to cheat.

Apparently, British inventor, Howard Stapleton discovered an ultra high frequency that drives away teens much like a dog whistle affects dogs. His idea was to use his invention to keep teenagers from loitering outside of shops at night, thus making the area around his storefront uncomfortable for loitering teens while leaving the money-spending adult customers unaffected.

As stated in the website for Mosquito Ringtones:

… teens from the inventor’s hometown caught on to what the company was doing and decided to put turn the idea into something they could use. They took the ultra sonic frequency and converted into to a cell phone ringtone which they aptly named “Teen Buzz.”… The ringtone caught on like wildfire in the UK and quickly spread throughout the reaches of the Internet to teens everywhere. Teens learned they could hear each others phones ringing at school but their teachers couldn’t.

Initially skeptical, I was amazed when tried the hearing test experiment with my 10 year-old son and learned that I simply could not hear certain tones beyond a certain frequency. I kept saying, “Can you really hear something?” and he kept saying, “Yes, I can hear it. Now can you turn it off!” I thought I had great hearing! Sheesh! Since that day, I have remained ever-vigilant in class, relying on my eyes as well as my ears. Students are clever and always a step ahead when it comes to technology – especially when it comes to finding a way to use it to cut corners or keep up with their important social lives!

I must admit, I have been waiting for a similar incident to occur. It hasn’t (yet), but at least now I am prepared.

Have you come across this technology in your life? What do you think about it?

The Blessing of Broken Dishes

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Fiestaware, originally uploaded by Choconancy1.

For years, I worked as a Professional Organizer, helping people declutter their little messes. I learned a lot on that little job. I saw how things could represent people and discovered that people could be connected to the strangest things: pantyhose, flip-flops, even mismatched drinking glasses.

I’m not the most sentimental gal, but I collect Fiestaware. The brightly colored pieces make putting the dishes away less of a chore and more of a joy. One or two of the pieces are from my grandmother’s own collection and, though I rarely eat from them, I like opening my doors to my cabinet and seeing them there all nestled in amongst the rest of the pieces. Since she passed away, these few bowls have served as a daily special reminder of our connectedness.

A few years ago, a shelf that held a lot of my beautiful Fiestaware collection caved in and I found myself desperately trying to catch the dishes as they fell, rainbows-colored disks crashing around me. Strangely, in that instant, I remembered all the smashing and crashing in my life. Broken teacups and broken hearts. I realized that when things break, a person has to make choices.

Initially, I wanted to try to Super-glue the smithereens together and attempt to make imperfect things perfect again, but I learned long ago perfection is temporary, at best. I briefly considered taking the busted up pieces and trying to make some kind of mosaic out of all the funky colors and sharp edges, but who has time for that, really? Eventually, I shrugged my shoulders, got my broom and old green dustpan, swept everything up, vacuumed for good measure, and threw all the pieces-parts into the garbage. Not everything can be saved.

by turkeychik at flickr.com

I quickly remembered that I am blessed with good health, a strong family, and good friends. I reminded myself that stuff, while we often like to surround ourselves with it, is just filler.

After I cried a little, I decided I was like an ant whose home had just been knocked over by an unforeseen storm. And everyone knows what ants do; they rebuild. So I pretended that my collection had been cosmically revised and started collecting again. Losing my chartreuse platter was a bummer, but my grandmother’s pieces were spared and, for that, I was grateful.

Over time, I’ve practiced patience, continued collecting, slowly rebuilding. For my 40th birthday a few years ago, several friends bought me a few vintage pieces of Fiestaware; one piece was even chartreuse! Joy can be found in the strangest of places. Who would have thought I’d find so much in my daily dishes?

To what physical items are you connected?


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Lessons From Mrs. Church

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Mrs. Church stands in the far right of the back row.

I loved Mrs. Church, my 2nd grade teacher, from the very first day of school. Among other things, she taught a unit on Hawaii where we made grass skirts and learned songs about “going to a hukilau”: I still know the words. She let us sample real sugar cane and poi, each of us dipping our fingers into the community bowl with our two fingers. Lord knows where she got the stuff. She wore crazy, clunky necklaces that epitomized the 1970s – owls with big eyes, huge butterflies, giant yellow flowers. She wore two-piece, polyester, polka-dotted pantsuits, and her ragged-edged haircut made it appear she did the job herself at home.

Mrs. Church literally had my back, and she rescued me when a certain twit who sat at the desk directly behind me decided that it would be fun to cut my hair with his dull-bladed scissors. She must have read his mind because I barely felt the tug of his hands on the back of my head when she called out, “Mr. So-and-So, you may bring those scissors up to my desk now.”

She encouraged me to write and revise, and – eventually – to enter a writing contest held at our local library the spring of my 2nd grade year. I don’t know if I won or not (probably not), but I remember the way she made me feel: like I could do anything.

Please share a memory of one of your favorite teachers. What did he/she do that makes you remember him/her all these years later?

The prompt was to write about a favorite mentor in under 500 words. I wrote about this when my blog was very new, and I had very few followers. I’d love to honor my old teacher, a woman I think about nearly every day.

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What's So Cool About Boys Who Sew?

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5th grade boy sews David Crosby puppet

I know three smart, funny, semi-rambunctious 5th grade boys who have taken to sewing. One has been embroidering, another has been knitting, and the other created a stuffed puppet as part of a biographical research project where he chose to study singer/songwriter David Crosby of the classic rock group, Crosby, Stills and Nash. The puppet resembles Crosby as he appears these days: complete with long gray locks, tie-dye t-shirt and jeans. Sewing “Stuffed Crosby” was no small undertaking, but with a few quick lessons from his mother, this l’il dude learned how to work a sewing machine. And he enjoyed it!

These boys are not weirdos: They all love their video games, have excellent social skills, and plenty of friends. Each of these boys knows how to get down and dirty. One of these boys is downright crazy. That said, each of these kids has recently learned that sewing – whether it be by hand or by machine – can be relaxing and the results rewarding.

Boy Sewing

I know lately everyone is talking about the obesity epidemic in the United States so everyone has their kids in a million after school run & jump activities. Personally, I’m thrilled to see these boys taking a little time to develop a slightly different skills set: patience, precision, concentration, and the ability to sit in one place for an extended period of time without a gaming device in hand.

Perseverance is potentially the most important quality for any successful working professional, athlete, or individual. Most well known breakthroughs in life have been attributed to perseverance alone. In life, as in sewing, sometimes things go wrong and things get all knotted up. In those moments, one has to persevere – move beyond the frustration – by developing different strategies.  For these boys, the outcomes have been wonderful pieces of art, but each has also discovered a new creative outlet.

Who knows? Maybe they might start patching the holes in their jeans. Now that would be something!

Is it Okay to Just be Okay?

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Fente d’assaut, originally uploaded by n.vasse.

Today my son participated in his first fencing tournament. He’s been taking lessons in Saber at the Rochester Fencing Club for just under a year and, I must confess, I still can’t tell who scores. Even when the judge is there officiating, I can’t tell who has won the point. My son tries to teach me about the parry and repost and a host of other things with fancy names that I can’t seem to retain. I don’t know what my problem is because I want to understand it, but I just can’t. It’s not that I’m not trying to understand. It just seems like everything is beyond my aptitude. Meanwhile, my 10 year-old understands everything and seems to pick things up easily and by osmosis.

Trying to understand something but not being able to was humbling and it reminded me that not everyone is going to understand the message I am trying to deliver to them. No matter how hard I try, no matter how many visuals I include, whether my class is web-enhanced or not, some of my students still are just not going to get it.

My son didn’t win the tournament, but he did win a few matches. Most importantly, he is willing to keep trying. He was not broken down by the experience of losing. He wasn’t discouraged. He was actually inspired to be better the next time. I guess in some ways I am like an Intro Level Saber teacher; I provide my students with the basics, and some of them will excel and some will be okay. Others will be lousy, and the least inspired of the bunch will drop out.

It is rather awful to not be able to understand something. Frustrating, for sure. And while I suppose it is not the end of the world to not be able to “get it” when it comes to fencing, I am having a hard time convincing myself that it is acceptable for some students to never move beyond a basic skills set when it comes to reading and writing.

Is it okay to just be okay?

Words To My Students Whom I Adore

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springtime classes, originally uploaded by Wolfram Burner.

People generally remember a favorite teacher, but what they may not realize is that we teachers also become very connected to our students. We aren’t supposed to have “favorites,” but there are one or two who always weasel their way into our hearts because of their talent or wit, their work ethic or their ability to get their peers back on track. Over the years I have collected many favorite students. They were not always stellar English students when I taught them, but they have all become stellar people. This poem was written many years ago while teaching at Metairie Park Country Day School, but it epitomizes how I feel at the end of each academic year.

To My Students

We pepper the field
sprawled in comfort,
air on faces
in hair, on cheeks, freckled
and sun-kissed, we
relax together, separately
seeking inspiration and
silence in a too noisy world
saturated by too many good ideas
already created. Children shriek
around us, the squeak of
swing-sets swinging, pony-tails
bobbing, we were children
once too, clawing at the dirt
unafraid to scream or spit
point or stare, but now
we care.
These months
we have explored
together, through heat
and humidity
through the wet-kiss of storm, we have
connected, grown closer
a tight group of bodies
and minds which dip
and soar like butterflies
over cornfields. It is springtime
already and they
blossom before me, open their petals
stickily preparing for bigger gardens.
As we sit scattered across the field
surrounded by outside smells
I miss them already,
these people that I love.

Tell me about one of your favorite teachers!

Notes For Twits?

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Cliffs Notes, originally uploaded by Purple_man.

I stumbled into a local Barnes & Noble yesterday and happened to enjoy watching a small group of high school students studying together. One student had a laptop and was tapping away and the others were reading. It was at that point I realized these students were reading those insipid CliffsNotes. You know the ones: Those skinny little yellow pamphlets designed to help English students better understand literature. For those of you who just landed on the planet, a well-intentioned guy named Cliff Hilegass started the company in his basement with a few Shakespeare titles; the company (no longer owned by Hilgrass) now offers notes on hundreds of titles. Detractors of the guides claim they allow students to bypass reading the assigned literature. The company, of course, claims to promote the reading of the original work, and views its material as a supplement, not as a substitute to the assigned reading.

I can only tell you what I saw: Several high school students sitting in the café sipping expensive coffee drinks not reading the primary text. They did not even actually appear to have the original text with them, and in between reading the CliffsNotes, they alternately texted friends, took phone calls, listened to music on their iPod Touches, and chatted it up with other friends who entered the café area.

Here’s my feeling on this topic. Ick. While these were high school students, I have no doubt that this is a similar process with regard to the way my college students approach reading and, later, writing. These days I feel a little hesitant about praising the work of students whose work I think is interesting or fresh, as I worry I may be positively reinforcing the habit of some students of picking up critical information from an outside source – a practice commonly called plagiarism.

I know that there are a million other sources available to students today besides CliffsNotes. Hell, they can purchase entire papers right off the Internet. Last year, a student actually listed a posting on Craigslist requesting someone to write his final English paper because he just didn’t have the energy to do it. He was willing to pay $150. I believe someone from the Monroe Community College English Department responded to the post and nailed the lazy, little twit. But I do wonder what has happened to personal pride and the hard work ethic. I wonder how many parents actually sit down to discuss cheating with their children. Do students understand that taking someone else’s ideas and presenting them as their own (without giving citation) is actually unethical? Do their parents?

For me, the person who uses CliffsNotes is a type of person who is afraid to think critically. Reading literature gives students practice in making their own connections, drawing their own conclusions, which can be supported by the facts with which they have been presented. I want my students to practice critical thinking so that they recognize that their voices and opinions are vital, and have power, not only inside the classroom but outside the classroom as well. The fact that students would trust a person that they do not even know just because he/she has a few extra letters after his/her name (PhD, M.S., D.D.S., M.D., J.D., etc..) represents another problem we have today; namely, people are too willing to take it from “the experts” before considering things thoroughly themselves. Students who use “Notes” of any form are not only cheating themselves, but they are cheating the world of their ideas. The best students are ones who are willing to take risks, engage in a dialogue about the literature: They are the ones who will be prepared to deal critically and creatively with opposing views, and recognize they need not feel threatened by ideas or beliefs which are different from their own.

I know great students exist. It just seems so dang easy to cut corners these days, like we have made it too easy for students to not do all that hard work that must occur inside their brains long before the pen ever hits the paper, or fingertips ever touch the keypad.

What do you say to your children to encourage them to think independently and express their own ideas, especially if they are struggling with the material?

The Day I Got It All Wrong

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photo from goldsardine at flickr.com

When I teach, I come to class prepared. In fact, I sometimes come to class with a Plan A, Plan B and an Emergency Back-Up Plan. I think this stems from the days when I didn’t exactly know what I was doing. Case in point: Many years ago, when I was just starting out, students were completing their last day of oral presentations. One girl was standing up before the class doing her thing and a small group of boys were being – well, let’s just say, a little bit disruptive. Nothing major. They just weren’t really interested in the symbolism that she had found so riveting in Ordinary People.

I tried to get the attention of one of the boys. No luck. I tried to make eye contact with another. Nothin’. Finally, I took my pen – a Precise V5 extra fine tip pen in hand and attempted to throw it so that it would hit the main offender: Let’s call him Hugo. It should be noted here – and you can’t make this stuff up – that Hugo just so happened to have one good eye, having lost the other eye several years earlier although I never found out the circumstances surrounding how it had happened. Anyway, I tried to aim for Hugo’s leg – to get his attention without disrupting the entire class. I figured he’d feel the pen tap his leg, look at me, I’d give him “the death eye” and he’d stop screwing around. It seemed foolproof.

I don’t know how it happened because I usually have pretty good aim, but anyone who was in the class that day would vouch for the fact that the pen did not hit Hugo on the leg. That pen had a mind of its own and fueled by green ink, it launched itself upwards right into Hugo’s face just below (or maybe above?) his good eye.

Hugo stood up before the entire class holding his face, “What the hell are you are doing?” he shouted (and with good reason). “You could have blinded me?” And with that, Hugo announced that he was going to the nurse, the principal and, then, he was going to call his mother.

I had done precisely what I had set out not to do. I had disrupted the class completely. At the time, I pretty sure that I was going to be fired. After apologizing to the student presenter for creating such a commotion, class ended, and I hustled up to the Upper School principal to whom I confessed all my terrible, unforgivable sins. She clucked her tongue at me, told me to call Hugo’s mother, and explain what had happened. Thank goodness, Hugo’s mother was wonderful, supportive, understanding – and even joked that sometimes she wanted to poke out Hugo’s good eye. Later, I also apologized to Hugo who  apologized to me for being disruptive and disrespectful.

I have often thought about my experience with Hugo. As a new teacher, I was trying to figure things out. After throwing a pen at my wonderful student, I learned many things: First and foremost, I learned to never throw anything at anyone in-class ever again.  But I learned a lot of other things, too. Over time, I discovered more creative methods to communicate with students about their behavior without making the class come to a grinding halt.  I learned a great deal about respect that day and how quick-actions can lead to terrible consequences. I learned that sometimes teachers need to apologize to their students because sometimes teachers are the biggest twits of all. We learn from experience.

Oh, and I didn’t  get fired.

What’s a not-so-great thing you did on the job that turned into a huge learning moment?

Should We Let Our Kids Sink Their Own Ships?

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My son happens to be a very cool kid. A smart boy, he naturally gravitates to science and math, thus making me wonder how it is possible that he sprang from my loins – but then my husband is a math-science guy, so it makes sense. A voracious reader, my Monkey cannot easily be torn away from a book. I have never had to ask him to do his homework. He comes home from school, makes himself a snack, eats it, puts his dishes in the dishwasher, and then disappears to do his homework. He just does it. I know some of you must be wondering what could this woman possibly have to complain about, so here it comes.

Recently, Monkey’s 5th grade teacher asked me to take a look at his English assignment due that next day. Monkey had been asked to answer a question, making sure to provide the title and genre of  the work, and a thesis statement. He was also asked to use topic sentences and provide textual support and cite the page number as well as explain how the quote supported his idea about the topic. I was elated. I mean, this was a friggin’ awesome assignment and not too different from the type of assignment I might give to my own students in an Intro to Composition class.

“What should I be looking for?” he asked.

“Monkey doesn’t integrate quotes into his papers; I’d just like to make sure he understands how to do it.”

Seemed simple enough.

That night, I explained to my Monkey that his teacher had asked me to take a peek at his assignment. His handwriting was solid, his topic was interesting, he included the title and genre of the book, but – nope, she was right, no textual support. I asked Monkey about the missing quote. He shrugged his shoulders and said he “didn’t care” because he knew he was “still going to get a high score on the rubric so it didn’t matter.”

“You need to find a quote,” I said quietly, handing him his notebook.

“It’s fine,” he said, attempting to slide his notebook into his backpack.

“It’s not fine,” I insisted. “Please revise it.”

“It is fine, and I’m not doin’ it.”

“You need to do it,” I argued, my voice a little louder.

“No, I don’t, and I’m not!” he shouted.

If an alien had landed in my kitchen at that moment, it would have thought that – on Earth – children communicate by screaming and crying and that mothers communicate with their young by wrestling them to the ground and screaming even louder. I am quite certain that we looked something akin to Bart and Lisa from one of those episodes of The Simpsons where the siblings are choking each other; in these episodes, they are generally screaming,  their necks are really long, and their eyes are bugging out of their heads.

Finally, I brought out the big guns.

“If you do not do this, you will have a huge consequence.”

A people-pleaser, my Monkey hates consequences, so with resignation he took his notebook and retreated to the office, closing the door behind him. Like I said, he’s a smart kid; he didn’t want to lose his screen time for the rest of the week. One-half hour later, he emerged with a fabulously fabulous journal entry that was even better than the first. It was neatly written, well punctuated, included capital letters; he even remembered to include the page number for his quote. So why all the drama?

I don’t micromanage my son’s academic career. Lord knows, he’s moved beyond me in math and science already, and when it comes time to create a Power Point presentation, he’s my go-to guy. He accepts criticism from his schoolteachers and baseball coaches, his fencing instructor, and his piano teacher. He accepts fine-tuning in violin and he doesn’t mind when his religious school teacher tells him he has mispronounced something. So what is it about the parent-child relationship that brings out such ugliness, such hysteria when it comes to academics? Why couldn’t he just do it for me?

Had Monkey’s teacher not asked me to look at his homework, I would not have found myself involved in that little power struggle, which is really what it was. And what stuck in my craw was that he said he was getting good grades for not doing all the work properly. Could that be true? It occurred to me that if my son’s teacher had given him a low grade – a really low grade – on any of the assignments leading up to that one, it might have motivated him to work harder to give her what she wanted. He’s no grade grubber, but seriously, what motivation is there to change your ways if you’re being rewarded for doing something half-assed?

I called Monkey’s teacher the next morning the moment he hopped on the bus and told her that, while he had completed the assignment, it created real tension between us.

“Do me a favor,” I added. “Next time, if he doesn’t follow the instructions, give him a low grade. He isn’t motivated to work harder because he says he has been receiving high grades on these assignments even without doing what you’ve asked him to do.”

“I can’t believe you are telling me to give him a low grade,” she said. “Would you want him to have the opportunity to redo the assignment if he really blows it?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “I want him to see what it feels like to fail.”

I wonder how many teachers feel held hostage by American parents, afraid to give low grades to students who aren’t really living up to their full capabilities. They must know that if they give low grades, they will face an onslaught of angry emails and phone calls. But how does inflating grades help our children? From where I stand, all it means is that I have to teach it to them later when they hit college level.

Yesterday I made a mini-resolution: From here on out, unless my child specifically asks for my help, I am going to consider him the captain of his own seafaring vessel. That means he’s pretty much on his own, but he’s equipped with a CB radio with a direct line to me. I’m there on the beach in case of rough waters (or confusion about how to use semi-colons) in which case I’ll hop into my little motorboat and ask permission to come aboard. And once the seas have calmed and he has control of his ship again, I’m outta there, back to my spot on the beach.

How involved are all of you in your kids’ daily homework assignments? And could you stand by and watch your child go down with the ship?

Teacher Appreciation Day: A Wee Confession

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They are celebrating Teacher Appreciation Day in my son’s elementary school. Yesterday a note came home asking parents to send in $5 and to have each child bring in a single flower so that room parents might construct a bouquet to present to the teacher along with a conglomeration of gift cards. Upon receiving these instructions, I took $5 out of my purse and, because nothing is blooming in my yard, I hurried to my local grocery store in search of a few rogue stems, no small feat given that Sunday was Mother’s Day. And then it occurred to me: Here I am running around, but what is my child doing to express his gratitude to his teacher? I mean, I put in the bucks for the gift certificate. I schlepped across town to find flowers. Being an evil teacher-parent, this morning, instead of letting my child watch Sponge Bob, I asked him to compose a short card thanking his teacher for all she has done for him this year.

These days I remember Teacher Appreciation Day with nostalgia, as it simply doesn’t seem to happen at my local community college. Maybe that is wrong. Maybe I haven’t been there long enough to enjoy such privileges; perhaps it is because I don’t really have a home-base: I am without an office and float between classrooms. Maybe it is a college phenomenon: Students come and go, even within a semester. And because everyone has his or her own unique commitments (work, family, finding time to get wasted), there are precious few opportunities to get to know each student on a more personal level. I miss that.

When I taught at the secondary level at Metairie Park Country Day School in New Orleans, Louisiana in the mid-1990s, I worked my booty off. A new teacher, I was forever making lesson plans, grading papers, trying to stay one page ahead of my students. I served as Faculty Advisor to the student-run Literary Magazine and, to make extra money, I proctored on Saturday mornings any time the S.A.T.’s were administered. Every teacher knows you don’t enter this profession for presents or monetary rewards; that said, the folks at MPCDS were crazy thoughtful. On Teacher Appreciation Day, faculty and staff were served a delicious lunch and — I’m not sure if I am making this up or not, but I am pretty sure that one year the chef actually made us Baked Alaska for dessert.

Sometimes it felt like Teacher Appreciation Day came three times a year: on Appreciation Day, around holiday time, and then again at the close of the school year when students would pile candy, crawfish pies and mounds of baked goods atop my heavy steel desk. There were always a few lovely cards and letters stuck in there, too. I loved those best of all.

Essayist Cynthia Ozick writes: “We often take for granted the things that most deserve our gratitude.” I know this to be true. I like to believe the fruit of my day’s work, though nearly invisible now, remains that way until about a decade later when former students suddenly start crawling out of the woodwork – as doctors and lawyers and book editors and engineers and social workers and real estate agents and photographers – and teachers. And then, unsolicited, amidst casual conversation, they let me know I made a mark on their lives.

So, I keep on keepin’ on: developing new curriculum, continuing to take courses myself, hoping to inspire my students to believe that reading critically and writing masterfully are two of the most important skills they can develop during this lifetime. At the end of each semester, I bring in doughnuts and recognize folks who have made perfect attendance (an astounding accomplishment in and of itself these days) as well as those who have repeatedly blown my mind with their written expression.

Let me be clear: I do not want a candy-filled mug that with the words “#1 Teacher” stenciled on the side, nor am I secretly pining for a t-shirt that declares I am the “World’s Greatest Teacher.” I do not mean to imply that my students are unappreciative people because that is simply not the case. I would, however, like to suggest that in this age of the all-too-convenient reckless communication that comes in the form of email and texting and IMing – a short but sincere, handwritten note expressing appreciation is truly the greatest gift a student can give a teacher. Ask any teacher and I’ll bet he or she will tell you the same thing.

After twenty years, I still have them all.