What a Way to End one Year and Start a New One

01/03/2014

I ended 2013 by undergoing the neck surgery I discussed in my last post. It would be cruel to not tell you how everything turned out.

The collaboration worked. Surgery lasted longer than estimated, but apparently much of that time was spent positioning me so they could get my head immobilized in the proper position to do what they had planned. In that process my top cervical vertebrae snapped back into place, making the eventual surgery easier.

I come out of the recovery room at about 4:00PM, eight hours after I was put under with nerve monitoring wires attached to all my fingers, toes and various other points on my body.

Surgery Image 5

Surgery Image 5 (Photo credit: UCDMedicine)

Thanks to the excellent surgeons and the high level or care I received at Valley Hospital, I went hope less than 48 hours after that. The plan was to keep me in the hospital for up to four nights but after just two I progressed so well I was sent home. I have already ditched the narcotic pain medicine for Tylenol.

My head is back on straight, I can turn it and move it up and down and side to side. While the range of motion is still limited, it will improve over time. I’m still not allowed to do anything, and I still have to wear my Miami brace 24/7 for a few more weeks, but a return to normal activity is in sight.

I am extremely grateful for all the support I’ve received from friends near and, in some cases, very far.

I have never been one for new year’s resolutions. I reflect enough the rest of the year and don’t normally feel a need for year-end reflections. But 2013 has been a particularly rough year personally and professionally in ways I cannot talk about now. I’m just glad that it is over.

I start 2014 with a new outlook. I have a sliver of a cadaver’s hip in my neck to remind me that life is fleeting but our usefulness does not end with death if we don’t want it to. I already signed a donor consent form noted on my driver’s license, but I’m redoing my living will to also specify organ donation in any form useful.

I am growing a beard, just to see what it looks like. Its a safe risk, but I need to start small. The bug risks are too scary for now.

I have a new opportunity to grow and develop into the best school librarian I can be, and I’ve certainly learned the value of collaboration. Don’t be surprised to get a call, text, email or tweet from me proposing some joint project.

But most of all I have learned I need to take better care of myself, physically, emotionally and in every other way you can imagine.

I hope your 2014 will be all you want it to be. I will be working hard to make sure mine is.

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Broken neck? Let’s collaborate!

12/24/2013
Skull and cervical vertebrae, posterior view

Skull and cervical vertebrae, posterior view (Photo credit: Rob Swatski)

I broke my neck Thursday night.

I fell nine feet into a concrete stairwell behind my house. By all rights I should be a quadriplegic, but through some miracle I was able to stand up, brush myself off and walk away.

I did not escape completely unscathed. My head is immobile and tilts at a 60-degree angle to the left. This is the result of damage done to my first and second cervical vertebrae, minor compared to what might have been but still not ideal.

Over the past few days I have had two sets of x-rays taken, two CT scans and an MRI. Yesterday I met with a neurosurgeon. I do not have a lot of experience with surgeons in general and none with neurosurgeons. I expected a smart, arrogant man who would tell me what it what. That is not what I got.

What I got was a great lesson in collaborative problem-solving.

Apparently my surgeon, a very highly regarded teaching surgeon, had never seen a condition like mine. Apparently my two top vertebrae gave been displaced into what looks like those Chinese interlocking puzzles that seem so simple but are actually very complex.

After admitting to me he’d been puzzled by my condition, including why I was not a quad, he brought in a colleague to look at the MRI and CT scans on the computer. They pointed things out to each other and discussed a range of possible treatments, all with me in the room. Not satisfied with what they came up with, they brought in a third colleague and started the process over. Everyone was equal, everyone contributed and no idea was rejected out of hand. A plan emerged.

What happened next really stunned me. The two colleagues left and two others came in. The process was started all over again. When the same plan emerged, everyone, including me, was confident it was the right one.

Then my doctor turned his computer around and walked me through the whole process again. He showed me all the pictures from the scans and MRI and pointed out a variety of issues, then went into a detailed explanation of the two most likely treatments: external traction or surgery. He said traction was problematic because “you are a big guy with a lot of muscle in your neck.” He didn’t think they’d be able to put enough traction on to solve the problem. Surgery was clearly the better options. He as not satisfied until I fully understood the problem I presented, what they would do in the surgery, the difficulties they might face, and the potential downsides (I may be a quadriplegic yet).

In all, I spent four hours with the doctors. Four hours! And I came away with incredible confidence in the ability of these doctors to solve problems, work together and not let egos get in the way.

Collaboration works. No one of us is as smart as two or more of us together.

Surgery will be Dec. 31st.


Lights, camera, action! It’s award time!

09/19/2013

This weekend educators will be recognized with a red carpet, black-tie event in Washington, DC.

No, not a state dinner, not even a White House reception, it is something better. It is the 2nd annual Bammy Awards for Educational Excellence. I know, you’ve never heard of them.

The Bammy Award

The Bammy Award

It is a sad state of affairs when the ceremony aimed at recognizing the good work of education workers also suffers from a lack of recognition. But we have an opportunity to change that.

This year the Bammy Awards are being broadcast live on the web. You will see us arrive in our limousines and step out onto a red carpet. There will be people interviewing us. Then you will get to see handsome statuettes distributed an impressive award ceremony that is surprisingly fast paced because award winner speeches are limited to two sentences. Really. Wittiness is encouraged.

I can tell you from experience that it is extremely difficult to write a good two-sentence acceptance speech, I have tried.  I am one of the five finalists in the school librarian category, just added this year, so I had to do it . There should be no chance I will win since I am up against four of the top school librarians in the country and I am barely qualified to do shelving for them. Even so, I have to have a two-sentence acceptance speech ready.

I know you have a life and better things to do on a Saturday night than watch an awards show, but you can tune in and be snarky just like you are watching the stars and wanna-be actors arrive for the Academy Awards. Pay particular attention to the women’s shoes, there has been a lot of posting on Facebook about their finds. 99% of the men, including me, will be wearing rented tuxedos, you can tell because they won’t have chalk on them.

And if you miss the live stream of the event, it will be archived and available for viewing any time.

So please, give some recognition to the ceremony recognizing school people. It will trickle down to us eventually.


On the Road Learning

07/16/2013
Leaving the Delta

Leaving the Delta (Photo credit: joseph a)

I am writing this post from Birmingham, Alabama. I usually write from my home in the NYC suburbs. I’ve been on the road since July 1st, visiting the deep south, a part of the country I’ve never seen before. I’ve got five more days before I reintroduce myself to my wife, our son and our dog and sleep in my bed again.

The impetus for this trip was my acceptance into the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) workshop with the intriguing title “The Most Southern Place on Earth: Music, Culture and History in the Mississippi Delta. The workshop is held at Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi (Mississippi has to be the most fun-to-type word in the English language!).

I have visited Charlottesville, VA, Asheville, NC, Memphis, TN, and now Birmingham. Next stop in Knoxville, TN, then Richmond, VA before heading home.

I am learning an incredible amount, so much so that I’m having a hard time processing it all. I’ve toured Monticello, Graceland and William Faulkner’s house. I saw thousands of acres of corn, soybeans and rice growing in the Mississippi Delta where cotton was king for decades. I’ve been to art museums in Asheville and Birmingham, the Cotton Museum and the Stax Records museums in Memphis, and Vulcan Park in Birmingham. I stood on the balcony in Memphis where Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed and looked out at that balcony from the window next to the one the shooter used. I visited Fannie Lou Hamer’s gravesite, a Chinese cemetery, a Black cemetery, what may or may not be where Robert Johnson is buried and the likely crossroads at which he is alleged to have sold his soul to the devil so he could be a great blues guitarist.

I visited Po Monkey’s, the last rural juke joint in America and met Monkey, the farm hand who owns it. I listened to two musical lectures about the blues, then went to Red’s Lounge, a neighborhood blues club in Clarksdale, MS to hear the real thing.

I’ve tasted  baked catfish, fried catfish, fried sauerkraut, fried okra, fried pickles, koolikles – pickles marinated in cherry Koolaid, and more styles of BBQ ribs than I knew existed.

I visited one of the last Jewish synagogues in the Delta and met the man struggling to keep it alive. I saw the 16th St. Baptist Church where a bombing in 1963 took the lives of four young girls and spent a couple of hours touring the Civil Rights Institute across the street.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned:

Fried pickles are better than Koolaid pickles, but Koolaid pickles are better than you might imagine they are.

The Mississippi Delta is not only the most southern place on earth, it is also the flattest.

People in the south are, at least on the surface, much more friendly than those in NY. They are warm, gracious and generous.

Mississippi has more Black elected officials than any other state, but there are still those who would like the segregation laws reinstated.

Many cities in the south put a lot of effort into making their downtowns beautiful with parks, plantings, sculpture and the like. Memphis is not one of them.

When it rains in the south, it REALLY rains. I’ve driven through downpours where I would have pulled off the road if there had been somewhere to pull off, and I’ve walked through downpours where I could not see where my next step would take me.

My PLN (PRofessional Learning Network) was, once again, a great resource. I’ve had people show me around, recommend activities, suggest dining options and otherwise guide my travels.

The blues did not originate in Chicago, Memphis or anywhere between those two points.

I learned what a diddley bow is and how to make one. I am going to make one for my school library. I have no talent to play it, though.

Farming is hard work. So is steelmaking.

Independent bookstores are hanging in there in Asheville and in Oxford, Mississippi.

Asheville is very dog-friendly. It is also very gay-friendly. If there is a connection, it is called love.

Downtown ballparks are more fun than those not downtown. Memphis’s AutoZone Park is beautiful. I’m also going to games in Knoxville and Richmond, but those stadiums are not downtown.

During an ill-advised five-mile drive down a gravel road cutting through private farmland we saw a lot of corn plots labeled “experimental.” I’m not sure what those experiments are, but they may have produced large aggressive bugs that flew at 15-mph next to my car for almost three miles.

If Mississippi is in need of a state bird, I nominate the dragonfly. Dragonflies are cool and the Delta is the dragonfly capitol of the world.

Apparent;y the Delta State University bookstore never thought of placing their school’s mascot on a cook’s apron even though that would seem to be the perfect place to show off the “fighting okra.”

The south apparently does not believe in vegetables. The most common side dish with BBQ seems to be white bread, with french fries running a close second.

Grits get tiring after a while, but biscuits are a great excuse for having peppery sausage gravy.

I am sure that over time these superficial learnings and impressions will be augmented or replaced by deeper understandings. This will happen because I will have the time to process and reflect upon my experiences. But as I sit here in my hotel, with my stomach growling for dinner, I feel like what I am sure many of my students feel. Overwhelmed, tired, hungry and thirsty.

It is good to be reminded that our students need to be fed, to have their thirsts slaked, to have their own PLN to show them love and support, and to have time to process all that their sponge-like brains soak up.


I’ve been nominated for a Bammy Award

04/07/2013

Teachers have been under attack lately and reports say teacher morale is at an all-time low.

Bam Education Radio created the Bammy Awards for Education Excellence last year to help spread the word about the good, talented, hard-working child-centered people who work in education including janitors, superintendents, teachers, principals, school nurses, education professors, education commentators, education reporters and more.

The Bammy Award

The Bammy Award

The Bammy Awards are presented at a black-tie event in Washington, D.C. I was privileged to attend last year’s ceremony as one of a group of 25 bloggers representing the 100 selected for Educator Voice recognition. It was fun to see friends and colleagues all dressed up even if I never felt fully comfortable with the idea of the ceremony.

Educators are generally very hesitant, even loathe, to toot our own horns. We even tend to shy away from recognition by others. This has to change. We have to tell our own stories because no one else is going to do it for us.

I am nominated for a Bammy Award in the school librarian category. I’m honored and humbled, especially when I see the others nominated in the category. I hope you will take some time to read the nominations and cast votes in some of the categories.

Please help spread the word that there are some great educators out there who need some recognition and support.

Thank you.


The Question is Asked, the Conversation Begins

02/10/2013

It started with this question: Why aren’t our students making more progress?

One day late last week a third of the staff stayed more than two hours after school to discuss the possibility of our becoming a magnet school of sorts. The sort isn’t important, but the conversations about it are. horseshoe magnet

No one had asked that question before. We’d been told that we had to have our students make progress and we’ve been given a host of different programs to cause that to happen, but none of it was working.

In small groups we had serious conversations to answer that question. Among other ideas, each group mentioned a lack of student motivation as a major part of the problem. In response my principal said words that I never expected to come from his mouth, words I’d been saying and writing for a number of years. “The reason our students are not motivated is because school is not working for them.”

It’s not the students’ fault, he said, and not the teachers’ either.

“Students are not motivated because the way we do school, the structure of the day, the changing of classes at 42 minute intervals, isolation of subject areas from each other, none of it is working.”

For a moment it was silent. Then the conversations started. We talked about our own positive and negative experiences in school and why they occurred. We talked about how we’d change the structure of the day, the physical plant of the school, the curriculum.

Some were defensive, feeling that what they do and how they do it was under attack. We agreed that some kids thrive in the current mode of operation. Others were for change. There were even a couple who, like me, were ready to trash the system and start over.

We won’t get the opportunity to do that. And we may not win the $3,000,000 grant that would allow us to make a lot of changes and train ourselves on how to make them work. It’s not that the grant doesn’t matter, but one of the most important parts of the change has already occurred.

It happened when our principal asked that question and created an anything-goes safe zone in which we could explore answers.

Now that the conversation has started, it is up to us to keep it going.

We are the change that needs to happen.


A Few Thoughts on Gun Appreciation Day

01/20/2013
Winding Road Ahead

Winding Road Ahead (Photo credit: nathangibbs)

I’m writing about guns more than education these days. I wish I could feel I don’t have to.

The Second Amendment grants American citizens the right to bear arms. There might be some discussion about whether it’s a requirement that they be in a “well-regulated militia,” but I’ll concede for now that it isn’t.

The position many gun advocates and the National Rifle Association have taken is that there is no limit on the right of American citizens to bear arms.

But there are limits, and ones the NRA, probably supports.

Taken at its word the 2nd Amendment grants the right to own any kind of arms, even nuclear arms. Despite that, we have agreed as a society, with no dissent that I’m aware of, that private citizens should not own nuclear arms and have made it illegal to do so.

Unless I am mistaken (it has been known to happen frequently, according to my wife), it is also illegal for American citizens to own fully automatic weapons.

We have also decided that mentally ill people and convicted felons should not own arms. Our efforts to prevent those people from getting arms might not be particularly effective for any number of reasons, but that doesn’t change the intent.

Since there is some limit on the 2nd Amendment it is reasonable to ask if there might a need for other limits. The discussion we should be having as a nation is whether there are other limits we want to impose. There may not be, but not because the Second Amendment precludes it.

There may be very good reasons why additional gun restrictions are not a good idea, or there might be reasons for enacting some limits. I don’t know for sure. What I know is that a lot of children are getting killed by bullets fired from guns. I’m not talking about the mass murder in Connecticut or any other mass shooting. I am talking about the large number of children killed by bullets fired from guns every month all across the nation.

Universal mental health and criminal record checks before anyone can buy a gun should be a given. Any legitimate, sane, non-criminal gun purchaser should have nothing to fear from this, they will get their guns, eventually.

Guns should be secured when left at home, and that security should be robust. In a neighboring town two guns were stolen when the safe containing them was taken during a break-in. That safe either was not heavy enough or should have been bolted to the floor or some other strong anchor. Failure to secure weapons left at home should be a crime. That idea has nothing at all to do with the Second Amendment but might keep guns out of the hands of some criminals.

Some gun-owning friends say that laws allowing people to carry guns, concealed or openly, reduce crime. It is something that is very hard to prove, not because it may not be true but because it is very difficult to prove a negative effect.

Carry laws, whether concealed or open, might protect the individual carrying but will not prevent those scores of murdered children. I don’t know what will prevent those murders, but my instinct tells me that making it more difficult for everyone to get a gun might have some effect.

In all honesty, I am skeptical about the general safety of carry laws. Today, on Gun Appreciation Day, five people were shot accidentally at Gun Appreciation events, two of them at a safety checkpoint at a Gun Appreciation event.

That sort of thing does not inspire confidence that gun owners can be trusted to carry their guns safely.


Assessing Teachers: Almost Impossible

01/08/2013
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg opening ...

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg opening the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The mayor of New York City, an incredibly wealthy man named Michael Bloomberg, compared my union, the United Federation of Teachers to the National Rifle Association because we will not agree to a deeply flawed, poorly thought out system of rating teachers.

The mayor thinks what he wants and expresses himself in whatever way he chooses. No one need comment on his incredible statement because it speaks very loudly on its own about what kind of man is running New York City and the New York City schools.

But the mayor is right about one thing. My union is refusing to cave into his and the state’s demand that we accept a teacher-rating system that is largely based on student performance on standardized tests.

The NY Post reports that teachers who rate poorly on the current system are offered satisfactory final ratings if they resign. Teacher evaluations have always been political — one intent of all this testing is to eliminate subjective rating, but it just moves it into sleazier territory. What the City is saying, in essence, is we think you’re a bad teacher but we’ll tell some other district that you apply to that you’re an okay teacher and let them take their chances. Doubly dishonest, and this is what we model for our students.

The problem is, there is absolutely no way to rate the effectiveness teachers because the result of what we do or don’t do in the classroom is not readily apparent in any meaningful way for several years at best and by then it is impossible to tell what influence any one or collection of teachers had, as if it were ever possible.

In my life, all the really influential teachers retired or died before the fruits of their influence developed enough to become apparent to me, much less anyone else.

The problem is we’re educating for the long run and the powers that be keep trying to assess us on the short run.

It is like judging the health of a business based on its performance in one or two quarters. By that standard, Enron looked fantastic, just like all the slick no-credit-check mega-mortgages and the derivatives based on them. We all know how that turned out

If they really want us to teach for short-term student gains we all can do it, we know how, but that is not what our students need and most definitely is not what our society needs.

Just like in business, taking the long view might not work out as well for the current investors, but is often advantageous for the society as a whole.


Once More Into the Breech-loader

01/07/2013
English: New York City Police officers being d...

English: New York City Police officers being debriefed by their lieutenant (in the white shirt) in Times Square, May 29, 2010. Photo by Luigi Novi.

I didn’t plan to write about it again. I’d said my piece and I was going to let it go at that. Then I saw this slide show of politicians eager to arm teachers on the Huffington Post website and it made me think of these headlines.

Unarmed man shot dead by police in NYC

Police bullets hit 9 bystanders hurt near NYC landmark

Police: All Empire State shooting victims were wounded by officers

Former New York Police Captain Mistakenly Shoots, Kills Son

If trained policemen, who have almost unlimited opportunity to practice shooting can’t manage to use their guns safely, what on earth makes these politicians and all the other people advocating arming teachers or otherwise putting guns in school think that it will turn out well.

The NRA and other gun advocates often accuse people trying to limit the amount of fire power accessible by the average citizen of having knee-jerk over-reactions to instances of gun violence.

Perhaps, but that door swings both ways.

It is time to put our knees back in place and start reacting with our brains instead. Everyone has too much to lose if we can’t figure out how to let sport shooters and hunters have guns, even let the average citizen have a shotgun or six-shooter while also denying anyone but the military access to automatic weapons AND keep most of us safe from gun violence most of the time.


Keeping My Students Safe Isn’t Easy.

12/18/2012
Gun Library

Gun Library (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I want to keep my students safe, I really do, but it really is impossible.

When it comes to student and staff safety, there are so many things wrong with the way my school is built and run that I don’t know where to begin.

Our principal reminded the staff again this week that only the front door should be used for entrance and exit, so let’s start there.

It is unlocked. Anyone can walk up the three steps, open the door, and be in the building. Anyone. Delivery people, parents, job applicants, former students. Anyone. Why not a shooter?

Up three more steps and our shooter is in the lobby facing our security desk. Most of the time we have an unarmed but uniformed school security officer sitting there. Sometimes it is just a school aide. Guard or aide, he or she is the first victim.

sfAssuming someone hears those shots, the PA system will announce a lockdown. The speakers in the library aren’t so loud and if it is noisy (I don’t run one of those silent libraries) I may not hear the announcement. I usually have my door open and he library is the first room down the hallway you face while shooting the security guard.

At the start of a lockdown every teacher is supposed to lock our door(s), then herd our students away from the door and keep them quiet. To lock our doors we have to go out into the hallway, put a key in and turn it so the door locks, then go inside and move away from the door to where the students are. That’s right, there is no way to lock any classroom door from the inside.

Out in the hall, I will be the second person our shooter sees. It has been nice knowing you.

To protect my students and myself, some people are suggesting I, and other school staffers, should be armed. I’d need to get trained, and there are bullets that break into tiny harmless pieces if they don’t hit their target. How the bullets know that the kid or adult I actually shoot in error while trying to shoot the shooter isn’t my target and should remain harmless is beyond me, but science and technology have come so far so fast I might have missed that development.

The idea that teachers or administrators, aides or APs could shoot a shooter is a Rambo fantasy that pops up every time a school shooting occurs.

There’s fantasy; then there’s the more likely reality. The shooter enters the building and pops Sgt. Perez. He’s lost some weight lately but he’s still a pretty big target. If I have a gun, I rush out of the library, take aim, and fire. I hit the garbage bin in the lobby, or maybe the nurse rushing out of her office.

If two of us have guns, let’s say our most athletic assistant principal and I, we would shoot each other (accidentally, I’m sure) before we hit the rapidly moving shooter.

Guns in school are not the answer. We’re not going to shoot our way to safety.

None of us are Rambo.

John Rambo in Rambo.

No one is Rambo.

Rambo is fiction.

Lets start, instead, with keeping the front door locked, with everyone who wants to enter having to be checked via video before being allowed to enter. Let’s retrofit every door in the building so they can be locked from the inside.

Will that keep us safe?

Safer, perhaps.

It’s a start.


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