Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Magic of Miss KK

KK is "technically" our Media Specialist but, oh, so much more!
There are so many incredible folks that make Chets Creek tick but "Miss KK" is the magic.  Describing KK Cherney is like trying to catch stardust - it's impossible to put words to qualities that  are so elusive, so mysterious.  Eternally positive, she is the memory maker.

KK, the Book Fairy
I live in the area where I work, so I am often out in the neighborhood with my Chets Creek shirt or running errands right after school with my ID still attached, and I have often run into former Creekers out in the working world - often teens checking me out at Publix or Target!  They will look at my shirt or tag and say, "Oh, you work at Chets Creek.  I went to Chets Creek..." and the question that ALWAYS follows is, "Is 'Miss KK' still there?"  Then they go into some special memory that always has something to do with KK.  She's just one of those people that you never forget - a one-of-a-kind, a bigger-than-life, a once-in-a-lifetime.  Susan Phillips says that KK farts rainbows and sunshine! And honestly, it's true!

KK technically is our Media Specialist and when  she reads a story it just grabs you and takes you right into that book.  You live with her in that story until she lets you go.  She sprinkles her sparkly magic so that even the most reluctant reader embraces reading, just because "Miss KK said so."  However, as the years have passed, her role has evolved into more of a Tech Specialist, a role that I'm sure she never imagined, but she has graciously filled because of the need.  Her Media Center has become a revolving stage of Library and Tech Lab and goes up and down on a daily basis.  People don't always believe it, but Chets is extremely technically challenged with outdated infrastructure and hardware that would drive most faculties mad, except... we have KK.  She convinces people all over the county (and anywhere else she can find them) with her charm and savvy into helping us.  She piece meals and reworks and creatively manages an impossible system.  She wraps our frustrations in a bundle of creative possibilities, so that we don't self-destruct, and she usually manages it with a smile and an absolute can-do attitude.

KK lives her life with such abandonment.  She never hears the word "No" and she sincerely believes that anything is possible.  She is full of energy and enthusiasm - like the Energizer bunny - embracing both whimsy and real determination.  She embraces life with a passion that is unsurpassed.  She is driven by a spiritual, a moral compass.  She's never met a stranger and has no inhabitations about stepping right up and talking to anyone, anywhere - doesn't really matter who they are or where she is!  When you go anywhere with KK, you realize that she knows EVERYBODY and she can work a room better than any politician that I have ever met!  She makes friends so easily and somehow just magically goes right to a person's heart and grabs it. People that meet KK never forget her!

KK as "Peaceful Waters" in the PowWow teepee
making memories with the talking stick. 
If you've ever been there, you never forget!

The indomitable Miss KK is the person that brings the theme alive each year at the Creek - whether it is the magical Land of Oz or the comical circus, she's the one that brings the vision to life in our lobby and in the Media Center and, really, throughout the entire building.  She's the one that provides  the over-the-top WOW events for our children and brings authors that we never imagined meeting, right into our lives. When you go to her about a simple idea, she suddenly dreams it into a major event.  One year we told her we were going to have a space-themed day in first grade and the next thing we knew she had storm troopers escorting us in a parade and a man-made planetarium that first graders climbed into so they could watch the night stars!  Another time we told her we needed a center for PowWow and she imagined a life sized teepee that has become a tradition that represents the epitome of Chets Creek life.  I could go on and on about how KK brings life to every event at our school, every single day, but there is so much more to KK than her bigger-than-life personality and ideas.

Children just can't take their eyes off  KK!
KK has a heart that is bigger than anyone can imagine.  She feels so deeply for children and just like with adults, she goes right for the heart.  Children trust her.  They love her.  They are mesmerized by her, and they are changed forever when they meet her.  There is not a faculty child that has ever been to Chets or that returns to Chets that doesn't make a beeline to see Miss KK.  And KK is just as glad to see them.  She embraces and hugs and asks about every single thing they have done since she saw them last, like she has nothing else in this world to do but listen to them. She believes in them and they know it.  They feel her warmth, her soul, and her pure love.   KK is just that memorable to every student at Chets, but to students that struggle.... she is the magic that heals them.  She has taken so many of our babies that struggle academically or that struggle with family life or that struggle with friends - children that are hurting, scared, needy - and turned their lives around.  They talk to her and tell her things they wouldn't tell another soul.  They just know she can help and she does.  I tell you, she is magic!

If I could ask for anything in this world, it would be that every single child could go to a school where they could experience at least one relationship during their school life with an adult like KK.  Every single child deserves to feel the oozing of  love, trust, security and safety that KK provides to our children at Chets.  I don't know how we got so lucky to have KK as one of our founding teachers, but maybe that is because she was part of the vision of what Chets was to become from the very beginning (Thank you Dr. Stahlman!)  It's always been about taking risks and about relationships that produce radical results.  We are blessed indeed!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

CCE Fights Hunger!

During this season when we are trying to teach our children that giving can be better than getting, Chets teachers walked the talk.  About 60 members of the staff gathered after school with their families and some of our Extended Day children and packed 10,000 meals for hungry families through the Fight Hunger organization.  All of these meals will be donated to under served families in our community which will include the families in our own school attendance area.  Thank you Jamie Klicker for suggesting this project during this season!
Hair nets are a stylish accessory!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


As I was cleaning out some cobwebs in my own mind, preparing for my final opportunity to express some things I want to say, I uncovered several thoughts that have been forming in my mind over the years.  Thoughts are like files.  Some I have been through and used extensively and some I file and never fully develop, so that seed of an idea just languishes in the file over the years, waiting... Now I'm shaking the dust off those seeds so that I can develop these final thoughts.

One thing that pops up again and again throughout the files in my head as I think about my school career, is leadership.  I guess the reason that it is such a recurring theme is because the foundation of a school rests on the leadership of that school.  A school fails or succeeds depending on the direction and guidance of the person in charge.  While in many schools that can be a team, the direction and the strength of successful schools is always equal to the strength of the single leader.
Three powerful leaders stand out for me in my last twenty or so years in Duval County.

The first, I found by accident.  I stayed home after my second child was born.  I just couldn't seem to balance the demands of being a new mom for the second time and the demands of my job, so... I made a choice.  I chose to be a full time mommy. It wasn't a choice that my husband and I planned for so the financial stress was real (the gain in my personal life was pretty real too!), but it was just one of those decisions in life you know in your core is right.  When Courtney was school age, I knew the time was right to return to work, but if I am honest, my heart was not in it.  I decided to go only to the school where my daughter would be entering kindergarten because I thought if she and I went to school together that I wouldn't have to leave a piece of my heart every time I walked out the door.  Alimacani Elementary, a brand new school, was our neighborhood school, so... I dropped off my resume.  They were very courteous but said, "Don't call us.  We'll call you." They were fully staffed for their inaugural year well before I considered returning to teaching...
With Donna Hulsey, circa 1992

I figured that was that, but God has a way of changing reality... and during the summer, I was offered a job at the last minute when a pregnant teacher of preschool handicapped children was ordered to bed rest.  So there I was - my first job in a long while - at my daughter's school.  My principal was Donna Hulsey.  I knew nothing about Mrs. Hulsey at the time, but I quickly found out that she was a rising superstar with a stellar reputation in Duval County. She was a true visionary who was charming and overflowed with charisma.  Teachers had flocked to interview with her and she had the opportunity to pick the very best. Donna  hired a corral of very high acievers to meet her very high expectations.  What an exciting opening and thrilling beginning... During the Hulsey years at Alimacani, the school won every award and became an icon in our county.  What was so inspirational about Donna was that she had such heart for children and she reminded me of all the reasons I had become a teacher in the first place.  She put me back in touch with my dreams, my personal mission and my desire to make a difference. She reminded me of the dedication, the commitment and the passion that was inside me. She modeled the patriotism that had always been a part of my heart and the professionalism that was a natural part of my makeup, She made me a better person as she was a role model for integrity, character, and class.

Interestingly enough she mentored the next inspiring leader that would enter my life, Dr. Terri Stahlman.  Dr. Stahlman founded Chets Creek Elementary, where I still teach today. When I could have rested and retired at Alimacani, she enticed me with an opportunity to join a young, energetic faculty and a school that had the most advanced professional development in our area. She was a creative, out-of-the-box thinker.  I'm a risk-taker so she became the perfect conduit to help me live beyond anything I had ever imagined I could be.  Terri is energetic, dreams big and has the charisma of a movie star.  She inspires with her words and her actions and is simply bigger than life.  She reacts quickly and fiercely.  She's irreverent, disarmingly direct and candid, and wrapped in a package of both vulnerability and strength at the same time.  In her six short years, Chets became a flagship for a new school reform.  She built a foundation and a philosophy that is as much a part of our story today as it was when she first shared her vision.  She is a true visionary.  She is the one that said to me, "We are blessed and when you are blessed, you have the moral and ethical responsibility to share what you learn."  It's a creed that I have lived by as a coach and as a teacher.  I still love being in Terri's company.  She makes me laugh and reminds me that even when life is sometimes filled with heartbreak, it can also be full of joy.
With  Dr. Terri Stahlman and Susan Phillips at the Eddy Awards, 2003.  I was introduced that night by precious kindergartners, Tanner Stahlman and Miller Phillps.  They stole the show!
And as the circle goes, Terri mentored the baby teacher who grew into the principalship  and has now been my leader for over a decade.  Susan Phillips is young enough to be my daughter.  We share a small South Carolina, somewhat redneck, heritage and the same name (her maiden name is Timmons) although we're not related - to our knowledge - although you never know in SC!  Susan took a high performing school... and maintained (sometimes harder that establishing excellence in the first place!)  She has always had an older and wiser soul beyond her years and even though she was one of the youngest principals in Duval County, her youth and energy were part of the excitement as the school founder passed the torch to this new generation leader.  In times of crisis, Susan has stepped up with honest emotion and creative thinking. She is quick, witty, has a phenomenal memory, is loyal to the end, would never divulge a confidence, and believes in having fun (she also likes weird music - I think it's a generational thing!)  While she may first have a knee-jerk reaction, she thinks before she acts and always responds thoughtfully... and she is rarely wrong.   She has guided us on a steady and sure course through five superintendents and dozens of new curriculum and initiatives without losing our way.  Things all around us have been politically, educationally volatile over the years (one year Susan had  five different direct supervisors!), but Chets Creek has stayed the course, fighting for the same tenets of rigor, relationships and results that were part of our founding principles.  Susan fights the good fight.  She cares deeply about the children (and families) in her care and the people that work in her building... and they all know it! As long as Susan is at the helm of Chets, it will continue its arrow straight mark of excellence.

Each of these women have made schools stronger because they have been at the helm.  They have been visionaries guided by a moral compass. I have never underestimated the power of the principal behind a successful school.  To have had three such inspirational women during my career is a gift beyond words and one that I cherish every day.  May they each continue to inspire and to show those of us who follow, the way.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Grinch Comes to Chets

I have often been called a Pollyanna, because I usually see the glass half full.   It's true that I have spent most of my professional life climbing mountains and basking in the view on the mountaintop, but this week I seem to be spending my days walking in the Valley of Discontent.  I haven't spent much of my time here over the past fifteen years because I teach at a school where teachers are mostly sheltered from politics, and the focus at Chets has been on living in a state of gratitude, striving for continual self-improvement with a mantra of children first.  It's not just an idea.  It's the culture.  It's a lifestyle.

After Thanksgiving we come back to three weeks before the winter holiday.  I usually love December's short month.  It is usually a time of holiday joy and good cheer.  We have a hilariously fun Book Exchange and enjoy the "Twelve Days of Cookies." Classes prepare a "Season of Giving" project so they can practice giving instead of just getting.   Holiday music can be heard in the hallways and 2nd graders prepare a holiday play for all to enjoy. Teachers finish up units of study and make sure they have a handle on where the children are before they leave and make goals for what they want to accomplish in the new year.  You can watch the children's hearts leap with excitement as we move closer to the break and their eyes begin to twinkle... except this year...   This year is different.  This year the Grinch came to Chets Creek... in the form of TESTING!

This type of mandated over testing (in Reading, Writing, Math AND Science!)  is like a suffocating fog that so masks the view that it is hard to see anything clearly.  It's just too much for the children.  Even Rudolph's bright red nose couldn't light the way through this clog of frustration.  Changing the name to "scrimmages"  is just putting a wolf in sheep's clothing!  It's still TESTING and in its worst form!  The idea to get some data so that we are ready to hit the ground running when we come back in the new year seems like such a good idea... In fact, it's one we have embraced for years.  It's one we prepare for way in advance at the school level,  but this year the county's new mandated implementation has been short sighted, last minute and disorganized. A perfect dream may start at the top but as it reaches the reality at the bottom, it's more like the perfect storm. I could go on and on and on and on... about all the problems, but it wouldn't solve anything now.  The worst part is that we have wasted one of the most beautiful times of the year with our children and this time can't be made up. It's gone forever...

We will continue testing through early next week, because we have no choice.  Wonder how many children are really going to have writing prompts, numbers and science experiments in their heads next week instead of the sugarplums that are usually dancing this time of year? We will NOT let the Grinch steal the joy of this Christmas season! Of course,  we have to work with that which we cannot change, but some way, some how we still have to make these last days special for the children we care about so much.  Maybe it's the rigor of our commitment to children and the accountability of our love that is really being tested... Hmmmmmm...

P.S. - A few days after this blog was posted, second grade teacher Christy Constande pulled some of the K-1-2 teachers together.  Since they had not been effected by the testing, she suggested that they each take a 3-4-5 class and do something holiday-ish for our students that had missed so much of the holiday joy because of testing... Every single primary class adopted an intermediate class!  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why this IS the greatest school on earth!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Asher Effect

I first met Asher when his mom came with her thick notebook, professional dress, and can-do attitude for a meeting.  Asher was new in our class.  It  was kindergarten and she came to introduce herself to her son's new kinder teachers, Randi Timmons and Tracy Ruark.  I was the Special Education teacher.  We knew, of course, that Asher was a child with autism because his mom, Tia, had made sure that we had the facts before he came the first day.  I asked Randi what she remembered about Tia in that first meeting, and she said it better than I ever could.... "I remember her depth of knowledge, appreciation, and awareness of how gifted her son was.  I remember her aura that demanded respect, not in a prideful way, but in a mama bear sort of  way.  It was obvious from the very beginning that she would settle for nothing less than our very best and that she had a non-smothering kind of love for her child.  And he loved his momma.  He always knew that she was his biggest fan."

Tia was also very astute in dealing with teachers.  She never threatened, but we definitely knew that she had great expectations for us and our relationship with her son.  She was also always willing to do her part.  We also knew that she knew the law, although she never actually said it, and that she would fight for him if she had to.  She never had to...  It's quite a balancing act of respecting and appreciating teachers and yet making sure that your child's needs are met, and she walked that line better than any parent I have ever worked with.

When I asked Randi what she remembered about Asher that first year she said the thing that first struck her was that when you looked into Asher's eyes, it was as if it was a window into his soul.   She remembered his crooked little smile, and how silly and quietly funny he was.  He was such a jokester with a dry, spot-on type of humor. I won't lie - those first few weeks were a little rough. Change is never easy and often difficult for children with autism.  Asher self- stimmed with his fingers in front of his eyes when he had had all he could take of us and just needed a break from all the commotion... but then he would answer a question in the middle of instruction and we would be blown away. No way he was paying attention!  He engaged in ways that both surprised and amazed us.  He had "meltdowns" when he got overwhelmed, but he also became a class favorite and never left a day without making us smile.

Asher, 1st grader, has always been a class favorite.
We knew from the beginning that Asher needed additional services in social skills so we suggested an outside agency.  Mom went right to work and Cliff arrived.  Cliff is an enlightened therapist that often came into the classroom to observe.  He took our suggestions and often offered suggestions of his own that worked for him in his small groups with Asher at the Center.  We have been so fortunate that Cliff has remained with Asher for all of these elementary years.  He is that extra piece that makes such a difference in it all working together.

Asher, 2nd grader
As time went on, Asher flourished in so many ways.  Tia checked in regularly and made sure that all was right in Asher's world.  She was always just a phone call away.  He knew it and we knew it.  Her questions and suggestions were always helpful and spot-on.  Her genuine concern for Asher and for the other students in the class was always so real and so heartfelt.  She never had unreasonable expectations and she was always willing to follow through with your suggestions for Asher.  There was a respect between us that always made us feel like we had a true partnership. At the end of first grade Asher was selected as the "Soaring Eagle," the child in that final nine weeks who has made the most gain.  He was a popular, unanimous choice by teachers and students. 
Asher, the 3rd grade jokester, has a contagious laugh.
Asher is now a 4th grader and his adorable little sister, Ava, has joined our Chets Creek family.  The thing about Asher that I was totally unprepared for was how much I would fall in love with him.  There is just something about him that just grabs your heart and won't let go.  There is something about Tia's faith and tenacity that attracts and mesmerizes you, so when she decided to start a foundation "For Asher's Sake" as a way to give back, all of those of us that have been touched by Asher wanted to get involved.  Tia didn't ask us to buy shirts to support Asher.  We asked her if she would have shirts made for us to buy so that we could show our support for Asher and for her efforts.  We believe in her and we believe that she has the unique experience and attitude to make a real difference in the autism community, in the lives of families with autistic members, and in life, in general.

I have no idea what Asher's future will hold, but I don't worry about him like I do so many of my other students, because Tia will make sure that this story has a happy ending.    There is no question that each of us is better for having known Asher .  It's simply a love story...
Asher today with his delightful and committed family.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Other People Who Inspire

I have written about the "stories" of people at Chets Creek who inspire me every day.  I am fortunate to be surrounded by incredible people whose lives impact my heart. I have still another group that have touched me and all of our school community is such special ways...

Liz works with families
Liz Duncan is a National Board Certified Special Education teacher at Chets Creek with a strong moral compass.  Even though she cares about teaching, she cares even more about doing the right thing for the children whose lives touch hers.  Her own personal mission collided with our school mission when several years ago our school recognized an under served population of children in our attendance area.  Our leadership team made a conscious decision to make a difference in the lives of the children in that specific area.  We met with the community's home  owners and agreed on a small space where we could offer tutoring free of service in the community.  Teachers volunteer their time for tutoring.  Of course, as we began to tutor we began to meet families every week bringing and picking up their kids. It didn't take long to realize that the need was so much more than tutoring.  We began to help with small projects (covering windows with plastic to keep out the cold, power washing homes, delivering food, looking for English classes for second language adults, providing clothes and household furniture and goods...), but it was soon evident that we needed a more comprehensive plan to meet the need.  Liz led our efforts and soon worked through church contacts (Beach Church and the Church of Eleven 22) to reach the McKenzie Noelle Wilson Foundation.  They agreed to become partners in funding a comprehensive program within that community. While that in and of itself is remarkable, it's not the end of the story.  It was just the beginning.

The MARC serves Chets students.
Soon it was evident that the program had grown into more than we had imagined and the Wilson Foundation was interested in using the model for city wide expansion.  We needed a teacher liaison to act as our school go-between to make this massive dream come true.  None of us knew if this would work or what a job like this would look like. What would it pay? Would the job have benefits? Could the county negotiate a contract with a non-profit? Even with all the uncertainty Liz was willing to step out in faith and say, "I'm willing. Use me."  Who does that?  Obviously someone who cares deeply and is so committed that she actively listened for the call and then acted.  Certainly, as expected, there have been bumps in the road as the program has grown and changed. but when I think of the children and families that have been helped, whose lives have been changed, it humbles me deeply.  Somewhere along the way Liz even opened her home to "angel baby," a child who needed a family that is with her still. The MARC (McKenzie Academic Resource Center) is an example of full service comprehension programming through a grass roots effort, the dream of a small group of educators to make a difference in the lives of the children that sit in their classrooms.  Liz so inspires me because she wasn't content to sit around and just talk about the need.  She stepped up. She saw the need, and she responded.

We wore purple t-shirts all year to support Miss Pat.
Miss Pat and Ralph Thomas are also part of our Chets family.  They inspire us all.  Ralph is a 70-year old custodian at Chets and is an Amazon of a man who affectionately high fives every kid he sees.  His wife, Miss Pat, is our head custodian.  They came to us after escaping the flooding of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.  They lost everything.  As if one tragedy in a lifetime isn't enough, last year Miss Pat was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer... What I expected was gloom and doom but what I saw was a woman with a smile and an extra skip in her step.  Even on her worst days, she was at school smiling and even dancing her way through the hallways. Check out the faculty's video to lift her spirits. We wroe purple shirts all year to honor Ms. Pat and to remind her to "let the good times roll!" She is now cancer free but she has taught me that when you have faith, nothing, and I do mean nothing, can really keep you down.  She knows that attitude is simply a choice you choose each day. The children (and adults!) in our building know her and love her and have her remarkable example to emulate.  I am so much better because I have watched Miss Pat live her daily life and face her trials with joyous faith and thansgiving.

Karen Morris is another of the remarkable people that call Chets Creek home.  She is a second grade, second career teacher who co-teaches with... her sister!  Together they are two of the most gracious women that I know.  They are always thoughtful and the first to volunteer if there is someone in need.  I have watched them with awe and learn from their example every day.  What I love about Karen is that she saw a need in our school and a way to meet the need and then did something about it.  As a teacher you can't help but notice when a child outgrows his clothes, when the pants are a little too high and the long sleeves barely cover the elbows, when clothes begin to fade and have rips and tears that go unmended.  You know when you have to glue the soles together of a child's tennis shoes that these are often signs that a family is stressed.  Maybe the crisis is temporary or maybe it is chronic, but nonetheless, the child is in need. He can't really learn while he is carrying such a heavy burden. As those things happen, teachers at our school, on a very regular basis go out and buy clothes for needy children or go through their own child's closet to find clothes that no longer fit or sometimes put the word out to other colleagues with kids about the same size.

2015 Clothes Drive at Chets Creek
But Karen decided to do more than just hit and miss.  Instead she decided to organize an annual clothes drive.  Children all grow out of their clothes and often the clothes are still in very good condition, so why not gather all those clothes together in an organized fashion and then redistribute the clothes, allowing families at Chets to come and get what they need? That's exactly what Karen began to do several years ago.  Once a year she organizes a week long clothes drive that ends with a Saturday shopping day.  Karen has corralled  a faithful group of friends and PTA volunteers to sort through all the donated clothes (no small task) and to be there on Saturday. On Saturday morning every table in our over-sized Dining Room is loaded with clothes, divided by size and gender.  There is even a section for household goods and books.  The line of those waiting is out the door!  What I love about Karen is that she didn't just see a problem, but she did something about it that has bettered the lives of so many.

I am sure in every school there are people like these who walk the talk, people who live their lives in such a way that you are somewhat in awe.  Don't get me wrong, they are not perfect people who have perfect lives, and they would be the first to tell you that, but they are people who choose to live their lives with integrity and in service to others.  Can we ask for better role models for our children?

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Holiday Book Exchange

Sarah Hawes' Christmas tree, fireplace and snow globe!
Each year the Reading Council hosts a Holiday Book Exchange.  They provide the food and hot chocolate.  Teachers are invited to come in their tacky holiday sweaters and bring a new holiday book in a gift bag.  Sarah Hawas, on the left, is our annual Tacky Sweater Winner for her creative and fun sweaters through the years. The event has become very popular and this year we had about 60 teachers participate.  One of the reasons that it is so popular is that Susan Phillips, our fearless leader, decided the exchange was going to be a Chinese gift exchange and she writes the rules (and the rules sometimes change!)  It is hilarious fun!  Each teacher gets a number as she comes into the room with the books in their festive bags in the front of the room.  Beginning with number 1, that teacher chooses a bag.  Then the next teacher can either steal that book or choose a new book.  The most coveted number is #1 because that teacher gets to choose the first book and then at the end after all the books have been unveiled, gets to make a final choice.  The exchange continues and by the time we get to about number 20, popular books can get stolen many, many times.  Susan does have a "3 rule:" Once a book has been stolen three times, it is dead and belongs to the holder of the book at that time.  The good news is that you usually get a book that you like.  Most teachers are trying to add to their class library and some are adding to their person family library. 

After steals and being stolen from, I ended up with the delightful and new (2015 copyright) How to Catch Santa, which will be a gift to my newest grandson. Pete the Cat Saves Christmas was another popular choice this year, but it is the fun that brings the teachers.  In this busy, busy season, it's just a nice bit of fun to add to the festive spirit and one of those traditions that you just don't want to miss.

People Who Inspire

Within a school community, there are always "stories."  You know, stories of people that you teach with that have this incredible, sometimes surprising, life outside of school and although it's something totally outside of the school day, it impacts you - often affecting your heart the most.  These are not perfect people with perfect lives but imperfect people who take the hand that they have been dealt and make a conscious decision to play that hand to the best of their ability. We have those kinds of insprational people at Chets.

The first that comes to mind is Elizabeth Conte.  Elizabeth began her teaching career at Chets.  While she was working on a Masters degree in Education she began working at Chets as a para and then walked seamlessly into a teaching position.  She was one of those teachers that just had "the gift," and you knew it as soon as you watched her teach the very first time.  Through the years our school community watched as she fell in love and got married, and then her first child, a son, Charlie, was born.  Soon precious Kate was born.  It was soon apparent that Kate was struggling with some medical issues and to make a long story short, she was diagnosed with myotonic dystrophy, which is a rare genetic form of muscular dystrophy. After being initially devastated by the news, Elizabeth and her husband, Dave decided to do something.  They knew that research was the only way to improve Kate's future and so they have dedicated themselves to their foundation, Promise to Kate, that raises money for research and supports our local Children's Hospital, a facility that hosts Kate all too often.  Elizabeth has returned to teaching as a Special Education teacher.  Kate is now a first grader at Chets so their story is a roller coaster ingrained in our everyday life.  When I look at Elizabeth, I see tireless determination and pure inspiration. She doesn't consider herself a hero, but to me, and to so many others, she makes me want to work harder and to be better every single day.
The Conte Family

Then there's Lori Linkous.  Her son Connor grew up at Chets.  Before he came to us he had brain tumors that required surgery and chemotherapy.  Lori was an ever-present parent volunteer as Connor entered school.  She eventually took a job in the front office (if you spend enough time as a volunteer at Chets we eventually figure out that you need a paying position!)  and, as the years went by,  Connor graduated from Chets and now attends college.  Somewhere during those years, Connor was diagnosed with Neurofibromatosis (NF) which is a genetically inherited condition that leads to the high possibility of tumor formation. Lori and her husband, Ken, have slowly embraced Connor's diagnosis and have recently begun to sponsored an annual run to raise money for research.  Lori has always been Connor's advocate but now all of the family have become advocates for a better life for people with NF. Watching Lori each day as she worries and then calms those fears to move steadily forward is another role model for living life in the face of an uncertain future.  The Linkous' are such a close knit family and you watch as they depend on each other and stand with hands clasped together to face anything that may come.  They have refused to let their circumstances limit the possibilities and have decided instead to commit themselves to making a difference in the lives of others.
Chets supports Lori and the NF Run to raise money for research.
Then there's Lauren Skipper.  Lauren's story is little different.  Oh, it's the same in the fact that she started her career at Chets.  She was another gifted beginning teacher, always strong and determined.  She did things well from the very first moment she walked through the doors of Chets Creek.  We watched her fall in love, marry, and have two beautiful children.  Her son has now graduated to middle school and her precious daughter remains with us at Chets.  After teaching K-1 for several years, becoming National Board Certified, getting her gifted certification and then dropping back to part-time work, this year she is a stay-at-home mom.  Lauren could just relax, get her nails done and luncheon with friends, but that's not really Lauren's style.  She's a doer, a leader.  She decided to start a "Blessings in a Backpack" program at Chets several years ago, after seeing the need in the families in her class.  Lots of folks think Chets is a "country club" school because a country club is our closest neighbor, but the fact is that almost 30% of our population includes students who are on free and reduced lunch.  In a school of 1300 that means that we have a sizable number of families (a school within a school) who struggle to make ends meet.  The "Blessings-in-a-Backpack" program is meant to tide those students over through the weekend.  A bag of food is sent home each Friday to make sure there is a little extra to eat.  Not only does Lauren make sure there is enough money to buy food or donations of the food itself, but she also makes sure that there are adults to pack and deliver the bags.  She has elicited her own dad and some of his retired friends to help with the packing and delivering.  Lauren reminds me that we can each do something meaningful to make a difference in our school community and that we have a moral responsibility to use our gifts and talents for service.  On a personal basis she inspires me to think about how I can make a difference, not only now, but as I face my own retirement from teaching.
Lauren was recently named CCE "Volunteer of the Year"
So I guess the point of this blog is that if you look around your school. just like mine, you too will find people with such inspiring stories who make our lives better just by being there. And don't think these are the only folks like this at Chets... I could make this a running column because when I look around there are people who are role models for living joyful, courageous, heroic lives everywhere.

And... if you're looking for an end-of-the-year tax donation, I know of three perfect places to invest your money!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Thankful Traditions

As I watched the colorful kindergartners dressed in Native American attire parade into Pow Wow with their tribes, I was overwhelmed with the rainbow of colors, happy faces and memories.   One of the things I have always loved about the Creek is the way tradition and family weave into the tapestry of a Creeker's life.
Chief Spotted Horse and Chief Jumping Frog
As I looked to the podium, there stood JJ Brown in her first year as our Chets Creek Vice Principal.  She has been a longtime kindergarten teacher at the Creek, so she has led many of her own tribes through the Pow Wow tradition and both of her own older girls. Today, however, she looked at Pow Wow through new eyes, those of an administrator, and took her place beside Chief Jumping Frog (Principal Susan Phillips) as Chief Spotted Horse.  JJ's mom, Beverly Jackson, retired teacher and guidance counselor stood quietly behind JJ.  Beverly was just named Chets Creek's Senior Volunteer of the Year. Not surprising, she worked with the Resource teachers today to provide one of the storytelling stations after the big Pow Wow event. When you work at Chets Creek, it's literally all about family and it's not unusual for generations of families to be involved.

Beverly Jackson, JJ's mom and CC Volunteer of the Year
Susan Phillips, Tanner Stahlman,  JJ Brown
Another example of continued family commitment was evident with the Stahlman family. Dr. Terri Stahlman, the founding principal of Chets, known as Chief Soaring Eagle to kindergartners, presided over the inaugural Chets Creek Pow Wow. Before she left Chets Creek, her son, Tanner, entered kindergarten at the Creek, celebrating his first Pow Wow with his mom as  part of the mighty Nootka tribe.  Today, Tanner who is employed in our Extended Day program while he attends college, was in full Native American garb, ready to welcome families to this 17th annual Pow Wow.  Wonder if he was thinking what so many of us were thinking - from a tiny Nootka to a full fledged Chief right before our eyes!

Chip Boyd honoring his father
And still another emotional family connection... JB Boyd was a beloved volunteer at Chets Creek from the moment the doors opened.  He stayed on even after his children left elementary school, which is not unusual.  JB could do anything and for years he was here every day working with KK Cherney in the Media Center.  Three years ago he lost his fight for life, but his hand is on so many of the things that we love about Chets Creek.  When KK dreamed about a full sized tepee in the middle of our kindergarten playground to represent all of the different original native homes that we studied, JB sewed all the pieces and rigged a design to make it come to life.  Chris Phillips, husband of current Principal Susan Phillips, designed the metal piece that intertwines all the pieces of rope and canvas for erecting the tepee.  On the morning of Pow Wow each year the tepee goes up and then comes down at the end of the day.  What happens inside that tepee is sheer "KK" magic.  JB also played the part of Chief Chets Creek for many years dancing through the kindergarten tribes at the Pow Wow celebration.  Today, his very talented son, Chip Boyd,who  is a professional dancer, flew in so he could help erect the tepee in his Dad's memory and then donned his Daddy's Native American costume.  He followed in his father's footsteps as he danced the steps that his father had once danced through this new generation of kinders. Brought tears to the eyes of so many as they realized the significance and history of that dance and dancer.
Chip Boyd dances in the footprints of his father, JB Boyd.
This entire tradition of honoring First Americans at Thanksgiving is so full of history. At Chets Creek we have tried to look authentically at that history.  Although our presentation may not be perfect, our effort to honor those First Americans that first inhabited our land is heartfelt... as are the memories that we offer our children through this process.   May the traditions continue through the generations... with deep thanksgiving...

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Pow Wow Memories

Preschooler Courtney Timmons (Bogard)
My very first Pow Wow was with my daughter, Courtney, when she was a preschooler.  She and her sweet little friends sang songs around a paper campfire about "Indians" and prayed with thanksgiving for all their blessings. Parents were invited to join them for a feast that included a paper bag folded into the shape of a turkey.  When it was "carved," the children were delighted to see that it was stuffed with popcorn!

Preschoolers at Alimacni Elementary School

The very next year, in the inaugural year of Alimacani Elementary School, Courtney danced into the courtyard with her kindergarten tribe (led by Linda Zeiler) as  I led my own tribe of preschoolers to celebrate the first Alimacani Pow Wow. As I recall we honored Chief Alimacani at that celebration and each Pow Wow afterwards, as he had once walked on the very ground where the school and children  now stood.   I continued to celebrate Pow Wow with my preschoolers each year as Courtney marched through her years of elementary life.  She graduated to middle school and after a total of ten years, and ten memorable Pow Wows, I moved to Chets Creek... and so did the Pow Wow!

Pow Wow came to Chets Creek with that cute and perky Kindergarten Lead Teacher (surplussed from Alimacani to Chets Creek) Susan Phillips. Susan, Chief Jumping Frog (named after her collection of frogs during the Alimacani multi-track years when her kindergarten class "jumped" from class to class every three weeks!) now leads Chets Creek as its Principal. She brought Pow Wow with her to this new school of Creekers and thus began one of our most endearing traditions.

Chief Jumping Frog and Peaceful Waters
Of course, Creeker teachers weren't satisfied with the traditional generic Pow Wow and so at the insistence of a music teacher, Dan Smith, they began to research and develop more authentic tribes and attire, songs and dances.  In the midst of all that authenticity two of my favorite Native Americans emerged, my daughter-in-law and kindergarten teacher Randi Timmons of the Mighty Iroquois Nation and my sweet granddaughter, Kallyn, of the peaceful Lenape tribe. That's a very special memory!
Randi Timmons and Kallyn

Our beloved JB getting ready to raise the tepee.
What has evolved over the years is a crowning traditional event at Chets Creek that includes a study of traditional music and foods and even a tepee that rises like a phoenix on the eve of Pow Wow thanks to the genius of our beloved James Boyd and KK Cherney and all of her tribe of workers.  Each kinder tribe has the opportunity during the Pow Wow day to spend some time in the tepee with the master storyteller, Peaceful Waters (aka "Miss KK") as she weaves her story of the Three Sisters.  She then passes the "talking stick" and gives each child and adult the opportunity to tell the group why they are thankful.  There are always tears and it's usually an adult who is hit by the pure innocence and raw honesty of the children. One of the most special times for me is the opportunity at the end of the day for the Leadership Team to lay under the tepee and think about our own blessings - and they are many.
Leadership Team counting their blessings inside the tepee.
This year I will be watching Pow Wow with fifth graders who will have their own memories of being a kindergarten Native American to fill their minds as they hear the music and watch the excitement... and as they realize that this is the last Pow Wow that they will experience at Chets Creek.  Last year's K-1 class was my final year with a tribe of kindergarten First Americans - Wise Woman of the Mighty Iroquois Nation,
The Mighty Iroquois Nation
but the snapshots of Pow Wows will live with me forever in my memory.  And each year as we approach Thanksgiving, not only will I be counting my blessings but I will be thinking of the new crop of little kindergartners who will have this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  After all that is what the Chets Creek experience is all about.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Board Walk

One of the well-organized boards that my group discussed
I have written about standard-based bulletin boards often at this site.  Over the summer I was most distressed when our Union negotiated that schools would no longer be required to do standard-based bulletin boards as a step toward paper-reduction.  I am thankful that as the year began our school's Shared Decision Making group voted to continue with the bulletin boards.  I have always thought that the boards are such a great opportunity for self-reflection, for looking at alignment and a way for teachers to look at student work, really reflecting on what the students did and how they did it.  It is a window into the instruction that is going on in the classroom.  How appropriate that our school would vote to continue a practice that is time-consuming but that they see value.

To honor that work and time they put into SBBB, teachers have often reflected that if they are going to put the work into the boards, they would like to know that someone is reading them and they would like some constructive feedback.  So... at Early Release this week, we did just that.  Our faculty went on a "board walk."  Teachers were assigned to a group of three and were given a list of three boards to visit in a certain order so groups were not on top of each other.  One teacher was assigned to capture the conversation on a chart that asked for comments/compliments, wonderings, and next steps.

As I joined my group (which was all teachers teaching different grade levels) I overheard several teachers in other groups wondering how their boards would be received by the group that was reviewing it. Hmmmm...  As we approached each board we looked for a title, standard, a description of the task, 3-4 pieces of student work and commentary on the student work.  Of course, many of the boards had extras such as pictures of the students whose work was displayed, photos of other students in the classroom involved in the same work, artwork in borders and surrounding the boards, rubrics, etc.

One of the things that hit me immediately is how a well organized board is so much easier to read and understand.  Seems obvious, I guess, but sometimes it was hard to see which commentary went with which piece of student work or it was hard to understand the task because the teacher included so much that it was hard to really focus on the point of the board.  I also noticed that the format of the commentary made a difference too.  Bulleted commentary was especially easy to read or commentary that was in a t-chart format with the standard on the left and an explanation of how the student's work met the standard on the right.  This walk certainly gave me a unique view of the boards and set me thinking about how to design a really significant board.

The charts of collegial feedback that we filled out went to the Principal to review.  The names of the teachers that reviewed the board were not included.  The paper will go to the teachers who completed the boards.  Wonder how the feedback will be received...

This was really a very stress-free and constructive way to look deeper into bulletin boards that teach. I hope that we will do this again, maybe with different group configurations such as looking at the grade above with your grade level or looking at one board in each grade level, k-1-2-3-4-5 all in the same subject.  Or maybe the Academic Councils could choose some of the best boards in the building and have the teacher stand with the board and explain her thinking to groups of colleagues...  Oh, the possibilities are endless!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Book Study: A Guide to the Reading Workshop, Chapter 1

For those that want to follow along with our current book study, but are not able to attend...

A Guide to the Reading Workshop: Primary Grades by Lucy Calkins

What are the BIG ideas in Chapter 1: First Things First?
“You cannot create what you cannot imagine.”
  • Too many children are not learning to love to read. The longer kids stay in school, the less they like to read!

  • What are the conditions that make reading bad for you?  What makes reading good?  It's the same for kids!
  • Large, for-profit companies with core reading programs are not the answer.  We have 50 years of research saying packaged programs do NOT work.
  • The most important thing we can do to lift student achievement is to support the professional development and retention of good teachers.
  • Students need to spend most of their time reading in books that are just right.  We will not close the reading gap by having students read grade level text that is beyond their reach.
  • We must model the professional learning as adults that we want in our classrooms.
Next assignment for 11-19-15: Chapter 2 - Follow the rest of this book study on Live from the Creek, Chets Creek's professional development blog.  A synopsis of each chapter will be posted that reflects the text and the conversation.