Archive for April 2022

The Cell Phone Trade-Off

April 30, 2022

It’s an issue that seems to be growing as rapidly as my monthly T-Mobile bill: the intrusion of student cell phones into the classroom, distracting and grasping the attention of young minds that can’t seem to resist their lure. If there was a court case, cell phones would be used as evidence to prove that a whole generation of youth are ADHD. Students resemble squirrels as their attention span on subject matter lasts as long as the time gap between text messages.

I wonder what gaps there will be in the understanding of math formulas and scientific calculations because Johnny was focused on reaching the next level of his video game he was playing on his cell phone?

I’ve tried the “face up-face down” method, where students can use their phones to look up information or even do an assignment. When they aren’t using their phones for academic purposes, they are to stay facedown. But…it is too tempting for them…like a chocolate chip cookie that is calling their name, they can only resist for so long.

I’ve used threats of having them take their cell phones to the office, thus increasing the workload on the office staff that is already trying to fit 10 hours of work into 8, but that only works for so long.

Seriously, some students might forget to put shoes on in the morning, but they won’t forget their cell phones. I’ve had frantic students pleading to their classmates for someone to loan them a charger because their “special friend” is down to 1% on its battery life. The urgency is resembling of a 9-1-1 call.

In our schools, it has not been unusual to see students walking down the hallway, in the midst of passing periods, focused not on their classmates but rather on their cell phone screen. Recently, one student was so absorbed by the video he was watching while he walked that he went into the wrong classroom before he realized where he was. Last week, one student texted another student during class, as if what they were doing for the class was secondary in importance to what was texted to the other classmate.

So, even though I only have one week left in my 8th Grade language arts journey, I tried a new strategy this past Thursday. If a student was willing at the beginning of class to bring their cell phone and place it in the basket, affectionately known as “the cell phone daycare center”, I’d contribute a piece of Hershey’s chocolate to their sugar-hyped diet at the end of class. The seed for the idea came during our recent state assessment testing days. Students were not allowed to have cell phones, Apple Watches, or other devices. They were encouraged to leave them in their lockers, but most of them couldn’t say parted for that long so they brought them into class, powered them down, and placed them in the basket.

When I made the offer of a chocolate temporary experience of personal satisfaction you would have thought it was a “Billy Graham Crusade altar call”. The masses came forward. I went through Hershey’s Nuggets like they were candy, which they are, as the cell phone daycare center reached maximum capacity.

I was somewhat dumbfounded. The price of a class period void of cell phone temptations is the offer of a piece of chocolate. I felt like Monty Hall on “Let’s Make A Deal”, offering a contestant $100 for a hairpin or something else that might be in their pocket.

I know, I know, it’s like a bribe, an undesired reward, but maybe it will be a short-term fix (at least for one more week) to help them stay more focused on classwork. It’s like an educational t-shirt wrapped in a layer of Gucci entitlement. I’m sure if I would be there for more than one more week there would come a point where they would be expecting a chocolate reward regardless of whether their phone was in the daycare basket.

For five more days, however, and for the past two, they’ve discovered that they can survive 60 minutes without their best artificial buddy in their lap. It’s possible.

The Emotions of My Life

April 24, 2022

I can’t explain it. It just happens. I hear a speech, I watch a kid struggle in a race, I watch a student helping another student deal with a crisis…the situations are various and diverse and the tears rise up from the bottom of the well and threaten to be a gusher flowing out my eyes and down my cheeks.

I’m experiencing the emotions of my life experiences. It’s okay and yet it’s unpredictable. Yesterday I watched a video of an old friend of mine from my middle school days in Zanesville, Ohio. Terry Kopchak is in the midst of some serious health situations. The video was of him being helped as he walked down a rehab hallway using a walker. I teared up as I watched my old friend who I chummed around with and played basketball with almost 55 years ago.

Last night I was sitting in a middle school cafetorium watching the performance of Annie. My grandson Jesse played the part of Rooster. As he danced with two girls on stage I could feel the volcano of tears building within me. I mixed the eye moisture with chuckles as I watched his amazing performance.

A few weeks ago in my language arts class I was listening to an oral presentation by one of the students. As she gave her speech, that dealt with a life situation she had no control over, the mist began to invade the boundaries of my eyes. I was on the verge of that moment resembling the emergence of our lawn sprinklers, suddenly rising above the turf and spraying in all directions.

Emotions rise within me. At a middle school track meet a few days ago, my deep heaves of tearful joy began as I watched a seventh-grader, who has struggled in his running of the 1600-meter run, put it into a different gear and cut forty seconds off his time. He’s a kid who has a big heart that makes up for his limited athletic ability, the kind of kid I love to coach. Anyway…here comes the rain!

Some might say I’m softhearted. I’m not sure. I was still able to ream a student for moments of arrogant impoliteness last week. I still feel the rage when I hear middle schoolers using profanity as if they’re just munching on popcorn. I turn red with rage when a team I’m coaching is going through the motions in practice or playing with no energy.

As long as I can wipe my eyes with my hands like windshield wipers in the midst of a misting rain, I’ll be okay. If I get to the point where I’m like a sixth-grader who has been summoned to the principal’s office for what he believes is some form of execution or to be hauled down to the school dungeon, then I hope someone steps in and shakes me back to somberness.

If given a choice between someone who looks like he’s been sucking on lemons or resembling a fountain, I’ll gladly take the latter.

The Side Board

April 23, 2022

I’ve reached the two-month mark of my long-term guest teaching gig for 8th-grade language arts. The students has taught me volumes about their culture, their creativity, and their uniquely diverse views on life.

On the side wall of the classroom there is a white board that Ms. Stedman, the maternity-leave teacher who asked me to fill the gap for her, has used for students to put comments, dry-erase marker drawings, and gibberish on. I had a brain flash one day as I was looking at the board. Why not put a question on the side board each day for students to put their suggestions/guesses/favorites on?

The result has been a loaded-with-comments wall by 2:45 each school day. Some comments are 14-year-old attempts at the ridiculous. For example, one day I put the question “What is Mr. Wolfe’s favorite movie?” There were the usual superhero suggestions, but one student has anonymously written “Barbie’s Dream House”. In fact, it doesn’t seem to matter what the question-of-the-day is, one student always seems to put “Barbie’s Dream House” as an answer. It’s been the answer to what my favorite book is, my favorite TV show, my oldest child’s name, and where I’d like to go on vacation.

Some days the side board question asks for their suggestions on school issues. For instance, one day this week I asked what ides they had for a new exploratory class at the school. Some of the responses were fantastic, such as “Money Matters and Understanding”, “Home Economics” (A blast from the past there!), and “Basic First Aid”. Others were the usual suggestions that prompt snickers such as “Napping”, “Gaming in Class Without the Teacher Knowing It”, and “Doing Nothing”.

One day I asked them for one suggestion on what might be a change/addition in the school cafeteria. I knew I was opening up a can of worms, which a few of them think the food tastes like, but I put it out there. When it comes to cafeteria food and practices, eighth-graders have many suggestions, few that are positive. In reality, it’s a stigma that has stayed with school cafeterias for decades. I can still see the “hair-netted ladies” from my high school cafeteria plopping the lumps of food on our trays fifty years now in the rearview mirror. Present-day eighth-graders are no different in their disdain. Constructive comments such as “bring back the sandwich and salad bars” were few, but words in bold capital letters such as “Fire all the workers”, “Stop serving pizza on cardboard crusts!”, “Solve the Long Lines Problem!”, “Serve food that actually tastes good!”, and “Bring in Chick-Fil-A!!!’ dominated the board. Middle school students elevate their cynicism when it comes to food.

One day I asked them what they thought my parents almost named me. The answer is “Silas”, but the suggestions went from “Wilbur” to “Robert” to “Clyde” to “Benjamin”. But guess what? At some time, the phantom side wall writer had scribbled in blue marker “Barbie!”

Making Teachers Take Assessment Tests

April 17, 2022

This past week students in our school district spent a major part of their time taking CMAS tests. CMAS stands for Colorado Measures of Academic Success. Students are tested in subjects such as math, science, and language arts. School districts get anxiety shivers considering what their CMAS test scores will be…or won’t be.

On Day Two one of my eighth-grade students suggested, maybe more in a pouting sort of voice, that teachers be made to take the CMAS tests and that students would be the proctors. I tried to assure the student that teachers are not the ones who have decided that students should be subjected to the excruciatingly long exams, that it has come from the higher, higher ups. Having served on a school board in Michigan years ago, I am acutely aware of certain elected officials who seemed to be suspicious of teachers, that they were freeloaders who only worked nine months out of the year but got paid for twelve.

Anyway, the whining student had gone deaf to my insights. Teachers should have to sit and be quiet for…like an eternity! (Her words.) Here’s the rest of our conversation, some of it told in the tradition of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox named Babe, and some of it true. You’ll have to determine where the truth ends and the imagination begins.

I asked the pout-faced eighth-grader what she thought they should be tested on?

“I don’t know, but they should have to write essays and do maths problems that make no sense whatsoever.”

“Anything else?”

“Yes, they should have to listen to long, boring speeches that cause your eyelids to close and then have to write down what was just said…and get no restroom breaks or be allowed to listen to music.”

“And what would the tests prove?”
Stumped. “I don’t know, but they should have to take them.”

“Could they opt out?”

“Absolutely not!”

“But there are about twenty-five students in each class. Would all twenty-five be the test proctors for the one teacher?”

“Why not? It makes me nervous when you watch me take the test. Why shouldn’t all of us watch you take it?”

“And it seems like I rewarded each one of you with chocolate at the end. Would each of you reward me?”

“Now you’re being ridiculous!”

Nellie’s Mission

April 16, 2022

There is a third-grader named Nellie who is on a mission. That mission hasn’t taken her to some faraway country or even to an inner-city shelter or soup kitchen. Nellie’s mission has taken her to a work station in her home, a spot in the basement or the quiet of her bedroom, to create sets of earrings.

You see, Nellie received a jewelry-making kit when she was 7, has honed her craft in the last two years for such a time as today. She is creating sets of earrings to help a cause.

I wrote about my son-in-law, Kevin, last week and the serious accident he had. It’s going to be a while for Kevin to recover from the injuries, skull fractures and affected vision and hearing, but the emergency room personnel that attended to him were surprised he had not been killed in the accident.

Nellie’s family and our daughter’s family are close friends. In fact, the two families plus three other families had just returned from a “friend-cation” to Orange Beach, Alabama a week before Kevin’s accident. Nellie is one of three kids and our daughter’s family has three kids. The middle child in each family have proclaimed for several years now that they will one day get married. Friendship runs deep in the families.

When Kevin sustained his injuries, Nellie made helping his family her mission. She sells her earrings for $3 dollars a pair and is giving all the money from her sales to help with Kevin’s financial costs. As word has spread, supply has not kept up with demand. She’s working diligently to craft new pairs. Sometimes when a person is called to mission it doesn’t occur to us that perseverance is a part of the calling. Nellie’s “stick-to-it-ness” is evident. For a third-grader, she has an unusual sense of urgency. I doubt that she understands what the ongoing costs for Kevin’s physical therapy, doctor appointments, possibly hearing aids, and work reduction mean, but she’s going to do what she is able to do.

I asked my eighth-grade language arts students if they would try if they knew it would only result in a single drop in an enormous bucket. The question seemed to perplex many of them. Some, without hesitation, said no. Some responded yes. The perplexed were thinking about the circumstances, how many others were involved in helping, whether it was fun or not, and how long it would take them?

That’s what amazes me about Nellie’s story. She doesn’t know how big the bucket is or how many others are pitching in. She just knows that a dear friend of her family is in need, she has learned these last two years how to create something that has simple beauty, and she has an ache in her soul to help. There are an enormous number of people who never discover a mission for their life. They are satisfied with existence and focusing on their own personal pleasure. Sometimes it takes the perseverance of a child to make us look in the mirror at who we are and who we have failed to become.

Sometimes it takes a child to lead us. Sometimes a third-grader doesn’t worry about obstacles and complexities. This third-grader named Nellie just goes to her creative space and works on another pair of $3.00 earrings…and then another.

It’s what friends do for each other.

When Life Falls On You

April 10, 2022

About a week ago my son-in-law had a seventy to eighty pound capstone fall from eighteen feet and hit him in the back of the head. Kevin and his dad have a plumbing business and he was working on the lower level of a house that was being renovated.

Needless to say, the accident could, maybe should, have been fatal. Two days in ICU and another two days in the hospital after that, he was then discharged to return home and rest. The rest and recovery will take weeks and there will probably be ongoing repercussions from that one moment that will affect the rest of his life.

Each one of us has those moments, those accidental encounters, that result in struggles, regrets, or questions that begin with why. Kevin is an awesome person, great dad, follower of Jesus, and great son-in-law. If fairness were the determining factor, the capstone would have landed close by but made no contact. But sometimes life isn’t fair. It’s a journey through jungles, and deserts, mountains and valleys. Ask just about anyone of the families who lost one or more loved ones to COVID-19. Ask the families who lost their homes in the fire a few months ago that ravaged part of a Colorado community. Ask the people who endured a December tornado in Kentucky. Or, thinking globally, the millions of Ukrainian refugees who fled their homes and what they were accustomed to simply because a tyrant has decided he wants their land.

In the midst of life’s falling moments however we learn several important lessons. We find out what our life is based on and what it is anchored to. We find out who is willing to walk the confusing walk with us, who’s willing to let us lean on them as we struggle along. We learn that there is an inner strength that is a part of our being that we didn’t know about. We’re able to discern that there a great amount of clutter in our lives that is either unnecessary or hindering the pursuit of our purpose.

Last fall a young lady on my middle school cross country team was struggling to finish the race. She stopped with less than a quarter-mile left in the race and vomited. One of her teammates who was a few yards in front of her heard the concerned comments of a few spectators, turned around, and went back to her teammate. She helped her, almost carried her, to the finish line. A few days later the helping teammate passed out when she was overcome with heat during a practice run. The teammate who she had helped returned the care in a situation where paramedics had to be called.

Sometimes life falls on us and sometimes we’re the ones who pick up the fallen. I’m overwhelmed by the stories of the fallen people that Jesus picked up, from a blind man, a cripple, and a diseased outcast to grief-stricken sisters and a friendless tax collector. My hope is that when life falls on me someone who is like Jesus-with-skin-on is there to pick me up; and, vice versa, I’m able to be Jesus-with-skin-on for another fallen brother or sister.

Former Student Confessions

April 3, 2022

Dear Ms. Smithers,

I don’t know if you remember me or not. After all, it’s been twenty years since I was in your 8th Grade Social Studies class. Yes, that’s right! Twenty years! I just had my 34th birthday and my son is in 8th grade this year.

Well, anyway…going through a year parenting an eighth-grader has brought back some memories of my time in your classroom, and some of the things that I did, and didn’t do, when I was being a pain in your class.

Yes, that’s right, a pain! I guess I never really thought of it that way until I received an email from my son’s social studies teacher requesting a conference with my wife, me, and our son. Then it came back to me, the many ways I made you grind your teeth back in the day.

So…I guess, I want to confess my wrongdoings and make sure you know you were right and were a great teacher and all that. First of all, I was the one who glued thumbtacks to your chair. I know, I know, you thought it was Tommy Tipton because you always thought it was Tommy Tipton who would do things like that. I feel bad about his three-day suspension and having to help clean the cafeteria every day for the rest of the school year after that. That’s why I’m confessing about it now. And I really feel bad about the painful scream you gave when you sat down. I laughed when it happened, but if it makes you feel any better, I can hear that scream in my sleep. You must have just six feet in the air, like one of those circus people being shot out of a cannon.

Then there was the exam that I stole from your desk, copied, and put back before you knew it was missing. I remember how impressed you were with the 97% I received. I intentionally missed a couple of questions just to look like I was still human. Only Charley Baker ever got a perfect paper because he was a brainiac who talked in some intellectual language that no one understood.

I should probably confess another thing that I’m sorry about. It was me who started the rumor about you and Mr. Jacobs, the custodian, and how you two would rendezvous in the basement boiler room, and how the noise that we thought the pipes were making wasn’t really from the pipes. Yes, I was not a nice boy back in those days, but I’m really sorry now.

If it makes you feel any better, the pranks and disturbances my son has been doing this year have been thought up completely on his own. He’s an original, not a chip off the old block. Putting Super Glue on the bottom of his teacher’s laptop mouse and attaching it to the desk…that was his own idea! Shooting spit wads at George Washington’s picture at the front of the classroom…well, I guess he learned that from me! But I’m really sorry! Taking a permanent marker and making it look like George only had one tooth, that was strictly his own creative mind.

Kids will be kids, you know! Anyway, thanks for being such a great teacher. Have a great day!