Friday, July 27, 2007

Thank You

My brother and I will hop into our rented 22 foot Penske truck tomorrow morning, thus ending my Washington years for now. I came to Kirkland, Washington as an 18 year old freshman ready to take life head on. I returned to Connecticut only after my first and second year of college. Since that time, I have made my residence in Washington.
I want to use this space to thank the many people who have helped me confront this life that we live. I have made wonderful friendships that I value greatly. I have met some of the most fantasticly alive people on earth.
When I have settled back in Connecticut, finally joining my wife and daughter, I will resume my post here in front of the keyboard.
Thank you, Washingtonians, for enduring this pesky East Coaster with a penchant for a good verbal spar.

Monday, July 23, 2007

CNN--Youtube Debate

I nearly forgot that CNN hosted the Youtube debates; I was a bit caught up in Barry Bonds's chase for 755. I missed the first half hour of the intriguing format.
As an educator, I approached the debate in hopes of hearing what the Democratic candidates think and propose about public education. If my calculations are correct, only three official education related questions were asked while over twice that many were dedicated to things like the war and health care.
The first question was, who was your favorite teacher and why? To be honest, I don't really care, but the why part of the question could be interesting. But, alas, they are politicians and don't actually say much of anything while saying a lot. What it came down to was that each of the teachers discussed were described as advocates for the child. I noted that nothing about their qualifications or ability to interpret test data had much of an in impact.
The second question asked whether NCLB should be scrapped or remodeled. Only two candidates were given much of an opportunity to answer this vital question--in my opinion, more imporant than asking whether we should pull out of Iraq by March 31, 2008 or January 2009.
Governor Richardson wants to scrap it because one size doesn't fit all and it doesn't fund teacher training. His best point, in my opinion, pointed out that NCLB punishes struggling schools by taking money away--that has always confounded me. Finally, he proposed a minimum teaching salary of $40,000.
Senator Biden wants to scrap it as well. He believes we need better teachers and smaller classes. I just wish these politicians could get something different than "better teachers and smaller classes." Sure, there are bad teachers--just like there are bad senators. But to be honest, why couldn't a politician be honest and say, "What we need in public education are better parents. Parents who, from the time the child is young, raise their children to value education, respect individuals, and work diligently." That would be a better answer.
Then, each of the candidates as asked whether they send their children to public or private school. What a dumb question. It isn't even worth analyzing.
But, I did like that Senator Dodd, in his response to the last dumb question, added the importance of accountability that NCLB has mandated.
And that was it. Nothing else officially related to education. Hmmm. I thought the Democrats were our party. I thought they would pander a lot more to us. What is wrong with this world?

On an overall note, here are some of my observations of the debate.
1. Best Line: Senator Obama answering the question, What do you say to those who don't believe you are really Black? (paraphrased) "Well, I think I gave my qualifications when I tried to hail a cab in Manhattan.
2. Second Best Line: Senator Gravel answering the why part of the best teacher question: (paraphrased) "I was dyslexic and he taught me to speak, which I haven't got much of a chance to do tonight." *CNN did a terrible job at giving each candidate an opportunity. Clearly CNN has anointed Senator Clinton and Senator Obama as tier one candidates. John Edwards was a tier two candidate. Senator Biden and Governor Richardson were tier three candidates. Dennis Kucinich and Senator Dodd are tier four material and Senator Gravel was there as nothing more than an afterthough.
3. Third Best Line: Senator OBama answering the question of whether he would work for the current minimum wage as president (again, paraphrased) "Yes, but let's be honest, everyone up here is rich enough to do that for a while."
4. Most Poised: Senator Obama and Governor Richardson. At times, I really like Hillary Clinton, something I haven't ever found myself doing. But at times she got quite shrill. Gravel was angry and Biden just a little too caustic. Kucinich reminds me of Ross Perot. Dodd just doesn't have the presence. Edwards just bugs me.

My final thoughts:
I am tired of political debates. Mostly, they are pointless. It always amazes me how a very simple, direct question can receive a confusingly convulted answer.

Thursday, July 19, 2007


Via Rhymes with Right, comes an intriguing dilemma facing the courts. And because I am not well read on legal matters, I will avoid, mainly, the issue of free speech on the internet. The issue that stood out to me was the foolishness of the administration.
So a student calls the central office administrators a "douche bag" on her personal blog. She wrote this at her home and not at school. I find it astounding that an administrator would react in such a petulant manner as to have the girl barred from student council and other idiotic punishments.
This moron, Principal Karissa Niehoff, has gone ahead and continued to propigate the image of teachers as waiting and ready to retaliate should a student say something bad about us. I wish insecure imbeciles like Niehoff would get out of education because they are not up to the task of teaching students.
So, Principal "DoucheBag," and we all know that WILL be your new name around school, take the correct action and apologize. It would do wonders for your image and ours collectively as well.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Summer Vacation

Apparently Dennis Fermoyle is using his time away from the classroom wisely. Me, not so much. I could be getting online everyday to search for a new job in Connecticut--where I am moving to at the end of this month. But I don't have the emotional energy. So, instead I have been using my summer vacation as just that, a vacation.
I haven't been able to muster up much of anything in the way of educational blogging, only a few musings about how much I miss my seniors--which I promised them I wouldn't do: I hate being wrong!
I have played a few rounds of golf. I find myself wondering two things. One, why does golf have to be so expensive? And two, could I ever shoot par if I played once a day for an entire summer?
I have played some poker, though not as much as during the school year. A group of colleauges and our wives would get together on a weekly basis to play Texas Hold'em. I've wondered the same two things about poker as I have about golf.
I have read one book completely, Losing My Faculties. I began reading Writing about Your Life, by William Zinsser. I would have finished it by now except an esteemed college professor bought me The Power of One, by Bryce Courtenay. I read the first chapter and now I am hooked. Once I finish this novel, I will return to Zinsser's book. And then, I will reread the other book that my esteemed professor gave to me, The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell.
I have watched the four disc DVD set on Hulk Hogan, the great professional wrestler. I used to watch what was then the WWF every Saturday morning--my father instructing us to not tell our mother. I couldn't help but get caught up in the hysteria of Hulkamania that the movie stirs up. Yes, I knew it was fake then, and I know it is fake now, but the drama, oh, the drama.
I have also begun to watch MLB's retrospective on the career of Cal Ripken Jr., my baseball idol. I first watched the overview DVD and then the DVD that had the entire game from September 6, 1995 when Ripken reached 2,131 consecutive games. I sat on my couch, tears welling up in my eyes just as they had that night. Later today I will watch the DVD that has Ripken's final All-Star game on it. It was here in Seattle and I payed $300 dollars to a scalper to get into it. I ended up taking my most prized photo, which hangs in my office, of Ripken hitting a homerun in that final game--the ball is leaving the bat.
My house still has not sold. My wife and daughter are enjoying the lake where I will join them at the end of this month. We still don't have jobs, but I still can't get away from this being the best decision for our family.
All in all, not a bad summer if you ask me.

Saturday, July 07, 2007


I couldn't sleep again last night. Too much going on. But in the early hours of this morning, my thoughts turned to reflect on this last year. Though my house hasn't sold, and I still don't have a job in Connecticut, I am still moving. It is, without certainty, the greatest leap of faith or stupidity I have ever taken.

But as I thought about this past year, I still feel that I need closure. In recognizing that need, I reflected on the relationships we build with our students. For 182 days a year, we spend an hour or more (at the secondary level) teaching, influencing, and in essence, getting to know our students. In the course of a school year, I spend more time with a student than I do with many of my greatest friends.

This year, more than any other year, I find myself needing to know that everything will turn out okay for my seniors. For the first time, I can't help but be concerned for a few who left things undone. There is the one student who needed the credit to graduate, but never completed the necessary work. Will that student take summer school? I don't know. There is also the one student who struggled the entire year and couldn't walk at graduation. Did that student receive a diploma in the mail? I don't know. And then there is the student who I just couldn't stop believing in when so many others couldn't believe anymore. Will that student ever figure it all out? Unfortunately, I don't know.

So here it is, two weeks after the last day of school--three weeks after the seniors left--and I am still vexed by this class.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Losing My Faculties Part One

Okay, I am not going to lie...I hate when people can do things better than I can. But there is a good reason that Brendan Halpin is published and has a fancy website, and I am not and do not.

In Chapter 6, Halpin recounts a story from his student teaching days in which the master teacher, Mr. Stevens, frets about not being able to reproduce the great classroom experience that just happened. Mr. Stevens believes that because teaching is a profession, the results must be reproducable. Halpin understands this but also recognizes that very often things just click and we have little control over that.
I am amazed at how I can teach the same lesson plan with two different periods and have vastly different success. A discussion thread that bored my first period seniors enthralls my sixth period seniors. It doesn't make sense. I ask the same questions, point to the same text, but the two classes react differently.

In Chapter 7, he recalls walking his paperwork into the Central Office and watching the secretary stamp it, just to be certain it doesn't get lost. He never gets a call back.
My Central Office "never received" an important form that would have bumped me up a year on the pay scale--convenient.

So far, Halpin's casual and irreverant style fits perfectly with the tone my story would be told in. I feel like this book is going to work out nicely for me.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Losing My Faculties

I decided to abandon my reading of The Book of Buechner, the biography of my most favorite author Frederick Buechner. I discovered two things. One, reading about your favorite author is much less interesting than reading his work. Two, my teaching soul was still wandering around without direction and I needed to capture it.
Responding to that inner restlessness, I went to Borders (usually I go to Barnes and Noble) to find a book about teaching. Not education, but teaching. I picked up Erin Gruwell's best seller, Freedom Writers, but I'm tired of the "save a student" texts. I am glad that Gruwell had such and impact in her four years of teaching, but her experience does not reflect the path the I want to take. Gruwell student taught in 1994 and moved out of the classroom in 1998. That's how long I've been teaching as well. I want to keep teaching.
Then I came across Brendan Halpin's Losing My Faculties. This book promises to take me through the daily grind of teaching. After the year I had, and my current apathetic feeling towards this daily grind I've chosen, I need to know I am not alone.
So, I will walk you all through this book as I read through it. Later today, I will examine part one of the text.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007


The WIAA, Washington's governing agency for high school athletics has urgent matters to discuss. The state of high school athletics is in disarray. To address the "dwindling number of people who want to be coaches and officials," the WIAA believes it must ban booing at high school games. Okay, let's be fair. Mike Colbrese, Executive Director, says that it is a broader issue than just booing. It is the lack of civility, the unbecoming nature of negativity towards opposing teams.

What the WIAA and so many others fail to recognize is that people are choosing not to coach because parents are allowed to run coaches out. If your team doesn't win, and parents are unhappy about playing time, just go above the coach and complain to the District Athletic Director. Coaches are not supported by administrations, staff members, or players--unless they are winning.
In a post from April, I questioned the need for high school sports. It seems to me that we don't really do much of what the WIAA expects anyway. I love sports. I loved coaching two different sports this year. But after watching how the Central Office treats coaches by allowing parents to dictate who stays and who goes, I must adamantly state that the WIAA's priorities are absolutely wrong.

Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teachers

With credit to Stephen Covey for the concept, here are my seven habits of highly effective teachers:
1. Desire: In order for you to succeed at anything, really, you have to want to do well. Teaching requires the professional to want to do the job. This profession can drain the emotional stability out of the most stable individuals. If you don't want to battle through the inevitable lows of the profession, you will find yourself simply earning a paycheck. When a teacher is simply earning a paycheck, they lose effectiveness.

2. Be Yourself: Nothing screams desperation more than a teacher trying too hard to fit in. Our students are savvy enough, and judgmental enough, to call out a teacher who hasn't discovered their own unique gifts. If making students stand on the tables and proclaim "Oh Captain, my captain," don't do it. If lecturing from the front while the In-Focus machine purrs away, don't do it.

3. Prepare: Certainly we should come to class as prepared as we expect our students to be when they enter the classroom. But preparation goes beyond the lesson plan. We must prepare ourselves to journey down an unexpected path when it arrives; or we should prepare ourselves to take a new approach if the original does not work. I know the frustration of a failed lesson plan. We spend time preparing our lesson and we expect it to work. Sometimes it doesn't. And yes, it is a sinking feeling in our stomach when those faces look back at us with the blank bewilderment we feared.

4. Don't Move on until the Concept is Understood: As a teacher who has taught seniors preparing for college, I say this with the utmost respect for my fellow teachers. But when I have a senior in high school who cannot punctuate the end of a sentence properly, or answer basic plot questions from their reading, we all look bad. I know that we operate in a system that can't leave children behind, so don't allow them to move forward if they haven't mastered the skills. I have felt pressure from my administration to lower my levels of expectations, and yet, I can't. I can't in good faith allow a student to pass a class if the basic skills have not been mastered.

5. It's about the students: This could possibly be the most difficult to achieve. Again, in a profession where Central Office "suits" dictate lesson plans, curriculum, and classroom pedagogy from a building ten miles away, it is easy to forget that we serve our students. We don't serve the community, though they have power and influence; we don't serve the parents, even the ones that actually take the time to get invovled; we don't serve our government, despite what they believe. We teach students. Don't ever forget how important those lives are to the future of our society.

6. Go with what works: Back when I student taught, my collaborating teacher spent an insane amount of time teaching grammar to ninth graders. Very few English teachers today spend a critical amount of focused, direct instruction on grammar. But, years later when five or six of those students enrolled in my Pre-College English class, I was thankful. He wasn't hip and he didn't believe in "standards based grading." But, his students learned--even if they went on to block it all out of their minds. Education fashion comes and goes. Your methods one year will fail the next. If the students learn from it, then use it.

7. Don't Give Up: This last one comes from experience. There were times this year that I wanted to give up on a student. I didn't want to feel that disappointment again. So at the end, when that student said, "Mr. McNamar, I can't thank you enough for never giving up on me," I understood that beyond the lesson plans and the standards, we must teach our students that they have value. Their value is not based on their grade. Maybe they won't enjoy the reward today, or at graduation, but years from now, when they press on in the midst of trying times, it will be because someone in their life taught them to never give up.