Monthly Archives: August 2012

Creating Winners in School


big vs. smallBig or Little?

There is a trend for American schools to grow larger and larger.  Population growth and the economic down turn seem to have made this a reality whether we like it or not.  It makes more economic sense to build one large building rather than to furnish and hire support staff for two, claim the advocates for large schools.  (I know this opening sounds a little boring, but keep reading I have a story to tell).

But how do these larger schools impact students?  Some argue students can be offered a greater variety of subjects and activities when only one building is involved.  But even before I am a teacher, I am a parent and a grandparent.  I wonder how my own loved ones will find a place to fit in.  In the huge school where I live you have to be to a future professional athlete to make the team.  You have to be a future All Star not to sit the bench even after you make the team.   Teens must sing like an American Idol, dance like a Broadway hoofer and act with the skill of an Oscar winner to be cast in a play.  That leaves two thousand other kids trying to find a place to fit in.  And let me make a confession right here…

I Hate Try Outs!

feeling rejected

More importantly kids hate them too.  I remember my humiliation of trying out for cheerleading six times.  (Yes, that is a sad true story.  I’m demonstrating a maturity I don’t even really feel to admit that now).  But I hate it even more for my grand kids. Before the end of their  elementary years in a building with over a thousand other students, I had two granddaughters announce, they would never try out for anything ever again.  They already felt too rejected and excluded to try to participate any further and they hadn’t even reached junior high.

Why are we making younger and younger children audition in order to even participate?  Can’t we do better than Dance Mom? Seriously, is that woman not a bully?  Why do schools have anti-bullying hot lines while that gal has a TV show?  That’s a paradox I find hard to digest.

No try outsThink Differently

We need to think in news ways…ways that will benefit all our students.  If huge schools are the new reality, how can we make all students feel included in our schools.  Let me share a story with you.

When I taught in the elementary grades my individual class put on two shows a year.  First rule:  no try outs!  Everyone was in the play or song and dance production.  I don’t just mean some kids worked behind the scenes and some were on stage.  My hard and fast rule was that every kid had a speaking part in the show.  If you happened to have a big part in one production, you had a small part in the next, fair is fair, but everyone was in.

Is that challenging for the teacher?  Sometimes.  But the benefits for the kids far out weigh the challenge.  I once had a young boy with autism.  He couldn’t generate language on his own.  He could read words off paper, but he couldn’t produce words without reading them.  So on the stage he read his ‘proclamations’ in the style of a narrator between scenes.  I had another boy who couldn’t remember lines at all, but he could show quite a bit of facial expression.  What did we do?  We had him lip sync his lines off a recording of the words while he showed lots of facial expression and body gestures.  It worked great!

When you plan productions this way, you start with the skills of the students and then proceed with your show, not the other way around.  Humor was plentiful, some planned, some not.  Our shows didn’t have the polish of a Broadway production, but they showcased our kids to the best audience in the world…their parents.   One time we did a very, very abbreviated version of The Sound of Music.  All parts were played by twenty second graders and it was over in 20 minutes.

Four years after that mini show, I ran into Alex’s mom in a local restaurant.

“I’m so glad I ran into you,” she said as she spotted me.  She then told me that her sixth grade son Alex had just been cast in the Cincinnati Opera Company’s production of Amahl and The Night Visitors.  She beamed and I was very impressed.

“But what I really wanted to tell you was what he said when he got the part.” she continued.  “He said, Mom I never would have had the nerve to try out, but after all, I already played the part of Captain Von Trapp in second grade.”

We both laughed.  But I’ve never forgotten that conversation.   In a child’s mind, both of those parts had the same importance.  Alex hadn’t realized that every kid in that second grade classroom had a part.  That tiny production gave him the courage to try out for and win a significant role on the stage.  It took my breath away.  What wonderful seeds we plant when we give a young child a chance to shine.

TEACH...To Change Lives book cover

Author’s note:  Alex was a very academically talented young man, however, he chose music as his life’s profession.  He became a jazz pianist and has played the piano at two inaugural balls in Washington DC.

A Lesson for Teachers


                        From Caterpillars to Butterflies

the teacher learns


Jennifer walked into my early childhood education class in her senior year planning to fail.  No, she didn’t announce this goal to me or to the class.  I guess you could say it was a secret goal, but she had her strategy all mapped out.  She even knew exactly when she was going to fail; November.  I had exactly two months to change the course of her destiny, but she didn’t even give me the benefit of telling me this.

The Countdown

graphShe was busy stacking all the evidence (data) to support her decision to fail.  It was powerful data, hard to ignore.  In her sophomore and junior years she had been absent over thirty days each year.  At this time in our state she was required to pass proficiency tests in four subject areas in order to prove she had the ability level of at least a ninth grader or she would not receive a high school diploma even if she had passed all her classes.  Though she had taken these tests twice a year since the ninth grade, she had continued to fail three of the four every time.  Neither of her parents had graduated from high school and they wanted her to graduate because they knew what if felt like to go through life without a high school diploma.  However, without any serious illness, they still allowed her to stay home more than thirty days per year.  In November Jennifer would be eighteen and she would no longer need her parents’ signature to drop out.  In November she would be out the door and I wasn’t even aware of the plan.  Even worse, the class I taught was in early childhood education.  Jennifer wanted to work in a child care setting with young children.  In our state you have to earn a high school diploma to do that.  Why had she signed up for my class if she had no chance to graduate?  The answer was simple.  She had to spend those two months somewhere.  But by November the charade would be over.

A Plan Thwarted

the U turn

Here’s how the U turn happened.  As soon as I found out Jennifer still needed to pass three of the four proficiency tests, I signed her up for tutoring sessions every day of the week.  No, she didn’t want to go.  She argued long and hard about the futility of it.  Hadn’t she already proven six times that it was impossible for her to pass those tests?  But I refused to allow her to skip those tutoring sessions. However hard she complained and dragged her feet, I still insisted she attend.  She went for tutoring during a portion of my class and during her lunch break, crabbing about it every step of the way.

I had another really lucky break.  In this particular school where I was teaching at the time, we had a significant number of at-risk kids.  With this type of enrollment one of the silly things that I noticed was that a substantial number of them failed to come on the first few days of school.  They would just pretend that they didn’t know when school started.  This behavior baffled me, because when I was growing up it seemed like everyone enjoyed the first few days of school.

But for whatever reason in this particular class everyone showed up for the first three days of school.  The first week was a short week of only three days.  I made a really big deal of having perfect attendance for a whole week.  I can’t remember the specific treat I brought in, but they really loved it.  Somehow this group of students latched on to that humble success and started seeing how long they could go with the whole class having perfect attendance. They really put pressure on one another not to break that chain.  It was a lucky break for me and Jennifer.  I don’t know if I could even recreate this set of circumstances.  I rewarded them every Friday with a treat and talked it up all around the school bragging about them to others when I knew my students could hear me.


blue ribbon

At the end of the first quarter at our awards program I asked our administrator to make a big deal out of their attendance.  He had the whole class stand up and told everyone in the packed room (full of their peers from other programs)  that this was what “perfect” looked like.  I’ll never forget that line.  The members of my class were far from perfect, but they had managed to accumulate perfect attendance for a full quarter.  They just beamed.  I’m certain Jennifer had never had the benefit of going to school regularly in her whole life.

In October Jennifer retook those three proficiency tests.  She wouldn’t find out the results until December.  She decided not to drop out until she had gotten those results.  So without my knowing about the plan to fail, I was given a one month’s reprieve.  Just before the holiday break, she found out she had passed two of the three tests!  Encouraged but still wary she quietly decided to stay until March when she would have just one more chance to pass that final test.   She continued to go for tutoring, but by now she could concentrate all her efforts on just one subject in which she was still deficient.

Let the Magic Begin

That extra time gave us the window for magic to take hold. Buoyed with her successes and reinforced with perfect attendance, Jennifer’s self esteem started to bloom.  She put together a project and competed in the regional competition and won.  She advanced to state competition and won.  In February my class began their final senior project.  Each student was required to put together a plan for an entire school.  Jennifer latched onto this project of planning a child care center with a commitment she had never shown in school before.  She named her child care facility From Caterpillars to Butterflies.  The project was outstanding in every way.  Step by step she poured all of her creativity into the project.  She drew a floor plan, wrote a philosophy, created a marketing strategy that included a logo and a slogan, developed an inventory and made a tri-fold display board about her school.   Her project was voted the best all around by hundreds of visitors who came to see our finished projects on display. Jennifer, the loser, became Jennifer the star.  Her peers looked to her for advice on their projects.

Becoming a Butterfly

She found out in early May that she had passed her final proficiency test she had taken in March.  She would be graduating with all of her peers, despite her total intention to fail when she first walked into my room.  How do I know all this?  In May she told me all about her original plan.  During our end of the year program with parents, employers and advisory council members in the audience, I gave Jennifer a small butterfly decoration.  I told everyone how I had watched Jennifer change from a caterpillar into a butterfly during that school year. (Just like the process she had named her child care facility).  She and her family were very touched.

On graduation night, during the graduation ceremony someone tapped me on my shoulder.  I ignored the tap.  I thought it was going to be one of my students asking to leave the ceremony to go to the restroom and I didn’t want to honor that request.  But the tap was repeated and over my shoulder was passed a flower arrangement from Jennifer’s mother and a card from Jennifer.  Inside the card Jennifer had included a butterfly necklace for me to wear.  She had also written me a poem.  I never saw Jennifer after the graduation ceremony.  I suppose the family had graduation celebration plans they had to rush off to implement, or perhaps Jennifer was too emotional for even a good-by hug. But the necklace and the poem brought tears to my eyes.  Though the poem is very simplistic its words touched my deeply.  I have recited its words to teacher audiences many times when I speak.

spreading wingsThe best teacher for me would be

The wonderful Mrs. Easley.

She listened as I talked

She even pushed me as I walked.

She pushed me to my limit

I didn’t even know I had it.

I was going nowhere and fast

I thought I’d never last.

I kept remembering failures of my past.

She turned my life around.

Now I might be college bound.

How do I repay something like this?

I keep remembering her words…

The lectures I’m going to miss.

Now because of her I believe

That “teacher” means much more to me.

A Question and a Challenge

How could a young woman who was two months away from dropping out of school write words I would be happy to have on my headstone when I die?

She listened as I talked

She even pushed me as I walked.

What teacher wouldn’t be honored to have a student write those words about her?

But there are two other lines in that poem that should scare every teacher in America.

She pushed me to my limit

I didn’t even know I had it.

How and why would a young lady in America make it all the way to her senior year in high school without even really knowing that she “had it?”  Jennifer had the ability all along.  Isn’t that our main job as teachers?  We have to reveal for students that they “have it” within them to succeed.

We must push them to their limit until they realize that they have it.

I learned that from a poem written by an 18-year-old girl who was two months away from walking away from an education.  Those are her words.  We must listen.

TEACH...To Change Lives

Jennifer’s story and many others…

plus classroom activity ideas to build success in life for our students…

 are in my newest book for teachers.

TEACH…To Change Lives.

Available at

Teaching Strategies


teaching strategiesThe Lesson

We were going to make a memory.  I mentally pictured one of those warm and fuzzy moments between my students and me.  Planning all the little details was giving me a great deal of pleasure.  On our high school career campus where I taught at the time,  all the buildings surrounded a courtyard.  The landscaping in this opening was minimal, especially at this time of year.  It was autumn and most of the trees had shed their leaves, but one spectacular tree was left.  Its leaves shone a brilliant crimson in the sunshine.  I decided to take my class outdoors under this single beautiful tree to make the moment memorable.  I knew they would enjoy the break from our windowless classroom. this would alert them to the importance of the occasion and help cement the memory.


Something positive and significant had happened.  It was an event of great importance to me; I had just had my first article published.  Admittedly, it was published in a small local newspaper.  Technically, I hadn’t sold the article.  No money was offered or expected.  Yet still I felt high on success.  An article I had written had been published with my own byline. They even spelled my name correctly… a rare event. This had been a long-term personal goal and a sense of pride was flowing through me. I wanted to mark this milestone with my class.

the lesson

Goal setting is something I try to model for my students.  I didn’t realize until I started teaching teenagers how lucky I had been in my life.  Setting goals was something my mother taught me at home.  I was surprised and sorry to note that this skill was particularly lacking in many of my adolescent students.  How fortunate for me that my mother had taught me all the steps.  First dream. Then visualize your dream.  Begin to make it real by finding a picture of what you want and displaying it. In my mother’s home, this meant the kitchen refrigerator.  List the steps toward accomplishing this dream and take the first step.  As soon as possible, take another step.

Role models are the best teachers, I believe.  Sharing my dreams, my accomplishments, and my setbacks with my students is one of the most powerful things I bring to the classroom.  My students knew that I wanted to be a published writer.  My frequent failures and rejections I shared with them too.  How better to make them capable of facing failures in their future than to admit my own and let them watch me continue working the steps toward a dream, even after a failure?  They teased me about my dreams, but they humored me too.  Naively, I visualized how excited they were going to be for me…how this tiny but significant event in my life would motivate them to set new goals and give them the courage to dream a little larger.  I could mentally hear the song ‘I believe I can Fly’ serenading my soul.  I looked forward to the last class of the day when this tremendous bonding moment would take place.

I Had Forgotten One Thing

goal settingTeenagers sometimes use automatic weapons to burst your bubble when a pin would do the job nicely.  Oh, but it was a humbling experience.  When I told them we were holding our class outside under a beautiful tree, amazingly but immediately the complaining began…

Why do we have to go outside?

It’s freezing out here!

Where are we supposed to sit?

There’s not enough room on this bench!

I’m not sitting on the concrete!

Why are we doing this?

This is soooo dumb!

And my personal favorite….

                                              Do we get a grade for this?

Disappointed and through clenched teeth, I growled.  I mean I really growled.  (Clench your teeth and snarl when you read this).  We…are…making…a…memory!

mad teacher

Though it wasn’t audible, you could feel the expletive at the end of that sentence.  Some of the students quieted down, but several continued to grumble throughout the whole activity.  I told them the about the significance of the occasion.  I showed them my byline in the newspaper with my name on it.  They were not impressed.  I read the story aloud to them.  It was a touching story about planting tulips with my daughter and about how the reappearance of those tulips each spring signaled that she had survived another year cancer free.  They were not touched.  I talked briefly about the importance of having meaningful goals and celebrating successes when they occurred.  The exact moment I paused in my speaking someone said,

Can we go in now?

Totally deflated, I nodded.  A few of them actually sprinted for the door.  I had never before seen them run.  They sure didn’t run when they were coming to my class.  I walked back to the building slowly, feeling completely rejected.  I made a mental note never to try anything which even remotely resembled this activity ever again.  My self-esteem couldn’t survive it.  My wonderful lesson felt like it had been ground through the garbage disposal.

The Revelation

the lesson

About a year and a half later, Edie, one of my new graduates came to school to visit me.  While we were catching up I shared some of my current good news with her.  I had just received a book that contained an article I had written for A Fourth Course of Chicken Soup for the Soul.  I showed her the book autographed by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen.  She gave me the most startled look and said something quite odd as she extended her arm in my direction.

Mrs. Easley, feel my arm.

I was puzzled but I wrapped my hand around her arm as she went on…

I have goosebumps.  Can you feel them?  You’ve given me goosebumps.

Then she said something even more surprising…

“I can remember the day you took our class outside into the courtyard to read us your article that was in the newspaper.”  Her voice was full of awe as she continued.  “You told us on that day that you wanted to have a story published in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series.  I can’t believe you have accomplished this!  I’m so proud of you.”  She gave me a big hug and then sat down to read the story.  I watched her read as I blinked back tears.

How different were our memories of that day.  I was certain that I had reached no one.  Frankly, it was a horrible memory for me.  And yet here was proof that my message had been heard.  I have no recollection of telling my students that one of my goals was to be published in Chicken Soup for the Soul.  I’m certain I did, but only because Edie shared her memory with me. What an incredible lesson she taught me on that day.

In even our bleakest moments as teachers,

we may truly be accomplishing so much more than is apparent.

Edie taught me that. I will try and remember this forever.  Quite by accident, I learned about the positive impact I had made on an afternoon I felt was a total failure.  I had literally seen and felt the evidence.  Goosebumps are not to be taken lightly.


A Celebration!

TEACH...To Change Lives

Just this week my second book for teachers,   TEACH…To Change Lives has become available on  Woo-hoo!  Purchase a copy to thank or encourage a teacher or future teacher.

It is full of classroom ideas and inspiring true stories.

Each MONDAY in August and up through September 10th, I will post an inspiring true story about teaching.  Please pass the word along to all your teacher friends.

Thank you for reading my blog! 

The Empty Truck


the empty truckAre You Kidding Me?

All the prospective teachers in my classroom were angry.  You could feel the tension hanging in the air within the classroom walls.  I  was teaching in a Teacher Academy program for high school juniors and seniors.  I had just shown my group of high school aged future teachers an article that compared teacher salaries to the yearly income of a wide variety of other professions.  But this activity backfired.  The reality didn’t just inform them, it infuriated them.

Heated comments fueled by adolescent hormones were flying around the room.  “Why should we work this hard to learn about a profession that pays so poorly”?  “What makes accountants and salesmen more valuable than teachers?”  “How come basketball players and sports figures are worth so much more than teachers who educate our country’s children?”  They looked at me with indignation.  They seemed to blame me as though I had written the economic reality of my own profession.

In that moment I sensed I was poorly prepared to answer them.  I chose the escape route of a chicken.  If you don’t know the answer, pose a question.      chicken

“Maybe it’s a good time to revisit the question I asked you on the first day of school,” I challenged them.  “Why do you want to teach?”

I paused and waited for their answers.  But they weren’t falling for it.  They didn’t feel like sharing those touchy-feely stories again.  If society didn’t value teachers were they preparing for the wrong career?  Their body language said it all.  They leaned back in their chairs and crossed their arms over their chests.  They were daring me to defend a profession that was seemingly undervalued by our American culture.

I paused even longer, and not just because I know that an effective teacher gives students time to formulate answers.  I waited because I knew I had to say exactly the right thing to this group at this moment.  I couldn’t come up with the right words.  I started to sweat.

Finally seventeen-year-old Chelsea began to speak.  “My real dad is jealous of my step dad,” she began.

Every head in the room swung to look at her like she was nuts.  Why in the world was she talking about her two dads at a time like this?  But she read their body language and continued, “Wait, just a minute, hear me out.  My real dad is jealous of my  step dad.  I know this is true because he told me so.  My real dad said he is jealous for two reasons.  First, my step dad gets to live with me.  My real dad claims he’s jealous because my step dad gets to spend more time with me.”

two dads

“The second reason he says he’s jealous is because my step dad is an engineer who designs toys.  He first designs a toy.  If that toy design is selected by the big toy company he works for, he gets to watch the whole toy development process.  He watches them produce the toy, choose packaging for it, and market the toy through ads and television commercials.  He even gets to see his finished toy on the toy store shelf and watch kids take it home to play.  My real dad thinks that would be such a cool way to make a living.

You see, my real dad drives a delivery truck.  One day when we were having one of those kind of serious father/daughter talks, he told me that in his job at the end of a really good day all he has to show for it is an empty truck. He told me that he doesn’t care what profession I choose, but he wants me to choose carefully so that at the end of the day I will have something more than an empty truck.”

Teach to Change Lives

She paused to let that sink in and then she continued, “That’s why I want to teach.  Because as a teacher, at the end of a day of helping students learn, I’ll feel a sense of accomplishment that will be so much more than an empty truck.”


I had a lump in my throat when she stopped speaking. I thought about the courage of her father.  How tough it must have been to so eloquently admit his jealousy for her stepfather.  He was so focused on his daughter choosing a career with meaning that he put his own self-esteem on hold to share an analogy she will never forget.  She internalized his message so completely that she could pull it out and share it with others at just the right moment.  It changed the whole climate of my classroom in an instant.  My students sensed the complete truth in that story.  I didn’t have to add a word.

Isn’t that, after all, why all of us teach?  At the end of a day, a school year or even a career we will have so much more than an empty classroom.  In this profession we build relationships that can honestly span a lifetime and touch generations to come. When we prepare a student to enter a profession with meaning because we have first helped him believe in himself, we help define not just his life, but the way he raises his family as well.  As a career teacher, I admit not every day is easy.  On those tough days I like to think about Chelsea’s story of the empty truck.  I make myself stop, close my eyes, and actually visualize that truck.  Then I take a deep breath and just keep on truckin’.

TEACH...To Change Lives

Today Chelsea is a teacher and has her own students in Hamilton, Ohio.   I have written my second book for teachers titled TEACH…To Change Lives and Chelsea’s story is only one of the stories in it.  It is now available at