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You are going to be hearing a lot from me in the next few weeks. Fairfax Elementary School has entered the Big Lots Lots2Give video competition in the hopes of winning $20,000 for an adaptive play structure that can be used by our special education students and our regular education students side by side. Unfortunately, the quality of our video and the conviction of our plea are not worth much as this is simply a popularity contest. So I need you to VOTE VOTE VOTE.
Every single day between now and July 7, you can vote up to three times each day from every single device you own. Desktops, laptops, smartphones, iPads and iPods, tablets, anything you own that connects to the Internet can earn us three votes. Just follow this link
, watch the video (or not, but it’s nicely done and Braedan is in a light blue shirt playing the recorder around the 15th second), and enter the captcha code to vote. And then do it all again on your next device. And then do it all again the next day. And then share it with everyone you know. Over and over and over.
As a sort of funny aside, I was asked to write the “500-word essay” to accompany our school’s entry, which I’ve copied below. Unfortunately, when we went to submit it, we discovered that the fine print actually said a 500-CHARACTER essay. Including spaces. Hmmm. Well now, that calls for a slightly different tone. So we quickly edited, with vast swipes of the delete button and you can see the results by following this link . . . three times a day, from every device you own, over and over and over again. You get the picture.
And thank you.
Learn Together, Play Together
Fairfax Elementary School in Cleveland Heights prides itself on serving all kinds of students. We educate, nurture and inspire children from a broad range of backgrounds, across many races, religions and socio-economic classes. These children work and play side-by-side, learning, reading, singing and growing as equals and peers.
Our building is also home to students with a wide range of physical and developmental delays and disabilities, including cerebral palsy, lack of mobility, and coordination and balance issues.
Our building staff works hard to ensure that able-bodied and disabled students have authentic opportunities to interact during classtime when appropriate, in their non-academic specials, such as music and art, as well as during lunch and in extra-curricular activities. All our children learn and benefit from such meaningful integration with one another. There is great beauty in watching a student confined to a wheelchair clapping alongside her classmates as they perform in their spring musical concert. Or in watching the able-bodied students in the after-school tumbling class break into spontaneous applause when their developmentally delayed peer executes a less than perfect somersault.
But there is one place in our building where these groups of students cannot safely interact and that is on our school playground. With modifications and assistance, some of our exceptional students are able to use the traditional playground equipment we currently have but it would be neither safe nor practical for them to use it simultaneously with the rest of the school population. This forced segregation renders that most-beloved time of the school day – recess—as a separate and unequal activity.
The Fairfax School PTA has worked in conjunction with the special education teachers and a team of dedicated fifth graders to identify new playground equipment specifically designed for integrated use by able-bodied and disabled students. Installing such equipment would dramatically alter the course of every day for our exceptional students: they would suddenly be welcome to share in the joy of recess with their peers, laughing, spinning, climbing and sliding side-by-side. They would experience the pride and dignity of being able to use their own playground with minimal assistance from aides, enjoying the same feelings of mastery and independence that their fellow students enjoy.
Furthermore, because our playground sits along a heavily traveled road, a new handicapped-accessible playground would publicly and visibly proclaim our school’s commitment to inclusion. And as a vibrant neighborhood gathering space during non-school hours, the new equipment could be available to any in the community who should need it.
We believe that every student at Fairfax School should have equal access to all of the building’s amenities, no matter what kind of body they were born with. The joy of play should be universal. But we simply cannot afford to do this on our own. Big Lots Lots2Give program can help.
And so, just like that, another year goes by. My sweet boys finished school on Thursday and suddenly I find myself the mother of a rising first grader and a rising fourth grader.
Austin had a truly fabulous year: learned to read, made new friends and thrived in every possible way. After all that back and forth about when to send him to kindergarten, I can finally say that we did the right thing. I know a woman, the grandmother of some kids at Fairfax as well as at local private schools, who has tutored in our building the past few years and she recently said that if she had a kindergarten-aged child and could choose any single teacher in all of Northeast Ohio for that child to have, she would choose this one:
Braedan’s year was okay, with one good teacher and one, well, I don’t want to use this as a place to publicly criticize someone, but let’s just say we’re glad the year is over.
But he does have truly wonderful friends.
As for mama bear, I have finished my fourth and final course and have freshly renewed certification to teach first through eighth grades in the great state of Ohio. Unfortunately, the single district in which I’m willing to teach (ours) laid off 32 teachers in April due to a reduction in force and cannot even look at outside candidates until all those teachers have been rehired. Although information is hard to confirm (and that’s putting it lightly — I swear, this stuff is guarded by the CIA), it seems that most of the elementary classroom teachers have indeed been rehired by now and I am still fingers-crossed-hope-hope-hoping that there may be a spot left over for little ol’ me.
But for now, we look forward to a summer of friends, relaxation, Chautauqua, waterskiing and baseball, baseball, baseball.
I had an epiphany one afternoon back in October. I was over at Fairfax tutoring in a classroom that is nurturing, challenging, supportive, creative, . . . everything an elementary classroom should be (and what, unfortunately, too few are). And I realized: This is what I do. This is who I am.
I am a teacher.
So I went straight home and, after unflinching encouragement from Mark, called the Ohio Department of Education and was dismayed to learn that I needed a whopping 12 credit hours to renew my license, which I had let completely expire during my years of caring for Austin. How on earth would I find the extra time to actually go to class in addition to all the other things I’m in charge of right now? Aaaahhh, enter the world of online education. And University of Phoenix. I had a rather funny phone call with the admissions guy whose initial question was, “Do you have a high school diploma or equivalent?” By the end of my list of degrees, he simply said, “Oh, that’s an impressive resume.” And suddenly, I was a student again, enrolled in what turned out to be a fascinating exploration of social studies instruction in the elementary classroom (my personal fave).
My first official day of class (Election Day) coincided nicely with that Facebook post from one of my old fourth graders, mentioned here, which further reinforced that I was doing the right thing. More recently, one of my old third graders from Compton posted a photo of our class, circa 1995, which resulted in a 134-comment-long conversation on Facebook where my “kids,” now twenty-somethings with jobs and children and spouses of their own, reminisced about the books we read, the field trips we went on, the school-wide Olympics we organized, the Multiplication Masters tests they all mastered. They remembered things I had completely forgotten, like that we grew alfalfa sprouts and then I made them all try them in a sandwich (with very limited success, as evidenced by their still-disgusted-after-all-these-years comments!).
I love teaching. And, because of that love, I have completely overstepped my role as a PTA mom in the past few years, as I spend my time organizing and implementing academic initiatives instead of bake sales. (I don’t doubt that there is more than one teacher on that staff who has thought, “Get your own classroom, lady!”) Right now, the largest portion of my overflowing plate is Science Week, something I casually proposed at a PTA meeting over the summer and which i am now completely running. (Anyone interested in volunteering in any way, let me know. It’s all day, every day, January 28 through February 1 at Fairfax, and you don’t have to be a scientist to help out.)
I am currently halfway through my second course and expect to be done by mid-May. And I am so thoroughly excited to have my own class again. But of course, I’ve never worked since having my own kids. I mean, I know people do it all the time; most of my girlfriends are working moms, at least part-time. But it scares me! My life right now is so easy. I can work out every morning while the kids are at school and can take off for vacation whenever the opportunity arises. I can volunteer for almost any cause I’m passionate about (well, that’s not quite true because I’m passionate about way more causes than there are hours in the day, but still…). Most of the hats I wear come from helping out the schools (district chair of Kindernet, coordinator of the Many Villages tutoring program, PTA vice-resident, Lay Facilities Committee member) and those would all naturally fall by the wayside if I was an actual employee. In order to maintain as much sanity in my life, and to be able to be as engaged in my own kids’ education as much (or more!) than I am right now, I would really really love to teach in their school. Of course, there are no openings there right now and no obvious retirements at the end of this year and I don’t even know if the district has a policy about parents teaching in the buildings their children attend, but one can hope.
All of this is actually a very long excuse for the pathetically scant blogging I’ve done over the past few months. I still have plenty to say (shocking, right?), but no time left to say it! But this does feed nicely into my next post, which will be about the value (or lack thereof) of homework in elementary school. Get your comments ready, folks . . . .
I worked pretty hard to keep my political commentary off the blog this year, hence the recent scarcity of updates. (Of course, if you’re my Facebook friend, you know I certainly didn’t hold anything back there!) Today’s post is not specifically about politics, although it does contain some of my political views, which should come as no surprise to those of you who’ve been reading me all along. My message here is not about health care or elections or even voting, but it is about the power of one voice.
On the morning of Election Day, I posted this photo and comment on my Facebook page:
It got an awful lot of Likes awfully quick, but the very best thing that happened as a result (besides that now no one ever will be able to tell this child he doesn’t qualify for health care) was that it was shared by an old student of mine, now a sophomore in college who wrote, “Thank you, thank you, thank you to my 4th grade teacher, Krissy Dietrich Gallagher, for not only being the first person to teach me about the true meaning of democracy, and the power of one voice, but for fighting for her children no matter what the stakes are, and now taking strides to educate others about the right to health care. You are amazing, Mrs. Gallagher.”
How about that, huh? Now I’m not sharing that here just to give myself a public pat on the back (but it does make me feel very very proud and I did read it aloud to anyone who would listen that day), but to encourage all of us to tell the people in our lives how we feel about them.
That favorite teacher of yours? Find them and let them know how they influenced you. That neighbor you see out running early each morning no matter what the weather? Tell him you admire his dedication and drive. Even the little things, like an extra friendly cashier at the store … tell them you appreciate their smile. I can remember cringing as a teenager when my mother would compliment total strangers. “That color looks lovely against your hair,” she’d say while I’d roll my eyes and try to disappear behind her. But just think about how much it would make your day to hear something like that. It’s so easy, so simple, but it really would make a difference.
I have a favorite teacher, and she might be reading this right now. But it’s a been a while since I’ve told her that. And I’ve never told her that each time I create a new log-in for a website and have to answer a security question (you know, what was my grandfather’s first name or what city was I born in), I choose “Who was your favorite teacher” and type in that long last name that was once a fourth grade spelling word for our class. And I should tell her (I’m pretty sure I just did!) because I would be thrilled to know if one of my old students was typing in my name.
I know many of you are already doing this with the 30 days of Gratitude, where you publicly list all you are thankful for each day on Facebook for the month of November. So let’s all do that, Facebook or not, November or May. We’ve spent the past six months arguing with each other, so let’s move on to thankfulness and appreciation. We all have a voice and each of our voices has power. Let’s use that power for good.
About this time last year, I wrote a couple of posts about helicopter versus free-range parenting, found here , here and here. There must be something about the start of the school year and the intense focus on rules and safety that brings these issues to the forefront each fall, because I’m at it again. And now, a new term has entered our lexicon, and it’s not a good one: bulldozer parents. No, they’re not knocking you over with stories and Facebook posts about how fabulous their kids are nor are they overtaking everything in their paths with their zealous parenting strategies. They’re called bulldozers because they attempt to clear the paths in front of their children, removing any obstacles, dangers or hardships before allowing their little ones to travel on ahead.
We are doing no one any favors here, people. Kids — shocker here — are actually pretty smart: they can figure stuff out. They can deal with hardship. They can be independent. And they must be forced to, in situations that are relatively safe and relatively risk-free, early in their lives or they’ll never ever be able to do it later when it really matters. If we clear every bump and tree root from our kids’ paths when they’re eight, how on earth are they going to deal with bumps and tree roots and, god forbid, bears, when they’re twenty?
I was talking about this with a friend who works at a local university and she said she’s witnessed college students going in to their professors’ office hours to discuss a paper or grade accompanied by their mothers. Let me repeat that: she has seen college students, legal adults, old enough to fight in wars and vote in elections, who bring mommy along when they need to discuss something difficult with a professor! Hello? How is this person going to have a real job, with angry customers or clients? Or raise their own kids? Or do any of the tough things that are a part of grown-up life?
This post is driven in part by a recent reiteration of a long-standing district rule that states that only 4th and 5th graders can ride their bikes to school. I am working with a certain pro-bike city council person to get the district to change this rule and one of their stated concerns is that people backing out of their driveways in the morning won’t see small kids on their bicycles. Well, I don’t want my kids to get run over on their way to school, but guess what? I told them to look for moving cars in driveways as they ride. Just like we tell them to look for cars before they cross the street. And guess what? They do it!
I want my kids to be happy. And I want them to be successful. And, of course, I want them to be safe. But I also want them to be resilient and independent and to know what to do in difficult situations. And in order to gain those skills, they should have opportunities when they’re young to test themselves in relatively safe situations. If they’re walking to school by themselves and someone gets hurt, they should be able to figure out how to handle it: Is it minor enough that they can just keep walking and deal with it when they arrive at school? Should someone turn around and run back home? Is there a friendly neighbor whose house they can stop at? Figure it out, kids, use your heads and solve the problem.
If there is something they don’t like at school, a rule they believe is unfair . . . figure it out. Write a letter to your principal (our new one welcomes such student input), bring it up with a teacher you trust, organize your friends. Don’t just stand around and whine, . . . do something. If they can do these things now, in elementary or middle school, think of how much more capable they’ll be by the time they have to walk in to office hours (or battle) ten years from now. We may think we are helping them by clearing their paths, but we’re really stunting them and allowing them to enter adulthood completely unprepared.
And none of us want that.
I’m not going to keep harping on the start of the school year (I’ll have other things to harp about soon, I promise!), but here is the link to an article posted on the St. Baldrick’s site last week. Which contains, as Mark pointed out, the best single line description of Austin’s personality to date. Enjoy….
Well, I changed my mind because I know a lot of you don’t ever click on links (I can see these things; the WordPress blogger is all-knowing), so here it is (no copyright laws are violated because I wrote the darn thing):
Starting Kindergarten After Battling Childhood Cancer
August 30, 2012
It’s that time of year again . . . the smell of freshly sharpened pencils in the air, the sound of school buses rolling down the street and the stack of paperwork for parents to fill out each evening. As I sit at my kitchen table completing the blue Who’s Eligible To Pick My Child Up From School form and the goldenrod Emergency Contact form and salmon Photo Release form, I am stopped in my tracks by the green Medical History form.
It’s nothing surprising, just your usual list of vaccinations and set of Yes/No questions: Has your child ever had heart problems? Seizures? Allergies? Surgeries? Kidney problems? Other? And then there’s my favorite: “If yes, please describe,” followed by one-and-a-half single-spaced lines. They actually want me to explain my child’s dramatic and life-threatening three-year illness in less than seven inches of space?
I don’t think so.
So, instead, I neatly write “Please see attached” and proceed to type up a 370-word addendum that describes in dry, emotionless language Austin’s diagnosis with bilateral Wilms tumor at the age of ten months, his four initial abdominal surgeries, his eight months of chemotherapy. Next paragraph includes his relapse, additional surgeries, twelve rounds of radiation, six more months of chemo. Last paragraph details his daily blood pressure medications and the restricted diet he follows due to the fact that he’s lost his entire right kidney and half of his left.
There. Done. Ready to repack his folder and send him off to kindergarten, a milestone we were never sure we’d reach. But nowhere in those myriad school forms did I truly capture my child. Any teacher who sits down to read those sheets would fail miserably to picture Austin in their mind. I can almost guarantee that they would imagine a sad, sickly boy, struggling to keep up with his classmates and opting out of gym class. Scarred and scared, feeble and hesitant.
There is no way they could conjure up the real Austin, the last kid you would ever describe as feeble, cartwheeling across the lawn, executing perfect front flips on the trampoline (or bed or couch), racing around the block on a two-wheel bike. No way would they picture this boy, spunky and clever, both brave and shy, extraordinary in so many ways, and yet so very very ordinary.
But I will let him go, with a heart both heavy and thankful, into the world of big kid school, where he can define himself. And I will know that those completed forms stuck in his backpack are only one tiny part of this truly remarkable boy.
The first day was a success. Both boys came home beaming, happy with their friends and thrilled with their teachers.
As we rode our bikes to the obligatory celebratory dinner at The Colony that evening, I asked Austin about the one boy I’d heard him mention by name. “So, do you think you’ll be friends with Ben?”
“I already AM friends with Ben!” he shouted back. After the bikes were locked and we walked out onto the patio to meet Mark, whose family should be seated at the very next table but Ben’s? The boys squealed and shouted and introduced each other to their families. I definitely think this little friendship is gonna work.
Unfortunately, the start of the school year for kindergartners is dragged out ever so slowly. One third of the kids go on each of the first three days. And because they started on a Thursday and because that Thursday was right before a long weekend, Austin still hasn’t been back! He did wake up in the middle of the night last week and cry about how unfair it was that Braedan got to go the next day and he didn’t. Let’s just hold on to that thought for as long as possible, kiddo. Finally, tomorrow, he’ll have his second day of school.
But school or not, we were all sure to make the most of the last official weekend of summer. Another few days in Chautauqua with friends, spent waterskiing and tubing, hiking the caverns at Panama Rocks and roasting marshmallows well past bedtime.
It has been a good summer indeed.
This child’s road to kindergarten has been littered with eight-hour surgeries and the side effects of chemotherapy. More CT scans in two years than the recommended allowance for an entire childhood. Central lines and blood pressure medications fit for a retiree.
But despite the bumps in the road, the twists and turns and inevitable hills, the outrageous and unexpected detours, this child has reached his destination. The child has, against all odds, started kindergarten:
And it was surprisingly smooth. I’ve gotta admit that for the past few years, this day has loomed large in front of me. If I were a stage actor and needed to make myself cry, all I would have to do is imagine walking out of that building on the first day of school and the tears would start rolling. Honestly, I’ve cried about it many times already as I lie in bed at night just thinking about it. But today was different. We walked, the four of us together, the boys’ backpacks bulging with tissue boxes and Chlorox wipes. Then there was the chaos at school of students and parents trying to find their new teachers before the flag raising. I had one quick moment when a friend asked how I was and I got choked up, before anything significant had even happened. But I hid behind my sunglasses, not wanting to make Austin any more nervous than he was already was.
Into the building we went, down the hallway hand in hand. I left him in his classroom to join the parents for paperwork and Q&A. And that was another moment; I had to go into an empty classroom first and gather myself, right on the verge of a full-blown sob fest. But that too passed, as I was swept up in the mundane tasks of listing emergency contacts and ordering gym shirts. Then another goodbye, this one harder for him than me (but no tears). And that was it. I walked out chatting with parents and friends and headed down the street to my quiet house.
I did it. We did it. He did it. Austin is alive and well, as healthy and normal-looking as any child in that building. He is something we were never sure he’d be: a kindergartener. And next year, he’ll be a first grader. And then second and third. Before I know it, he’ll be a middle schooler. And he’ll graduate from high school and he’ll go on to college.
Because he is alive. And he is well.
He did it.