Monday, March 28, 2011

Linking student performance to teacher incentives?

What a great idea! Wait... the results are in:

"I find no evidence that teacher incentives increase student performance, attendance, or graduation, nor do I find any evidence that the incentives change student or teacher behavior. If anything, teacher incentives may decrease student achievement, especially in larger schools."

Suffice it to say that the best teachers are doing it for the love of teaching, not for the money. Which is probably why this little experiment didn't work. And in my opinion, standardized tests are no measure for what good teachers accomplish in the classroom. In fact, they're a detriment to their lesson plans in general.

Read the whole article HERE. It's really quite fascinating.

This just in: Here's an absolutely RIVETING link via my friend Steve Jones. More from who I'm thinking is going to be one of my go-to guys from here on out - Daniel Pink:

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Teachers, Administrators, and District 150 (OH MY!)

I'm probably going to get raked over the coals for this one, but hey, bring it.

I hear teachers and other school "officials" complain that parents need to be more involved with their kids' schooling. I hear over and over that teaching children is a partnership between the educator and the parent. I hear complaints that parents expect schools to "raise" their kids for them with little effort on mom or dad's end.

And I could not agree more.

First off, a shoutout to teachers. You people, in my opinion, have one of the most important and hardest jobs in the WORLD. Once we hand our little 5 and 6-year olds off to you on that first tearful day of kindergarten, they are by all intents and purposes in your hands to be a hugely influential factor in their tiny little lives for the next 12 years and beyond. And you're expected to educate, not only academically, but socially as well, sometimes 30 or more children per year on a daily basis.

It's a daunting task at best, especially in District 150, the bully on the playground.

Here's where I come in. I consider myself to be pretty involved. I respect the position of the teachers and feel that their goals can only be accomplished when they have the support and input of me, the parent.

What I don't get is why that partnership is often denied.

Yes, I understand. Teachers and other school officials these days are stressed with the increasing duties that they are expected to take on above and beyond cracking books and knuckles. They don't have "time" to go that "extra step" with students who are struggling, either academically, socially, or behaviorally. A part of me blames that on the support from above or lack thereof.

Yes, I'm "that parent". I'm the squeaky wheel. I'm the one demanding what is rightfully my child's and asking the teachers to maybe take that extra step, which in the old days would be status quo. And sometimes, it happens. One of my sons has who I consider to be an amazing teacher who has gone above and beyond to help him - and me - out this year. She has responded to my emails, offered suggestions, implemented strategies and in essence taken him under her wing - all while battling a major health issue, not to mention a gaggle of middle-schoolers. She is the perfect example of one of those teachers that you look back on in life and remember as being influential.

Then you have the ones that don't answer emails - even though that's the "preferred" form of communication. They aren't "available" for one-on-one's. They don't implement simple strategies that your child is (insert required by law) to have, simply because it's too much work. It becomes obvious to me that the level of dedication and personal satisfaction to their jobs isn't there. They see an email from me or my shadow darkening their door and they roll their eyes.


Same for the higher-ups. You don't get to not like my child. You don't get to not like me. That's not how it works. I'm hoping you got in the position you were in because of your knowledge of the educational system, your dedication to children, and oh, maybe your people skills. I can pull out the whole "you work for me" card, but that's harsh. You and I work TOGETHER. WE ARE A TEAM. I do my part, and you do yours. That's the AGREEMENT when I put my treasure in your hands.

Oh, and as for you, District 150? Get your shit together - NOW. You are not making these teachers' lives any easier by the crap that you're throwing at them. Figure out your money issues, keep the class sizes down, quit closing schools and pay these educators what they are worth - especially the ones who go to bat for these children. Get off your high-paying horses and remember who you're working for... the children. They're gonna be picking out your nursing homes in a few years. Quit treating them like they're cattle, able to be shifted from school to school, packed in to overcrowded classrooms, taught with out of date textbooks and stripped of "extracurriculars" like Art, Music, and Language.

Teachers, for the most part, you have my utmost respect and support. The majority of you are stellar (insert shoutout here to every teacher at Charter Oak School). The rest of you + administration? Sit up straight and pay attention. You could learn a thing or two from these people.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Money just costs too much.

I'm probably never going to make a lot of money. And that's OK. I mean, I guess I never really expected to. I don't really need a lot of money. And what exactly IS a lot of money these days? Apparently, much, much more than I make.

I don't remember ever being very materialistic (Mom - correct me if I'm wrong - yes I just gave you permission). Back in the mid-80' when preppy was all the rage, I do remember wanting a piece of that alligator and little polo guy on the horse. There was an off-the-rack Izod and Ralph Lauren store over on Sterling and War Memorial and every once in awhile Mom would buy me a name-brand shirt so I could have the little logo on the front like my friends. No matter that it was irregular - I certainly didn't care. No one knew the difference.

I look around this house now, and probably the most expensive thing that I alone have purchased is my laptop. Sure, I have a couch and chair from my marriage, and the boys have their bedroom sets, but that's about it. My bedroom is a misfit hodge podge of 1) an armoire that goes with my oldest son's baby furniture set, 2) a Thomasville dresser hand-me-down from my parents, 3) two end tables that were my dad's when he was a boy, 4) an antique sewing table that my parents refinished and 5) a headboard from Habitat for Humanity ReStore.

In my post-college days, I had a series of apartments that I used to say were furnished in "late Grandma", simply because most of the furniture was courtesy of my mother's mother who passed away. And as I sit here now at my lovely little ReStore desk, I see no reason why I would want to get rid of perfectly good furniture when it's still usable and in good condition.

I guess new stuff is nice and all, but I just don't know that it's worth the money you have to shell out for it. I don't have a flat screen TV. I have a JVC beast that sits just perfectly in my oak entertainment center (a luxury purchase when we were living in Leavenworth). If I got a flat screen TV, it wouldn't fit in the entertainment center. So... why get one?

I kind of feel the same way about cars. As you may or may not know, I finally traded in my 2001 Honda Odyssey for a 2010 Chevy Traverse. TO THIS DAY I still feel a little guilty driving a new car - almost embarrassed. Like, the Honda wasn't good enough for me. Not true. But it was a wise financial decision based on how much money that Honda was about to cost me versus starting over with a (nearly) new car. (I mean, WHO buys new????)

Same thing with the clothes I buy these days. There's NO reason to pay full price anymore. Do you REALLY need to? I have to brag a little here... I have been looking for a fun little dress to wear in the evening after my wedding, but refuse to spend more than my wedding dress ($100 on the clearance rack - and no, I didn't know that when I tried it on, and yes, it's to die for.) Anyway, I stop in at Wannabe's - you know, that little consignment shop on Willow Knolls? Guess what. Beautiful, strapless, fun little White House, Black Market sundress - $16.99. Ladies? You and I both know what that stitch of clothing would retail for. I felt like I had won the lottery.

Speaking of lottery, my kids think I'm insane because I wouldn't want to win it. I tell them, "I guess if I could pay your college tuition and put something in my IRA toward retirement, I'd be OK. But I'd give the rest away." I mean, the more you make, the more you spend, right? I was unemployed for over a year and made it - barely. But made it. So it can be done.

And yes, I splurge. It pains me, sometimes, though. I think Coldstone Creamery is way too expensive, as is Culver's and Five Guys. I'm more of an Avanti's kind of girl - decent food for a decent price, thank you. And no, you won't see me at any of those cute boutique stores where a pair of pants is $170 and a blouse $200. Good Lord, that's like wearing a car payment.

How I figure it is that I either missed the memo saying that the field of journalism would NOT be a super-profitable career, or I did get it and just didn't care. I do know this - I love what I do and I am thankful for what I have and I don't wish for more. Now how many people can say that???

Thursday, March 17, 2011

I should be committed

And I think everyone should be committed, too.

No, not to the nuthouse, though there are days....

I mean committed. And it's funny, because I did the whole "look it up in the thesaurus to make my point with other pertinent synonyms", but none of them really seemed to say it better than, well, committed.

Here's what I mean. I think one of the qualities that our society lacks today is commitment - to anything. Some of it isn't our fault. My father worked for Caterpillar Tractor Company for 40 years. It was the only job he ever had - right out of college and the service. You don't see that anymore. Granted, times have changed, more companies get bought out/downsized/go bankrupt. But part of it I think stems from our own lack of commitment to a company - a job - a career.

I've seen plenty of resumes and it's a good thing that the old "one page resume" is no longer the norm, because some of these people are going on three or four pages. They just weren't happy in their position... they took the job thinking it would be one thing and it turned out to be something else... they didn't see eye to eye with their boss... whatever. Here's a novel idea: Whatever job you're in, that's the job you're in. Commit to it - work at it - and be the best employee at that job that you can be, whether it's a nuclear power plant operator or a newspaper delivery boy.

And what about the commitment of marriage? Statistics will show you that we treat marriage now more like an option than a commitment. I honestly heard someone who was getting married say, "Well, if it doesn't work out, I can always get a divorce."

I guarantee he's divorced today.

My parents have been married for more than 50 years, and it ain't just because they love each other. They are committed to each other. In sickness and health, in good times and bad, for better or for worse... you know the spiel. But today, as soon as things get on the "worse" side, we look for a way out. "This isn't what I planned." "Oh, I didn't sign up for this." "I'd be happier with so-n-so."

And don't think I'm up on my high horse. I failed at commitment. And I probably didn't have it from the get-go. I never thought I'd get divorced. It never occurred to me in the first 8 years of my marriage, even when things were hard. But then they got "too" hard. And we forgot our commitment. We opted out. I'm not saying we made the wrong choice, but our lack of commitment was the demise of our marriage.

Of course, the usual disclaimer. There are some cases where divorce - no matter how great the commitment - is the right thing to do. But again, look at the statistics. We're opting out with much greater frequency than the generations before us did, and look what they went through.

I could go on and on, but my posts are already too long. Commitment to school: you or your parents paid for school, you're there to get a four year degree. I don't care how undeveloped your brain is at age 18 or 19, put down the booze and hit the books, for God's sake. You should be thanking your lucky stars to be getting an education. You can commit to drinking for the rest of your life if you see fit.

And what about the obesity rate in America? Skyrocketing. Why can't we commit to healthy lifestyles - eating and exercise? Why can't big corporations commit to not coming up with all this processed crap for us to eat?

One thing most of us are committed to - our children. Ask most parents what the most important thing in life is - what they're most committed to - and you'll probably hear more often than not, "my kids". That's great, and as it should be. But don't forget - those kids are watching YOU. So lead by example. Show them the importance of commitment and how to implement that trait in their lives, even though the world around them is all wishy-washy.

Instead of synonyms for the word, I found a great quote. It has been attributed to Abraham Lincoln, which would make perfect sense, but I can't confirm:

"Commitment is what transforms a promise into reality. It is the words that speak boldly of your intentions. And the actions which speak louder than the words. It is making the time when there is none. Coming through time after time after time, year after year after year. Commitment is the stuff character is made of; the power to change the face of things. It is the daily triumph of integrity over skepticism."

Well said.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Look at Japan, and be thankful

I sit here in my cozy house, heat at a comfortable 68 degrees, sipping some homemade chicken noodle soup, typing on my laptop.

9,000 miles away, a woman stands in the dark, knee deep in mud in near-freezing temperatures, with no food, no water, and no clue where her house is or whether or not her family is still alive.

My heart aches for the people of Japan.

With an estimated death toll at more than 10,000, the events of the past few days have literally rocked this part of the world to its very core. In a matter of minutes, lives were lost or changed forever, dreams shattered, livelihoods and overall quality of life completely swept away.

The worldwide effect of this disaster is not yet known, but it's safe to say that this devastated region will probably never, ever be the same.

Just a few days ago, these people, these human beings just like us, were doing things just like us. They drove to work. They went to the grocery store. They sat in their warm homes and played with their children. Now there are no roads to drive on. No food on the shelves. No heat or light. And for some - the greatest loss - their families.

Sometimes I grow tired of how the news media seems to hunger so much for "exciting" news. They seem to milk stories of tragedy and devastation like a bulging cow. But this time it's different. This isn't going away. This isn't going to get better any time soon. For many in that country, it hasn't even begun to get as bad as it's going to get.

Kind of makes you want to whap Charlie Sheen up side the head and tell him to crawl under a rock. He doesn't matter. Neither does whether the Bachelor will pick the blond or the brunette or who's going to get voted off American Idol. And this goes beyond telling your kid to eat his dinner because there are starving people in Africa.

This is big. This is real. This is important. And we should feel thankful each and every time we wake up in the morning, eat our breakfast, drive our cars to work and come home every night and hug our children. And we should feel so helpless that we search out ways to offer some sort of assistance - no matter how small - in the hopes of being one drop in an enormous bucket that these people will need to even remotely rebuild their lives.

This isn't a plea for money, but I am going to list the links to credible organizations (via Network for Good) that are accepting donations to the relief efforts in Japan. Check them out and consider giving what you can. And if you can't, pray for them. Pray that they find warmth, and light, and food, and water, and shelter, and lost family members, as well as anything and everything else that the earth and the waters took from them on March 11, 2011.

AMERICAN RED CROSS: Emergency Operation Centers are opened in the affected areas and staffed by the chapters. This disaster is on a scale larger than the Japanese Red Cross can typically manage. Donations to the American Red Cross can be allocated for the International Disaster Relief Fund, which then deploys to the region to help.

GLOBALGIVING: Established a fund to disburse donations to organizations providing relief and emergency services to victims of the earthquake and tsunami.

SAVE THE CHILDREN: Mobilizing to provide immediate humanitarian relief in the shape of emergency health care and provision of non-food items and shelter.

THE SALVATION ARMY: has been in Japan since 1895 and is currently providing emergency assistance to those in need.

AMERICARES: Emergency team is on full alert, mobilizing resources and dispatching an emergency response manager to the region.

CONVOY OF HOPE: Disaster Response team established connection with in-country partners who have been impacted by the damage and are identifying the needs and areas where Convoy of Hope may be of the greatest assistance.

INTERNATIONAL MEDICAL CORPS: Putting together relief teams, as well as supplies, and are in contact with partners in Japan and other affected countries to assess needs and coordinate our activities.

SHELTER BOX: The first team is mobilizing to head to Japan and begin the response effort.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Shut up and drive

It's been a long couple of weeks and I'm feeling a little frisky. I get this way every now and again... I'm not sure why. Maybe it's when I'm stressed out and trying to pack so much into one day and I find I'm deterred from my plan by silly little obstacles. The one obstacle that's been giving me grief lately is getting from Point A to Point B. It should be simple, right? Allow X amount of minutes to get from here to there. Not so easy.

Being a single, working mom with two boys involved in lots of activities, I'm driving more than the Cash Cab. And there's nothing that burns my soup more than being on my own, carefully-planned and executed schedule only to have some driving-related jackwagon steer me off course. So as I was cursing one of those said obstacles just today, I thought to myself, "Self? I wonder if other people become overly-annoyed with these random acts of denseness?"

For instance:

Today I'm running late for work. Now, if I time it just right and the stars align, I can hit ALL the green lights from Charter Oak Road ALL the way down War Memorial to Prospect. But ONLY if I'm on time. If I'm late like today? Not only is every light red, but I swear it's red for twice as long as usual. Do you know how many lights are between Charter Oak Road and Prospect via War Memorial? 13. I just counted them in my head. Lucky 13. If the average stoplight is, say, one minute, then that's 13 EXTRA minutes I need to get to work on time. Who runs these things? And whoever it is, do they KNOW I'm late for work? Is it a conspiracy to throw me off my game?

Then there's other drivers. The ones that hang out in the left lane and I'm sure at one point will WAKE UP and notice that - HEY! I'M DRIVING!!! Or the idiots that I can see out of the corner of my eye swerving into my lane because they're texting, eating, putting on makeup or doing God knows what else. Ditto to the guy that won't turn left on a flashing yellow arrow or right on a red, Mr. Perpetual Turn Signal Man, and anyone that drives a good 10 miles under the speed limit for no apparent reason. And yes, I'm assuming these are all men, simply because 102.3 DJs Markley and Luciano bashed women drivers on their morning show. Take that, Dudes.

Oh, and finally, potholes. I mean, SERIOUSLY, Peoria Pothole People. Have you been out driving our streets lately? I know, I know, it happens every year, the city is strapped for funds, they'll get to it, blah, blah, blah. In the meantime, I'm doing maneuvers that you see on those commercials that disclaim "Closed course with professional driver. Do not attempt." I'm bobbin', I'm weavin', I'm swervin', I'm turnin'... there's no escaping them. Ever driven up to the CVS on Pear Tree? It's like going through the Outback on a mountain bike. And the Jump Start parking lot is enough to make you slip a disc just riding in your car. Not to mention the asphalt aberration on Northmoor. I love that it now has a sign next to it that says, "Rough road". I don't know why they just don't label it "traffic calming" like those shock-busting humps on Prospect and call it good.

Seriously, I know these complaints are petty, and there may be good reasons why the lights are configured the way they are, why people are driving slowly, and why no one has fixed the pits in the road. And yes, there are greater problems in this world. But like I said, I was feeling feisty and just thought I'd throw it all out there.

Here - if it makes you feel better, I'll leave you with a song. It's about driving. I use it in my workouts because it inspires me. Not to drive faster, but to drive safely. So enjoy, and let's be careful out there.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The perfect place to live

You never really appreciate what you've had until it's gone.

Or until you go through 10+ years of cupboards and cabinets and shelves and saying things like, "I remember this!" and "Hey! That's where I put that!" and "I thought I told you to throw this away??!!"

Back in 2000, my then-husband and I were moving back "home" from Chicago. While driving around town with a Realtor, we stumbled upon a "For Sale by Owner" that caught our eye. Long story short, we jumped through hoops to get the place, and I know I'm forever thankful that we did.

The house itself was well-cared for by the previous owners who built it. It didn't have the particular "charm" of the old, arched-doorway, hardwood floor, solid wood door with glass knobs house that was our first, but it was solidly constructed, well-decorated and family-friendly. I remember thinking to myself, "It has what my family needs. And I will make it a home."

What I didn't realize was that part of what would make this house a home would be the neighborhood. Tucked away at the bottom of a cul-de-sac, this configuration of houses became known to the other, less active courts as "Sesame Street". After living in a transient, commuter world of the western Chicago suburbs, I was not prepared for the onslaught of friendliness. Muffins from the lady next door. Offers of help from the guy down the way. Visits from the gal across the street - who would soon become one of my best friends. What I didn't know at the time was that she was the neighbor designated to "check us out" to see if we were a good fit for this little club.

There were more kids than you could possibly yell at to get off your lawn. At one point, 27 children resided in the 13 or so houses in this Family Circle. Baseball games, headed by a couple of dads, were the norm on any given evening. On the last day of school, the moms would put on a celebration extravaganza - one year we helped the kids all make tie-dye shirts; another year, a scavenger hunt. Summer days were alive with sprinklers, bicycles, bubbles and sidewalk chalk. Fall brought leaf-raking and jumping and mass pumpkin decorating. No one was ever at a loss for some one to hang with trick-or-treating when you had this motley crew. And winter? A battlefield of snowball fights, complete with intricately-constructed snow forts. Not to mention the "token dad" who had the snowblower - my hero!

I came to embrace this little community in which we lived. Here we all were total strangers who, over time, swapped house keys and garage codes. Borrowed cups or sugar and garden tools. Fed each other's kids as if they were our own (I would have never thought of giving my kids Popsicles without having enough for them all!) Took turns picking them up from school and watching them so an overtaxed mom could have a little time off or a couple could have a date night.

It was comforting living there. Sometimes I'd get a call at 11:00 at night alerting me that I'd left my garage door open. Our van was often greeted by cries of "WOO HOO!" as we turned down the street, and the kids would be inundated before we ever made it to the garage. Then there was the rainy weekday that one of the dads came home from work because his wife had alerted him that a family of ducks who had resided in a neighbor's yard had gotten swept into the storm sewer.

We spent one of the most important parts of our lives - raising small kids into big ones - together. But over time, things changed. Slowly, one by one, the gang began to get older and move away. For some, it was a job relocation. For others, the need or desire for a bigger house. When a "For Sale" would go up in a front yard, we all felt as if a little piece of our world was being shipped away in that moving van along with all the boxes.

As the turnover occurred, it became what I refer to now as "The Court 2.0". New families with babies and toddlers have all but replaced the the pre-teens and teens that moved out. My driveway isn't the one covered in sidewalk chalk anymore and I've long since given away the tricycles and training wheels.

I will miss this neighborhood - what it was then, and even what it is now. But it's time. I'm one of the last to leave; the others well-transitioned into their new communities. I think my kids are ready, too - like me, they wax nostalgic for days gone by, but I've given them what I wanted to give them - a childhood just like mine. And having lived here, I know that although a new home will never replace that magical community that was Sesame Street, it just may be as good of a place for us now as this neighborhood was for us then.

And a note to whoever is lucky enough to live here after us? If you want for raising your kids the old-fashioned way - walking them to school, letting them go up to the playground, running from yard to yard without a worry - you'll be very happy here. The neighbors, though not the same ones as when we moved in, are still just as nice. And I'm sure to all of them, it's still Sesame Street. So you'll fit right in. And I hope you'll feel as I do - that I can't imagine having had a better place for my kids and me to call "home".

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

We just disagree

Have you ever looked at a word for so long that it just sounded wrong? Disagree. Look at it. It's a weird word. Disagree. Like, you could put the inflection on the first syllable - DISagree - or the middle - disAgree - or the last - disaGREE.

So I'm intrigued with this whole disagree thing. I look up the word, and see that the definitions include, "to dissent. To quarrel. To be unacceptable or unfavorable." That makes it sound so.... negative. I mean, there are a lot - A LOT - of disagreements in the world right now. Some of them are pretty violent. Others are more civil. And I guess those disagreements are what I want to speak to. The civil disagreements. Because Egypt? Nope - not even going there.

What's the right way to disagree? Does it really have to mean a quarrel? How many times have you had a disagreement with someone only to have it end up in an angry, hot mess? How many of you have wished that you could slam down a cell phone the way we used to slam down the receiver of those old rotary phones? Sucks, doesn't it?

I'll admit - disagreeing is hard. You need to keep a calm head, an open mind and a five-second-delay tongue. Not always an easy task when you're trying to make your point. But AHA - is that really what you're trying to do?

Why do we disagree? Well, Amy, when one person thinks one way, and the other person thinks the other way, they go at it and try to convince each other that their way is the right way. Duh.

Um, I disagree. To a point. Yes, sometimes I think when we have differing opinions, the conversation may morph into trying to sway the other person to join our side. However, sometimes we get into disagreements that we KNOW are losing battles. An Obama supporter isn't going to join the Palin camp overnight. A Catholic isn't going to jump ship for Buddhism lightly. And you're probably never going to convince a Who fan that the Rolling Stones are better.

And sometimes, we just want others to understand and acknowledge our point of view. We don't want a fight; we just want to be heard. And if we feel strongly about it, the last thing we want to hear is how we shouldn't, how our opinion is wrong, and how the other person's way is better.

I try to teach my son this when he argues every single point that comes out of my mouth. Instead of negating every word I say, I suggested to him that he start his objections with, "In my opinion", "I believe", or "I think". Arguments between spouses or friends could be toned down with a similar approach. "Have you ever considered" instead of "You should". "Maybe you could try" instead of "I would never" and "What if" instead of "Here's what you need to do". And exercises in such diplomacy might smooth things over with that combative co-worker, when "This is how I do it" becomes "What's worked for me in the past is...".

Maybe we're all just so desperate to be validated in our own opinions that we feel the need to supersede everyone else's. Maybe we need to still feel strongly, yet voice it more productively. Maybe we need to stop trying to make our point so vehemently and start accepting others' points of view, even if we don't necessarily "agree" with them.

I'm not saying disagreements are necessarily bad. But how they progress sometimes ends up a mountain that could have been a molehill if at some point they would just step back, take a deep breath, and realize that sometimes, "There ain't no good guy; there ain't no bad guy. There's only you and me and we (sometimes) disagree."