Category Archives: education

The Wolf in My Dreams

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Rosemary Hood was a bright, blond seventh grader who entered my seventh-grade Gifted English class in September of 1998.  She introduced herself to me before the first bell of her first day.

“I am definitely on your class list because my Mom says I belong in gifted classes.”

“Your name is Rosemary, right?”

“Definitely.  Rosemary Bell Hood, related to the Civil War general John Bell Hood.”

“Um, I don’t see your name on my list.”

“Well, I’m supposed to be there, so check with the attendance secretary.  And I will be making A’s all year because I’m a werewolf and I could eat you during the full moon if you make me mad at you.”

I laughed, thinking that she had a bizarre sense of humor.  I let her enter my class and issued her copies of the books we were reading.  Later I called the office to ask about her enrollment.

“Well, Mr. Beyer,” said the secretary nervously, “the principal is out right now with an animal bite that got infected.  But I can assure you that we must change her schedule and put her in your gifted class.  The principal would really like you to give her A’s too.”

So, I had a good chuckle about that.  I never gave students A’s.  Grades had to be earned.  And one of the first rules of being a good teacher is, “Ignore what the principal says you should do in every situation.”

But I did give her A’s because she was a very bright and creative student (also very blond, but that has nothing to do with being a good student).  She had a good work ethic and a marvelous sense of humor.

She developed a crush on Jose Tannenbaum who sat in the seat across from her in the next row.  He was a football player, as well as an A student.  And by October she was telling him daily, “You need to take to me to the Harvest Festival Dance because I am a werewolf, and if you don’t, I will eat you at the next full moon.”

All the members of the class got a good chuckle out of it.  And it was assumed that he would. of course, take her to the dance because she was the prettiest blond girl in class and he obviously kinda liked her.  But the week of the dance we did find out, to our surprise, that he asked Natasha Garcia to the dance instead.

I didn’t think anything more about it until, the day after the next full moon, Jose didn’t show up for class.  I called the attendance secretary and asked about it.

“Jose is missing, Mr. Beyer,” the attendance secretary said.  “The Sherrif’s office has search parties out looking for him.”  That concerned me because he had a writing project due that day, and I thought he might’ve skipped school because he somehow failed to finish it.  When I saw Rosemary in class, though, I asked her if, by any chance, she knew why Jose wasn’t in class.

“Of course I do,” she said simply.  “I ate him last night.”

“Oh.  Bones and all?”

“Bone marrow is the best-tasting part.”

So, that turned out to be one rough school year.  Silver bullets are extremely expensive for a teacher’s salary.  And I did lose a part of my left ear before the year ended.  But it also taught me valuable lessons about being a teacher.  Truthfully, you can’t be a good teacher if you can’t accept and teach anyone who comes through your door, no matter what kind of unique qualities they bring with them into your classroom.

 

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Telling Teacher Stories

My Art

Here’s a secret that is only a secret if you are one of the well-over-six-billion people that don’t know I exist; I loved being a public school teacher.  I taught for 31 years.  24 years of that was in middle school.  I taught more than 1000 different seventh graders.  And I loved it.

Please don’t reveal this secret to any mental health professionals.  I like my freedom.  And I am really not dangerous even after teaching that many seventh graders.  I promise.

But it has left me with a compulsion.  I confess it is the reason I write humorous young adult novels and why I continue to write this blog.  I have to tell teacher stories or I will surely explode.

I have to tell you not only about the normal kids I taught, but the super-brainy mega-nerds I taught, the relatively stupid kids I taught, the honor students, the autistic kids, the kids who loved to sleep in class, the classroom clowns that tried to keep them awake, the kids who loved my class, the kids who hated my class, the times I was a really stupid teacher, the times I achieved some real milestones for some wonderful kids, the kids I still love to this day, the kids I tried really hard to love, but…. (well, some kids not even a mother could love), the drug dealers I had to protect my class from, the kids who talked to me about suicide and abuse and horrible things that still make me cry, the kids I lost along the way, and, well, the list goes on and on but this is an epic run-on sentence and the English teacher inside me is screaming at the moment.

You get the idea.  Like most writers… real writers, not hacks and wannabees, I write because I have to.  I don’t have a choice.  No matter what it costs me.  And what do I have to talk about in writing except being a school teacher and the almost infinite lessons that experience taught me?

I loved being the rabbit holding the big pencil in the front of the classroom.  And that metaphor means, as crazy as it sounds, I loved being a teacher.

 

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I’m a Kangaroo Kid

Bob Keeshan, better known as Captain Kangaroo, would not like my title.  He wanted them to be referred to as “children” not “kids”.  The reasons were obvious.  “Kid” refers to a baby goat.  It’s all about the words.  It’s all about respect and propriety.

4e087cfa232cf.image But Bob Keeshan, though a TV personality, was much more of a teacher than anything else.  His show went on air before I was born, and I don’t remember a moment in my childhood that he wasn’t a part of it.  He was like Mr. Rogers, but came into our lives even before Fred Rogers appeared on the scene.  I watched the show in the mornings before school started, at a time when I walked all the way across our little Iowa farm town to get to school.  He taught me important early lessons in life that were just as impactful as the math and language and social skills I was getting later in the day.  Of course, I had to leave home for school before the show ended at 8:00 a,m. But just like school, watching and participating in any part of it was capable of teaching you something good.

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A lot of what I was able to do successfully as a teacher is a result of how Captain Kangaroo taught me.  He taught me to deliver information in small bites that a young learner with a short attention span could fully digest.  He taught me how to capture attention.  He did it with puppets, a moose, a bunny, and a dancing bear all thanks to Cosmo Allegretti, a versatile and multi-talented performer.  He could focus attention by letting Mr. Moose drop ping pong balls on his head.  Whatever came next after the moment of mirth was something I paid attention to.

He also helped us learn science.  Mr. Greenjeans in his low-key, deadpan way would teach us about eating vegetables, how farmers cultivate plants, and how to handle various small animals like kittens, rabbits, and even ferrets.  Mr. Greenjeans got seriously bitten by a lion cub on camera.  He simply stuck his bleeding finger in his pocket and went on with the show.  Yes, the man was a veteran in more ways than one.  (He was a Marine in WWII.)

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And Captain Kangaroo taught me how to share a book.  I became very good at reading aloud to students because Bob Keeshan and the crew that worked for him showed me how to read with expression, separate dialogue from narration, and build the excitement with pace and voice modulation.  They were experts at reading aloud.

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So, I say this with no disrespect, only veneration.  “I am a Kangaroo kid.”  I watched the show and internalized it.  I developed deep pockets like the ones in Bob Keeshan’s jacket that gave him the name Captain Kangaroo, and I stored many treasures from the Treasure House there that I would later share with my students.

 

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The Wheels of the Stupidity Cycle

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Sadly, the Flynn Effect is working now in reverse.  If you didn’t know, for decades the collective IQ of the United States has been increasing.  People have been getting smarter.  Improvements in education, health care, and diet had been making it possible for each succeeding class year to score better by a significant and steady amount every year over the students of the previous year.  Apparently, according to recent data analysis, it kept going up through the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, and the 80’s.

And then, in about 1991, people began to be born who were destined to do worse than their predecessors.  People stopped getting smarter.  In fact, they not only leveled out, they began to get dumber.  Bummer.  As a teacher who taught during that time period, I have to pause and wonder… was it my fault?

I want to be clear about my use of illustrations here.  Not all of the faces I used in the collage above are actually stupid people.  I am told Rowan Atkinson (who plays an idiot character named Mr. Bean) is actually a genius with a very high IQ.  And some of the faces are not even from actual people.  They are cartoon characters or animals or Donald Trump.  And none of them actually caused the decline of IQ scores.  (Although I can’t prove the actor Brendan Fraser didn’t cause it by making the movie George of the Jungle.)

Economic factors brought about by the Reagan Revolution probably caused the wheel of life to turn back towards the stupid end of the cycle.  Rich people began sucking up and keeping every dollar possible, making themselves impossibly rich, and leaving the rest of us to fight over crumbs.  McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King turned the poorer suburbs into virtual food deserts of no nutritional value in every major urban area.  Schools across the nation have been forced to teach to tests whose main and sometimes only purpose is to prove schools undeserving of their funding so States can shift that funding towards private and for-profit schools.  Starved for proper funding, it is only natural that schools turned from learning institutions into baby-sitting services and uniformity indoctrination centers.  Schools now put out only average and poor students because that was the goal of education reform all along in conservative minds.

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So what, exactly, should we do about it?  Well, the wheel will still turn.  And as all wheels do, the part that is on the bottom will return to the top, and stupid will return to bottom as it obviously has before.

The next century is rife with problems that threaten human life on Earth.  Those problems, like income inequality, climate change through corporate abuse of the environment, the nuclear threat, and Donald Trump, will have to be solved by the next generation’s smart people.  When they do solve all those problems, the world will be better for it… or destroyed.  One of those.

And don’t mistake my meaning.  Stupid people have their own value.  Clowns like John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, and Seth Meyers are doing a far better job of helping us understand the issues of today than the nightly news is.  There is a great deal of fun to be had in watching the cat-and-mouse game of Robert Mueller and Donald Trump (where Trump is not the mouse so much as the cheese the mouse ate to start all the slapstick brouhaha).

And people who are not particularly smart can have great value in an infinite number of other ways.  Simple people may never be able to do calculus, but they can make you smile and feel loved better than some of the sharpest intellects (who often tend towards cynicism and bitterness).

The wheels of the Stupidity Cycle will continue to turn because that is the very nature of wheels. We will eventually be smart again.  We can’t keep getting dumber forever (though we did elect Trump).  And this is a pessimist telling you this.  So if this is completely wrong and off base, remember, I am also trying to be positive about the future.

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Filed under angry rant, education, feeling sorry for myself, humor, irony, Paffooney

The Welcome at the Front Door

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From the time I was a young teacher until I was nearing retirement I would put on a tie before going to school.  And I hated ties.  I never tied them well.  They turned into Dilbert ties every time I turned around. But I wore them practically every day… except when we wore school uniforms and none of the official teacher shirts were made for wearing a tie.  So, why the heck did I spend so much of my career wearing ties I hated?

Well, it matters how you appear at the door at the start of each and every class.  What happens at the classroom door can make or break the entire teacher’s day.

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“Good morning, Jose! Are you ready to make an A today?”

“Good morning, Rita.  Your hair looks beautiful today.  Did you color it?”

“No, Mr. B. It’s the same color it’s always been.”

“You mean it wasn’t purple yesterday?”

“I have never had purple hair.”

“Oh, well, then, it must’ve been that beautiful smile today that made me notice.”

Dilsey Murphy

You have to welcome them in if you want them to sit down and listen to all the wonderful boring things you have to teach them.  I was known for a while as the “teacher who makes us laugh”.  And that can be dangerous.  Principals tend to prefer the silent filling out of worksheets as far as classroom management goes.  But kids got better grades on State tests and wrote better essays for school when we could talk and laugh and entertain playfully creative ideas just as openly as we did the boring old facts and practice.

And, truthfully, if you don’t establish that classroom air at the front door, it never has enough oxygen in it to grow once life in the classroom gets started.

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I suspect that the afterlife in the real world, once students get there after their school years are over, would profit greatly from bosses who knew how to do the grin and greet at the front door every day.  I also suspect that real world bosses almost universally don’t know this particular teacher trick.

You gotta smile and say hello.  You gotta make them feel like they belong. You gotta shake that hand if they offer it, even though you know the only boys who have washed that hand in the last week are the ones who go into the restroom just to comb their hair, and then wash their hands immediately after.  And most of them never comb their hair either. (Oh, please, don’t let me think about the millions of microbes finding their way onto desks and pens and pencils… even the pencils they chew.)  And if you can tell a joke that makes them feel good and laugh, then the victory in the classroom war against ignorance is already on its way to being won.

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Blue Sunrise

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I am not a politician. I am not a political writer.  But I have opinions about the policies that affect my life and livelihood.  And my opinions, though often expressed poetically, or even humorously, are based on real troubles never-the-less.

I am disturbed by the problems I see in education.  Teachers are not paid what they are worth.  Anyone with half a brain can see that, for the level of education required of them, the professionalism expected of them, and the ever-increasing responsibilities foisted upon them, they are not compensated for their work in a manner comparable to people who do the same work in the corporate world.  And those comparable workers never have to endure the conditions of a teacher’s job, overloaded with students, forced to stand and deliver to a hostile audience whose behavior you are responsible for controlling six or seven times a day, and then being evaluated by how that audience does on tests that often measure the wrong thing with financial punishments waiting for failure and rarely any rewards waiting for success.

I started teaching in 1981 in South Texas for a salary of $11,000 dollars a year. That was below the poverty line in 1981.  If I had a family at that time, we would’ve been eligible for food stamps.  The highest I ever earned was $55,000 with a master’s degree, 28 years of experience, and a summer of teaching summer school.  Some one who delivers similar forms of information to a receptive audience in a boardroom, only has to deliver maybe once per day, and is paid upwards of twice that highest amount is treated far better.

And when teachers strike in West Virginia for being the lowest paid in the country, or  a teacher complains on social media by revealing their actual yearly salary from Arizona, or a teacher is forced to move from Oklahoma to Texas for higher pay even though they were the teacher of the year in the State the year before,  there is blow-back.  There are stupid people out there that think teachers are overpaid.  They think all teachers have to do is talk to kids every day, and they have only 185 work days a year, they have the summer off, and their job is one anyone can do.  These stupid people have less than half a brain.  What makes a guy who sits in an office all day with his feet up making decisions about stocks and bonds and business deals worth thousands of dollars a minute?  Teachers, in my amateur political opinionater’s opinion, are underpaid.

To quote the Beatles’ 1969 animated movie, the Yellow Submarine, “It’s a blue world, Max.”  Unfortunately, in the world of education, the Blue Meanies are now in charge.

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Role-Playing Games in the Classroom

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Zeus, the god of Storms and the Sky

In the early 90’s a fellow teacher became acutely aware of the effect the role-playing games I was playing at home after school had on the cognitive abilities of the fatherless boys I was constantly entertaining.  She suggested that maybe, if it was working at home with a few students and former students, it could also work in the classroom with all students.

This, of course was a daunting classroom activity to carry out, but enough of a creative challenge to my story telling abilities that I simply had to try.

I began with a cheap RPG book about adventuring D&D style with characters from Greek Myth.  This was an opportunity not only to play adventure games, but to teach a little bit about history and a lot about mythology.

So I created generic character sheets using my own personal copier, my own copy paper, and my own overhead projector plastic overlays.

I created adventures that could be conducted on the overhead with dice and each kid having their own set of skills and useful items.  We conducted Olympic games and included mythological creatures like Tritons and Centaurs as player characters.  We learned about the city of Olympia, the city of Argos, the city of Corinth, Athens, Sparta, and even Atlantis.

I let students draw their character from a hat on strips of paper that contained a boy option and a girl option.  I even let students trade for the character they wanted and we learned negotiating skills along with problem-solving skills.

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                                                                                     Demeter, goddess of fertility (which you can’t say in a junior high classroom, so goddess of crops and farming.)

Most of the stories were driven by a kidnapping where the beautiful daughter of one of the players was kidnapped immediately after the Olympic medals were awarded.  The villain would take her to his evil island base, and the players would have to work together to buy or steal a boat.  Gods and goddesses could be called on to intervene, and sometimes they actually did.  Another story line began with the sack of Troy, during which the players either murder or witness the death of a young Trojan boy who just happens to be Heracles’ son.

That story took the players on a quest of penance to visit the underworld and retrieve the boy in the same way that Orpheus tried to rescue his lady love Eurydice.  Potentially, Heracles would even join the quest himself if none of the player characters were the actual killer.  And, of course, all sorts of encounters with monsters would ensue.

 

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I ended up using about as much of my personal resources as a story-teller and a cartoonist to create those adventures as I had available.  But I had students tell me that the week of classroom time spent playing that problem-solving myth game was one of the most memorable learning experiences they ever had.  I never tried it with a high school class, only middle school, and then mostly with 7th graders.  But I think the experiment was very successful from about 1992 to 2004, and it taught me even more about teaching than it ever taught them about mythology.

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