The New Normal
PCTELA Family...how are you? The start of the 2020-2021 school year has truly been like none other. You and your colleagues are working harder than ever before, and bringing to our students an educational experience we never planned for. For some, your summer was just as busy, possibly serving on your institutions pandemic committee, to assist in bringing our students back in the safest way possible. For others, it was hopefully a chance to take a small break and catch yourself from the winter, where in a moments notice you took the learning and teaching from your classroom to your living room.
As we begin to restart from the pause that was the first half of the year, we cautiously enter the final act of 2020 (which might be a good thing :-). Know that PCTELA and your professional family is here with you to help in ANY and ALL the ways we can. Our new format of presenting information to you via this blog was off to a great start prior to the events of earlier this year. Realizing we all were in survive and sustain mode, we took a pause. We now will be entering back into the conversation, both with the normal slate of reoccurring entries, as well as ones specific to this "new normal".
As always, our members have the best voices, so please contribute. Drop a e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org with what you have to share with others. Be well, stay safe, and keep learning.
Together, as ever, as one,
Looking Back - PCTELA 2019
by Aileen Hower & Bob Dandoy
PCTELA 2019 Conference Chairs
We begin the New Year with a look back at 2019 and our Conference held last fall and with an eye toward this year and our fall conference. Yes, we’ve already begun planning a wonderful event for this year and we hope you’ll join us.
There were many highlights to CONFERENCE 2019. One of the most wonderful surprises came from a problem when one of our featured speakers was unable to attend. Instead, we were able to have JONATHAN AUXIER join us! A Pennsylvania author, Auxier was engaging and charismatic. His message of how difficult school was for him and how he was inspired by a few teachers who really saw him beyond his quirks was a strong reminder for teachers about the rich variety of students who sit in our classrooms every year.
At NCTE in Baltimore in November, we met up with Jonathan again, as his novel Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster (2018) was awarded the 2019 Charlotte Huck Award. In a distinctly different speech, Auxier shared about his reasons for writing the book. He shared personal and inspiring stories of struggle in his personal life and how his book and his character, Nan, saved his life. The larger message that we were able to take away was how, for all of us, books can often save us and inspire us in ways that “real life” might not always be able to.
Both opportunities to listen to Auxier taught that we need to cherish our students’ creativity and passions and find time to get books into our students’ hands because we never know which book will speak to their hearts and inspire their life’s path. We as teachers, too, have to be readers - so that we can find our own inspiration and work with a larger vision in mind: to teach the whole child, not just any one curriculum.
Jonathan’s appearance at our event illustrates the quality professional learning opportunity afforded to Keystone State teachers through PCTELA. At the NCTE event where Jonathan received the award, Sandra Wallace received the Orbis Award for her picture book, Between the Lines: How Ernie Barnes Went from the Football Field to the Art Gallery. (We’re excited to let you know that Sandra and her husband, Rich, will be two of the featured speakers at CONFERENCE 2020). The same quality professionals that we often see at a national event come to Pennsylvania each year for our PCTELA members edification.
Again, we saw that evident in the professionalism and graciousness of two outstanding national educators, Ken Lindblom and Leila Christenbury. Not only did they speak to the entire conference group, some teachers were able to avail themselves of smaller, more intimate sessions with each of them. Thus is the strength of a local conference.
Author, Paul Griffin, and Teacher-of-the-Year, Shanna Peeples rounded out the program with engaging and enlightening presentations. Of course, the bounty knowledge and experience that is available from our own backyard was evident in the outstanding concurrent sessions presented by PA educators and pre-service teachers.
Cap it all off with a beautiful facility, some great food, and the best of friends and colleagues and we can easily proclaim Conference 2019 to be a grand success.
Of course, in planning and running a conference, it’s important to keep an open mind and stay flexible. Just like with a wedding, or a prom, a play, or anything with many moving parts, it’s realistic to expect anything to happen - both good and bad! When those “anythings” did happen, the PCTELA team jumped into action and thought of our attendees/members first. Although the planning is mostly done by a few, it was only through teamwork from the many that the conference became a reality and was a wonderful experience.
We carefully look at the shortcomings of the event as we plan our 2020 conference. We encourage all who were in attendance to contact us with any ideas or suggestions. (We hope you took the time to fill out the POST CONFERENCE EVALUATION). We are looking at new ideas and structures for this year’s event. The CALL FOR PROPOSALS will be going out soon and we hope you will submit and share your experience and knowledge.
FROM AILEEN: I am deeply grateful to Bob Dandoy for his partnership through this experience, and the whole PCTELA Board and long-time members who showed unwavering support and were willing to work hard to make our vision a reality.
FROM BOB: I am so happy that Aileen consented to co-chair this event with me. I hadn’t chaired the event in a long time and I thought it was important to do so in order to be up to speed on just how things are done now and what challenges the conference chairs face. There is no more professional person and AMAZING resource than Aileen. She helped me to keep my wits about me when sometimes things were swirling out of control! She is a great professional and a wonderful friend.
SEE YOU IN OCTOBER!
by Aileen Hower
Vice President for Elementary Schools
I was completely surprised by the content of Maybe He Just Likes You, by Barbara Dee. I thought I was going to be reading a cute middle-grade book about an innocent, albeit awkward, first crush.
Instead, I read a powerful book about friendship, courage, and the importance of mentors during times of bullying and sexual harassment.
This story is much needed in our current times. It lets early teens know that if someone else makes you feel uncomfortable, it's not "your fault." It encourages developing strength, standing up for one's self, and talking with friends and adults about how one is feeling in difficult situations.
The main character, Mila, is strong, yet makes many of the same mistakes as other middle schoolers in thinking she is alone in her problems. Throughout the story, she grows in her understanding of her right to feel safe in school.
She also learns when it is appropriate to fight for her voice and her hard-earned place in her world versus making bad choices when reacting to her struggles with others.
Overall, Barbara Dee has created a relevant, powerful message for young girls and everyone about how to treat each other with respect and kindness.
Our conference is upon us this weekend! It isn't too late to attend, and for the next few hours it isn't too late to SAVE! It is going to be a wonderful lineup!
C3 : Connections, Conversations, and Collaborations
October 11th & 12th - State College, PA
The Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center
FEATURING: Jonathan Auxier, Paul Griffin, Leila Christenbury, Ken Linblom,
Shanna Peeples, and Jared Reck..
ADVANCE REGISTRATION for Conference 2019 will close Tuesday morning. Register NOW to receive savings over the ON-SITE REGISTRATION ! Check our website, www.pctela.org for up-to-date conference information and to register!
Merci Suarez Changes Gears - Book Review
by Aileen Hower
Vice President for Elementary Schools
I probably don't need to convince anyone to pick up a Newbery as a good book to read. But Merci Suarez Changes Gears, by Meg Medina deserves to be shared and written about as much as possible, especially after the fanfare of winning has ebbed a bit.
My first glimpse into Merci's life came when I read the short story anthology Flying Lessons and Other Stories, edited by Ellen Oh. Each story was completely different. I loved most of them for completely unique reasons. Meg Medina's story was about a brother and sister who attend private school on scholarship. Their dad owns his own painting business and has to paint the school gym over the summer. He gets the kids to help get the job done.
For Merci though, this painting job was... humiliating, as this gym was her school gym, and she didn't want her classmates to find out that she didn't live in a big home or own a boat like everyone else who attends the school or lived in that part of Florida seemed to.
Because it was a short story, Merci's tale was over before I wanted it to be. I was left loving her Abuela and Abuelo, but thinking her story was over before it ever got started.
Then the book was published. It was the perfect mix of sixth-grade angst, health, and school stresses, and wonderful interactions between family members, making new friends, and finding oneself. It more completely told Merci's story in a way that felt more personal, although I would love to follow Merci and her family into seventh-grade.
Get the short story to share with your class to entice them to read the full story of the Suarez family. Or read the short story to fill in a bit of background of the powerful middle-grade novel that comes next.
While Merci's story is fresh and provides an authentic window into her family's life in Florida, it is also an example of a strong, young, female narrative voice that is missing from many of our classroom libraries.
by Aileen Hower
Vice President for Elementary Schools
I just had a new book break into my top ten favorite books of all time.
I had been hearing great things about the young adult novel, A Short History of the Girl Next Door. Because Mr. Reck teaches in a neighboring school district, I eagerly noticed the attention his debut book was receiving. Mr. Reck is an advocate for choice, and wide and deep reading among his 8th grade Language Arts students. He has previously spoken to our local reading council about current books to share with teenagers.
I was hopeful that his book would find success. I had no idea how impressive it would be.
A Short History starts out as a typical novel for teens: boy and girl are best friends until one day, boy realizes he feels differently about girl. The story is told through the point of view of Matt, aka boy, the narrator. And, while most of the content deals with his interactions and follow-up inner dialogue about his neighbor and best friend turned love interest, Tabby, there is a great deal more going on with the plot.
Chapter One starts with: “The Moment I Know It’s Over” – when Liam Branson, a senior, gives Tabby a ride to school. As Tabby’s social trajectory in high school increases with new friends and a boyfriend, Matt struggles with being left behind. He has worked tirelessly on his basketball game only to be placed on JV, a team that seems to exist just to help the Varsity team practice. Of course, Liam is one of the star players on the varsity team. In sharing how alone Matt feels without Tabby, Reck flashes back to provide a rich context to Matt and Tabby’s friendship, as well as their families’ history together. Tabby has been a part of Matt’s “family” for a long time. She plays the role of big sister to Matt’s young brother, Murray. The interactions between Murray and Matt show just how complex a character Matt is, and how cherished a friend Tabby has become to all of them. Matt feels betrayed, abandoned, guilty, comfortable, and light-headed when he now spends time with Tabby. The reader feels all of Matt’s emotions through Reck’s skillful writing.
Then Reck twists the plot in an unexpected way that literally haunted me for days. I found myself reading the novel voraciously so that I could find meaning and healing along with the characters. In the middle of the night, my husband asked if I was okay, because the book had affected me so strongly.
This novel’s characters are heart-felt and carefully crafted. The story is not overwrought with emotion, despite the tragic events. In fact, the tone is enjoyably sarcastic. Matt’s internal dialogue is captivating. There are great scenes with Matt’s English teacher, Mr. Ellis, that put a positive spotlight on how many teachers engage students in their classrooms. Most importantly, Jared Reck’s writing is superb. Amongst all of the characters and plot twists, I mentioned to quite a few people how I could tell that craft was a paramount hallmark of this piece. I do not often stop to appreciate writing as I did in this text.
I can imagine that every teenager will find something powerfully compelling in Reck’s book. From the realistic male narrator who loves basketball, to his expression of a more sensitive side, to the powerful plot with a compelling reason to see the book through to the end, this book will appeal to all readers (adult and teen), and can be recommended with confidence, and even used in class for its mentor sentences, to bring a contemporary text into the classroom.
Life After Teaching
by Bob Hamera
Conference Chair Emeritus Committee
“I am busier now than I was when I was working.” “The days just aren’t long enough to do all that needs to be done.” “I don’t know when I had time to work.”
These are just some of the things I heard from teachers who had retired while I was still working. My thoughts were something like, “Sure. They are just saying that.” After all, when you retire you have all day to do whatever you want at whatever pace you want. You can go any place at any time without being rushed.
People are busier in retirement than when they worked. Really? Well, after six years of retirement I can honestly say, “Yes. Really.” I never thought it could be true, but it is.
The year I decided to retire I know there were many thoughts going through my mind about what the next phase of my life would be like. Will there be enough things going on to occupy my day? Will I just sit around all day bored out of my skull? What will I do all day? Will I constantly be in my wife’s way?
Retirement is what you make it. I have chosen not to sit around all day watching TV, something that would definitely bore me silly. It is true that with age comes more aches and pains so that may mean more trips to the doctor’s office, but not enough to hamper life.
The routine of setting an alarm, getting up, getting dressed, eating breakfast, and heading off to school is no longer the norm; that is true. New routines take their place.
I now rarely set an alarm. Somehow my internal clock always seems to get me up by 7:30. If I want to luxuriate under the warmth of the covers, especially on cold, cloudy, rainy days, so be it. I will get up eventually when I feel like it or when the cats decide they want their breakfast and start knocking things down to get me up.
The funny thing is that if you asked me what I do all day I probably couldn’t give you a satisfactory answer. It depends on the day. During the summer there is always grass to cut and yard work to do.
On those days when either my wife or I have a doctor’s appointment of course we will make a day of it. If I am going out you bet there is going to be a meal involved. After all, why go out if you’re going to stop and eat before going home?
One thing I missed most when I retired was seeing co-workers. Since I don’t live in the district where I taught, I don’t see the people I worked with in local stores. To fix that several of us retirees meet once a month. We pick a local restaurant and our lunches have been known to last for two hours. Luckily the restaurants don’t mind us sitting there talking and enjoying a leisurely lunch.
I guess the one point I want to make about retirement is that retirement is what you make it. You can sit around all day saying there is nothing to do or you can expand you interests, find new things to do, enjoy this new phase of your life.
Educational Focus: Place Based Education
Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature
Book Review 4 of 4
Reviewed by Allison Irwin
PCTELA Director of Special Activities
The Earth’s rich biodiversity is almost lost on us. We live in partitioned communities, travel maybe once or twice per year, and rarely interact with anyone or anything outside of our own microcosm. Have you ever just stopped to watch an ant carry multiple times its own weight in dirt across the sidewalk? I once stopped to marvel at the little creature while I was in the middle of lugging heavy bags of groceries in from my car. I was even a little envious.
If I studied the little guy long enough, would I be able to figure out how he does it? Would I be able to mimic his strength? Benefit from his unique evolution? To be honest, probably not. But this book is filled with scientists and leading researchers who are doing just that. And not just with ants. They’re studying spider webbing, photosynthesis, mollusk feet, rhinoceros horns, and DNA to learn the secrets that animals and plants have harbored for centuries.
Each chapter revolves around a common theme. One chapter discusses ways to improve our agricultural system which currently depends upon fertilizers and pesticides. Every year tons of topsoil laden with these chemicals and nutrients wash down the rivers from our bread basket to the Gulf of Mexico polluting our waters and increasing the negative effects of hypoxic zones. Biomimicry author Janine Benyus writes of farmers all over the world who are drastically changing their methods in order to lighten the need for fertilizers and pesticides. Not only are these farmer-scientists supporting a more symbiotic relationship with the Earth, they are also reducing their overall costs, maintaining basically the same output, and strengthening their intuitive understanding of the earth they’re farming.
She writes about mussels and the incredible, naturally secreted super glue they use so they don’t drift off with the current. Biomimicry was published quite a few years ago. While most of it still reads as cutting edge, it’s interesting to look at where we were 20 years ago compared to now. The super glue she was just hinting at in her text is now a reality. Even though we’re headed in the right direction, scientists have a hard time truly replicating the mysteries of nature.
Biomimicry, biomimetics, and bioneers are three words you can use to dig into this topic further on Google. It’s worth exploring. One of my favorite websites for current information, videos, and examples of biomimicry is managed by The Biomimicry Institute. They offer a full array of educational resources to use in the classroom. If you want more up-to-date examples of biomimetics, check out this article from Science Focus Magazine titled Biomimetic Design: 10 Examples of Nature Inspiring Technology.
The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate - Discoveries from a Secret World - Book Review
Educational Focus: Service Learning - Our Impact on the Climate
The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate - Discoveries from a Secret World
Book Review 3 of 4
Reviewed by Allison Irwin
PCTELA Director of Special Activities
In Central Pennsylvania, just north of State College, there is a beautiful little hotel nestled inside a state park. It’s one of the only hotels of its kind. The Nature Inn at Bald Eagle was “voted the #1 Eco-Lodge in the nation!” Watch this video to see it for yourself. I was lucky enough to spend a weekend here recently.
This past April our Pennsylvania Council of Teachers of English and Language Arts (PCTELA) Executive Council decided to have our annual board meeting in this location. We couldn’t have made a better choice! They held our meeting in a small library overlooking the lobby of the hotel. In that library, during one of our breaks, I discovered The Hidden Life of Trees - a tiny, soft covered book that held my attention for a full weekend. That was all it took for me to rip my way through this incredibly interesting text. I even stopped at Barnes and Noble that evening on the way to dinner just to purchase my own copy.
Written by Peter Wohlleben, a man who spent a good bit of his time as a German forestry worker, The Hidden Life of Trees goes beyond your typical nature story. When he began his “professional career as a forester, [he] knew about as much about the hidden life of trees as a butcher knows about the emotional life of animals.” But over time that changed. The trees he describes take on human qualities of community, survival, grit. Trees, through his eyes, have an almost living presence. Much like a soul. And yet he writes of science and research. Qualitative first-person interactions with forests spanning decades. He doesn’t write about feelings, he writes about facts. But he does it in such a way that you can’t help but view trees in a different light.
One of the most surprising chapters in this book describes how the underground root system of trees act as a community network tying trees of like kind together. I had no idea that they use their roots to pass nutrients and sustain life like an underground electrical grid. When I think of their root system, I can’t help but imagine the synapses and network of neurons we have in our own brains.
“A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. And in this protected environment, trees can live to be very old.”
Wohllenben excels at not just introducing the research that is out there, but also making us care about the topic. I’ll never look at a tree in a park the same way again. Since trees in parks and in city landscaping are typically planted by design, they are often completely cut off from this natural grid system. We surround their roots in concrete tombs so they don’t grow to crack the sidewalk or to wrap around underground water pipes. They have no way of extending their roots to their neighbors and therefore spend their lives completely cut off from the life saving bond of other trees that would otherwise pass nutrients and share water in dire times. For this reason, because the trees planted by us tend to be forced into fending for themselves, their quality of life and length of life are significantly thwarted. Like an orphan braving the streets alone with no social network or adults to help him thrive.
Reading this book also taught me other things like why the leaves of certain trees change color, how different species of trees reproduce very differently from one another, and how a seemingly dead stump can actually remain alive for quite some time. I learned how some trees use counter measures to ward off pests and animals that view the tree as a snack. I learned about sustainable practices for forestry management.
I appreciate that his many analogies to human life throughout the book made the science and study of trees so accessible to someone like me who has a relatively minor background in earth science. I never once thought about the science of trees before reading this book. Never. My mind works much more skillfully with words and language, but he made the research easy to understand. And enjoyable to read.
For anyone who enjoys hiking. Anyone that likes looking at pictures of forests. Anyone who has a backyard or front stoop with a tree that shades their property. Anyone who eats chestnuts in winter. Anyone who ever sat by a roaring bonfire. Anyone who has ever felt the smooth surface of driftwood on the beach. Anyone who enjoys breathing oxygen produced by, well, trees. Read this book!
Educational Focus: Submersibles and Ocean Navigation
Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage
Book Review 2 of 4
Reviewed by Allison Irwin
PCTELA Director of Special Activities
NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker is one of the quietest, if not the most quiet, fisheries research vessels in the world. One of the reasons for this is its propeller. The construction of the propeller is based on non-nuclear submarine technology. In order to avoid the constant vibrating drone normally translated from a mechanical engine to the propeller, which in turn makes noise in the ocean, the propeller is driven by an electric motor that is in turn powered by a series of four generators. The generators are just as loud and tremulous as a traditional engine, but since they’re not directly connected to the propellor, it keeps most of the vibrations from being transmitted into the ocean. Electricity from the generators, which produces far less vibration, is what ultimately powers the propeller.
This nod to submarine technology reminds me of a book I read last school year called Blind Man’s Bluff. The true life characters in this book jump off the page at every turn. Authors Sherry Sontag, Christopher Drew, and Annette Drew do their due diligence by interviewing everyone they can find in the isolated world of submarine espionage - from general crew to Admiral, scientist to politician. Each chapter tackles a different story from an era that spans almost 50 years of American military history.
These submarine spies stood as lonely sentries on the frontlines of a war that was waged fiercely by both sides. Only in this war the most important weapons weren’t torpedoes, but cameras, advanced sonar, and an array of complicated eavesdropping equipment. And while these men rode some of the most technologically daunting craft ever built, their goals were deceptively simple: “Know thy enemy,” learn enough to forestall a surprise attack, to prevent at almost any cost a repeat of Pearl Harbor in a nuclear age. (Prologue xiii)
In Spring 2018, a Vice Admiral of the United States Navy (Ret) came to speak at one of the Civil Air Patrol meetings I attend regularly. The Civil Air Patrol is the official civilian auxiliary to the United States Air Force and is congressionally funded. The main purpose of this organization is trifold: to run an exemplary cadet program focusing on leadership and integrity, to promote aerospace education in our membership and in the communities we serve, and to participate in emergency services missions when assigned. While listening to Vice Admiral, USN (Ret) Daniel L. Cooper, I was given my first glimpse into the world of submarines. At the risk of sounding like a much younger version of myself - I had no idea how cool they were! It was at this event that I wrote a note in my phone for later. The note read: “Get your hands on Blind Man’s Bluff!”
There are two aspects of this text that I remember best. The first is a story about American submarines cruising in the black of night, silent, sneaking into Soviet waters. Their mission was to expel a team of divers from their submarine who would literally walk on the bottom of the Sea of Okhostsk to manually tap a communication cable. Of course, this intricate mission also involved getting that team of divers back on to the submarine before hightailing it out of there. No easy feat. The authors of Blind Man’s Bluff write with such exquisite detail that it feels like you’re riding along with US Nuclear Submarine Halibut during the mission. You can find some details linked here, but I’d definitely recommend reading the book for a more robust account.
The other aspect of this book that sits in my memory is how much the United States intelligence community was dependent at that time on information gathered by these submarine crews. Some chapters of the book read like an old time spy novel. Submarines were tasked with navigating uncharted territory in the Arctic Ocean amid sharp, sometimes undetectable chunks of ice. They also played dangerous cat and mouse games with ships, planes, and other submarines from other countries - sometimes coming to just within a few feet of another submarine risking not only detection but an underwater collision. And collide they sometimes did.
Portraying the lives of the military personnel involved in each mission is done with great care. Some of the submariners have never been able to share their stories with those closest to them. At the end of the book, the authors mention that while some of the men show up at their book signings and events to get “reassurance that [they] had taken care not to harm ongoing submarine operations” (p. 306), the authors still believe they are doing these men a service by sharing their stories so their loved ones can understand them better. They write in the Epilogue on page 299 that “No final analysis of the submarine war can ignore the human costs. These men traded months, years, and more to become what was for decades the country’s best defense against nuclear attack from the sea.”
Listen to an excerpt of the audiobook and you’ll learn that the missions from the Cold War era “...designed to change the very nature of submarine warfare…” (p. 3) and had a lasting impact on our military operations today. Some details in the text are based on interviews and the authors include enough research from declassified papers and other historical documents that it becomes difficult not to believe the description of the missions as they are portrayed in this text.
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