Let’s Talk About Drugs

SugarTough Questions about Drugs

“Hey Mr. D.!  You were a hippie in college.  You did drugs didn’t you?”  Or…  “Hey Mr. D.!  You’re a musician.  I heard you playing that jazz music.  Come on Man, you smoked weed didn’t you?”

Boy!  Those are some tough questions.  Why?  Because parents and teachers know we have a responsibility to point our kids in the direction of the law abiding way to health and happiness but we also remember our own more foolish or dangerous life choices.  Parents have come to me and (in many varied forms) asked, “How do I talk to my kid about drugs (or sex) and not sound like a hypocrite when I think about some of the crazy stuff I did in my years of experimentation?  How do I warn them of potential dangers without sounding foolish or hysterical?  What do I say that will help me to gain or retain some respect or credibility?”

The Tightrope of Candor

Usually I’d have to speak to my kids after some whole school assembly warning our students about the dangers of drugs.  The older kids would be talking about what was wrong with what had been said in the assembly and then it would dawn on the kids to ask me about my past.  So I walked the tightrope of candor:

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Terror as a Teaching Tool? Do the Haka!

MaoriWardanceKahuroaI never considered myself a terrifying person, but apparently I am.  I would never recommend using terror as a teaching tool, but this time apparently it worked.  This is a case of, “oh the gift that God could give us, to see ourselves as others see us!”  You never know what people (students) will take away from our encounters (lessons).  You see…

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The Greatest Shame

12.8.14 Guilt iStock_000005994502SmallWe got fighters.

One semester we had a group of dedicated fighters.  They (guys and girls!) got into a big fight at a local park with kids from another school.  We know this because it was in the early days of YouTube and the kids had video recorded the action, posted it and then bragged about it.  As soon as we adults saw the videos we made sure the police were notified and we had YouTube take down the videos.  The video pugilists were expelled from school.

Sadly, while investigating those public crimes, we discovered evidence of an even more heinous crime which had been perpetrated right under our noses at school!  What shamed me the most about it was the fact that, in my eyes, I/we had done everything right and yet I was still unable to protect one of my kids.

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Eye of Eagle – Foot in Mouth

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAI had earned a reputation as a hard guy.  I was told that there were times when I was used as a threat.  Other adults on campus would tell students, “You better behave or I’ll transfer you to Mr. D.‘s class!”

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m a teacher not an ogre.  Some kids who liked my style of teaching would actually ask to transfer into my classes.  I was only a threat to behavior problems because I seemed to have eyes in the back of my head; I was constantly on guard; I have a painfully loud, drill instructor’s voice; and I would regularly stalk about the room like Captain Bligh inspecting everything.

The reality is I’m just a good actor.  I’m a burnt marshmallow, dark and crusty on the outside but soft and sweet on the inside.  I just kept it hidden.  It was good for business.

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Embarrassing Questions

11.25.14 Question MarkChildren ask a lot of questions.  They’re supposed to.  It is a cornerstone of learning.  And I believe it is the duty of adults, parents, teachers, even the whole village, to answer those questions as honestly and unemotionally as we can.  But it’s not always easy.

Now, I’m not talking about the kinds of questions which are asked as distractions (those are a different problem).  I’m talking about the kinds of questions in which the child really does want an honest answer but where an honest answer can be embarrassing to the adult or a serious challenge to adult dignity.

If you have ever changed a diaper, cleaned up after a sick cat, or used a bedpan in a hospital ward you probably know that some situations require actions which are necessary but inherently undignified.  It is in those moments in which we learn that dignity is carried in the heart and not dictated by circumstance.

When children are young and the questions are things like: “Daddy, why do I get boogers in my nose?” or “Mommy, why do Daddy’s farts smell so bad?” the challenge to dignity isn’t all that great.  But as our children mature and the questions become more sexual in nature, far too many adults/teachers shy away in embarrassment from these assaults on adult dignity.  Among the many embarrassing questions I’ve been asked, the following three questions stand out for me.  They were serious questions asked in class.  Although they challenged my dignity, I felt they were worthy of serious, dignified, honest answers.

I was asked: “Mr. D., what’s a stiffy?”  “Mr. D., why do your nipples look like that?”  and finally, “Mr. D., have you ever kissed a man?”

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Two Choices Technique and the Gangsta’

11.29.14 2 choices Gang iStock_000005364632LargeI got a gangsta’ challenge.

Andre and Nicolas were not doing their math.  They were talking nasty stuff about jail.  They were showing off, whispering just loudly enough to make their private conversation public.  This was at a time when we had some pretty tough customers for students and it was obvious that Andre and Nicolas were working at showing how tough they were.  They didn’t need to.  At a school full of hard guys, Andre was easily one of the toughest and Nicolas wasn’t far behind.  They were trying to show the other kids that they could bully me.  I hadn’t been their teacher for very long so they were testing me.

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Is That Really What They Called Him?

MozartIt started with The Mozart Effect. That’s the name for research first put forth by Alfred A. Tomatis (and later by others, eventually trademarked by Don Campbell, Inc.) which claims that listening to classical music, particularly Mozart, may have beneficial effects on some kinds of mental skills. Some musician friends asked me if I thought it had any effect on math. I didn’t know.

I have always been on the lookout for any technique which would improve learning. Since I considered my classroom a living laboratory, and I had plenty of music to play on the computer, I decided to give it a try. Please understand, that although I considered this an experiment in learning, it could hardly be considered scientific. I had no way to do a control group or any kind of double blind testing. I just figured I’d play with the idea and see what happened.

My Mozart Effect experiment did have some startling outcomes, but I can’t say it improved mathematics performance in my class in any measurable way.

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It’s a beautiful story but…

8.26.14 Teddy's Shoes iStock_000033354782_SmallThis is a long one but I think you’ll find it’s worth it.

I don’t like having my emotions manipulated without my permission.  I do frequently give my permission.  I have a fondness for Frank Capra movies.  I can recite lines from “It’s a Wonderful Life” before they are spoken on the screen and I still cry at every tearjerking scene.  But the important issue here is that with movies, I seek out this emotional catharsis.  It isn’t thrust upon me with the tacit message that if I don’t feel the right emotions at the right moments I must probably be missing something as a human being.

One day, while teaching, I (as well as the whole school district) was subjected to just such emotional manipulation by a high ranking district administrator.  All schools and offices were sent an INTEROFFICE CORRESPONDENCE labeled A TRUE STORY.  It is the Teddy Stoddard story (two versions follow below – the original and mine).  You may have heard of it.  It is a wonderful parable about the power of love.  I can’t read it without getting choked up, until I remember it was sent to me to deliver a message: all we need to do is love and understand our students and they will all succeed.

Read moreIt’s a beautiful story but…

John Coltrane, “My Favorite Things” and the Hero of Second Grade

7.28.14 Sax iStock_000028194066_SmallJohn Coltrane

I was on a John Coltrane kick.  You know, that bebop jazz saxophonist who led his own band and worked as a side man with Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and others.  I played “Trane’s” greatest hits album for my Special Ed. class while we did art.  I especially liked his arrangement of My Favorite Things from the musical The Sound of Music.  So when I taught second grade, as part of my student teaching, I came up with a lesson using My Favorite Things and it turned out to be more fun than a trip to Disneyland.

This lesson had everything: art, cross cultural awareness, music, physical movement and self-esteem building. And it made one young boy a hero in the class.  Here’s what I did.

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What or Where is Planet Reality?

saturnequinox_cassini_bigPlanet Reality

I use the term “Planet Reality” to signify our own experience with the world.  Too often we are all guilty of believing that what is true for one is true for all (this is particularly true in education).  I used to believe that what was true for one was true for all and it took me years to learn that it just isn’t so.

For example: Similar numbers do not signify similar experiences.  Growing up in Chicago, when the temperature was 40º F in February it seemed as though spring had sprung.  In Los Angeles, 40º F in February seems bitterly cold.  Teaching a class of 40 college-bound high school seniors in an affluent area requires some different skill sets than teaching a class of 40 middle-school students in the inner city.  I’m not saying one situation is better than the other.  They both have challenges and rewards (some are the same in each).  But there are also different realities because of the different experiences.  These differences are what drive the controversies over educational reform and teacher evaluations.

Teaching was a mid life career change for me.

I worked as a substitute teacher while earning my credentials.  During that time, and over the next 25 years, even after I was credentialed, tenured and then National Board Certified (NBC), I sat through hundreds of hours of classes, teacher trainings, in-services, seminars and colloquia.  And, time after time, I found that what was being said as “training” or “support” just didn’t seem to relate to or help me with what I was experiencing in the classroom.  I’m not saying it was all a waste of time.  I’m saying that too much of it didn’t relate to my reality, because too much of it was aimed at the top student achievers (those who were working at or above grade level) and not enough was aimed at those who were struggling (put into classes for which they lacked the prerequisite skills to succeed).  Too many tax dollars were spent on training that was no help and too often district policy and the pronouncements of political pundits was/is based on the false assumption that what is true for one is true for all.  And ‘all’ is generally assumed to mean those who are slightly below, at, or above grade level.

Debunking that assumption (and others) is mainly what this web site and posts are about.  Please remember, I love being a teacher and I love teaching.  I’ll give you plenty of reason to love teaching too.  But it isn’t all sweetness and light.  This particular post is an overview and any claims I make will be dealt with (explored and/or proven) in later writings.  This is just a taste.

I was told…

When I first started as a naive and relatively inexperienced teacher (I had taught music privately), I’d ask questions related to my current classroom experience.  I was frequently told that I simply needed more training.  After I earned my Masters of Education degree and achieved National Board Certification, if I asked a similar question, I was told I was being unrealistically negative or I was denigrating my students.  Let me give you some real life examples of things that happened more than once.

10.10.07 Assess #1010.10.07 Assess #17
Planet Reality Created

I started to get the idea for Planet Reality at seminars with other math teachers, particularly National Board Certified (NBC) teachers.  The NBC teachers were mostly teaching honors classes, while I, the only NBC math teacher in the district who worked  at a Community Day School (CDS), taught the most at risk and unlucky students in the district.  The other NBCs would share lessons about how their students were solving complex math puzzles and doing creative and involved projects.  When I shared that I was constantly looking for new creative ways to help high school aged students who thought that 3,000 – 1,588 = 2,588 (because they didn’t know basic math) or that 35 ÷ 5 = 0.142857… (because they used a calculator – even after being told not to), the other NBCs would give me a look that said, “What planet are you from?”  Welcome to Planet Reality!

Classroom management training always seemed to assume that every student you’d ever see would respect authority and you’d never be presented with a situation that had no good solutions.


For example: Your daughter is in my math class.  Suddenly another girl jumps up calls your daughter a bitch and starts pounding on her, ripping out her hair and tearing off her blouse.  Pandemonium erupts and the class forms a circle shouting, “Fight! Fight!” and worse.  What do I do?  Do I grab the girl who is doing the attacking?

What would you want me to do to protect your daughter?

Read moreWhat or Where is Planet Reality?


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