(Bookworms are volunteers from Valley Grange who visit school to listen to second and third graders read. The program has been ongoing at Piscataquis Community Elementary School for nearly ten years.)

There’s a well-worn couch at the head of the stairs where Bookworms sit with a second or third grader and listen to those children read from a book they’ve selected. On this day I was alone because I wasn’t bookworming, I was substitute teaching Kindergarten. It’s also a good place to wait and meet the class when they return from lunch.

A tall young man shuffled down the hall, heading for the library. I immediately recognized him as an “old friend” – one who truly taught me a lot about kids. I remembered how when he was in second grade I dreaded discovering that he was going to be my reader. “Johnny” was just plain annoying and seemed to take pleasure in being so. He was an angry child who frequently lashed out at his classmates and teachers. I was not the only one who tended to avoid him.

There’s of course more to the story but thankfully I started seeing him differently and treating him differently. I ended up enjoying spending time with him. I think he found me as much a challenge as I did him. I especially enjoyed those times when he found it hard to suppress the fact that he was actually enjoying our time together even as he groaned and rolled his eyes.

He’s a lot taller now and his voice is considerably deeper now that four years have passed. A groan still accompanied his rolling eyes when he saw me. But as he reached for the library door he smiled his little smile and said, “Mr. Boomsma, are you sitting there waiting for me to read to you?”

read_together_400_clr_3409I replied “Would you like to?” He didn’t respond but continued on his mission. (The older kids are allowed to print their work to the printer in the library.)

He came out of the library with the page he’d printed, walked over to the couch and sat down so his body was pressed against mine.  “We’re working on poetry.” There was no groan and I sensed he wanted to share.

I looked at the words and started reading aloud to him, thinking I was reading his work. That meant, of course, that I added some editorial comments about how good it was. By the time I’d finished I was thoroughly impressed. I noticed he was smiling again—that little smile that says “Gotcha.” He always did enjoy thinking he’d pulled one over on me. (Truth be told, sometimes he did.) So what was it this time? I looked at the paper more closely and realized I wasn’t reading a poem he’d written—it was a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

In an attempt to diminish my error, I explained, “Well, no wonder I liked it so much. Longfellow is one of my favorite poets.” We shared some thoughts about some of Longfellow’s work for probably longer than we should have since he was due back in class. It felt right and was reminiscent of conversations we’d had a few years ago when he couldn’t pretend he wasn’t interested. I also wanted to prove to him that there was a time when I could recite one “The Children’s Hour” from memory. He explained the assignment was limited to “eight to twelve lines.” Darn. It was my turn to groan.

If you met Johnny, you wouldn’t immediately think he’s the sort of kid you’re going to sit with to read and discuss Longfellow’s poetry. For that matter, I’m not sure he actually sees himself that way, at least not yet. But for those few rhythmic moments, we connected. We shared something of each other and I was reminded again that every kid deserves to be loved and every kid has love to give back.  We are supposed to connect, help and teach each other. The line between teacher and learner is meant to be fuzzy.

In her TED Talk about teaching, Rita Pierson reminds us that “Every kid needs a champion.” She’s got it right, but I would add “Every adult needs a kid.” Kids should be seen and heard. Adults should look and listen because those kids have a lot to offer—even when they try to hide it. I want to believe that in some way I have helped and inspired this small person by being one of his champions. And, yes, I want to believe that he is one of my champions—even when he groans and rolls his eyes.

As a bonus, this recent encounter with Johnny has inspired me. Maybe the next time I see him I’ll again be able to recite that poem from memory. He’ll probably groan, but I’ll bet by the time I finish he’ll show me that little smile that says, “You thought I wasn’t interested but I was. Gotcha!”

But when I get to the end, it is I who will be saying “Gotcha.”

I have you fast in my fortress,

And will not let you depart,

But put you down into the dungeon

In the round-tower of my heart.

And there will I keep you forever,

Yes, forever and a day,

Till the walls shall crumble to ruin,

And moulder in dust away!

And moulder in dust away!

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handprintsI’ve never been a big fan of the lyrics to the Beatles’ tune even though I enjoy the melody. “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away… now it looks as though they’re here to stay… I believe in yesterday.”

No thanks, I prefer to live in the present.

But there was a yesterday and my yesterday was one of the more interesting ones I’ve had in some time. Don’t worry, I won’t bore you with a lot of detail. Suffice it to say it was one of the more difficult days I’ve had a substitute elementary school teacher. At one point, I caught one of the kids doing something out of the corner of my eye. I turned so my back was fully to her and said, “You kids should know that I have eyes in the back of my head and I can see what [student's name] is doing.” Admittedly, this might be considered “lying” to the kids–something I don’t do, but I was also at my wit’s end. They were getting on my last nerve.

Later, while we were lined up waiting for bus dismissal, one of the kids came up and tugged on my sleeve. “Mr. Boomsma, you need to open those eyes in the back of your head so you can see what [another student's name] is doing.” I’m laughing even now as I consider the possibility that he went home and announced to his parents that I really have eyes in the back of my head. Let’s hope his parents find it equally amusing.

As I reflect on yesterday, the troubles are growing faint. I find myself remembering the good stuff and the funny stuff. It was a long day–in the evening I attended an award’s assembly for grades three through six and saw a number of “my” kids honored for their academic accomplishments. Some were nervous; some were acting like it didn’t matter but beneath the facade you know they are proud of their accomplishments. So am I and I’m willing to allow myself to think I might just have contributed to their achievement in some way.

I know that the challenges I had yesterday will continue to grow dimmer and dimmer. But before they are totally gone, I’ve reflected on the day–a habit that’s pretty deeply ingrained. Part of the reason for reflecting is to decide what I can do differently tomorrow. Some of it is to relive the fun and good stuff. Thinking about yesterday, I came to this conclusion–not for the first time, certainly, but in another way that has even more meaning. I am so lucky to work with these kids. I don’t want to forget that they are that–kids. Small people with big brains… and (this might be the title of my next book) small people with big hearts. For the most part, any aggravation they cause is purely unintentional on their part. In the adult world, people like that are a lot harder to find.

In the words of Dr. Seuss, “Today is gone. Today was fun. Tomorrow is another one. Every day, from here to there, funny things are everywhere.”

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Are You A Child?

According to Pulitzer Prize winning American cartoonist Doug Marlette, “We are all children in various stages of growing up.” Of course I’m sensitive to the fact that children are in various stages and sometimes the differences are amazing. There are some kids who would benefit from the advice they should “grow up”–even if only a little. There are others who would perhaps benefit from being reminded it’s okay to be a child. I recall one-fourth grader who visited the classroom while I was straightening up after a day of substitute teaching. This young man is nine years old going on forty, at least most of the time. He noted that he cherished his opportunities to visit with teachers after the school day was over because he could “have some really mature conversations.”

During our “mature conversation” we discussed a number of topics including enjoying life.  he also observed that pre K and Kindergarten were the best years of his life. The reason, he admitted, was that he didn’t have to do much. Now what adult doesn’t occasionally yearn for the relatively worry-free childhood years?

I suppose a truly in depth conversation would have led us to consider the possibility of balancing behaviors without necessarily labeling them. I rather enjoy thinking like a kid. It’s freeing and opens the door to creativity and it’s a  whole lot of fun. I remember one day while visiting an art class I found myself getting involved only to discover I had managed to get red paint on my pants. The kids thought it was rather funny when I said, “Uh oh. My Mom is not going to be happy about this.”

My communication style seems to change when I’m around the kids a lot. Just yesterday I was in a very formal adult setting and realized in my excitement I’d said, “Oh man… you know what’s really cool about that?” I also noticed it was quite effective. Perhaps more effective than making the adult statement, “There are some very unique benefits associated with…” The amused look on my listener’s faces suggested they enjoyed the simplicity and noticed my enthusiasm.

There are two communication tips we might consider even when we are having mature conversations. Unfortunately I’m not sure who said it first, but the command, “Explain it to me like I’m a third grader” often will stop people dead in their tracks. Too many adults have not only grown up but they have also outgrown their third grade vocabulary and simplicity.

When I work with volunteers in classrooms, I can watch the kids’ eyes glaze over when an adult doesn’t get down to their level. Or maybe that sentence should read “up to that level” because there’s a lot to be said for keeping communication simple. Getting and keeping things simple is not always easy after we become an adult.

The second communication tip we might consider is “Reduce it to the ridiculous.” Except maybe it’s not ridiculous to reduce things to the lowest possible level. Let me demonstrate with a seasonally appropriate observation that isn’t reduced:


It would bring me great pleasure if we could engage our orbicularis oris muscles in a state of contraction, perhaps based on the upcoming or current season featuring a celebration of the heritage of those hearkening from a republic consisting of 26 of 32 counties comprising an island originally associated with the United Kingdom located in the Atlantic off the north-western coast of continental Europe.

Or we could reduce it to, “Kiss me, I’m Irish!”

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Affordable Lifelong Learning

online_student_learning_300_clr_4545This could be about your local adult education program–most have a great variety of courses at an affordable price. (I could engage in some blatant self-promotion here!) But let me also share another venue–I’ve not yet actually taken a course, but the approach is intriguing because it seems to mirror the way some online college courses are working.

Skillshare claims to offer “hundreds of classes from the worlds best teachers” and “project based learning” at your own pace. After a bit of window shopping, I’d say that pricing seems to be between $19 and $29 for most courses. However, there is also a “membership” plan at $9.95 per month that gives you free access to many classes and a 20% discount on others.

Every class includes some video–usually short segments and a “real life” project. There are samples of some of the projects on the site. Skillshare describes this approach as “community based,” meaning students interact and collaborate during the course.

There is a wide variety of courses and, I suspect, the number will continue to grow. Most courses have a video introduction by the teacher and include student reviews. Since I saw at least one course where only 50% of the students gave a positive review, it would seem the reviews are published without editing.

In answer to your question, “Yes, I might (consider offering a course or two).” Until then, take a look at what’s available!

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Filed under Classes and Courses, Personal Growth

County Teacher of the Year?

apple iconAs a strong supporter, Bangor Savings Bank just announced that nominations for teacher of the year are open.  One of the exciting changes to the program this year is the selection of sixteen (16) 2014 County Teachers of the Year, one of whom will ultimately be selected as the 2015 Maine Teacher of the Year.

Since we have some GREAT teachers in Piscataquis County, I’m thinking you’ll want to “get with the program” and nominate your favorite. The winner of the Maine Teacher of the Year award becomes eligible for the National Teacher of the Year Award.

According to the Educate Maine website, “The County Teachers and Maine Teacher of the Year should be committed to excellence and to nurturing the achievement of all students.  The nominee should bring to the classroom exemplary skills that are recognized by students, colleagues, parents, and all other members of your school’s community.  To be considered for nomination, a teacher must hold at least a four-year degree and be employed by a Maine public school, including a public charter school; or be employed by a publicly supported secondary school (a private school that enrolls 60 percent or more publicly funded students, sometimes referred to as “the academies” or “the Big 11″).”

To recognize a teacher’s role in engaging his/her students positively to improve student achievement, click here for the online nomination form and eligibility requirements or visit any Bangor Savings Bank branch to pick up a nomination form. Deadline for nominations is 5:00 p.m. on February 28, 2014.

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Filed under Causes and Friends, School Programs, Teaching

There’s no sub for the sub…

Unfortunately, due to illness (mine!) and low enrollment, we are cancelling the Substitute Teachers’ Class scheduled for tomorrow in Dexter. In addition to not wanting to infect others, I  don’t have much voice and that’s one thing that makes it very hard to teach! Please note the class is offered again on February 11th in Dover Foxcroft. Call PVAEC at 564-6525 for information and to register.

Yes, I am drinking plenty of liquids and hope to be back on track soon…

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January 27, 2014 · 12:28 pm

Mr. Boomsma, I really love you!

There are some self-appointed experts out there (I might be considered one depending in the topic) who really don’t get it right. They remind me of Lucy of the Peanuts comic strip once who once declared, “If you can’t be right, be wrong loudlyl”

I’ve been frustrated ever since reading a column by a minister (his emphasis, not mine) who seems to think he’s got raising kids figured out. As is often the case these days, his solution is one-dimensional. He thinks kids need love; parents need respect and therein lies the tension in child rearing. His recommendation is to make certain our children feel loved when we discipline—that way they’ll be more likely to respect us. You’ve heard it before. Maybe you’ve used it before. “I’m only doing this because I love you.”

balance love respectOf course he’s not wrong—unless you consider only dealing with half the equation correct. In my work with the kids I’ve found that kids need (and deserve) respect just as much as adults. What successes I’ve had includes dishing out lots of both love and respect.

There’s a young lady at school who is beginning to figure this out. When she needs redirecting and correcting she will come over to me, grab me around the legs for a hug and say, “Mr. Boomsma, I really love you.” It’s an interesting coping mechanism on her part and was initially very disarming. Assuring me she really loves me could, after all, make me melt into submission. “It’s okay. All is forgiven”.

This is not just about love and forgiveness, so  I will respond by affirming that I love her as well but we also have to respect each other so together we can accomplish our work for the day. One of Mr. Boomsma’s rules is “follow directions quickly” and her love for me doesn’t negate the rule. She gets assurance that I also don’t feel any less loved when she doesn’t quite measure up.  But this is also about demonstrating respect for each other.

My best day with her recently was when she kept saying she needed to tell me something. Unfortunately this came at the busiest time of the day and it was necessary to ask her to wait until things were settled so I could pay attention better to a girl who is easy to ignore; she’s pretty high maintenance. (But what five-year old isn’t? If you don’t figure out how to get the kids to help you prioritize, the school day can be long and arduous with nineteen little voices calling your name.)

When we’d achieved order, I walked over and knelt down beside her. I immediately noticed she had tears on her cheeks. When I asked what was wrong she replied, “Mr. Boomsma, I’m really sorry my behavior wasn’t very good today.”

So it was my turn to tell her I really love her. I don’t think she noticed the tear in the corner of my eye as I thanked her for trying that day. I felt loved and respected by her acknowledgement. She is accepting responsibility for her behavior as well as her love.  I think we might be onto something.

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