Friday, November 11, 2016

They fought to give us a gift of a free country.. let's not mess that up

Veterans' Day represents all of our military who sacrificed their time and potentially lives to represent our country. My grandfathers worked to free concentration camp victims in world war II. My father worked communication at a time when we were defending democracy in SE Asia. My brother helped defend a small country in the Persian Gulf from an aggressive neighbor.

We did all of these things because we believe that the right to have free elections, and exist in a country where all views  (religious and personal) are taken into account is valuable.

Everyday in my work as an educator I try to discern what people are thinking, how much they know, where they got their resources. I pay attention to whether they are treating others with respect, I try to teach them critical skills like seeing issues from several points of view, collaborating and compromising to achieve goals.

I am a history teacher at heart, so I worry that people see the whole picture and understand how the government works, how different leaders affected history, how certain movements over time worked to achieve rights for women, all races religion and sexual preferences.

I am perplexed and upset every day by what I see happening in our country.

I have many friends of all kinds. I don't limit myself to only listening to people who agree with me.

I know educated intelligent adults who spent the last few weeks spewing hate and name calling. With all of the de-friending on social media, I worry people are retreating to their little boxes of like-minded individuals.

So if you are still reading this realize :

Presidents rarely keep their campaign promises : I know many of you are afraid that our Latino LGBTQ and women friends will be affected by walls, new laws, and supreme court reversals that will threaten our families and ways of life.

There are many more steps that have to happen before that is a threat.

 Is it great that the same party now controls possibly all three branches of government... no, this is not ideal. But in just two years there is a midterm election that can change that.

So many of you think that by electing  Donald Trump our country gave the green light to disrespect of disabled people, women, homosexuals, and immigrants.

NO . Each us has the power and responsibility every day to respect everyone around us.

We have a fair and free election system. My friends that voted for Donald Trump did so overwhelmingly because they believe that our country needed to shakeup Status Quo economically. Much remains to be seen about policies and practices that will or won't make changes.

I am upset that protests put my 20 year old daughter in danger in California this week. My initial reaction was to sarcastically "thank" DJT. My logic was : his hateful comments, caused a visceral response creating a vacuum of common sense and therefore a forum for protests and hate. Yes, that is all very ugly.

But I am thinking more about individual responsibility now to be true to each of our own values while working together in government systems. I am putting in perspective times in history where groups worked peacefully and productively to make sure that their values and messages got across .
( MLK comes to mind.)

I am listening to the plans for the first 100 days of Donald Trump's presidency and I  am not hearing the threats to civil liberties some of my friends are very concerned about.

I see very few people being able to stand the optimistic middle ground that I am taking right now. I have felt accused by both sides of being a horrible person. My liberal friends are being accused of being "crybabies" as they express their concerns about the outcome, and my conservative friends have been labeled the devil incarnate for supporting Trumps views.

Please join me here in the middle where we try to respect the government system our forefathers set up knowing that we have a lot of different views in our country to manage . And try to respect each other every day. The whole " We " and " Them" thing is getting in the way here..... on many many different levels.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Not my Circus, not my Monkeys .. but SO MUCH LEARNED !

Tonight I had a unique experience to witness an intimate learning experience as a semi-outsider. I went to support my friend's daughter in her role as Student Liaison to her BOE in rural upstate NY. Her predominantly white school district voted at a June 7, 2016 BOE meeting to replace their "Indian" mascot with  an "Eagle."  To the credit of their teachers and the passion of the students, a human rights club and student council banded together to re-initiate the movement to replace the mascot due to the discriminatory nature of stereotyping Native Americans as cartoon-like aggressive characters.

But alas, despite the fact that the students thoroughly researched their case, and they knew the history of the movement (15 years prior a similar decision by the BOE was overturned after pushback and violence from the community), I think they underestimated the still existing strong emotions regarding  the matter. The meeting tonight was designed for everyone who wanted to speak about the matter to have 3:00 minutes. Over 30 people were signed up to speak.

The learning the students demonstrated so eloquently tonight in quality research from legitimate sources, passionate persuasive writing , and articulate speaking was quite impressive. They recognized and honored human rights and cultural sensitivity. They had discussions, a call to action, a survey, a forum for dissenting views all as part of their process to make their case. And the BOE agreed, especially given their legal obligation to have non discriminatory practices.

Stating a strong passionate opinion to like-minded individuals is easy. Ask anyone who has de-friended all the political opinions on the other side of the Facebook isle. Many of these students will go on to strong liberal arts schools and have educational experiences that are far reaching in their creativity for problem solving and critical thinking. These will be wonderful learning experiences.

But they got one of the best ones they could tonight. The students gracefully and politely listened as adults that have come from 5 generations in that town gave their opinions about the "indian " mascot. It represented honor to them, integrity to who they were. Most genuinely did not believe they were being racist by invoking the mascot, but they were in fact remembering and honoring Native Americans. (Who they believed did not mind the name "Indians"). They spoke of relatives who had passed away who were "Indians" (athletes from this particular town, bonded by tradition)  and how this move dishonors them. And the story was told of  the 80s football state championship where the 18-0 snowy half time deficit was overcome by a rally that started with an Indian chant (I admit I cringed at that one) . I believe that listening to and tolerating views you do not share, is one of the best human skills in the 21st century.

Everything was going along predictably uncomfortably for everyone, until it took a sharp turn few were expecting. An older  Native American woman got up to explain that her father had been forced to leave his home and go to a military school, and was disgraced by his American classmates. That her father taught her to not give up on who she was . But the cultural references to Native Americans were hers to make, not the white rural people who may have happened to live in an area once long ago populated by Native Americans ( which by the way, would be every where in America) . This woman was proud of the BOE that they were giving their students a symbol (Eagle) to be proud of and that it could represent joy and power and inclusiveness to the whole community without possibly alienating anyone.  She was hard to argue with !

The "Save the Indians " crew,  I will call them, changed the tune to "change is ok" , but the process was wrong, it should be a referendum of the whole town (like 15 years ago) , resignations were called for, accusations of political posturing flew around,  but the very best idea was called for by some sensible people who were there to support the students and the BOE. They said that it was apparent that the entire community would benefit from cultural sensitivity and tolerance training. (couldn't we all ?!) Just maybe plan the vote for after the training !

I think about my daughter and her passionate writing about gun control laws and the political climate today where everyone has so much to say but doesn't appear to be hearing one another. I think about the many people who let tradition, and agreement with their elders as a bonding experience, get in the way of accepting new and progressive ideas that are inclusive of all humans. But I've seen change in my lifetime and I hope our children get to see much more.

Maybe the circus and the monkeys do belong to all of us jointly ?

Saturday, November 7, 2015

November already ?

I mentioned that this year started off rough for me, but I cannot believe we are approaching the end of the first marking period ! I have gotten into a nice routine with my grade 6 students and it is very heart warming to see some of the grade 7 and 8 students I have for extension periods getting excited about their social justice projects.

I designed a collaborative TV news segment project to start the year in grade 6 . We were all quite excited to hear about the discovery of Homo Naledi, a hominid and early ancestor to humans. The students had a lot of fun with art, acting, and collaboration. And I think they understand what scientists know about the development of early man... at least they now understand that humans and dinosaurs did not exist at the same time . "Damn you" Flintstones...

Parent conferences occurred earlier this month. That always solves so many mysteries. Apples don't usually fall too far from trees. And trust me, my district has plenty of very strong important established trees, with a lot of pressure for those apples to live up to. But, in the same classroom I have students who are hurting because they don't have all the same advantages. It always makes you realize that you do have to take each case completely separately.

Next up, I am trying to expand my differentiation options. We study ancient river valley civilizations in MP 2 ; Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China... To go along with all my normal teaching strategies I am going to have students choose a "lens" in which to view, compare and contrast these civilizations as we learn about them. They can choose from builder, performer and artist. We are going to have a showcase at the end. The builders are going to get to choose from Minecraft or 3d materials, Performers can show everyday life in these civilizations through skits, dance or song, and the artists can recreate sculpture, painting, drawing, computer presentation or any combination of these.

My hope is to make the classroom a place of excitement, discovery and joy. If I am going to spend all day with 11/12 year olds, I want them busy enough that they are not plotting how they are going to overthrow and torture me !

I did a college fair last week as an F&M alumni. I watched totally clueless juniors and seniors try to get information about this very big decision they face. I thought of my own college age kids and the angst I had as an 17 year old trying to make that decision. I then thought back to my college experience that ended in a totally different direction than it started (I had absolutely no intention of becoming a teacher) As it turns out I can't imagine investing my life in any other field . But I'm also very glad I formed that journey at F&M, which I most certainly would not have chosen had I known the ending. Some of my best lifelong friends came from my college experience.

So I hope everyone enjoys their journeys and all the wonderful, or sometimes bittersweet twists and turns life provides for us. Remember, if you try to keep joy around you, it is so much more bearable.


Wednesday, September 23, 2015


Sorry for the delay on this first post. My world was shaken by the loss of my mother, Linda, DeCinque, on September 3rd. She had been ill for a long time, but nothing really prepares you for the death of someone you have known every moment of your life. Both my parents have now passed away, and as the oldest of four siblings I am feeling mighty officially the role of an adult.

The best solution for this feeling, is of course to spend your days in a middle school, surrounded by adolescents. It keeps you young and gives you perspective of a whole life ahead. I am blessed with amazing friends and family to help me through these times. And I am starting to feel caught up and back in the swing of things. My mother was a wonderful role model of strength and patience which are the skills I need to survive for now.

This year I am teaching all of the grade 6 Social Studies (ancient civilizations) in our building. I used to teach grade 5 and 6 . I also have several different weekly sections of a social justice extension class with 7th and 8th graders, so it promises to be a very interesting and engaging year.

Conveniently, scientists in South Africa excitingly announced a new find indicating another species of early man. This happens to be my exact curriculum and it has been exciting to design a unit project around this news. Students are in groups being asked to construct a 5-7 minute news program that communicates the facts and questions revolving around this story.

I'll keep you posted and post a link to some sample products if possible, I am still exploring our new policies regarding technology in our district. I have also been exploring different programs that allow you to intersperse questions into a video for student viewing.

Along with that, I have launched, which I am hoping to use to improve communication to parents regarding assignments and announcements from school. As always, the administrative search continues for a good match of my skills and abilities in the next phase of my career ( all leads appreciated ) .

Welcome to a new year,
Holly Foley

Sunday, June 28, 2015

One Last Heart-Warming Story from 2014- 2015

One of the final activities of the school year is "Relay for Life" (walking to raise money and awareness for cancer patients) .

As you may have recalled from earlier posts, one of my classes got very passionate about the water situation in developing countries. We were in touch with which provided some fabulous educational resources, but with all of our fundraising initiatives already in place, we didn't fit raising money for them in.

But just to honor their awareness the grade 6 class developed an "extra credit challenge" to "Relay for Life." We labeled (five) 5 gallon buckets with this message ... "Kids in developing countries have to carry water for their families many miles each day . Can you do it ? "

We put the filled buckets out during the Relay.

I introduced the challenge by saying "We want to see if these buckets can make it around the field once . You can carry for a bit and put it down and hopefully someone else will come along and pick it up. "

Those buckets didn't touch the ground once during 90 minutes.

There was no incentive, or prize. Kids who normally wouldn't even think of drinking tap water out of their faucet without filtering it, were willing to carry big buckets of dirty water around a field on a 90 degree day  !

It was beautiful to see who rose to the challenge... it wasn't only the predictable "good students" or traditionally "do gooder" helpful kids. It was all different types of students; Ones that were normally quiet, ones that wrestle with behavior or learning problems . So many different combinations of pairs or triplets , different grade levels genders. A small grade 5 girl was trying to carry one and two bigger grade 6 boys came along to help. One student dressed in long sweatpants carried it by himself around the field twice !

I hope it will resonate with them as an empathetic experience. I know it showed me and everyone who witnessed it,  the amazing character of our middle school students, and made my heart sing before leaving for the summer.

I know it isn't anything compared to the real struggles that some students around the world have, but it is reassuring to know that kids can care and understand. I will try to get those (now) grade 7 students organized to set up a fundraiser and maybe all the students who participated will also help donate.

I hope each of us finds small ways this summer to try to understand how others live.

Holly Foley

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Closing doors- opening windows ?

The end of school year is always a precarious time. Everyone is exhausted from diving to the finish line. You feel that that you have created such a strong bond with the students you've spent every day with for months and months. You reflect back on the learning and growing and really are so impressed with the miraculous journeys.

On a personal level, I am at a hugely precarious juncture, as I am being considered for the job of my dreams right now. I will probably know the fate of that situation early next week. I know I'd have so much heart, soul, experience and learning to share with this new community of learners. I've provided the committee with every shred of evidence I can think of, to convince them to take a chance on someone who has not yet been a principal. All I can do is wait and pray at this point.

In the meantime, in class this week I have a few touching stories to remind myself that if this door closes:

 1. The room I am left in in,  is an incredible place and I am very lucky to even be there.
 2. The lessons I teach every day about grit and tenacity won't let me give up, and I know I will have a friend or colleague ( and probably several) who will always be there for me to help me through tough times and help me look for the next window.

Story number 1 - I do end of year reflections. I ask students about the topics they feel they have become the strongest experts on, the ways they've grown as a learner and person, the policies, projects and resources in my classroom that I should "keep" or "ditch" . Again this year I am overwhelmed by the variety of experts, the amazing learning, the honest and helpful feedback from my students. I love when I anonymously read aloud the "keep" and "ditches" and get powerful arguments from students who want to defend, what someone else wants to ditch . And the several responses of "don't  change a thing, this class is perfect and I've loved coming here every day" don't hurt either.

Story number 2 - One class of my six  (a grade 6 class),  due to scheduling conflicts, is ahead of the others and completed all the reflection activities, so I gave them a choice of free time or finishing up a movie they watched one day last week. Only one student voted to continue the movie. Students split themselves up into small groups to play card games, talk or draw; a few read or draw alone comfortably). I use these times to monitor and observe friendships and note what students do when they aren't programmed or scheduled or told what to do (like the other 99.9% of their lives) .

That one child who has been struggling on and off socially throughout the year was visibly unhappy when everyone split off and he didn't have anyone approach him about joining an activity. (He really would have preferred to finish the movie, he doesn't want to read or draw alone) After giving him a few minutes, I called him over and said

Me - "you know if you just ask "Can I join ?, any group would let you "
Him - " no I really can't do that"
Me-" Do you want me to go with you ?"
Him - "No,  can I just go to the nurse, my neck hurts"
Me - I realize that if I switch the activity to the movie and ask groups not to talk, it will be obvious and may reverberate in resentment from some students. I also can't assist putting him in a group against his will because that will embarrass him. Sometimes I can make eye contact with a student and get them to realize what is going on, but no one is really paying attention to us. So I say I have a few errands I needed him to run if he wasn't busy and his neck is ok . He is reluctant, but a little grateful for the exit strategy.

Then in swoops a superhero student (and not one I would have predicted) who is watching my interchange from with ### from across the room .  He says "Hey Mrs. Foley, you know I really really want to watch the movie too. Maybe we can put it on and sit close to the front of the room and the people talking softly won't bother us. " I want to hug this child . Great idea ! A few others joined him and ### was rescued and supported by these peers.

I know my peers will rescue and support me from any disappointments too.

I know we have all had a great year of learning and growing and we all have many adventures ahead. I will be fine continuing in the middle school classroom if that is the outcome and if I do get the position I am desiring any blog fans will be inundated with my new adventures and experiences.

Have a great summer !


Sunday, May 3, 2015

In the Home Stretch of 2014-2015

My intention was to use this blog to highlight the "AHA" moments of teaching. It was highjacked for a bit by PARCC ( like all of education seemed to be), but let's try to put the drama in perspective. It is over. The end of year PARCC was much less of an imposition and now we wait to see if the results are meaningful.

In the meantime lots of cool things are going on in room 304!

Grade 5 students are now firmly entrenched in our school culture. This time of year students raise money for Pennies for Patients program to fund Leukemia and Lymphoma research. The grade 5 kids have come up with so many new and original fundraising ideas while their homerooms compete to extract as much money as possible from each other;  a three on three soccer tournament, a dunk tank, sponsoring Elsa and Anna characters to come to the elementary school building, along with all the traditional raffles, bake sales etc. They raise a lot of money for a good cause, but also get to practice a lot of leadership, planning and collaboration skills.

In SS class we continue to pick units out of our textbook and then to supplement the reading with projects and activities to get deeper meaning and connections. Interestingly, this book splits Southwest  Asia (Middle East) into two different chapters ; Ch 18 : Arabian Peninsula and Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, which we studied earlier in the year,  and Ch17 ; Eastern Mediterranean (Turkey, Israel, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon).

We watch CNN student news. Many days they report on the activities of ISIS in the Middle East.

GREAT QUESTION posed by a student. " If ISIS thinks that Syria and Iraq should be one country (theirs) ... How come our textbook doesn't even say they are in the same region ? Umm.. book is 15 years old?, We westerners know less than we think we do about the real ethnic divides of the Middle East ? But that is clearly critical thinking and questioning at its best... And we are now in the process of doing comparing and contrasting work of Iraq and Syria.

And here is another ISIS connection gem from my grade 6 students :

We studied the Roman Empire for many weeks. Students did a project comparing the Roman Empire to the Modern World . They picked a thesis (it is the same, they are different) and supported their thesis with details from the cultures in topics of entertainment, military, government, religion, social structure, famous leaders, and art/architecture. They did a great job and we spent some time talking about how this great Roman Empire became so vast it was difficult to manage and that barbarians were able to topple it in the 5th century.

ANOTHER GREAT QUESTION : If we proved Roman Empire is so much like the USA, do you think that ISIS is like the barbarians and they plan to topple us ?

Sooooo.... more time spent with a very motivated question about ISIS and their goals. Rest easy, we found out that ISIS is very localized and organized and really only wants to control their own little corner of the Middle East.

I get my own little "world issue think tank" for a few more weeks with this extraordinary group of students. Then, as ever, I am optimistic that maybe this is the year I will become a full time school administrator... A few opportunities are in the mix right now. We shall see.