Monday, June 29, 2009

Words of Farewell

I've had the opportunity in the last month to see the Broadway play Jersey Boys twice, once on Broadway and once in my own state, part of the Broadway Series South. At the end of the performance, which chronicles the experiences of the group known as The Four Seasons, the character Frankie Valli says, "People have asked me what stands out over my career. Was it the hit records? Was it the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction? I have to say, looking back, that it was all of it. All of it."

I feel the same way about my NC Teacher of the Year experience. Yes, there are some highlights that stick out, ones that people ask me about often. But really it was all of it - from the minute I was named Gravelly Hill Middle School's Teacher of the Year in April of 2007 until when Tony Mullen was announced the next National Teacher of the Year in April of 2009. All of it.

The Big Things That Got a Lot of Attention

1. Being able to visit the White House with the other State Teachers of the Year and shake hands with President Obama during his first remarks in the Rose Garden during his Presidency was BIG. It was a historical moment starring a historical President. We could hardly breathe with excitement. Prior to that we attended a reception at the Vice President's home and met and talked with Dr. Jill Biden and played with Champ, the Vice Dog. After that, a few of us were interviewed for three segments of the syndicated television show This is America. Surreal. All of it.

2. Being named a finalist for National Teacher of the Year is an honor that I still can barely wrap my brain around. Having met and worked with the other finalists and State Teachers of the Year I seriously feel the need to bow down Wayne's World style and claim "I'm not worthy. I'm not worthy." The best part was how excited my students were about the announcement. They felt that it was for them, and of course, it was.

3. Appearing on national television and being reunited with my first grade teacher Mrs. Warnecke was life-changing. Since that day, I have gained a forever friend and confidant and have had the opportunity to question my teaching practices: how can I make a difference to my students the way Mrs. Warnecke made a difference to me? Hopefully, the answer will appear in my book Finding Mrs. Warnecke, scheduled to be released in May 2010, another dream realized because of this experience.

4. Because of the Teacher of the Year program, I traveled to Europe for the very first time. The Center for International Understanding included our entire team, and we traveled to Denmark and Sweden. I was giddy with excitement from the moment I stood at the post office and applied for my passport. I've been home a week, and I'm still not over it! It was amazing...

5. I've had the opportunity to speak before the Education Oversight Committee of the NC Legislature, and just last week, I sat with a group of National Board Certified Teachers with the Speaker of the House as our audience. Also, our state senator, Kay Hagan, visited me at my school...which brought in policy makers from all over the county to my school that sits in a former blueberry field out in the country. Big stuff for us.

6. I was appointed by the Governor of NC to serve on the NC Professional Teaching Standards Commission. This was a huge deal to me as I had to be sworn in by a judge. And as part of the commission, I've had the opportunity to impact how teachers are evaluated in my state. It makes me very proud.

Other Things That Were Really Important But Maybe Didn't Get As Much Attention from the Media

1. The 2008-2009 Teacher of the Year Team members are my best friends. To think that I only really met them a little over a year ago is unbelievable to me. Just goes to show you how quickly kindred spirits can become close. And the same goes for the other State Teachers of the Year. I truly have made friends for life because of the Teacher of the Year program.

2. Several times audience members have approached me to tell me that my story made a difference to them. Some were current teachers; some were future teachers. One finalist for the North Carolina Teaching Fellows Program referenced something she heard me say in her interview. She was later selected to be a NC Teaching Fellow. To have an impact on others in the way that the Teacher of the Year program has afforded me is so meaningful.

3. I've had the opportunity to serve on various Boards including being a Teacher Advisor to the State Board of Education. I also served on the Public School Forum Board, the World View Advisory Board, and the Twenty-first Century Professionals Committee of the State Board of Education. I'm excited that these folks really care about the "teacher voice."

4. There have been innumerable speeches - to future teachers, beginning teachers, veteran teachers, future principals, and most importantly, there was a "graduation" speech to the eighth graders of my school, a bittersweet moment at the end of my year.

The Funny Things That Made the Traveling Easier

1. Okay, it wasn't funny that I hit a deer. But it was funny that the schoolbus threw that deer at me...and that the deputy was so serious when he told me that all he found, as far as damage, was fur.

2. I was nervous at the beginning of my year when I attended my first Public School Forum Board meeting. I sat beside Dr. June Atkinson, our State Superintendent, and hoped I could string two words together and sound worthy of my role...then a huge storm blew over, and the power went out. Here we sat in this (very old) resort hotel in Pinehurst in the dark. It was quite comical as we all were stabbing at our pecan pie and missing our plates.

3. The funniest part of the year, bar none, was the Principal of the Year selection process. I had been away from home for a week, in Dallas, Texas, at the State Teacher of the Year Conference, when I came home to spend two weeks in a car with Dan Holloman, Alisa McLean, and Debra Morris. I have never laughed so much in my life! We literally traveled from one end of the state to the other, west to east...then northeast to southeast...then back west...until we were giddy with exhaustion.

4. I learned a great deal about my ability to push through exhaustion during this experience. There were days when I would have a breakfast keynote, a luncheon, and a dinner motivational speech...all in the same three different cities. People would say, "Well, who makes your schedule?" That would be me. But it isn't as easy as it seems. Let's just say on one of these occasions, I scheduled one thing - the breakfast keynote. Before I knew it, the Principal of the Year luncheon was scheduled on that same day, and a National Board dinner was rescheduled (from a snow day) for that same night. But just when I thought I didn't have one more ounce to give, I'd look out at those smiling faces in the audience and get some energy...just enough to get me home.

5. I'm glad no one saw me fall out of that kayak at Ocracoke. I went home with bruises, but it was worth it for this city girl to get "back to nature."

6. I did go into a couple of schools and, as a means of introduction, say, "I'm the North Carolina Teacher of the Year, and I...." only to get a variety of responses like "And?...." or "Uh huh...." as if to say "Who cares?" I finally changed my introduction to "I'm the North Carolina Teacher of the Year and I only say that so you'll know I'm not a terrorist or a child molester. May I please see...." It worked really well.

7. I got lost...a GPS was not always right on target. Like the time it kept yelling at me to "turn right, turn right." I was in Hoke County, and there was nothing right except a cemetery. I yelled back at it: "I'm not turning right!!!" That was the only time I got lost in the east, but I got lost in the west a LOT! GPS does not like mountains! I found out you really don't have to travel the corkscrew roads of Little Switzerland to get to Burnsville in Yancey County. I also found out that just because it isn't raining at home, it may be raining in Stokes County when you're lost and have to keep getting out to run into fire stations and convenience stores in an attempt to find King, N.C. at 5:57 PM when you're the keynote speaker at 6PM.

8. Speaking of rain, for a state that had been in a severe drought to the point where we were assigned days that we could wash our cars, it sure did rain on me A LOT!

There was the time I was traveling from Charlotte to Brunswick County and got caught in a rain storm in Monroe. I also got caught speeding in the state car, the only time a "concerned citizen" dialed that 1-800 number and turned me in.

There was that Saturday that I was to speak at the NCAE Convention....the same Saturday thousands of people participated in a race that required all of the roads to be blocked. I got to the Convention Center on time, but my hair was a big frizzball. Good thing they had giant screens so that all 2,000 of the delegates could see just how frizzy my hair really was.

I went through five umbrellas during my Teacher of the Year year...they'd break in half, get whipped by the wind, or I'd lose one here or there.

9. I only gained five pounds coming out of the classroom and eating at all those dinners, but I'm surprised it wasn't more. I've never eaten so many slices of cheesecake in my life. Cheesecake = dessert of choice on the conference circuit.

Goodbye and Thank You

There are so many people to thank for this amazing year. I included most of them on my farewell video, but just a thank you will never be enough. This experience has truly changed my life, and I am so lucky to have had this amazing opportunity.

This will be my last post on the NC TOYTreks blog. My year is complete. And although I have turned in my state phone and state car, I will always be your North Carolina Teacher of the Year 2008-2009.

Thank you, North Carolina. It has been a wild ride....ALL OF IT.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Just Like one of H.C. Andersen's Fairy Tales...

On Friday, we took a two hour bus ride to get to Odense, Denmark, the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen. It was a beautiful ride through the European countryside as we passed fields of wheat, corn, rye, and barley as well as gorgeous views of water and windmills along the way.

We began the day at the Sct. Hans Skole (school). Then we met with our host families to spend the afternoon and night in a Danish household. I'll be telling the stories of those two days with pictures:

Here's the principal of the school, Lars Eriksen, as he tells us about programs there. I was surprised to learn that there is no teacher evaluation. He doesn't observe his teachers as we are accustomed to in America. And the students seem to have more freedom than our American kids - there were no hall passes; they just kind of walked around unsupervised much of the time. However, it was their last week of school, and they were turning in books and cleaning up, etc. We know our own schools aren't quite as structured at the end of the year.

Our tour guides were Viola (pronounced VeeOla) and Emma. You can see that Viola has on a scarf, a staple in the wardrobe of European girls.

They called this class "needles class" - they were knitting on some wooden frames.

The kids hammed it up in woodworking class. We were horrified to see them handling saws without goggles in such a laid back atmosphere. I would have been terrified that someone would get hurt.

This is the Teacher's Lounge, and you can see how many teachers would be in there at any one time. I asked where the students were, and I was told that the kids go out to recess alone - the teacher has free time then. One thing we do have in common - they love their coffee, but instead of someone making coffee every morning, they have a coffee/hot chocoloate dispenser in their lounges (like we have Coke machines.)

This is art class. We loved the fat colored pencils in the box. I was amazed that each color was in its place in the box. I pictured American children just throwing them back in there (or throwing them at each other.)

The school has a dentist office in it. All health care and education costs are paid by the government so they have dental care right in the school.

Our tour guides couldn't translate this to English - they just said, "It's something about teeth."

We have these signs in our schools, too. They say "Testing. Do Not Disturb."

We spoke to this class of sixth graders (our equivalent of seventh graders - they start at grade 0). They asked us questions about our school, our students, and our country. I didn't know it at the time, but Anders, from my home stay family, was in this class.

The school treated us to lunch, including several types of Danish beer (right there in the school!)

Here's our lunch - pork, herring (I'm not a fan - it was basically raw), new potatoes (a big deal in Denmark - the mayors issue proclamations when the "new" potatoes are ready), some kind of sauce that the Danish folk put on their meat, and homemade rye bread. For dessert we had a bowl of strawberries with fresh cream. It was so good I wanted to lap it up like a cat. They ended an already amazing meal with that famous "soft ice" ice cream, a vanilla version and a caramel.

After lunch our host families came to pick us up. Claus, the father, and Anders, the 13 year old son, were all smiles and made what could have been an uncomfortable meeting with strangers very easy. I told them I hoped my suitcase wouldn't take up too much room in the car, and Claus said, "There's no car. We're walking." The house was just around the corner from the school!

When we turned the corner, I saw Lise and Anna standing on the porch...more smiles. They were all so excited to see me, but I was the one who was really excited!

Just after I arrived, my host family treated me to Danish pastries - I can tell you that nothing we have in America (that we call "Danish") can compare to these authentic delicacies!

The first thing we did was head to the Hans Christian Andersen museum. The Danish are proud of their most famous writer, who they refer to as H.C. Andersen (pronounced "Ho See Andersen"), and there are tributes to him all over the town.

We were greeted at the museum by ducklings...appropriate since one of H.C. Andersen's most popular stories is "The Ugly Duckling."

The museum included a timeline to help us understand the life and times of the author. Here's a familiar person who was a contemporary to the author.

Numerous scultptors have contributed to the immortality of H.C. Andersen.

H.C. Andersen had a difficult childhood, growing up in poverty. He grew up to be a prolific writer and artist, but was aware that he was not very attractive. Anna told me that she learned in school that he favored his right profile - thinking it made him look better. It's reported that his story "The Ugly Duckling" is somewhat autobiographical.

Here's the street where H.C. Andersen's birthplace sits.

After visiting the museum, my family took me to dinner in this restaurant. The food was very good and was similar to what I eat at home - some beef that looked and tasted like what we call hamburger steak or chopped steak, new potatoes, and bread. Also included were sweet pickle slices.

The restaurants are rated in Denmark just like they are in America. But they don't get grades; they get smiley faces.

After we ate, we rode around the Danish countryside. Some storms came and went, and there were beautiful rainbows along the way.

Here's my wonderful host family on the coast of Denmark where they like to go and look for fossils. Claus, the dad, is in advertising; Anna is 15 and is graduating this week from "gymnasium" (our version of high school), Anders is 13, and Angelise (Lise) works with one to three-year-olds at a day care.

We passed an authentic, and still functional, wooden windmill on our site-seeing trip.

Thankfully most tourist sites in Denmark include an English version of the description.

We climbed into a tower for this spectacular view.

On Saturday we went to the outdoor market. That red O (with a slash through it) symbol indicates that the food is organic.

There's Odense's most famous son. Anna told me that this park (beside the library that in the past was where the "rich people" went to read) is where the teenagers hang out and drink beer. Teens can drink at age 15 in Denmark, but they don't drive until they're they don't have the drinking and driving problem that we have in the US.

These prams (strollers) were everywhere. For a country that uses smaller cars and has small hotel rooms they sure like extra large baby strollers. The children stay in these for years, eventually sitting up in them. Also, it is common to let the baby sleep outside in the yard in the pram so they can get fresh air. Danish parents put the baby out for nap and then go on about their day. By the way, after the mothers take maternity leave, the fathers get 14 weeks of paternity leave, two weeks of which overlap with the mother's maternity leave.

As we walked around the town, we came upon this outdoor line dancing class.

This is city hall in Odense; it looks very similar to city hall in Copenhagen.

There are Lise and Anna outside H.C. Andersen's childhood home.

And Claus and Anders on the other side.

Next we came across a protest in the square where signs read "Demokrat Iran." The protestors were peaceful, chanting in a language that was neither Danish nor English. Lise said, "If they want to get their message across, they should use one of our languages."

The crosswalk lights in Odense display the likeness of H.C. Andersen.

When we went to the market, Lise set the timer on the car windshield that indicates what time they parked (there's a one hour limit.) I asked her how they knew people didn't put the wrong time there. Evidently there is a strong honor code in Denmark.

And with that, my time had run out in Odense. I cried as I embraced my host family, knowing that I may never see them again, and if I do, it will be a long time. But on my first morning back at home, I received an email from Claus that included this picture:

We had just finished our lunch on the deck overlooking the gardens and greenhouse. Claus set the timer and ran around behind us while we laughed hysterically. I enjoyed my stay in Odense and will miss my host family. Thank you, Claus, Lise, Anna, and Anders. It was a life-changing experience...

I'll miss you, Denmark.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Nothing's Rotten...

I remember the first time I read Hamlet. I was a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill, and I remember my professor hammering the literary idea of "tragic flaw" to us. "His flaw," he said, "was his inability to act, his inability to carry out the commitment he made to kill his stepfather." I thought it was heavy stuff, but I liked it, especially the funny (and long) soliloquy by Polonius and the fact that at the end, like most of Shakespeare's tragedies, there are dead bodies strewn all over the stage. Oh, and I still LOVE the fact that dying takes about ten minutes, all while the character dying is announcing his death...over and over.

At the end of that semester, I pulled my first all-nighter...studying for my Shakespeare exam the next day, an exam that covered about fifteen of his plays. That was the only time in my life that I ever drank coffee; I didn't like it then, and I haven't changed my mind in thirty years. But Shakespeare has been part of me ever since I read Romeo and Juliet in the ninth grade and Macbeth and King Lear in the twelfth. That habit, unlike the coffee consumption, has stayed with me for life.

So to have the opportunity to visit Kronborg Castle, the setting for Hamlet, in Elsinore (Helsignor) Denmark today was unbelievable. After changing tracks numerous times - the information coming across the speaker (and translated by a nice Danish girl) kept telling me to change to another platform. Finally I was on the "coastal train" - the one that follows the coast of the Baltic Sea from Copenhagen to Elsinore. It was beautiful.

Personally I think that a city's name should be spelled the same way internationally. Why don't we spell Copenhagen the way the Danish do? And the whole Helsingor/Elsinore thing is confusing...

As beautiful as that train ride was, it didn't make me gasp like I did when I turned right out of the train station and saw that castle. I thought I was dreaming.

The first thing I did was stand on the bridge over the moat. I remember learning about moats in third grade so this was an exciting actually see one.

The mascots of Kronborg, a swan family that lives in the moat.

I can see how a moat protects a castle.

The castle's story dates back to a fortress, Krogen, built in the 1420s by the Danish King, Eric of Pomerania. The king insisted on the payment of sound dues by all ships wishing to enter or leave the Baltic Sea; to help enforce his demands, he built a powerful fortress controlling the sound. It then consisted of a number of buildings inside a surrounding wall.

Kronborg acquired its current name in 1585 when it was rebuilt by Frederick II into a magnificent Renaissance castle unique in its appearance and size throughout Europe. In 1629, a fire swept through the castle and some say it never regained its original splendor.

From 1739 until the 1900's, Kronborg was used as a prison. The inmates were guarded by soldiers in the castle. The convicts had been sentenced to work on the castle's fortifications. They were divided into two categories: those with minor sentences were categorized as "honest" and were allowed to work outside the castle walls; those serving sentences for violence, murder, arson or the like were categorized as "dishonest" and had to serve the full sentence doing hard physical labor inside the castle ramparts. Otherwise, they served their time under the same conditions: they all had to wear chains and spend nights in cold and damp dungeons.

When it was a prison, it was a pretty one...

I could almost see those prisoners there as I looked at the dungeon doors. I felt like I heard them. And I felt the spirit of Hamlet's father's ghost as he spoke to him in that regal setting.

My camera battery died before my interest did, but I'm forever grateful to the Center for International Understanding, that I've had this amazing experience this week. And now "to sleep, perchance to dream" - tomorrow we head to Odense to stay with a host family...should be fun!

Curious in Copenhagen...

I'm finding that my first European Vacation (shout out to Chevy Chase) is resulting in more questions than answers. I want so badly to understand everything, and there's just so much I don't "get" here.

First, the language. I'm big on words. I'm an English teacher. And I'm mesmerized by this consonant-laden cousin of German. When I listen to the television broadcasters (well, I have to have some noise in my hotel room) the intonation sounds very American...not so much English, but American. Their cadence is similar, and they go up and down at all the same places. But the words are unrecognizable. I do know that "tak" means "thanks." I saw it on the trash cans at McDonald's. And I'm still working on understanding that O-with-a-slash-through-it-thingee. That one worries me a little...I can't figure out how to type it!

Next, Denmark is known for being the happiest place on earth. Being a modern welfare state, Denmark offers its citizens free health-care and education, among other benefits, and everyone feels the sense of the community that a country that shares all resources will feel. Only 2% of the budget is used for police, jails, and the court system, for goodness sakes! How much happier can you be?

But since we've been here, two people have jumped in front of moving trains to commit suicide (and we've only been here four days.) You see, Denmark also has one of the highest rates of suicide in the world. So how is it that the happiest people are also the UN-happiest?

And next, why is there grafitti everywhere? And I do mean everywhere! If it's not moving chances are it's been spray painted.

Well, on to a recap of the past couple of days...

I took my first European train ride yesterday. What an experience! I love the words here that remind me so much of the British (I've always wanted to visit England but haven't made it yet.) For example, I took a "lift" at the airport instead of an elevator. And when we got to the train station we were told to go to "Platform 5." I was immediately reminded of Harry Potter's Platform nine and three quarters and looked for a similar Danish version to no avail.

Our train platform - to Roskilde...

Harry Potter's platform to Hogwarts.

We traveled across the Denmark countryside to visit Roskilde, a quaint little town with cobblestone streets, the first gothic cathedral in Northern Europe, and our destination, the Viking Ship Museum. Roskilde was the first capital of Denmark, but it also is the home of five Viking ships that were sunk off the coast somewhere between 1070 and 1090 A.D. The ships were excavated and painstakingly put back together in a process that involved gently lifting and washing separate pieces, diagramming exactly where they were found in the water, and then making models of how the pieces should be put together to most closely resemble the original ships. This process took a lot of patience (and twenty-five years!)

Here's the train station in Roskilde.

Here's Roskilde Cathedral, the burial place for 30 kings and queens of Denmark.

The Danish folks like scale models; we saw several, but here's the entire city of Roskilde.

After following a little path from the cathedral, we stepped out to this view. That's the Roskilde Fjords, the place where the Viking ships were discovered in the 1960's. A fjord is an inlet created by glaciers, by the way.

Here's one of the ships...

and another...

and another...

The Danes encourage hands-on activities for their children (remember the toilet from a few days ago?) Here are some Viking costumes the children can try on.

And here's the Viking ship they can play on.

As we walked back through town, I thought this was a firetruck. On second glance, maybe it's a street cleaner.

After viewing the ships at the museum, my little group and I shopped a little on those cobblestone streets. Of course, we had already figured out, from our time in Copenhagen (and the $8 I paid for a muffin and Coke) that things are really expensive here. I looked at several tshirts in Roskilde shops but found none under $60. After experiencing my first "soft ice," (like our soft serve ice cream), we hopped back on the train and headed to the hotel to get our passports so we could leave the country and visit Sweden!

By now, I was getting this train thing down, and personally I think they're easier to navigate than the ones in New York City. At least here we're looking for cities, and all we have to do is ask, "Is this train going to Copenhagen?" if we're not sure which one we need. In New York you have to understand the numbered streets, and I don't.

So we settled in on the train headed for Malmo, Sweden (and, yes, I need one of those o's with a slash through it for Malmo!) The view was gorgeous as we traveled over the Oresund Bridge between Denmark and Sweden, the world's largest bridge carrying both road and railway traffic. While in Malmo, we explored and shopped a little (the prices were lower than in Copenhagen), and I was a little disappointed in a toy store when I found out that the Swedish word for Cinderella literally translates to "ash pot." Prince Charming and Ash Pot, what a pair!

Welcome to Malmo!

We came upon a huge square full of music and celebration.

The buildings are beautiful.

Got any money stowed away in a Swedish bank?

Again...there are flowers for sale everywhere in Denmark and Sweden. Each home must have fresh flowers on the table...but I haven't been able to peek in one to see.

We found our way back to Copenhagen by train, and then walked (way too far - it was right on the other side of Tivoli Gardens, but we went in the other direction) to find the Hard Rock Cafe. Sometimes you just want a cheeseburger. Next I'll be visiting the setting for Hamlet, Kronborg Castle...stay tuned...