My summertime battle with the blinking cursor and the blank screen

There’s nothing that taunts as viciously as a blinking cursor.

There’s nothing that intimidates quite like a blank screen. 

This will be the summer I conquer both. 

Summer affords teachers a fresh start. New opportunities beyond our classrooms. Most often we pursue these adventures to strengthen our skills as educators. Sometimes, though, these pursuits must be more personal. 

This summer, mine is.  

This summer, my goal is simply to write. From 9 to noon most days I will be here – staring down this blinking cursor and filling this blank screen with my thoughts, memories, ideas, and questions.  

This will be the summer that I welcome the challenge of writing instead of fearing it. I will embrace the endless possibilities, unlimited choices, constant scrutiny of words and phrases, and even the twinge of self doubt. 

I will use that cursor to construct my thoughts and fill that blank screen with the observations and ideas that mean the most to me. 

In her wonderful book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott observes that writers must care, that “a writer always tries, I think, to be a part of the solution, to understand a little about life and to pass this on.” This summer is a personal journey for me for many reasons. But as I write, I hope to show that I care, too.

I hope to learn to use my cursor and blank screen to understand a little more about life and to be a part of the solution. 

Yes, I’m Making Resolutions for 2017

But, let’s call them goals.

Why? I have no idea. There just seems to be something more permanent — more meaningful — when I make a list of goals. 

When I write my thoughts down. 

And as 2016 ended and 2017 began, I realized I want to make some personal commitments. 

So, in 2017, I will…

1. Write more.

I’ve found recently that I have a lot more to say, especially as it pertains to education issues. 

In November voters took us down a dangerous path in regards to the future of our public schools in “electing” Donald Trump and a supermajority in Indiana. Never in my lifetime have we been closer to abandoning our public schools than we are right now, both in Indiana and nationwide.

Make no mistake about it — if we fail to stop the corporate education “reform” train supported by those we have just elected, our democracy will suffer. And make no mistake about it, that is the intent of these corporate education reformers and their lackeys — to damage our democracy. They control our state and federal government, and their interest is anything but what’s best for children, or the future of our country.

So, I’m going to write about that. And speak out about that. A lot. And while I’m sure I’ll write about other issues, too –politics, reflections of a teacher, literacy, books, comic books (of course!), and just the weird thoughts that float through my mind — the corporate education “reform” con and the necessity of strong public schools to our community, state, and nation will be what I write about the most. 

My goal — write and post at least two entries here each week.

I hope you’ll join me, follow my blog, and read and comment, even if you do not agree with all of my views. I seek discourse. I value all opinions.

But, I believe strongly in the coming months and years that we must speak out to protect the values and institutions that are so essential to our democracy. I plan to do that here. 

2. Read more.

Let’s be honest – this is on my list every year. 

My goals — read at least 50 books and 50 comic book trades this year. 

3. Travel more.

I need to venture outside of Southern Indiana and beyond the comfort of my own couch.

So, my goal: Take three trips to states I haven’t traveled to in 2017, including a long trip in June or July. 

And yes, I am open to suggestions.

4. Practice my faith more.

When faith becomes passive, we stop growing in our faith. God has blessed me beyond description, but I desire a steadier, more consistent relationship, too.

My goal: Develop and participate in a regular study of scripture in 2017. 

So, that’s my 2017 summed up in four (somewhat) concise goals. 

I’m excited to see what this year has in store. As always, I am blessed with the world’s best family and friends, so my true goal is to experience all that 2017 has to offer with them.

What I Learned in 2016

Everyone seems to be counting down the final minutes of 2016, desperate to escape the clutches of this year before it’s too late.

I agree, I guess. I’m ready to move on. I’m ready to embrace the fresh hope and possibilities of a new year.

But even in a year when so many seemingly lost so much, there are lessons. And despite the disappointments of 2016, for me, these lessons made this a special year.

This year on Election Day,  I learned that reason and facts sometimes aren’t always enough to overcome ignorance, and that in a democracy, fear can be used by artful politicians to manipulate voters to abandon American values like truth, empathy, charity, and hope that we cherish the most.

I learned too, though, that sometimes the most patriotic stance we can take if we truly love our nation is one of peaceful, persistent resistance.

I learned that despite the best efforts of educators and teachers, many Hoosier voters either do not understand education policy, or simply do not value teachers or believe in our community schools. If they did, they never would have voted so overwhelmingly for state and national leaders whose policies for our schools and our children are so misguided and so consistently wrong.

I learned, too, that in 2017, teachers, educators, and our advocates must find new ways to reach out to and talk with these voters about our schools, our jobs, and our children.

We must engage with these voters because we truly are at a turning point; if we fail to convince voters to stop the corporate education “reform” train destroying our schools, removing local control from our communities, overtesting our children, and driving our best teachers out of the classrooms, then one of the bedrocks of democracy, our public schools, will disappear.

I learned that technology in the classroom changes the learning dynamic but does not improve student learning or engagement. Technology is just a tool — nothing more, nothing less.

I learned, despite the disappointments and frustrations of 2016, that when our family, friends, and faith are at the center of our lives, life’s challenges don’t seem so overwhelming, and life’s special moments become that much more special.

I learned to work less and goof off and laugh more.

I learned to shoot more selfies and photos, to preserve the special moments and memories.

I learned I want to write more.

I learned that former students can be my greatest teachers. I learned to let them inspire me. I learned to be a better person because of their example.

I learned pets are family, too.

I learned I like people more than I thought I did.

I learned patience.

I learned that the people in our lives can make us better people, but that we have an obligation to be the best versions of ourselves for them, too.

These lessons made me better. They made 2016 worth it in more ways that I can ever count. They’re the lessons that taught me that 2017 will be special, too.

So, bring it on. And, Happy New Year!

This year my students will help me write well

By Jim Lang

Writing is a funny thing. Sometimes the words pour out of us. Sometimes we hit dry spells.

Perhaps it’s been the hectic schedule of summer, or maybe it’s been the frenzy of the new school year, but I have produced a vast amount of nothing during the last few weeks.

Like most educators and writers (let’s face it – most teachers are writers, too), my inspiration so often comes from my own students. That is the case with me now.

As I write these words, I am surrounded by the sounds of my own student writers — tapping keyboards, scratching pencils, sighs of frustration, the turning of notebook pages. My classroom at this very moment is filled with the oddly active silence of writing.

That’s the commitment we’ve made as writers in my Journalism I class this year – to spend time writing each week, usually on Fridays. This is our time away from the stress of standardized tests, the rapid pace of our hallways and classrooms, the to-do lists that seem to own our lives, and the noise.

We will write here most Fridays. Perhaps we’ll work on our story assignments. This week it’s our personality profiles. Perhaps we’ll work on something unrelated to school. Something unique. Something special. Something not dictated by endless streams of data, standards, or tests. Sometimes “just something” is enough.

We’ll share our writing here, too. We’ll help each other grow as writers through editing and revision. We’ll trust that our love for writing will help us make this classroom a true community of writers.

So, here I am writing. Today I am not their teacher.

I am a fellow writer.

My dry spell is over.

Teacher Appreciation Week 2014: Patience, Priesthood, and a Middle School Prediction

by Jim Lang

My middle school years were spent at Sacred Heart in Jeffersonville, where Anne Malone introduced me to the world of books. Her shelves were stocked with Agatha Christie mysteries. I’m sure I checked out and devoured every whodunit.

Exceedingly kind and always patient, Mrs. Malone pushed me to embrace the unfamiliar, and in doing so built my confidence in ways I did not appreciate at the time. I played a priest in an eighth-grade production of short stories that Mrs. Malone directed (just call me Fr. Jim, I guess). That was the beginning and end of my theatrical career, but as the quiet kid who rarely stepped out of the box, I remember that night and those moments as some of my favorites in middle school.

I believed more in myself because Anne Malone believed in me. And when I graduated from Sacred Heart and moved on to high school, Mrs. Malone included a prediction in her comments that she wrote in my yearbook – that she would someday enjoy reading my work as a writer or as a journalist.

She was close. Of course, neither of us knew at the time that my love for writing and journalism would blend so well with my love for teaching.

I’m sure that Anne Malone had something to do with that.

Wednesday: The Places I Loved and the Lessons I Learned in High School

 

Teacher Appreciation Week 2014: My Purpose and My Challenge

by Jim Lang

This week is Teacher Appreciation Week. As I think of those words – “teacher” and “appreciation” – I realize how blessed I have been throughout my life to have been guided by so many exceptional educators. In so many ways, I am the teacher and person I am today because of the special teachers who shaped my life.

So, I would like to do something different here this week – honor the teachers who have made such a difference in my life. I want them to know how profoundly they have influenced me.

And, I want you to know their names.

Each day this week beginning tomorrow, I’ll write about these special teachers and their unique influence on me. It’s just a small way for me to honor their excellence.

And here’s where my challenge comes in. If you are reading this, find a way to honor a special teacher this week. Write a thank-you note to a former teacher. Send an e-mail or make a quick call to your child’s teacher. If you are an educator yourself, compliment a colleague or contact a mentor teacher to say, “Thanks.”

Be creative. Reach out. Do something to show your appreciation for a teacher in your life.

And please join me here this week as I thank the teachers who have influenced mine.

Monday: Elementary School and the Power of a Smile

64, 596.95: The number that reveals the most about Floyd Central High School

by Jim Lang

64, 596.95.

In a time when we use numbers to evaluate our teachers, students, and schools, the number that reveals the most about Floyd Central High School is 64, 596.95.

This single number, this piece of data, shows us everything we need to know about Floyd Central High School.

This number reflects the focus, spirit, and determination of FC students. It reflects their ability to organize a major community event. It reflects their ability to problem solve, communicate, work collaboratively, overcome obstacles, and set and exceed goals.

Yes, this number reveals more than any state test or standard that FC students are “career and college ready.”

This number shows much more, though. It reveals the quality of FC teachers, staff, and administrators. It is a testament to the many hours and days that event organizers and volunteers spent teaching, mentoring, planning with and, yes, laughing and even crying with, their students. It reflects their sacrifice to help their students achieve something so special and memorable that it will bond them forever. It reveals that to these educators, teaching is more than a test score – it’s an opportunity to shape lives and make a difference.

This number, too, is a reflection of a caring, generous community, one that supports and cherishes its school rather than ignoring, blaming, or abandoning it. This number reveals an essential truth – that successful schools and their students reflect the level of support and love from their community.

Most importantly, though, this number reflects an attribute that no state standard could ever measure because, frankly, it is far more important than any attribute measured by any state standard: generosity.

Last night, students, educators, parents, and community members came together at the annual Floyd Central Dance Marathon to raise $64, 596.95 for Riley Children’s Hospital. It was an event that revealed just how deeply and completely a school community could care about others. It revealed just how much good could still be accomplished in a world that needs leaders with a generous spirit of service far more than leaders with a particular major or grade-point average.

I have heard many cheers from FC students over the years, but none quite matched the pure joy and pride I heard last night when that number — $64, 596.95 – was announced.

That moment – and that number – reveal more about our school and community than any other piece of data ever could.

Mary Beth Tinker reminds us that teens can — and should — initiate change

by Jim Lang

“Young people want to make things better.”

This was the reminder delivered by Mary Beth Tinker last night at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany as she spoke about the power of the First Amendment.

Tinker experienced this desire to initiate positive change herself growing up in Iowa in a family that believed their religious beliefs should be put into action. This prompted her family to become involved in the 1960s civil rights movement.

Mary Beth Tinker discusses the First Amendment and the landmark Tinker v. Des Moines case at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany on Oct. 9. An advocate for students and their free expression rights, Tinker said, "The First Amendment has to do with how we treat each other."

Mary Beth Tinker discusses the First Amendment and the landmark Tinker v. Des Moines case at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany on Wednesday, Oct. 9. An advocate for students and their free expression rights, Tinker said, “The First Amendment has to do with how we treat each other.”

And while she repeatedly described herself last night as “shy,” it was a 13-year-old Mary Beth Tinker who joined her brothers, sisters, and a few friends in peacefully defying school policy and wearing black armbands to school to mourn the dead of the Vietnam War. And when the school corporation suspended several of the students, they and their families sued the school.

The end result, of course, was the landmark 1969 Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines that established that students do not shed their constitutionally-protected rights of free speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.

Last night’s speech by Tinker, part of the Tinker Tour sponsored by the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C., was a powerful reminder that young people can – and should – initiate positive change.

As Tinker spoke about her own experiences, I found myself wishing that most adults respected teenagers and believed in their capacity for change as much as she does.

As a journalism teachers and newspaper adviser, I see the educational value of empowering young people to ask questions, examine school and governmental policies, and use their writing and communication skills to report, analyze, and, yes, sometimes challenge the system to initiate change.

Far too much of our modern education system is designed for today’s students to obediently jump through hoops and pass a test rather than truly critique and examine why they believe what they believe. Today’s students often seem more concerned with scooping up AP credits, maintaining their class rank or grade-point average, or selecting which classes to take based on their “weight.” Challenging the status quo to change the system has its risks.

That was the value of Mary Beth Tinker’s speech last night. She reminded us that the risks are worth it. And in a time when, as she put it, “Young people are not getting a fair deal in our society,” she reminded us of the moral imperative for teenagers to embrace that desire to make things better.

As Tinker stated, “Rights are like your muscles. You can lose them if you don’t use them.” As educators, we must ensure that our schools provide the opportunities for students to know and practice their First Amendment rights, even when it is uncomfortable for us.

Supporting student media free from administrative prior review and censorship, encouraging the arts, emphasizing literacy and civic education, embracing and educating students about social media, and promoting strong student government and community service programs are just a few ways to ensure that our children understand and practice their guaranteed rights of free speech and expression.

As educators, we must do more than simply prepare teenagers for their careers.

We must ensure that our students exercise their rights, embrace their responsibilities, and use their voices as well as Mary Beth Tinker.

Like most teachers, I am enjoying my summer ‘off’

by Jim Lang

I became a teacher to get my summers off…

said no teacher ever.

There’s a good reason teachers post the above phrase on their Facebook walls and threaten to smack anyone who suggests that we sit idly by while the rest of the world scurries to work in June and July.

Because the lie that teachers are “off” in the summer is just that — a lie.

I have spent the last two days in my classroom in an agonizing attempt to complete the course syllabus for my Advanced Placement Language and Composition course, a chore that looks to consume the rest of the week, as well as my sanity.

This follows a five-day AP training class at the University of Louisville last week, and will soon be followed by two weeks of teaching high school journalists at Indiana University’s High School Journalism Institute in Bloomington in July.

And after that? Oh yes, the new school year begins! Stop groaning kids…and teachers!

And, I am not alone.

I cannot name a single educator I know who hasn’t spent a significant amount of time in the past four weeks working in their classrooms, developing lessons or syllabi, attending professional development or classes, teaching summer school, or in some way thinking about or preparing for the upcoming school year.

We spend these hours willingly and (mostly) enthusiastically because we love to learn ourselves. And, because we know the time and effort we spend now will make a positive difference in our students’ lives this school year.

Summers “off?” Yeah, right.

Reflections on Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier 25 years later

by Jim Lang

Time flies when you’re a journalism nerd.

I’ve always proudly described myself as a “journalism nerd.” I’ve been involved in scholastic journalism since I was in high school and was a member of The Hyphen newspaper staff at Jeffersonville High School. I guess I have never completely grown up, because 25 years later, I am still hanging out every day in a high school publication room. This time, though, it’s my students at Floyd Central High School writing the stories, designing the pages, and making a difference.

It was 25 years ago today that the Supreme Court ruled 5-3 to permit administrative censorship in some situations in the Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier case. I was just beginning the second semester of my senior year in high school, and I remember being so shocked that anyone could view censorship as a good idea.

It was especially bizarre for our newspaper staff because The Hyphen was never censored or prior reviewed by our principal at Jeff High, even after the Hazelwood ruling. Truthfully, I don’t believe we ever thought of ourselves as high school journalists. We were taught and treated as professionals by our adviser, Tony Willis, and as a result, that’s how we treated each other and our newspaper. We held ourselves to the highest standards and treated each other and our readers with respect. We took pride in our work and our newspaper because it was ours. No administrator had to look over our pages, check our sources, circle errors with a red pen, question our story selection, or solve our problems…we did that ourselves each day with Mr. Willis’s  guidance and support because we believed in what we were doing and loved doing it. High school journalism at Jeff High remains the most significant learning experience of my life because of his instruction and the freedom and trust we had as journalists.

Today I view this world of scholastic journalism through an entirely different lens. Now I am the adviser instead of the journalist. However, the lessons I learned at Jeff High remain with me 25 years later as a teacher in my own classroom at Floyd Central. My students have written about teenage drug use and alcoholism, depression, homelessness, controversial school closings, budget cuts, test scores, outsourcing of custodians, religion, politics, and hate crimes. Name the topic and they probably have covered it. In two weeks they’re publishing a special section examining school security, shootings, and violence. And in every instance, they have learned at the highest level possible because they have been given the freedom and trust to do so.

I have worked with four different principals at Floyd Central in my 17 years. I am proud to say that my students and I have never been censored; their newspaper, The Bagpiper, has never been under prior review. As a result, my students have the opportunity to take full ownership of their learning in a way that allows them to serve their readers, take pride in their publication, and work as professionals. Additionally, I have been given the freedom as their adviser to implement many of the lessons I learned as a student journalist so many years ago at Jeff High. Sometimes life truly does come full circle.

Twenty five years zoomed by in the blink of an eye. This journalism nerd feels so fortunate and honored to have worked with so many people who have valued real learning over control and administrative censorship.