Thursday, November 21, 2013

What's in a Name?

I haven’t blogged for a few weeks as I promised I would. I’m sorry. But something happened yesterday that made me want to tell you about the last few weeks. My writing coach noticed that in both of my novels, Charlie’s Angle and An Ode to Cleve, the name of the main character is similar: Charlie in one, Chuck in the other. “Who’s Charles?” she asked. “That’s something you’ll want to look into.”

I didn’t have any conscious basis for the choice of names except they seemed to fit the characters. I thought back to the “Charlies” I’ve known; two of my high school classmates were “Charles.” One we called Chuck, the other Charlie. Charlie died last week. His name had changed to Mario, but he was still Charlie to me.

I’d better back up. The reason for the name change was the fact that Charlie had become a Franciscan friar. In those days the Franciscan order gave novices new names as they studied and prepared to become priests. When I was young, I studied for the priesthood. Charlie and I knew each other in the Franciscan seminary, where we were both studying to become Franciscan friars. In the end, however, both of our lives went in a very different direction.

When I got word from Charlie’s wife, Marge, that he had died, I stopped what I was doing – nobody else was home – and sang the Ultima out loud, first in Latin and then in English. The Ultima is a hymn to the Blessed Mother asking for a peaceful death... “Lead us home to thee, we call; Virgin Mother, Queen of all.” It’s a Franciscan song that we sang at the end of every celebration, happy or sad. So while it’s traditional at funerals, it’s also a song full of hope and joy. Is the Kaddish like that, you Jewish readers? Does it also have both senses?

On the day of Charlie’s funeral, at the very time I knew the celebrant, Father Jim Van Vurst, another classmate, would be giving the final blessing and those of my classmates who were at the funeral 1000 miles away would be intoning the Ultima, I played it on my harp.

My wife, Kathy, asked me later what I most remembered about Charlie. He was a quiet person, but kind. On Wednesday and Saturday afternoons we had regular chores before we could take off on a hike, or play baseball, go downstairs to shoot hoops, or whatever. I worked in the tool shed where I dispensed rakes, hoes, shovels and whatever people needed to do their work in the garden or around the building. When they finished their work they brought the tools back to me for cleaning, oiling if needed, repair if broken, etc. That meant that most of my friends had finished their work while I still had plenty to do. I recall one time when I was up to my eyeballs in rakes and shovels and the place was a mess, I heard someone behind me laughing, “JP, it looks as if you need some help here.” It was Charlie, in a characteristic manner offering to help someone else. It took less than half the time with the two of us working together.

To answer my coach’s question: As I said, I wasn’t consciously thinking of anybody in particular when I used the names Charlie and Chuck in my two novels. Although it’s interesting; my seminary classmate, Charlie, did later teach math in high school. Hmm.

On the day after Charlie died, his wife Marge sent me a email; she mentioned my book:

“I wanted to write and let you know that Mario (Charlie) ordered your book... it arrived 2 days before he was admitted to ICU. I took it to the hospital... he attempted to read... but had little concentration left. I plan to read it for him...the blurb is very intriguing.” I assured her that by now her dear husband knows the story.

I can imagine Charlie looking down at my writing and, still laughing, saying, “JP, it looks as if you need some help here.”

Pax et bonum, Charlie!

PS. If anybody wants to read about Charlie Brannigan, the protagonist in my novel, Charlie’s Angle, check out my website,; or you can get a copy on Amazon. If you have a Kindle you can get that version free next Friday, Nov. 29. Amazon is having a promotion on Black Friday only. You don’t even have to leave the house to shop on Black Friday, and did I mention that it’s free?

How do you choose the names of your protagonists?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Classrooms for successful students and successful teachers


Most of our children and grandchildren spend most of their time during childhood and adolescence in classrooms. If you think of the class as a small (or large) community, you might wonder what characterizes the community and what effect does the community have on a child’s learning. A few years ago, my wife Kathleen and I, along with two colleagues, addressed that issue in a study on the college classroom at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. I think our results may be equally valid for the elementary and secondary levels.

Basically what we learned was that college students who had a strong sense of belonging to a community in the classroom enjoyed the course more than those students who didn’t have that sense of community. But the real icing on the cake was this: They also demonstrated greater improvement in their exam scores from early in the semester to the end. Bottom line: Students who have a strong sense of community in the classroom show greater improvement and enjoy their learning more than those who don’t.

We borrowed the measure of this “sense of community” from the studies done in Detroit on neighborhood communities and found that the same six descriptors that were used to define neighborhoods could also be used to define the classroom. In the weeks to come, I’ll share with you what those variables are, and give you some ideas about how they can be strengthened in the classroom. The real bonus, though, should come from readers’ sharing their own experiences of these characteristics and ways they’ve learned to create a sense of community. Just let me know if these issues are relevant in your own life.    

If you are a student, a teacher or former teacher, or if you have a child or grandchild in school (any level) would you please vote “yes” on the ballot at the right? And if none of those apply, just vote “no.” That way I’ll know how to tell “the rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey used to say. Thanks. PS Also, leave comments below about this or any other topic.

Monday, October 21, 2013

More on Parent-Teacher Conferences

           From what I recall of the dissertation I mentioned last week about parent-teacher conferences, and from comments on last week’s post, and from discussions with several people since then, I’ve learned that some of the stress associated with parent-teacher conferences originates for parents from:

            1) A lack of privacy; for example when parents meet their child’s teacher in a gym where several other teachers are also set up to confer with parents.

            2) A lack of any parent-teacher communication prior to the p-t conference.

            3) A sense of embarrassment that their child isn’t living up to expectations.

            4) A feeling that they’re not being heard, that nobody at the school really cares about their child.

            5) A child who is not able to keep up is just one more thing on the plate of overworked parents – one parent mentioned “single parents especially.”


            For the teacher stress comes when:

            1) They have previous experience with hostile or demanding parents.

            2) They are not sure what to expect from parents – truer of newer teachers.

            3) They haven’t had prior communication with parents to let them know how the student is progressing.

            4) They don’t realize how much support they have from their principal or colleagues. (As far as I can tell, this is rare)
            5) One teacher commented that it is a "lot of people processing in a few days." A more introverted teacher may worry about what parents are expecting and about having to be "on stage." That can be energy depleting, the teacher mentioned, while for a more extroverted teacher it could be energy giving, "but either way, a source of stress."
                Many of these issues can be easily addressed. Prior communication, for example, doesn’t have to be face-to-face, but can be telephone contact or just a quick email. In states where farm homes or ranches are far from the school, communication and even the conference can occur over Skype. Since communication is a two-way street both partners can let the other know that contact is always welcome.

            I heard one story this week that seems to me to answer several of these concerns. A friend of mine has a son in the ninth grade—his first year in high school. As any parent, my friend was concerned with how her son might be handling the transition to the new setting, a new set of friends, new classes, etc. When she arrived at the classroom for her first high school parent-teacher conference, the teacher didn’t bring out the homework, the corrected papers or her grade book. The first thing she asked was, “How do you think Joey is handling the transition to high school?” My friend answered that she hoped he was doing well in that area, but was looking to the teacher from some guidance about that as well. The teacher reassured her by pointing to specific instances of his good social interactions and mentioned that the boy had made a new friend, also a bright ninth grader. She said that the two of them often finished their work early and were allowed to visit quietly at their table. “I like to hang around them,” the teacher commented, “because their conversations are exciting and enriching for both of them.”

            Wow, what a way to begin a parent-teacher conference. What have your experiences been like?

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Parent-teacher conferences can be stressful

            Parent-teacher conferences can be valuable for parents and teachers alike, and often benefit students. It’s no surprise that children whose parents are involved in their education generally do better in the classroom. Teachers will tell you that communication with parents is crucial in helping their child succeed and solid research data support this observation. Anecdotally I have noticed that in those areas where participation in parent-teacher conferences is high, drop-out rate is low and vice versa. (Someone should test this observation more scientifically.)

            If we can agree that conferences are a good thing for the teacher, parent, and student, why are they often stressful for all three? A middle school teacher in East Lansing, Michigan, completed her doctoral dissertation at Michigan State on stress in the middle grades teacher. She calculated the daily consumption of coffee, alcohol, and tobacco over a given period of time in a sample of teachers, and also got a daily self report of life satisfaction, job satisfaction, etc. from her subjects. As a member of her committee, I wasn’t surprised by many of her findings: More seasoned teachers and those with good social support systems were less stressed, days just before holidays and before the summer recess were high stress days, etc. But one finding did surprise me, namely, that a very high stress level occurred on the days just prior to parent-teacher conferences: more booze, more cigarettes, more coffee, and often a feeling of dread, what psychologists call generalized anxiety.

            Why would that be? I’ll mention Ginny’s interpretations in my next blog as well as I can remember them. But first I’d like to hear from you, parents and teachers, and yes, students. I’m wondering if you have some ideas about why parent-teacher conferences sometimes cause stress. Comment below (anonymously, if you prefer). Thanks and thanks for visiting my blog.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Our Nation Honors Principals

            Welcome back to my lately dormant website. There is great October news that I want to share with you. And, going forward, I’ll try to keep up with a blog post at least once a week. 

            The US congress has passed resolutions designating October as National Principal’s Month, a time to honor the good work that school principals do day in and day out in the service of our children and their teachers. Our government takes this month seriously. According to the National Association of Secondary School Principals, “Senators Al Franken (D-MN) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Rep. Susan Davis (D-CA) introduced resolutions in both chambers of Congress recognizing October 2013 as National Principals Month.” In addition, “High-ranking officials at the US Department of Education will spend a day during the third week of October shadowing principals for a day to learn more about their work and how it contributes to achievement. Secretary Arne Duncan will then convene a meeting of all the participants to debrief and share observations about the principal’s role.”  

            I think principals’ month is an appropriate time to reactivate this somnolent blog and to focus primarily on teachers and education, especially at the high school level. It also gives me a great opportunity to launch my first novel, which deals with the struggles of a high school principal, Charlie Brannigan. To learn more about this book which I launched today (or to order a copy), visit my website: 

            So if you know and appreciate a principal, take a moment this month to let them know how much we value their service. They are clearly the sort of “servant leaders” that I wrote about in an earlier blog. Oh, yes, and if you’re looking for a gift for them, perhaps a book, I know just the thing. :)



Monday, May 13, 2013

A Principal's Appreciation

Last week was "Teacher Appreciation Week," an opportunity for students and parents to express their gratitude to teachers for the important work they do.  Joe Gawronski, principal of Polaris Expeditionary Learning School, Fort Collins, had his own letter of appreciation for his teachers.  Because of the importance of his remarks, I asked permission to reprint them here, as a kind of guest blog. Joe has kindly agreed to be a guest blogger.  His letter read in part:
"I'd also like to express my gratitude towards the teachers as well. Some might think that our staff teaches language arts, math, science, social studies, music and PE, but this is inaccurate, our staff teaches children. They teach children for seven hours a day, one hundred eighty days a year, for a total of approximately 1260 hours per year every year. And yes, they impart the knowledge and information within the content areas listed above, but more importantly they teach about fairness, perseverance, cooperation, problem-solving, and communication on an on-going basis throughout the year.
"So thanks again for expressing your appreciation during National Teacher Appreciation Week. It's especially comforting to know that our teachers have your support, as evidenced though various survey results and yesterday's generosity, in time when it seems that teachers on a national level are being scrutinized more than ever. Together, as a school community, our support for one another creates an optimistic future, for I see it in your children's eyes on a consistent basis.

"Thanks Again,

Joe G"  

And if you multiply a teacher's hours per year by the average number of students (say 20, conservatively), you end up with 25,200 contact hours per year.  That's a lot of teaching and a lot of learning, especially about all of those non-content areas Joe mentions.  I can't thnk of any job that has greater impact on the lives of so many people.



Saturday, June 30, 2012


"One touch of nature makes the whole world kin."  Shakespeare

            There are lots of reasons for choosing Fort Collins as a place to live.  Whenever we make the top ten lists, outsiders tout our great schools, weather, scenery, growth opportunities, etc. etc. What they can't see so easily from the outside, however, is the fact that there is in Fort Collins a sense of place, a sense of commitment, a sense of gratitude. 

            According to recent psychological research gratitude is a highly important and often overlooked disposition.  In fact, being thankful can improve one's sense of well-being, make us happier, more likely to help other people, and can even help us sleep better and longer.  Mental health, spiritual health, and physical health are all improved by giving thanks. 

            I am reminded of this research as we residents of Fort Collins experience an explosion of emotions as a result of the recent devastating wild fires in the mountains near us and around the state: Shared grief for those hundreds of families who have lost their homes and possessions, sacrifice on the part of fire fighters, crews, mental health workers, and police, many of whom work tirelessly in shifts around the clock and sleep in tents and trailers, far from their own homes and families, generosity from friends and neighbors who have opened their homes and hearts to the newly homeless. 

            The other emotion that gets expressed, however, is gratitude.  When the High Park fire subsides and is finally extinguished, thousands of firefighters and volunteers, sweaty and exhausted, will head for home and to a well deserved rest before they are called to duty once again perhaps in another location.  But as they drive through Fort Collins on their way home, they will not miss the city's sense of appreciation.  The pictures below tell the story. 

            For anyone interested in the psychological research on gratitude, Professor Robert Emmons (UC-Davis) and his colleagues have compiled the following list of research articles:

            And in case you want to measure your own sense of gratitude and compare your score to data from national samples, try out this six item questionnaire:   

            Some of Professor Emmons' recent books on this topic include:

The Psychology of Gratitude (Oxford University Press), Words of Gratitude (Templeton Foundation Press) and THANKS!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier (Houghton-Mifflin).

            Now I'm hoping the researchers will look not only at individual scores on gratitude but also develop scores for whole communities.  If they do, I think Fort Collins will be at the top of the curve.