Tag Archives: teaching

(362) Toastmasters

This is the “T” entry for Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life.  It is my final entry.


What It Is

Toastmasters International is a member-run organization that focuses on self-improvement through public speaking and its related activities. Local groups are formed and run by ordinary, every day people. Leaders are chosen by the clubs and everything related to club matters is done by the members. I belonged to a group called the Nordonia Gaveliers.

I joined Toastmasters because I had enjoyed debate and oratory when I learned it in middle school, and I knew I had an interest in that area. But the big reason I joined was because I was a business owner and felt that if I had to do any presentations, I needed to know what I was doing. In fact, I had given such a presentation to a Women’s Networking group and had an epic fail that really burned. Even after that, it still took me two years to get up the nerve to join. Besides being a big time commitment with weekly meetings, I was really going to take a big risk to get up in front of a group again.

I am forever glad I did.

My Experience.

Nearly every Monday night for ten years, I attended a Toastmasters meeting. These meetings consisted of three “official” parts — Table Topics, Speeches, and Evaluations. Table Topics enables members to practice speaking “off-the-cuff” about a topic they are given. The speeches are scheduled, planned, and practiced before being given. They follow a series of manuals that explain the elements needed in the speech, and a series of questions the evaluator uses to analyze how the speaker did on their speech.

I participated fully in the program. After my first 10 speeches in the “Communication and Leadership” manual, I was off and running into other specialized areas, including Storytelling, Special Occasion speeches, and Humor. It gave me a way to set goals, and continue to grow as a speaker.

TM manuals
Just some of the manuals that taught me a variety of ways to present.

Toastmasters is highly responsible for my ability to write in a way that is clear and concise. When giving a speech, everything needs to be clear so the audience can easily follow along.  I learned how to write my speeches vocally — rarely writing anything but a few key words down — which served me well for the speeches. However, it didn’t help me with the discipline of actually writing.  When I started college, I knew it was time to start putting things on paper. I guess the one thing I am sorry about is that I didn’t keep any notes.  The dozens and dozens of speeches I gave to Toastmasters are lost in time. There is no record.

Toastmasters taught me the importance of Roberts Rules of Order. It taught me how to deal with people when they are the most vulnerable. It taught me how to listen, as well as the importance of listening, and how nothing happens unless we listen well.

I found the most instructive part of the Toastmasters experience for me was learning how to evaluate others. Add to that, learn how to take evaluation. The idea of “constructive criticism” doesn’t set well with me, as the word criticism indicates negativity. In Toastmasters we learn how to evaluate fairly, always with an eye on those couple of things that could be improved. I also learned how to not be defensive about anything I said or did in a speech. I made my choices, and I took feedback for what it was — feedback. This has served me well in many situations in my life since then.

During my years with the club, I spent nearly five years as Vice President of Education, and a year as President. The club members waxed and waned, and yet a core group of us stood firm and kept things going. I never regretted any of the time I spent at Toastmasters because it gave more energy back than it required. I know that our club had some special elements to it that helped, and I’m grateful for that.


Of course that big part about being with a group like this is that we are all in it to win it. We all want to do well, and help each other do well. It isn’t a competition.

I met my friend Iris because of Toastmasters. She was trying to get a club started in her community, so began to come to our club for inspiration. I also become lifelong friend with Stacy, who now lives in Safety Harbor, Florida.

Stacy and I  Toastmasters Christmas party 1997

Our club had a cool “wings and beer” event after every meeting, which helped us form our bonds much closer. One of the places we frequented for a few years was called Angie’s.  It had a bar with a bowling machine and a jukebox.  I cannot hear “Love Shack” or “Atomic Dog” without thinking of my Toastmasters buddies, as we drank beer, played the bowling machine, and danced around the bar. It was a perfect way to unwind on a Monday night.

My club rallied around me when I had my cancer scare. Many of us liked to golf, so they pulled together a golf outing in my honor a week before I had surgery. There is so much more I can say about the relationships I built through Toastmasters, and how these people influenced me in a million ways. This blog just isn’t big enough for all of it.

The Helen Sadler Open, July 21, 1997  Twin Eagles Golf Course

Where It Led

Without a doubt, my connections in Toastmasters increased the likelihood that I would find my calling as a teacher. And once I did, it was a Toastmaster that helped open doors for me. Dave was a middle school principal, and he hired me to run a weekly leadership group of 8th graders to teach them public speaking. This was a wonderful opportunity for me, and helped me grow in additional aspects of the program. Working with young people was quite different than adults! The group even came to our club to share the speeches they wrote for their 8th grade graduation. It was a super special night.

Youth Leadership group from Southeast Middle School comes to Nordonia Gaveliers Meeting, May 1998

In addition, Dave put me in touch with a 7th grade Language Arts teacher, Judy Wilfong.  Judy and I wrote grants so I could bring storytelling units to her classes. We were successful in securing grants twice to make this happen. What was cool was that Southeast Middle was connected to the elementary school, which made it easy for the kids to perform their stories for the younger grades.

All of these experiences led me to my teaching career and helped me firmly plant my feet into it. In the time I was a Toastmaster I went from business owner to a college student. Without a doubt, the love and support from those in my club helped me immensely in this direction. I simply cannot measure what those years have given me.

When I gave my final speech during my farewell meeting on June 5, 2000, I used this poem as my guide. I felt like it said everything I couldn’t about my experience with the people and the process of Toastmasters.

I Was Afraid of Dying

By James Wright


I was afraid of dying

In a field of dry weeds.

But now,

All day long I have been walking among damp fields,

Trying to keep still, listening

To insects that move patiently.

Perhaps they are sampling the fresh dew that gathers slowly

In empty snail shells

And in the secret shelters of sparrow feathers fallen on the



(353) Best Day Ever

I went to school yesterday with apprehension. Typically when we have a day where the schedule is askew and/or is right before a holiday break, it is extremely tough to deal with students.  Given that they also are eating way too much sugar on these types of days..well, it has often been a recipe for disaster.  I’ve seen even the best kids off their game.

But yesterday was different.  It began when former student, Isabella,  stopped by and gave me a box of chocolates, a “Best Teacher” ornament, and a huge hug.

Then I went into my room and found the following note on my computer keyboard:


This is from a student who is really too old to be in 7th grade, but has been held back because of missing a lot of school. He often has to stay home to take care of younger brothers and sisters. He wrote me the note/poem because he is moving and is still unsure on whether he will be coming back to our school after break.  I cannot even begin to describe how it breaks my heart to see this intelligent boy reduced by his circumstances over and over again, living with such uncertainty, yet applying himself day after day. I truly hope he does return.

My students are almost all with my double blocks, so the plan was to spend some time outdoors letting the kids play; rain set in making it impossible. I quickly pulled together a game of “What Am I?” After we did Author’s Chair, where several students and myself read our personification poems to the class, the kids played the game.  It was so wonderful to see them all engaged and having a good time, trying to figure out, through questions only, what each person was.

Because of our winter concert assembly, our schedule was discombobulated, bringing my 3rd period to me with the promise of them returning later when it was finally 4th period. All week we had worked these kids, promising them recess during 4th if they completed all their work. This is the same class that has caused me to cry twice in the last month, I mean really cry, like for hours. They put up every resistance they can, are fairly cruel to each other and to their teachers, and simply will not comply with the simplest instruction — such as “get in a quiet line to walk to lunch.”  Even into December it is still a daily battle with this class. They have flummoxed me, my co-teacher, other teachers, and even the administration.

So when they arrived 3rd period, and it was raining, and the forecast still said it would be raining when they returned later for 4th, I knew we needed a miracle. I asked them if they believed in magic?  Some said they did. So I pulled out a “magic” technique I had witnessed work at a conference one year.  We went out on the bus ramp and we used our fingers as scissors to “cut away” the clouds. While some cut away, others danced a “reverse rain dance” in the sprinkling rain, asking the clouds to go away for 4th period.

We came back in the room and some of the kids performed their poems, which were more like raps and were a lot of fun. Then we sent them on their way until later.

My 8th graders came in, and we revisited an idea I had brought them from the Sanibel Island Writer’s Conference. I suggested we put together a book of our own personal “Top 10” lists, which was something done at SIWC to celebrate the 10 year anniversary.  We brainstormed all the ways they could do their lists, put our resident artist to the task of creating the cover, put on some Christmas music (with permission of the Jewish and Muslim students in the room), and projected a fireplace fire video onto the smart board. This was the quietest I have ever heard these students work when they are still allowed to talk! They were deep into creating their top Ten lists, among them the 10 best EDM music genres, 10 best restaurants to get chicken dinners, and 10 pieces of advice for surviving middle school.

top 10

We went to lunch late in the period, and after that played the “Who Am I” game, which ended up involving this one girl who usually is pretty checked out and doesn’t say much. It was fun to see her personality shining through as we played the game.

Then the 4th period students returned. It was still cloudy outside, but the sprinkling rain had stopped. This was a special day in this class because it was the last day for one student, Prentice, who is moving to Houston.

My co-teacher, Shannon Richardson, took most of them outside, and a couple of girls stayed behind. I put them to work cleaning my white boards so they would be fresh and ready for the new year. Soon, some of the other students started trickling back into the room, and they proceeded to write on the freshly-cleaned white board. I looked to see what they were doing and lo and behold! I was surprised — they were writing some very sweet “good-bye” messages to Prentice.  A girl named E’Nazhae was running the show, and everyone was doing their part. We put a student on “watch” for Prentice to return, and when we saw him and the other boys coming, E’nazhae snapped them all into a line.  Miracle upon miracle!  They DO know how to form a line. (I’m being sarcastic, I know, but really…I had never seen this phenomenon before.)  They yelled “Surprise” when Prentice walked in. We took some pictures. He was totally overwhelmed with love and affection.


When I told Shannon about E’nazhae getting them to line up straight, she said, “Maybe we should just have her do that from now on.”  It’s a thought.

By now I was totally in love with all my students again. I had some time during 7th to finalize all my preparations for when we return.  I’m never this “on it.”  I knew when I walked out at 4:00 that I was totally ready for break.

My 8th period students came in — this is a small class with many English Language Learners. They had a blast playing the “Who Are You?” game. I got to see them in action in new and different ways. One boy that had been really struggling has taken a leap in his engagement and ability to answer questions. We went to the concert and they gave me a million hugs before they left. My heart was glowing like E.T.’s after this day, I swear.

And I’ve learned something, too. I went with my gut a lot yesterday. I rolled with whatever was thrown at me. I persisted a little where I thought it was important. I gave choices. In other words, I did all the best things teachers can do. It can be so difficult when constantly barraged with mandates and hammering of standards to take this approach. I got to see again how truly effective it can be when students can have some time and space. I saw love, connection, engagement, empathy, connection, and downright FUN.  This is why I say it was the best day ever!



(350) Where the Light Shines Through

I took a lesson off the Writing Fix.com website that uses Run-DMC’s song “My Adidas” as a writing lesson on personification. My students have been writing poems based on the lesson. This morning I finally wrote mine to share at our Read Around Friday.


Where the Light Shines Through

I went looking for you on a rainy day, June

in North Carolina.

You were easy to find, perfect oval shape,

and deep color and graceful setting.

More than I ever dreamed.

You had a place in the back for the light to shine through,

for spiritual courage to find me.

My stone, my heart, my strength.


You have been with me, a partner,

through my many journeys.

After surgery, you were gently placed

back around my neck.

You held me through my father’s funeral.

You calmed me through our move from Ohio to Florida.

You were in every college class I took,

reflecting to me all I could be.

You encouraged me in those early days of my teaching career,

heart-wrenching and stressful and bewildering.

My stone, my heart, my strength.


Then November of 2014

I realized you were gone.

It was a time of anxiety and illness, and you went missing.

Hiding from me, unexpectedly.

I searched far and wide, asked around.

Yet somehow I knew, through the long months

you were gone, that you were still somehow nearby.

My stone, my heart, my strength.


I never doubted. I just didn’t

know when I’d see you again.


And then the magical day

You reappeared to my husband,

Who left you on the counter for me to find.

Joy filled me that day,

as you were mine again,

reunited to pursue more dreams together.

My heart.

My stone.

My strength.


(347) Across the Borderline

My favorite Willie Nelson album came out in 1993. It was an album of covers, which many of his are, including “Graceland” and “Don’t Give Up” among them.  I’ve been listening to the CD in my car, and today the title song caught my attention: “Across the Borderline.”


As I listened to the words, I thought it was pretty ambiguous. Is the narrator talking about heaven or making or dreams come true?  It is all about loss and having to let go.  It talks about a “broken promised land.”


There’s a place where I’ve been told
Every street is paved with gold
And it’s just across the borderline
And when it’s time to take your turn
Here’s a lesson that you must learn
You could lose more than you’ll ever hope to find


When you reach the broken promised land
And every dream slips through your hands
Then you’ll know that it’s too late to change your mind
‘Cause you’ve paid the price to come so far
Just to wind up where you are
And you’re still just across the borderline


But then the lyrics take a shift, and it seems to be talking exclusively about Mexicans crossing the border:


Up and down the Rio Grande
A thousand footprints in the sand
Reveal a secret no one can define
The river flows on like a breath
In between our life and death
Tell me who’s the next to cross the borderline En la triste oscuridad (In the sad darkness)
Hoy tenemos que cruzar (today we have to cross)
Este río que nos llama mas alla (this river which calls us further away)


This took me back to my classroom of 10th graders, March 2010. They were working on an immigrant project, and as part of the project they were to do panel discussions regarding their immigrant background. The Mexican group was most compelling because of a story by one young man: David. As he told the story of crossing the river, tears streamed down his face. They had to meet up with a man and his mother lost track of the group, got swept away somehow. She ended up having to walk ten miles in the desert to find them — how she survived such an ordeal, I’ll never know. The story had every single person in the classroom in tears. I know it had a lasting impact because at the end of the year when we discussed the favorite things about the class, that day stood out to many students. They had received a huge lesson in empathy and understanding for the plights and traumas of others…something we can all use a bit more of these days.


But hope remains when pride is gone
And it keeps you moving on
Calling you across the borderline

When you reach the broken promised land
Every dream slips through your hands
And you’ll know it’s too late to change your mind
‘Cause you pay the price to come so far
Just to wind up where you are
And you’re still just across the borderline
Now you’re still just across the borderline
And you’re still just across the borderline






(346) Running from Language

“The best thing we can do for those we love is to help them escape from us.”

Baron von Hugel.

This week I was going over an article about the value of video games with my 7th graders. We had identified part of the text to use as evidence of the benefits, and we were beginning to categorize the chosen pieces of text. One of them had to do with the thinking skills developed through video games.

“The category should be thinking skills,” said Alfonso.

“Well, what about ‘education’ as a category? Thinking skills are part of education,” I offered.

“No they aren’t. Thinking skills have nothing to do with school.”

And thus the conversation went on, with other students weighing in. There wasn’t anyone who spoke up who believed thinking skills were developed in school.

Alfonso stated it plain: “We just do what they show us to do, like in math, and then we just do that.”

Later in the day when we got to the same juncture in the lesson, my 8th graders put “thinking skills” in the category of education. I felt a secret relief. So I told them, “You know, my 7th graders didn’t believe thinking had anything to do with education.”

At first my 8th graders laughed at that. But it didn’t stop there. I went on to explain they said that school is just being told what to do. Education happens outside of school, like with video games.

“Well,” one of my most gifted students said, “they do have a point. We just do whatever it takes to get the grade. The point of most classes is to get the grade. Learning isn’t involved.” There was general agreement around the room on this point.

I moved on, but it definitely gave me pause to think. Once again I was confronted with what I’ve known for a long time: most of the time school really has nothing to do with thinking.


On Thursday we had a whole school meeting regarding literacy. We talked about the need to increase reading and writing skills across the school. We talked about the barriers and the need for buy-in on the part of the student. We brainstormed ideas. It had already been decided there will be a new focus on close reading. Although I know that, very often, close reading ends up killing the love of text, I felt that this was at least a conversation worth having. It is better than where we have been, as evidenced by what my students had to tell me on Tuesday.


I think too often teachers fall back on the things they did in school as a way to do things. For example, just because we may have memorized definitions does not mean that is the best way to learn new words.

As a Language Arts teacher, my job is to help my students learn to love language. It is a tough sell, especially for those for whom reading and writing is agony – and it is for many of them. Something went awry many years ago and it is hard to undo the sad patterns that developed.

But we must not give up. It is clearly recognized now that hip-hop artists and rappers use more words in their lyrics than any other form of music. This alone can be a motivator for young people to know more words. Kids are writing more than ever – just not in the ways we think of as writing. Complex text comes in many forms, and often does not have to be leveled down if we teach enough about the form of language, the sounds that enhance meaning. There is more to language than just a definition.

This is why I thought our focus on literacy at my school might actually be productive. I knew it wouldn’t happen overnight, but at least it appeared to be a chosen direction that we could grapple with as a faculty.

Then Friday came.

I got an email from my tech department that software was being pushed through to our laptops. Then we were sent an email explaining that we had a passcode to sign into these two new software applications: Co-Writer and Snap and Read.

When I had a chance, I decided to check these two new programs out. After all, here we were embarking on this new literacy focus. What had they found to enhance it?

Short answer: nothing. In fact, the full answer is that these “assistive programs” for “personalized learning” will set our cause back quite a bit.

Co-Writer is a program that will pop up several ideas for the “next word” when a student is writing. As a writing teacher I am highly offended by this. My first thought – here it is again, what Alfonso had clearly stated: Just show them what to do so they can get through it. If the goal is to get any old paragraph written, then Co–Writer can definitely comply.

But what about learning how to use language? What about the nuances? Connotations? What about finding voice through our word choices? After all, the thing that makes good writing is diction. Sure, if I am the science teacher and I want a paragraph written about volcanoes, it can get done easily. But as a writing teacher, I know this sets my cause back. It undoes every damn thing I work for throughout the year – helping my students find their voice, to put their thinking on paper, to show some creative effort, to organize and focus and elaborate.

Do I know that perhaps this type of program is useful for English Language Learners? Yes, it may be – I have some of those as well. But guess what? They’ve been writing in my class. They’ve been getting through. Will this set them back in what they already know?

Then there is Snap and Read. This is a nifty application that can take any text and READ it to the student. Not only that, it can level it for them with a click of a button. The video for this program showed the leveling of the Prologue for Romeo and Juliet — one of the best pieces of Shakespeare’s writing to engage students. I’ve had several instances of choral reading the Prologue and having the students get the meaning quite easily. It doesn’t have to be “leveled.”

Most of this, unfortunately, goes back to expecting students to do a lot of this reading on their own. But as most of us who’ve been in the education game for a while know, the students who will read it on their own will make their way through it. Those who cannot read on their own, or who have no support at home, will not do it anyway – leveled or not. Snap and Read insultingly promotes “data” on how many words the student has read. What can they possibly mean “have read?” First of all, the program is reading it to them. Secondly, if the data becomes the object (which it very well could) who’s to say the student is even sitting there when the text is reading itself out loud? This entire thing deeply disturbed me. I knew, once again, I was going to be facing more barriers in my classroom if teachers in my school use this program on a regular basis.


Needless to say, my naïve excitement at the prospect of moving forward as a school into actually focusing on THINKING and LEARNING has been totally squashed. I tried all day today to not write this essay. I can see where this is heading, and I know that I will have to continue to fight the power of poor educational ideas put forth to make money for someone else.

Meanwhile, our students will continue to suffer as they use programs that will do all the work for them. They will never have to struggle with complex text. They will never have to think through a piece of writing. Woe to us if we expect them to.

We as educators should not be running away from language just because we are afraid of the deficits we see. We need to find creative ways to engage and move the thinking skills to deeper and deeper areas, always using right use of language as a means to teach young people how to communicate as speakers, scientists, mathematicians, artists, musicians, dramatists, historians, and writers. It is our job to create the next class of adults who know how to think critically and creatively, as well as communicate effectively. Thinking skills need to be a vital part of the educational life of a student. It shouldn’t just be reserved for the world of video games.



(341) Make it Look Easy

When I entered college it was with much trepidation. I did not know if it would be possible to get through the math courses. I knew that if I failed those, any prospects of becoming a teacher were shot.

Then I met Kevin Lavrack.

He was a professor at Edison Community College when I took his Developmental Algebra course during the spring semester, 2001. This was the most expensive college course I ever took–it was 5 credits (not toward the degree) and I was still considered out-of-state resident. But this course would change everything.

Kevin Lavrack made math look easy. I can still remember him at the board, flowing through math problems, saying just enough each time to get it, but never confusing the issue.

The thing is, I only had him for four classes. Sadly, he and his wife got in a bad car wreck and he became a quadriplegic. Another prof had to take over the class. By then I was set. He had worked magic on me. I sailed through the rest of my courses, and was even invited to take Honors Statistics. My math curse was gone.

Lavrack did return to teaching. I have read articles about him–how his students say he can teach math better with no hand and legs than profs who have full use. And I believe it. I know what he did for me.

Today I am charged with teaching my students how to plan an essay. I know many of them “don’t believe” in planning. My job is to make it look easy–like the most natural thing ever. I don’t know if I will work any magic, but at the very least I can have the right attitude. It’s the least I can do in honor of those who have done so for me.

(339) Why No Blog?

Wondering why I’m not blogging today?  It isn’t for lack of creative ideas. I have a few.

But what I also have is a big headache for this coming week. You see, I’m responsible for teaching writing to students from very low reading level English Language Learners to students who are already reading at college level. I have barely three days to get them ready. I will not go into all the reasons why this hasn’t happened yet, as I really don’t have time to piss and moan about that.

The biggest frustration is complete lack of any decent teaching materials. I have a couple of books here from the textbook company that are supposed to help. They are TERRIBLE. The prompts given can barely be answered with the articles. This is an on-going problem, I know, and right now it is hitting me in the face.

Monday morning I have to be ready to stand up and confidently prep them for what is to come. I don’t have that confidence right now.

So, I need to take a pass on what I would like to be doing, which is pursuing a line of poetry that came to me in the night. It begins…There comes a time you leave a place. 

Hhmmmm.  There just might be a message there.

(338) Teach to Reach

I had that moment yesterday

when I saw typically unengaged students

working together, writing, talking about their writing.

I want to teach to reach.

Had another meeting  where we were told

this is what you have to do,

and this as well.

All getting in the way of teaching to reach.

I sit here this morning, looking at all the have-to’s,

thinking about what could work,

watching the time shrink to

teach to reach.

And I come in here to write

nothing creative on my mind;

instead, my students — the ones who in a month

forgot what I had taught them before,

because I was following the mandates.

Over and over, we need time for the real work,

but what we get are demands for data-gathering

wrapped with the ribbon of “You’re a cohesive team, you can do this.”

And, “Thanks for doing what is best for kids.”

What is best?

Not these mandates.

What is best?

Teaching to reach.

(337) Teeter-Totter

“I live like I know what I’m doing.” — Naomi Shihab Nye

This is an opening line of a poem. It felt like me right now.

I’m on a teeter-totter. Some days I really feel like I know what I’m doing.  Other days I find myself thinking I am so far off base, I don’t even know if I’m on the field any more.

Random thought over the weekend:

I want to stop saying stupid stuff to my students.

Yes, I thought that. It came out of no where.  It hit me in the head.

Yesterday I felt that once again they had pushed me to the edge and I said stupid, repetitive stuff.

How do I stop?  I have no idea.

And the worst part — they say the same repetitive, stupid stuff back.

If anyone is going to break this pattern, it will have to be me.

I’m still on the teeter-totter. I guess the first thing to do is to safely get off.


(335) Step Lightly

Today I am inspired by what happened in my classroom yesterday and a poem that was on The Year of Being Here website called “Stepping Lightly” by Marilyn Peretti. The video below was suggested by a student in my first period block.

Nove 27 butterfly

Please step lightly

Your heavy foot has stomped

my tender green fragility.

It may be that

I am too heavy

I am too thin

that my feet are too big

that my forehead is too large

It may be a fact that

I am Haitian

I wear jeans every day

I fear speaking up for myself

How does that make me a lesser human being?

Step lightly, please

The name you just called me

(The one I can’t tell the teacher or she may write me up for profanity)

is beyond painful and mean.

How can you say “it’s just a joke”?

Why did you think that was okay?

Why did you think it was necessary?


Are you hurting…too?