Monday, December 5, 2011

'Tis the Season

Written by Ms. Berman
Inspired by my co-teacher, Ms. Kelli Connaughton
Dedicated to my IB Biology Students
You only have to do two of the three free response questions, I told my IB Biology students as they were starting their test last Friday.  We had just finished a fast paced tutorial and I was excited because I knew that they were ready for the exam.  “Can we do the third one for extra credit?” a high achieving student asked.  Shocker!  I should have seen that one coming, I thought.  An incredibly polite and hard working group of students, I wanted to say yes, but wasn’t sure if I was letting down my guard too early in the semester.  I turned to my co-teacher, who was on her prep period working at the computer, with a questioning look, and she gave me the perfect answer, “’tis the season.” 
Okay, so here’s the thing.  Can a teacher simultaneously cut her students some slack and yet push them to do a substantial amount of work for her class?  Students in this generation are under such incredible pressure, do they really need one more teacher threatening them with grades in order for them to succeed?  If I merely set the bar and define clear expectations, will my juniors keep up with the rigor, or will they push me for more opportunities for extra credit, cutting corners on assignments, asking to turn things in late?  These are questions that can’t be answered at this point in the school year as this is the first time that I have taught this course as an IB non-testing class, and have had the luxury to set my own pace.  This is the first time that I have had 41 students in a classroom with no discipline problems.  This is the first time that all of my students are motivated and I don’t have a single student failing at the 12-week grading period.   
So, juniors, formerly the sophomores who felt negatively perceived by the IS staff, you are the members of my experimental protocol.  My hypothesis is that given the proper data pool (i.e. a certain level of maturity on the part of the students), an IB science course can be taught in a less stern and rigid manner.  Students will maintain a sense of decorum, do the required assignments because it is the right thing to do, and successfully learn the curriculum.  In my analysis, I will address the fact that when a student asks if the non-required free response question could be used for extra credit, a progressive instructor should be thinking, “Isn’t it grand that my students know enough Biology to tackle that optional question?”

Friday, November 18, 2011

Attitude is like a Virus

Written by Ms. Berman

Attitude is like a virus.  Just as a virus cannot exist without hijacking a host cell and taking over its machinery, attitude cannot exist without entering a person’s mind and becoming a part of his or her thought processes.  Some viruses are innocuous and don’t have a significant impact on our immune system, just as some thoughts have little effect on our way of thinking.  In other cases, the effect can be more unhealthful and destructive. 
All of us hear negative messages spoken on a daily basis.  The decision we have to make is how to respond to such messages.  Useful questions to ask are “What are the odds that there is validity to this information?” and “How does this information benefit me and/or the people I care about?”  It is critical to take the emotion out of the intellectual processing of such situations in order to properly assess the value of the many incoming messages that are flung upon us each day.  We, as humans with the ability to reason, get to choose which statements we are willing to process and integrate as a part of our stream of consciousness (or subconscious mind).  In addition, we choose which messages we will reinforce by either repeating such messages to our peers or ignoring them.   The relatively recent emergence of the internet and smartphones has made it easier for “attitude networking” to occur.  Thus, a simple statement, initially based upon opinion, can quickly start to appear as a fact as it is transmitted through a network of people in a short period of time.  As humans, it is easy to forgo control over our cognitive processing center, and react on an emotional level to such statements as they typically elicit such a response. 
The old clichés “thick-skinned” and “let that roll off your back” are applicable to the concept of attitudinal responses.  Those who tend to be less reactive to the attitude networking that typically occurs in any group environment, will usually end up with fewer negative messages cluttering their brain.  This requires filtering fact from fiction, but enhances autonomy and self-empowerment when it comes to decision-making down the road.  There are enough things in life that are beyond our control.  Attitude, however, is within our control and drives everything that we do in life.  In fact, self-esteem and attitude have been proven to be more essential than raw intelligence when evaluating whether an individual will achieve success, happiness, and contentment in life.  At the very least, if we listen with discretion and take control over what we are willing to internalize, then we can aim to develop more positive thought processes.  Over time, the mind will be freed up of the influx of negative messages, just as the aim for a healthy body is to be virus-free.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


Written by Rebecca Chhay
In Theory of Knowledge last year, we took a field trip to see the latest movie about education, Waiting for Superman. In the film, there was an animated clip of a factory that illustrated the track system in education. In the track system, students are sorted off into tracks based on their abilities.
I’ve been in a track system before. I didn’t realize it was called that, but at Roosevelt that was what we had. Two completely different sets of teachers separated the tracks, and it didn’t matter if you were stellar in one subject but you couldn’t deal with another; you were generally put (or later transferred) into the easiest track possible.
We were taught to take pride in our tracks, in the labels the administration stuck on us. In seventh grade, I was part of “Adventure 7”, which sounds nice at first but that effect diminishes after you realize it’s a form of segregation. It didn’t stop there. In our tracks, we had our sub-tracks. For Adventure 7, that meant we GATE students were separated from the seminar students.
Occasionally, when a seminar student was absent, and he or she took a make-up a test in my class, I would hear the inevitable remark about how much “crazier” and remarkably “different” my class was (as I sat next to the empty table in one of my classes, and thus was the recipient of all comments). 
The comments puzzled me for a great deal of time.  I didn't understand as to why there would be such a difference.  We had the same teachers, and the seminar students were just as ethnically diverse, etc. And in fact, I would probably still be puzzled if my 8th grade history teacher didn't insist on switching me to the seminar class even though I didn't have the proper Raven test score for it. The only noticeable difference I could discern after the switch was the fact that these seminar kids knew that the expectation, given their shiny “seminar” label, was that they were going to do all the work and be geniuses. Maybe not everyone in there was a genius, but each student definitely did all the work. 

Is the power of labels really so great?

In high school, we don’t have “Adventure 7”, “GATE”, or “seminar”. Instead, at San Diego High, I am reduced to the label of an “I.S. student”. I don’t deny its accuracy, but I protest at the one-label-fits-over 500 idea.
I have a background, a future, and aspirations. I am so much more than an I.S. student; so much more than a label.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


Written by Ms. Berman

I am sitting on the floor of a dirty hallway, alongside my students who are lined up against the walls of the building, engaged in their studies.  I allowed for differentiated learning today, and this group is reviewing while the other half of the class is taking a test.  I notice Z. successfully tutoring her friends and make a mental note to later ask her to become a Science Scholar.  I slide over to another group of students who don’t openly admit that they are lost, but I can tell that they need assistance.  I think about the fact that I am sitting on the floor, which is odd for a woman my age, but if I try to kneel or stand, I will lose this teachable moment.  And I am not willing to do that. 

I reflect upon the events of the previous day.  In preparation for the upcoming Chemistry exam, I had decided to schedule an after school tutorial.  Immediately after school, when only a few students showed up for the study session, I wasn’t sure if it had been worth it.  Thirty minutes into the review, a room filled with students, when N. said, “My brain just got rocked,” I knew that it was.  As educators, we call these “aha” moments.  A switch is flipped, and all of a sudden a concept makes sense.  This is especially pertinent in a Chemistry course in which there is a processing period for most people to fully comprehend the material.  Every time I conduct a successful tutorial, it is a poignant reminder of how important these small group connections are for true teaching to occur. 

After an hour and a half of tutoring, I had to ask the students to leave my classroom so I could rush off to the Board of Education to take care of some HR paperwork.  Upon my leaving the district building, I noticed several news cameras.  “A lot of media at Board of Ed,” I texted Dr. Ankeney.

“Barnett’s budget plan discussed at tonight’s mtg,” he responded. 

Oh, yes, of course.  “Doom and gloom… think I will pass,” I sent back to him as I started my car.  I couldn’t help but think about the contrast between the ominous news being discussed inside the walls of the Board of Education and the positive energy that I had just experienced within the walls of my own classroom. 

So I guess that gives this blog post a theme… walls.  As teachers in today’s society, we have to deal with walls every day.  Breaking down walls in order to reach our students at large while building up walls to shield ourselves from the negative media.  We must work at holding onto the positive energy produced within the walls of our own classroom and, at times, help our students create artificial walls that they can use to protect themselves during turbulent times.  And sometimes we might find ourselves randomly sitting against walls, in an effort to connect with that one student who hasn’t spoken to us all school year.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Breaking Away Together

Written by Ms. Berman
Dedicated to the students and families of the Senior class of 2012

“My mother says I am the devil child,” an IS Senior recently said to me.  “Ask her to call me and I will tell her stories about some truly bad kids,” I responded in a semi-sarcastic tone.  This flippant comment from my discouraged student, however, continued to resonate with me long after he had left the room.  I find myself wondering why we, as a society, are so set upon recognizing birthdays,  graduations, communions, weddings and so forth, and yet we do little to recognize and prepare both young adults and their families for the one of the biggest life transitions of all: breaking away.  This processes spans over an entire year, as the student begins applying to, planning for, and ultimately going off to college.
Perhaps we underestimate the emotional drain that the application process places on the student, and all of the close family members involved.  When my own children were going through this process, my husband philosophized that it’s an evolutionary necessity for children to get combative enough that we actually want them to move out.  Otherwise, he contended, how would we ever let our little darlings go?  Thus, as a child’s yearning for greater independence and control escalate, so do the family arguments based around the child’s ever changing wants and needs.  This signals that the process of breaking away has begun.
I hear the complaints from both the student and parental points of view.  Parents will contact me behind their child’s back (which I always tell them may backfire and encourage honesty when seeking my input), saying that their child has suddenly turned secretive and defiant.  The student doesn’t want to listen to the parent’s advice regarding college choices, nor topics for his/her personal statement.  A student’s typical rebuttal: “That’s what AVID is for.“   As the parent pushes harder to stay involved in the decision-making process, the student often resists even more. 
The student from the same family may come to me, complaining that all of a sudden new restrictions are being placed upon him/her, such as an earlier curfew or fewer opportunities to use the family car.  “It’s often about control,” I try to explain.  “As you withdraw from your parents, you create suspicion, and it is a normal response for them to try to keep better tabs on you.  Share your life with them,” I suggest.  “Be the one to initiate doing the things that you used to love doing together.  When is the last time that you actually went out and had fun without talking about IB exams, college applications, or career choices?”  Most students can’t remember.
No one is at fault for this dilemma.  Trying to evaluate the situation from the other person’s point of view and realizing that this is difficult for all the parties involved can sometimes lead to a little more patience.  Knowing that most families go through some type of adjustment during this period of time, and merely acknowledging that this is one of life’s most stressful transitions, can help the family members be less reactive to each comment and gesture as they arise.  It does not have to be a tumultuous time for both the student and the parents.  Focusing upon strategies that will create more successful ways to “break-away together” can make all the difference.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Art of Advocacy

Written by Ms. Berman
Dedicated to the class of 2014

For the past two days, the low scores on the latest Honors Chemistry quiz have been concerning me.  It is the same quiz that I give every year at this point in the semester, my students are top notch, and yet the failure rate was unexpectedly high.  These are the moments I envy the teacher who can accept the situation as status quo, walk to her car at 2:30 pm, and leave the work day behind her.  I cannot. 
Today I prepped my Science Scholars for their after school tutorial, making sure that the focus would be upon achievement.  My students need to know that they still have multiple opportunities to recoup their grades.  I can’t imagine what it feels like to live in this competitive pre-college environment, and I will go to great lengths to promote success in my class.  Where I stop, however, is that I don’t “gift” grades; students must rise to my standards and earn them.
One problem with our educational system, where it stands at the moment, is that open communication is discouraged.  Recently my students were disappointed because I didn’t go over the homework assignments during class (due to time constraints) and yet no one asked if I could make an answer key available.  I have a Science Scholars website to assist them in any way that will enhance their understanding.  Scanning the answer keys and posting them online is an easy solution to this dilemma.  And yet, not one of my students asked me if it could be done.  Lectures are posted online.  I told them old quizzes could be posted online.  Why would I withhold homework answer keys if it would increase student success?
This leads to another key element that is lacking in most classrooms, apparently in mine, and that is the element of student-teacher trust.  When a student is in elementary school, he/she knows that the teacher can be counted upon for comfort and support.  Somehow that thread of trust is squashed in the high school years, and teachers and students are viewed on opposite teams.  This is damaging in a class such as Honors Chemistry, when the process of accessing the information is unique for each person, and communication is critical.  Obviously, if a group of students put any teacher on the defensive, they will be shut down, and their needs will not be met.  Advocacy, however, is an imperative component of education. A student should have the ability to politely state his/her needs to a teacher who is striving to enhance student success.  Unfortunately this is not usually the case. 
Too many students in this era are withdrawn and in fear of repercussions.  They are not in the habit of their ideas having validity.  Allowing for student input in the teaching process does not undermine the authority of the instructor, but empowers the students to take part in their own learning.  When students identify ways in which they will be more successful in a class, they are developing  life skills that will carry them through college.  Taking the next step, and learning the art of advocacy, is one of the most important lessons a person can learn in high school.  Therefore, students, I now challenge you to think about how you best learn, seek the help you need, politely share your ideas, and work with me to achieve a memorable and successful year in Honors Chemistry.  For, regardless of what you may think, I will not accept this as status quo.  Although it sounds great in theory, I will not leave my work behind at 2:30 pm, until I am certain that you all have mastered the content of this course.

Friday, October 7, 2011


Inspired by my Marine Biology students, MVP Arts
Dedicated to all of my students facing academic challenges; you're all MVPs!!
Okay, MVP’s, we are starting on a journey.  I listened to each of your concerns and will address them throughout the school year.  Now we need to focus on a new topic.  Learning.  Once you walk into my classroom, learning is the main thing.  That does not mean you will be sitting in your seats for 90 minutes listening to me speak nor reading from a textbook.  You will be a part of the teaching and learning process, each and every day.  We will not be focusing upon grades because, in my class, I insist that your scores will be good.  You will work, you will learn.  We will learn together. 
Marine Science is a course of discovery.  Like the hidden gems of the sea that take effort to uncover, so does a person’s talents in the field of science.  In order to fully comprehend the remarkable secrets of the ocean and its surrounding environment, basic concepts in Biology and Chemistry must be attained.  Therefore, we have our work cut out for us, already six weeks into the semester, and some catching up to do.  Consider it a challenge.  I am like your coach, the one who will push you beyond the limits you knew you could achieve.  However, this is important work.  For it is only the educated who will bring positive changes to our society, and save the beautiful things we all enjoy, such as the seacoast, coral reefs, and exotic fish.
Just as with a coach, you will not always like what I have to say, but you will respect it.  Just as with sports, sometimes you will grow weary and want to stop, but you will keep trying.   And sometimes things may not seem fair, but you will trust that I am making the best possible judgment in each situation.  This is our classroom code of conduct. 
Learning, true learning, is not easy.  It requires questioning, reasoning, problem solving, and compromise.  But in the end, succeeding in a rigorous science class will be one of the most satisfying experiences of your high school career.  More important, however, once you have mastered all that I have taught you in this course, you will have rightfully earned your title of MVP, which, in this case, does not stand for most valuable player, but for most valuable person.  And that is precisely what each of you are.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

ISAmbassadors: Initiators of Change

An IS parent approached me at Open House and remarked that this is the worst he has ever seen the state of public education.  As I was about to readily agree, I looked over at my students gathered by the IS tree.  Many were just hanging out with their friends, but a few were waiting for me to collect their proceeds from the Pancake Breakfast ticket sales.  "No," I responded, to the surprise of both of us.  "This is the best that it has ever been.  "In the case of my students," I elaborated, "large class sizes, limited supplies, and the economic strife in their personal lives has led them to take action.  This has all manifested in a program called IS Ambassadors."
I have been reflecting upon this conversation for a week now, and decided to share it with my students at our club meeting today.  "Look at the number of people in this room!" I exclaimed.  "And the wait list is growing daily.  Everyone wants to be a part of this experience.  Our current budget stands at $5,643.17.  That will afford our students the opportunity to do things they never thought possible, such as going on a college tour.  This is all due to your hard work; you made it happen."  The students broke out into applause. 
The School of International Studies is a microcosm of society at large.  When a group of people become dissatisfied and/or frustrated about something that really matters to them, they can become discouraged and apathetic or they can be the initiators of change.  One reason ISA has evolved at a logarithmic pace is because students are yearning for outlets for dealing with the multiple forms of deprivation and inequities they witness on a daily basis.  Although most students are not looking at the big picture right now, I can see it.  Gen Y-Not? will be better off for having experienced these tumultuous times and attempting to drive these social changes within our club, our school, and our community.  These students will not be complacent in their future careers and endeavors.  They will know how to advocate for themselves.  They will know how to define their goals, mobilize quickly and work as a team to achieve arduous tasks.  They will be comfortable with spontaneity, adversity, and diversity. 
As I am writing this, I glance at the bookcase in my office and notice a binder entitled "Life Skills Training: High School Teacher's Manual."  I can't envision a program in the country that empowers students to identity their needs and collectively meet them in a more positive manner than this student-designed program called ISA.  Therefore, I view this time as the height of my career as an educator, witnessing major shifts in public education which are catalyzing  students to take ownership over their present and future.  Indeed, in many ways, things have never been better.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Roles We Play

Written by Ms. Berman
Rules.  They are a valuable component of any society.  They help us define our roles, keep us safe, and set boundaries.  Roles can be useful when one is in need of a purpose.  But what happens when the roles defined for us don't coincide with the person whom we really are?  Should we "fake" the role in which people expect us to play, to make them feel more comfortable with us, or should we be ourselves (within reason) and allow people to learn that it is okay to be atypical?
This is a question in which I grapple with every year at this time in the semester.  Teachers are told to "never smile before Thanksgiving."  Allowing students to see our more personable side will diminish their respect for us, and potentially erode our class control.  This theory of classroom management has been engrained in me for over twenty years of teaching.  The reality, however, is that my greatest success stories, my "little miracles" as one student has coined them, have never arisen through intimidation, but through encouragement via the teacher-student connection.  Creating an environment in which students feel comfortable taking risks, asking questions, and seeking help is not in alignment with the role of the foreboding teacher.  It is not only unnatural, but it is dishonest, as it is not me, and the students will soon come to realize this.
Open House was difficult tonight, as I could see parental apprehension when I stated that I don't believe in loading on the homework.  The look of concern was clear, as parents want assurance that their children will receive a top notch education.  I am sensitive to their concerns, but teaching my students how to create balance in their lives is a priority for me.  I am continually striving to create meaningful work, and focusing upon quality over quantity.  As long as I see my students thrive in the learning process, I will continue to limit the amount of homework that I assign.  Yet again, I am not playing the role in which I am expected to play, and I know that it makes some people uncomfortable.  If I weren't a teacher with whom students share some of their innermost feelings, I may have a different approach or teaching style.
This school year I have decided to start off the semester playing the role of myself.  My students will see that I have a sense of humor and that I believe in the importance of having fun.  I don't think that I am better than they are, and won't pretend that I am.  I love my career, and the students are the driving force of my enthusiasm.  My classes are based upon mutual respect.  My Science Scholars are the anchor of my success as an educator, and I give them credit for all that they do.  I sometimes make mistakes, and it is okay if my students do, too.  This year I will break the teacher covenant and will be smiling long before Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Privileged Mind

Inspired by Nidia Davenport
Dedicated to all IS and MVP Arts Students 
It is mid-August… the time in which most dedicated teachers begin to reflect and dream.  I have been an educator since 1987, have had minimal problems with classroom management since my first day of teaching, and yet I occasionally have the typical anxiety dreams… students out of control in my classroom.  It always strikes me as odd when I awaken, because discipline is not an area in which I ever plan for or concern myself with.  And yet, being that Honors Chemistry and IB Biology tend to be courses that many students fear taking, I know subconsciously that unknown challenges await me… challenges primarily focused upon building student confidence that anyone can indeed tackle the rigor of my science classes, regardless of their previous educational and/or social experiences.
Today as I was driving home from a Big Bear retreat, I reflected upon a question that had been posed to me by a bright young lady of the same age as my upcoming students:  “I have thought about being a teacher,” she had said, “but I wouldn’t want to have to teach me.  How do you handle the kids with an attitude?” 
“I don’t have students with an attitude,” I initially responded.  “I shut them down before they get to that point.”  But then I took a moment to think back to last year, to the brief altercations that could have escalated between specific students and me.  “Well, you know, H,” I told her, “you don’t get an attitude unless something is really bothering you.  The trick, as a teacher, is to get to the root of the problem.  It’s all about showing the student a little respect.”
I then told her about R, and how she had started to talk back to me last fall.  I explained how I carefully guided her into my hallway without drawing the students’ attention to the situation, and then cut to the chase.  It quickly became apparent to me that R didn’t feel respected nor intelligent in my Honors Chemistry class, and wasn’t sure how she was going to grasp the overwhelming amount of material being presented in the course.  Previous experiences freshman year (and probably prior to that year) had tainted her feelings about education, and more important, about herself.  I scheduled a lunchtime tutorial with R for the following day, in which she made huge strides during a short period of time.  Reassurance.  So little effort made such a huge impact, and from that day forward R worked toward becoming a stellar Chemistry student.  It was easy for R academically because she had a privileged mind and comprehending the difficult material came more naturally than she had expected.  Comprehending her feelings about herself, the course, and me were not so simple to attain. 
So when I am asked if students “give me an attitude,” I would have to say no.  I work at being proactive and recognizing that self-expression exists for a reason.  It is not necessarily a bad thing.  It is rarely personal and, even if it is, my job is to disseminate information, which sometimes requires cutting through some barriers.  And thus my anxiety dreams may also be a reflection of the students who have their own feelings to deal with at this time of the school year.  My future students are now facing the fact that the easy-going days of summer are about to come to a close.  Homework will be starting up again, as will projects and exams.  Some students may be feeling uneasy or a bit out of control as they don’t know exactly what to expect from each of their future teachers.
The reality, however, is that all of my students come to me with privileged minds, they just have to learn how to best work with them.  With clearcut expectations and the amazingly dedicated Science Scholars at IS, all students have the ability to succeed in my classes.  Thus, the true challenge is not in the teaching, nor in the disciplining of unruly students, it is in convincing the struggling students that they are worthy of learning.  And that daunting task as an educator is justification for anxiety dreams, even for the most seasoned of teachers.  For it is the most driven of teachers who know just what is up ahead and how important it will be to access all of the privileged minds that will be brought before him/her.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

What's the Point?

Written by Ms. Berman
Dedicated to my brother, Michael, for keeping the memories alive

“Ms. Berman, sometimes I wonder, what’s the point of life?  I am not depressed or anything; I'm really just trying to figure it all out.  Right now it seems as if all we do is work hard in high school so we can get into an amazing college.  But then we will have to work hard in college in order to get into grad school, and then after that, we will be working our butts off to earn a living (or so we are told).” 

Knowing that I owe this student a satisfactory explanation, and he is a right-brained thinker, I decided to frame my response as an analogy:  If we were to compare a person’s life to a two hour movie, I started to explain, the singular moments could be thought of as the snapshots within that movie.  Although the bigger events within the life of a teenager, planning for college, career, and possibly later, a family, are all important, they are the infrastructure which affords a person the opportunities to have the best case scenario of snapshots throughout his/her developmental young adult and later years.

How do we know when we have experienced a meaningful/successful/positive snapshot?  Let me begin by addressing deprivation and disappointment.  We, as humans, go to great lengths to avoid both of these situations for ourselves and for our loved ones.  If you think about it, however, when has food tasted better than ever?  Often when eaten after too many hours of going without.  When does success feel the most rewarding?  Often after repeated failures were experienced prior to achieving such success. The point being that it is only the contrast of the positive and negative experiences in our lives that allow us to recognize the beauty of the good.  Rather than feeling shame for our negatives, it would be better to view them as a baseline of comparison by which we learn to appreciate all that is exemplary around us.

In reference to the snapshots of life, I am talking about the short-lived moments, or even a period of days, in which our actions, or those of another person’s, have a subtle, but profound impact on our personal happiness and well-being.  These snapshots occur every day and are unique to each of us, as our personalities guide us in our human gestures.  As a young child my Grandma told me: “You don’t know the number of people whom you will affect on this earth.  Be kind to everyone, for the person who is the least kind to you, is probably in the most pain.”  And thus the recognition of snaphots began in my life, following the wisdom and faith of this half blind woman who could still “see” twice as much as the rest of us.  It is typically best if societal snapshots, in which we are primarily giving to others, are balanced with personal snapshots, in which we are in the giving/receiving mode.  For me, my societal gestures vary but are usually based upon listening to a stranger telling me their “life story.”  My family and closest friends tease me that I have a “tell me everything” sticker on my forehead, and perhaps I do.  None-the-less, I tend to bring out the more personal side in people, as the thing that they crave most is to be listened to and validated.  

                My most significant personal snapshots, however, revolve around my family and close friends.  I have seen too many friendships and families torn apart by internal squabbles over money, control, jealousy, etc. and I avoid letting those issues destroy my relationships.  So whether it be participating in the July 4th Fun Run with my 24 year-old daughter, discussing philosophy with my son, taking the dog for a walk with my husband of almost 30 years, planning a trip to a winery to celebrate my younger daughter’s 21st, or enjoying a day at the beach with my girlfriends, I cherish the moments that I spend with the most precious people in my life.  These personal snapshots cannot be bought for any amount of money, nor are they dependent upon what college I graduated from.  These are the snippets of life that matter the most to me, as they bring me the deepest kind of joy and satisfaction. 

                It is important to note that no matter where you are within the context of your movie, know that you are making a difference along the way, even when you don’t think that you are.  So continue planning the script for your movie, but be sure to savor those shapshots.  These sacred moments are what give most of us our sustenance.  Remember life is about the sharing of ourselves with everyone with whom we come in contact, in order to bring a collective support system to our society at large.   And that, my student, is the point!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Effective Communication Isn't Easy

Written by Ms.Berman
Dedicated to my inspiration, Lizzy.  
Communication:  no one said that it is supposed to be easy.  Many people consider themselves to be adept at this skill.  If a person is forthright with her/his feelings and is clear on his/her thoughts , does this ensure that they will be communicated effectively?  The answer lies in point of view.  It is not only the intent of the message that is essential, but how it is perceived.  Taking the time to check for clarity and understanding isn’t something that comes naturally to most of us. 
Point of view and misinterpretation, however, are at the core of many conflicts between individuals and groups of people, and should be considered when tension arises.  Unnecessary angst and hurt feelings often crop up from a mere misunderstanding of the meaning behind a particular statement.  Being that it isn’t realistic to check the intent behind every statement that may come off as offensive, here are some life rules to help you navigate when communicating.
1.   Understand that people’s behavior, including their verbal communication, is primarily a reflection upon them, and to a small percentage, a reflection upon you.  As human beings, we tend to personalize every situation to be about us.  In reality, a person’s words and actions normally represent what it going on in their world, not yours.  When someone is hurtful towards you, think of yourself like a mirror… and let it bounce back toward them.  You don’t need to be rude.  However, no one can make you feel badly about yourself without your permission.
2.   Remember that you cannot control another person’s words or actions.  The only thing that you can control is you, and how you react to him/her.  You’re best off remaining as least reactive as possible.  People tend to say and do more outrageous behaviors to others whom they can elicit the greatest responses from.  Neutral reactors are of no value to attention seekers and will no longer be their target.
3.   Set a time limit as to how long you will dwell over your missteps.  We all say and do things that we regret.  Share your regrets, either verbally with a trusted friend or in writing by journaling, but then after an allotted time period, move on.  You cannot change the error, and wasted energy worrying about such a mistake detracts from a more productive use of your personal resources.
4.   Establish a “no guilt” policy.  If you ask someone a question, they should be able to answer honestly, without feeling guilty, even if it is not the answer that they know you would prefer to hear.  This may take some practice, but becomes easier over time, and makes for a more honest and meaningful relationship.
5.   Establish a “don’t fester” policy.  If someone is saying things that are hurtful to you, tell them at the moment it is occurring.  Chances are some of these messages are subject to interpretation and aren’t coming off in the way in which they were meant to.  The speaker and recipient may be on completely different pages.  Letting things fester makes for further misinterpretation and a build-up of bad will.  Oftentimes this leads to an outburst of angry comments when these hurt feelings are finally communicated. 
Feelings are complicated, and manifest on multiple levels.  Communication requires patience, diligence, humility and, most important, a desire to connect with your loved ones in an honest and meaningful manner.  The human connection, the ultimate result, is one of life’s greatest pleasures.  Effective communication, as with most things that provide the greatest of rewards, is rarely going to be easy.

Monday, June 13, 2011

When Stellar Isn't Good Enough

Written by Ms. Berman

"The graduating class of 2011 was the most successful group of students in the history of UCLA; they just keep getting better every year."   These words, spoken at last Friday's graduation at UCLA, are still resonating with me as I am reflecting upon the momentous weekend.  I am quite sure that my response to this comment was atypical.  Naturally, I am proud as heck of my daughter for all of her achievements, but I am also thinking about the bar that has been set for the students who will be following her.  This baseline of comparison, so to speak, has been gradually creeping up every year of my teaching career, and the impact is as follows:  Stellar students with amazing accomplishments now often view themselves as "normal" or "average."  Extraordinary is no longer readily acknowledged nor recognized because the students who indeed are in this top percentage of our student "pool" tend to cluster with other students like themselves.  Thus, their  baseline for comparison is a warped and inaccurate representation of the norm.
The fall-out of this dilemma, odd as it may sound to an outsider, can be low self-esteem.  Yes, some of my highest achieving students feel the most downtrodden and disappointed in themselves because they have set their personal standards so unreasonably high that they have difficulty achieving them.  In addition, rather than merely striving to be the best one can be, our test-driven and numbers-based society makes it all too easy for students to feel compelled to compare themselves to each other on every level, after every test, project, presentation, as if each of these grades defines who they are as a human being.   Even the best of friends may secretly be in constant competition to be the best, as if that will give the "winner" internal power over the group.  It is an unhealthy reality in the lives of many students, and not one that they should be blamed for. No one would choose to be this anxious and self-deprecating. 
As educators,  mentors, guidance counselors, parents, and friends of young adults, it is unconscionable for each of us not to address this critical issue.  Taking the time to focus upon a young adult's strength of character, moral stance, creative mind, and kindness of heart should be a priority for all of us.  After all, do any of us adults choose our friends because of the GPA that they earned in college?  It is enticing to get caught up in the societal definition of what makes the perfect teen, but what is it that we really want for our children and who do we want them to become when they are adults?  This quest for achieving "beyond extraordinary" has no end in sight.  Taken in the literal sense, the goal is infinite, and can never be attained, and thus will always leave a person feeling inferior and unfulfilled.
So the moral of this story is that, students, you are good enough, just as you are.  Every year when I start to work with the Seniors on their college applications, some of my top students have difficulty sharing their strengths because they don't view themselves as spectacular, but they are.  You are.  Juniors, don't worry about what everyone else around you is doing.  If you are navigating your way through IS, then you are doing just fine.  End of story.   Sophomores, this is a year of transition.  The courses become more challenging, the homework load increases, and the goal should be to focus upon time management.  The rest will fall into place.  It may not feel like it at the beginning of the school year, but if you stay on top of your work, everything will be okay. 
Parents, help your child focus upon his/her talents, no matter what are.  Not all students shine in the same way.  What a boring world it would be if they did!  Help your child stay organized.  Eight classes is a lot to keep track of.  Celebrate the successes and try not to dwell on the failures.  Our students need our support more than ever.  Think about what brings your child joy. 
High school educators, consider not grading on a curve.  There will be plenty of time for that competitive game later on in life.  Setting high expectations and clarifying how they can be attained should be sufficient for most courses.
Finally, and most important, all adults should show our teens some respect.   Our students are hard working, they are resilient, and they are loving.  All that they want is acknowledgment for their efforts.  Perhaps if we adults provided our children with more encouragement, they would stop looking to their peers as a baseline of comparison, and feel more confident celebrating their individual attributions.  Perhaps they would realize that there is an element of extraordinary inside each of us, and that we should all define stellar in our own unique way.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Rejoice in the Luba Citrin

Written by Tonia Berman
Dedicated, with love, to Ginny Shabatay

A butterfly garden.  I am not sure if I even knew this sort of exquisite venue existed.   None-the-less, Heidi and I found ourselves amongst a group of 15 people from all over the world, each person equally in awe of the most beautiful of creatures.  Our guide released two butterflies that were flying side by side. They immediately landed on the ankle of a dark-skinned, stunning young woman who was standing close beside me.  And thus, the human connection began.   We all stood mesmerized, watching the most basic of life's ritual, two butterflies mating.  We quietly hypothesized why they chose this particular woman for their perch, and decided it was probably her scent.  Everyone clustered around, shooting pictures with all types of cameras and smart phones.  At that moment, we were unified as we stared in wonderment at this most simplistic, yet significant, representation of the cycle of life.
Our guide proceeded to show us a moth that had just emerged from its cocoon.  “They undergo metamorphosis for a period of seven months,” he said, “but once they exit the cocoon,  their adult life consists of five days.”  I couldn’t get past the fact that this was merely a moth, and felt sadness for this creature whose life was cut short.  Perhaps, I justified, the time spent in the cocoon was so enjoyable that it compensated for this injustice.
The final pair of mating butterflies landed on the blue and white striped shirt of an older woman’s sagging breasts.  Finding himself caught up in the moment, her husband starting shooting pictures from all different angles.  The crowd followed, no longer caring that this would normally be considered a rude invasion of privacy, and a rather unappealing background for a picture.  The focus was on the butterflies, however, and the typical societal norms were renounced.
Following the tour, I needed some time alone, to meditate upon all of the butterflies surrounding me.  People, fortunately, started to clear out and I kept my eyes focused on my favorite… the Luba Citrin (the blue butterfly).   I walked around the farm and waited, determined to capture this most miraculous creature on film.  At last he stopped, and spread his wings for me… I could swear he was posing as he waited until I got a clear picture of him.  I experienced a sense of serenity that I haven’t felt for a very long time.  Such a simple moment of beauty, and yet, so riveting.
It is for these moments that I love to travel.  Not only do I stop setting an alarm clock, wearing a watch, paying bills, and worrying about my loved ones, but I take the time to explore the most random of places.  This is when I witness the strong human connection during the most unexpected of moments.  This is when I find myself unwind long enough to rejoice in the mere existence of the Luba Citrin.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Turquoise Ocean Waters

Written by Ms. Berman, in Honor of Susan Garner
On my third glass of iced tea in an airport bar, starting to fade, my friend Heidi whipped out her camera insistent that I relive my frolicking moments in the turquoise waters of St. Maarten.  The liberation was instantaneous.  Just hours prior, after a full day of traveling, we were delayed at the last stretch of our journey at LAX, when the pilot of our airplane could not be found.  "Please, I begged the customer service agent, you have to get me on the next available flight; I am going to a memorial at La Jolla Shores in San Diego and it ends at sunset."  The young man tried to work with me, but the computer kept rejecting the request.  Customers noticed tears welling in my eyes and offered to give up their seats, but the stand-by list was rapidly growing.  I had to step back and accept my destiny... knowing there would be a reason for this turn of events, but not yet understanding.
Fixated on the spectacular pictures captured on camera, I thought about Mrs. G, and her memorial that was occurring at that precise moment.  I remembered our last conversation, standing in her front yard following a Teen Life Choices retreat:  "Your son is going to go far in life," I said as I hugged her good bye.    He is a genius you know.  They are the hardest kids to raise." 

"Thank you so much for your kind words, Ms. Berman.  You have no idea how much your reassurance means to me," she replied.  I was only being honest, I thought, as I drove off that Sunday afternoon. 
My reminiscing ended when the young waitress at the restaurant bar approached, asking if there was anything else we needed.  Not an unusual question, but as  I took the time to really look into her eyes, I saw an entire story there.  After teaching for so many years, that happens sometimes, but it is normally after working with a student for awhile.  "Where are you going to school?" I asked her.  She looked at me and hesitated.  I could see that she wanted to talk, but she wasn't sure what my agenda was.  And then the words just popped out...  words from the heart.  "You have a way about you," I said.  "I have been a high school teacher for a long time and I can tell that you are going to go far in life."  Such a random comment... she could have thought I was a nut and just walked away, but she didn't.  She proceeded to talk to Heidi and me, telling us how she had lived through a traumatic experience that had set her back and she was ready to go to college now, but needed someone to help her along.  She then asked for my email address, and wondered if I could be her mentor.  It was all very surreal.
When my plane landed in San Diego, there was an email waiting for me on my cell phone.  It was from my new mentee.  She said that I was the first person to ever tell her that she could make it in college.  Words I have heard so many times before, but they cut to my core every time.  I told her my mother, the college counselor, would work with her on the college process, Heidi could provide her with some therapy, and I could be her online mentor.  The complete package.  All because our plane was delayed, a life will be changed.  But it wasn't until I got home, processing my disappointment over having missed the memorial, that it hit me.  The words that I spoken to the young woman in the bar were the same last words that I had said to Mrs. G.   Both conversations focused upon succeeding in life.  Both were intended to cast forth comfort and motivation.  So although I couldn't be at La Jolla Shores saying my proper farewell,  I was opening a door for a young woman in need.  That was exactly how Mrs. G would have wanted it.  That was the gracious, loving, selfless woman whom she was.  This serendipitous occurrence was an offering of the gift of life in honor of Mrs. G.  A lover of beauty, she would have understood, more than most, that this entire interchange was inspired by the turquoise ocean waters off of the quaint little island of St. Maarten.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Teachers of the Classroom

Today I handed over the control of the course curriculum to my IB Biology students.  Did I feel compelled to justify my decision?  Of course I did.  After listening to my 90 minute lectures and/or participating in laboratory experiments or tutorials every period the entire school year, attending a 6 hour LAB DAY on a Saturday as well as evening and weekend tutorials, submitting their lab portfolios for internal assessment in a timely manner, and surviving a two day IB exam, I felt that they had proven themselves as dedicated students.  Now it was time to give them some autonomy.  I know that I stand in the minority in my way of thinking, but I contend that we underestimate the ability of our students to self-regulate.   Clearly students are not accustomed to the teacher saying, “Go ahead, you figure this out.”  It then leads to some uncertainty.  But within minutes the tone of the group changed and I sat back while my students became the teachers of the classroom.
The group quickly agreed that they would like to do presentations on scientific areas of interest during the remainder of the semester.  This could have gotten tricky since there are a limited number of periods remaining in which we will meet, and one is only two days away.  Collaborators that they are, however, one bright student immediately offered to take that early slot.  Another followed suit.  Amazing.  I wish I had been videotaping this scenario play out.  Corporate America could learn some valuable insights from my I.S. teens. 
The issue of grades was then brought to the table.  Again, I told my students that I entrusted them to define this aspect of the assignment.  Two students volunteered to create a rubric for the class and post it on Facebook (as well as send it to me).  Expectations.  They understand the importance of knowing that the standards should be clearly set from the onset so that everyone will have the maximum opportunity for success.  They can perceive what it means to be fair, and that their grades cannot be gifted, but must be earned.
What purpose does this approach to learning serve?  My students are savvy and will know exactly how much work to do in order to earn the maximum allotted points.  But in researching an area of interest, knowing that their “A” is basically guaranteed, some may find that they enjoy learning more when the work isn’t thrust upon them.  Some will figure out how to connect Biology to other academic disciplines, such as History or Psychology.  Some will decide to make their presentations fun and/or funny to please their peers.  And if for even one student, this is his/her finest memory of IB Biology, then this decision will have been worth it.  The intrinsic value of learning was lost for most students somewhere along with their days of hopscotch.  I look forward to seeing what they come up with when empowered to become the teachers of the classroom.

Thursday, May 19, 2011


Written by Ms. Berman
Dedicated to the Class of 2013
Sometimes I give my high school science students a five minute break during the 90 minute class period.  I call it “recess.”  Every time I say this, someone chuckles.  I choose this word intentionally, as it defines the mood I am trying to capture… a time in their lives when things were more carefree, when play was a natural part of their day, when they didn’t sit in classrooms for three consecutive 90 minute periods.  As an I.S. alumnus currently attending Yale recently said, “If a college student were to sign up for three classes back to back, everyone would think they were crazy!  I can’t believe I used to do this!”  And yet, of course, she did… just one year ago.  So if I feel that my students need/deserve a brief break in the monotony of the day, I am going to give it to them.

However, this is what I have observed…. Before recess, the students are lethargic, sometimes disengaged, and exhibiting a loss of enthusiasm.  After all, it is almost the end of the school year and everyone is exhausted.  Afterwards, however, after the students have either gotten out of their seats to chat with their peers or gone outside to toss a ball or blow bubbles, they return to their work energized and more on task.  As much as they hate to see recess come to an end, I only have to ask them once to get back to work.  Despite what one might expect, they do not take advantage of this opportunity, but rather are just grateful to have it at all.  They are undoubtedly more efficient. 

So that leads me to the following questions: Why don’t we have more time for play built into the daily curriculum, even at the high school level?  When did we decide that school could no longer be fun?  Who is making these rules that are impacting the lives of millions of teenagers across the nation and why am I caving to them? 
As an educator I do have a professional responsibility to complete mandated standards and assure that my students are prepared for future courses of instruction.  I then ask myself what is my moral responsibility to see that my students are prepared for life, and how can I best assure their success in that?  As simplistic as it may sound, unstructured playtime is one of the biggest gifts that I can offer them.  Many students were stripped of this way too early in their development and are thus craving the simple pleasures and activities associated with early childhood education, such as coloring, tossing a rubber ball, and making silly putty.  But my contention is that it is never too late to enjoy “playtime” and that I am equally obligated to offer my students a well-rounded classroom experience in order to slow down the societal accelerated push to adulthood.  With overwhelmingly large class sizes and the constant flux of the district that has tainted this academic year, I haven’t had sufficient time to focus upon this issue.  Regardless, I believe that every educator should aim to improve his/her teaching style each year, or quit the profession. 

Thus, I will return next fall renewed.  I will think of new ways to integrate fun activities into my lessons.  I will draw from the creative minds of my students.  Standards will be taught, but life will be experienced.  This is my commitment to my students.  My classes will still be rigorous.  Tests will be administered.  Labs write ups will be done in the IB format. Simultaneously, however, I will emphasize the importance of play, exploration, creativity, and just having fun.  I will continue to offer my students recess.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Attitude is like a Virus

Written by Ms. Berman
Attitude is like a virus.  Just as a virus cannot exist without hijacking a host cell and taking over its machinery, attitude cannot exist without entering a person’s mind and becoming a part of his or her thought processes.  Some viruses are innocuous and don’t have a significant impact on our immune system, just as some thoughts have little effect on our way of thinking.  In addition, some viruses remain dormant within the body for years before rapidly invading a multitude of host cells and increasing at an exponential rate.  These viruses, the ones left unchecked, are often the most serious, just as the negative messages cast into a person’s mind can crop up years later, creating an outburst of insecurity and self-doubt. 
All of us hear negative messages spoken on a daily basis.  The decision we have to make is how to respond to such messages.  Useful questions to ask are “What are the odds that there is validity to this information?” and “How does this information benefit me?”  It is critical to take the emotion out of the intellectual processing of such situations in order to properly assess the value of the many incoming messages that are flung upon us each day.  We, as humans with the ability to reason, get to choose which statements we are willing to process and integrate as a part of our stream of consciousness (or subconscious mind).  In addition, we choose which messages we will reinforce by either repeating such messages to our peers or ignoring them.   The relatively recent emergence of the internet and smartphones has made it easier for “attitude networking” to occur.  Thus, a simple statement, initially based upon opinion, can quickly start to appear as a fact as it is transmitted through a network of people in a short period of time.  As humans, it is easy to forgo control over our cognitive processing center, and react on an emotional level to such statements as they typically elicit such a response. 
The old clichés “thick-skinned” and “let that roll off your back” are applicable to the concept of attitudinal responses.  Those who tend to be less reactive to the attitude networking that typically occurs in any group environment, will usually end up with fewer negative messages cluttering their brain.  This requires filtering fact from fiction, but enhances autonomy and self-empowerment when it comes to decision-making down the road.  There are enough things in life that are beyond our control.  Attitude, however, is within our control and drives everything that we do in life.  In fact, self-esteem and attitude have been proven to be more essential than raw intelligence when evaluating whether an individual will achieve success, happiness, and contentment in life.  At the very least, if we listen with discretion and take control over what we are willing to internalize, then we can aim to develop more positive thought processes.  Over time, the mind will be freed up of the influx of negative messages, just as the aim for a healthy body is to be virus-free.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Change. Try to Embrace It.

Written by Ms. Berman
Change.  Some fear it.  Some fight it.  Some challenge it.  Some judge it.  And some, such as myself, try to embrace it.  I like to think of change as a new chapter, a part of growth, and that no matter how old we are, we should continue learning and improving our life's work.   A student recently said to me that "all hell has broken loose at IS."  This is how things may appear at the moment, as we await in anticipation of Mr. Ankeney securing his position as principal of our school.  In a close-knit community such as IS, once one essential component is threatened, it throws the entire community off kilter.  No one likes it when things are out of his/her control.  With the eminent budget cuts, parents are anxious about losing the integrity of the programs at IS.  Students are wondering how the upcoming year will be different in terms of school pairings, course selection, and class sizes.  Teachers are questioning whether they can work any harder than they are already doing now.  But it is important to remember that times such as these bring about self-reflection, as each person is thinking about what he/she values most and how their pivotal goals can be attained. 
Taking the time to think, really think, about the roles that we play in life is critical in order to continue evolving as human beings.  Sometimes the conclusions that we come to will surprise, disappoint, or alter other people's perception of us, but it is essential that we know what we want to achieve and how to go about doing so.  And that brings me to pathways.  I have often stated that there are many different pathways to get to the same place.  As a wise colleague of mine once said, "there would be no need for maps of New York City if everyone took the same route to the same location."  Not only do people need to take different paths, but they need to move at different paces.  So when you find yourself on a path that doesn't feel as if you are going in the right direction or at the correct pace, you probably aren't.  It is time to think about how you function best, and be open to taking an alternative route.  These are patterns that are being established for the rest of your life.  Although change can cause some angst, it can also allow for new opportunities.  For it is often the very things that we fervently resist in life that bring us the most satisfaction in the end.  Change.  Try to embrace it.