The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Archive for July, 2011

Summer Reading V: The Hunt for Red October

I am continuing on my quest to read the entirety of the Jack Ryan/John Clark canon as written by Tom Clancy, following the chronological order of the story. The most recently completed book is The Hunt for Red October, which is actually the first book Clancy wrote. I love the description of Clancy that appears at the end of the book:

He has had a private chat with the President of the United States who proclaimed himself to be an avid fan of The Hunt for Red October. He has lunched with the White House staff. His novel has been a top seller at the Pentagon. Yet the author in question is neither a former intelligence nor naval officer. Rather, Tom Clancy is an insurance broker from a small town in Maryland whose only previously published writing was a letter to the editor and a three-page article about the MX missile. Clancy always wanted to write a suspense  novel, and a newspaper article about a mutiny on a Soviet frigate gave him the initial idea for Red October. He did extensive research about Soviet-American naval strategies and submarine technology. Then, in the time he could spare from his insurance business, Clancy sat down at his typewriter and wrote. The rest is history…

Red October was the first Clancy novel I read, after I attempted to read Clear and Present Danger and found it a bit too complicated. (This was when I was in 7th or 8th grade, I believe). After reading this one, though, I was hooked, and quickly sought out the other books. Today I own 9 of the 13 novels in the series and after reading Without Remorse (given to me by a friend who didn’t want to keep it), I decided to read the rest of the series. I love this book. It is everything a first-time suspense novel should be. Clancy doesn’t give away the end early in the story, even though he has ample opportunities to do so. The plot moves quickly but jumps around to keep the reader engaged and trying to keep track of everything that is happening. It isn’t Clancy’s best novel, to be sure, but it is still a great story.

It takes place in the midst of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. A Soviet submarine commander, Marko Ramius, has decided to go rogue and is attempting to steal a brand-new submarine and deliver it and himself to the United States. The Soviets learn about it and send its entire fleet after him in a search-and-destroy mission. At the same time, the US has learned about the attempted defection, and are sending their fleet out to bring him (and the sub) safely in.

The thing I find most interesting in the story is the description of the American response to the Soviet Union in general. As I mentioned in the comments of my previous summer reading post, Tom Clancy is clearly an American Exceptionalist who grew up in the turmoil of American-Soviet tensions. Everything he writes is pro-America, pro-American intelligence services, and pro-American military. I’m okay with this; I think it is impossible for an author to not write with a bias, and those who attempt to do so tend to write boring stories. At least, that has been my experience with the many thousands of books I have read. The author has to have a purpose in writing, and that purpose is his or her bias. Clancy’s purpose is to write a suspense story that shows why America is superior. Of course, he also throws in shout-outs to our allies, but it is still the Americans who win the day.

It would be interesting to read pro-Soviet fiction as a counterbalance to Clancy’s stories, but I don’t know if any such books exist. My only exposure to Russian literature has been a few attempts at Tolstoy, but I’ve never actually completed any of his books. I’ve also read most of Ayn Rand’s works, but hers are certainly not Russian lit. Maybe I’ll explore this train of thought later; for now, I am going to continue through my Clancy reading and then find something else.


Interviews VI, VII and VIII

I don’t know why I didn’t blog about my interview on Wednesday, nor do I know why I have put off blogging about today’s interview, but I guess I should do it to keep my running record of my professional life going. Because this is a bit over 1,400 words, I’m going to put a break in here, just to keep my home screen from being overwhelmed by this post.


What Is Leadership?

In the process of completing hundreds of job applications, I have gotten used to seeing the same questions pop up time again. In fact, I have saved my responses to these questions so that I can copy-and-paste into my applications. (For those who may be concerned, this is actually encouraged!)

Today I saw a new question. It asked me to describe my views on leadership. My recent week at the Illinois Teen Institute, coupled with a discussion with my father-in-law about what leadership is (and what it is not) has prompted me to share my response with all of you. (In the meantime, I am delaying the writing of two book reviews and an interview report. I’ll get to it all eventually, I’m sure!) Anyway, here it is:

Leadership is taking a principled stand on an issue and inspiring others to join you in that stand. Leadership is walking beside those you would lead, and sometimes walking behind them. Leadership is setting a positive example by doing what you say and saying what you do. Leadership, more than anything, is a matter of being an example to others.

Leadership is not to be the person up front, the person in charge, or the person directing the actions of others, although these may occasionally be included in the roles of a leader. Nor is leadership a lonely position; one can be a leader among a group of leaders.

As an educator, my primary role as a leader is to provide students with the skills and knowledge they need to be leaders among their peers, within the school, and within the community. I do this by modeling positive leadership traits both within the classroom and without and encouraging my students to do the same.

ITI 2011: There and Back Again

[Note: This was originally posted on the blog that my wife and I share.]

As much as I would enjoy writing a post about The Hobbit, this is actually my annual post on my experiences at the Illinois Teen Institute just a couple of weeks ago. While some who read this blog are surely familiar with it, I am going to assume that there are at least a few visitors who may not know. So before I get into ITI 2011, let me give a brief recap:

The Illinois Teen Institute is a week-long leadership camp during the summer, sponsored by the Illinois Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Association (it has taken me many years, but I think I’ve finally gotten the name down pat). ITI was started in 1974 and has been going strong ever since, making it the longest-running Teen Institute in the nation.

As a Teen Institute, it is aimed at, well, teens. Students are able to attend as participants from the summer before their freshmen year of high school until the summer after they graduate. As a participant, teens are placed into two groups: First is a small discussion group of 8-12 teens and two staff members (depending on attendance numbers). The members of the discussion groups generally do not know one another before hand, and the purpose of the groups is to discuss the general sessions and workshops offered each day. The second group is a Community Action Team, and it is the heart and soul of the Illinois Teen Institute. Teens from the same area/school/community/etc work together to come up with a plan to improve their community, utilising the skills and information they have gained at the Institute. The CAT plan is conceived, planned, and carried out by teens, with adult sponsors or volunteer staff members present as resources. (As an aside, Operation Snowball, Inc. was the result of a community action plan from 1978, or thereabouts, that has become an international drug prevention program.)

As a leadership camp, ITI focuses on helping teens become better leaders in the schools, their communities, and in the state. It is also a “prevention first” program, meaning that students learn about ways to prevent risky behaviours, most notably alcohol, tobacco and other drug (ATOD) abuse, unhealthy relationships, bullying, etc. It is not a treatment, rehabilitation, or recovery program. The entire week is focused on the teens. The speakers and workshops are selected to provide meaningful information and useful skills.

I first attended ITI in 1999 as a participant. In 2000 and 2001 I was back again as a member of the Administrative Team (A-Team), which allowed me to attend free of charge as a teen staff member. As a member of the A-Team I did not have a discussion group, although I did participate with my Community Action Team. From 2002-2004 I was absent due to serving a mission in California, but I returned in 2005 as a member of the volunteer staff, working as a co-facilitator. This placed me with a discussion group and a CAT. I did this for two years before being selected as a PALS 1 Coordinator in 2007.

The PALS 1 program is designed for Peers with Advanced Leadership Skills who are coming back a second or third year to really focus on specific leadership skills. The program has changed somewhat over the years, but the main focus has always been to help those teens who are in positions of leadership be more effective leaders and to train to be leaders at ITI. (The PALS 2 program has been renamed Youth Staff and is just that: teens who have been through the program and are ready to practice what they’ve learned. They work with a volunteer staff member in leading discussion groups, working with action teams, and making sure the participants feel welcome and have a great week.)

I applied to be a PALS 1 Coordinator in 2008 but, due to a mix-up in contact information, I didn’t learn that I had been selected until the Friday evening after staff training had started. Gretch and I had just gotten married about 3-4 weeks earlier and I was scheduled to work that entire week. Whoops. I was disappointed, but it was probably for the best, since we were still trying to get settled and all.

After bringing Gretch to my high school’s Operation Snowball weekend in 2008 and 2009, I encouraged her to come to ITI, despite her complete lack of experience with the program. She applied as a volunteer staff member and was accepted as a co-facilitator. I returned as a PALS 1 Advisor (new name, same job) and we had a wonderful week together. We came back in 2010, volunteering for the same roles. During the 2010 camp, Gretch and I helped the girls in Headquarters (formerly known as the A-Team) with scheduling of workshops and other things, and I was encouraged to volunteer for HQ staff for the following year, which I did.

Which finally brings us up to ITI 2011. Due to Gretch’s work schedule, she was not able to attend ITI this year. So I went alone. This marked the longest period of time we have been separated since we started dating on 16 August 2007. However, frequent telephone calls during free time and occasional chats on Google helped us make it through the week. Besides, many of our ITI friends are married and also spend the week apart. So we knew we’d be okay. Everyone asked how Gretch was doing and where she was. It was great to know that so many people care.

In fact, this is the very reason that I find myself going there and back again year after year. I love the community of caring that exists at the Illinois Teen Institute. My first CAT advisor was Brian Weidner. He had been going to school at Bradley University in Peoria back in 1999. Today he and his wife live and work in Minnesota, but he comes back each year as a workshop presenter, and we also catch up. I consider my friends at ITI to be like a family, and I hope that they think the same of me (and Gretch). Two experiences from this year really capture this sense of family.

The first was a girl who was attending as a first-year participant. She arrived with her mom, but nobody else. She was alone, and she was scared. She wanted to leave. A few of us helped her through the first few hours and encouraged her to stay, sharing our own experiences. After listening to our first speaker, the Amazing Tei Street, she decided to stick around. I later learned that she called her mom that night and said how glad she was to be there. I saw her off and on during the week, and each time she had a big smile and was laughing with her peers. She came alone; she left with a network of friends and supporters.

The other is also about a girl, here for the first time. She came from another state. She is kind of quiet and seems the kind who keeps to herself. I don’t think anyone would look at her and think of her as someone who would be popular, or even someone who would hang out with the popular kids. On Tuesday evening, the teens participated in a talent show. This girl walked onto the stage and, without saying a word, put on her guitar and began to play the opening chords to Stairway to Heaven. When she finished, 300 people rose to their feet, cheering, clapping, and calling for an encore. Later on, she and one of the teen staff members, a young man who is a semi-professional musician, were jamming in a lounge area.

That, my friends, is why I keep coming back. It is because the world is not as bad as we are led to believe. There are good people doing good things. They say that the youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow. The young men and women and the Illinois Teen Institute prove that wrong. The youth of today are the leaders of today. I am blessed to work with them and I know that I am a better person because of it.

Interview V

As you are probably aware, I have applied for well over 1,000 jobs at more than 300 schools/districts/consortiums across Illinois. Nearly every one of the applications has been submitted using the AppliTrack system, which is an excellent bit of software that allows districts to collect and sort job applications online. Last year, I discovered, which is an aggregate site that culls all of the AppliTrack sites in the nation and puts them in one place. This has made it incredibly easy for me to apply for jobs, particularly since I can import applications and thus skip the tedious task of filling out all of the information each time.

The vast majority of job postings in Illinois are grouped near Cook and Lake counties, which are essentially what is known as Chicagoland–all of the districts in the greater Chicago area that are not part of Chicago Public Schools (they are a separate entity from the rest of the state). Alas, this also means that everyone wants to work there. For example, I applied for one opening in the North Ridge area. I received an email that informed me that, regrettably, I was not selected among the more than 1,000 applicants.


But I’ve continued to apply for every self-contained, general education (SCGE) teaching position I could find from 2nd to 6th grade (I don’t really want to teach kindergarten or 1st grade and few schools have SCGE classes after 6th grade). Which is why I applied for a couple jobs in Matteson School District 162 on June 16 and again on July 1. According to my records, I applied for a 5th grade opening and a 6th grade opening.

Two days ago, on Sunday (July 10) I received an email informing me I had been selected to interview for a 4th grade teaching position at Sauk Elementary School in the Matteson district. I was informed that the principal would be conducting interviews today (the 12th) from 8 am to 1 pm and to contact him to schedule a time. I wasn’t at all concerned that I hadn’t actually applied for a 4th grade position, mostly because I had indicated an interest in any intermediate position available. So something about my application caught his attention.

At the same time, I was already scheduled to substitute for one of Champaign’s high school summer school classes on Tuesday. (More on this later.) I determined that it would take me approximately two hours to drive to Ricthon Park from Champaign, and I didn’t want to pass up one more subbing opportunity. So I did what any sane, rational, job-seeking person would do:

I asked that he schedule my interview for the first time slot.

So I woke up this morning around 5 am, ate, dressed, attended to hygiene, kissed my wife goodbye, and headed off around 6 am to fill up the gas tank before making my trek to Richton Park. The drive actually only two about an hour and a half, so I got there much earlier than necessary. I killed time by driving around the immediate neighbourhood and checking on Twitter updates. At 8:15, I went in and was seen by the principal immediately.

The interview went very well, I think. The principal (a former teacher at Champaign Centennial, coincidentally), asked me about my approach to standardised tests, classroom management, repeat offenders, parental contact, and differentiation. He was brief and to the point, and my responses were in kind. Then he told me about his school district: 98% African-American, pure chaos when he arrived six years ago, with test scores in the bottom 70%. A year later, he suggested that students wear navy or black pants and white shirts (but no formal dress code or school uniform was made). Everyone complied. Discipline problems have gone way down, academic success has gone  way up. The parents are extremely supportive, too, but they also work a lot, so they can’t be there every day. However, the school hosts an annual Dads’ Day, in which over 250 fathers in the community attend, some of whom don’t even have kids in the school! The test scores are now in the low-to-mid-80s, but they need to go higher. The focus will be on literacy and mathematics (woo hoo!) but without excluding science, social studies, health, etc. Literacy will be taught across the curriculum (double woo hoo!) and the teachers are encouraged to do whatever it takes to reach their students.

This is where I want to work. A district with challenges, but the resources to tackle the challenges head-on. No excuses, take no prisoners, give it all you go, go big or go home. It isn’t about machismo or teaching to the test, or anything like that. It is about helping the boys and girls in this school become young men and young women, literate and ready for the challenges ahead of them. It is awesome, it is enthusiastic, it is positive. It is what I want to be a part of.

Is Matteson 162 the only district in the state like this? No, of course not. But their principal gave me the chance to interview and to discuss how I might be an advantage to his community. As with some other districts, I would be thrilled to work there. He said I should hear back from him on Friday. I am praying I get a phone call from the 708 area code on Friday that will have good news!

(Oh, and we would be much closer to many of our friends in the prevention field–always an added bonus!)

Summer Reading IV: Red Rabbit

Hopefully I won’t be boring anyone with my summer reading but, then, my main purpose in blogging is for personal reflection and recording, not for gaining an audience. (That being said, I certainly appreciate those who come and read my musings and those who comment, as well.)

As previously noted, I am working my way through Tom Clancy’s “Jack Ryan/John Clark universe” collection. I just finished reading Red Rabbit, which is a later book (in terms of when it was written), but takes place early on. Over all, I enjoyed the book. It gives some interesting insights into life in Soviet Socialist Russia in the early 1980s, albeit from a very Western perspective.

It is fun to see how Tom Clancy places his characters in key places in history, or, rather, in the alternate universe that parallels our own. The American president in clearly Ronald Reagan, but his name is never given. Likewise with the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher or the Polish Pope, John Paul II. This is an idiosyncratic thing that Clancy does in nearly all of his books. The players in the various government bureaus all have names, like Emil Jacobs, head of the FBI, Arthur Moore, Director of Central Intelligence, and his two deputies, James Greer and Bob Ritter. But the Heads of State are always referred to by title, not name. Even the Royal Family in England is never named.

The story focuses on Clancy’s fictionalised account of one of the many theories surrounding the assassination attempt on Pope John Pual II in the early 1980s. Not knowing much about the actual historical account beforehand, other than the fact that it had happened and that it was the primary reason for the Popemobile being more secure with bullet-proof glass. (Interesting side-note: apparently “Popemobile” is an acceptable informal term for the vehicle that has no formal moniker. Go figure.) The “Red Rabbit” is a Soviet defector (“rabbit” being used as an espionage terms to describe a defector) who has learned of the assassination plot on the Pope and wishes to alert the Americans so as to protect the life of an innocent man.

While enjoyable, it was not the most suspenseful of Clancy’s novels, and it certainly didn’t have the usual plots, sub-plots, and sub-sub-plots that are typical of his works. I get the feeling that this story was more of an attempt to flesh out the Ryan biography (and earn some more money) than to really present a gripping tale of suspense and intrigue. Next up is The Hunt for Red October, which was actually the first Clancy novel I ever read.

Interview IV

Today I had an interview at Booker T. Washington Elementary School in Champaign. I was interviewing for a 2nd grade (gifted) position that is, in many ways, a new position.

In past years, the gifted program at BT Washington has been two classrooms: 2/3 and 4/5. This year, there will be three: 2, 3, and 4/5. Another change is in the school itself. BT Washington has long been the only bilingual school in the district. Many kindergarten students come in speaking only Spanish and learn English as they go through the grades. There are also English-speaking students who learn Spanish every other day. The district is moving (or just closing–I’m not clear which) the bilingual program, and turning the building into a STEM magnet school – Science Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

All of this means that they are really looking for a candidate who has expertise in gifted education, science, technology, engineering, and math. (Although they would be okay with someone whose expertise is gifted and one of the four STEM classes). Alas, I have none of the above.

As a substitute teacher, my expertise is a mile wide and a fathom deep. It is deep, but it covers a vast array of topics. I am a generalist educator, first and foremost. I am very pleased with my broad knowledge base, and actually consider it to be a strong selling point for my qualifications for a full-time teaching position. It is a rare day when a student asks me a question and I don’t know the answer. Even rarer is when I can’t find the answer. So, honestly, I don’t know if this position really is the best one for me.

But we shall see. I have another job interview tomorrow morning for a 4th grade position in Richton Park (a Chicago suburb) and will hopefully have an interview in Urbana soon for another 4th grade position. Lots of interviews this summer. Gretch and I have already decided that, since I am only applying for jobs that I would actually accept if offered, I should take the first offer made. So it’ll be an exciting week!

Update: I apparently never blogged about my third job interview, which was for a 3rd grade position at Thomasboro Elementary just north of the Champaign-Urbana area. Thomasboro has a nice school and a great teaching staff. The principal and superintendent were both very supportive and I could tell that they work hard to work with their teachers to improve their school. I had the interview on June 21, not quite a week after my interview at Woodland. I sent the superintendent an email the following morning with a question and an additional letter of reference and got a reply back that, while they were very impressed, they selected someone else. Sorry about forgetting about it!