Teachers are expected to plan out their lessons. In teacher preparation programs, you spend vast quantities of time learning how to design lesson plans that are aligned to state standards with clear student-centric objectives. Lesson plans should be built around enduring understandings and essential questions. We agonize over what we want to say and what the students might and points that might need clarification. And yet no matter how well we plan, students always manage to ask the unanticipated question, make the unusual connection, or throw us for a curve.
Some teachers get frustrated when this happens and tell the students that such questions or remarks aren’t appropriate. I remember a time my baby sister was in a class and the teacher made some comment about how you could achieve anything if you just set your mind to it. She asked, at the age of fourteen, what would happen if you were born without arms but dreamed of being an concert pianist. Rather than take advantage of the outlier question and discuss ways that people have overcome adversity, the teacher said to her, “Stop wasting my time with such stupid questions or you can just not come back.” When I heard about this, I was furious! The quickest way to stifle a young person’s innate curiosity is to devalue their questions and cut them down. Fortunately, my sister knew this and was able to continue to learn and grow. She just learned to never ask questions of that particular teachers. Seven years later and it still makes me angry to just think about it.
Other teachers know that the curveballs are just another way that learning happens. The cliché advice to expect the unexpected is what makes teaching such a worthwhile and valuable pursuit. Being prepared to go on a side trip to explore students’ questions and challenge our assumptions is how we learn and grow together. And when a teacher doesn’t have an answer, teacher and student begin to learn together. It is always a wonderful experience. And even though I half-jokingly tell my students that I know everything, I always follow that statement with the observation that the reason I know everything isn’t because I have every fact filed away in my mind but because I know how to find answers and that is what I want my students to learn how to do that, too.
Today I experienced one of these unplanned teachable moments. We were doing a Number Talk that involved adding two multidigit numbers. One of the strategies a student shared was something like this:
7,761 + 4,123 =
(7,000 + 4,000) + (700 + 100) + (60 + 20) + (1 + 3) =
11,000 + 800 + 80 + 4 =
I noted that this student’s strategy took advantage of expanded notation to group numbers by their place value. Several students raised their hands and one of them asked what expanded notation was. I realised that I had an assumption in my observation that was demonstrably false: not all of my students knew what expanded notation was. This turned into a minilesson for the whole class on place value. After I finished teaching about place value and expanded notation, I had the students work independently on Front Row on the Numbers and Base Ten domain so that they could get differentiated practice on this skill.
And yet my lesson plan said that we would review strategies for solving addition and subtraction problems, including open number lines and the standard vertical algorithms, and that students would use mental math strategies to evaluate the reasonableness of their answer. Did I expect to teach place value and expanded notation? No. Did I ignore the students who didn’t understand the concept or needed clarification? Of course not! Did the students who already got it feel like I was wasting their time? Nope. Why? Because I included them as peer teachers and had them help others as we worked through the concept.
All moments in the classroom should be teachable moments. Most of them will probably be planned. But when the unplanned ones happen, I hope that all teachers will take advantage of the opportunity and be willing to acknowledge that a student who asks a question is asking a question worth exploring and answering.
I have always had hearing loss. I typically describe the level of my hearing loss as about 75% deaf in my left ear and about 50% deaf in my right ear. I’ve never actually asked a doctor how accurate this description is, but it is how it has felt for me. I had hearing aids for most of my childhood and early adulthood, but I got to a point where they were lost or broken or both and I simply didn’t have the money or insurance to cover replacing them.
I finally got a new hearing aid during my first or second year of teaching here at Wiley but it was an old model that didn’t do much more than amplify all of the noise around me, which didn’t really help. Also, it was a model that fit behind the ear and that caused several problems for me, too. And on top of all that, it was for my left ear, which has, for reasons unknown to me or my team of medical professionals, never been able to keep a hearing aid working for long.
Then last year someone suggested I get in touch with an agency in town that might be able to help with hearing aids. I met with a representative in May and started the process. It took a long time. In fact, the entire summer passed and I still hadn’t even had a mold for my ears made or been able to select a model of hearing aid, although I knew exactly what kind I wanted. But I persevered.
In the meantime, my hearing got worse. I got a really bad case of tinnitus, so I have had a constant buzzing sound similar to cicadas in the background. This has made it really difficult to hear quiet conversations and sometimes to even hear clearly what people were saying to me in a normal conversational tone. But I persevered.
I met with my audiologist again a few months ago, got a new set of hearing tests done, got molds taken of both of my ears, and selected the model of hearing aid that would most help me in my work environment. Then it seemed like another forever-long wait. But I persevered.
Then I got a call from my audiologist last week, asking if I could come in for a fitting. I was elated! I scheduled the appointment, went in, and saw my new hearing aids. They were everything I had hoped for. She and her intern explained some of the features, and put them in.
At first, nothing happened. And then, just as I was getting ready to ask, I had an experience that came directly out of a book. She turned them on:
How can I describe what I heard when the doctor turn on my hearing aids? Or what I didn’t hear? It’s too hard to think of words. The ocean just wasn’t living inside my head anymore. It was gone. I could hear sounds like shiny lights in my brain It was like when you’re in a room where one of the lightbulbs on the ceiling isn’t working, but you don’t realize how dark it is until someone changes the lightbulb and the you’re like, whoa, it’s so bright in here! I don’t know if there’s a word that means the same thing as “bright” in terms of hearing, but I wish I knew one, because my ears were hearing brightly now.
I don’t know if R.J. Palacio has experienced hearing loss herself or know someone who has, but this description from Wonder has perfectly captured my experience with hearing aids for the past several days. I love the wording: hearing brightly. That really is what it sounds like.
And while it is going to take me some time to get used to all of the ambient noises around me and even longer to get used to the sound of my voice, I am so thrilled to be able to hear again!
Concern about the latest incarnation of high-stakes standardised testing has been at a frenzy over the past several months. The same type of testing that has existed (albeit without the high stakes) in our nation since at least the mid-1930s. The same type of testing that has been a major part of our national educational conscience since the late 1980s when the Reagan administration released A Nation at Risk and then the first Bush administration released America 2000 followed by the Clinton administration’s Goals 2000 before we finally settled on the second Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind.
The names of the tests have changed, the format and content have changed, but the test themselves have been around for a long time. Now that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have been fully adopted, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) has developed an assessment aligned to the CCSS that Illinois has, along with 17 other states, adopted as our high-stakes standardised test.
And because it is new and because of a hundred million reasons, it seems like everyone has been going crazy over the tests, talking about opting out, refusing to do it, the possible impact it will have on our schools and our students, and whether or not we are ready.
Some schools have devoted weeks, even months to test preparation. Some districts have paid large sums of money for test prep kits and modules. There are some states that are tying students exam results to teacher evaluation and student promotion. These are all decisions with which I disagree.
What did we do in my tiny fourth grade classroom on the edge of east central Illinois? We looked at the math and English/Language Arts (ELA) modules available on the PARCC website and we did a tutorial on how to use the online tools.
Otherwise, our days have gone as usual. Math at the start of the morning, social studies or science in the middle of the morning, literacy at the end of the morning. Lunch then a read aloud before fine arts. Ending the day with writing. Other tasks and activities sprinkled liberally throughout the day. Just doing what we do every day, some of it very productively and some of it needed to be revised before trying it again.
And then the day of testing arrived.
My class was the first one scheduled to start the day, with the students doing the first ELA section. (There are three ELA sections and two mathematics sections.) We had a breakfast snack in the morning and I made sure every student had a chance to use the restroom. Then we headed across the hall to the computer lab. My principal was there. And my librarian. And my reading interventionist. And my instructional coach. And my superintendent. Wow. No pressure, right?
The students came in quietly, took their seats, and followed my directions. We got them logged in, and then they get started. There were no disruptions, no distractions, and no problems. My students know how to use technology. They know how to navigate websites. They know how to access digital tools that are made available.
Was the test itself easy for every? No, not really.
Am I worried about the test results? No, not really.
Do I think that high-stakes standardised testing of all students is necessary? No, not really.
Do I think this is something that teachers, administrators, parents, or students should be anxious about? No, not really.
I keep thinking about the letter about PARCC testing that my superintendent recently distributed to all families in the district and shared on our district web site. Specifically, I am thinking about this line:
“We do not allow one assessment to define our students, our teachers, or our schools.”
And at the end of the day, as I sit in my empty classroom and think about what the rest of this week will bring, I keep reminding myself of one simple truth: My students did their best. How can I possibly expect them to do anything more than that?
I just realised it has been over a week since I last wrote a blog post. I don’t know why I’ve had such a hard time updating each day this year. Maybe it is because of grad school, maybe it is because I feel so totally exhausted at the end of the day, maybe it is just because I feel like I am repeating myself a lot after more than four years of blogging about my teaching experiences.
The thing is, I don’t think I actually am repeating myself all that much. Each year provides a new class with new experiences and each day is a fresh start. I don’t think I’m in a rut or in a slump. I think I’m just trying to get back into the habit of writing. My father-in-law, whose many hats includes published author, has often shared that one of the tricks to writing is to just do it. Write! Every single day!
This is good, sound advice! So is this bit of wisdom from a favoured author:
So even though I’ve said it before, I’m going to say it again, because it is the same standard that I hold my students to: I need to write every day. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering. It doesn’t even have to be good. It just has to be something. Of course, it has to be something about the classroom, even if it is just a brief snippet of a conversation with a student.
I want my students to work on their writing every day. I can’t in good conscience tell my students to do something that I myself am not willing to do, too. So I am going to start writing again every day and hopefully I will get out of this slump and back into the swing of things. After all, this blog is my space to reflect on my teaching practices and what happens in my classroom and I can’t do that if I am not, well, doing it!
I also need my handful of faithful readers to hold me accountable. Whether you call me out on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, email, phone call, text message, or carrier pigeon, I need someone to be my writing accountability buddy. So if you are willing to help me, please let me know if I haven’t shared something on my blog by 5 pm!
Well, that may be just about the longest blog post title I’ve written on this blog. Maybe not. I haven’t actually gone back to look at all of them to see. Oh well. I digress before I even start.
A teacher friend of mine from Champaign shared a blog post/article this morning on Facebook. She was not sharing it because she agreed with it, though. She shared it because it upset her and she wanted to know what her other teacher friends thought. All of us have agreed: it is terrible.
Two or three times a year, someone on the Internet writes a post about giving gifts to teachers that is trying to be helpful. I try to look at them in the best possible light and I try to remember that the authors really are trying to be helpful. Unfortunately, they also always make me feel incredibly uncomfortable, especially when the author prefaces her post by saying, “I am a teacher, so I know.” The articles are not the same, but they have the same message: Don’t buy this gift or that for a teacher. She won’t really like. He won’t want to keep it. She will smile and accept it and throw it in the trash. He would rather you gave him something else.
It makes me sad.
Very, very sad.
You see, I was one of those kids who each year gave his teachers the same gift: a coffee mug with some chocolates inside and a thank you note. I was one of those kids that came from a large family (five older brothers and two younger sisters) and so many of my teachers had taught many Valencic children over the year. And I was one of those kids that came from a family that was not wealthy. In all honesty, we were somewhere between poverty and lower middle class. I don’t write that in an effort to shame my parents. I don’t write that to garner sympathy. I write it because it was the reality of my childhood, but it was a reality that I was mostly unaware of. My parents always made sure we had life’s essentials: food, shelter, clothing, love, and books. But because of our financial situation and because of the size of my family, it wasn’t feasible to provide costly gifts for all of those teachers. But my parents wanted to make sure that we knew that our teachers were important, and gifts around the holiday season were one way of doing that.
So when I see a blog post that tells parents to stop giving coffee cups, chocolates, homemade treats, lotions, soaps, ornaments, knickknacks, flowers, plants, etc. I can’t stay silent. I can’t let my lack of a voice be a passive consent to such words. So I am writing a rare weekend blog post, writing much more personally than I usually do here, and asking all parents to please, please, please, please ignore those posts. Don’t believe the person who says the teacher doesn’t appreciate the gift. Don’t buy into the notion that there are “right” and “wrong” gifts for a teacher. And please, please, please, please, please do not feel like you are obligated to purchase, make, or send a gift for your child’s teacher. Once something is an obligation, it is no longer a gift; it is tribute. And that is the last thing I want any child or parent to feel that they have to provide.
I realise I have only been teaching professionally for seven years and that I am only in my fourth year teaching full time. I realise that teachers who have taught for decades have probably been given more gifts than they have room to store them. But I talked to some of these teachers and I read their comments on my friend’s initial post on Facebook. Here is what these teachers and retired teachers had to say about gifts:
“I am truly appreciative of every single GIFT I receive. I still have the coffee cup Lawrence gave me 15 years ago and I think of his precious face every time I use it!!!”
“One of my most challenging students one year gave me a simple pin that he helped make. It said “Teachers Have Class!” The pin part broke off so I turned it into a magnet. Every time I look at it, I think about that student. It doesn’t matter that I have pins and magnets already; it matters that it came from him. He was so proud of it!”
“I put a Christmas ornament on the tree this year that is 26 years old from a student in my first class.”
“A little girl in my very first class made me an apple ornament for my tree. That was back in 1978. Every year when I hang that ornament I think about her. I didn’t always keep all the gifts I received over the years (I could have opened an Avon store), but I treasure the memory and the thought behind every single one of them. Being a support staff teacher I never received as many gifts as regular classroom teachers but I never scoffed at any. The thought behind every gift always made me smile and I was always touched that students and their parents thought of me. Particularly with parents who couldn’t afford to give me gifts, the fact that they did was all the more touching.”
And the personal memory that prompted me to write this: “I have one gift that I got from a student that always makes me smile because of the presentation. He shuffled in with his head down, as was his usual method, handed me a package without looking at me, and said, “My mom made me give this to you.” It was a shirt being sold online that I had seen and shared on Facebook. I see this student now each morning as he walks to the middle school, head held high, laughing and talking with friends, and always stopping to say hello to me as I am working the car drop-off. Such a change in such a short period of time!”
So during this holiday season, as the end of the first semester quickly approaches, if you feel the need to give a gift, if you or your child saw something and thought, “Wow, I bet Mr. Valencic would love that!” and you want to give it as a gift, go ahead and do so. I will graciously and grateful accept with all sincerity. I know what such gifts truly mean and what they are truly worth.
I love hosting student teachers in my classroom. They challenge me to continually think deeply about what I am doing, how I am doing it, and why I am making the choices I make. They also bring fresh ideas to the classroom that I love trying out. I also really enjoy being able to serve as a mentor as they are preparing to do full-time student teaching. Some of my student teachers pass through and then I don’t hear from them again. Others keep in touch. (My student teacher from last fall, Ms. Shapiro, got hired over the summer and is teaching fourth grade in Schaumburg!)
My student teacher this semester, Ms. Schultz, has been with us every Tuesday and Wednesday. She has taken on many responsibilities over the past several weeks, including some of the more mundane teacher tasks such as attendance and lunch cart to some of the very important instructional responsibilities of guided reading, math instruction, and our daily read aloud.
This week, however, was her trial by fire! Every student teacher in the fall is expected to take over all of the teaching responsibilities for two days. We decided to have her do her full take-over this week so that she wouldn’t have to do it after our extended Thanksgiving holiday break.
Even though she was doing all of the teaching, I was still in the classroom for the vast majority of the time. It was hard for me to sit back and not intervene when I noticed students off-task, but I soon realised that she totally had things under control. She was quick to redirect students and get them back on task and they were, for the most part, quick to respond. Many of the students were definitely challenging her authority yesterday but today they were much, much more responsive as they accepted that I was deferring responsibility to her. Any time someone came to me with a question, I directed their inquiries to Ms. Schultz first.
We still have several weeks left of the semester, and so Ms. Schultz will continue to be with our class each Tuesday and Wednesday. As we move toward the end, there will be less modeling and less just turning things over and much more co-teaching and co-planning. And that’s the other thing I love about having student teachers: serving as a mentor and helping them go from being observers who are usually trepidatious about being in a formal teaching assignment for the first time to being an active, eager part of a teaching team!
One of the books I was expected to read while working on my bachelor’s degree and my elementary teaching certification was The First Days of School by Harry and Rosemary Wong. I found the book incredibly helpful with lots of practical advice and real-to-life scenarios intended to help me on that very first first day of school. There were a host of other books I had to read and while they all had different focuses and different purposes, there was one piece of advice to novice teachers that i came across again and again: stay out of the teachers’ lounge! Supposedly, the teachers’ lounge is a den of negativity, hate, backbiting, complaining, and the source of all bad morale.
Then I did my student teaching and learned something very important: the teachers’ lounges at Garden Hills Elementary in Champaign and Clara Peterson Elementary in Paxton were wonderful places for me to talk to other teachers and learn about what they were doing in their rooms and what their classes were like. After graduation, I started working as a substitute teacher in Champaign and worked in nearly all but one of the elementary schools, all three middles schools, and both high schools at least once. After two years I started subbing in Mahomet, where I worked in both elementary schools, the junior high, and the high school. I also subbed for two days at Leal Elementary in Urbana. Over the course of those three years, I ate in the teachers’ lounge almost every single day and discovered something shocking:
The books were wrong!
In the course of three and a half years, I ate lunch is dozens of teachers’ lounges in four different cities. And not once did I witness a teachers’ lounge like I had read about in The First Days of School and various other professional texts. Then I started following several teachers’ blogs and I found this same narrative being played out. No matter the author, I was told that the teachers’ lounge is the native home of the worst of the worst and I need to stay as far away as possible. The weirdest thing, to me, is that these books and these blogs are written by teachers I admire, I respect, and I consider virtual mentors. I don’t understand how they can be so right about so much but so very wrong about this.
And then I realised something: we need to change the narrative. Teachers have been trash-talking the lounge for so long that they’ve stopped going there and they’ve missed out on what has happened. I think the lounge used to be all the horrible things people say it is. But teaching is dynamic and our profession is constantly changing. One of those changes has been what takes place in the teachers’ lounge.
You see, I cannot accept the notion that the teachers in Champaign, Mahomet, Paxton, and Urbana have all figured out some secret that nobody else in the country, perhaps the entire world, has figured out. I refuse to believe that the teachers I shared lunch with for three and a half years in four communities are the only teachers out of the millions in our nation that can eat lunch without being negative, angry, and bitter. I have to believe that others have figured out what I have learned:
The teachers’ lounge is the place I go to recharge. It is the place I go to discuss my job with professionals who love their work, love their students, and love what they are doing. It is where I go to talk to the third grade teachers and the fifth grade teachers and the Title I reading intervention specialists and the school’s instructional coach and the librarian and the volunteer coordinator and the fine arts teachers and the social worker and the school psychologist and learn about the amazing things going on in their rooms. It is the place that I go to check up on a former student and celebrate with her teacher the huge growth she has made. It is the place I go to hear about the students I will have next year and start making plans to establish the necessary relationships with these children so that their fourth grade year can be as fantastic as possible. It is the place I go to discuss education policy, district initiatives, building goals, politics, movies, television shows, books, bike rides, exercise programs, babies, spouses, personal celebrations, and shared struggles.
In short, the teachers’ lounge is where I go to spend thirty minutes of my day interacting with colleagues who help me become a better teacher and a better person. You know who I don’t see in the lounge? The complainers, the whiners, the never-good-enough-for-them-ers, the negative nancys, the debbie downers, and the horrible harrys. In short, all those people that I was told spent every free moment of every day sucking the energy out of their colleagues are nowhere to be seen in the teachers’ lounges I have frequented.
Maybe it really is awful everywhere else except where I have gone. Maybe I really have been just that lucky. Or maybe it is time to change the narrative and start pointing out all the good things that can happen in the teachers’ lounges all over the nation. And maybe it is time that those who have had positive experiences eating lunch in the teachers’ lounge stand up and speak out in behalf of themselves and their colleagues. If you are a teacher and you are reading this, I would love to know your personal experiences with the teachers’ lounge. Please feel free to share them in the comments section!
In past years, I have used at least one post during Teacher Appreciation Week (the first week of May) to think about those teachers who have influenced me in my life and my career. These men and women have been a huge impact on my life and have really helped me become the person I am today. Earlier this morning, a post by a friend on Facebook made me think about another group of teachers that I admire, teachers I have never actually met in person but know about through their books, their blogs, and their Twitter accounts. These are the teachers I wish to acknowledge today, even if they never see, read, or even hear about this post.
Some of these teachers are men and women that I have interacted with through various online social media resources, others I have only admired from afar. All of them are, in my opinion, exemplars of the type of dedication and passion to education that I hope to emulate in my own work. This is in no way a comprehensive list. There are surely many more who deserve praise and accolades for all they do. Many of them do have blogs and I have linked them on here whenever possible. In no particular order, then, are the teachers who have influenced me, even if they don’t even know I exist.
First on the list is Esmé Raji Codell. I have written about her very briefly in the past, usually by sharing a favoured section of her book about her first year of teaching. I’ve never met her, although I’ve heard that she has visited the Champaign-Urbana-Savoy area (what I like to call Chambanavoy) in the past. I read her book, Educating Esmé, as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois. It was one of the few required books that I both purchased and kept that year. I loved her story, her passion, her dedication, her honesty. It was her own diary from her first year as a teacher that actually inspired me to create a daily blog about my adventures, first in substituting and now as a fourth grade teacher.
Another teacher that I learned about through a book and later a movie is Erin Gruwell, famous for her Freedom Writers project in California. My mum got a copy of her book at a school board conference she attended one year and offered it to me. I read it and was captivated by the idea that student writing could be used as a force for social change. I also realised that the best writing will come when it is authentic–when students are writing for a purpose that is important to them and for them. I have tried to keep that in mind when I have my students write in my classroom. Whether they are responding to literature, thinking about social issues, expressing an opinion, or explaining how to do something, I want them to feel like their writing matters to their audience, even if that audience is just themselves. And while I’ve never had the opportunity to meet Ms. Gruwell, I have met one of her students, Manuel V. Scott, and I was impressed by the legacy that his high school English teacher passed on to him and that he is now passing on to others.
Mr. Greg Michie is a teacher from Illinois that I learned about through his memoir, Holler If You Hear Me, written about his experiences as a middle school teacher in the Back of the Yards neighbourhood of Chicago. Mr. Michie is one of those teachers who learned that the only way to truly reach his students was to meet them where they were. He found literature that appealed to them, he invited them to bring their lives and their culture to the classroom to share and to be accepted, and he made sure that each of his students knew that he really did care, even if they didn’t care back. His book is another one of the few selections from my undergrad days that has stayed in my personal collection and has been read more than once.
Not all of the teachers I am writing about today are teachers I know through books. Many are teachers who I have met through their blogs. As mentioned above, I have made an effort to link their blogs here if I felt they were relevant and worth sharing. (Spoiler: If I like a blog, I think it is worth sharing with others!) Honestly, I have no idea how many of them even know that I have shared their blogs or that I am a teacher blogger. I have no idea if there is even one other blog that has linked to me. And, again in all honesty, I don’t mind. I don’t blog for the traffic or the accolades. I blog because it allows me to reflect on my teaching. I just realised that I have already written over 800 words, so I hope that these teachers will not feel slighted if I mention them all in one batch. Each one writes for a different purpose and has captured my attention for a different reason, but they all have one thing in common: they love teaching and they love education. So on this Teacher Appreciation Week, my thanks goes out to my online teacher colleagues and mentors (although they don’t know it!):
- Mr. Colby Sharp, co-founder of the Nerdy Book Club and the person who inspired my own first-day-of-school welcoming speech
- Mr. John Schumacher, a fellow Nerdy Book Clubber who uses videos and book trailers to get the right books into the right hands of the students who visit his library
- Ms. Katherine Sokolowski, a fellow East Central Illinoisan and middle grade teacher who is devoted to sharing her passion for reading with her students
- Ms. Pernille Ripp, a teacher who has taken social-emotional learning and fully integrated it into her classroom in a way that makes me constantly realise that there is so very much more I can be doing and so very much that I can stop doing to make room for the important stuff
- Ms. Jennifer Orr, a teacher on the East Coast who has inspired me to be open and honest about my experiences as a teacher in a Title I school, but also to be positive and upbeat about all that happens
- Amanda and Stacia, whose approach to mentor texts has gotten me to use far more picture books in my teaching this year than I have in all of my previous years combined
- Mr. John Spencer, who is brave enough to write about what we can and should be doing differently, even if it isn’t very popular among the news media and political circles
To all of you, thank you so very much. I know I am a relatively obscure teacher in a relatively obscure school in a not-quite-so-obscure small urban community in the middle of corn and soybean fields, but I have been inspired by you and appreciate all that you do!
We are learning about the water cycle, weather systems, and climate in science. While most weather is fairly benign, fourth graders are almost always more interested in the severe ones: hurricanes, blizzards, and, of course, tornadoes.
Living in Illinois, tornadoes are a fact of life. There are an average of 64 tornadoes in Illinois each year, usually occurring between March and May. Yet most of these tornadoes are barely noticed by our residents. Some occur high in the atmosphere, some are brief, but some are much more severe. In 1917, there was a tornado in Mattoon, just south of us, that resulted in over 100 fatalities. In 1925, there was a tri-state tornado that killed 695 people. These were two of the worst tornadoes in our nation’s history.
Last year Illinois saw a huge number of tornadoes in the month of November, which is very, very, very uncommon for our part of the nation. The November 17 outbreak hit especially close to home for me. I grew up in the city of Washington, where my parents and many of my friends still live. On that day, an EF-4 tornado with winds of 190 mph tore through my hometown, causing millions of dollars in damages, but only causing two fatalities. My family was fine and while some of my friends had property damage, none had their lives and livelihoods completely destroyed. How is it that a tornado nearly a hundred years ago killed so many and a tornado last year, far more severe in strength, killed so few? I am sure that there will be many who debate the answer to this question, but I am confident that at least one aspect is preparation.
I am an Eagle Scout and a currently volunteer as the Cubmaster of a local Cub Scout pack. As Scouts, we are all about preparation. So it shouldn’t be all that surprising that I transfer these skills into all aspects of my life. I know how valuable it is to be prepared for any event. And thus I am very pleased when the Urbana Fire Marshall comes by our building with his safety house simulator every few months to help our students prepare for the worst. Today he came to talk about tornado safety.
Before going to the simulator, he and two of his colleagues spoke with the students about creating a disaster preparedness kit with water (one gallon per person per day), food (non-perishables like canned goods and individually-wrapped protein bars), first-aid kits, flashlights (with extra batteries), portable radios, and even simple card games to provide a way to pass the time. Then we went to the simulator where we practiced getting to a safe space in the house (basement or room in the middle of the ground floor, preferably without windows and/or pipes) and following the directions of meteorologists and parents.
Do things like this help? What about our monthly severe weather drills that we do in our school when the sirens are tested on the first Tuesday of the month? Rather than getting the answer from me, I will defer to this six-year-old from my hometown:
Tornadoes and other severe weather are interesting to study. Students are fascinated by them. Teachers are fascinated by them. But it is important to realise that they are very much something to take seriously when they happen. I am grateful to my own teachers, parents, and older brothers who showed me how to be safe during storms. I hope that my students will take this in and pass it on, too.