Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Berlin Street Brawlin'

I suppose every kid needs to be good at something and I eventually became good at boxing.

I was 10 in the early 80’s and I was the only white kid that lived on my street.  There was a collage of color and ethnicity in my neighborhood but for those of you that have never experienced being a minority, well…you quickly become a target for some serious hazing.

The 80’s was a time you’d let your kids outside in the morning after breakfast and not see them again until lunch.  I loved it.  All the kids on the street would ride bikes, jump rope, play tag, have foot races, or we’d just use our imaginations to come up with games.

However, most days ended up with some sort of scuffle. Innocent as it was with no more than bloody noses or the loss of breath from a punch in the stomach, I was usually the receiver of such innocence.

I remember running home time and time again after being “beat up” with my temper flaring, yelling, and screaming about how either Lamont, Kenneth or Jr. hit me.

My parents never made a racial issue out of any my problems on Berlin Street and I am incredibly fortunate they didn’t.  I have seen racism up and close for all of its ugliness, but my parents never once mentioned the color of any one's skin.

My dad, who wanted me desperately to fit in and have friends and have fun tried to give me his fatherly advice, but “just ignore them” never really worked.  So, one day he came home with a pair of boxing gloves, and I do believe it made all the difference.

You can see the inherent problem: I was the only one with a set of gloves.

The solution: Rock, paper, and scissors for the right handed glove.  The loser would get the left.

Each day we’d pick some one’s backyard to have our “boxing match” in.

The rules were simple: You could only punch with the gloved hand and when you gave up…you lost.

I had to fight Lamont first.  Lamont was fast.  He was a fast talker, runner, bike rider, and…a fast puncher.  I had been on the receiving end of Lamont’s speed on more than one occasion, and I was not looking forward to boxing against him. On this particular day I won the right handed glove that he desperately wanted.

In all the boxing matches there was never more than one round.  Sometimes it went for 5 or 6 or 7 minutes but it never went past round one.

All the neighborhood kids gathered in Jr.’s fenced in backyard for the daily “fight.”  The summer sun forced us to take our shirts off as Lamont and I had our friends tie the gloves on our hands.  The shouts from all the neighborhood kids and chaos ensued.

The sweat was running down my brow as I was standing in my corner of the yard anxiously waiting.  I had seen enough boxing matches to know that I had to get “loose” so I was bouncing a bit and throwing punches in the air.

Kenneth, the unspoken leader of our pack, made the imaginary bell sound to signal the beginning of the fight.  There was an instant flurry of left handed jabs thrown by Lamont. I stopped each one with my face.

The yard was large and allowed me to run from side to side until I could catch my breath and stand toe to toe with the speedy 10 year old.  My right hand was the stronger of the two and with a few wild swings that connected I was able to slow his lefts down a bit.

What happened next I didn’t expect.

As I was throwing right hooks and he was jabbing with his left I instantly felt an open handed slap across my face.  Lamont was punching me with his gloved left and slapping me using his right hand.

Apparently, my punches were getting Lamont so frustrated that he lost his temper.  I had never seen Lamont so enraged.  Our friendly boxing match had turned into a full blown brawl. So, in the midst of the chaos I kept my composure and meet his anger with my right and my own left handed slap.

The rules had changed.

He charged and tackled me to the ground when Kenneth then called for a break so we could stand back up and fight.

My face was burning from the constant blows but neither of us called it quits.  The fight seemed to go on for days but in reality it only lasted about 5 grueling minutes.  Pure exhaustion set in and both of us found a way to give in without ever declaring it quits.

The fight was a draw.

Lamont and I gave each other tired high fives.

The backyard brawls continued for a few weeks after that first fight but we quickly realized that riding bikes or playing kickball was much less painful.

For all the gifts my dad has ever given me those boxing gloves not only empowered me but gave me a way to fit in despite the fact that I was so very different from everyone else on Berlin Street.

I wonder how I am empowering my own children for the challenges that lie ahead of them.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012


seedfolksSeedfolks by Paul Fleischman has been sitting on my bookshelf for quite a while in my fifth grade classroom, and it wasn't until this summer that I dusted off the pages. What a great little book with a incredibly promising message of hope and community.

It all started with Kim, a young Vietnamese girl living in a rough neighborhood in Cleveland. In an attempt to honor her deceased father, who was a farmer in Vietnam before moving to America, she planted six Lima beans. The catch however, is that her planting ground was in a vacant lot that was filled with the town's garbage.

Each subsequent chapter is told from a different character's point of view. As the story unfolds you are introduced to about 10 different characters, each with their own set of problems, and each finding their way to this planting ground. The community garden is slowly created and ultimately transforms the lives of these folks. 
Ana, who sees Kim digging in the vacant lot, thought she was up to no good. She quickly discovered Kim's secret as she began to clear the soil away and, "she felt like she'd read through her secret diary and had ripped out a page without meaning to." Another character, Wendell, whose life has been filled with despair realizes what he can change..."a patch of ground in this trashy lot." 
Each succinct chapter will take the reader on a wonderfully warm and honest journey that is sure to shoot an arrow of empathy through the heart. I cannot wait to share Seedfolks with my students.

Google Searchin'

Here's an interview with the author Paul Fleischman about his ideas that inspired the story.

Others who have written about Seedfolks

Monday, June 25, 2012

An Anchor

There is no doubt that if you populate your RSS Reader, create a PLN, read, write and reflect on the times in which we live that you will quickly experience the tsunami of possibilities and questions. Where is one's anchor in the midst of exponential change?
  • Is it in the curriculum?
  • Is it in the Common Core Standards?
  • Is it in your teaching rationale?
  • Is it in effective first instruction?
  • Is it your passion?
I have discovered a framework for my anchor ~ and it can be summed up in this quote from the book titled The Passion-Driven Classroom:
"Honoring passion is more than simply giving students the technology, tools, and a few books on topics they find interesting.  It is a commitment to helping students to discover for themselves-the emotional reasons linked to motivation that drive us to want to study or know something."  p.52
Passion Driven Classroom

Saturday, June 23, 2012

About Me

Dear Reader,

I am a husband, dad, teacher, musician, landscaper and learner.  This blog has become a space for me to slow down and reflect on what is going on inside my brain.  Life seems to be relentlessly flying by and I would love nothing more than to be able to briefly hit the pause button and enjoy the moment.  Here lies the very essence of what writing to this web log has done.

A Teacher's Tale has provided me the chance to look closely, think deeply, pause and wonder out loud about my professional and sometimes my personal growth.  The views expressed here are my own and by no means do they represent the thinking or philosophy of the school district I work for.

I do not claim to have any answers, actually the more I read and the more I write I find the opposite to be true.  So, if you have read this far I thank you for your time and look forward to the conversation.

John Howell