Book Review: Robert Ward’s A Teacher’s Inside Advice to Parents

A Teacher's Inside Advice to Parents by Robert Ward
A Teacher’s Inside Advice to Parents by Robert Ward

Robert Ward has turned his 23 years of experience teaching and reflection on middle school youth into a  handbook for parents perplexed by youth behavior, perhaps because we’ve forgotten to reflect on things from the standpoint of the child. This book has changed the way I parent and the way I teach.  Every time I read five pages I have stop and change what I’m doing to fix a problem.

In its own modern way, this book is a restatement of Dale Carnegies “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” in which Carnegie shows that people don’t actually want what you want, they want what *they* want, but if you figure out what *they* want, you can use it to get what you want too.

The competent parent, according to Ward, provides a household with Leadership, Love, Laughter, and Learning.  These characteristics of the family environment will result in the young person’s needs being met, and once their needs are met, problems of all types will dissipate.  For you and for them.

Parenting, my mother used to tell me, is not for the faint of heart, but with Ward’s book, you can expect yourself and your young ones to be strengthened by his positive practices that prepare people to be successful adults!  And to see that happen is why we all started raising these small people, isn’t it?  No, it’s not an easy fix, but I believe that, if you take his steps, a fix it will be, and when we’re talking book about parenting self-help, what more could you ask?

This review originally appeared as a reader review of the book an

Gladiators: Heroes of the Colosseum Exhibit Review

Gladiators.  Even to non-classical civ people, gladiators are a draw.   I reflected on this, along with why I love museums and why the science and history museum is so dimly lit,  as we walked up to the exhibit.  The dim lighting puts one in the mood for reflection, for imagination, for stretching ones mind. The first thing we saw was an actor in the costume of a retiaurius (net and trident man).

Actually, I wasn’t sure he was real at first.  Could he be just a really realistic simulation?  No. Tempted to ask a him question, I refrained, thinking that it might be rude:  I know no etiquette for approaching a live model at an exhibit of historical artifacts.  My initial uncertainty about whether he was real or a moving statue was an excellent way to prepare to enter the exhibit.

Passing through an arch, we entered a small display on Roman hunting traditions, then a larger room with drawings of and stone fragments from the Collosuem.  I’ve been there in actual life, a huge structure bearing up through the ages, its antiquity sitting like a heavy weight, immense, and at the same time, it wears the veneer of the modern day in the air conditioned and glassed-in ticket booth and the cars speeding by.  The fragments in the exhibit, on the other hand, are mostly drawn from the bastulades where the audience would file into the amphitheater through stairs from below.  A dragon’s head, a cornucopia, the carvings are of another era.  As I stare at them, I reflect that although the interest in the violent and dramatic is no different in our current day, in the Colloseum there was nothing virtual.  The blood was a real as the stone of the stairwells.

As I stare at the blocks, I feel as if the impressions drawn from movies like Gladiator and Ben Hur are falling away, and I am “communing with the stones.”  The stones can speak, but you have to know how to listen.  Whereas in movies, a story is fed to you bit by bit, and if the average man can’t follow along, the movie is a failure, with ancient relics, you have to construct the story, and you have to maintain in yourself a reflective spirit. Others give you information, but you are the one who creates your belief.  I sat in the room with the stones for some time, thinking of Ovid who once wrote an essay about how to pick up unattached women at the Colosseum.  I thought about the wild beasts that are pictured in mosaics along the walls, tigers, boars, and lions.  I imagined history:  A young woman wearing a stolla put her hand on the dragon head carved to my right, and walked up the stairs to take her seat.

In the next room we “visit” the ludus, the training camp of the gladiators. The coach or trainer is the lanista, and he is a cross between a football coach and an overseer of slaves, because most of the men are bondsmen and prisoners.  Bowls from which the gladiators ate their gruel, and a picture of a mosaic of the dinner before the fight, a kind of combination cast party and last supper, catch my interest.  And then I go on to the next room.

Here are marble statues of editors (producers of gladiatorial games) and the armor of the gladiators themselves, dressed according to gladiatorial traditions of form and function:  the Provacatour, the Retriarius, the Thracian, the Secutor, all have placards describing their weapons and armaments.  The cards at this point seem like author intrusion to me now, but of course they are necessary, since the artifacts have been removed from where they were found.  The ultimate historical museum experience would be going to a dig, I surmise.

This Roman culture is like ours in wealth.  They had exceeded meeting basic needs, and had gone on to indulgence, entertainment, spectacle.  And then they met the ancient desire for death.  Thanatos, the Greeks called it.  The gladiator’s helmet is the intersection of myth and Thanatos.  It is in the Retiarius’ net too, and in the intricate bronze sandal from a statue of a legionary.

I stop and stare at the closed and latched helmets which literally locked the head in. The round grids over the eyes give the helmet the look of a human fly.  Over the crown are mythic figures.  It is worked with such care, this could not be the helmet of a single man.  It would have belonged to the ludus.  It would have been worn by several, by many.  The gladiator would put in on, say his prayers (to a pagan god) and go and face potential death.  I look again at the helmet, seeking an answer:  how do you do that?  How do you face such a desperate fight?

When there’s no other way, you do what you have to.  The gladiator reminds us of this.  And this, win or lose, makes him a hero.  He is an alter-ego to the Roman woman ascending the stairs of the Colosseum, to the museum visitor who stops and stares at ancient armor.  He is what Jung would call an archetype, a hero, and reflection piece so powerful that he can still draw people 2000 years after he died, and even though they don’t know his name or whether he won or lost.  Perhaps that lack of story is part of the draw.   It’s the reflection on the other, on the past, on the strange and unbelievable, but also to the fact that you have to make your own story in your mind, that draws us to the spectacle in the first place.

Conclusion?  First rate exhibit.  Thanks to the organizers for an excellent hour’s reflection.



Favorite Blog Posts from April — Better Late than Never

This solid gold graphic is from the twitter feed of @KyleneBeers

This graphic to the right is solid gold:  The difference between top reading scores and bottoming out could be just 20 minutes of daily reading.  Via @KyleneBeers.

…  Next up:  This article was a standout, questioning the way we structure school and our attitudes about so-called failure:  Standards, Grades And Tests Are Wildly Outdated, Argues ‘End Of Average.  Via @anya1anya

Just a quote from my friend Robert Ward which gave me this top tweet with 24 engagements:  “Kids do not need abundance of gifts, they need frequent bouts of undivided attention.” This is from ‘s book A Teacher’s Inside Advice to Parents.

I have been reflecting and reflecting on what learned when I read Agatha Christie’s biography.  Ten ideas about writing that helped make her great:  What Agatha Christie taught me about novel writing .  The most important one, I think, is that it’s clear she didn’t worry over revising or criticism too much.

This fine article about parenting an LD child through a crisis also has a kernel of wisdom about the unreasonableness of allowing oneself to be consumed by fear: Learning Disabled- Weathering The Storm Within via

Finally, an old question in a new wineskin: To Extend the School Year/Day or not: That is the Question. via 

To prevent this April post from running any later into May, that’s all I’ve got.


What Agatha Christie Taught Me About Writing

Having recently finished Agatha Christie’s Autobiography, published in 1977,  I wanted to put down for reference some of the things her reminiscences brought me to conclude about life as a successful writer.  As the best-selling novelist of all time, Christie’s habits and beliefs about the writing life carry weight, and she does go against the modern “best practice” in several ways.

  1. Ruminate before you write.  Christie says she would decide all the technical and specific turns and twists of her plots, those amazing threads of surprising detail that led her to be called Queen of Mystery, before  beginning.  Then she would write the words in a straightforward and businesslike way.
  2. It’s okay to be rejected and to be ignored … for a while.  Her first novel was rejected several times, then sent to the publisher who ultimately bought it — but they made her wait for that acceptance; they didn’t get back to her for two years.  She had forgotten the project by the time they contacted her.
  3. Write the beginning and then the end. Once you’ve got the beginning and the end, the middle will fill in easily.  And the emotional intensity of starting the book, for the writer, will carry over into the ending and sustain the project.
  4. Don’t edit other writer’s work — wow, that’s a big one, but she didn’t do it.  How would she know about what would work for someone else and someone else’s readers? She certainly didn’t want to be responsible for discouraging someone who needed encouragement. And besides — she was busy writing her own books!
  5. See the world — there seems no doubt that Christie’s travels with her first husband, circumnavigating the globe, and her second husband in the Middle East significantly contributed to her creative outflow, as she wrote mystery after mystery about the places and people she had seen.
  6. Copy real people in your books.  Christie acknowledges that she used her own friends, neighbors and people she observed on the train or in the market as models.
  7. A novelist is not a critic, so don’t be self-critical.  Christie maintained that she didn’t actually know which book was her best.
  8. Take risks — what is life for if you can’t take a chance?
  9. Don’t waste too much time re-writing.  She reported that she once wrote a book in three days flat and that when she re-read it, she thought “it’s just right.”  She sent it off and it was published and received well. And finally,
  10. The publisher is not necessarily your friend.  Christie’s first publisher took advantage of her inexperience by offering her a low sum and putting her under contract for her first five books.  That would have been deadly for the career of the average novelist, for whom five books might have been over half their lifetime output.  However, for Christie, it was just a learning experience, and at her lifetime rate of one to two books per year she was able to get an agent and a much better deal with a second publisher. She ultimately finished a total of 90 books.

Although it’s long (my edition is 644 pages) I can heartily recommend  “An Autobiography:  Agatha Christie.”  It’s quite a journey, and now that I’ve finished, I feel a little of that melancholy that one feels on saying goodbye to a treasured friend who is going on a long journey. ] As she concludes, meditating on death, she does not seem afraid of what is to come, but grateful.  “Thank God for this good life, and for all the love that has been given to me,” she writes in closing.  All I can say is, sorry to see you go, Agatha, but I can’t say with all your novels, short stories and plays still here, you left us empty handed!



Job Fair Diary Day Two

This morning I had another job fair to attend.  My job fair enthusiasm having flagged a bit, I considered the prospect of staying home.  Then, realizing that This is the Time to Look For New Jobs, I got up,  got my resumes, and went down to the appointed senior high school, where parked outside was a sea of cars, showing that a huge number of my teacher colleagues were already there.  Inside were greeters, nametags, and tiger-striped bubble gum on a table.

Smile. Smile.  Exhibit Most Charming Version of Self.  No negativity.  You can do it!

Suddenly the impulse to run into the rest room and stay there.  No.  The sooner I went to meet the school representatives, the sooner I could go home and have breakfast.  I plunged in.  I approached the first table, decorated with (I can’t remember but these are some themes I saw)

a) supersized stuffed animals

b) balloon bouquets

c) Dr. Suess-themed memorabilia

d) cardboard cutouts depicting the habitat of the school’s mascot:  dessert, jungle, and polar ice cap (my personal favorite)

Do they make all these props just for the job fair, I wonder?  No of course not.  They have this stuff in hand for *any* event at which the school must represent itself. I feel relieved by this thought, somehow.

I go and approach the first table.

“Certification?” is the first question every time.

“Early childhood through 4th.”

“Grade Level preference?” That’s the second one.

“4th or 1st.”

“That’s rather an unusual pair to choose.”  Okay, it’s true.

“It’s all about reading,”  I tell them.  “Reading is my passion.”  Now it’s time to sell myself.  I remember Barbra Streisand singing in Funny Girl, “I am the greatest star, I am by far, but no one knows it.”  But really that idea coexists with the idea that I’m not good enough for any of these people.  Where did this bipolar self-assessment come from, and how do I keep it from operating? I need these two opposite self-assessments to shut up long enough so I can answer job interview questions without freezing up and looking foolish.

“What is the one thing you did this year which defines you as a teacher?” I’m asked.

My brain screams silently.   “Why didn’t you prep for some of these questions before leaving the house this morning?????”

I give a coherent answer about every child being special, even those who struggle, with the story of a child in my class who has done so.  But I’m not sure it goes over well.

Some of the lines are long.  While waiting I talk to other teachers who are also waiting, who have various reasons for being here.  I wonder what the principals will say when they get done? Will they look in the stacks of dozens, maybe hundreds of resumes that they received today? If so, will they see mine?

I do know that last year after the job fair last year I did get a couple calls — after I gave up looking and re-signed with my school, so I wasn’t able to go to the interviews — but it was something.  Months too late, but something.

One of the women I met has been working for years in a very high-need school.  “It’s 45 minutes from my house,” she said.  “I have to get something else! I already told my principal I couldn’t come back.”

“You resigned?”


Wow.  Radical step. Talk about burning bridges!

“I’m gonna get another job, whatever it takes!” she tells me.

I have to say I admired her courage.  Of all those who were milling around the tables, trying to be the one, the star, she was a realist.  If she got a desperate phone call from a principal who’d had a teacher leave suddenly in August, she’d be ready.

Would I be in my new classroom by then?  Well, as we say in the building, “more will be revealed.”  And also this, which I said to a new teacher I met outside the front door.

“When they want you, they really want you,  but when they don’t, you’ve gotta wait until they do.”  And putting out a lot of resumes is one way of doing that.




Job Fair Diary

Well, I did it, I went to the job fair of our local school district (I teach in the larger district “next door,” so to speak) and handed in my resume to 33 different school representatives in just over 4 hours.  I had many conversations.  (I’m adding in here to the original post that it was really positive that I’d started my Master’s degree in reading at UT Tyler.  I could see that the school representatives felt that distinction, along with being a grade chair, put my in a respectable position.)

And yet one conversation sticks out with me more than the others.  I was talking to a reading specialist at a school on the other side of the freeway, and she looked over my resume, asked a few questions, and somewhere in there I made a comment about  matching teachers with personalities of  the schools at which they will work.

“Oh no, it’s not about personalities, it’s about qualifications,” she said.

I thought to myself, “but I’ve got all the qualifications and then some … ” Every year people at all ability levels from first-year college graduate to veterans of 20 years with 3 TOY awards get hired.    I have to say I assume there’s a strong personality component to getting a teaching job.

Am I missing something here?  What do you think?  Is there a personality match component to teacher hires?



Could it possibly be true that CS Lewis was a misogynist (someone who hates women)?

C.S. Lewis statue, in Belfast, looking into the mythical wardrobe.
C.S. Lewis statue, in Belfast, looking into the mythical wardrobe.

I started writing this post months ago, after a toss-off comment by someone at work who thought they had read something about C.S. Lewis’ misogny somewhere.

“What?” I asked.  And yet, I thought I knew what the writer was talking about.  There are a couple of moments in Lewis’ books where women seem to get short shrift, in particular beautiful ones, for example, the scene in which Lucy stares into a spell book and looks at a spell to make one “Beautiful Beyond the Lot of Mortals” and is rebuked for her vain desires by a picture of an angry Aslan roaring.  These moments in the books seemed incidental, and perhaps related to the author’s single life and lack of success with women until fairly late in life.  (One wonders if he would have even written these books had he had the comforts of hearth and home and family to distract him.  As Garrison Keillor writers, “no happy man writes his memoirs … ” But I digress.

The main proponent of the Lewis-as-misogynist appears to be a man called Phillip Hensher who laid out his arguments in the article, “Don’t let your children go to Narnia” dated December 4, 1998 (my God once these stories get started they have a very long life, don’t they!) which calls the books “ghastly, priggish “revoltingly mean-minded books, written to corrupt,” half-witted, money-making drivel … ” “frightful” “the most corrupting feature of it all is the poverty of the imagination” and “vehicles for a narrow-minded man’s pet obsessions” Whew.

Now wait just a minute there.

The truth is, all that adjectival attack makes me think Hensher’s motive may be more philosophical or political than artistic.  And it turns out, his personal philosophy, as suggested by his story collection,  could be summarized according to the Guardian as “ there are two specific types of existence. There is the life worth living … the life devoted to excellence, and then there is just getting by. ”

It would seem the hoi polloi need not apply to attain a life worth living.  Personal worth by way of personal excellence is very far from Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” or any Christianity for that matter.  But one can’t really critique Lewis and the Narnia books on the basis of Lewis being Christian.  It’s too obvious and blase’.  You have to come up with a more persuasive and creative critique, like misogyny.

The Crown, the Queen, and the French Guy

A statue of the Queen on horseback

In the 9th episode of the The Crown, Queen Elizabeth II shows her interest in horses … and it’s implied she has a interest in her horse’s trainer as well.  Prince Phillip is not amused.

I have to say this won my sympathy.  After all, horses are a passion of mine — and I feel the Queen’s interest in  Lord Porchester, or “Porchey,” the trainer,  is natural.  Why my first effort at writing a novel concerned a woman who fell in love with a horse trainer.  It’s a female fantasy of some type.

But the truth is, in real life here in America, young single men are a rarity at the stable.  We have a lot of young women in breeches, some middle aged women in jeans, and some older men in baggy clothing, helping wives daughters and girlfriends.  But by and large, the men at the stable don’t ride, and they’re not single.  Not really.  I’ve only ever seen one or two actual young men riding at my own stable in my horsemanship history.  One of them was Mike K., who was, like me at the time, a 7th grader.  He  had a fast dun quarter horse and claimed he had had lots of relationships with girls, due to his own natural charm, not to mention the positive-math situation of being a horseman … he claimed to have had some kind of tryst in the feed cabinet, a long low wooden box with a lid that you could have lain down in. I steered clear of him.  His sincerity was wanting.  Then there was another guy at another stable; they say he served 8 years for murder.  No, I’m not making this up.  The point is,  if you’re looking for an eligible bachelor, the stable is about the last place to go.

Until just recently.

I have been taking my 17 year old daughter for riding lessons.  The other day we pulled up, and I saw him:  “Look, Jo, it’s the French Guy.”

“What is the French Guy?” she asked, not understanding.

“There’s this guy, his name is Girard or something, and he’s a man,  he speaks French and he’s taking riding lessons.  And he’s not ugly!”

She looked at me like I was rather nuts.  “So?”  She has only been riding for a few weeks, she doesn’t know the actual odds of a decent looking young man, let alone one with a French accent, washing up at a boarding stable.

“There he is!” I said.  “Riding on that big sorrel horse!”

Henry Herbert, Lord Porchester
Henry Herbert, Lord Porchester, was the horseman upon whom the character called “Porchey” is based in The Crown.

Jo dismissed me with a wave of the hand.  Not yet a committed horsewoman, she didn’t understand the rarity of the phenomenon.  And I suppose she had a point:  she’s too young, and I’m too old.

As for Elizabeth, although she’s the right age,  the show makes it appear that everything was on the up and up except for a few midnight phone calls.  I have to admit, I sympathize.  It’s not every day one meets a man who’s your same age and enjoys riding horses, and is presentable and single.  In fact, for more horsewomen, it’s never.

What is a Master Teacher and How Do You Become One?

Master teacher
Master teachers develop over years of practice and reflection.

Exemplary Teachers is a topic we grad students are writing about this weekend, and exemplary as a term is certainly complicated, especially since it’s used as part of State Board of Ed accountability standards for schools. The term I usually hear about individual teachers in my building  is “Master Teacher.”

These folks tend to be characterized as strong managers, firmly in grasp of curriculum and instruction, and unusually empathetic toward students. Each one of them presumably started out as a young teacher surveying his or her classroom and the relative chaos that tends to exist in that first year, and worked hard to develop the three areas of skill: management, curriculum, and empathy. Classroom management will come to most who earnestly seek it, born out of the teacher’s desire to implement the curriculum that appears necessary but which can not be effectively taught without routines and procedures.

At some point in every young teacher’s development, he or she will “hit the wall:” The student or students cannot or will not do what is expected. At that point, the teacher faces a choice: either blame the student or change the teaching approach.  Perhaps this is where the master teacher is truly born.

When we decide to change our approach, it almost always involves the way the student is spoken to. The idea of how adult speech drives childhood development is familiar to me. As a young mother, I read about how children develop cognitively. An older friend emphasized to me the importance of honoring young children’s feelings as a way of helping them cope with life difficulties of all types. It’s important to listen closely and fully and respond with interest, especially when a child perceives there is a problem. In the classroom, remembering to use this skill with the children who need it most is difficult and it is something I can work on. Because, ironically but perhaps naturally, the students who deeply need this practice are the hardest ones  to apply it to. As I was taught in my alternative certification course,  “we will be judged  not by the students who are highest-achieving, but by what we did with those who struggle most.”

The Master Teacher can teach the difficult students well.  In my mind, it’s almost that simple.

The Crown and I

Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II
Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II

We’ve been watching the Netflix series “The Crown” about the early years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, and boy, is it something. First recommended by my daughter, who binge-watched it over a weekend (the first season is only ten episodes) The Crown combines a remarkable mix of inspirational pomp, circumstance, and pageantry with a moderately dysfunctional family and what might be called the dark truth of rule: that leadership is ultimately about service.

And oh, the costumes. After tonight’s episode, #8, in which Elizabeth had 100 dresses made for her tour of the Commonwealth (which I now realize has 52 countries, far more than I hard thought) I rushed back to the computer to search on for patterns for 50’s dresses.

50's dress Vogue 8999
Vogue 8999 is a perfect example of a retro 50’s dress of the type I seek.

After passing up all the strapless models (even if I dared wear one — where would I go in it) I found a couple of promising numbers, including Vogue 8999, which I thought might be just the thing for church or date night.

I have to say I will stop at the hats, though they are intriguing.